Theory, Practice, and Execution: SK Telecom vs. Royal Never Give Up

by theScore Staff Oct 13 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / 2016 World Championship / Riot Games

In theory, they were the perfect fit.

After a bitter year on Oh My God and an unsuccessful split on the Qiao Gu Reapers, Jian “Uzi” Zihao returned to Royal Club — now called Royal Never Give Up — the only organization he ever considered home. In theory, he should have propelled RNG to greater heights than ever before in the form of a possible World Championship and perhaps the chance to finally best SK Telecom T1 at an international event.

In practice, he and Royal can still make this happen. Yet, up against SKT in the quarterfinals of the 2016 World Championship, the odds don’t look good for RNG, especially considering their recent performances.

When SK Telecom T1 saw that the meta had once again left legacy jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong behind, they elected to play with Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, their backup jungler who they acquired from China’s Royal organization where he had previously served as a substitute for the injured Choi “inSec” In-seok. In theory, Blank should have brought a new carry style to SKT's jungle while still supporting mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok.

In practice, Blank worked up to a point, but it’s still Faker who makes everything happen. Their loss to KT Rolster in the LoL Champions Korea summer playoffs and second seed placement at this year’s World Championship were unexpected hiccups in their usual level of excellence.

In theory, OMG's 2015 rendition was the perfect all-Chinese roster, and Uzi was their finishing touch — a crown jewel on what was already a popular and fairly successful lineup. With domestic stars like Gao “GoGoing” Diping, Yin “Loveling” Le, Yu “Cool” Jiajun and Uzi, OMG prepared to take on the rest of the LoL Pro League’s hybrid rosters with their homegrown squad.

All too often, rosters appear better on paper than they are in practice. In theory, this OMG team should have contended with the best China had to offer, qualifying for the 2015 World Championship and making a deep run for the Summoner's Cup.

In practice it was a disaster.

Fans of both Uzi the young man — a generally happy, childlike personality — and Uzi the fierce competitor — ready to tear apart his opponents as he figuratively stared them down in lane — welcomed his return to RNG for the 2016 summer season. After OMG and an unsuccessful stint on QG, Uzi was finally home. By his side was legendary support player Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong, fresh from RNG’s fairly strong showing at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational. Jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu and up-and-coming mid laner Li “Xiaohu” Yuanhao came into their own under Mata’s guidance.

“The addition of Mata in particular on my team has really raised my individual level and the level of the team as a whole,” Xiaohu said during their spring playoff run. “Before, when I used to lane against an opponent, I really wouldn’t think about my actions critically. If someone asked me why I did a certain thing, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to explain it. After Mata joined the team, he was really able to teach me to think about why I do things and make clearer decisions.”

In Season 3, Royal Club Huang Zu was defeated in the World Championship Finals by SKT. Star Horn Royal Club were dispatched by Samsung Galaxy White in the 2014 World Championship Finals. Despite an impressive 8-2 group stage at the 2016 MSI, RNG fell to SKT once more in the bracket stage.

Uzi was the final piece of the puzzle that could presumably take down Faker and SK Telecom T1 at an international competition. RNG had all of the other pieces in place: former Samsung White superstar support Mata, rising talents Xiaohu and Mlxg, and the steady Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok who was a consistent presence in the top lane.

At the same time that Uzi joined RNG, their would-be international rivals, SKT, were enjoying an unofficial Triple Crown of sorts as current world champions, IEM champions, and, most recently, MSI champions. Previously wracked with nerve issues, Blank learned at Faker’s side as the legacy player guided the relatively new jungler into his new position on SKT. In the LCK Spring 2016 Finals, Blank had his best performance of the year, unexpectedly outclassing ROX Tigers’ Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, the jungler of the split.

Yet Blank continued to be plagued by occasional poor mechanical performances and an inability to read situations correctly. As the jungle meta shifted away from DPS carries, Blank looked further out of sorts in the summer split, often going in ahead of his team with no immediate follow-up, stretching what should have been a favorable trade into an elongated mistake. SKT brought bengi back in the LCK Summer 2016 season, alternating between him and Blank.

bengi’s performances ranged from good to poor and grew worse as the season wore — even on old favorites like Gragas and Elise. The game had changed and once again left bengi behind. bengi split his time with Blank, who still started in the majority of SKT’s regular season games and all games in their Summer playoff run. Blank was shaky, but bengi wasn’t able to apply pressure like he used to, and the team had grown accustomed to his particular style when he loaded up onto the rift.

