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The Dynasty of SK Telecom T1

by theScore Staff Oct 31 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot eSports Flickr

KO-OO TI-GERS!

KO-OO TI-GERS!

KO-OO TI-GERS!

The Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin radiated with ravenous energy as the European crowd erupted for the South Korean underdogs. Following the first two games of the Summoner's Cup Finals, which saw the heavy favorites SK Telecom T1 come back from early-game deficits to take convincing victories, the throng of fans in the building began to support the squad when they were one game away from elimination. As the KOO Tigers got ahead in their third straight game — this time by picking up five kills for only one death in the opening minutes — the audience started to chant for the team in unison.

At that moment, it felt like the whole world was against SKT T1. And honestly, why wouldn't they be? SK Telecom T1 were the favorites. The golden boys of League. They'd gone through the entire 2015 World Championship without dropping a game up until that point, contesting to be the first team to win the Summoner's Cup in flawless fashion. In domestic play, they had won both seasons of Korea's Champions tournament, sweeping the very same Tigers in the spring split finals before matching their effort with another one-sided performance against longtime rivals KT Rolster in the summer climax. When they got ahead early, they looked unstoppable. When they fell behind early, it didn't even matter, they always found a way to comeback with their calculated, methodical style that forces their opposition to play a perfect, mistake-free game from the first tick of the clock to the final thwack of the Nexus.

Simply put, SK Telecom T1 were too damn strong.

A tournament that began with the illusion of upsets and the feeling that anything could happen slowly transitioned into the same story as last year: a Korean team is better than everyone else, they destroy everyone and take home the championship with little resistance. SKT's beautiful macro play, rapid decision making, and intelligent stretching of the map, while objectively skillful and crisp, didn't result in close games. Instead of having tension and games where two teams went back and forth in a battle of wills, SK Telecom T1, even when behind, played out their games with a refined grace, never wilting under the pressure of being behind. Whether they were up a massive amount of gold or in the infrequent position of playing comeback, their mentality never wavered.

Distinguished. Methodical. Calculated.

And that is why the Berlin attendees blew the roof off the arena when the Tigers dominated SK Telecom T1 in the third game of tonight's finals. Already proving that they can reverse lackadaisical errors in the first two games, their deficit in Game 3 was one they couldn't pull themselves out from. While they did put up a good fight under the weight of a large deficit, this was one game where their chess-like movements and clockwork team synchronization wasn't enough to combat the overwhelming snowball from their Korean peers. With their first map loss in over a month and their dreams of a perfect run dashed, the South Korean champions headed back to their dressing room to prepare for the fourth map and another chance to lift the Summoner's Cup.

The most famous and popular team in their home nation, SKT T1 walked off the stage as the chorus of KO-OO TI-GERS! rang behind them, advising them they weren't in Korea anymore. Three straight games where they fell behind in the early-game. A crushing loss on the third map. A crowd of thousands chanting against them to lose. Melancholy in expression, the former world champions disappeared from view and entered the backstage area, Mercedes-Benz Arena still chanting the syllables of the KOO Tigers.

When the fourth game came to an end, there was no more cheering for the Tigers. The crowd was silent — stunned at what had occurred in front of them.

KOO came into the fourth set with all the momentum, having rolled off of a victory that got the fanatical crowd on their side. They picked a composition in the third set that was full-on aggression, and it worked better than they could have ever hoped as captain and often criticized jungler, Hojin, had the best game of his career on his trademark Lee Sin. The Tigers had proven that T1 were mortals after all, and with one win under their belts, a revere sweep was within the realm of possibility. For how well SK Telecom T1 had played over the entire duration of Worlds, their first three games of the night all showed weaknesses that could be exploited. In a meta that favored the Tigers' style — and SKT seemingly off their A-game — this was the chance for the little underfunded team to take down the rich giants and win the world championship in a story for the ages.

