Last year couldn't have gone worse for SK Telecom T1. The empire they'd built over the previous year had crumbled as 2014 progressed, culminating in their elimination from Worlds contention by the hands of Samsung White and NaJin White Shield. By the end of the year, three players from their 2013 world title team had left and they were forced to watch their regional rivals, Samsung White, win the Summoner's Cup in their home country.
Following the end of their reign as Korea's top team, SKT did everything in their power to make sure they’d never fail like that again. While nearly every top team in South Korea lost players during the offseason due to foreign teams offering higher salaries, SK Telecom T1 were able to hold on to the core that they had built on their two kin teams: SKT T1 K led by Faker and the defensively proficient SKT T1 S that went further than K in the 2014 Champions summer playoffs.
Although the team that walks into the 2015 World Championship differs from the one that won it all two years ago, the three cornerstones of the organization still stand strong:
The brains and head coach: Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun.
The heart: Bae "Bengi" Seong-ung, SKT T1’s veteran starting jungler.
And the crown jewel in the mid lane: Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, the greatest player in the history of League of Legends.
Greetings, world. It’s time to kneel — the kings have returned for their chalice.
The Road So Far
The road back to the World Championships for the former champions began with their roster shuffles at the start of the spring season. After Korean teams were forced to combine their two kin squads into a single team, SKT T1 were able to construct a squad from their best pieces.
Alongside Faker and Bengi, the top lane role was won over by Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan, SKT T1 S’ reliable tank. MaRin was comparable to Faker when he broke into the league back in the spring of 2013, as he was praised for his offensive talents in the online scene. He entered 2015 as a solid, but not extremely influential player in his role. Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, the top laner that helped SKT T1 win countless domestic titles and the Summoner’s Cup in 2013, left the team before the 2015 regular season as he moved over to North America to play for Team Impulse.
The bottom lane starter roles were also taken over by T1 S talent, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan, two players who were polar opposites to T1’s former world title winning bottom lane duo of Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin and Lee "PoohManDu" Jeong-hyeon. Piglet and PoohMandu were all about kills, bloodshed, and havoc, as neither player liked the idea of sitting back and waiting for their opponents to make the first move. They were a forward, mechanically adept duo that could win games through their laning phase prowess.
Bang and Wolf, two players who’ve been together since their days on NaJin Shield in early 2013, were and still are reliable. You don’t expect them to crush lane or have Bang be the team's primary carry, but they know how to neutralize the bottom lane and play into the late-game. Unlike Piglet and Mandu's brazen play, which at times could get them into trouble, Bang and Wolf know when to pick their spots and can play with an influx of gold or as utility members.
SKT T1 didn’t roll through the competition at the start of the year. They, like all the teams in Korea, had to get used to their new rosters and learn how to prioritize gold in the starting lineup. As the KOO Tigers (then GE Tigers) rocketed ahead of everyone with their mid-game team fighting strength and pick/ban mastery in the spring, T1 slowly worked their way up the rankings and put themselves in a position to make a run in the second half. By the time the spring regular season was over, T1 were where they wanted to be: undefeated in the second half of the season in what appeared to be a return to a form that the organization hadn’t seen since early 2013, when they went on to win Champions Winter following a perfect split.
Whenever T1 faced adversity this year, they’ve gotten through it as a tougher, more mature team. The KOO Tigers got the upper-hand over T1 in the early days of spring, but it’s been an entirely different story since March, as SK Telecom T1 swept the Tigers in the Champions Spring finals and rolled through them in the summer season.
The Mid-Season Invitational marked the first international tournament that Faker had ever lost in, as the world's greatest player lost the climactic fifth game in the finals to EDward Gaming. That loss only fueled T1 to become a stronger, more hungry team in the summer split. T1 ran through the competition in the second Champions season of the year, as they only dropped one match to CJ Entus throughout the regular season, and then going on to pull of another sweep in the finals against decade-long rivals KT Rolster.
“If somebody is above me I wouldn’t like that. So I’m not watching Worlds at the moment,” Faker told a Korean magazine last year during the World Championships. “It’s sometimes very difficult to practice but the game is fun, and I don’t like it when someone beats me so I’m enjoying the practice.”
A year later and it's become clear that all of his practice has paid off. What makes Faker the best player, Kkoma possibly the greatest coach, and T1 maybe the greatest organization in League of Legends history isn’t necessarily their talent or wits. It’s their ability to learn more from their losses than their victories.
You can knock T1 down, but they’ll train until they’re able to return the favor in spades.
The Current State of the Team
It’s impossible to talk about the current state of T1 without talking about Faker. The spring season was one of the worst stretches of his career, but even when SKT T1 were falling apart last year, Faker still served as their silver lining. The beginning of 2015 was littered with control mages, zoning champions, and assassins falling out of favor.
This led to the almost unthinkable, as Faker was forced to split time as a starter with Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon, an elite defensive mid laner that felt at home playing the likes of Xerath, Cassiopeia, and Azir. By the time the Mid-Season Invitational rolled around, players were saying that they were more fearful of Easyhoon than they were of the multi-domestic title winner and former Worlds MVP. After failing to beat long-time rival Heo "PawN" Won-seok and EDward Gaming in the tournament's finals — as well as failing to extend his unbeaten streak on his signature champion LeBlanc — Faker did what he always does when he loses: trains until no one is above him.
The summer season saw the revival of Faker and the rest of T1. He took it upon himself to play almost any champion he could think of, even bringing Irelia and Master Yi to the mid lane. He was rejuvenated from his winter hibernation and the rest of the team was right behind him as they rampaged through the rest of the Korean teams en route to the organization's fourth Champions title. With the upcoming patch that Worlds will be played on appearing to favor assassins and offensive mid laners, it only widens Faker’s expansive champion pool to allow him to play the champions that won him a world title in 2013.
When you look at SKT T1 as a whole, the best word to describe them would be geniuses. There are better starting lineups in the world when it comes to pure talent, most notably Chinese champions LGD Gaming, but it’d be hard to argue that there is a smarter and more battle ready team than T1 heading into Worlds. To put things into perspective, T1’s least experienced player is MaRin, who is heading into his third year of professional play — he's also the team’s captain and co-shot caller alongside Faker.
T1 play best, strangely enough, when they’re not together on the map, as their only glaring weaknesses heading into the tournament is that they aren’t a team fighting juggernaut. SKT T1 are at their best when they are able to stretch the map, control objectives with vision, and force small skirmishes that they’re able to execute to perfection. MaRin, Faker, and Bang are all able to split-push, play by themselves, and force opposing teams to scatter their team into small units to combat them.
Although their kill participation is incredibly low compared to the rest of the Korean teams in Champions, they don’t need to win battles that see all 10 players on the map headbutting each other. SKT T1 play the game like you’d expect from a former world champion: calm, calculated, and controlled. They’ve found themselves down through the early-game and have been pushed to the brink, but MaRin and Faker know how to extend games, make the right calls, and find the split second timings to turn the game on its head. KT Rolster were able to sprint ahead of T1 in the first game of the summer finals, and it didn’t faze the defending champions — they never deterred from their game plan, and slowly but surely negated KT’s quick lead before running away with the series.
When a majority of the teams at Worlds will be playing checkers, SKT T1 will be playing chess.
Outlook for Worlds
SKT T1 are a flexible, experienced team that should be able to adapt to whatever the meta looks like during the Worlds patch. Faker will most likely be given his most dangerous arsenal of champions for the tournament considering how things are going. SKT's two unsung heroes, Bengi and Bang, are solid as they come at their positions; neither will consistently make your jaws drop with flashy plays, but they're dependable in high pressure situations.
The two players that will make the difference between T1 reclaiming the Summoner's Cup or going home empty handed will be their support, Wolf, and their top laner, MaRin.
Wolf is an enigmatic player who is one of the world's top supports when he's on top of his game. He can pull off engages with great finesse that swing the tide in T1's favor on a moment's notice. When Wolf is not so great, he's the anchor that holds SKT down; that never being more apparent than during the MSI finals where he was severely outplayed by EDG's Meiko, a rookie with less experience than himself. For T1 to win Worlds, they'll need the Wolf we saw in the summer season and less from the one at MSI.
This is also MaRin's tournament to live up to the expectations that were set for him back when he was atop of Korea's solo queue ladder. Since becoming a professional at the end of 2013, he's gradually worked his way up from a green rookie to the captain of a world title contender. MaRin didn't have the best tournament at MSI, but he, like the rest of the squad, have drastically improved from that loss. He's an all-around player that can still play those utility tanks he was known for on T1 S as a rookie and split-pushing champions that make him the focal point of the squad.
If 2013's Worlds was Faker's coming of age story, then 2015 could be the same for the man who leads T1 into Europe to take back what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter