Katowice has come to an end, and the greatest player in League of Legends history has added another accolade to his legacy. Entering the tournament, the storyline was one of disarray. The only region sending their regular season's top two teams, China, was coming off catastrophic results at the Riot World Championships and preseason Intel Extreme Masters events. The reigning Summoner's Cup holders, SK Telecom T1, boarded their plane to Poland with a myriad of issues plaguing them in their domestic league.
But as the staff and crew tear down the grand finals stage at the Spodek Arena, there was no confusion about who the best team in the tournament was -- the world champions were simply a class (or two) above the rest of the field. Even with their roster changes and early-game difficulties in South Korea's League of Legends Champions Korea, the current sixth-ranked team in the competition showed little trouble dispatching their opponents in Katowice.
At the center of any T1 championship victory is Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, the team's longtime ace and face of the SKT organization. The IEM Katowice win has brought up Faker's all-time major trophy total to eight, with the IEM World Championship looking quite nice next to his two Summoner's Cup triumphs, four domestic titles, and trophy from All-Stars Paris in 2014. The leading man in the world of competitive League, T1's undefeated run in Poland will only add to his already legendary status in the pantheon of esports all-time greats.
And while Faker was an important part to T1's conquest, it was the shy, soft-speaking AD carry in the bottom lane who was the true MVP of the tournament. Bae "Bang" Jun-sik has been an important cog in the machine of SKT over the past two years, fulfilling the role of a safe, dependable carry alongside his support partner Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan. While having stellar carry performances on agile marksmen like Lucian and Kalista in 2015 on the Summoner's Cup-winning squad, he was primarily seen as the sidekick next to Faker and T1's top laner in Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan.
Bang's role has changed ever since the calendar flipped to 2016, being put into more of the ace role of the team as Faker has been happy to play more supportive champions like Lulu to back him up. T1's AD carry has consistently been one of the top players in Korean solo queue, and his mechanics have been fully put on display in his new role as the hard carry on the revamped T1. The fleet of foot sniper exited the tournament with an outrageous KDA of 19.6, racking up 43 kills in seven games and only dying five times.
Comparing the 2015 team and the one of today, the biggest change outside their shifting of preference to the bottom lane is their early-game troubles. SK Telecom T1 of 2016 plays a lot more like the GE Tigers of spring 2015 than the T1 squad who dissected everyone systematically last summer. Like the GE Tigers (who actually lost in the semis of last year's IEM Katowice), they play a lot around their AD carry and have a lackluster first 15-to-20 minutes of the game.
Last year around this time, I said the the GE Tigers had a switch they flipped around the first contested dragon of the game at the 15 or 20 minute mark. The team, who routinely faced an even or disadvantageous gold total, would seemingly wake up near the river next to the dragon, pick up a few kills through a won teamfight or pick off, and then ride that success to a quick succession of objectives and other kills.
Current T1 have the same sort of switch when the laning phase is dying down and it becomes more of a skirmishing, fluid map movement-type of game. They'll come alive through a pick off of an opponent, a quick dragon or Baron Nashor, and then be up 7k gold when they were tied with their opponents 90 seconds earlier.
The elephant in the room that needs to be addressed after this tournament is how much stronger the current LCK is compared to the other leagues. China is having a down season as seen by their two teams failing to make the finals. Europe and North America didn't send their best team, but neither did South Korea. Taiwan might be better than they were in 2015, yet we can't say that for sure until we see their champion, most likely AHQ E-Sports Club, at the Mid-Season Invitational in Shanghai.
South Korea is as strong as they've ever been as a league. Alongside SK Telecom T1, there are seven other teams in the region who range from good like the better-than-their-record-suggests Afreeca Freecs to the unstoppable ROX Tigers. SK Telecom T1, while playing better than they have in some matches on their home turf, were still a team with issues in the early-game despite their perfect record, and they were playing with a rookie jungler in Kang "Blank" Sun-gu. The amateur turn pro certainly experienced a great first international tournament, but even he started slow in the first few games he played at the event.
In the LCK, these small deficits and sometimes needless kills T1 gave up in Katowice are turned into insurmountable holes they can't dig themselves out of. When Faker on Zed was having a disappointing start of the game against Team SoloMid in the semifinals, it was alright. The team was able to flip their mid-game switch, delete a split-pushing Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng on the topside of the map, and turn around their melancholy beginning in a matter of seconds. If Faker has a so-so start in one of T1's games in the LCK, they get punished for it and lose a large majority of the time.
The undefeated, in-your-face ROX Tigers. The dragon tamers of KT Rolster. The grit and grinder philosophy of the Jin Air Green Wings. The surprising Samsung Galaxy. The talented and money-infused 10-man roster of Longzhu Gaming. The youth movement at CJ Entus shepherd by multiple all-star veteran Hong "MadLife" Min-gi. And even the Afreeca Freecs, who are 3-6 overall on the season, are one of the best early-game teams in Korea and have taken games off the best teams in the league, including a match win over T1.
South Korea has rebuilt themselves from the ground up after other regions, primarily China, signed a majority of their star players in the offseason between the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The players who stayed with their teams have grown into battle-scarred cores of their team, and amateur players have come up through the pipeline to give the region a bright future for years to come.
So, yes, SK Telecom T1 will leave Europe with a trophy in hand. The conquerors of the IEM World Championships. The flawless team who forced their final opponents, Fnatic, to surrender in the last game of the tournament. The team that now holds both the Riot world championship title and the IEM world championship title.
However, when they land back in their comfortable home of South Korea, it'll be back to business. While SKT T1 were in Poland winning the championship, the teams in the LCK were continuing their practice and work to make sure they're the ones to raise the trophy at the end of the split and deny T1 their three-peat aspirations.
Now the real games begin.