For about 45 minutes the KOO Tigers looked like they could hang with SK Telecom T1 - arguably the best League of Legends team in the world. Then SK Telecom remembered who they were and stomped out the Tigers's dreams of an upset.
Still, it was a series that was more competitive than it had any right to be given the individual pedigrees of the two teams. SK Telecom were the winners of the Summoner's Cup in the 2013 League of Legends World Championship and had probably the best players in the world in Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. The Tigers were a lightly-regarded team who had somehow managed to knock off some of the best teams in the world amid a torrid streak that brought them to the finals. With their basic zip hoodies and a manager who looked like he was on his first day as an office manager, they were every inch the Mighty Ducks to SK Telecom's Hawks, but there didn't seem to be any way that the underdogs would come out on top in this one.
Indeed, in the first match SK Telecom looked every bit the dominant force they had been in going through the entire champions tournament without a loss. The KOO Tigers pressed early, using both of their teleports to force a fight and earning First Blood, then forcing a 1-for-1 trade between PraY's Jinx and Faker's Kassadin. But another fight at the nine minute mark went 3-0 to SKT, and they never relinquished the lead en route to a solid first win.
Perhaps feeling a little overconfident after handling the Tigers so efficiently in Game 1, SKT were the aggressive ones in Game 2. To their credit, though, the Tigers were able to hold out and establish an early 4-2 lead. After a weak opening, though, SKT were able to rally and begin slowly cutting into the Tigers's lead. The key moment came at the 39th minute when the Tigers went after the Baron and were ambushed by SKT, who knocked them out 3-0 and took the objective, then again went on to win the match.
At that point it looked like SKT was going to roll to another easy 3-0 win and take the Summoner's Cup as many had predicted. Then Game 3 happened.
In a bold move, the Tigers turned the tables and blitzed SKT, quickly building a 5-1 advantage as a result. In the San Francisco movie theater where I was watching the match, the crowd began to revive as the Tigers pressed and took out Faker, then later picked off Wolf to build their lead to 9-2. In Berlin, the crowd chanted KOO Tigers and the viewers in the U.S. clapped. There could be no doubt who everyone wanted to see win as the Tigers managed to hang a defeat on SKT for the first time in the tournament - a major accomplishment.
"SKT will be covered in blood," Tigers coach Kim Sang-soo had said in a promo video before the series, and indeed, they had managed to drawn blood from the team that many had supposed were invincible.
The crowd was buzzing after Game 3; and in the lobby, one girl expressed her hope that the Tigers would push the series to five games. I was skeptical, but there was no denying that they had acquitted themselves well against SKT in seizing the initiative and forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes. At the same time, though, I knew there was no way that SKT would play as badly in Game 4 as they had in Game 3. The Tigers had to be ready for SKT's best if they wanted to win it all.
Sure enough, SKT came out in Game 4 and proceeded to choke the life out of the Tigers. Saddled a with a slow-developing team featuring Lulu, Rek'Sai, Kassadin, Ashe, and Tahm Kench, the Tigers had no answer for Faker, who recovered from a poor showing in Game 3 and easily led the way in damage dealt for Game 4. The crowd were almost silent outside of some muttering until the final moments, when they saluted SKT's victory by banging inflatable thunder sticks and cheering. When we all filed out we were momentarily blinded by the morning light, having been sitting in the darkened theater since 3:30 in the morning.
Despite their loss, the KOO Tigers gave what some consider the best eSports team in history a memorable battle. Virtually unknown before the 2015 World Championship, they have managed to earn themselves the respect denied them until this point. SKT, meanwhile, had added yet another trophy to their already sizable collection, making them the first League of Legends team to win two Summoner's Cups in five years of competition. They didn't play their best game, but as has been the case with so many great teams over the years, they did enough to win. And that, ultimately, is what will be remembered when people think back on the League of Legends 2015 World Championship.
Three Final Thoughts from the 2015 World Championship
1. Faker is SKT's talisman: SKT is a team of all-stars, but Faker is their rock - the Lionel Messi-type player who can change a match in a moment. When the KOO Tigers seized an early advantage in Game 2, Faker still managed to rack up enough experience to put himself a couple levels ahead of the pack, and that ultimately made the difference. In Game 4, the Tigers had no answer whatsoever for Faker's Ryze. If there was anything we learned from this series, it's that the only way to beat SKT is to dislodge Faker from his post in the middle lane. And outside of a few isolated instances, no team has been able to figure out how to do that.
2. The Tigers lost when they gave the initiative to SKT: The Tigers knew going in that they had to take a lot of risks to beat SKT, who were superior in almost every facet of the game. Without any mistakes to pick on, they had to force mistakes, and there were points when they were able to do just that by either being aggressive themselves or by effectively countering SKT's attempts to go for the jugular in Game 2. The Tigers relinquished the initiative in Game 4, though, by allowing SKT to revert to a conservative gameplan and steadily push them back. They never had a chance when playing SKT straight up, which became apparently early in the final match. In the end, they almost certainly would have been burned by going ultra aggressive and taking the fight to SKT, but going down in a blaze of glory would have been preferable to the slow strangulation of Game 4. Too bad.
3. The West Coast kind of got screwed in these finals: I was among the poor saps who dragged themselves out of bed to watch the League of Legends World Championship, which aired at 4am on the West Coast. With the finals taking place in Berlin this year, at least one timezone was bound to be screwed by the chosen timeslot, and that was the West Coast. Still, it goes to show just how dominant eSports have become with a certain demographic that theaters were rocking from Los Angeles to Bellevue. In the end it was a fun night, but here's hoping that next year's finals will take place at a more reasonable hour for American audiences.