Butterfly effect: Revisiting Samsung Galaxy’s run at Worlds 2016

At 18 years old, I sat in my room and stared at two different college acceptance letters. I didn’t realize it then, but I was facing the most important decision in my life to that point. Whichever I chose, I’d be starting life in a new city.

We all have to make big choices in our lives, whether it’s moving away from home, accepting a new job, or pursuing a relationship. I know I’ve recalled certain moments in my life and wondered where I’d be now if I chose differently. More than once, I’ve asked, “What if?”

But it’s not just the big decisions that matter.

The butterfly effect is a theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can have massive consequences. The name comes from a weather experiment where rounding off a single variable drastically altered the result. In other words, a butterfly flapping its wings might be all it takes to cause a tornado.

There’s a saying that life is a game of inches — that the margin for error is so small that failure means you’re just a step too early or a moment too late. Stay up 15 minutes too late and you might not get that job. Study five more pages and you could earn that scholarship.

If life is a game of inches, then League of Legends is a game of milliseconds.

Samsung Galaxy’s 2016 season carried them all the way to the Worlds Finals. They came up just short of greatness, falling to SK telecom T1 in the fifth game. But Samsung’s postseason run included a handful of key moments with the slimmest of margins.

Miss one keystroke, their season ends. Click one fraction of a second sooner, they’re world champs.

Samsung ended up giving fans the most competitive Worlds Finals ever. They surged back from a 2–0 deficit to force the first ever fifth game in a Worlds Finals match. If they made one different choice, they could have staged the greatest comeback in the history of League of Legends.

Just a month earlier, many fans thought they shouldn’t even be there.

Samsung Galaxy didn’t grab any headlines during their regular season. They were good, not great. They finished fourth behind SKT, ROX Tigers and kt Rolster, and the latter team swept them out of the LCK Playoffs. One of the top three teams would have to earn their spot at Worlds in the Regional Qualifier, but those spots were already locked in the minds of many fans.

Yet the smallest margin can sometimes mean all the difference, in both life and League of Legends. For Samsung Galaxy, that margin was just two hit points.

Smeb evens the Score

The first key moment in Samsung’s journey came in a series they didn’t even play in. kt Rolster and ROX Tigers were squaring off in a nailbiter of an LCK Finals. It all came down to one last game.

The lead was pendulous. Eventually, it swung toward KT and they began an assault on Baron. Smeb called down a Cannon Barrage in the pit, but Score trusted his trigger finger and his 900 true damage nuke.

Call it nerves. Lag. Just plain unlucky. But Score used Smite too early, leaving Baron with just two hit points and making it an easy steal for one of Smeb’s stray cannonballs. Tasting blood, ROX pushed their advantage and won in quick fashion.

Let’s rewind. There’s a whole world of possibilities in this moment. If KT flips just one decision, their season, and their lives, are both changed.

One alternative for KT was to not even start the Baron. Peanut and his Smite were out of commission, but KT stood to take a beating from the boss. The whole upper river was a blindspot for ROX; they had no vision in the area. Both of their Farsight Alterations were on cooldown. Had KT sprung a trap, they could have picked up kills, the Baron, and possibly the game.

Just because you start Baron doesn’t mean you have to finish it. This is something I wish my solo queue teammates understood, too. KT had the opportunity to bail out as soon as Cannon Barrage came down on their heads. If they run, Baron regenerates, and KT lives to fight another day.

But there was no changing Score’s mind; that Baron was marked for death. So, the obvious question is: why Smite so early? With Peanut dead, there was no enemy Smite to worry about. No other members of ROX were in range to burst 800+ damage. It was a sure thing, up until it wasn’t. Score is the only one who could know why he did it, and even he might not have an answer.

But where does Samsung Galaxy come in? If it weren’t for those two hit points, KT secures Baron and piles on. They could have still lost, but if they go on to win, Samsung’s course changes.

By taking the championship, KT would have automatically qualified for Worlds. ROX would have then qualified on points, leaving Samsung to face the eventual World Champions SKT in the Regional Qualifier. No small task.

If it weren’t for those two precious hit points, Samsung might not have even made the trip to San Francisco. All because of a game they had no control over.

I know I can relate to that feeling. Samsung watched something unfold that was out of their hands. For them, there was no choice involved. It’s like a car accident or an unexpected illness — all they could do was watch it happen.

I’ve found it’s more productive to worry about things I can actually change. Samsung did just that in the next key moment on their run to Worlds.

KT Rolster feels Ambition’s sting

It ended up being a lucky break that Samsung drew kt Rolster in the Regional Qualifier, but it didn’t look like it at the time. Zero-and-eleven — that was Samsung’s 2016 record against KT coming into their matchup in the Regional Qualifier final.

At first, it looked like more of the same. Samsung lost the first two games of the series. But they finally erased the zero in their win column by winning game three. A 14th loss meant they’d be watching the World Championship from home.

