Over the course of two days back in 2013, the two greatest League of Legends players of all-time would begin their careers in the chilly April weather of South Korea. Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong, a rookie support for the middling team MVP Ozone, debuted in the support role, capturing a victory in his first game with a 1/0/17 performance on Sona against KT Rolster A. The following day, hype met reality as the highly anticipated amateur mid laner, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, made his mark on the professional scene by solo killing domestic all star Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong and defeating tournament favorites, CJ Entus Blaze, in his pro-gaming opener.
The first player to ever knock Faker out of a tournament was Mata during their rookie tournament in Champions Spring 2013. In the semifinals, Faker's red hot ascent was halted by Mata's MVP Ozone, with Faker's SK Telecom T1 squad eliminated in the semifinals 3-1. Mata and Ozone went on to win the competition.
The first player to ever knock Mata out of a tournament was Faker. The mid lane prodigy grabbed his revenge for the loss in his rookie season by dethroning Ozone in the next season's semifinal. For the first time, Mata felt the sting of elimination, and SKT T1 went on to grab the championship.
From the days of rookies to their years of being world champions to the present -- one is the hope of the Chinese region he once waged war against, and the other is the loyal crown jewel to the all-powerful South Korean arsenal of squadrons. Wherever they go, or whoever they play against, the two geniuses' careers will forever be intertwined.
Friday, May 13, a little over a month from their third year anniversary since debuting, Mata and Faker will meet in a best-of-five series in the semifinals of the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational. Mata, the leader of Royal Never Give Up, the Chinese champions who've come together over the course of the tournament to grab the first seed in the group stages. Faker, since the day he debuted, is still the centerpiece of SK Telecom T1, leading the team towards the one title that eludes him in his overflowing trophy case: the MSI title.
Mata's road to this point has been a lengthy and arduous one. Since winning the 2014 MVP award and Summoner's Cup with Samsung White (formerly MVP Ozone), his path as a pro has taken him to China, the country he personally dissected in the Summoner's Cup Finals in 2014. Starting as a player from Vici Gaming and enjoying little success in 2015, Mata has found his home on the very same organization he defeated for his world title, Royal. He has partnered up again with his old top laner from his domestic playing days, Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok, and rallied three homegrown Chinese players to buy into his ideology for the game.
To the RNG players, Mata, not Faker, is the best player in the game's history. His talents and game-calling abilities have taken a disjointed, inconsistent team from the regular season of China's LPL spring split and turned it into a team capable of playing into the late-game with the world's best. Where Mata goes, the rest of Royal follow.
The once feared demonic maestro of the South Korean scene has turned into a savior of sorts for a stagnant Chinese scene. Since last year's victory at MSI with Edward Gaming, the country's apparent rise has turned into derailed expectations. Royal and Mata's dual resurgence in an international setting has finally brought back pride to the longstanding second strongest region in the game. After an 8-2 group stage, Mata is only two victories away from adding the MSI championship to his Korean title, Chinese title, and Summoner's Cup.
The golden boy of League, Faker, arguably can do no wrong. But the second day of MSI might've seemed like it was his first time playing professionally, losing back-to-back games against Mata's RNG and Taiwan's Flash Wolves. His play against Royal was embarrassing, repeatedly getting killed off in lane, and hampering his team's chances of getting back into the game by getting picked off in the latter stages. The loss versus Flash Wolves was a simple blowout, with the greatest of all-time and his team getting run off the map by Taiwan's enigmatic champions.
We saw frustration out of Faker. Discomfort on his face. Anguish as his team failed to play the map correctly, giving up uncontested objectives. Even when SKT T1 started to win again following its four-game losing streak, there was no real happy outburst from Faker or his teammates. Although he went 2-0 on his birthday, breaking the string of defeats, it didn't change the look on his face when the opponent's Nexus was eventually deconstructed.
"The once feared demonic maestro of the Korean scene has turned into a savior of sorts for a stagnant Chinese scene."
Faker doesn't expect to lose. Humble as he is interviews to opposing teams, SKT T1's ace is the type of player who doesn't believe, if he plays his best, that he'll ever lose to an opponent or opposing team. It's not being cocky or overconfident -- it's who Faker is. It's how and why he has won two world titles, five domestic crowns, and a plethora of other tournaments. Moral victories and participation trophies are nice for a fair amount of times. Not Faker. The only true victory is being the last man standing after an event has concluded.
The semifinal between RNG and SKT is a battle of two players who have earned titles such as genius, God, and icon. Mata and Faker have profound respect for each other, neither celebrating or boasting when beating the other in the group stage. But both believe they will win the Mid-Season Invitational. The two teams they've built around them will transition from the single battleground of the group stage to the intellectually-driven best-of-five format, where adaptation and flexibility is key.
