After what turned out to be the most competitive regular season in LCK's history, we finally enter the postseason, affectionately starting with the gauntlet. Over the next week, four teams will face off in a kill-of-the-hill format to see which survivor gets the opportunity to challenge the regular season champions, the ROX Tigers, in the LCK finals for the domestic title. Additionally, the winning team will book a ticket to the Mid-Season Invitational in Shanghai, China.
Afreeca Freecs, the miracle of South Korea. The team was disregarded for a majority of the season but went on a 7-2 run in the second half of the split to snatch the final playoff spot. While Afreeca doesn't always win decisively -- many of the victories during the team's 7-2 run went to three games -- it knows how to stall for time and find the right moments to succeed. A team no one saw as a threat has turned itself into a legitimate finalist candidate.
The Freecs' opponent in the first round of the gauntlet, a best-of-three wildcard match, will be the iron wall of the Jin Air Green Wings. A defensive, kiting juggernaut, the Green Wings got off to a hot start like it historically does. And once again, the team's performance tapered off as the regular season came to a close. Freecs are an early game team that finds small openings to steal away games, and Jin Air are the opposite; they play for the late game to snatch away the victory.
SK Telecom T1 is king. It'd be easy to look at T1's third place ranking and say they'll need to win three best-of-fives to take home its third consecutive championship. But this is SK Telecom T1, the greatest organization in League of Legends history. A strong second half of the season run (7-2, the same record as Afreeca and ROX) left the most dangerous team in the bracket a nice amount of momentum heading into the gauntlet.
ROX, Afreeca, and other teams made SKT T1 bleed this season. We'll see if SKT T1 can truly put them down in the playoffs.
The LCK playoffs start off soon, and @FionnOnFire wants to know: Which final carries the best storyline?
— ESPN Esports (@ESPN_Esports) April 13, 2016
The closest to challenging ROX is KT Rolster. The second seed in the playoffs, KT only needs a single match win in the semifinal to make it back to its second straight final.
Rolster is a strange team. On occasion, it looks like the best in the world; other times KT have no bite and are easily dispatched by the top level talents in Korea. A possible date with decade-long rival, SK Telecom T1, could give us the biggest semifinal in Korean history--that is, if the reigning champion can get through the quarterfinals versus either Afreeca or Jin Air.
Four challengers. One commanding regular season champion. ROX is waiting for a worthy opponent.
So, which final would be the best in terms of possible closeness, narrative, and overall hype? Let me and try to help out, dear readers.
4. ROX Tigers vs. Jin Air Green Wings
I'm not saying this would be a poor final. It'd be the classic traditional sports matchup between a world-class offense against a world-class defense. With the changes in the meta, and with games more oriented around tanks, this could open the door for Jin Air, a team that excels in the lateness of games, to do damage in the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the defensive-minded Jin Air, the team's matches against ROX in the regular season, even when the team was doing well, weren't pretty. The Tigers won each of the four meetings--and a final between the two teams would garner the least attention out of the other matchups, unless the Green Wings dominate all three rounds leading into the finals.
3. ROX Tigers vs. KT Rolster
This final would be unofficially titled the "We Hate SKT T1 Championship."
SK Telecom T1 beat KT Rolster in the summer finals of the LCK in 2015, steamrolled the Tigers in the spring finals, and defeated Tigers one more time during the World finals last year. Both KT and the ROX Tigers have been tortured by SKT T1 throughout history. ROX only had to put up with SKT for a little over a year, however, poor KT Rolster has been dealing with them for 10 plus years.
The final itself would be an interesting one. For one, it would be a matchup between most likely the two best top laners in the world: regular season MVP Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho from the Tigers and KT's Kim "ssumday" Chan-ho. The two players and teams met in the quarterfinals of the most recent World Championship, and it was Smeb who marched his team into the semifinals with a dominating performance over the lackluster ssumday.
These finals would be ssumday's chance at the best revenge possible: denying ROX its first major title and taking home his second domestic title with KT. But with the changes in the top lane meta, we might see the likes of Maokai vs. Trundle instead of the explosive Fiora vs. Gangplank matchup common during the 2015 World Championships.
Interestingly enough, this final would appear to have the best chance at being close, since KT is the only one of the four challengers to beat the ROX Tigers in a series during the regular season. In the teams' two matches against one another, both went 2-1, with each squad taking a victory and losing one.
2. ROX Tigers vs. Afreeca Freecs
I originally had this matchup first. I mean, can you think of a better narrative than Afreeca making the final?
Before the season started, the Freecs were still playing under the Rebels Anarchy label. They were an amateur team with no sponsors, no coaching staff, and no money coming in. The members started changing their IDs in solo queue to ask sponsorships to please help them. Son "Mickey" Young-min, the team's ace mid laner, changed from his normal solo queue ID to 아나키스폰좀요, which translates to "Anarchy sponsorship plz". The team's outlook was in dire straights as the 2016 season loomed closer.
Afreeca, a top streaming service in Korea, saved the Rebels, making them the Freecs and setting them on a fairytale journey through the organization's inaugural season.
From a 1-6 start to the playoffs. For Afreeca to make the finals, it would need to take down South Korea's duo of prestigious franchises: SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster. A final of ROX vs. Afreeca could usher in a new era of Korean esports. Two new teams made up of friends doing their best to follow their dreams, facing off in the finals, instead of KT Rolster and SK Telecom T1.
While having a less established team like the Freecs in the final could hurt the number of viewers inclined to tune in, it might also help it. Samsung, KT Rolster, and SK Telecom T1 have ruled South Korea for the last three years of domestic play. The casual viewers, even the diehard fans of the top teams, might be ready for a bit of change.
1. ROX Tigers vs. SK Telecom T1
And maybe the predictable final is just the best one, as well. Afreeca vs. ROX would be something new, an exciting sidebar from what we've seen before. ROX vs. SK Telecom T1, on the other hand, could be the possible conclusion of a year-long storyline that's taken over the Korean league.
ROX, formerly the Huya Tigers, GE Tigers, KOO Tigers, and simply the Tigers, don't like SK Telecom T1. T1 has been a thorn in the Tigers' side since the organization's inception at the end of 2014.
At the time, the Tigers burst onto the scene, looked like the best team in the world, and even beat SKT T1 in its first meeting during the spring season of 2015. But whenever it has mattered the most, SK Telecom has silenced the Tigers.
The spring finals, where the Tigers were the top seed, was a whitewash. SKT T1 defeated the then GE Tigers in a sweep. The' next big meeting months later, the Summoner's Cup Finals, was another complete victory for SKT. The KOO Tigers, as the organization was called then, won a single game but got blown out in the fourth game, and watched its rivals take home the cup.
The Tigers want this final. Even when international teams offered contracts to some of the ROX players in the offseason, they declined -- they wanted to stay together and beat SK Telecom T1 in a grand final.
They wanted to make the Tigers the top team in the world. And in order for that to happen, the players will need to dethrone SK Telecom T1 to complete that goal.
Or, SKT T1 could win again, and the Tigers' desperate chase would continue on into the heat of summer.