They picked Skarner.

The top tier junglers at the time — Gragas, Nidalee, and Rek’Sai — were banned, and Elise had been picked. Ambition could have gone with conventional wisdom and picked Hecarim or Kindred. Maybe it was planned all along, maybe not. The important thing is that Ambition and Samsung trusted their instincts, even though Ambition had never played a competitive game as Skarner in his entire career.

The decision caught kt Rolster off guard. At a key moment in an even game, Ambition surprised Score with a deadly Flash-Impale combo, killing his Elise almost instantly. Samsung leveraged the kill into a dive on Ssumday in the top lane, further increasing their lead.

After the play, Score had to be questioning his own choices. What could he have done differently?

Score wouldn’t have died to Hecarim or Kindred — and he was acting like that’s who he was facing. But it was a play Skarner was made for. Score thought he had more wiggle room, and against another jungler, he would have.

Score also had Flash. But the KT jungler wasn’t quick enough. At the last moment, he starts to turn around, but it’s too late. If he hits his F key a millisecond sooner, he lives, and Samsung can’t pull ahead. Instead, his Flash taunted him from a gray screen.

Samsung might still have won the game with a different jungle pick. But Ambition might not have felt as comfortable on another champion; he might have made a mistake and felt the game slip through his fingers. It also sent the message to kt Rolster that Samsung wasn’t afraid of them.

If Ambition makes a different choice in champion select, if he doesn’t trust his instincts, Samsung might have crawled into their shell and gone out with a whimper. But he stuck to his guns, so that even if he failed, it would have been on his own terms.

Crown banishes Doublelift

Doublelift’s death to Crown’s Viktor in the Group Stage is a moment that likely still haunts the TSM marksman. For Crown, it was Saturday.

Many thought Samsung drew a short straw by getting placed into Group D with TSM and Royal Never Give Up. I have to think those two teams would have been favorites to advance in almost any other group, and even the fourth team, Splyce, showed promise in the EU LCS. Only two would advance.

Samsung stumbled out of the gate, losing soundly to TSM in their second game of Groups. It wasn’t over yet, but they looked mortal. If Samsung lost to TSM again, they’d be in trouble.

With TSM holding the tiebreaker between them, Samsung would no longer control their own destiny in the group. For them to advance, TSM would have had to take first in the group; otherwise, if TSM and Samsung tied for 2nd, Samsung would be out.

After a contested early game, Samsung built a strong lead off key kills and an early Baron. But TSM stalled and eventually found a good fight in the mid lane. They picked up three kills and moved toward Baron — if they killed it, the tide would have turned.

But Doublelift wanted more.

Maybe he thought Crown had used his ultimate already, but by the time he realized otherwise, it was too late. Thirty-eight minutes and one second into the game, Doublelift’s Lucian was alive. At 38 minutes and two seconds, he was dead.

The first “what if” in Doublelift’s mind had to revolve around his almost-tower dive. With The Culling still active and Bjergen’s Chronoshift protecting him, he could have continued to try and kill Crown. With a revive available, he might have escaped.

The rest of TSM had their own hypotheticals. Bjergsen could have held onto Chronoshift to revive Doublelift during his second engage. Biofrost likely wondered if a shield from Inspire might have saved his lane partner. And the whole team considered an alternative future where they took Baron as a unit and staged a comeback.

Had TSM changed one decision, Samsung would have tied them in the group with a 4–2 record. Hardly a disastrous record for the Koreans. But TSM owned the tiebreaker over Samsung, meaning they would have been the first seed out of Group D.

That means TSM would have earned the spot on the same side of the Knockout Bracket as Albus NoX Luna, H2K and Cloud9. A single play blocked an easy path to the semifinals and possibly beyond for TSM.

Meanwhile, Samsung would have been relegated to the other side of the bracket. Their quarterfinals opponent? SK telecom T1. Once again, Samsung avoided facing the eventual World Champions in an early stage of the postseason — all thanks to a single decision made in the blink of an eye.

Samsung proves their championship Ambitions

While Samsung juked SKT for much of the postseason, the two teams seemed destined to meet eventually. And here they were: a fourth place regular season squad taking on the Unkillable Demon King.

Few thought they had a chance. I didn’t. Although Samsung had only lost a single game to that point in the tournament, fans and experts alike thought it would be a clean sweep for SKT. Some prognosticators gave Samsung a little credit by saying they’d win one game before bowing out. Samsung would eventually prove them all wrong.

Things weren’t looking good at first. Samsung stalled the hell out of game one only to eventually lose, while game two was a more decisive victory for SKT. All of a sudden, Samsung found themselves in a familiar spot: one game away from extinction.

Samsung filibustered expertly in game three. Eventually, as the game pushed past the 60-minute mark, SKT picked up a kill on Crown and moved toward Elder Dragon. There was only one page left in Samsung’s playbook; if Ambition couldn’t steal the Elder Dragon, it’d all be over.

