The greatest rivalry in League of Legends arose from the disarray of the most chaotic offseason in the game's half-decade history.
At the tail end of 2014, South Korea's Samsung Galaxy White, who were the reigning world champions, dissolved, with all five starting members signing big-money contracts in China's League of Legends Pro League. Their sister team, Samsung Galaxy Blue, considered widely by pundits and players alike to be the second best team in the world at the time, followed suit, with all of their starting roster moving over to China to play in the LPL. On top of those seismic moves, the game's developer, Riot Games, announced that all sister teams would be abolished, and organizations would be forced to downsize their overall talent pool to a singular squad.
That offseason would famously become known as the "The Korean Exodus," as a slew of South Korea's top players left their home region to play abroad for higher wages. South Korean League of Legends, hamstrung with its top two teams leaving and regulations put in place to downsize overall rosters, reconfigured its format, moving away from a 16-team tournament structure to an eight-team league more closely resembling the other major regions in the world like China, North America and Europe. Overnight, the strongest region in League of Legends, winner of the past two world championships, had been fractured and left a shell of its former self.
The lone South Korean organization to come out of the exodus relatively unscathed was the team that had been the centerpiece of the country's esports scene for over a decade at that point: SK Telecom T1. The unofficial national team for South Korea, SKT captured the country's first League of Legends world championship in 2013 and had been the gold standard of South Korean esports since its early days as a StarCraft club, behind the legacy of the company's godfather Lim "Boxer" Yo-hwan.
Whereas other teams were hamstrung with their top talent leaving for China, SKT were able to keep the key pieces from their two sister teams, most notably their crown jewel in mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, who reportedly turned down millions in the offseason from Chinese organizations to stay with them. SKT built a star-studded starting five around Faker, keeping his right-hand man and confidant Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong in the jungle while adding the best parts from the organization's secondary team.
In a new landscape of uncertainty and turnover, SKT were once again looked upon as kings, claiming the crown left by a Samsung Galaxy organization in upheaval. While SKT kept ahold of their important pieces, Samsung were left aimless, signing relative unknowns and rookies to bolster their makeshift roster. Except for CJ Entus, another storied organization that was able to keep hold of some of their big names, the road for SKT to take charge of the restructured South Korean scene seemed to be clear.
Light years away from the prestige and standing of the country's golden boys, the last few spots in the new South Korean competition, League of Legends Champions Korea, were being filled out. In a do-or-die battle between players on the edge of continuing their careers as pros or needing to possibly rethink their futures, a full team of five took the stage wearing matching grey cardigans instead of sport uniforms; they were a mashup of players from different organizations and backgrounds, looking for a second chance to compete at the highest level in esports.
Their top laner, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, was once considered one of the worst players to ever play professional League of Legends in South Korea, a history only filled with losses and heavy criticism. The jungler, Lee "Hojin" Ho-jin, had played one unremarkable season in the pros before moving on from his former organization. Mid laner Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng was a reliable presence and seemingly nothing more. And their bottom lane, the most well-known players of the bunch, was a tandem between Kim "PraY" Jong-in, who had one foot already into retirement, and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyun, a player who recently got blown out at the League of Legends world championship in the quarterfinals by Chinese side OMG. Even their coaches, Jeong "NoFe" No-chul and Kim "SSONG" Sang-soo, were newcomers to the position, recently retired from professional play themselves.
They were outsiders in a region during a time of great change, the converse of the history and reputation of SK Telecom T1. These oddballs, wearing their matching sweaters that looked like they were picked out by their grandmothers, were none other than the team now known as ROX Tigers. A team, unbeknownst to even them, that would change the course of League of Legends history forever.
"Every single player on the team was light-hearted and easy to get along with," GorillA said. "Age between the players is such a big factor in Korea, but all the players were similar in the age group, so we really got along. Also, coach NoFe and coach Ssong had come from professional gaming backgrounds themselves and understood what the players like, what situations players like to avoid. So they applied that knowledge as they led the players."
