"The reason why we brought Blank is because he's a very good player, but he needs more experience, and we wanted to give him more experience."
— SK Telecom T1 Coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun on bringing substitute jungler Blank over starting jungler bengi to IEM Katowice
At the end of the day, SK Telecom T1’s coach, kkOma, trusts his players. Even if it means letting his star mid laner choose his own champion in a Game 5 final, kkOma places an inordinate amount of trust in his team. His rapport with his players is one of the many reasons why SK Telecom T1 has been the most successful League of Legends esports organizations of the past three years.
One of those decisions — leaving Bae “bengi” Seong-woong out of SKT’s lineup for the IEM Season X World Championship — at first seemed like the height of arrogance on the part of the reigning World Champions. When the team revealed they would be attending an international tournament without their starting jungler, despite a recent domestic downturn, many were left scratching their heads. Even with the rumors of substitute jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu's good performance in scrims, it was hard to trust kkOma and the team on the choice. bengi might be struggling, but he still provides reliable presence on the map and international experience in the booth.
Yet SKT swept through IEM Katowice without dropping a game. Two things happened throughout their victories that will hopefully stick with the team more than yet another addition to their trophy case. Blank finally showed how his SK Telecom T1 differs from bengi’s, and Lee “Duke” Ho-seong was a part of the team’s gameplan for once. These related changes to their play show how the team is attempting to move beyond their most successful formula — which is intrinsically tied to bengi — and become a more multidimensional team. