eSports
Emily Rand 16d

An unpredictable rematch: SKT vs. Samsung

esports

"And Samsung Galaxy set their sights on the Summoner's Cup. They take down Team WE and qualify for a rematch with SK Telecom in the championship finals!"

It was hardly surprising to hear these words from Riot Games caster Trevor "Quickshot" Henry as Samsung's Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in and Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk took off their headsets, turned to each other and jumped up immediately to hug. CoreJJ called out to mid laner Lee "Crown" Min-ho, who joined the celebration.

A classic, historic matchup between two South Korean powerhouses was now guaranteed.

Yet, based on their recent performances in South Korea and various Chinese locales en route to the League of Legends World Championship finals in Beijing, this wasn't an expected outcome. The Shanghai audiences turned out in droves, fervently supporting hometown teams Royal Never Give Up and Team WE in the hopes that one Chinese team would make it to the finals on home soil. Longzhu Gaming, a heavy favorite going into this championship event, already had been sent packing in the quarterfinals. The moment Team WE lost to Samsung, the final remaining perfect Worlds Pick'em bracket fell.

But this rematch doesn't come entirely as a shock.

Samsung has carried the spirit of adaptation that is more frequently used to describe the team's next opponent: SKT. With Kang "Haru" Min-seung on the bench, this is the same exact team as last year, led by the legendary Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong, but it certainly doesn't play like it. 

In 2016, everything revolved around Crown in the mid lane on Viktor, Cassiopeia, and Ryze, with Ambition in the jungle to back him up. CoreJJ was solely a laning-focused support, new to the starting position and guiding a rookie AD carry in Ruler, who suited the current meta. Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin was an acceptable top laner, pushed out of the spotlight by the likes of the ROX Tigers' Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho and SKT's Lee "Duke" Ho-seong.

Samsung was a unit of five that was still learning how to play together as a team, grounded by the strong mid/jungle synergy of Crown and Ambition, greater on the Rift than the sum of their individual parts.

Those individual parts have long since come into their own.

At this World Championship, CuVee proved why he was rated so highly, able to best opponents individually in lane while remaining one of the strongest teamfighting top laners in the world. Ruler has developed from an AD carry who was banned out and destroyed in the League Champions Korea Spring playoffs to an essential half of one of the best bot lane duos at the tournament.

Above all else, the Samsung six have been malleable. Not only did Ambition cover for Crown's lack of lane pressure, but the team found other picks (Malzahar, the rare unbanned Galio) that Crown could put to good use outside of lane. Their Haru test against 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports may not have appeared to be the best in-game idea after Samsung fumbled its way to victory, but it was an attempt at improving aspects of the early game that were in desperate need of attention. At every point in their journey to the finals, Samsung has shifted and adjusted accordingly to win.

By contrast, SKT, a team known for impeccable in-game adjustments, has struggled throughout the event, even in victory. For the first time in a long time, there's a visible strain on mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok to carry his team. Despite jungle substitutions from Han "Peanut" Wang-ho to Kang "Blank" Sun-gu -- and, against RNG, from Blank to Peanut -- that have led to wins for the fresher jungler, neither player has appeared comfortable in the role, especially when SKT's lanes aren't pushing forward.

This isn't to say that SKT isn't trying to adjust. Peanut was found in the bottom lane at Level 2, taking full advantage of Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan's Caitlyn and Lulu combination, the Caitlyn having been taken from prior adaptations by Team WE and RNG. Faker put on a show on Galio, hard-carrying SKT in teamfights and applying pressure both in and out of lane, sometimes in lieu of his jungler. It was a different carry performance from his DPS Ryze show in the quarterfinals against Misfits, but the same exemplary instincts were on full display.

SKT's quarterfinals and semifinals series this year reminded us all that, when all else fails, even SKT's legendary ability to adapt in mid-series, Faker always has the potential to lift SKT to victory.

These finals are built on history, both domestic and international. The joke that only a Samsung team can stop an SKT team was born of two straight 2014 quarterfinals matchups in which SK Telecom T1 K failed to defeat Samsung Galaxy White in both spring and summer. Last year, these two teams gave audiences the closest world finals series yet, a welcome duel after three straight years of one-sided victories.

This year, neither of these teams resemble their prior iterations, despite sharing many of the same names on paper. If both teams perform the way they did in their respective semifinals series, we are guaranteed either a new champion in Samsung Galaxy or another legendary performance from the game's best player.

And a lot more eyes will be on the teams this time around, both in person and on the screen. Fighting for the Summoner's Cup on the world's largest stage is a more literal statement this year. The final is at China's National Stadium, The Bird's Nest, an architectural monument to the country's dazzling 2008 Summer Olympics hosting duties.

It seats 80,000.

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