SEOUL, South Korea -- The banners were hung well before the 2017 League of Legends Champions Korea Summer Finals began in Seoul, South Korea. One proclaimed Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong "BuDDa." On a large video screen over the main stage, a mock safety video played, featuring the mid laner as the enlightened one instructing his fellow Longzhu teammates.
Next to Bdd's sign and across from the video screens, a smirking Kim "Khan" Dong-ha looked down upon rows and rows of orange plastic seats. Laid across every chair in the Jamsil Students' Gymnasium was a white, light-up OnGameNet thunderstick with the unspoken promise that when the lights dimmed and the countdown began, the crowd would be a coordinated cheering mass, like the audience at a Korean pop concert.
Hours later, the arena was a white ocean, welcoming the idols on Longzhu Gaming and SK Telecom T1 to the stage.
"They really think of everything," OGN English-language caster Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith said. "Just wait until you see our outfits."
I asked him to rank them on a scale of OGN's previous outfits, which included the colorful 2013 "rainbros" suits. He shrugged and said with a genuine smile, "It's Korean esports at its finest."
In preparation for the finals, the gymnasium was neatly separated by these posters and team signs, denoting where fans should sit by team. It was divided equally, with half of the arena dedicated to Longzhu and the other half to their opponent, SK Telecom T1.
Outside, fans picked through the SKT merchandise table. Ten feet away, a giggling couple handed a cell phone to a passerby, asking to have their picture taken in front of a sign for Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. "He comes, Faker," the sign read, with a bold black and red graphic of the SKT mid laner, as if announcing the arrival of a monarch or deity. Depending whom you talked to, it was.
Lined up at the entrances near OGN's outdoor tent, hundreds of people sported red headbands with "T" and "1" on them, fanning themselves in the heat. They carried homemade posters. One girl tugged on a recently purchased black-and-white SKT jersey over her T-shirt.
"I think it's going to be an SKT 3-0," PapaSmithy said as we discussed the upcoming matchup.
Six hours later, we were both proven wrong.
The telecom organization SKT has dominated the league since the inception of the LCK in 2015. SKT had been to four of the five LCK finals prior to this one. It won all four. But this time, Longzhu had other ideas, and the team gave SKT the organization's first loss in a domestic League of Legends final outside of the 2014 Masters, when both SK Telecom T1 S and K were swept 3-0 by Samsung Galaxy Blue and White.
Prior to the finals series against Longzhu, betting against SKT seemed risky at best and idiotic at worst. This wasn't solely due to the organization's successful history in not only League of Legends but also South Korean esports as a whole; it was because the team itself was so good at learning from its mistakes and adapting accordingly. Even if SKT faltered at the beginning of a best-of-five series, as the team did earlier in August against KT Rolster, SKT found a way to adapt, exploit opponents' weaknesses and win on the biggest stage. The reverse-sweep against telecom rival KT was shocking but not surprising to fans of either team.
"It almost got me to tears," SKT support Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan said in OGN's introduction video before the finals match. "I knew our team had it. We were going to win. It was going to be a reverse sweep."
This is the famous SKT confidence: The idea that no matter how dire the situation looks for the T1 boys, they will pull through in the end with strong draft and in-game adjustments, learning from their mistakes as a series progresses. At the end of it all, SKT's players have the strongest coaching staff, the best player in the world in Faker and the expectation of victory. SKT does not lose.
As the reigning LCK and world champion, SKT entered the stage second. The signal was clear: SKT was the champion to beat. The gymnasium signs might have been split equally, but the entire audience rose to its feet during SKT's entrance. Longzhu's introduction hadn't been quiet, but the stadium roared for SKT. From the seats in front of a sign that read, "SKT take my energy" to Longzhu Khan's smirk, fans throughout the stands waved large white flags with the SKT logo. There was no Longzhu side and SKT side; nearly all of the attendees were there for SKT.
Across the stage, which doubled as a giant video screen, the words "Bedrock of Legends" were repeatedly written in wide, white script. No other phrase better describes South Korea's place in esports.
No other phrase better describes SKT's place in League of Legends.
SKT's slow start and Game 1 loss in this series were little cause for concern at the time. Although SKT banned Khan's Jayce and took Ashe, a signature pick of Longzhu AD carry Kim "PraY" Jong-in, coach Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun left up a variety of comfort picks for Longzhu. Longzhu settled on Khan's Jax -- the champion on which Khan made a name for himself against SK Telecom T1 S back in 2014, when he was called "Hanlabong" on Prime Optimus -- Bdd's Orianna and support Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon's Alistar. Arguably, Varus had become a signature pick for PraY as well, given PraY's peerless initiation sense for an AD carry.
The past few years, SKT has had a habit of leaving opponents' strongest or well-known pocket picks up in Game 1 drafts. If SKT loses that Game 1, the team roars back in the games that follow. If SKT wins that Game 1, even with a favorable draft for its adversary, SKT annihilates the opposing team to sweep the series.
Therefore, it wasn't worrying that SKT jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho failed to punish Longzhu rookie Moon "Cuzz" Woo-chan's Zac in the early game, despite the fact that Faker pushed Bdd in almost immediately and gained vision over Longzhu's bottom-side jungle. It wasn't worrying that Peanut spent most of his time looking for mid lane ganks, rather than taking advantage of other opportunities on the map. It wasn't worrying that SKT's Park "Untara" Ui-jin couldn't keep up with Khan, whose Jax quickly spiraled out of control, allowing Longzhu to set up an unstoppable split-push.