The Tigers qualified for the newly founded LCK and started the underdog story of the 2015 League of Legends season, bursting into the scene with a dazzle and showmanship that had been missing from previous years in South Korea. The team not only won games, but they did it while screaming at the top of their lungs, becoming famous for their boisterous communication between one another. They were known to sing before matches to warm up, and, with a lack of established sponsor behind them, their uniforms changed on an almost nightly basis, one match the Tigers showing up in their cardigan sweaters and the next in matching pink vests with bunny ears sprouting from their gaming headsets.
Soon, it became a war of the past and the present. SK Telecom T1, the pillar of South Korean esports, were all business behind Faker, their uniforms branded with the iconic winged "T1" logo. A victory domestically was not a goal but an expectation for SKT T1 -- anything else considered a failure. On the other side, the Tigers, like their wardrobe, were in constant flux, their team name and title sponsor changing four times in 2015, the team finally simply becoming known as the "Tigers" by the end of the year.
"I don't even remember their first [team] name," former SK Telecom T1 AD carry Bae "Bang" Jun-sik told ESPN. "They were our biggest rival. We knew they were the only team that maybe could beat us. Individually, they were just the best players in [South] Korea, obviously except for T1 players. They were really good at [playing as] a team."
While the upstart Tigers bested SKT in their inaugural regular season, finishing atop of the LCK standings, it was the experienced juggernaut that would end up getting the last laugh in the playoffs. The grand final, which was expected to be a heavyweight title fight between South Korea's two strongest teams, quickly turned into a one-sided beatdown, the Tigers failing to take a single victory over SKT in the best-of-five.
It was the first of what would become a string of growing pains for the Tigers in their inaugural year. In the second season of the 2015 campaign, the summer split, the then-KOO Tigers failed it back to the domestic final, turning in an inconsistent regular season and losing in the semifinals to KT Rolster before gaining a rematch with SK Telecom T1. SKT only dropped a single series in the summer season, including playoffs, winning back-to-back seasons as they marched their way to the world championship that year taking place in Europe.
The Tigers, due to their impressive results in both the spring and summer seasons, also qualified for the biggest tournament of the year as the No. 2 seed coming from South Korea.
There, history would repeat itself: T1 on one side and the Tigers on the other, a championship trophy positioned right in the middle. This time around, though, it was for the grandest prize in all of League of Legends, the Summoner's Cup. SKT rampaged through the international competition with little resistance as the Tigers finessed their way through the month-long odyssey to find themselves with another chance to take down the established kingpin.
"SKT was like that big demon in a video game," GorillA said. "The final boss that always waits for you at the end of a game ... That's just how good they were, the best."
The final, played in front of a sold-out Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, Germany, was another bittersweet reminder of who the main characters of the League of Legends scene were. Although the Tigers rallied the crowd behind them and had the fans firmly against SKT following a hard-fought victory in the third game of the final, right as the underdogs started to believe, SKT and Faker shut the door on any possible comeback. SKT stomped the Tigers in the fourth game and before the viewers at home could tell, the entire Mercedez-Benz Arena had turned as quiet as a library, the series over right as if it felt like it was about to get started.
The final boss and "The Unkillable Demon King" Faker were not to be conquered on the night.
Bang remembers the rain, all of the rain.
A year removed from the 2015 world championship final, the League of Legends competitive setting has changed from backpacking across the continent of Europe to road tripping around the United States. After trips in San Francisco and Chicago, the semifinals of worlds had settled in New York City. And on the particular weekend Riot Games rolled into America's busiest and most populated city, it was pouring rain as SKT made its way into the venue, on the verge of making their second-straight world final with a chance to become the first to ever repeat as Summoner's Cup champions. In particular, for Bang, it was the people of New York City -- zipping and scurrying around in the downpour without an umbrella to their name -- that he remembers the most. It was a stark contrast from his home of South Korea where umbrellas are in abundance.
