Samsung Galaxy killed the American dream.
The South Korean club took the fun loving Cloud9 from North America and rolled them up into a little ball while the Chicago crowd jeered. Samsung then repeatedly stepped on said ball for three games straight while the once energetic home crowd could do nothing more than sit in stunned silence while their heroes were bludgeoned to nothingness.
For the fifth straight year at least one South Korean team will be going to the semifinals of the World Championships with only one loss. Azubu Frost in 2012, SK Telecom T1 in 2013, Samsung White in 2014, and SKT T1 of last year are now joined by 2016's Samsung Galaxy and possibly SKT for the third time if it can get by China's Royal Never Give Up Friday at the Chicago Theatre.
Every year we talk about the gap getting smaller between South Korean teams and the rest of the world, and sure, we have some upsets in the best-of-one group stages, but that's it. In recent memory, Edward Gaming from China pulled off one of the best single game counters in League history against SKT T1 in the climactic fifth game of the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational. But largely, South Korea has owned the professional scene since the Taipei Assassins defeated Azubu Frost in the 2012 Summoner's Cup final.
There are instances people bring up to show that the gap is "closing." Hey, ROX Tigers and SK Telecom T1 might have gotten to the Summoner's Cup Final last year, but you do remember two European teams also made it, right? Fnatic and Origen? They were really good. I heard Fnatic destroyed SKT T1 in scrimmages. Yeah, I know both of them got blown out 3-0 in the semifinals, but did you forget about the whole scrimmages thing already? I heard they could have definitely beat SKT in a best-of-five in the final.
Maybe in the realm of single games the gap is shrinking. When you put two professionally trained teams together with each coming in with a distinct plan for one game and one game only, you can get what you saw in the group stages with Counter Logic Gaming and ROX Tigers. The North Americans exploited ROX's shaky early game, made a nifty three-minute gank down bottom with the speedy space dragon Aurelion Sol, and CLG was off to the races to snowball a game that the Tigers could never get ahold of.
One game, sure, I'll give you it. But to reach the throne, to actually touch and raise the cup, you need three wins in a best-of-five setting where one game of genius will only get you so far. CLG played the best League of Legends it has ever played at the Mid-Season Invitational, getting all the way to the final vs SK Telecom T1, and it ended in a valiant 0-3 sweep like C9 had against Samsung Galaxy.
It made the South Korean team work for the win, but it wasn't close. Samsung had to work more for its third win than it did for its first, but to say it's anything than a moral victory is just lying to yourself.
Across the globe, teams have become infatuated with bringing in South Koreans. In some cases these players don't know any English, and even with the best teaching talent possible, it'll take a year or more for them to become sufficient in the language to communicate with the team. Some South Koreans who are imported don't even try to learn English. For every Lee "GBM" Chang-seok, who for better or for worse will work every minute of the day communicating in English to get better, you have others that are too shy, can't get the grasp of it, and have a difficult time jelling with their teammates.
In 2013, you could theoretically import a South Korean that didn't know English and still have a good chance of winning through the mechanics the game played by. A superstar player, communication or not, could snowball the game through their own talents and lead the team to victory. Who cares if the only words they know is 'go' or 'dive'? As long as they can keep plowing through the opposition pitted against them, the rest will fall into place.
Today? You can't do that. Communication is paramount. Watch the Cloud9 and Samsung Galaxy series again and you'll see how important is. In terms of individual strength in the laning phase, it's not like Galaxy completely outclassed C9. Samsung, like most South Korean teams, played the role of the counter-puncher. The type of fighter that leans on their back foot, watching and waiting for the opponent to go for a lunging punch and leave themselves open for a perfectly timed reply.
In the quarterfinal between the two teams, that is how the series went. C9 found itself in a good position heading into the mid-game, and all it took was one pull of the trigger by Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin with a teleport to turn the game on its head. In the second game, C9 appeared to be in a solid position until Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi got caught in the river near Baron, and the entirety of Samsung collapsed upon him and the charging C9 members in a split second, Cuvee materializing as Kennen on a ward at the perfect time to set up a stun with his ultimate to wipe the North Americans off the map. Samsung then turned to Baron, picked up the objective, and then peppered the map with pressure in all lanes before systematically tearing down the turrets and winning the game.
A game that was practically even turned into a 8,000 gold swing off of one brilliant teamfight based around crystal clear communication. All of Samsung was on the same page, and C9 wasn't. Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, for how great a player he is individually, still has shortcomings on C9 when it comes to synchronizing with the team in teleportations and teamfighting. Every time he attempted to make a play off a teleport, Cuvee would be waiting, there to either solo kill him or knock him out of his teleportation channeling.
Regardless of how heavy the fists you are, all it does is make you fall forward faster when you miss. Cloud9 tried to go for proactive plays in the first game of the set, and each time it was Samsung who, in a calm, nonplussed attitude, brushed them aside to pick up more advantages on the map. Playing with stone fists on hopes of a one-hit knockout like CLG did to ROX in the group stage is fine in a one game setting or one set in a best-of-five, but it's not something that is going to let you beat a top South Korean team unless your communication and map awareness as an entire team is also at a high level.
So many times in the recent past teams have tried to emulate the East. We need to get that South Korean top laner, or we need that South Korean AD carry. Let's get a South Korean coach or try to practice as many hours as the South Koreans do. Yet, when you try to implement all those habits and traits, a majority of the time it takes away from the one thing that makes the South Korean giants so great: their ability to work as a single machine working towards the same goal with five separate pieces moving in perfect unison.
ROX, SKT, and Samsung don't need amazing early games -- though ROX really does need to strengthen its laning phase if it wants to beat Edward Gaming -- because all three know how to transition into strong middle portions of the game where they can use their cohesion, vision control, and cutting off sectors of the map to their advantage. A 1,000 gold deficit earned in the laning phase can be swung and reversed in a matter of seconds if the AD carry of the opposing team is caught by their lonesome in the jungle behind an enemy ward.
Cuvee solo killed Impact throughout the series, but his most impressive plays came when he disrupted the flow of C9 with either a well-timed flank or well-timed ultimate to stop Impact from having anything to do with the result of a teamfight on the other side of the map. What does it matter if Impact got out to a 20 CS lead in the early-game if one Poppy ult from Cuvee can stop him from getting to his teammates on the other side of the map to output the necessary damage to win a must-win teamfight?
C9 went as far as it probably could have gone in its first season together as a starting five. Impact, if he stays with C9, will strengthen his bond and hopefully improve his communication enough to help his team take the next level as a club. The bottom lane, which is purely getting caught out and getting outmaneuvered in the laning phase, was no match for Samsung's, and just added upon to the lack of keeping up with the South Koreans in shotcalling and being proactive on the map.
The only other team with perfect communication due to all speaking the same language other than the South Korean teams is Albus Nox Luna, the CIS champion from the wildcard qualifier that has also won its game through map awareness and teamfighting. We're only seeing the true strength of H2k Gaming now that it has found, hopefully, some consistency in its teamplay outside of its dominating laning phase.
League of Legends is a team-based game more than ever, and if the non-Koreans truly want to catch up, maybe it's not the outward facing things we need to copy. Not the big name players. Not the crazy practice hours. Maybe not even the structure of the team house environment itself.
Maybe we need to understand one another, first.