The Tigers are dead, long live the Tigers: an IEM preview

The ROX Tigers first take to the Champions stage as the HUYA Tigers in rugby-striped crew-neck sweaters, competitors in the LoL Champions Korea qualifier. It’s the introductory season of the LCK, and the Tigers — an assembly of experienced players discarded by other teams — are pegged as a team that will end up a middling performer in the new league.

Instead, they storm through their first split. Although the Tigers lose to SK Telecom T1 in the 2015 LCK Spring Finals, they impress throughout the season. The sweaters become a Tigers staple, propelling them first to cult fandom and later, worldwide adoration. They’re a playoff team again that summer, and are the only team to take a game off of SKT at the 2015 World Championship.

In 2016, the Tigers grow into one of the most innovative and enjoyable teams to watch in League of Legends history. They win their first LCK title that summer. Their semifinals match against SKT at the 2016 World Championship is one of the greatest LoL best-of-five series of all time.

This image of the ROX Tigers — Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho’s ascension, Kim “PraY” Jong-in shoving aside retirement and returning to the stage, and later Han “Peanut” Wang-ho unleashed after a rough year with NaJin e-mFire — accompanies the name.

The Tigers are Smeb, Peanut, Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng, PraY, Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, and even Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin and Hae “Cry” Sung-min. They are iconic.

They are not Heo “Lindarang” Man-heung, Park “Shy” Sang-myeon, Yoon “SeongHwan” Seong-hwan, Son “Mickey” Young-min, Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun, and Kim “KeY” Han-gi.

Yet, the new ROX Tigers are oddly fitting successors to the old squad, not in playstyle or success but in history. Their core is that of the Afreeca Freecs, once known as Anarchy, a rag-tag bunch that fought their way through the 2015 summer promotion tournament to become an unlikely LCK playoff team a year later.

“There’s absolutely no hope that we can win a set. But I think it depends on how much our team tries.”

-Son “Mickey” Young-min following Anarchy’s qualification to 2015 LCK Summer

From their first appearance in the 2015 LCK Summer promotion tournament, Anarchy are introspective and self-deprecating. They toe the line between charming and obnoxious. Once the season begins, and they experience the intensity of an LCK split, the team seems torn between improving and trying to compete, or simply having fun as a group. With no major sponsor and new to the gaming house experience, it’s doubtful that Anarchy even have the tools to improve.

Those tools come after a rocky offseason — the team nearly disbands — in the form of a major sponsorship from streaming platform and former Maximum Impact Gaming coach, Kang Hyun-jong. Despite their inconsistency, they remain a steady fifth-place team throughout 2016. A playoff unit unable to move any further in the standings against top tier opponents like the original ROX Tigers.

Mickey, Lindarang, SeongHwan, and Sangyoon are picked up by the Tigers organization in the 2016-17 offseason. Joining them is ESC Ever support darling Key, and veteran CJ Entus top laner Shy. It’s a roster that’s not expected to go far, and true to expectations, the new Tigers have struggled. Comparing them to the 2016 Tigers is foolish and unfair. In eighth place, they’re exactly where they were as the Afreeca Freecs in 2016 LCK Spring. Actually, with a 2-6 series record rather than a 1-6 start, they have a slightly higher winrate.

Like the Tigers of 2015, this new ROX squad is the highest Korean seed at the upcoming Intel Extreme Masters World Championship at Katowice. Unlike those Tigers, they’re not undefeated, and not necessarily favored. This is Europe’s championship to lose. The region is sending their three best teams, including G2 Esports, who have not lost a domestic series in over a year. By contrast, the new ROX Tigers have only won two series thus far this split — one against last-place Kongdoo Monster, who will also be in attendance at IEM, and a recent 2-1 victory over middling BBQ Olivers.

Yet, the Tigers are a potential candidate to keep Europe from taking this IEM title. Unfortunately, they’re not a reliable one.

When Anarchy was but an assembly of solo queue streamers in starched-white collared shirts, they won games thanks to Mickey and his three staple champions — LeBlanc, Zed, and the odd Twisted Fate. For a while, Mickey was Anarchy’s only win condition. The team suffered when he was target-banned, unable to play meta compositions to the same ability as their opponents.

Mickey is as much of a boon as he is a liability. For the majority of his career, his Teleports have been laughable, his positioning in and out of lane highly suspect, and his teamfighting middling to poor while on more supportive picks. When Afreeca improved throughout 2016, it was due to Sangyoon, then-partner in crime No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong, and top laner Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo stepping up and doing more with their resources for the team while Mickey did his own thing in the mid lane.

That being said, Mickey is a unique player in Korea. His fearlessness against any opponent, including Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, was one of the primary reasons that Afreeca became known for besting SKT, regardless of how much further SKT were ahead in the standings. Despite a general lack of map awareness, little regard for vision or even the location of his jungler, Mickey plays forward in lane and moves erratically at times. Many of the proactive qualities that make Faker the best LoL player in the world are qualities that can also be found in Mickey. Mickey simply lacks the finesse, execution, and deep champion pool of Faker.

Unsurprisingly, the new ROX Tigers win games off of strong mid lane and jungle synergy. SeongHwan has had flashes of brilliance and instinctive jungle pathing to take advantage of his adversaries, and most of the time this translates into advantages for Mickey as well. At 77.6 percent, Mickey has the highest kill participation of any LCK mid laner. Nearly everything on ROX goes through Mickey.

Game 3 of the Tigers’ most recent win over BBQ Olivers was a signature game from Mickey on one of his favorite champions, Zed. SeongHwan snowballed an early lead into advantages for Mickey before turning his attention top towards Shy’s Shen. Mickey finished the game with a 10/1/5 scoreline, reminding viewers and opponents alike why it used to be permanently banned against him. With LeBlanc and Zed both viable options, it’s a good meta for Mickey. Teams at IEM will need to be aware of his champion pool or he’s likely to rampage through the brackets, taking the Tigers with him.

Whether the Tigers will take IEM relies heavily on what the Tigers will do if Mickey is banned out and how they’ll perform if Mickey isn’t able to star on one of his favorites. Sangyoon and KeY have had varying degrees of success as a bot lane. Shy has been a better choice for tank tops than Lindarang, but neither top laner has been a reliable secondary carry this season. It’s the Mickey and SeongHwan show, for better or for worse. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem in Group A, where they’ll have the strongest jungle/mid duo, but the Tigers could run into troubles in later bracket stages.

Going into the 2015 IEM World Championship, the Tigers were undefeated, a shoo-in for the title. They stumbled and fell to China’s Team WE, the last-place squad in the LPL. This year the Tigers are a measly eighth place, with an entirely new roster that still seems more Freecs than Tigers. Yet this could be their tournament to win, if they manage to stay consistent enough to take it.

Photo courtesy SPOtv LCK broadcast.

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