One team was expected to be here. The other was not.
Whether you're a diehard fan of League of Legends or merely a casual bystander, the words "Faker" and "SK Telecom T1" hold weight. They represent success, victory, and glory. If you're playing a fun game with just a bunch of your friends, it isn't uncommon to see the word "Faker" come up in chat following a fantastic outplay or team-fight victory. People who've never watched a single minute of the Korean scene know the legend of the all-powerful SK Telecom T1 dynasty and its crown jewel in the mid lane, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok.
SKT T1's mid lane ace is the Michael Jordan of esports. Since coming into the scene as a prized rookie three years ago, he's won two World Championship titles -- the most prestigious title in the professional scene -- and five out of seven domestic champions in the strongest region in the world, South Korea. Hundreds of top players have come and gone, but Faker and SK Telecom T1 have created one of the greatest dynasties in competitive video game history.
The reigning world champions are as humble as they are frightening. In T1's semifinal match-up against the Chinese representatives, Faker and company broke the wills of Royal Never Give up, a team that actually finished first in the group stages. The series ended in a perfect game -- SKT T1 not giving up a single kill or neutral objective -- turning what was expected to be a close series to a one-sided anticlimax.
Over the course of his career, Faker has participated in five Riot-sponsored international tournaments. He's made the final of all five, including this event, and has only lost one: last year's Mid-Season Invitational against China's Edward Gaming. SK Telecom T1 fell in the final map of the best-of-five series, as EDG perfectly crafted a strategy to neutralize Faker's signature champion, LeBlanc, to win the matchup and title.
The one title that eludes the King of Games will be only a few feet away from him on stage tonight. One year removed from the biggest international loss of his career, Faker has led SK Telecom T1 to win every major tournament since: the 2015 Korean summer season, the 2015 Riot World Championship, the 2016 Korean spring season, and the 2016 IEM World Championships. After going through one of the worst slumps in the team's history during the group stages with a four-game losing streak, the undisputed king has rounded back into optimal form for the final.
When SKT T1 is at its best, it isn't about beating the enemy, it's about breaking the enemy. Opponents might take a game off it -- like the KOO Tigers during the finals of the Riot World Championships -- but that's all of the joy they'd be given.
The hometown crowd will cheer for the underdogs like there might be a chance at a comeback. Casual and diehard fans clap their inflatable sticks together, yelling at the top of their lungs for David to take down Goliath.
It doesn't take long for those fans learn that this isn't a Disney movie. There will be no magical upset. Ever since EDG pulled off the perfect counter to T1, the credits have been the same: confetti falling from the heavens and SK Telecom T1 composed as its players lift the trophy into the air.
From his ravenous and dedicated fans in South Korea to observers worldwide, Faker is considered a god. In truth, however, it's not simply Faker himself who deserves such a title, but the organization SK Telecom T1. From its masterful scouting of players to the coaching staff led by Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun, the club represents class in its finest form. SK Telecom T1 has been in the competitive video gaming world for more than a decade now, and it's only getting stronger.
Opposite the God of League, we have Counter Logic Gaming. A group of five guys who became a team before the season started because they all got along. Not many thought CLG would do well in the spring split of the North American League Championship Series. Superstar AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng was dropped and moved to seemingly greener pastures at Team SoloMid. He was replaced by some rookie named Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes from the organization's so-so Challenger team.
The roster CLG put together to start the season was shrugged off. Even though it was the defending champion of North America, the club was swept under the rug. Six months ago, Counter Logic Gaming was considered an average team in a terrible region.
People didn't think CLG would do well during the regular split.
But CLG finished second, surpassing all expectations set for them before the season started.
People didn't think CLG could beat Team SoloMid in the finals.
But it won in a tense 3-2 series, scraping by in a 50-minute game, where Stixxay's Tristana landed the final blows in a massive team fight to defeat the player he replaced months prior.
People didn't think CLG could do anything at MSI. What could a team that barely won the final in a weak region do against the likes of South Korea or Europe?
But it went 7-3 in the group stages and beat the Flash Wolves convincingly 3-1 in the semifinals, proving it's a world-class team in the second biggest tournament of the year.
"When SKT T1 is at its best, it isn't about beating the enemy; it's about breaking the enemy."
