There aren't many significant international tournaments these days in professional League of Legends. While there are some lesser Intel Extreme Masters events during the offseason, the big three, in chronological order that scale in importance, are the IEM World Championship, Riot Games' Mid-Season Invitational, and the pinnacle: Riot Games' World Championship, where 16 of the best teams in the world fight for the Summoner's Cup.
In 2016, South Korea's SK Telecom T1 won all three, including the Summoner's Cup for the third time in four years. Poland was the setting of the first major championship of the year at the IEM World Championships in Katowice; there, SKT had little trouble hoisting the trophy at the event, going through the eight-team field without dropping a single map. The finals were a contest against Europe's Fnatic, and the series was never in doubt, with the reigning world champion picking up its first chalice from IEM.
Although they were head-and-shoulders above the rest in Katowice, the team had a worthy adversary in its home country. Throughout the year, SKT continued a rivalry that began in 2015 with fellow South Korean club ROX Tigers. The Tigers, the antithesis of SKT T1's diligent, Terminator-like play with their wild, sometimes out-of-control style, was the team given the best odds of conquering Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and his SKT T1 empire. The two teams would meet in the finals of the spring season of South Korea's domestic league, League Champions Korea, and there, the Tigers, full of confidence and swagger, would learn that dethroning SKT T1, even after roster renovations, would not be so simple.
Of the five major tournaments SKT T1 entered in 2016, the team won four: Poland for IEM, South Korea's LCK Spring Split, and then Shanghai for the Mid-Season Invitational, the now annual midpoint of the year where the strongest champions of each region from the year's first split face off. There, SKT T1 actually stumbled for the first time in the campaign year, losing a string of games in the middle of the round-robin phase of the competition, leaving them the last seed (of four advancing teams) heading into the bracket stage.
Yet, even these small slipups for SKT T1 throughout the year, for how rare they were, solidified the greatness of the club as a whole. After failing to find traction in the first week of MSI, SKT T1 returned better than ever in the best-of-five stage of the tournament, dropping only the first game of the semifinals against the host nation's Royal Never Give Up before blowing out the Chinese spring champion in straight sets. The final game, a perfect game (one where the winning team gives up no kills or objectives to the opposing team) was the lasting statement of superiority between not only SKT T1 and Royal Never Give Up, but from South Korea as a region to the rest of the world. In the final, a far less heated affair, SKT T1 took care of North America's scrappy Counter Logic Gaming in a 3-0 sweep, making it the second straight international event where SKT T1 took little time smashing the hopes and dreams of the western world.
The only red mark against SKT T1 the entire year was in the summer split of the LCK; in the semifinals, SKT T1 fell to arch-nemesis telecom rival KT (Korea Telecom) Rolster, giving up a 2-0 lead and losing in a shocking reverse sweep to stop the domestic champions from going for a four-peat. KT Rolster would go on to play the ROX Tigers in the final and lose in a 3-2 contest, losing a crucial Baron with two hit points left in the final game of the series to end any chance at a championship. The one team that actually thwarted SKT in a best-of-five would also miss the World Championships and a chance to do it again, with KT Rolster going from one gut-punch loss to another, finally against Samsung Galaxy in the South Korean Regionals.
At Worlds itself, SK Telecom T1 would put an exclamation point to the end of their year, winning the Summoner's Cup for the second year in a row. It wasn't easy; the team, often tested but rarely truly challenged in 2016, had an exhausting final two rounds of the tournament, facing the two other South Korean clubs qualified for the event in back-to-back five-game series.
First, in one of the most famed sports arenas in the world, New York City's Madison Square Garden, SKT T1 faced its two-year rival in the ROX Tigers for what would be the final time for that ROX roster, in what would turn out to be one of the greatest matches in League of Legends' six-year history. After the Tigers went up 2-1 in the series with an imaginative Miss Fortune support strategy that stifled SKT's counter-punching ways, the defending world champion relied upon their veteran pair, Faker and Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong, to get the job done; the duo, spurred on by a instant-classic performance by often-chastised jungler Bengi, were enough to put the end to the ROX Tigers as we knew them, winning 3-2 in the final important match the five Tigers would play together before going their separate ways in free agency.
Under the bright lights of Hollywood, SKT T1 had a cinematic ending at Staples Center in Los Angeles for the World Finals, beating Samsung Galaxy in an equally riveting 3-2 series. This time, it was SKT playing defense against a team attempting a comeback, going up 2-0 on the underdog SSG, and then watching the lead evaporate in the next two games. In the finale, SKT T1 proved to be too strong and too experienced for Samsung, completing the "Triple Crown" by winning the three biggest international events of a single calendar year.
No team in esports dominated in 2016 quite like SK Telecom T1, an esports organization known for its class over the past decade in South Korea. Since gaining the sponsorship of SK Telecom in 2004, the club has made it a habit of winning titles and producing all-stars in the various gaming titles in which it has invested. It all began with StarCraft: Brood War and the Godfather of Esports in South Korea with Lim "BoxeR" Yo-hwan. Since the beginning to now, the color that defines SKT T1 is not the red, yellow, or white in its logo -- it's gold, for the gold medals and trophies and ribbons that adorn the club's gaming house. BoxeR, Choi "iloveoov" Yun-sung, Kim "Bisu" Taek-yong, Jung "FanTaSy" Myung-hoon, Jung "Rain" Yoon-jong, Lee "INnoVation" Shin-hyung, and now the names of their League of Legends heroes such as Faker, Bengi, and former champions like Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin and Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan decorate its storied history.
Next year, SKT will be different, trading out one of those legends, Bengi, for a former Tiger and major rival in Yoon "Peanut" Wang-ho. The team of 2016, known for its calm and reserved personality will change, the starting five promising to be bigger and louder -- both in personality and how they play the game.
But we will not forget the SKT T1 of 2016. The one that completed the Triple Crown. The one that waged war with the ROX Tigers, eventually leading to a best-of-five classic that didn't end until the clock hit almost midnight in New York City.
Goodbye SKT of old, and we look forward to seeing the SKT of new in 2017, already posed to contend for the 2017 Team of the Year award, as well.