There’s no better example of the slim margins in League of Legends than a jungler stealing an objective. A season can be won or lost in a single frame. Samsung’s postseason run started with one. It peaked with another.

These types of plays often come down to chance. The flip of a coin. But Bengi had to wonder what he could have done to tip the scales. Maybe he could have cast his abilities in a different order to deliver more burst damage. Or perhaps he might have gained a split second of reaction time by sleeping for an extra 30 minutes the night before.

There was plenty the rest of SKT could have done. Faker and Bengi were the only members fighting the Elder Dragon. The rest had moved to stop Samsung from taking Baron. Had just one more player stuck it out, even if Ambition still steals the dragon, he’d likely have lost his life for it. SKT could have taken the Baron for themselves.

Ambition didn’t die, though. He secured the Baron for Samsung and the team rode a tidal wave of minions into SKT’s base for the victory. At that point, few SKT fans were worried. Many predictions called for a 3–1 series, and even Faker isn’t perfect.

But Samsung had planted a seed of doubt. When they took Baron 32 minutes into game four, it blossomed. With the series tied going into one final game, there was one question on everyone’s mind: was Samsung about to pull off the greatest comeback in League of Legends history?

Samsung needed one more key moment to fall their way. One more missed Smite, one more miscalculation. But the roles were about to be reversed. This time, Samsung would be the ones wondering, “What if?”

Samsung falls short

Silver Scrapes is playing in a Worlds Finals for the first time ever. The entire 2016 season has come down to one final game.

If margins for error in League of Legends are normally small, now they’re microscopic. Everything Samsung and SKT worked for all year could be undone in a fraction of a second. Coming into the final showdown, Samsung have the momentum. But SKT have the resume. And they have the Faker.

Once again, the early game isn’t looking good for Samsung. They fall behind three kills to one. But they claw their way back into it and even take the lead, holding a 1,000 gold lead for a full 10 minutes. Even I started to doubt SKT.

At the 35 minute mark, both teams lose their junglers in a fight near SKT’s second tier mid tower. The two squads back away, content to continue their dance. But Ruler sees an opportunity.

Ruler more than measured up to the competition in his rookie season. He joined Samsung in May with just one LCK split worth of experience. He showed remarkable consistency for a young player, and he showed the poise of a veteran for most of Worlds. But he’s human. Seeing a chance to make a deciding play in the World Finals, he makes a mistake.

SKT stepped hard on the gas after that. They turned a dead heat into a 5,000 lead in an instant. Thirteen minutes later, they were World Champions.

Now Ruler was the one pondering alternative futures. All it would have taken was turning back a split second sooner. He was just a few hundred units away from surviving. What did Ruler see that was so tempting?

Maybe he thought he could get in, kill the snared Ashe and get out. Maybe he thought Crown had the same idea. Maybe he saw himself hoisting the Summoner’s Cup.

I think was has to hurt the most about this moment is that it wasn’t Ruler getting outplayed. Faker didn’t blow him away with a dazzling display of skill. He simply made a mistake. But it wasn’t just Ruler asking himself what he could have done differently.

A few minutes earlier, SKT caught Ambition’s Olaf out of position. He was forced to use Ragnarok to escape. Before it came off cooldown, Bengi used Dragon’s Rage to trade his own life for Ambition’s.

Why did that matter? Because Ambition was dead when SKT moved on Baron. If he’d been alive, SKT might have doubted their ability to take the objective.

There was a moment where Crown could have possibly flashed in to use Petrifying Gaze on three members of SKT. They might have killed Bang. But with CuVee just leaving base, they were outnumbered four to three.

If any of those moments go differently, the game continues, and we might have crowned a different champion. In League of Legends, mistakes can come at any time; this series proved that even SKT isn’t infallible.

In the end, though, Samsung made one more mistake than SKT. After coming out on top in so many key moments, one finally fell the other way. For all their hard work, the underdogs came up just short. And with that, their season ended.

But more so than any other second place team, Samsung Galaxy’s performance is worth recognizing. And it’s a perfect example of the butterfly effect in League of Legends; how a small cause can have wide-reaching consequences.

If ROX doesn’t steal Baron from KT in the Regional Qualifier, Samsung has to face SKT in the gauntlet and likely doesn’t make it to Worlds. If they don’t pick Skarner against ROX, they also might not have qualified. And if Crown doesn’t halt TSM’s comeback, Samsung ends up playing SKT in the Quarterfinals instead of the Finals.

In League of Legends, and in life, the margins are slim. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is as small as a few mouse clicks or keyboard strokes. It all comes down to just a few choices that define everything.

The point isn’t to berate the failures of Samsung Galaxy, Score, Doublelift, or Ruler. The point is to recognize that sometimes, the difference between a winner and a loser comes down to the smallest of factors. One more minute, one more page, one more click. Or one more flap of a butterfly’s wings.


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