Now, we're at the finals of the Mid-Season Invitational. Counter Logic Gaming, a scrappy team of five that put teamwork in front of everything else, against the greatest organization in the game's six-year professional history.
It defied the odds in North America and defied them once more under the bright lights of the international stage.
But it's standing across a team and a player who don't know what it truly feels like to be an underdog. It's no disrespect to say CLG is the ultimate long shot. SKT T1 is coming off a perfect game against the hometown team who were first in group stage. Flash Wolves isn't SK Telecom T1. Beating the Flash Wolves in a best of five in the semifinals, then playing SKT T1 is like beating a game on medium difficulty before suddenly ramping up to lunatic mode.
The Flash Wolves didn't respect CLG as a competitor and were eventually defeated. The problem for CLG is that SKT T1 isn't going to come into the finals cocky.
"Respect all, fear none" has been the saying going around for CLG all tournament and it's held true. SKT, however, hold the same virtue. Regardless of where CLG comes from, the world champion will handle it the same way it's handled every other opponent.
CLG has brought pride and respect back to a region mocked for being more about drama than gameplay. The team's hard work and dedication has been evident on the world stage, and it'll be traveling back from Shanghai to Los Angeles knowing it's changed how the rest of the world views its region.
North America's representative isn't happy with that. When it won the semifinal yesterday, none of the players celebrated wildly. In interviews, all thoughts were pointed towards the final against SK Telecom T1.
"Playing SKT is a feat in and of itself," said Aphromoo in a post-game interview following the win over Flash Wolves. "And since SKT, two-time world champion coming into MSI, lost last time at MSI, I'm pretty sure they're going to be super-hungry to get this win under their belt."
"It just so happens CLG is going to be the one to trump them," he added.
CLG didn't just come to leave with respect.
Past the narrative, the matchup itself is an interesting one. I'm not going to lie to you, reader. SK Telecom T1 should win this final. If it plays like it did on Friday against RNG, this very well could be a quick 3-0 final. It's fun to believe in the entertaining narrative: five friends banding together with its coach to take down all doubters before finally vanquishing Goliath in a historic feat.
Looking at the matchup, however, it's going to be difficult for CLG. Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun, the team's starting mid laner, is prone to getting solo-killed and being used as the sacrificial lamb to open up opportunities for the rest of his team. This isn't going to work against SK Telecom T1. If Huhi can't keep Faker contained in lane, CLG will not win this series. We saw it against RNG, and we could see it again here. If Faker overpowers his lane opponent, it's all over.
Step one for CLG to somehow pull off the upset of a lifetime: Huhi needs to play the best game of his life. A substitute for CLG in 2015, Huhi will have all eyes on him tonight. He lost to Faker at the IEM World Championships and has split two games in the group stages, but that wasn't the same Faker he'll be playing tonight. Faker, outside of that one misstep last year at MSI, is essentially untouchable in the finals. Huhi can't, under any circumstance, let Faker take over the mid lane in the series. Faker's ability to push mid will open up the jungle for Kang "Blank" Sun-gu to do as he pleases.
That leads us to the second condition CLG needs to win: shutdown Blank. The rookie jungler from SKT T1 has been the shakiest member of the Korean champions, and he's the only one with less than three years' experience as pro in the starting five. While the other members of the team can survive a bad game, Blank is volatile. Jake "Xmithie" Puchero has outperformed Blank this tournament. Winning the jungle matchup early in the series could bring back some of the synergy issues SKT showed in the middle of the group stages.
Finally, it'll come down to the team's unlikely main carry, Stixxay.
Stixxay is the last piece to this fairy tale. If he plays a team fight correctly, he can look like the best AD carry in the world, playing off his team's hard work and getting off the necessary damage. However, Stixxay playing too far forward makes him irrelevant, something CLG cannot have happen against SKT T1's Bae "Bang" Jun-sik.
So, all CLG has to do to beat SKT T1 is:
1. Huhi plays the best series of his career and matches Faker in lane
2. Xmithie outperforms Blank heavily and causes T1 to get out of sync
3. Stixxay out-damages and out-positions Bang, one of the best AD carries in the world
4. Play at the same level of coordination it's showcased the past two weeks
5. Hope Faker doesn't just ignore the previous four steps and wins the title anyway
No one said beating a god would be easy.