They weren’t supposed to win.
This five word phrase has cropped up again during the careers of members of LMS team Flash Wolves. A roster that included Coach Chou “Steak” Luhsi, mid laner Huang “Maple” Yitang, and support Huo “SwordArt” Shuojie climbed the stage of the Staples Center in bright orange Gama Bears uniforms. GPL’s top four placement at 2013 All-Stars guaranteed them a bye into the World Championship quarterfinal. One year after the Taipei Assassins claimed the Summoner’s Cup, Gama Bears collided directly with 2013’s World Champions in their opening round. They immediately lost two games in a row and bowed out in a best-of-three.
But they weren’t even supposed to be there.
ahq e-Sports and Taipei Assassins won the Garena Premier League Summer and Spring Splits respectively. When Gamania Bears, a new team in 2013, entered the Taiwan/Makau/Hong Kong qualifier for the Season 3 World Championship, they did so with not only ahq and TPA, but TPA’s sister team, Taipei Snipers, lead by World Champion, Chen “MiSTakE” Huichung. After splitting 1-1 with TPS to top their group, the Bears dropped instantly against Group B’s second place team, Wayi Spiders.
To make a complete run through the final and face Taipei Snipers again, Gamania Bears had to go through the other top Taiwanese teams of the era: TPA, ahq, and Wayi again, this time finishing the latter with a 2-1 victory. Even then, they entered the grand final against TPS as underdogs.
When they won, only dropping one game to TPS, the crowd, brimming with fans of the opposing teams, barely shifted to cheer for Gama Bears.
“After the game, I really wanted to cry,” Maple said. “Especially when I saw my teammates crying.”
When fans mention Flash Wolves’ startling winning match record against SK Telecom T1, the strongest team in the world, the easy counter is the first clash between the Bears and SKT. The 2-0 win from SKT over the young Taiwanese team, later disbanded when Riot Games introduced the 17 year minimum age participation rule, still only brings their record to even.
“We’ll definitely win,” NL said in Riot’s Gama Bears feature before the games. Obviously, they didn’t.
But the excited young Bears fantasizing about bringing the Summoner’s Cup back home to Taiwan only to get smacked down by South Korea’s sleeping monster doesn’t stick out nearly as much as one minor, oft-overlooked detail.
It was impressive for the Gama Bears to make the World Championship.
Unlike their predecessors and Season 2 World Championship winners Taipei Assassins, Gama Bears didn’t have the undefeated run in GPL with double digit KDAs. They didn’t blow a tiny league out of the water. They didn’t have the legacy and stacked schedule of scrim partners. They already outperformed expectations.
Several years later, the core of that Gama Bears roster remains whole, moving on to Flash Wolves as sponsors came and went. Steak, Maple, Hsiung “NL” Wenan, and SwordArt welcomed now-decorated jungler Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan. Steak joined the coaching staff as long-time substitute Yu “MMD” Lihung took over the starting top lane role. NL went into open-ended retirement to welcome Lu “Betty” Yuhung as AD carry.
Along with the well-entrenched core of Flash Wolves players, a few more idiosyncrasies remain consistent. A stark contrast between a desire to gamble, focusing on crushing hard and fast from the opening of the game, and hesitating to make the relevant plays to close has plagued Flash Wolves.
Karsa has long preferred a heavy ganking style, referring to himself as a gambler. At last year’s MSI, NL said the team will at times wait to gain dragons before pressuring turrets. Becoming sure of a lead may have also forced Flash Wolves into scaling picks early on in the MSI Group Stage this tournament, debilitating their strength in Maple’s powerful laning phase.
This balance of up-front kick and jarring hesitation gives Flash Wolves a surprisingly strong matchup against the best team in the world, SKT. In best-of-ones, Flash Wolves have managed to repeatedly unsettle the three-time World Champions. Now, for the very first time ever, Flash Wolves will face SKT in a best-of-five.
“We make mistakes anyway,” SKT mid laner Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok said of the Flash Wolves, “but against them it seems like we make more mistakes than other games. They’re really good at realizing them in order to beat us.”
