The "Telecom War" between archrivals SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster will come to a head Saturday at the League of Legends Champions Korea spring finals in Incheon, South Korea.
It was the expected finals matchup before the first game of the season even started. SKT, after all, was the first and only international dynasty in the seven-year history of League of Legends, having won the past two World Championships and three of the last four. KT Rolster, in return, constructed (at least on paper) the strongest dream team possible in pursuit of SKT's crown.
After going through the first half of the season without playing a single match against each other, the two league leaders met in back-to-back matches during the span of four days. The defending world champion prevailed, defeating KT by the slimmest of margins in both showdowns. From there, SKT would only continue its ascent up the rankings, eventually clinching the No.1 seed and auto-qualification into the spring finals.
Star-studded as KT was, it began to struggle after those losses. The team lost confidence and faced internal struggles. The team's shot-calling led to a string of unexpected defeats, dropping them from a neck-and-neck race with SKT to a relatively disappointing third-place finish in the regular season standings.
Alas, here we are.
SKT, winner of three of the last four domestic championships, 5-0 all-time in Champions/LCK finals.
KT, battling through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the playoffs -- both matches a 3-0 sweep -- to get another chance at redemption.
It's a matchup worthy of bolded headlines, but if you peel back the curtain, behind the hype and the giant telecommunication sponsors, there are 12 stories to tell. Some larger than others, some with possibly more at stake. All of them changing come Saturday.
Winning and losing
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok defines winning. He has three Summoner's Cups. He has five domestic titles. He has a Mid-Season Invitational trophy. Intel Extreme Masters World Championship? He has that too. The only time he lost a major final was to China's EDward Gaming in 2015's MSI, when he didn't even start. After losing to EDG, Faker competed in six finals and won all of them.
On the other side of the Rift, KT Rolster's Go "Score" Dong-bin is defined by his losses. If his career were to end today, he'd go down as one of the best AD carries and junglers to never win the big one. Unlike Faker, Score has never won Worlds, MSI or a domestic title. In fact, Faker's first domestic crown, the OGN Champions 2013 summer title, came against Score and KT Bullets.
Back then, Score was known as the "Immortal Score," the marksman who never died. In the 2016 summer finals, he was considered one of the best junglers in the world. Score even exacted a bit of revenge by reverse-sweeping SKT T1 in the semifinals.
But only heartbreak would await in the finals. As things came down to a final set, Score failed to secure a crucial Baron against the ROX Tigers, and the words "two hit points" would from there on become synonymous with his career. Score and KT not only lost that final game but also failed to qualify for the 2016 World Championships, falling to Samsung Galaxy in the South Korea Regionals.
This year is supposed to be Score's year. The team removed every starting player from the roster except him and brought in players who have won championships all across the world. As a result, Score has had possibly his greatest individual season ever.
A victory against SKT in the final as the face of the KT Rolster franchise would change Score's history forever.
Roller coaster of a season
In the top lane, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho was the closest to knocking off Faker from his throne. But Smeb didn't and lost to SK Telecom T1 in New York City during the 2016 Worlds semifinals.
Smeb would be the first player to leave the ROX Tigers in the offseason, becoming the first piece in KT Rolster's master plan to dethrone SKT. And although his individual stats have degraded, his performance in the playoffs resembles the player who was back-to-back league MVP in South Korea. For Smeb, this final is pivotal; if he wins, his departure from the Tigers will not be in vain. Another loss to SKT means he'd have to rethink his career choices.
The other three players on the roster have returned from China after playing in the LPL for two years.
The bottom lane of Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu and Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong are no strangers to playing SKT. Mata defeated and eliminated Faker from his first tournament, OGN Champions 2013 spring. Mata hoisted the 2014 World Championship Cup instead of Faker. Deft also played a big part in that tournament, getting all the way to the semifinals with sister team Samsung Blue.
In Deft's case, his desire to return to South Korea after two successful years on EDward Gaming was simple. He wanted a world title. A victory for KT would be his first step toward that goal.
Lastly, there's Heo "PawN" Won-seok, a man who teeters between overrated and underrated. PawN has been a member of some of the best teams in the world the past four years, and he has had the luxury of playing alongside some of the game's greatest players. This often begs the question of whether he's a part of what makes those players great or whether he's simply a byproduct of being on teams where he doesn't have to carry the heavy load.
A royal cast
SK Telecom T1, unlike KT, have subs on their roster at three of their five positions. The top lane position has had the most contention, the battery of Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and Kim "Profit" Jun-hyung serving the club well en route to the team's place at the top of the standings.
The final could be the breaking point for either player. Huni has battled preconceived notions since he joined the team. And at every contest, he has silenced his doubters. Profit, though, has been playing an even more aggressive style, taking zero time to make decisive plays on the map. In victory or defeat, it could be a night when one of them finally closes any discussion about who should be the starter for T1 in the top lane.
At jungler, there is another tandem between Han "Peanut" Wang-ho, formerly with the ROX Tigers, and Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, who played on SKT last year. This year, Blank has sat for most of the season while Peanut has been as starter. Peanut, who will meet Smeb in the final, will have the opportunity to defeat his friend and former teammate and cement his place as the rightful successor in the role of SKT jungler.
Blank has found peace and better form on the bench. He has been nothing but cool, calm and collected in his sub performances this year, exuding a confidence he lacked as a starter in 2016. If he does get subbed in, he won't cower from the pressure.
As usual, the bottom lane is the last piece discussed when talking about SKT T1. For over two years, the duo at ADC and support have been without subs. That's because the partnership of Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan is the backbone of the world championship roster. When they play at their best, the team doesn't lose many games.
Going into the final, Bang wants to prove he is the league's best AD carry. While he didn't have his best season individually, he wants to make sure people know the hierarchy of bottom lanes in the country. His last defeat on a final stage, after all, was against Deft and EDG back in 2015, and Bang won't want to experience that again.
Wolf, who also lost to Deft at MSI, has even more to prove. In that series, Wolf was the worst-performing player in the SKT lineup. Not a solo queue maestro or superstar, Wolf can establish himself as a champion with a win against Mata and KT Rolster.
Wolf might not make the same mechanical outplays or be the world's most renowned shot-caller, but ask SKT if they care, and they'll probably just point to their overflowing trophy room.