Prior to the IEM Season X World Championship, SK Telecom T1 had lost two series to Longzhu Gaming and the Afreeca Freecs, ending their first round robin in LCK Spring 2016 on a low note. Like the 2014 KT Rolster Bullets before them, SK Telecom T1 look to once again prove Korea's dominance at the IEM World Championship in spite of their uneven domestic record. The reigning world champions did just that on Saturday, ending their first day of play with two victories and, to little surprise, an automatic semifinals berth. More interesting than the expected results is the fact that they were able to achieve victory through uncharacteristically coordinated teamfights.
Saturday's unusual focus on teamfighting comes somewhat from the team's adversaries. The Qiao Gu Reapers, who SKT T1 faced in their second match of the day, are known specifically for their 5v5 engagements. However, a look through their more recent matches and team compositions hints at SK Telecom T1's desire to improve this particular aspect of the game.
Rising quickly through the ranks of Champions in Season 3, SK Telecom T1 2 were rarely known for their teamfighting. Instead, they were a collection of strong laners that debuted in Champions Spring 2013 to a large amount of anticipation from fans and scene analysts alike. This was largely due to up-and-coming mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, whose solo queue highlight reels made his a debut a must-watch event. It didn’t take long for this new SK Telecom T1 team to impress as they swept CJ Entus Blaze – who were widely considered one of the strongest teams in the tournament – before splitting a series with NaJin Sword.
SK Telecom T1 2 made a name for themselves in 2013 by crushing their opponents with overwhelming laning pressure from top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, Faker in the mid lane, and the bot lane duo of Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin and Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon. Rookie jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong was particularly impressive on Lee Sin, and routinely invaded the territory of SKT T1 2’s opponents, providing vision so that his lanes could continuously push. When forced to adapt by the KT Rolster Bullets in the Summer 2013 Final, SK Telecom T1 2 continued to play to their strengths, pressing KTB into early skirmishes which they turned into further lane advantages. This kept the objective-focused KTB occupied with fending SKT T1 2 off, a losing effort since the lane-by-lane matchups went to the individual talents of SKT T1 2. Shortly after hoisting the Champions trophy, SKT T1 2 went to the 2013 World Championship and raised the Summoner’s Cup above their heads, after making quick work of their opponents.
One thing SK Telecom T1 2 – later renamed to SK Telecom T1 K – struggled with was teamfighting. The team excelled at small skirmishes, especially considering that bengi's superior vision control constantly forced 3v2s or 2v1s battles. He found a new home in Faker’s lane, allowing the mid laner to snowball even the most minute of advantages into insurmountable leads. Piglet also preferred these smaller duels where he could easily isolate his opponent with his lane partner PoohManDu. Their lane control and individual talent became an SK Telecom T1 K staple that never translated into extensive teamfighting. As the meta shifted in 2014, the team began to falter against the likes of Samsung Galaxy Ozone, who overwhelmed them with superior lane pressure and coordination. Coupled with a jungle meta that didn’t suit bengi, which affected his ability to provide vision and apply pressure, SK Telecom T1 K’s lane-focused strategy faltered. The reigning world champions failed to qualify for the 2014 World Championship.
After the merger between sister teams, SK Telecom T1 S and K, in the 2014-15 offseason, issues with their teamfighting continued to plague them at times. With his champion pool of zoning mages, former SK Telecom T1 S mid laner Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon often started over Faker in the hopes that his teamfighting prowess would aid the team. The additions of Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan from SK Telecom T1 S transformed the team a bit. Bang excelled in larger teamfights, especially with champions like Lucian and Kalista whose kits gave him mobility to weave in and out of fights while dealing sustained damage over longer periods of time. Easyhoon’s passivity, in comparison to Faker’s ceaseless pushing, gave bengi a longer leash to ward opposing jungles and make a new home in the top lane for Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan.
Never one to be outdone, Faker adapted. He took fewer resources from his team while remaining their largest damage dealer in LoL Champions Korea Summer 2015. At the 2015 World Championship, Faker received the least amount of gold of any mid laner at the tournament, but his overwhelming presence was felt in every game he played. The name of the game for SK Telecom T1 throughout 2015, regardless of who started in the mid lane, was still to get early laning advantages that were quickly translated into turrets and objectives.
Yet, SK Telecom T1 was hardly known as Korea’s teamfighting team. That moniker was reserved for their World Championship opponents, the ROX Tigers, who often fell behind in the laning phase only to make up for it with precise objective trading and larger fights. The Tigers met SK Telecom T1 in Week 3 of the LCK Spring 2016 season with their new jungler Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho and a revamped early game in a rematch of the World Championship final, which SK Telecom T1 won 3-1.
Surprisingly, the game that SK Telecom T1 won was thanks to Bang’s Ezreal and Faker’s excellent control of teamfights. Throughout the LCK Spring 2016 first round robin, SK Telecom T1 has overly relied on scaling compositions around a late-game blue build Ezreal from Bang or a Gangplank for their new top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong while Faker is put on the more utility-oriented Lulu. These compositions haven’t always worked out, and failing to integrate Duke into the team continues to be one of their major weaknesses. SK Telecom T1 regularly finds themselves down -362 gold on average at 15 minutes thanks to their weaker laning choices and lack of jungle pressure from both bengi and newcomer Kang “Blank” Sun-gu.
Today, SK Telecom T1 met North America’s Counter Logic Gaming and China’s Qiao Gu Reapers and beat them both en route to the IEM Season X World Championship semifinals. Against QG in particular, the team’s 5v5 engages looked significantly better. Wolf, who had a rough outing on Braum against CLG in spite of SKTs win, showcased an excellent understanding of Bard’s crowd control, orchestrating fights for his team with ease and disengaging when necessary. This made it easy for Bang to jump around fights, dealing constant damage with Kalista, while Faker returned to his signature LeBlanc.
Even when QG support Zhang “Mor” Hongwei's Alistar thought he had caught Blank, Wolf was quick with Tempered Fate, pausing Blank after QG’s Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang’s Lissandra had already used Frozen Tomb. This gave time for Duke to Teleport into the fight while Faker immediately blew up Doinb, removing his crowd control from the fight. Once unfrozen, Blank used Explosive Cask to further fracture the members of QG. Moving forward with a Kalista Fate’s Call, Wolf landed a Cosmic Binding onto both QG jungler Baek “Swift” Da-hoon and AD carry Jian “Uzi” Zhihao. The end result was a triple-kill for Faker’s LeBlanc, a mid tier-one turret and a dragon for SK Telecom T1. From this point on, SK Telecom T1 never looked back from their lead, winning fight after fight.
One of the largest complaints levied at SK Telecom T1 K, and now SK Telecom T1 throughout the years is that they’re boring, and can only win with their individual lanes. This year, it looks like SK Telecom T1 is well on their way to proving this complaint wrong with much-improved teamfighting, even as they continue to struggle with jungle pressure and integrating Duke into the squad. In choosing to bring Blank who showcased a better understanding of teamfighting in their two IEM Katowice games than bengi has in LCK Spring 2016, it hints that SK Telecom T1 is still searching for ways to improve. Although it’s a contentious choice – bengi is coming off of a stellar 2015, and has started for SK Telecom T1 since his rookie year – this decision shows that the team is more than well aware of their own weaknesses and, as always, is working to surpass their already impressive former heights.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. She thinks that the Champions Summer 2013 Final is the best series in League of Legends history. You can follow her on Twitter.