The rise and fall of the ROX Tigers

Oh, how close they came. The ROX Tigers smelled victory last year, but crumbled and broke up in defeat. Robert Paul for ESPN

The ROX Tigers wanted nothing more than to hoist the Summoner's Cup. A group of five individuals all within the top echelon of their respective positions in the world's toughest competitive esports region of South Korea, their collective goal in 2015, from the players to the coaching staff, was to do two things:

A. Win Worlds, the biggest and most prestigious tournament in all of League of Legends.

B. Destroy and end the SK Telecom T1 dynasty while doing so.

The long version weaves a tale for the ages: best friends sticking together in a smaller organization to combat the richest, most successful, and powerful club in the land. The friends fought valiantly, ultimately winning their first domestic championship in team history -- but not against SKT. When the two met in a climactic battle to end a two-year rivalry in one of the world's most famous sporting arenas, Madison Square Garden in New York City last fall, the Tigers gave it everything they had in one of the greatest matches the game of League of Legends will ever know.

The short version: They failed, all of them.

When the dust settled, SK Telecom T1 enjoyed its second consecutive world championship and third overall, and the Tigers? The ROX Tigers brand stayed intact, but the lineup did not. The team started departing one by one, social media messages of the players saying their goodbyes and the organization announcing it was allowing its entire team, staff and players, to look for new opportunities after failing to re-sign them for 2017.

With the exception of head coach Jeong "NoFe" No-chul and substitute mid laner (now AD carry) Hae "Cry" (now "Zet") Sung-min, both of whom joined China's EDward Gaming, the rest of the Tigers stayed in the LCK. While money could have lured the starting five elsewhere, the five starters splintered to new clubs for the upcoming campaign, wanting to win the one thing that still eludes all of them: a world title.

And for four of them, the mission from 2016 carries over to 2017: destroy the evil empire known as SK Telecom T1.

Han "Peanut" Wang-ho, though, sits clad in the red of his former enemy, peering at his former teammates at his new position of SK Telecom T1 jungler. If you can't beat them, join them.

Here's how each of the former ROX Tigers came and went.

SKT T1 Peanut

Out of the five starters of last year's ROX Tigers, it almost feels right that Peanut is the one who joined the kingdom that destroyed the second-best team in the past two years. While the other members of the starting five had played on the Tigers since the first day of the club's existence, Peanut was the newcomer of the team in 2016, stepping in for former jungler and team captain Lee "Hojin" Ho-jin, and becoming the team's catalyst for their breakneck style of play.

Peanut's progression to now has been through three different teams in three years. He started as a promising prospect on the NaJin e-mFire, setting the Rift on fire with impressive ganks and fast-paced attacks in his first few games; though there were issues, as he was benched in favor of veteran Cho "Watch" Jae-geo due to his constant overzealous plays that were expected from an amateur with top-end mechanics transitioning into becoming a professional. After escaping the burning ship that was NaJin (the team would become Kongdoo Monster for 2016), he joined the Tigers in their crusade to win a world title and dispose of SKT.

Now, Peanut is in SKT media pictures, smiling in his new striking red duds, partnered with best player in the world, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, to use at his liking. Peanut has never played with a mid laner close to Faker's individual skill -- no offense to Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng -- and Faker has never played with a jungler close to Peanut's either, with no disrespect to three-time world champion Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong.

Since SKT won its first world championship, the jungle role has always been in support of the mid lane and Faker. The addition of Peanut gives Faker and the rest of SK Telecom T1 another element to play around if needed. There will be discussion on whether the two star players can coexist when it comes to gold and play styles, but remember, this is Faker -- he once played Lulu almost exclusively for an entire split while still being one of the most effective damage mid laners in South Korea.

On a bad team, Peanut is the type of player who could have trouble fitting in if the starting five configuration isn't well-balanced. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the LCK, SKT T1 is not usually what we would call a "bad team."

KT Smeb

It's also fitting that Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, the one closest to Peanut, would join KT Rolster after everything in the offseason was said and done. A super team is what KT Rolster wanted to build to combat SKT T1, and what better way to do that by signing the reigning back-to-back MVP of the league?

Smeb's goal at the 2016 World Championships, outside of winning it all and dethroning SKT T1, was to secure the title of the best player in the world. When asked about it during the tournament, he was patient in his approach, saying he still needed to prove himself on the world stage before taking the title away from Faker. In the end, it never came to be, Smeb having a relatively disappointing tournament for his standards and ending in a crushing five-game loss to SKT at Madison Square Garden.

On the new KT Rolster roster, Smeb will be transitioning from being the "older brother" figure to Peanut to the "younger brother" with longtime veteran and team captain Go "Score" Dong-bin. It was only this past LCK season when Smeb, against Score in the league finals, stole a crucial Baron against his now topside partner to defeat KT Rolster and win the LCK for the first time. As fate would have it, the two are now reliant on each other if they want to make the World Championships and win it all for the first time.

ROX's Smeb was never able to finish a year as the undisputed best player in the world.

Maybe KT Rolster's Smeb can do what his former version could not.

Afreeca Kuro

Wherever Kuro has gone in his career, he has been a valuable part of his team. NaJin, Incredible Miracle, the Tigers, it didn't matter -- Kuro was a rock in the mid lane, never the star but rarely the problem (unless he was facing off with Faker in a final). Kuro will join the fourth organization in his career with the Afreeca Freecs, inserting himself into a team with lofty expectations and a roster that could either challenge for a Worlds spot or fight for survival from relegations.

To help Kuro on his quest to put an end to SKT T1 will be a man who might know the blueprints of the kingdom better than anyone else: former captain of said kingdom, Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan, who is returning to South Korea following a year-long stay in China's LPL. Back in 2015 when MaRin led SKT T1 to its second world championship, it was the top laner, not Faker, who was awarded with the MVP award. The credit for the brilliant shot-calling on the team was heavily directed toward the two, with MaRin and Faker, two former amateur prodigies-turned-world champions, eventually separating with the former wanting to step out of the shadow of the latter.

Kuro has a similar storyline. Wherever Kuro has gone, Faker has loomed behind, eventually defeating him in the end. Regardless of how well Kuro played in the regular season -- and there were seasons where Kuro had better stats than the almighty Faker -- it would all come crashing down in the playoffs, where the narrative would end with SKT T1's Faker as the victor and Kuro, shrouded in the shadows, the forgotten loser.

MaRin, who had a disaster of a year in China, wants redemption to solidify his legacy as one of the game's greats with another South Korean title; this time, without Faker, and without the SKT T1 banner draped behind him. And for Kuro, the story is the same; he wept tears of joy when he won the LCK championship last summer, but he still hasn't defeated the man who has terrorized him throughout his career.

Maybe with a little bit of spirit (namely Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon), Kuro and MaRin can complete their journeys. For them, the end goal is for not the red of SKT or KT to paint South Korea, but the blue of Afreeca to begin a new reign.

Longzhu PraY and Longzhu Gorilla

The bottom lane duo of ROX stayed together, joining Longzhu Gaming for the 2017 campaign. Kim "PraY" Jong-in and Kang "Gorilla" Beom-hyeon have almost done everything you can do in the professional world of League of Legends except for winning the world championship. The two have been to Worlds more often than not, and it has been a string of despair-filled losses that have sent them out from their quest for the Summoner's Cup. Longzhu could be their chance to change that.

The pair will act as the pillars of the team heading into the season. PraY and Gorilla will be shepherding youthful talent in the mid and jungle positions. If Longzhu truly wants to be a world-title contender and not just a playoff pretender, the evolution of the team's two possible aces, Lee "Crash" Dong-woo in the jungle and Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong at mid is crucial. With Crash, PraY and Gorilla should see the same type of player they welcomed last year in Peanut; young, full of talent, and raw, looking for the chance to improve himself on a coherent, non-dysfunctional club. And Bdd, it's a chance to possibly go from Kuro, a reactive mid laner, to a proactive one, and one with all the tools to be one of the best in South Korea.

Longzhu Gaming was a mess last year with the concoction of a lineup they cooked up. This year, it's up to PraY and Gorilla, a duo that wins (and wins a lot) to change the culture of a losing franchise. The dragon logo might be taped on, but no matter the money thrown into the organization, Longzhu is still the old Incredible Miracle org at the end of the day and the stench of defeat still hangs to it. Even with the name change, Longzhu was exactly the Incredible Miracle of old: not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to fall out of the league.

The ingredients are there for Longzhu to be good -- even great -- and yet, the results need to be seen before believed. PraY and Gorilla have a tough road ahead of them, but if any veteran bot-lane pair could create the miracle of making Longzhu a world champion, it would be them.

The war is on.