KT Rolster and the consequences of caring

KT Rolster flags are displayed by cosplayers at the League of Legends World Championship. Provided by Riot Games

BUSAN, South Korea -- On the first day of the 2018 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals, I told friends and fellow press members that I might cry if KT Rolster lost to Invictus Gaming. They would have to excuse me since KT was my favorite team and has always been my favorite team.

When I was an eager, casual player watching KT Rolster B at MLG Dallas in 2013 in what was labelled an "International Exhibition" separate from the main tournament, KT Rolster became my team. First, it was just the B team. Later they became the Bullets, and soon after they were just KT Rolster. Naturally, having a team at all leads to more than a few situations like today: a heavy heart from emotional investment and a whirring brain, appreciative of the rise of a new team, their gameplay, and a new narrative.

At the end of Game 2, KT's nexus fell at 25:48. While the members of iG smiled and laughed as they gulped down water in between chattering rapidly to each other, the KT players stared at each other in their seats. Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong yelled loudly across the KT booth while Go "Score" Dong-bin nodded in agreement. He had already stood up. Beside him, mid laner Son "Ucal" Woo-hyeon stared at his computer screen blankly. It was the second game of the day, and KT were now down 0-2 in a series that many had expected them to take 3-1. KT top laner Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho joined the conversation as the rest of the team stood up. They walked quickly behind a large LED screen that read "Defeat."

From the crowd, a small, sharp voice screamed.

"KT Fighting!"

Then a deeper, raspy voice.

"KT Fighting!"

And from the seat directly in front of me, a young man in a Deft jacket, signed by multiple KT members, stood up.

"KT Fighting!"

Numb from the loss and KT's first two performances, I hadn't followed through on my earlier statement: I hadn't cried. I hadn't felt much of anything -- years of KT losses at important events or crucial matches (a long-running theme in KT's history) had significantly tempered my expectations -- until these cheers began with small but strong voices, swelling into louder, organized fan chants that rang in my ears. I started to tear up. The players had long left the stage.

These chants echoed around the BEXCO Auditorium from rows of red seats. Below bright lights focused on the Chinese casters in a box above the left side of the auditorium, a young man in a Shen cosplay waved a large KT Rolster flag. He didn't stop waving it, and was joined by three others, all with their own KT flags, before the start of the next game. The players loaded into Game 3, and for the first time, the "KT Fighting!" cheers drowned out the organized shouts of iG fans.

What followed was one of the more exciting finishes in worlds history. Smeb's timely teleport along with purposefully pulling the minion wave away before he teleported, hampering Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok's Fiora allowed KT to win a base race by the slimmest of margins. The call was so close that the in-game observers initially focused on TheShy rather than KT. No one on KT could deal with TheShy's Fiora. The game had already appeared to be lost ten minutes prior.

Everyone in the crowd was on their feet. No one knew who had won until the screen flashed "Victory" behind KT. The members of KT didn't jump up, or scream, or hug each other. It was Game 3, and they hadn't won by much. Yet the once-sleepy audience was invigorated. What had appeared to be a quick 3-0 sweep for iG had suddenly turned into another chance for KT. It took several minutes for fans to sit back down. Most stayed, still on their feet, through the replay. I screamed along with them. A friend and I vowed to stay, in the stands, as members of the audience not locked away in a press tent behind the auditorium next to the smoking area, until the bitter end.

The bitter end was a Game 5 iG victory.

Every year I rewatch the 2013 OGN Champions Summer Finals between KT Rolster Bullets and SK Telecom T1 and every year KTB lose. I've already poured my heart out in writing and recounting the match, a crushing 3-2 loss. The rain. The sun then peeking out from behind a cloudburst over the Han River. The Jamsil Sports Complex. Yellow singing "We Are the Champions" as raindrops pinging off of camera lenses watching both teams enter the field and stand solemnly, blinking droplets out of their eyes. And then the games. Score, then an AD carry, on Ezreal and Tristana. SKT figuring out KTB's fast-push strategy and adjusting accordingly. AD carry Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin dazzling audiences with the best games of his career on Vayne. And the only League of Legends interaction ever to be known as simply, "The play," a Zed mirror match won by the best to ever play the game, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. Even knowing the outcome, it still hurts. Even knowing the outcome, it's some of the best League of Legends I've ever watched in my life.

Today's games won't go down in history like the 2013 summer finals. KT appeared to lazily roll over and die in the first two, and only came to life in the third, when it seemed like all was lost because no one could match TheShy's Fiora. The rest of the series was a back and forth affair with three one-sided matches and a lot of questionable draft choices, even if the finish of Game 3 will go down in history.

This roster will also go down in history. First called the "super team," and then mocked as the "supermarket team" when the lineup faltered, the quartet of Score, Smeb, Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu, and Mata along with their mid laner at the time, Heo "PawN" Won-seok were formed as a powerhouse lineup to loosen SKT's stranglehold on domestic and international titles. Yet it wasn't until Ucal joined the lineup, moving from a trainee to full-fledged starting mid laner after he turned 17 years-old, that KT truly became a dangerous team. With this lineup this summer, for the first time since he began playing professionally in 2012, Score won a domestic title. The team was often rash and aggressive on the Rift, picking skirmishes when they shouldn't have. At other times, they dismantled opponents with surgical precision. While this may be the last time I see this lineup, I'll always remember their ups and downs over the past two years.

All of these achievements, successes, and many failures led to the overwhelming support, even in defeat, from the Busan crowd today. Sitting in that crowd, feeling the elation and disappointment firsthand, was a once-and-a-lifetime experience. Yes, even though KT lost. Today was a kick in the teeth. It still hurts. But it's also why I write at all.