Stepping into the semifinal match-up, there is no true favorite. Each team has several problems heading into the final four, and it'll be up to the coaching staff and leaders to fix those issues as the match approaches. RNG is coached by Kim "Fly" Sang-chul, a man who has traveled all across the globe the past few years, first coaching the Jin Air teams in South Korea before moving to North America last year to coach Team Impulse. Opposing the nomadic coach, will be Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun, widely considered the game's best, his lengthy coaching career superimposed over Faker's playing career.
The winner of the semifinal match-up between these two teams will be the one who comes together first. As cliché as it sounds, it's true. RNG has been given kudos for its formation behind Mata and his leadership, but the players still lack the finesse in the late-game that would take it from a very good team to an international champion. Through the first five day of competition, RNG games have primarily boiled down to a final late-game team fight to determine the victor. Royal's two losses to CLG and T1 came down to the Chinese combatants not being able to smoothly close out the game.
You can attribute that to some of the team's composition choices -- Zed and Nidalee late-game against CLG's team-fighting composition was always going to be a struggle -- but there are holes still visible in RNG's communication. We saw it almost perfectly converge on CLG with a 1-3-1 split-plush and win the game, yet, over-eagerness cost RNG a game where it was up 17k gold. No matter the composition, at one point in time, it had the tools and items necessary to win the game -- if only it showed patience.
The major difference between the Samsung White led by Mata and the current RNG team -- outside of Gu "imp" Seung-bin outclassing his RNG counterpart Wang "wuxx" Cheng -- is complete trust in one another and a lack of patience. White could be overly aggressive in its play, but the team knew its limits and always had an assured calming influence in its leader, Mata. RNG, while showing great improvements over an entire split, still is lacking in that department, with wuxx sometimes playing too far forward or out of position. Remember, Royal is a Korean-Chinese hybrid team, meaning becoming perfectly in sync is even more of a challenge.
SK Telecom T1, however, has a full South Korean roster and isn't on the same page. Faker shook off the rust after his day two performance and played well in the two games T1 lost on the third day, but it has been the other players on the team who've shown a disconnect. The player with the most pressure on his shoulders, rookie jungler Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, has been talked about heavily throughout the event. If he does well, then SKT T1 has been up to the standards you'd expect from a world champion. When he's bad, though, all the wheels fall off T1 -- the team plays like it has never played together before.
Along with Blank, AD carry Bae "Bang" Jun-sik has been playing the role of magician, constantly disappearing and reappearing depending on the game. Bang has been playing the ace carry role for a large part of the season, and it worked in the second half of the spring split. Now, when a lot of games depend on how well Blank does in the jungle and how Bang does as a full-on carry, they're the two players T1 can't have being caught out of position. The SKT T1 AD carry, in my opinion, is the best positioning, movement-focused AD in the world. But besides a few good games, he's been a disappointment. For T1 to win this tournament, the team can't only rely on Faker. It'll be up to Bang to prove why SKT T1 has shown so much confidence in him these last five months to promote him from utility carry to the team's number one option.
A perfect world would have brought us 2014 Samsung White's starting five versus 2015 SKT T1's starting five, the two greatest teams that have ever loaded onto Summoner's Rift.
We don't live in a perfect world, so we have what is in front of us. RNG and the current SKT T1 aren't the same as the giants who won the Summoner's Cup in in 2014 and 2015, but they can still grow. This, after all, is the mid-season tournament.
Samsung White was not the same World Championship team of finesse in the middle of 2014. At that time, White was lagging behind Faker's T1 and its sister team, Samsung Blue. With all the talent in the world and the perfect support at the helm, it wasn't until the World Championships at the very end of the year where its full potential was showcased. The team didn't even win a domestic title that year, with those accolades going to T1, Blue, and the erratic KT Arrows.
It was the Mid-Season Invitational last year that transformed SKT T1's title team. As a strong domestic team that narrowly made it through the playoffs in the spring, it wasn't until China's Edward Gaming beat it in the finals of MSI where the real talents of the 2015 version of SKT T1 started to take shape. When Worlds came around, T1 took what it learned at MSI and turned it into a one-sided victory at the international stage's biggest event.
Either Mata or Faker will fall on Friday, whether it's in a close contest or a blowout. Whoever loses, it'll only be the start of that player and team's road to the World Championships this autumn. Winning this semifinal and the tournament doesn't mean anything if the teams don't continue to grow as the year progresses. The trials and tribulations of the summer leading into the fall, and this semifinal match-up will only give us an idea who currently holds the lead over the other.
However, neither of them are thinking about the future product. The trials they'll need to conquer as the warmth of summer bathes over aren't in their minds. All that matters is the victory on Friday to get their team into the finals and a chance at the trophy neither of them possesses.
Seoul, South Korea. Shanghai, China. The Staples Center in Los Angeles during 2016 Summoner's Cup Finals. Wherever the tournament is, whatever team is involved, Mata and Faker share the same mindset that has brought them to a tier above all others:
I don't see defeat in front of me. All I see is the beauty of victory, and I'm going to reach it.