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It was what everyone considered to be unthinkable.
A repeat of last year's World Championship final. Another win to be chalked up by the perennial Korean powerhouse that is SK Telecom T1. It all seemed to be playing out as per the last few years in a dynasty of dominance that was unrelenting and absolute. Even with a menagerie of uncharacteristic mistakes and a few gaps in the armor becoming more obvious through the Quarter and Semi-finals, SKT looked set to take their third consecutive and fourth overall World Championship on stage at the Bird's Nest in Beijing. I certainly had no reason to doubt them... until we entered Summoner's Rift for game one.
Samsung Galaxy have had the misfortune of playing second fiddle to SKT for the longest time (the only exception being the 2014 season where both Samsung squads ended up in the Worlds final, SKT being marked absent that same year). 2017 felt almost like a do-or-die period for the Samsung squad and they had no intention of letting a rather wounded looking SKT run away with another Worlds title.
In the run up to the final, Samsung looked definitively like the stronger squad, dropping only one game whereas SKT had been given the roughest ride they've ever really suffered on the Worlds stage. First, there was a cage-rattling performance against an underdog Misfits squad who pulled out support picks such as Blitzcrank and a Fervor of Battle Leona in a meta where neither pick was considered to be worth much merit as neither could run the dominating Ardent Censor item build. However, it allowed the Misfits squad to build up a 2-1 lead over the SKT dynasty before Faker and company reasserted control.
Similarly, the Royal Never Give Up squad from China's LPL exerted their excellence in the early game to push the underperforming SKT bot lane of Bang and Wolf out of contention. The pressure would build up to a 2-1 lead for the RNG squad until, once again, the Demon King Faker and his squad came together to pull another victory out of the hat.
All indications were that, should SKT drop a game to Samsung Galaxy, it was not going to be the end of the world and they could bring it back.
Then it all went wrong.
Entering the rift for Game 1 and the teams looked ready to do battle. Peanut was starting Jungler in place of Blank. Huni was on Gnar, ready to push lanes and teamfight. Bang and Wolf had the oppressive Varus/Lulu pairing bot lane. Faker was on a carry champ in Cassiopeia. What could go wrong?
It turned out to be not much as the game was a deathless drought for the first 20 minutes, with much of the objective focus going to the side of Samsung Galaxy. It was a clinical dismantling of the map by the Samsung squad before a big fight around the Baron buff blew the game wide open. It was a standard Baron play from Samsung when Peanut made the engage to steal with that slippery Gragas pick. And that, in a cruelly ironic twist, is where the game was lost. Samsung immediately turned it around on a charging SKT squad as Top laner CuVee came charging in from a flank on Kennen which resulted in a clean fight with four kills going over to the side of Samsung Galaxy.
Game 2 — SKT seemed undeterred by the dominant cross-map outplay exhibited by Samsung Galaxy and drafted an incredibly similar team to Game 1, with the exception of a massive split-push damage threat for Huni who got to play Yasuo in the Top lane. Samsung weren't phased, drafting one of the neatest combo teams at Worlds (outside of just playing Galio) with the ability to thread a bunch of hard crowd control abilities with Xayah's feathers, Jarvan's E-Q combo/Cataclysm and Gnar's large, sweeping ultimate. Sure enough, the teamfight potential from the Samsung Galaxy drafted squad was unprecedented. Even with both Crown and CuVee falling prey to the "Demon King" Faker, Samsung consolidated a huge misplay from Bang around the Dragon pit — flashing forward into three members of Samsung — to take out the unfortunate AD Carry and Faker to boot.
A sense of deja vu must have struck SKT when barely two minutes later, a full 5v5 teamfight broke out which Samsung Galaxy could not have played more perfectly. Threading all their abilities together to level SKT while the Samsung support, CoreJJ, expertly denied Huni on Yasuo any access to the fight until it was far too late. All five members of SKT were dropped for an ace that was quickly followed up by a Baron take by Samsung Galaxy. Carrying that momentum forward, Samsung made short work of the map, eliminating all standing outer and inner turrets in quick succession, granting them a nigh-insurmountable gold lead.
Keeping a stranglehold on the momentum, Samsung secured a second Baron and broke open SKT's base and all SKT could really do was sit back and watch. Sure enough, they had to make some sort of play and around the last inhibitor Peanut made his engage. Straight into another Jarvan/Gnar/Xayah combo which cost Huni his life and SKT the game.
Game 3 — SKT are now facing the mountain to climb but this is a squad famed for their ability to stare adversity dead in the face and simply climb above it. There's not one person who could conceive that SKT would lose a Worlds final in a clean sweep. It can't happen. This is SKT. Even one of the casters made a joke about such things. Sam "Kobe" Hartman-Kenzler alluded to the fact that being down games seems to bring SKT victories in tight spots.
The draft on SKT's side looked like they were going for the Misfits style that had set them off-kilter in the Quarter-Final with a Tristana/Leona draft for the Bottom lane Bang and Wolf with Faker bringing the Ardent Censor buff by playing a Karma Midlane. Huni confidently counter-picked CuVee's Cho'Gath with a Trundle and Blank was swapped in for Peanut to create better early pressure in the Jungle against Ambition.
