Up 2-0 to KT Rolster, the script for another SK Telecom T1 win writes itself. This seemingly imminent victory comes over a team that is their rival in name only across their League of Legends history.
Game 2 of SKT’s LoL Champions Summer 2016 playoff series is nothing short of an embarrassment for KT, who find themselves aced and subsequently beaten in under 30 minutes. KT had been touted as the superior team prior to their match with SKT. Now they face another possible sweep at the hands of Korea’s LoL dynasty.
“3-1 KT was kind of the prevailing sentiment,” English OGN caster Christopher “PapaSmithy” Smith says as SKT takes down KT’s tier-two bottom turret. “But there was always that little voice in my head that said 3-0 SKT without any real reason to think so."
The words of SKT coach Choi Byung-hoon echo this feeling in an interview prior to their playoff match. “The matchup [against KT] will be slightly in our favor,” coach Choi says. “Since the pressure they are feeling while facing us is greater than our confidence in facing them.”
That small voice that pesters incessantly at the back of everyone who has seen SKT on the international stage, or simply knows of their reputation in LoL, is impossible to quell entirely. Against the ROX Tigers in the spring, SKT weren't favored either, outside of that nagging voice which whispers: "Never bet against SKT." They won that series, 3-1.
Yet, KT fights back. After going down 0-2, they retaliate, reverse-sweeping SKT for the first time in their storied history, eschewing the “never bet against SKT” narrative. After the Tigers defeat KT in the Summer Finals, SKT qualifies as the second seed for the 2016 League of Legends World Championship, based on circuit points.
Because of the circuit point system, a region's second seed is sometimes seen as inferior to their third — as was the case of the KOO Tigers and KT Rolster last year. SKT defies this narrative.
Going into this year’s World Championship the Tigers are favorites to take the tournament while chatter around SKT has died down significantly, especially when compared to the fervor that accompanied their first MSI title earlier this year and their start to the LCK Summer season. While SKT still look like the stronger team, more fuss has been made about Samsung Galaxy, who upset KT in the Korea Regional Finals than the team with a chance to take their third World Championship title.
Still, that nagging feeling persists. Despite the absence of pomp and circumstance around SKT’s appearance, the Tigers aren’t nearly as heavily-favored as SKT were last year, especially following the Chinese teams’ collapse in the group stages. A large part of this is due to the existence of SKT themselves and the Tigers’ abysmal track record against them. As long as SKT exists — and the Tigers have still yet to defeat them in a meaningful match — the Tigers will have a lingering doubt that SKT could swoop in and overwhelm them. It doesn't matter how poorly SKT performs in their previous matches — they always have a chance to take it all.
Make no mistake, this year’s team is not the lights-out SKT squad of 2015. There are a myriad of reasons why SKT are not favorites to take the 2016 crown and the majority of them start in the jungle.
Throughout the latter parts of 2016 spring, the 2016 MSI group stages, and all of this past summer season, Blank is a lightning rod for criticism of SKT as a whole. Many of SKT’s mistakes as a unit are brushed aside with Blank held up as the most obvious problem complete with lowlight reels of poorly-timed engages, failed ganks and mechanical errors. After SKT’s poor performances during the MSI group stages, fans clamored for the return of veteran SKT jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong, a sentiment that carried into LCK Summer 2016 where bengi played 14 games to Blank’s 27.
|Season-Name||Kill Participation||KDA||CSD@10||GD@10||DPM||WPM||Team Jungle Control|
|Summer 2016- Blank||70.3%*||3.7||-1.5**||-127**||328||0.87^||52.5%|
*worst of all starting junglers that season
**second-worst only to SKT bengi, who played 14 games to Blank's 27
^best of all starting junglers that season
A cursory look at Blank and bengi’s statistics from the regular seasons of 2016 and 2015 summer respectively, reveal less of a gap than the overwhelming amount of Blank criticism suggests. Many of bengi’s numbers from last season — specifically his gold difference at 10 minutes and KDA — are also inflated by SKT’s utterly dominant performance across LCK Summer 2015. SKT were up an average of 1,214 gold over their opponents at 15 minutes, the highest of any team that split. This past summer, SKT averaged a mere 246 gold ahead of their adversaries at 15 minutes.