Adaptation is SKT's greatest strength. They would simply adjust for Game 2, and the mistakes of Game 1 would be forgotten.
Yet SKT's adaptation in Game 2 was puzzling. Peanut was unceremoniously removed from the SKT booth in favor of Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, who had been SKT's jungle savior for the past two splits while Peanut adjusted to SKT's playing style. Whenever the team struggled with Peanut, Blank stepped in to lead SKT to victory.
Usually SKT would give Peanut one more game to sort out his synergy problems, but with another Champions Trophy in sight, SKT took no chances and opted for the early substitution. SKT then banned Khan's Jax but left his Jayce open. Longzhu's preferred playing style relies on Khan's stable of carry tops, Bdd pushing mid, giving Cuzz more leeway in the jungle, and the opportunistic play of PraY and GorillA in the bottom lane. Inexplicably, rather than doubling down on their strengths as a team, SKT's Game 2 draft attempted to match Longzhu where Longzhu was strongest: split-pushing.
SKT kept Untara on Shen, put Faker on Ekko and gave AD carry Bae "Bang" Jun-sik Twitch. This gave them three lanes of potential split-pushers to hopefully match Bdd's expected Taliyah roams and Khan's Jayce. Wolf was given one of the strongest supports in the current meta, Rakan, and performed well on it at the start, dazzling audiences by stopping Bdd in his tracks on the Longzhu mid laner's first roam down to the bottom lane. The crowd gave a delayed, rousing cheer for Wolf, as if in disbelief of the flashy play.
But where Wolf's Rakan was good, GorillA's Thresh was better. A four-man flay stymied SKT's somewhat greedy blue-buff invade at 13 minutes. It was the first of many aggressive moves from SKT that Longzhu were quick to punish. After trading midgame blows, SKT was unable to set up the desired split-push designed by the team's draft. The reigning champions found themselves down 0-2, even after substituting in Blank.
In order to reclaim the LCK title and keep the finals win streak alive, SKT would have to reverse-sweep Longzhu Gaming.
During Game 3, the gymnasium crowd finally came to life, thundering louder than they had for SKT's onstage introductions. Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon replaced Untara in the SKT top lane and proceeded to rampage over the Rift on Gnar. Blank decimated Cuzz in the early game, punishing Longzhu's Zac pick like Peanut should have done in Game 1. For the first time all night, the stage lit up red with an SKT victory, and the series stood at 2-1 Longzhu.
Leading up to the finals, Huni had seemed like a poor fit for SKT in the current meta. With Wolf failing to match opposing supports' roams for vision or to the mid lane, SKT's bottom half of the map wasn't the stable foundation that it had been in the spring split. Huni's shift to tankier champions during spring was also accompanied by aggressive and comfortable jungle picks for Peanut, such as Lee Sin, Rengar and Graves. When the meta shifted in summer to initiating supports, tank junglers and tank tops, Huni was pushed away in favor of Untara.
Peanut never looked comfortable on the likes of Zac, Sejuani or, in the case of Game 1, Maokai. But a new lack of proactivity, likely due to continuing miscommunication with his lanes, affected all of his games -- even on staples such as Gragas and Elise. This then hurt the team's coordination, objective trading, teamfighting and vision lines. During Peanut's struggles, SKT opted for the safer option of Untara as the team's starting top laner for the majority of summer split and substituted in Blank when losses mounted. SKT's return to glory during the summer playoffs relied on Untara for all but two games, one loss and one win for Huni.
After Game 3 of the finals, Huni appeared to be SKT's new savior: the carry top who had lain dormant throughout the season, only to make a grand entrance on the largest stage as the answer to Khan's carry prowess. With Huni, SKT could fight fire with fire.
In Game 4, Huni pulled out Cho'Gath -- a tankier champion that was nonetheless one of Huni's pocket picks, dating all the way back to his rookie year with FNatic. With Gragas to Blank's Maokai, Cuzz camped top lane. He made it his mission to make Huni's life miserable while Blank was unable to respond with similar aggression. At 18 minutes, Khan's Jayce was 2/0/2 with a level up on Huni. Just after 18 minutes, Longzhu had taken five turrets to SKT's zero and two dragons to SKT's zero.
The game was over. SKT had lost an LCK final.
Members of Longzhu howled in their booth, hugging each other, jumping up and down, and screaming. Bdd was beside himself and in tears. The stairs clogged with disappointed fans exiting the gymnasium as a remaining small group cheered loudly for the unlikely winners.
Onstage, "Bedrock of Legends" became a sign celebrating Longzhu's championship victory. The members of SKT quickly disconnected their personal equipment and shuffled offstage while gold confetti rained down on Longzhu. Huni blinked away tears and chewed gum rapidly as he gathered his keyboard. SKT vanished quietly before the trophy presentation began.
With this finals loss, SKT's problems that have been present all year have been laid bare for everyone to see. The team has a month to make full use of the coaching staff and discipline that SKT has honed throughout years of success.
Back in May, "Uma Irá Reinar" (One Will Reign) surrounded this same team at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro Brazil as it was crowned the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational Champion. In September 2016, SKT was the first team to enter the Worlds stage in San Francisco as the defending champion and the last to leave it in Los Angeles as the latest champion.
The "Bedrock of Legends" tagline faded from the Jamsil Students' Gymnasium immediately to crown Longzhu Gaming as the 2017 LCK Summer champion. Yet SKT has never lost a World Championship that the organization has attended. There's little reason to believe that SKT's stage will fade quickly in China, despite their failings in the LCK championship.