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Worlds is over. Records have been busted across the board. For the first time in the history of the tournament, the previous year’s champions have successfully defended their title. SK Telecom, for the third time in their remarkably decorated career, have emerged the victors. They are, and were, and will probably continue to be into the foreseeable future, the best team in League of Legends. But damn did they ever have a fight getting there.
After defeating the ROX Tigers in a narrow 3-2 victory during the semifinals, many—myself included—believed that the true finals had already happened. Despite some egregious smack-downs of Cloud 9 and H2K, Samsung had yet to prove themselves against a powerhouse like SKT. They were only the third-best team in Korea coming into Worlds. What chance did they have against the best?
Both teams found themselves within reach of victory on the biggest stage their sport had to offer
Games one and two seemed to support that theory. The first match was a case-study of SKT’s typical playstyle, a slow and inexorable cinching of the loop around Samsung’s throat. The second was an uncharacteristically quick victory for SKT after only 31 minutes, due in part to a colossal fuck-up during the drafting stage which allowed Faker onto Ryze for the first time since the champion’s rework. Game three should have been, as one caster referred to it, a victory lap for SKT. Instead, it turned into the longest game in Worlds history as SSG threw back their opponents over and over. Improbably, miraculously, they won. And then they won again. Somehow, against the predictions of every caster and analyst to glance at the match-up, Samsung pushed SKT to a fifth game, and both teams found themselves within reach of victory on the biggest stage their sport had to offer.
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In the week leading up to the finals, some journalists tried to play up the coming contest between Crown and Faker. It’s an understandable impulse: Crown had proven himself a credible mid laner after rising from relative obscurity, only to be thrown up against the Unkillable Demon King himself. But if Faker was concerned about Crown, he certainly didn’t show it; in two of the five games in the series, Samsung Galaxy’s midlaner was allowed onto his favorite and most-played champion, Victor. This series wasn’t about Crown, even if he played his heart out. This was a story about Ambition getting another shot at the man who took mid-lane from him. This was a grudge match.
Like Hector to Achilles, Ambition has always been integral to the myth of Faker
Now that Ambition plays in the jungle, it’s easy to forget that he was the once the star mid laner on which Faker made his name. In 2013, when Faker solo-killed Ambition under his own tower, the American casters assumed there had been a technical issue to blame. They couldn’t conceive of a rookie player, in his debut game, freshly pulled from solo-queue, taking down the most consistent, reliable mid-laner in Korea alone. This was, of course, before anyone knew that they were watching the best player to ever grace the game. Like Hector to Achilles, Ambition has always been integral to the myth of Faker.
Often regarded as an exceptionally stoic and unemotional player, Ambition nevertheless hunted Faker throughout the series with a focus approaching obsessive. More than once, he traded his own life to ensure Faker’s death. It’s always strategically the right move, of course, to target high-damage mages, even when they’re not steered by the best player in the world. But with plays this single-minded, Ambition’s attention seemed undeniably personal.
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In the end, it was neither Faker nor Ambition’s play that secured the final match, though. Instead, it was a rookie mistake, a moment of overreach, that ended the series. Thirty-six minutes into an almost suffocatingly cautious game, with a paltry 300 gold difference between the teams, Samsung Galaxy’s young ADC Ruler charged towards four members of SK Telecom by himself. Ruler escaped with his life; CoreJJ, the support who pulled him from certain death, did not. So began a cascade of increasingly one-sided fights—no team in this game is better at pressing an advantage than SK Telecom—which led, eventually, to an end. They had come closer than ever before to defeat on the international stage, but ultimately, the empire of SK Telecom emerged intact. They remain the indisputable best in the world, the winningest team in League of Legends history.
On top of the team-wide accomplishments, Faker also set a record on his own this year—with 217 kills over the course of his career at Worlds, he overtook the previous record of 200 held by Uzi. Expect that number to grow next year. The Demon King doesn’t look to be giving up his throne any time soon.