In the current landscape of professional League of Legends, money is almost always the main factor in roster decisions and changes in tournament structures.
With the scene rapidly growing and new investors emerging, especially in the North American and Chinese markets, we've reached a point where a player can set himself up for the next decade with one sizeable contract from an interested owner. For the ROX Tigers, the top-seeded club in South Korea's Champions competition, money isn't everything.
After making it to the finals of last year's World Championship as a team in the process of losing its title sponsor, key members of the starting five were scouted by domestic and international organizations to change teams.
Some of the players were given the chance to set themselves up for the long haul - the kind of deals, if accepted, that could have made them megastars. But they declined.
The Tigers, without a title sponsor, stayed intact except for its captain and jungler, Lee "Hojin" Ho-jin, who retired at the end of the 2015. The group of best friends that loved nothing more than playing together became the ROX Tigers.
For the Tigers, two things were more important than making the most amount of money:
1. The Summoner's Cup, given to the world champions at the end of every year.
2. Defeating SK Telecom T1 in a final, once and for all.
SK Telecom T1 are the Tigers' white whale. A seemingly unbeatable obstacle the team needs to take down to prove it's the best team in South Korea. As a rookie squad last year, the team was the top-seeded regular season team like this season. It went directly into the LCK Spring Finals where a clash with T1 awaited. The finals were a whitewash.
T1 was dominant in its dissection of the first-seeded Tigers, and the regular season wins were disregarded without another glance. No one cared what the Tigers did in its impressive inaugural first run.
All that mattered were the finals, and the Tigers failed to put up a fight when those finals came around. The two teams met again at the end of 2015, as both battled the way to the Summoner's Cup Finals in Germany.
Called the KOO Tigers at the time of Worlds, the once favored felines were seen as the underdog heading into the final against a team that hadn't dropped a single map the entire tournament. It was the Tigers' chance for redemption; the ultimate narrative to come from behind when everything was against it. To rise up and win the grandest prize in the game.
The Tigers failed once again.
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, SK Telecom T1's ace and League's greatest player of all-time, dismantled the Tigers following an upset in game three, shutting the door on the fairy tale comeback with a historic fourth set.
Right when the Tigers thought it could claw itself back into the series, Faker emerged, showing the difference in experience and skill. Beating SK Telecom T1, and Faker, by extension, is what drives the Tigers. The team reloaded in the off-season with Hojin leaving, bringing in the talented youngster Yoon "Peanut" Wang-ho to replace him.
The Tigers, although transforming into a more early-game offensive team with the addition of the proactive Peanut, hasn't changed its overall identity. It is still loud and boisterous. The starting five of the Tigers are bit of an antithesis to the reigning champions. T1 are a well-oiled professional machine, having already won four domestic championships and going into Saturday wanting to secure its fifth.
Faker, the team's centerpiece, is calm, cunning, and knows what move to make at every point in the game. Whenever the Tigers have faced T1 in a final, there have been points where the former has gotten the upper-hand. Win a big team fight. Get a gigantic reversal in a team fight. Achieve a pick on an important player on the opposing side.
The Tigers revert to being itself when these happen - yelling, having fun, and trying to get each other going by picking up the mood.
Then, SKT breaches the surface, demanding its presence be acknowledged, and the Tigers fall quiet. The Tigers can do whatever it wants in the regular season. Go undefeated. Win every game under 20 minutes. Sing and dance in the booth like it's a Friday night at karaoke. But when it gets to a final, the stage that separates the great players from the legendary ones, Faker will be there for the Tigers to face. Ready to silence the roars of the cats.
The key match-up to watch in this final will be between two rookies in the jungle position. During last year's Summoner's Cup Final, it was Hojin and (soon to be) two-time world champion Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong, in the starting jungler positions.
"No player in esports the last two years, in any game, has evolved more than Smeb."
Both are seen as primarily utility players on their teams, and both were swapped out in the current spring split with the in-your-face-until-you-die Peanut replacing the retired Hojin, and amateur player Kang "Blank" Sun-gu taking over the ailing Bengi for T1. At the moment, we're in a jungle carry meta, and both of these new junglers know how to do just that.
