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League of Legends Season 3 semifinals preview

Season 2 stage at Galen Center

Tonight the League of Legends World Championship series returns to the Galen Center in Los Angeles, the same venue where last year’s Season 2 champs, Taipei Assassins, were crowned. This year, the final championship series will take place at the even bigger Staples Center in downtown LA, while the Galen Center now plays host to the semifinal matchups between Korea’s top two teams, SK Telecom T1 and NaJin Black Sword, and a continental showdown between China’s surprise powerhouse Royal Club and the European old guard of Fnatic. Both should be fantastic series in this most surprising of championship tournaments.

Until this last week, the first semifinal between SK Telecom T1 and NaJin Black Sword would have seemed the series that would determine the Season 3 champion. Korea’s eSports dominance, bolstered by over a decade of StarCraft experience and massive organizational infrastructure and corporate sponsorship, have made for scarily effective teams.

SK Telecom T1 is perhaps the most famous name in Korean eSports, a team with a reputation for dominance and attracting the most talented, driven players. While they got off to a sluggish start in the Group Stage of World Championship, in large measure because expectations were so high for them, you could see them getting comfortable and in-tune with one another over the course of the tournament. By the end of group play, they were looking every bit like the favorites they were supposed to be.

The thing that makes SKT so dangerous is that they have game-winning stars at just about every position, not just the one or two areas of strength that most winning League of Legends squads can boast. At the start of the tournament, mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang Hyeok was attracting all the attention, with the result that he was getting countered pretty hard by enemy teams and seemingly underperforming. But it didn’t matter, because as Faker was being countered, the games were opening up for top laner Jung “Impact” Eon Yeong and the powerful bottom lane pairing of Chae “Piglet” Gwang Jin and Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong Hyeon. As those players got more attention, Faker started to dominate the mid. When a team is as strong as SKT, there aren’t any weaknesses to attack and exploit. It comes down to talent at each position and overall coordination.

Against this record, the NaJin Black Sword team starts to look a trifle unproven. The majority of the Circuit Points that qualified them for the World Championship come from earlier this year, when NJBS were running a different lineup, one that included legendary top-laner Yoon “MaKNooN” Ha Woon. NaJin Sword lost their first game against a Gambit squad that’s been up-and-down all season before coming back to win, but they did not look like as complete a team as SK Telecom, and they’ll need to be to survive tonight’s semifinal. See if they can pull it off at 4 AM UK / 11 PM Eastern over at lolesports.com.

Royal Club vs. Fnatic

The breakout team of the entire tournament seemed to China’s OMG, until they faced off against their countrymen at Royal Club in the quarterfinal round. Royal Club had a little bit of trouble with the favorites at the start of the series, but then took command of the games as AD Jian “Uzi” Zi Hao caught fire.

Uzi was the Royal Club player who could turn fights, with an uncanny sense for just how far he could push his champs before eating enough damage to die. In fight after fight, he’d get targeted down at the start, somehow survive, and then start wreaking havoc as OMG switched targets thinking Uzi had taken enough hits to go down.

The other striking feature of the series was that both Chinese teams played more aggressively than anyone in the tournament. Forget the old complaints about Chinese MOBA play being entirely mechanics and economy driven. OMG and Royal Club both engaged in running battles from match start, constantly taking two-on-twos and three-on-twos as they battled for map control.

That’s a style that Fnatic may have trouble with. While Fnatic looked dominant against American frontrunner Cloud 9 in their deciding game, the fact is that nobody in either western LCS division plays like the Chinese teams do. Fnatic have been near-perfect since the end of the summer split, but this is going to be entirely different kind of matchup.

Their main hope is to find a way to keep mid-laner Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño from getting shut down. He’s the linchpin of the Fnatic lineup, the player who opens the game up for the other positions. But his strength is also a vulnerability: if Royal Club pressure him in the mid lane, Paul “sOAZ” Boyer in top and Johannes “puszu” Uibos and Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim will have to step up and apply some pressure and aggression of their own. That means tangling with Uzi, however, which might be more of a fight than Fnatic can win.

We’ll find out tomorrow at 8 PM UK / 3 PM Eastern, at lolesports.com.