The Group Stage of Worlds 2021 may have been the most intense and dramatic ever in League's history, but the tournament is far from over, as the first quarterfinals matchup starts soon, and it’s an LCK grudge match to boot.
League of Legends’ most dominant team of all time, T1, takes on upstarts Hanwha Life Esports, the team they beat in the Regional Qualifier finals to secure the third seed and kick HLE into the Play-Ins.
Both teams have come a long way since that match, but who will stand still and advance on to the semi-finals? We dive in to give our take on who will emerge victoriously.
T1 - the Return of the King with his new entourage
The Unkillable Demon King returns to the Worlds’ stage. It’s always a pleasure to see the League of Legends GOAT take to the international rift, but it would be remiss to assume Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is the only (or perhaps more shockingly, primary) star of this T1 roster.
T1’s team is full of rookies with fire and mechanics to spare, with Faker taking on the role of veteran presence within the roster. To put it in context, most of T1’s lineup would have been 11 when Faker won his first Worlds title in 2013. In 2021, they are looking to add a fourth title to the organisation and Faker’s name.
Besides, it wasn’t easy to get here, as this roster is currently their 11th permutation seen this year, and they fired their coaches just before the LCK Playoffs. Even so, they managed to take a game off of reigning world champs and current LCK champions, DWG KIA, in the finals this summer. They will need to do a lot more than that, though, if they want to secure another World Championship. First up, they will have to take down HLE.
And to be blunt? T1 fans should come into this playoff series confident. They emerged from Group B as first place, dropping only a single game to the LPL’s EDG, who were and are considered a tournament favourite. And they did so in style.
T1 look like the most dominant early game team in the world right now, demolishing teams pre-15 minutes to secure insurmountable gold leads on key carries Kim “Canna” Chang-dong and Lee “Gumayusi” Min-hyeong.
It shows up in the stats as well: T1 have the highest Turrets taken at 15 minutes, the fastest average game time, and the highest Gold Difference at 15 minutes of 3617, which is full 750+ gold ahead of second-place DK... who are themselves over 1500 gold ahead of the third-placed team. While stats certainly aren’t everything, those are still incredibly impressive numbers.
More pleasingly is how T1 wielded those leads. In the regular season of the LCK, T1 were notorious for their ruthless early games but sometimes questionable mid-game plays… especially if said early games didn’t go to plan as well.
That seems to have stabilised somewhat, and while T1 are still hyper proficient at generating early leads, they have been significantly cleaner in using those leads to close out games. Even so, T1’s only loss at the tournament came at the hands of EDG’s Scout, utilising Sylas to mark Faker’s TF and Keria’s Shen and prevent T1 from snowballing through the top lane.
While there may have been some drafting elements that should be called out, teams that can keep T1 in check in the early game still have a much easier time bringing this LCK titan low. HLE, take notes.
Still, that’s easier said than done, and Faker and rookie jungler Moon “Oner” Hyeon-joon have proven to be a genuinely terrifying roaming combo, moving to side lanes to break open matchups early and set up Gumayusi and Canna for success.
And here where stats don’t tell the story: Faker’s stats in terms of CS, DPM, gold share and others have been very lacklustre in comparison to other mids at the tournament - HLE’s Chovy, is a prime example - but his impact in setting up the players on his team that does get heavy resource allocation has been exceptional.
It’s a topic that’s been discussed in depth on Summoning Insight, and Reddit user u/mtm__ made a fantastic breakdown on the playstyle Faker has adopted thus far at the tournament, often sacking personal advantages to cheat priority and arrive early to plays and objectives and net T1 even greater team advantages.
A final note must go to T1’s superstar support Ryu “Keria” Min-seok, who has been critical not only in getting T1 to Worlds via his playmaking, but also via his absurd champion pool - just check out his Ekko support games in SoloQ...
Nevertheless, what is worth paying attention to is his answer to the notoriously high-priority Yuumi pick in Lulu. Yuumi has been a must-ban for teams, but T1’s ability to draft Aphelios/Lulu and earn both lane priority via a double ranged set-up plus Aphelios’ ability to delete waves with various gun combinations, and then also neuter Yuumi’s carrier in mid and late-game scenarios via Polymorph, was a stroke of genius.
Go watch T1’s victory over EDG in the group stage to see exactly how impressive it was. Keep your eyes on Keria - his bag of tricks includes some truly nasty surprises.