Samsung happily opted into both a Sejuani power-pick for Ambition in the Jungle AND that same oppressive bottom lane SKT had favoured until now: Varus and Lulu. Crown, once again, returned to Malzahar for the Midlane match-up. This was one SKT had to win.
From the outset, it looked like they were going to do just that. Blank's early jungle pressure came good very early with SKT getting an early kill onto to CuVee in the Top lane, putting Huni's Trundle massively ahead in a match-up he was already favoured in. Meanwhile, the Bottom lane was swinging once again in Samsung's favour. While the Leona pick is a good one if you can create early 2v2 scenarios, it loses all its early presence in lane when facing obscene amounts of push pressure, just like a Varus and Lulu can dish out comfortably.
Blank kept up his pressure, helping Faker to a relatively easy kill on Crown's Malzahar and, throughout the game, exerting total control of the Dragon objective. A 10-minute fight around that Dragon pit went entirely in SKT's favour. All of Samsung's control abilities were blown onto Wolf's Leona (who barely escaped alive) leaving the Samsung squad vulnerable to Huni teleporting in to pick up a second kill for himself, this time finishing Ambition while Bang cleaned up a no-Flash CoreJJ. Mere moments later, Crown died to a three-man dive under the Midlane outer turret, losing his Flash for his troubles too.
SKT's advantage did start getting the better of them as Blank and Fakr tried to make another pick onto Crown's Malzahar, only to run headlong into the rest of Samsung and Ambition's Glacial Prison, costing Blank his life. We barely had time to breathe before Faker, regarded as the best League of Legends player in the world, gets caught massively out of position and gives up a free kill in what was apparently a complete slip-up.
Things began to settle down. Turrets were traded. Huni kept up the relentless split push pressure. Blank secured the Rift Herald. A heart-stopping midlane fight ended in a 1 for 1 trade with Ambition and Huni dying. Then it went wrong for Samsung. Ruler made an aggressive move forward, straight into a Leona ultimate, stunning him and costing him his life. Before the rest of Samsung could try and turn the fight around, Crown dropped to the now rampaging Bang on Tristana. CuVee's death and three kills for Bang transferred into an uncontested SKT Baron. This looked more like the SKT everyone knows.
Using the Baron buff, they dismantled what remained of the outer turrets and began pressuring Samsung into their base. This was the turnaround. Then SKT tripped up. Again.
There was another midlane fight where Ruler had to blow Flash or die and yet no one on SKT could pick off the low health AD Carry of Samsung. A second attempt from Blank, engaging onto three under the turret and yet, by what seemed like divine intervention, Ruler survived and ultimately picked up a kill back onto Blank with Huni nearly dropping to turret aggro as well.
The pressure began to build until 31 minutes and a teamfight around Baron and one misplayed ability cost SKT dearly. The Leona and Gragas ultimates had Ruler's Varus pinned down and even with Lulu's ultimate giving Ruler a temporary burst of extra life it looked like game over. Until Bang's Buster Shot knocked Ruler clean out of the fight and to the safety of his team and left Bang exposed to both Ambition and the Titanic-sized Cho'Gath of CuVee who crushed Bang instantly. One can only assume that Bang meant to pull CoreJJ away from his AD Carry to prevent any shields or crowd control but ultimately selected the wrong target, costing his team what could have been a game win.
From there, Samsung could sense blood in the water. They headed straight to Baron, dispatching the attempted heroics from Blank and began to equalize the gold deficit. Samsung barrelled forward and began destroying the SKT side of the map, wiping out Faker and Blank in the process and forcing the living members of SKT into one of the most heroic base defences of Worlds, the star of which was Huni who singlehandedly forced four members out of his base and picked up three kills. As far as God-level plays go, it certainly ranks up alongside some of Faker's best. Maybe they could still keep their heads above the water.
And then Ruler flashed forward.
In a series almost defined by the aggressive Flash plays, Ruler used his to lock down Faker and the whole world watched as CuVee destroyed him. It was the end. Samsung Galaxy had swept SKT aside on the biggest stage in League of Legends and they did it without dropping a game.
End of an Era
In a way, I don't think anyone really wanted SKT to lose. Since 2013, when they won their first ever World Championship, they've become the face of League of Legends. Faker himself is synonymous with winning and making plays that don't even cross the minds of other pros, let alone the rest of us mere mortals. Seeing what has been the most dominant team in League of Legends history lose so decisively on a stage they have made their own was quite bittersweet. It leaves a lot of unanswered questions, the biggest of which are "What next for SKT?" and "What next for Faker?"
Is it time for the Demon King to give up his throne and retire? Will SKT ever come back from what was undoubtedly their worst performance on the World stage? Similarly, can Samsung Galaxy build on this success and craft a dynasty of their own?
At the end of it all, though, I believe we are left with a defining moment in E-sports; the end of SKT's reign as Kings of the World. That being said, I don't believe Faker or SKT will actually go quietly into the dark. They will be back in some form and Samsung Galaxy are going to are to watch their backs.
After all, Legends never die.