SK Telecom T1 flinched, but still standing at worlds

Han "Peanut" Wang-ho waves to the crowd with a sigh of relief after his SK Telecom T1 team barely escaped the Misfits in the quarterfinals of the League of Legends World Championships. Riot Games

GUANGZHOU, China -- When Misfits first took the stage for the 2017 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals, the players were an afterthought. The crowd was there to see its opponent: the back-to-back world champion SK Telecom T1, the greatest organization far and away in the history of the game, built around the poster boy of the esport, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. Although a South Korean team in a rival country, SKT T1 and specifically Faker have transcended regional support, the crowd oohing and clapping wildly any time his face would appear on the big screen.

By contrast, Misfits should have been a mere speed bump in SKT's way to a meeting with China's greatest hope to possibly ever win a world title, Royal Never Give Up, who would be slated to face Faker and company in the semifinal in Shanghai if things went according as planned. The quarterfinal was set up to be an appetizer; a best-of-five showcase for the South Korean superstar to flex his muscle against a worthy but outmatched adversary. A fan behind me jokingly wrote "MSF > SKT" on a poster board he grabbed when walking into the gymnasium. When asked why he was supporting Misfits, he waved away the notion, saying that his true loyalties lie with RNG, and that the winner of today's match doesn't concern him as long as the all-Chinese team can win in the semifinal round.

Misfits fans were few and far between to begin the day, with the majority consisting of fans rooting for the team's star AD carry, Steve "Hans Sama" Liv, describing their interest in the team due to the marksman's good looks and friendly though shy demeanor. For every fan with a Hans Sama or Misfits sign, there were 50 SKT signs, giant light up banners hung on the walls of the Guangzhou Gymnasium, the crowd preparing for more of a demonstration of skill than a close match between two equally-skilled teams.

Come the ending of the series almost six hours after it had begun, the once pro-SKT crowd chanted "M-S-F!" to serenade the European LCS representative. After a grueling five-game series, SKT came out the victor, but Misfits, which took a 2-1 lead in the series, gave the world champion everything it could handle. By the time Misfits took the third set of the match, giving it the unprecedented lead over the three-time champion, the crowd, SKT fan or not, was swept up in the emotion of witnessing history.

A girl in the front row, clutching her "HANS SAMA" sign as it was connected to her being, did not sit or hold down her sign for the entire match, kneeling down on her chair when she got too tired to stand up. Behind her, the fans with no rooting interest had become Misfits fans over the course of three hours.

"Misfits are a really good team," SKT's AD carry Bae "Bang" Jun-sik said following his team's narrow 3-2 escape in the quarterfinal. "We were confident going into this game against their bot-lane, but their Leona and Blitzcrank caught us completely off guard, and we were having a real difficult time playing against those picks. Overall, I just think they're a really good team."

Of the four times SKT has made it to the world championship, this was only the third time the team had found itself in a 2-1 hole in a best-of-five series. However, this was the first instance where SKT fell behind against non-South Korean opposition. Over the years, SKT has had its toughest matches at worlds come against regional opponents, like the ROX Tigers of last year's epic in New York City or NaJin Black Sword in 2013 when Faker made his first appearance on the worlds' stage.

It almost worked, and yet, be it European, South Korean or from another planet, SKT did not let the third loss come, the team putting more protection around Bang to make sure Misfits bottom lane couldn't shoot ahead like it did in the second and third sets. Misfits was one game away -- one won team fight away in the fourth set, even -- from pulling off the biggest upset League has ever seen, and it couldn't finish the job. Like NaJin Black Sword and ROX Tigers before it, the king proved too hard to kill, and although it's possible to take two games off of SKT at worlds, getting three still has never been done.

Three times SKT has gone to worlds, and three times it has lifted the Summoner's Cup. Next up: a possible meeting with a team SKT will not have the support of the fans -- the team everyone in Guangzhou is waiting to see, RNG, and the country's ace and two-time worlds finalist, Jian "Uzi" Zi-hao.

"I want to face Uzi," Bang said. "I have a lot of respect toward players and teams who have a steady performance [of success] over multiple years. Uzi has been a world-class ADC for like the past five years. I have so much respect for him. I faced him last year, and I was really nervous playing against him. I think this year he's even better and has more influence on the game, so I'm definitely looking forward to [possibly] facing him."