League of Legends' 2016 World Championship ends with a surprise slugfest

 Samsung Galaxy and SK Telecom T1 finally faced off on Saturday after the month long World Championship. While both teams represented the Korean league, they had two very different stories. Samsung Galaxy, despite the past glories of previous roster and former World Champions Samsung White, weren't thought of as highly. They were a roster of rookies, has-beens, and players taken from the most unusual places (who could have foreseen that CoreJJ, an ADC alumni of North America’s Team Dignitas, would end up in the World Finals as a support for a LCK team?)

Everyone expected the series to be a 3-0 stomp in favour of SKT, and it was hard to refute that view. Samsung had emerged as fan favourites, showing off dynamic personalities and relentlessly optimistic spirits as they won game after game after game. SKT, on the other hand, were positioned as the unstoppable villains. Their defeat of the ROX Tigers only cemented that reputation. The underdogs faced off against the clear favourites, and the two teams delivered a series that defied expectations.

Starting with a bang

The Worlds final kicked off with a huge celebration fitting of the finals: a holographic stage that showed champion spells off in crazy detail, a live performance of Zedd’s Ignite, and an orchestra. The teams sat behind giant, curved, sci-fi-esque shields with their team's logo emblazoned across the shell, and the minimap itself flared to light on the stage. It was gorgeous, but fans were convinced that the real finals had been between the Tigers and SKT a week previous, and this was just a formality.

Sure enough, SKT took the first two games despite SSG being allowed a very generous pick and ban phase. While Crown performed well on his signature champion, Viktor, and Samsung played their hearts out, SKT remained one step ahead. While fans held out hope, SKT not only took the first two games, but took control of the first half of the third game as well. Fans began to head home or switch off their Twitch stream. After all, SKT had their boot on Samsung’s throat. Surely, there was no way that they could come back from such a devastating position.

Samsung have spent their entire time at Worlds so far defying expectations. This final series was no exception.

Fighting from the corner

Anyone who walked away from the game missed out on Samsung managing to turn game three around on SKT, slowly dragging it out and eking out every advantage they could. While early leads allow a team to snowball, the six item limit means that eventually a team can come back... even if it takes them over an hour. After a painful, edge of your seat 71 minute game, Samsung picked up their first win against SKT.

This was proof of Samsung’s tenacity, but it could be chalked up to overconfidence on SKT’s part. Surely they had just played with their food for too long, allowing the prey to fight back. Samsung picking up one game was, while a bit of a surprise, understandable.

The teams headed back onto the Rift for game four, and here’s where things got interesting. SKT drafted a careful, control oriented comp, similar to their strategy against the Tigers: Ashe, Orianna, Nami, Zac, and Gnar. Samsung, on the other hand, went with Jhin, Lee Sin, Kennen, Viktor, and Karma. It was an audacious draft, but they took the fight to SKT and they were successful. They closed out game four after 46 minutes, fighting constantly. Samsung knew they had nothing to lose, and so they were able to stand up to the tournament favourites without fear.

Photo credit: Riot Games

Photo credit: Riot Games

Gods on tilt

SKT’s Blank proved to be a relative weak point, but what was really interesting about SKT’s play is that the whole team seemed agitated. SKT had spent the entire tournament as cool and unflappable. When Faker faced down the crowd at the beginning of the series, he didn’t try to top his iconic tumble forward from last year, nor did he wave to the crowd and smile. He stared the entire crowd down, like an anime villain holding the thralls before him in contempt.

Even against the ROX Tigers, SKT and Faker had an air of unshakable confidence. The only concession Faker admitted to needing was a chocolate bar after game four. Sure, Wolf had been annoyed at the Miss Fortune pick, but that came across as more trivial. He admitted that the pick had inspired him, both to play better and to shake up his support game. If the Tigers weren’t able to throw SKT off their game, what could?

Samsung provided the answer to that question. Anger turned from something that fueled SKT forward to an active hindrance. At one point, Faker gave an uncharacteristically sloppy play on Viktor where he chased down a kill, running into the massed players of Samsung and dying. SKT’s player cams showed the players sitting with tense posture and aggravated expressions.

Photo credit: Riot Games

Photo credit: Riot Games

Sealing the deal

Nonetheless, SKT managed to prevail. As with so many series, the hours of play culminated in a crucial fight around Baron. SKT was able to put a relatively fresh Bengi in to replace Blank, and the team managed to overcome their anger and play with a fresh, sharp perspective. While Samsung fought valiantly, they ultimately succumbed. It was the result everyone had expected, although the journey was a wild ride.

Ultimately, Samsung still have a lot to be proud of regarding their performance. SKT have won every international titles this year and taken their third World Championship. There is no shame in falling to such a worthy foe, especially when the team wasn’t even expected to make it to Worlds. League’s competitive season for 2016 didn’t end with a whimper, as expected, but with one hell of a bang. That’s a result that everyone can be happy with.