In defense of SKT Huni

by theScore Staff Dec 5 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of NA LCS / lolesports flickr

When SK Telecom T1 announced that they had parted ways with top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, few would have accurately predicted his replacement.

The buzz quickly turned to ex-KT Rolster star Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, with others speculating about Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo or Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin. Then the revelation landed: SKT were bringing home a Korean ex-patriot, the polarizing Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, there was some head-scratching and doubt. Even Huni’s most ardent defenders tend to agree about some key criticisms of how he plays the game: he's called a tilter who either won't or can't play tanks, which makes him a direct downgrade from Duke and a mere consolation prize compared to top-tier choices like Ssumday or the other LCK options.

Any changes made by a world champion like SKT deserve to be scrutinized. Huni will have to work hard to prove that he's worthy of his new team. But when the entire context of Huni’s career is considered, the criticisms start to fade. As part of SKT’s full 2017 roster, Huni has more than enough strengths to contribute to another strong year.

Huni is not a tilter

The most common criticism Huni faces is the accusation that he's prone to tilting, breaking down mentally and emotionally during games when things aren’t working out. While that idea is drawn from evidence that seems to support it, the conclusion is inaccurate because it is based in misinterpretations.

In the Immortals’ announcement video about Huni’s departure, CEO Noah Winston stated that Huni was “the first to help us bounce back after a long day of scrims or a disappointing performance.” Huni’s coach with the Immortals, Brendan Schilling, echoed that sentiment, telling theScore esports that Huni “has a unique mentality where he doesn’t really get ‘down.’ He takes losses very easily.” Combine those endorsements of Huni’s mental strength with his visibly bubbly personality and perpetual smile and it should be clear that tilting isn’t really an issue for Huni, at least not any more so than any other player.

Many of Huni’s in-game situations that appear to be tilt-related are actually caused by his playstyle, not a lack of mental fortitude. Huni always plays with his foot on the gas, looking to pull the trigger on aggressive outplays and taking risks that many other players would balk from. Many of Huni’s plays are coin flips, and the outcomes depend on which way the coin is weighted. When Huni and his team are in the lead, his moves can pay off in spectacular ways. But when Huni is playing from behind and the coin is weighted against him, his plays are more likely to result in failure, hastening his defeat.

From certain angles, Huni’s approach can look like he’s tilting, making bad decisions when playing from behind. The reality is that Huni makes those plays from behind not out of frustration, but because he is tenacious and refuses to give up and bleed out. There may be more conservative and arguably more reliable ways to achieve comebacks, but Huni's persistence is admirable and comes from mental strength, not weakness. If you want to see real tilting, don’t look at Huni; go watch Josh “Dardoch” Hartnett in Breaking Point, instead.

Huni can play tanks

Huni’s complicated relationship with tank champions is grounded in reality, but both his willingness and his ability to play tanks are often misrepresented.

Huni does not refuse to play tanks, and he does not fail on those champions as often as the common narrative holds. During 2016, Huni spent 24 of his 81 games on tank/bruiser champions, with a record of 16-8.

Huni’s Tank/Bruiser Play in 2016

Champion  Games  Record
Ekko*  11  8-3
Gnar  5  3-2
Hecarim  3  2-1
Gragas  2  2-0
Trundle  1  0-1
Tahm Kench  1  0-1
Poppy  1  1-0

Includes 2016 spring, summer, and regional qualifiers.
*A few Ekko games were played with an AP build.

In fairness, Huni’s ventures into tank-land tend to carry more of a bruiser flavor, with few pure tanks. And if a tank champion has the option of taking a more bruiser-oriented build path, such as Ekko building a first-item Trinity Force, he will almost always take that route. Still, Huni goes outside of his damage-oriented carry role more often than some believe.

Despite his winning record on tank/bruiser champions, it’s true that Huni spent far more time on carries than most other top laners. The same was true when Huni was part of Fnatic in 2015. That shouldn’t be attributed only to Huni’s personal preferences, though: team circumstances have always dictated that playing Huni on carries was the best way to win.

Throughout Huni’s history, he has always been the point of the spear, the biggest threat on his team. This was especially true with the Immortals. Jason “WildTurtle” Tran shared some of the load in the mid and late game but offered little pressure in the laning phase, while Eugene “Pobelter” Park mostly provided roaming and cleanup services to help out his side laners. If Huni played a tank, it put pressure on WildTurtle and Pobelter to lead the charge as damage dealers, but WildTurtle’s early-game vulnerability made it easy for opponents to shut him down. Pobelter was more valuable as a secondary threat than a primary carry.

Huni’s success with Fnatic had a lot to do with his ability to share threat and pressure with Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten while Martin “Rekkles” Larsson played with low resources and offered utility and insurance. That arrangement saw Huni achieve his greatest success, but even with Febiven splitting the workload, Huni still tended to be at the center of the action. In fact, Huni led Fnatic in kill participation in the 2015 spring regular season, and had higher kill participation than Febiven in the summer regular season as well.

Huni has never played on a team where he wasn’t the biggest threat. Now, with superstar carries like Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Bae “Bang” Jun-sik as his teammates, he will finally have the luxury of taking a step back and counting on his teammates to take the lead. Strategically, that should free Huni up to play tanks more often and build his familiarity with the role, while also giving him more breathing room and better insurance policies when he plays for damage.

None of this necessarily means that Huni will pick up Maokai, Nautilus and Shen, or that he will look as good on those champions as he does on Riven or Rumble, but Huni’s tank play has never been as reluctant or ineffective as it is commonly perceived.

Huni’s strengths

Even if Huni's weaknesses aren’t as severe as they may seem, any imperfections make it easy to conclude that he isn’t quite up to SKT’s standards. SKT have employed some phenomenal top laners in recent years, including Duke and 2015 Worlds MVP Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan. Comparisons to Duke, MaRin, Smeb, or Ssumday are bound to make Huni seem weak, but he has many strengths of his own that shouldn’t be overlooked.

For example, Huni is excellent in the laning phase, better than Ssumday though perhaps not on the same level as Duke. Throughout 2016, Huni was the most consistent 1v1 top laner in the NA LCS. He never finished outside of the top two at his position in CSD at 10 minutes, whether or not lane swaps were involved.

Huni’s Laning, 2016

Timeframe  [email protected]  Rank Among Tops Nearest Opponent
Spring Regular Season  +13.1  1  Balls (+4.8)
Spring Playoffs  +9.7  1  Balls (+8.5)
Summer Regular Season  +5.3  2  Hauntzer (+7.8)
Summer Playoffs*  +6.5  1  Seraph (+2.8)
Regional Qualifiers*  +1.5  2  Seraph (+1.7)

*Played on patch 6.15; no lane swaps.

Huni saw some drop-off in his laning stats during the regional qualifiers, but the footnote to that relatively down-to-earth +1.5 is that it reflects just four games, all played against the powered up “top die” incarnation of Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong. Huni’s laning stats aren’t just a product of weak competition, either: at the 2015 World Championships he generated +4.8 CSD at 10 minutes while playing against opponents like Smeb, Tong “Koro1” Yang, Chen “Ziv” Yi and Liu “Zzitai” Zhi-hao.

Some credit for Huni's laning stats goes to his long-time jungler, Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin, but most of the world's best top laners have benefited from dedicated jungle help. Reignover's support doesn't negate Huni's accomplishments.

Huni’s understanding of how to trade effectively 1v1 and gain early advantages is just one expression of his mechanical prowess: his raw skill is second to none. Comparing Huni to Duke, one of the world’s best 1v1 top laners, Schilling stated that, in his opinion, “Duke isn't as good as Huni in overall mechanics.” Those mechanics have been famously expressed in Riven quadrakills and other highlights.

In other aspects of the game, Huni still measures up reasonably well against the competition. His Teleport usage and mid/late-game map movements are far from perfect, but Duke had similar challenges throughout 2016 and was still effective. Huni should be able to develop that aspect of his game more this year, now that he has the chance to play in an all-Korean team and learn from the higher quality macro play of the LCK at large. And with or without Teleport, Huni is an aggressive, effective initiator with an eye for starting team fights.

Even if Huni doesn’t stack up with Smeb, Ssumday, or Duke across the board, he exceeds some of those players in certain areas. His toolkit is far from empty.

Questions and answers

All of the above being said, there are some question marks around Huni’s fit within SKT and his ability to mold himself into the player his team needs him to be. However, SKT seem to have a good set of answers already in place.

Huni and his new jungler, Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, share some of the same strengths and weaknesses in their playstyles and may need to evolve to accommodate one another. Too much similarity can cause issues, and neither Huni nor Peanut have had to drastically re-invent themselves before. That may pose some challenges for SKT’s coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun.

Despite Huni’s affability, those who have worked with him suggest that he can be somewhat stubborn, specifically when it comes to his champion pool. Schilling said that while Huni was more receptive about strategic discussions or item builds, when it came to champion picks he “needed more proof than the rest [of the players]” before he would agree to pick up something different. That attitude shouldn’t be mistaken to mean that Huni is hard to coach in general, though. “Huni communicates his opinions on all matters and is [a] great help in that regard, since he provides a lot of feedback,” Schilling said.

It may take some time to convince Huni to play differently and sacrifice his own vision for the sake of the rest of the team. But SKT seem to be aware of the task facing them based on comments to OSEN, translated by Slingshot’s Andrew Kim, in which head coach Choi Byung-hoon praised Huni’s “growth potential” and called him “a good player to mold.”

Even if Huni or Peanut are a bit slow to adapt, SKT should still find themselves in a good position. Faker and Bang are both very well-rounded players who can excel in utility roles, and SKT won the 2015 World Championships by setting MaRin up to carry. SKT have the experience and flexibility to keep Huni comfortable and make use of his strengths.

Right now Huni lacks some refinement, but there are many reasons why he was a good signing for SKT. He is not coming into the LCK as an enormous question mark, and his perceived weaknesses are not as significant as they would seem relative to the amount of conversation they generate. Huni’s mechanics and mindset are huge assets, and he is entering an environment where he will have every opportunity to succeed, and a chance to play a key role in chasing SKT's third consecutive world championship.

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed comments on Huni's "growth potential" to SKT coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun. In fact, it was the organization's head coach Choi Byung-hoon who made those remarks. theScore esports regrets the errror.

Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.