But real life isn't a movie. In lieu of a heartwarming tale about best friends overcoming the wealthy empire, all we got was silence. SK Telecom T1 returned from their dressing room, sat back down in their chairs, and went back to work. Similarly to when they lost to China's EDward Gaming in the Mid-Season Invitational, SK Telecom T1 improved and evolved from their loss, playing the ensuing early-game as carefully as humanly possible. This forced the Tigers to go on the offensive and be the ones to create their own laning phase advantage instead of capitalizing on T1's reckless play.

This is where the series went from suspenseful to complete and utter tranquility. Faker's Ryze, the champion that he had played the most in the tournament, went up against a Tigers that tried to play an offensive style and found himself in a two-on-one situation. What could have been the spark that the Tigers needed to get another early lead and push for a deciding fifth set turned out to be the play that would end of their season. As the crowd were on the edge of their seats to chant the Tigers at the top of their lungs, Faker, like it was a practice game, locked down Hojin's Rek'Sai, zoned out Kuro's Kassadin, and deleted the jungler off the map. From that point on, the coronation of the two-time Summoner's Cup champions was on. SK Telecom T1 had an unkllable Ryze in the middle that destroyed the plucky charismatic team who created two upsets in the knockout stage to get into the finals.

The crowd transitioned by the time SK Telecom T1 huddled around their shiny new loot. Their desire to see a close series transformed into congratulating the best team in the world on their win. In the series itself, unless you're a fan of them, it can be difficult to root for T1. They're unlike the team that captured the hearts of western fans two years ago and won the franchise's inaugural Cup. Back then, Faker and his band of talented teammates were all about making flashy plays, picking unorthodox champions, and winning games through explosive, uptempo fights. It's easy to cheer for a new team winning their first championship that plays an attractive style of the game you enjoy watching.

The current iteration of SK Telecom T1 is cold. Faker is smarter. The players around him are better macro players. Everyone is older and more knowledgeable about the game than they were back in 2013. The squad that won two years ago did have an impressive 15-3 record, but they went through actual moments of stress. China's OMG with their domestic MVP, Cool, beat them in the opening game, and SKT had to come back in their second meeting to grab revenge. In the semifinals, T1 were actually down in their series against NaJin Black Sword, and the exciting rookie team came back to win in a thrilling 3-2 series. The team danced around and took in their first international experience like it might never happen again.

The group that won tonight didn't rush out to grab the Summoner's Cup when they won. Although they were clearly happy to be champions and know that they rectified their loss at the Mid-Season Invitational, there never felt like there was any doubt that this is what was going to happen after their shellacking of EDward Gaming in the group stages. As other teams in the tournament performed below expectations, SKT T1 crushed teams from all corners of the globe. In the quarterfinals they swept the chaotic teamfighting specialists from Taiwan, ahq e-Sports Club. The semifinals were no different when they dispatched the late-game maestros Origen in another one-sided series that saw T1 flinch a few times but never drop any blood in the form a loss.

A streak of clean, methodical victories is not how you get foreign fans to chant your team's name during a pivotal series.

But it is how you begin a dynasty.

Two-time Summoner's Cup winners in three years.

Four domestic championships.

An undefeated victory during the 2013 All Stars event.

Countless unbeaten streaks, accolades, and a tradition of success, SK Telecom T1 are the first full-fledged dynasty in League of Legends' history. In a scene where rosters and even management can drastically change in a matter of months, SKT T1 prides itself on being able to keep the players and coaches that push them forward into the future. While the rest of the teams in South Korea were watching as their star players signed massive contracts in China, SK Telecom T1 kept their top players that they wanted heading into the 2015. Atop of keeping those star players and prospects with potential, they also held tryouts before the year began, wanting to find the best talent possible to put on the bench in case of one of the starters slumping.

When analyzing SKT's ongoing empire, the man everyone talks about is in the mid lane: Faker.

