Fans had to wait a day after the opening festivities at the 2016 League of Legends World Championship to see reigning champions SK Telecom T1 play their first match against Cloud9. After a commanding victory, SKT silenced the C9 home crowd in San Francisco, going far towards quieting their critics prior to this tournament.
The match was billed as a headlining clash between two similar teams, both fighting for the top spot in Worlds Group B. SKT had been on a comparatively downward domestic trend when compared to their North American adversaries. Despite strong showings in Games 1 and 2 of their playoff series against KT Rolster, SKT lost 3-2 in the summer gauntlet, missing the LoL Champions Korea Finals for the first time since the sister team merger and the creation of the LCK in 2015. C9 had lost 3-1 to Team SoloMid in the 2015 North American League Championship Series Summer Finals but had stormed through the gauntlet to earn NA’s third seed at Worlds. Going into Worlds, SKT had quietly lurked in the background of pre-tournament analysis where C9 had taken center stage, touted as NA’s second seed with Counter Logic Gaming — NA’s true second-seed — demoted to third.
These two teams operate with similar base strengths and weaknesses. First and foremost, they are both anchored by a strong and adaptable mid laner. C9’s Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen was always known for his strong mechanics, but this split he evolved into a smarter, more flexible mid that could hold his own against any opponent in his region, even Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. Meanwhile, SKT's Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok — the best mid laner to ever play the game — has been at the center of their five domestic titles and two world championships.
Recent jungle performances from both SKT’s Kang “Blank” Sun-gu and C9’s William “Meteos” Hartman had been lackluster. Blank was consistently criticized for his nonexistent early pressure and mechanical errors. His coordination with his teammates was still lacking — despite improvement from the spring split — and he was often not aggressive enough or bullishly aggressive at the wrong times, costing his team crucial map control. When evaluating SKT, the jungle position was cited as their greatest weakness, and a point for teams like C9 to attack.
“I don’t really read the criticism that people have so I don’t really understand when people say ‘underestimating,’” SKT top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong said after the win. “I do think that the team didn’t perform as well during scrims for Worlds so I’m not really sure after this game how people will see us or how they will prepare.”
Yet all eyes were on the top lane. Both teams have strong top laners with similar underlying faults. Prior to his arrival on Cloud9, Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong had struggled coordinating with his teammates on Team Impulse at times last year, and was obviously out of sync with the other members of NRG eSports in 2016 Spring. Former top laner for SK Telecom T1 K, and teammate of remaining members Faker and jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong, Impact was known for his versatility and proficiency with tanks and bruisers rather than the carry style he adopted for C9’s impressive playoff and gauntlet runs. Now, Impact stared down the lane at SKT’s latest top Duke, a monstrous laner with stronger statistics than even Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho, the Tigers’ crown jewel and one of the best players at Worlds.
“[Impact] is a former SKT 1 member, I have respect from that,” Duke says. “He had a lot of solo kills lately so my main goal in this matchup was to beat him in the laning phase. In the very beginning I was a bit pressured but in the end, bengi helped out and so overall, I won.”
Like Impact, Duke has drawn criticism for his late Teleport plays inattention to the map, which has led to SKT missing out on cross map opportunities.
“I think it’s more of a sight or zoning issue,” Duke said. “My sight has been kind of narrow but recently during the summer split I’ve practiced watching as little of the laning phase as possible and looking at the entire map or game [instead]. I think it’s paid off. SKT is a team of smaller calls and decisions so I’m on my own.”
Against C9, Duke’s Jayce soaked up map pressure, with C9 sending multiple members to deal with him come mid game while SKT moved around the rest of the map freely.
Not only was Duke the better top laner, but SKT was the better team. SKT made quick work of C9 early, with bengi starting over Blank in the jungle. On his signature champion of Elise, bengi reunited with Faker and played the exact game that the two have been playing for years — keeping lanes pushing, securing vision, slowly pressuring C9 back towards their own nexus. Faker received the majority of his attention, but a few ganks were spared for Duke in the top lane. Combined with his natural laning prowess and Meteos’ lack of early pressure, this kept Impact well under SKT’s control.
“Jungle intervention in top lane has a lot to do with the current meta and the meta has shifted from tanks to not necessarily bruisers but champions like Jayce,” Duke said. “[Jayce] is really vulnerable despite his strength so right now I’m getting a lot of attention. It happened this game and it’s happened a lot during scrims. I wasn’t afraid of any 1v1 confrontation with Jayce against any champion but I was a bit afraid of [Impact receiving] more jungle intervention.”
With support from bengi and his team, Duke wasn’t statistically impressive, but showcased strong synergy with SKT in a strong win, sending a message to SKT's doubters for this tournament.
“I think SKT is the team with the best chance to win the tournament,” he said with confidence.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.