Peanut is arguably the best jungler in the world currently, and his kill or be killed style has worked perfectly for him since moving over from NaJin to the Tigers. He's the best Nidalee in the country with a perfect record on the Huntress; his Kindred, along with Elise, are both champions he's perfectly capable on when it comes to taking over a map. Blank, who made his first professional start this year with T1, had a slower development rate than Peanut.
Blank's first few games for T1 were lukewarm at best, with his play hovering between forgettable and head scratching. As the season's gone along, Blank has picked himself up, and T1's journey over to Poland to play in the IEM World Championships fully fleshed out his place on the team.
Since T1's flawless run at that tournament, Blank has been as good as any jungler in the country, including Peanut and Afreeca's Nam "lira" Tae-yoo. In a series with all-star veteran AD carries like Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Kim "PraY" Jong-in, the outcome could (and most likely) come down to a match-up between two new signings at the jungle position. Talk about making an impression in your first Champions final.
What does it mean to be the best player in the world? To me, it means you can be anything and everything for your team. You can make calls. You can be the ace by either being the main play-maker or first carry option. You can rally your team around you. You can play utility champions and enhance the players around you. You don't only shine on your own as a generational talent, but you make all four guys next to you better because they're playing alongside you.
On April 21, 2016, I believe the two best players in the world are Faker, the man you can argue has held the globe's top spot for the past three years (excluding Samsung White's reign in the dying months of 2014) and Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, a player that two years ago was considered a complete and utter failure as a professional player.
Since the day he started his professional career, Faker has been ahead of the class. When Smeb started playing as a pro in Incredible Miracle, his first few years as a pro-gamer were filled with losses--never even making it close to a championship final. Two years ago, it would have been unfathomable to think of Faker and Smeb in the same tier.
Faker was and is still called a god around the world. He's the Michael Jordan of the game. He has four Korean championships, and he's on the verge of his fifth. Two Summoner's Cup. A myriad of individual awards and achievements. Possibly one of the most clutch players in the history of esports.
Regardless of how he performs up until a final, the lights are the brightest is when Faker shows his very best.
Smeb was nothing before he became a Tiger. A reject. A misfit. A failed prospect that had a few nice Riven games but nothing substantial to build upon. As a result of joining the Tigers, the top laner has grown more than any player I've seen. No player in esports the last two years, in any game, has evolved more than Smeb.
He went from being a player that you laughed at for making terrible mistakes and being on a bottom-feeding team to being right at the cusp of being the best player in the world. The only thing missing from Smeb's rise to that title is a championship. Everything Faker can do, so can Smeb. He can play utility. He can adapt. He can carry. He can shot-call. He can be a leader. He can take over a game, and even a series, and win it by himself.
He's a megastar in a region filled with elite level talent and superstar players. But unlike Faker, he hasn't been able to come up clutch. When he's been in a position where he can step up in a final and take over the series, he hasn't been able to do it. At the 2015 World Championships, it was actually Hojin, not Smeb, who stepped up in the Tigers' only victory over T1 in the finals.
Following that single win, Faker shut the door with his demon of a Ryze, deleting any chance of a Tigers comeback. Smeb won the MVP for the best player of the split this season in commanding fashion. But even with his amazing growth over the past year, you can't truly call him the best in the world until he beats the man who has occupied the spot for the majority of his professional career.
Every time Faker has been stopped or taken down a peg, he's immediately come back and proved why he's been heralded as an outlier since his rookie season.
Smeb, and his Tigers, have come a long way. When the team was formed, the group consisted of a few players considered washed up by the community, and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon, who was one of the best supports in the world.
Every time the Tigers have faced adversity, the team overcame it together. Sponsorship issues. Failing on the international stage. The changing of metas. The five Tigers, with Hojin, and now with Peanut, have always been able to get past whatever roadblock that has been put in front of them.
Except SK Telecom T1. Except Faker.
At an all-time record of 6-17 versus SKT T1, the Tigers go into Saturday's match-up with everything to win and lose. An outstanding regular season will be worth nothing if it can't take the Korean championship. Smeb's ascent from one of the worst players in Korea to one of the best players on the planet will be meaningless if he and his team can't get past Faker.
For a lot of players, money is everything. It's security. It's their future.
For the Tigers, the LCK finals vs. SK Telecom T1 is everything.