The semifinal venue, Madison Square Garden, was one of the world's most famous sporting arenas. As fans from across the world packed into the venue, the rafters filled with the sound of noisemakers echoing off the walls, they were ready to watch the consensus two best teams in the world duke it out for a lone spot in the grand final a week later.
The Tigers, now the ROX Tigers, had another opportunity to exorcise their final boss and its demon king. The entire year had been building up to this moment, another chance for the Tigers to raise the Summoner's Cup. During the offseason, captain and jungler Hojin retired, and the Tigers picked up explosive jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho to take his place. It was the upgrade needed to take the Tigers to their next level, the team finally LCK in the 2016 summer split, though not against SKT, beating KT Rolster instead in the final.
At worlds, they were going to get their chance at SKT. Although both teams had their missteps through the opening weeks of the tournament, as fate dictated, the two found themselves crossing paths at a packed Madison Square Garden with millions more watching from home.
While the defending world champions came into the match prepared and confident, coming off a 3-1 victory over China's Royal Never Give Up in the quarterfinals, the Tigers were feeling the pressure, and especially their star support. By the time the Tigers had landed in the soaked streets of New York City for a rematch with SKT, GorillA's confidence and self-esteem had dipped. The bottom lane meta had developed into Zyra and Karma, two ranged utility supports, becoming the key champion selections, and GorillA was losing both sides of the matchup in practice.
With minimal time to prepare for the biggest match of his career, he went into the proverbial workshop along with PraY and his coaches to try and find a solution for his issues. In the first game of the series, GorillA attempted to play towards the meta, handshaking opposing support Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan by taking Karma and the SKT support selecting Zyra. Though the Tigers put up a strong fight, they were eventually dispatched in a 43-minute war of attrition, putting them on the verge of letting another golden opportunity split through their fingers.
In the champion selection of game two, it appeared as if the Tigers would try making Karma work for the second game in a row, picking the mage support early on in the draft as SKT and Wolf picked up Zyra once more. Then, with their last selection, the Tigers instantly locked in marksmen Miss Fortune, the crowd and commentators sharing in a second of confusion and then raucous excitement.
What was the problem with the Tigers picking a sharpshooter for their bottom lane carry PraY?
They'd already picked Ashe. Karma wasn't going bottom lane and PraY wasn't playing Miss Fortune -- GorillA was. It was a move that would turn the entire series around, the Tigers taking games two and three behind the experimental bottom lane pairing of Ashe and Miss Fortune, pushing the world champions to the brink of elimination.
"PraY, coach NoFe, coach Ssong, and I put our heads together and tried to find a new solution and what we found was Miss Fortune," GorillA said. "The Miss Fortune pick was actually working out and I guess that's why the series was winnable for us. I remember ... As a player, I was happy that a pick that we've come up with together found success on the stage."
"My memory from that day...I think the most memorable thing was Ashe and Miss Fortune," Wolf said. "The fans still send me that clip and it is used as a meme, which I am grateful for."
The series opened a battle between the world's two best and as the third game came to an end, it turned into a spectacle. Every substitution, every champion selection, every twinge of the finger on the mouse caused a reaction from the crowd. A video game competition suddenly turned back the clock and resembled Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in their classic bouts from the 1970s, the crowd on their feet, strangers holding onto one another with each blow from the teams slugging it out on the stage floor. One second, it was the crowd exploding for SKT, and the next those same fans were screaming their lungs out for the Tigers, both sides giving everything they had to leave the arena as victors.
As the clock neared the midnight hour and the teams were on their final gasps, the series turned to the final games of the series where after two years of battles, the iconic rivalry between the Tigers and SKT would come down to ... a mistake. SKT, down 2-1 in the series, brought in veteran and former world champion Bengi in place of youngster Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, needing his experience and leadership in a do-or-die moment. But, as the team drafted in the fourth game that could have ended their season, SKT accidentally left open the ever-powerful jungler Nidalee, forcing Bengi to play a champion outside of his comfort zone he hadn't played professionally in over two years.
It was another curveball in a night filled with surprises, just adding to the surreal nature to the evening. The mistake resulted in Bengi having the most important game he's ever had in his career, playing a near perfect Nidalee game to help tie the series and send it to a deciding fifth map, leaving the fans, commentators and the world-at-large on the edge of their seats on which team would be flying to Los Angeles to play in the world final and which would be taking the long quiet ride back to Seoul.
"There were too many amazing moments in [this] series that you can't expect to [ever] happen," current Team Liquid head coach Joshua "Jatt" Leesman, who commentated the Tigers vs. SKT semifinal, told ESPN about his memories on that night. "Bengi wins the first game, gets subbed out, SKT loses the next two and he comes back in. Kim "kkOma" Jeong-gyun [SKT head coach] forgets to ban Nidalee, right? Actually just forgets and they have to pick it. And then Bengi pops off with it. It was too incredible. Looking back, it's probably the best series I've ever cast."
In a fairy tale world, the Tigers would have won game five. A two-year ascent from nothingness to becoming one of the most beloved esports teams of all-time, finally slaying their final boss in a venue famed for its magical moments. Faker would rise from his seat, saunter over to GorillA and the Tigers, extending a hand of good sportsmanship, wishing them well in the final. The Tigers would serenade the halls of Madison Square Garden, arms around each other, walking out in the falling rain without a care in the world, the droplets from the sky masking the tears of relief on their faces -- conquerors, finally.
That's not what happened, however. SKT, as they always did, found control and stabilized, playing an intelligent fifth game and taking care of business against the Tigers. The world champions were the ones left to celebrate and raise their hands to the New York faithful, and the Tigers left to meander around in a half-circle, dazed expressions on their faces while congratulating their rivals on a hard-fought win. Instead of tears of joy, it was tears of what could have been, the Tigers applauded off by the crowd, a bittersweet taste left in their mouths as they took a final glance upward at the blinding lights of Madison Square Garden.
"Once again, we collapse[d] at the foot of this mountain that is SKT," GorillA said. "We had at least made it a close series, so we felt bittersweet. Always, if you have a victor, on the other side of the game you have the defeated. And the defeated must once again go through the process of becoming a victor themselves. After we had lost that series, we wondered what changes would come out of this series, whether we could do well again in the following year."
Afterward, SK Telecom T1 would go on to win their back-to-back world championship inside another sold-out arena, this time the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Tigers, dropping the ROX tag, returned to Seoul and with offers out for them, having raised their stock to the highest-prioritized free agents on the market, decided to go their separate ways for the 2017 season, only PraY and GorillA staying together.
The final time the Tigers were together as a team, they all went out for Korean BBQ, sharing drinks and stories of the past two years. How they went from relative nobodies in knitted cardigans and bunny ears to having millions know of their names from across the globe. At the bottom of their glasses, story after story could be told, about how a team with multiple names and identities made fans from Berlin to New York City cry out their names.
The world title they longed for wasn't to be had, but at the end of the story they penned together, they, along with SK Telecom T1, crafted what is still to this day considered the greatest League of Legends match to ever be played in the 10-year history of the game.
Sometimes the best stories are the ones where the ending doesn't fit your ideal. Today, SK Telecom T1 has transformed simply to T1, a partnership between the SKT Telecommunication company and American powerhouse Comcast. The Tigers, which would once become the ROX Tigers, survived for a few more years with disappointing squads before finally being bought by Hanwha Life Insurance and rebranded.
While their names and uniforms have changed since that eventful night in New York City, those memories remain. A night where for a few hours, for everyone sitting inside the arena and watching at home, nothing mattered except the battle unfolding in front of them. The ending to the greatest rivalry in League of Legends history.