In summer 2015, Faker held down the mid lane while bengi placed wards and ganked for top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan. Even bengi’s overwhelming amount of wards per minute — 0.94 to Blank’s 0.87 — isn’t a true one-to-one comparison in his favor. Blank placed more wards per minute than any other jungler this past split in a season where the average WPM for junglers was significantly lower than summer 2015. For comparison, CJ Entus’ Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong placed the fewest amount of wards per minute of starting junglers in LCK Summer 2015 at 0.87, Blank’s first-place total in LCK Summer 2016.
Does this mean that Blank has been unfairly criticized for underperforming? No, he’s had a weak split. But this table does point to factors well beyond statistics as to why he has struggled in addition to the obvious mechanical misplays and communication errors. And ironically these issues begin with their greatest strength.
SKT are a team that will always revolve around Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. They can’t be faulted for this — Faker is the greatest player that League of Legends has ever had — but it does mean that, at times, they operate differently from the vast majority of teams. Regardless of meta or year, SKT prefers strong laners alongside Faker in mid to immediately garner early advantages and overwhelm opponents quickly.
A crucial individual in this plan has always been bengi, Faker’s right-hand man since 2013, who has an uncanny ability to make his teammates shine, as a true jungler should. Outside of his difficulties adjusting to the double-jungle meta in 2014, bengi has had a symbiotic relationship with Faker and his SKT teammates. Bengi places a strong vision net in opponents’ territories, allowing Faker and company to push aggressively while bengi then goes about applying pressure where needed or farming. Rarely aggressive himself (his 2013 Lee Sin aside) bengi’s more cautious nature balanced the brash, confident attitude of Faker. It was a perfect partnership.
But though one half of that partnership has been absent from SKT's more recent matches, it seems the team hopes to continue to run Blank and Faker in the same way they played bengi. Though Blank was originally sought out for his aggressive tendencies in the jungle, at a time when Kindred and Graves could take over games when given time to farm and scale, SKT have never needed a carry from the jungle. While SKT shifted these roles this past spring, allowing Blank time to coordinate and gel with the team, Faker was more often punished for his laning over-aggression — visibly apparent during the 2016 MSI group stages. It seems as long as Faker is the team's central threat, whoever occupies the jungle will need to support him. Faker is a flexible and talented enough player to change, but SKT's strongest form is characterized by his laning prowess and aggressive flair.
As recently as their last public showing before Worlds — their 3-2 playoff loss to KT — Blank has lacked this same understanding of when to temper his own aggression. Combined with Faker's laning style, even while on supportive champions, this has been a deadly combination for SKT rather than their opponents. A well-timed blue buff invade in Game 5 turns into a three-for-zero kill trade in KT’s favor when Blank pushes their luck and initiates a fight. Similarly, top laner Duke has had inconsistent Teleport timing, sometimes exactly where he needs to be and when while at other times looking wholly lost initiating by himself or arriving after a teamifight has already been lost. These small, ill-timed skirmishes have cost SKT dearly all year. While they often have the wherewithal to fight their way out in the late game, especially with the likes of Faker and AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, SKT can be out-maneuvered by a well-coordinated unit that immediately capitalizes on these mistakes.
What SKT do have are strong lanes in a meta that rewards laning dominance. Despite his communication mishaps, Duke is one of the best laning tops in the world. Throughout LCK Summer 2016, he had the highest average CS differential at 10 minutes and highest average gold lead at 10 minutes of any top laner including KT Rolster’s Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho and ROX Tigers’ Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho. SKT can attack opponents from all lanes with a three-pronged attack featuring Duke, Faker, and the duo of Bang and Wolf that can beat adversaries into submission early.
They might not be tournament favorites, but don’t be too surprised if that creeping voice appears once more whispering, “Never bet against SKT.”
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.