Despite their jungle woes, SKT had strong showings, even throughout their playoff loss to KT Rolster. Games 1 and 2 encouraged thoughts of yet another SKT 3-0 playoffs sweep only to be ultimately outclassed by KT jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin who out-jungled Blank at nearly every turn.

Due to Blank’s playoff mistakes, it’s no surprise that bengi started in SKT’s first 2016 World Championship match. The necessity of standard lanes plays to bengi’s strengths and the way he’s played with SKT since Season 3 SK Telecom T1 #2. On Elise, bengi controlled the map through vision, tracking C9’s William “Meteos” Hartman and facilitating nearly everything SKT did in their early game. His first performance at this year’s Worlds group stages was classic bengi, an artful and nostalgic showing for long-time SKT fans.

Meanwhile, Blank has struggled to have a similarly visible impact in his games, and played in SKT’s only loss of the group stages — their first match against the Flash Wolves. SKT seem determined to mold Blank in a similar style to bengi, but he lacks the pathing finesse to do so. By contrast, Blank typically positions better for DPS in teamfights, and generally is more involved in their lanes, while bengi wards so that the lanes can push up themselves before he turns his attention to whichever lane is available or needs help. At this tournament, bengi has been more proactive early with SKT’s lanes — 100 percent First Blood rate in the admittedly tiny sample size of two games — but Blank still has a higher kill participation rate (75 percent to bengi’s 59.5 percent) and a higher rate of attempted involvement.

“I’m more of a lane-supportive jungler that plays rather passively,” Blank said when asked to describe his style.

SKT looked a bit behind in their LCK playoff series, but showed up at the 2016 World Championship comfortable in a meta that naturally suits their strong laners: Faker, AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, and top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong. Blank might not be the perfect fit that SKT hoped he would be, and a lot of this series will rest on who starts in the jungle and can snowball SKT’s lanes as early as possible.

RNG Percentage of Team Gold Top Jungle Mid AD* Support
2016 MSI 20.3% 21.6% 23.2% 24.5% 10.5%
2016 Worlds 20.4% 18.6% 21.9% 28.2% 11.0%

At 28.2 percent, Uzi receives the highest percentage of his team’s total gold of all players at the 2016 World Championship. This is nothing new for a team that features Uzi. Since their appearance at MSI with Wang "wuxx" Cheng, gold has shifted away from mid and jungle to be funneled towards Uzi.

The Uzi tradeoff is simple: phenomenal mechanical powers, less room for the team to maneuver. This is most notable with mid laner Xiaohu, who was beginning to come into his own at MSI, but whose performance has since dipped following Uzi’s arrival as he’s struggled to find his new place on the team. Mlxg has undergone a similar, less visible transformation. While RNG now plays around the bottom lane, this doesn’t mean that Mlxg constantly camps bot. In fact, he’s more likely to farm or go to the mid lane. Unfortunately, he’s not as adept as his adversaries at powerfarming. He and Xiaohu have lacked synergy throughout the summer season, making his ganks — which now come later than they previously did in spring and at MSI — less effective.

Uzi rewards his team with an incredible payoff— massive amounts of damage in teamfights and laning dominance. Responsible for 34.9 percent of his team’s total damage, Uzi is RNG’s win condition, provided that the rest of the team can play around him.

It’s no surprise that RNG choose to give Uzi the necessary tools he needs to carry a game, but their over-reliance on Mata staying in lane beside him hurts their map pressure. Mata is best when he’s unlocked, and Uzi can more than take care of himself, as shown in their first group stage game (the remade version after Aurelion Sol was disabled) against Team SoloMid.

RNG’s insistence on lane dominance during groups — evidenced by Mata’s champion choices of Nami and Karma hurt them in the long run, since Mata wasn’t able to affect other lanes. He and Uzi lack synergy in lane. This isn’t a problem when Mata roams, especially since Uzi is such a monstrous laner that he can easily handle himself 2v1. However, it becomes a problem when Mata stays, effectively removing his influence on the game. It seems counterintuitive that supporting Uzi’s immense pressure and carry potential involves his laning partner leaving lane, but this is the state of RNG. They looked better in the group stages than they did against Edward Gaming in the 2016 LPL Summer Finals, yet they continue to force Uzi and Mata together, when the team would be far better served with them apart, both working towards a mid and late game where Uzi can dazzle audiences and opponents alike in teamfights.

While SKT are not at their top form, and suffer the same questions regarding their jungle position that have plagued them all year, they’re certainly the favorites to win this series. RNG have the talent, but they haven’t made their pieces fit as well as SKT.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.