The Moment: Samsung Galaxy's quiet second-place finish

Yahoo Esports
Samsung Galaxy top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin after Samsung’s sweep of SK Telecom T1 (OnGameNet/Twitch)
Samsung Galaxy top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin after Samsung’s sweep of SK Telecom T1 (OnGameNet/Twitch)

They say that KT Rolster have already failed to meet expectations for this League of Legends Champions Korea split.

They say that 2017 LCK Spring, and the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational, already belongs to SK Telecom T1.

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They select MVP as a possible wrench in SKT’s championship plans due to the team’s creativity and success on off-meta champions.

But they don’t say much about Samsung Galaxy. Few words have been spilled over SSG, who have already locked up second place and an automatic bye to the third round of the playoff gauntlet.  

This Samsung Galaxy lineup is more familiar with flying under the radar than they are with being favored. Nearly half a year after SSG’s 2016 World Championship Finals appearance, many fans still aren’t quite sure what to make of the lineup. But despite only one significant roster move, SSG appear stronger than their 2016 World Championship iteration.

Last year, when KT was expected to secure Korea’s third seed, Samsung snatched it from them 3-2 with a superior understanding of the current meta and exemplary play from AD carry-turned-support Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in. When Team SoloMid were heavily favored to exit Group D in first place, Samsung took that title while TSM didn’t make it out of the group stage.

At the 2016 League of Legends World Championship Finals, Samsung stared down SK Telecom T1 and gave us the closest Worlds finals in the tournament’s history.

Samsung Galaxy at the 2016 World Championship Quarterfinals (Riot Games/lolesports)
Samsung Galaxy at the 2016 World Championship Quarterfinals (Riot Games/lolesports)

Jungler and former CJ Entus mid laner Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong wasn’t pleased with their first loss to TSM in the group stages.

“We overcame our anger by practicing,” he said.

That first TSM match in San Francisco was Samsung’s only loss until their 3-2 defeat at the hands of SKT in the Finals. Ambition’s statement matched the intensity simmering beneath Samsung at Worlds, from the typically lighthearted top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin and support CoreJJ to the outwardly mild-mannered mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho.   

Known for his stern demeanor (and eerie resemblance to Korean baseball player/murderer, Lee Ho-sung), Ambition is often the butt of Samsung’s jokes. At the same time, he’s also their well-respected team captain. CuVee has pantomimed cowering in fear of Ambition’s ferocious temper and rumored baseball bat but is quick to gush over Ambition’s leadership, citing him as a key factor in their 2016 late-season rise.

This Samsung Galaxy is hungry for victory. They’re sometimes goofy, but always dedicated. In a world where many crowned KT champion before the split began, Samsung now not only looks better than KT, but also better than SKT at times.

When the two teams met for the first time this split, SKT predictably took the 2-0 victory. At the time, all eyes were on SKT’s Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, who was on the cusp of his thousandth kill in Champions Korea (he ultimately fell just short of reaching that milestone in the series.) When AD carry Lee “Stitch” Seung-ju and support Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min appeared in the Samsung booth for Game 2, many presumed that Samsung had already conceded, knowing that they couldn’t beat SKT with their most practiced lineup. Stitch and Wraith looked less coordinated than Ruler and CoreJJ. A key pick onto Crown in the blue side jungle led to an SKT Baron and sealed Samsung’s fate. Wraith’s support Kayle pick failed to impress.

Samsung returned the favor in their second meeting, sweeping SKT. In this methodical takedown of Korea’s top team, Samsung won with superior map control, using Haru’s jungle pressure to overwhelm SKT. SKT thrives in the mid-game thanks to sublime understanding of how to leverage pressure. They know where and when to cede advantages to their opponents while seeing several steps ahead, waiting until they can strike to regain what they lost and more. Samsung left few openings for SKT to execute this plan, striking early and rarely backing off.

A happy and victorious Samsung team in 2017 LCK Spring Week 9 (OnGameNet/Twitch)
A happy and victorious Samsung team in 2017 LCK Spring Week 9 (OnGameNet/Twitch)

The question now is whether Samsung or SKT currently fields the best team in Korea. The answer won’t come until the LCK playoffs, where SKT have already punched their ticket to the finals. Samsung will have to face KT Rolster, MVP, or the Afreeca Freecs in order to face SKT once more.

Given SKT’s history, they’re shoo-ins to take another LCK title. Given Samsung’s history, they shouldn’t ever be counted out.

More specifically, it’s Samsung’s recent history that makes the team a contender. Putting aside those nostalgia goggles for Samsungs Galaxy White and Blue reveals that the Samsung of the past year is an interesting team worth its own place in LoL history. In 2016, Samsung had their share of successes and bitter disappointments, including narrowly missing the 2016 LCK Spring playoffs to a surging Afreeca Freecs. Their gauntlet run was unexpected, as was their World Championship finals appearance.

Samsung’s roster throughout 2016-17 is the opposite of what KT Rolster aimed for this offseason: a collection of misfits and cast-offs from other teams who have managed to elevate the team well past community expectations.

At the beginning of last year, team captain Ambition was not a strong jungler. Samsung Galaxy gave him a home after he left CJ Entus, the team where he made his name. (In 2016, CJ Entus was relegated from the LCK and watched Ambition on the Worlds stage from their living rooms.)

Crown hadn’t really played on a team since his unfortunate experience in Brazil with Team 58ers — he was picked up by KaBuM! e-Sports Black in the offseason but didn’t play a full season with them. Now he’s one of the best mid laners in the World and recently locked up this season’s MVP award.

CoreJJ was initially an AD carry for the winless BigFile Miracle and later North America’s Team Dignitas before playing on Samsung Galaxy. After the acquisition of rookie AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk, he role-swapped to support. Now they’re one of the most formidable bot lanes in Korea.

This year, Samsung picked up former CJ Entus jungler Kang “Haru” Min-seung, who did not impress during his time on CJ. Now he’s one of the more aggressive junglers in Korea with his own share of dazzling highlights and impressive statistics.

Turning sow ears into silk purses has been Samsung’s modus operandi in 2016-17. Pinpointing a standout on this year’s team naturally leads to MVP mid laner Crown, but as a team with many moving parts, Samsung’s coordination has rarely faltered, even while testing out substitutes and acclimating Haru into the fold.

Lurking just outside the limelight was what 2016 Samsung did best through the Regional Qualifier to the World Championship. In many ways, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Samsung are shaping up as a serious contender for the LCK title. Their names might not inspire the same confidence as KT or SKT on paper, but overlooking them will prove costly.

Emily Rand’s love of the 2013 KT Rolster Bullets will never die. You can follow her on Twitter @leagueofemily

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