SKT vs. ROX Tigers is a fight for the future of Korean League of Legends

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Peanut, Smeb, and KurO are looking for revenge (Jeremy Wacker)

Welcome to the Korean breaking point.

The 2016 League of Legends Worlds Championship semifinal match between the ROX Tigers and SK Telecom T1 could very well signal a new era for Korean League of Legends. Never before have two Korean teams facing off at Worlds played with such immensely different styles.

It’s the old against the new, the traditional against the unorthodox. SKT’s squad has one of the most storied esports organizations behind them, while the ROX Tigers are a product of a startup group of misfits trying to shake up the Korean LoL scene. This is, quite frankly, one of the most important matches in League of Legends history.

Grudge match

Consider this: the ROX Tigers have never beaten SKT in a playoff scenario. They’ve never beaten them in a best of 5.

The Tigers may have been the best team in Korea during the Summer, but before they can call themselves one of the best teams of all time, they have to beat this particular demon.

If they do manage to pull off the win, it will be a long time coming. Top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho has had a long journey to this point. When the team first formed back in 2014, he was considered one of the worst top laners in the LCK. Despite his lackluster play, the team managed to qualify for a spot in League of Legends’ premier league, and even made to the finals in their first split as a pro team where, naturally, they lost to SKT in dramatic 0-3 fashion.

A few months later, they met SKT in another final: the 2014 League of Legends Worlds. They again lost to SKT, this time at least taking game to go down 1-3.

In the very next LCK split, they met SKT in yet another final. And lost. Again.

But the whole time, Smeb was improving. Casting aside his notoriously awful reputation, he worked hard and rapidly upped his skills. In one of the greatest turnarounds in history, he became considered one of, if not the, best players in the world.

Now, bet gets another shot to bring down SKT’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the current holder of the title of “greatest.”

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Faker is perpetually a threat on League of Legends’ biggest stage (Jeremy Wacker)

Calculated aggression

More often than not, Korean teams play similarly. They have better objective control than the rest of the world, and they show it by playing deliberately and without great risk.

SK Telecom T1’s style has long been the platonic ideal of the Korean metagame. Thanks to their immense talent in just about every position, they are capable of simply waiting for their opponents to make a mistake, and then punishing them and snowballing from there. It’s a low risk strategy — and not always the most exciting — but the reward has traditionally been a much higher chance of a safe and easy victory.

ROX Tigers, though, has no interest in such sleepy play. They’re hyper aggressive, constantly going hard in lane and expecting rising star jungler Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho to make plays. They don’t wait for mistakes, they force them.

Traditionally, SKT’s style of play has directly countered that of ROX. After all, Chinese teams have been playing aggressively for years and rarely make a dent in the shell of Korean dominance.

ROX is different, though. They fall apart when their aggression fails. They were bred in the Korean scene, coming up through the ranks from nothing. They can win quickly, but they’ve shown that they can win slowly, too.

Key to their matches will be the mid lane/jungle synergy. SKT’s Kang “Blank” Sun-gu and Faker have shown to be solid but not unbeatable. Faker is obviously Faker, but Blank has occasionally struggled controlling the map.

ROX Tigers have the opposite issue. Mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng has shown weaknesses while on champions not named Viktor, but Peanut has truly come online during Worlds. The duo has been instrumental to gaining early leads for ROX, as they shove lanes and roam heavily while Smeb holds down the top lane. If KurO and Peanut can deal with Faker and Blank, this series could be very interesting.

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Peanut’s smile can only get bigger if he manages to beat SK Telecom T1 (Jeremy Wacker)

The true final

One thing is for sure: it will be close. With two distinctive styles at play and so much history between these teams, you can be sure that both rosters will be playing at their full capacity.

And for good reason. This is the matchup that will decide who wins the 2016 League of Legends World Championship. These are, almost without question, the two best teams in the world right now, and the other side of the bracket likely won’t be able to compete. Of the two semifinal matchups, this is the one to watch.

Because, let’s be honest, this is the true final at Worlds.

Taylor Cocke is ready for the changing of the Korean guard. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke.