The Rise and Fall (and Rise and Fall) of SK Telecom T1

by theScore Staff Mar 2 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Spring 2016

“Last year we also put in a lot of effort to make it to Worlds, so I can’t confidently say that we put in much more effort than last year. Solo Queue practice and scrim practice times were always similar."

-Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok on the effort it takes to win a World Championship

When a team is on top of the world, it's easy to believe that they'll have a historic impression on the scene. No organization knows this better than SK Telecom T1, who have run more top-tier teams than any other League of Legends institution.

Yet constant patches and meta shifts make it difficult for any one team to stay on top for any length of time. In 2014, SK Telecom T1 K failed to make the World Championship after winning it all in 2013, leaving players, coaches, and fans all scratching their heads as to what went wrong. They roared back as SK Telecom T1 in 2015, adding another World Championship title to their growing trophy case. This year, the organization's first international test is at the IEM Season X World Championship in Katowice; however, their lackluster performance in League Champions Korea Spring 2016 once again leaves doubts about how they'll fare.

The organization has already lived through this particular narrative, back in Season 4. According to the script, SKT's team struggles to find their bearings in Spring, leading fans to question their strength going into an international tournament. The team then sweeps the entire event without dropping a game.

Fresh off of their victory at the 2013 World Championship, SK Telecom T1 K returned to Korea and proceeded to blank their opposition, going 6-0 in Group A of Champions Winter 2013-14. They blew through the playoffs en route to an undefeated season and a second Champions title.

When a team is at their best, it’s difficult to imagine anything stopping them — and this was especially true of Winter 2013-14 SKT T1 K. They had the best player in the world, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, and were indubitably the best team in the world, as both World Champions and reigning conquerors of the world’s strongest competitive region.

No team can stay on top forever. Leading up to Champions Spring 2014, support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon announced that he was stepping down, and the team turned to former ahq Korea support Kwon “Casper” Ji-min (now Samsung Galaxy’s “Wraith”) to fill the vacancy. PoohManDu's laning partner, young and energetic AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, had built a reputation for vacillating between arrogance and harsh self-criticism. A large part of PoohManDu's role on the team was to guide his volatile AD carry. Although Casper worked with Piglet in lane, the relationship was not as strong. Casper also roamed less around the map, removing pressure and vision that PoohManDu had provided to other lanes.

Throughout Season 3, SKT T1 K relied on strong lanes to push adversaries into their own turrets. bengi invaded his opponent's jungle and peppered it with wards to keep his lanes safe — especially the mid lane, which Faker pushed aggressively. However, changes to the jungle and general metagame forced bengi out of his comfort zone and later into babysitting top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, rather than using his intuitive pathing to maintain the team's laning leads.

Casper steadfastly stuck to his lane and Piglet. Without his or bengi's map presence and deep vision SKT T1 K’s pressure crumbled. PoohManDu returned shortly, but the damage had already been done. The meta shifted further, now favoring a fast-push lane swap, which took away even more from SKT T1 K’s laning strengths. The team barely made it out of Group A, forced to play a tiebreaker with sister team SK Telecom T1 S for second place in the group. They were then dispatched by Samsung Galaxy Ozone in the Champions Spring 2014 Quarterfinals, and suffered further humiliation at NLB Spring 2014 when they were defeated by CJ Entus Frost in the Semifinals.

Based on such poor results, it’s easy to see why many had doubts about the team's 2014 All-Star Invitational appearance in Paris. The pre-event buzz was all about Taipei Assassins and Cloud9, co-owners of the "crushing in scrims" title. SKT T1 K wasn't seen by many as the favorite, but they proceeded to blaze through the entire invitational in what would be their second undefeated run of that year.

The SK Telecom T1 of today has much in common with the SK Telecom T1 K of Season 4. LCK Spring 2016, like Champions Spring 2014, hasn’t been kind to bengi, who's struggled with a meta that favors aggressive jungle duelists like Nidalee, Kindred and Graves. ROX Tigers’ Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho, currently the best jungler in Korea, is bengi’s opposite — stalking opponents in their jungles to kill them, rather than place vision. While bengi still tries to play his classic style of invading, placing deep vision and shadowing his opponents with superior pathing, Peanut simply kills his adversaries outright, while placing the least amount of wards of any jungler in the region.

bengi has been unable to perform his signature role for the team on any champion besides Elise, even as the team has attempted to find other picks for him. This led to a disastrous Evelynn performance against Jin Air Green Wings in Week 1, and equally awful Udyr and Rumble outings against Longzhu Gaming and Afreeca Freecs. All three series ended in SKT losses. The fall to Afreeca was the most embarrassing for SKT, since Afreeca is the third-worst team in the league with a 3-6 series record. SKT is the only team with a winning record that Afreeca has beaten in a series — their other two victories have come from bottom feeders SBENU Sonicboom and e-mFire (now renamed Kongdoo Monster).

In the past three years, SK Telecom T1 K and now SK Telecom T1 have lived and died by bengi’s jungle presence, and 2016 has proved no different. Just like 2014, his weakness comes coupled with a roster change: SKT lost their starting top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan in the 2015-16 offseason and his replacement, Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, has failed to gel with the rest of his team thus far.

The team now sits at a 5-4 series record and a 12-9 overall record in LCK Spring 2016, good enough for a shockingly low sixth place between Longzhu Gaming and CJ Entus. Needless to say, this is hardly where the reigning World Champions wish to be.

SKT is taking a new direction for IEM Katowice, choosing substitute Kang "Blank" Sun-gu as their starting jungler for the tournament over the struggling bengi. Blank has yet to impress this year in LCK, and his only other competitive experience was substituting for Choi "inSec" In-seok on a disintegrating Star Horn Royal Club.

This isn't the first time that SK Telecom T1 has chosen their secondary jungler over bengi. Last year, in the LCK Spring 2016 finals, the team started Im "T0M" Jae-hyeon against the GE Tigers, sweeping all three games. Aware they need a backup for bengi, whose role is all-too-often meta-dependent, the team will now rely on Blank for IEM Katowice in the hopes that he'll be able to give them a fresh look. Yet pinning their hopes to an unproven jungle talent is a big risk for SKT, especially when the team is already on a downward skid.

Regardless, SKT's record at international League events is stellar. They’ve won two World Championships, the 2014 All-Star Invitational at Paris, and IEM Season VII Cologne. The only two international tournaments they've played in but haven't won were the IEM Season VII World Championship, where they suffered a 0-2 defeat at the hands of CJ Entus Blaze, and the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, where they fell 2-3 to Edward Gaming in the Finals.

While some may question SKT's Spring 2016 performance in Korea, they'll enter IEM Katowice thirsty to prove their dominance once more. When it comes to betting the field against SK Telecom T1, history proves they’re always a safe bet.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. Were she a betting person, she would bet SK Telecom T1 against the field, even with Blank. You can follow her on Twitter.