Hanwha Life Esports - will the Church of Chovy reward the faithful?
But enough about T1, Hanwha Life Esports have enough faith to make the mightiest tremble. Indeed the Church of Chovy has been in full effect this Worlds, and the namesake player was a critical component in salvaging an otherwise atrocious regular season. Going from an 8th place regular-season finish to quarterfinals at Worlds is some serious improvement.
Importantly, it wasn’t all on the back of Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon, either. Various members of HLE have started coming online ever since the regular season ended. First, it was Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Oh “Vsta” Hyo-seong who turned in impressive performances in their Regional Qualifier run after a quiet summer split. Then at Worlds, it has been Kim “Willer” Jeong-hyeon - assumed to be a liability - putting in hard carry performances despite being both a rookie and the third jungler HLE have used this year.
Even so, while Willer and Vsta have certainly stood up for the team, it's still Chovy and Deft that have been proving their legendary pedigrees are well earned. Both players have been putting up best-in-class numbers in their respective roles. Deft in particular has been doing some incredible damage in teamfights, despite relatively middling access to mid-game resources.
Unfortunate Infinity Edge purchases aside, Deft has been stepping up as a very dangerous carry and will need to hold Gumayusi (or potentially Teddy) accountable if HLE are to emerge victoriously.
In a similar, and more extreme, fashion, Chovy himself has been having a singularly dominant tournament in terms of pure lane domination. Highest DPM and DMG% for mid laners aside, an average Gold Difference at 15 of nearly a 1000 and a [email protected] of over 30 is bordering on obscene.
When Chovy can generate immense discrepancies purely through raw laning, and then leverage that into active playmaking, he and HLE look truly dangerous - see his LeBlanc game versus Fnatic where he all but single-handedly carried the game with an eye-watering 1345 DPM.
On the other hand, Chovy hasn’t been perfect either. Just look at his Twisted Fate game against RNG in the tiebreaker for first place - Chovy manages to acquire a Flame Horizon over RNG’s Cryin’ at around 16 minutes, but struggles to play side lanes in an intelligent manner and in bizarre fashion the game ends with Chovy farming a side lane rather than fighting with the team.
If teams can force Chovy into playing side lanes with no “easy” plays to make, he becomes significantly less threatening as a player. Even better, if you can shut him down early, HLE can often collapse inwards, barring Deft picking up the slack.
There’s an argument too for over-prioritising Chovy getting resources: should a Twisted Fate be getting significantly more access to jungle camps and CS than an Aphelios or Camille in the mid and late game?
Then, of course, there’s Morgan. He’s been a regularly critiqued member of HLE, and often with just cause. He gets by far the least resources of any top laner at Worlds, and has often been exploited by teams and top laners able and willing to pick carry matchups and focus through top.
RNG in groups was able to do exactly that via superstar Xiaohu, for example. While he’s had some good moments - his Renekton games have been relatively high impact - and he’s known for his Irelia and Camille play regionally, against a player that is so carry focused as Canna and a team that plays to facilitate him so well in T1, Morgan may well have a very rough time.
And there’s the crux of it: for HLE to take down a T1 that seems to have a firm grasp of the current World’s meta of facilitating a top lane snowball early and prioritising CS on your ADC as the mid-game rolls around, answers must be found to the high-impact early roams of Faker and Oner. If Morgan falls prey too easily to topside plays, HLE may struggle to build their individual leads before the map has collapsed.
Matchup to watch - Faker v. Chovy
Could it have been any other matchup? Two of the LCK all-time greats clashing is always going to be spectacular, but the greater reason to watch is how diametrically opposed the two mid laners’ playstyles are. Will Faker’s roam heavy focus at the expense of individual leads be T1’s key to victory, or will the sheer lane dominance of Chovy be what takes HLE over the line?
Verdict: 3 - 1 T1
With a top side that T1 will love to exploit and the most dangerous early game at Worlds, this series is heavily T1 favoured.
While the Regional Qualifier might have gone to five games, serious meta shifts and more time to adjust to serious internal coaching and personnel changes give T1 much solid grounding this time around.
Expect one game to go HLE’s way when an early game doesn’t go to plan for T1 and Chovy and Deft get to scale into carry performances, but otherwise, this should be a confident T1 victory.
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Featured image courtesy of Riot Games and Getty Images.