SHANGHAI — The League of Legends World Championship semifinal between defending back-to-back champion SK Telecom T1 and home crowd favorite Royal Never Give Up was the loudest, and, simultaneously, the quietest esports event I’ve ever attended.
The excitement was palpable from the Chinese fans on Saturday as I walked into the venue. Although a strong contingent of SKT fans were peppered throughout the stands, the overwhelming majority of the people walking through the doors had “RNG” temporary tattoos on their faces, ready to hopefully see the South Korean dynasty known as SKT come crashing down to the ground in Shanghai.
The first game could have not gone better for the home faithful. The ground felt like it was about to part from the cheers erupting around me from all sides. SKT was vulnerable, and the fans, seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel of Worlds futility for Chinese clubs the past few years, jumped at the signs of weakness. For that one game, SKT was not a team made up of superhumans or some unbeatable, unexplained force. Instead, SKT was a team exposed with the same follies other professional teams display on a regular basis.
Even from the media room, the echoes of belief could be heard from the Shanghai crowd. Each stumble by SKT was met with a cheer, and by the time RNG went up 2-1 in series and put itself on match point, the crowd didn’t need to hope anymore — the fans knew SKT was wounded, and their team, RNG, a roster of Chinese nationals, could be the one to end the era of one of the most dominant runs in all of esports history.
For the third time in four Worlds appearances, SKT fell behind 1-2 in the semifinals. And just as it had twice before, it fell to a knee but never got knocked out, holding off match point in the fourth set before reasserting itself in the climactic game to take the series.
What once was a carnival atmosphere had turned into a somber affair. RNG wasn’t out of the final set until unforced errors ended things, but the crowd never could settle itself after not closing things in the fourth set. The blood in the water had dissipated, and SKT’s win to force a do-or-die game with everything on the line sent a wave of deja vu over the crowd.
The vulnerable SKT was gone. The lackluster early-games and close call against Misfits in Guangzhou were no longer relevant. Down to its last out, SKT had the mid laner in the red jacket, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, and on this night, like every night he’s ever participated in at Worlds, he would not be denied.
Later that night at dinner following SKT’s victory, a group of SKT supporters sat down next to me to talk about the match. They smiled over pictures they’d take inside the arena. Outnumbered, they were the only ones making noise at the end of the match.
Thousands in the arena and millions at home in China were rooting against Faker and SKT to make a fourth trip to the World finals. But if Team WE loses to Samsung Galaxy on Sunday and fails to make it to the final at the Bird’s Nest, a lot of those same fans rooting against SKT will be on its side.
Because greatness, like Faker at Worlds, just can’t be denied.