Faker is the best player in the game's history. This is no longer a debate (if there was one in the first place). This tournament was the perfect example why no player in League, not even players like Mata, Imp, or MaRin, can match the greatness of the two-time world champion. A large majority of the tournament saw Faker do very little. He picked Ryze a lot of the time with a few fun picks sprinkled in the group stage for good measure and was, for all intents and purposes, a background character up until the finals. But when Bang and MaRin were the focal points of the team, the opposition continually sent pressure to the middle lane to try and harass Faker. That's the best thing about the superstar of SK Telecom T1. Not his brains or his mechanical skill — it's Faker's ability to pull a whole team's attention onto himself and force people to always keep an eye on him even when he's simply supporting his other teammates.

That's also the biggest difference between the 2013 version of Faker and the 2015 version. The Faker from two years ago would have wanted to be in the center at all times as one of the two main carries. If he wasn't playing the ace role, he was at least playing the secondary carry alongside Piglet. Unless Piglet had an astonishing game where he hard carried, there weren't many times where Faker didn't put up big numbers and SKT T1 won. He was the playmaker, carry, and everything in-between. Now, Faker has grown up and matured into a player that knows that he doesn't necessarily have to play a high damage champion to be an important part of his team. He's comfortable letting MaRin and Bang take the reins as the carries of the squad.

Faker the playmaker has become Faker the team player. Sure, he can still have games like today where he puts his foot down and gets two kills in the lane phase, but that isn't his an entire game. He's an all-around talent that can adapt to his team's needs on any given map.

Alongside his right-hand man in Bengi and the greatest coach of all-time, kkOma, they make up the 'Big 3' of SKT. They're the pillars of the franchise that have transformed, grown, and got even better in the past two years. Through the difficulties of the 2014 year, the three of them stayed together, working on their overall play, shot calling, and in kkOma's case, coaching, wanting to regain the throne that they couldn't defend from Samsung White at the World Championships. When White were hoisting the championship trophy with the Imagine Dragons playing the ending ceremony in their home country of South Korea, the three of them had to watch from the sidelines, only imagining what they could have done differently to challenge them on the world stage.

A year later, the three of them celebrated the recapturing of their chalice, laughing and smiling as they threw commemorative hats into the crowd that was chanting for their opponents minutes earlier. That didn't matter, though. Who cares if they were cheered or booed while they played the game?

All that mattered is that the fans knew who the best team were when it was all over.

Looking into the future, how long can this SKT T1 dynasty last?

Well, if the other Korean franchises don't pay to get the best players — and that includes T1's bench players of Easyhoon and Tom — then there is no end in sight for this team. The Chinese teams, although they have boatloads of cash, were presented with a harsh reality: except for a rule change that allows LPL teams to start five Koreans, they're going to need to groom their own Chinese prospects alongside the Korean stars and also make sure that the team's communication is up to snuff. Players such as Deft and Spirit have already shown interest in returning to South Korea in 2016, so I wouldn't put money on a current Chinese scene that needs to find their next generation of domestic talent like South Korea did this year with their homegrown talent leaving for greener (money) pastures.

Korea has won the last three Summoner's Cups and has had a finalist ever since they were eligible to play in the World Championships. For other teams to match up with SKT T1, they're going to need to spend the cash to make teams that can compete against the current juggernaut from T1. Teams like KT, Samsung, and CJ who were once known for spending top dollar back in the StarCraft: Brood War days to compete with SKT will need to do the same in the offseason if they want to keep up.

Here, I'll put things into perspective: SK Telecom T1 currently have Easyhoon, arguably one of the five best mid laners in the world, sitting on their bench. Easyhoon's backup, Scout, is one of, if not the best prospect in all of South Korea.

Yes, that's right. Behind Faker, the best player to ever download League, and his backup Easyhoon, an elite player in his own right, is a third string player that has the potential to be the next elite mid laner. When a team is capable of keeping talent like this without any competition from their peers, it leads to what we saw this year: SK Telecom T1 keeping their premiere talent, eventually reaching their full potential as a team, and steamrolling everyone else by the summer split.

World, take notice, these are your kings. Smart, talented, well-constructed, wealthy, and experienced. Your job next year is to somehow create a team that can beat them before they can defend their crown.

Good luck. You'll need it.

Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.

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