Two rosters were highlighted before the start of 2017 LoL Champions Korea Spring — those of perennial esports rivals SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster. KT’s roster in particular made the most of the overlapping factors leading to the homecoming of many Korean imports from various teams in other regions. While Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon made his way back to Korea from North America — and previously, Europe — to play on SKT, Heo “PawN” Won-seok, Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong all returned from Chinese shores to form the new KT superteam.
Superteams — a team of known or presumed star players all gathered onto one roster — are still uncommon in Korea. Only one other team in the region, 2016 Longzhu Gaming, has been dubbed a superteam. They are now the blueprint for what not to do with your roster.
Don’t gather a group of talented players without ensuring that at least one of them has a strong voice. Don’t sign 10 players and constantly shuffle your lineup like a deck of playing cards. Don’t ignore how many resources each player required to be successful on their former team.
KT’s lineup checks off all of these “don’ts” neatly. Mata is known as the best in-game shotcaller in League of Legends history. He’s joined by Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho — one of two main brains behind the success of the ROX Tigers in 2015-16 — and KT’s own stalwart AD carry-turned-jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin. KT only has five players. This is a problem if PawN’s back injuries escalate or someone gets hurt, but the absence of substitutes ensures that KT will focus on developing synergy between these five players, avoiding Longzhu’s excess of riches problem by default.
Resource distribution could have been an issue — both Deft and Smeb earned more than the average amount of gold for their respective positions last year — but PawN and Score are far more flexible. Currently, Smeb and Score are the two KT players above their respective position averages.
The new KT squad even checks off the unwritten rule of professional League of Legends in Korea — find a mid laner who can somehow go even with SKT’s ace, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. PawN built a brand around his unassuming ability to not only go toe-to-toe with the SKT prodigy, but best him.
KT was built to defeat SKT. Yet they’ve played visibly worse in comparison.
If results are all that matters, the two are equal. Tied at the top of the region, KT and SKT are undefeated both in series and in games — identical scores of 3-0, 6-0. KT have knocked off the new ROX Tigers — who, in lineup, are pretty much the old Afreeca Freecs plus Kim “KeY” Han-gi — bbq Olivers (formerly ESC Ever) and the new Longzhu Gaming. SKT have laid waste to the Jin Air Green Wings, Kongdoo Monster and the Tigers.
With each passing victory, KT improves as a unit. With each passing victory, SKT looks more and more unstoppable.
KT entered the Lunar New Year break on a high note — a 2-0 sweep over Longzhu that showcased stronger coordination than the team had previously shown in-game, particularly in Game 2.
What KT do have, and will continue to have regardless of overall in-game unity, are strong laners. PawN, who was KT’s weakest component on paper going into the split due only to his health issues while on Edward Gaming — he played only five games in the 2016 LPL Summer — currently holds a 292 experience difference over his opponents at 10 minutes. This is the highest of all LCK mids, and fourth-highest of all players in Korea. He consistently bests his lane opponents, even solo-killing them at times.
Deft holds the highest gold difference at 10 minutes (316) of any AD carry in Korea, twice the amount of his closest opponent, SKT’s Bae “Bang” Jun-sik at 156. Smeb, despite focus from KT’s opponents, always manages to make up the difference from early deficits and become a mid and late-game force. Score currently has the highest experience difference at 10 minutes of any LCK player at 355.
Yet all of these top-tier components haven’t always added up to a strong team. Deft’s phenomenal Ezreal teamfight against the Tigers in KT’s first series of the year is such a well-watched and featured highlight, it’s easy to forget that KT’s first match was nearly looking like a Tigers win. Many of KT’s early advantages come from solo-kills in lane, not Score’s jungle attention.
Score’s shift is the largest difference between the current KT and their previous iteration. In the 2016 LCK Summer regular season, Score held the highest First Blood percentage of any starting player in Korea at 57 percent. Not too far behind was then-KT top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho at 50 percent. Score’s primary duty was to get Ssumday rolling before aggressing on his other lanes. KT’s entire early game was orchestrated by and went through Score.
Thus far, Score has participated in none of KT’s 2017 First Bloods. He’s the only starting jungler without one. Samsung Galaxy’s Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong (who has been splitting time with Kang “Haru” Min-seung) and SKT’s Kang “Blank” Sun-gu (who has only played one game), are the other two junglers in the region with no First Blood participation. It’s a massive shift from the KT of last year. Score has looked a bit disconnected from his new lanes, although, at 40 percent, his jungle proximity is just above the 38 percent LCK average.
The jungle meta itself also plays a large role. Score spends much of the early game farming — as previously mentioned, he has the highest experience difference at 10 minutes of any player this split — rather than in any of his lanes. After all, with lanes that can solo-kill their adversaries, he might as well farm up into a formidable carry Kha’Zix.
SKT’s offseason crown jewel, the aggressive former ROX Tigers jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho has undergone a similar transformation due to the current state of the jungle. Although Peanut only had a 38 percent First Blood rate in 2016 LCK Summer, he had a strong kill participation of 75.3 percent. This has dipped to 53.5 percent in 2017 LCK Spring, the lowest of any jungler in the region. His First Blood rate has dropped to 20 percent.
Peanut spends very little time top, another slight divergence from his Tigers days. He has one of the lower top side jungle proximity percentages (five percent) in the region and is below the seven percent average. Yet, Huni owns the highest gold difference at 10 minutes (221) of any Korean top laner and the third highest experience difference (125). SKT’s top lane strength often comes from Huni and Huni’s laning alone. No slouch on the other side of the map, Bang enjoys the second-highest gold lead at 10 minutes of all Korean AD carries at 156. Most importantly, regardless of statistics, Faker always trades aggressively and draws pressure.
SKT are reliant on their strong laners and have been for years. Faker’s mid lane prowess alone has dismantled domestic and international opponents who have tried to topple the SKT juggernaut. With their strong lanes comes a practiced synergy from Faker, Bang, and support Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan alongside shared aggression from Huni, Faker, and Peanut. SKT already have coordination and style that KT do not have.
Prior to his arrival on SKT for the 2017 season, Huni’s dominance when coupled with jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin on both Fnatic and Immortals was well-known, but so was his stubbornness, exemplified and immortalized by the pick of Lucian top during the 2016 North American League of Legends Championship Series Spring playoffs. Peanut was the headlining offseason pickup for SKT — especially given Blank’s inconsistencies in 2016. Huni was more of a head-scratcher but he now may be their most important signing, the difference that keeps the LCK scales tipped in SKT’s favor.
On SKT, Huni trusts his other lanes and his jungler to draw opponents’ attention. After all, Faker draws pressure simply by existing, even before factoring in his naturally-aggressive playstyle and consistent trading. This takes the pressure off of him to constantly trade and become a target. Huni was already known for an itchy Teleport trigger finger and SKT is a team that can put his Teleports to good use, especially now that he’s playing tankier initiators like Maokai and Poppy. Huni has a strong kill participation percentage of 61.7 percent, fourth-highest of all Korean tops and above the top lane LCK average of 56.8 percent. Everything on SKT still goes through the mid lane, but a responsive, Teleporting top laner is something that SKT never managed to have with Lee “Duke” Ho-seong last year.
KT invested a lot into gathering their superteam. The roster shows care, attention, and features a group of five top-tier players. But SKT showed equal care in their acquisitions of Peanut and Huni and remain the best team in the region.
Jungle proximity data courtesy of Riot Games. All other statistics from Oracle's Elixir.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.