Faker’s tight-lipped answer only betrays the intent to minimize mistakes evident in many of SKT’s games prior to 2017. Selecting Heo “Huni” Seunghoon and Han “Peanut” Wangho set SKT up to have a much more high pressure early game. Huni and Peanut frequently collapse on Faker’s lane to snowball him when he picks assassin champions like Fizz. The constant flow of minions through mid substitutes for deep vision, as the constant threat of Faker’s roam priority light’s Peanuts invades with a flint striker instead of control wards.
Mid laners who have matched up to Faker in brief moments of aggression and unpredictably fought for lane control have historically given SKT the most difficulty. With the additions of Huni and Peanut, this is even more true.
Flash Wolves’ victory over SKT in 2017 MSI’s Group Stage emphasized why the Taiwanese team have gotten wins over SKT in the past. The LMS leaders emphasized powerful lane matchups in both top and mid, pressured the top side, and kept mid lane control. Acquiring the Teleport advantage in top lane prevented SKT from regaining control of the lane by having Huni ceding pressure top to pressure mid. SKT instead made the decision to trade sides.
Despite killing Betty twice in laning phase, SKT didn’t move to take control of bottom side river because of Flash Wolves’ mid lane push advantage. All they managed to exchange for Flash Wolves’ map pressure was extra gold on AD carry Bae “Bang” Junsik.
When Flash Wolves play a higher pressure early game, they look to force mistakes. But Flash Wolves have also developed an ability to identify which champions will do the most with a mid game advantage and adjust their strategy accordingly. Flash Wolves don’t always make the most proactive moves, but they understand control and how to maintain lanes and distribute farm to important players until the enemy team makes a mistake.
For SKT, the mistake was an inability to maintain bottom side river control. Part of the reason Flash Wolves have prioritized Malzahar so heavily is his ability to maintain dragon control. Other meta picks like Karma can’t wander into bottom river to lay wards if they can’t spot Malzahar on the map. They have to contend with the threat of getting suppressed and killed almost instantly. As long as Flash Wolves maintain a strong mid lane matchup and have crowd control in the bottom lane, they have a formula for controlling dragon area and making dragon skirmishes risky for their opponents.
This approach also allows Flash Wolves to drop bottom lane priority in champion select and draft counters for strong solo lane and jungle matchups. Though they didn’t consistently succeed in Group Stages, when their draft objective aligned with how they played in LMS, the Taiwanese representative found greater success.
Of all the teams against which SKT could play a best-of-five, Flash Wolves are the most intriguing. Even an appearance from Samsung Galaxy or KT Rolster — both definitely stronger teams than Flash Wolves — wouldn’t fill me with as much excitement as the first MSI semifinal this Friday.
Even counting SKT’s 2-0 record against Gama Bears, Flash Wolves’ core roster boasts an even match score against the giants from South Korea. As Flash Wolves, the team holds a 4-2 score at the tail end of MSI.
For a team that has struggled against Wild Card teams and dropped matches to North America, Europe, and Mainland China, Flash Wolves’ record against SKT is unexpected.
“With our games against SKT, we’re always playing with a lack of pressure,” SwordArt said. “SKT has more pressure if they lose, and we always have less pressure playing in that state. It gives [us] more freedom to do what we want to do and everyone is more relaxed.”
From the very beginning, Flash Wolves’ core players on the Gama Bears weren’t expected to win. The odds were definitively against them. Every time they have played SK Telecom T1, that has also been the case.
This Friday, I predict SKT will drop a game to Taiwan’s first seed team. They’ll regroup and find a way to destabilize Flash Wolves’ mid game. Ultimately, they’ll end with a 3-1 win to advance to the final.
If Gama Bears’ international debut is anything to go by, Flash wolves’ players don’t impress when they have high hopes. When they sing on the Rift, and the pressure subsides, they perform miracles. When they aren’t supposed to win, they make it happen.
This Friday, Flash Wolves aren’t supposed to win.
That’s the greatest advantage anyone can give them.
You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.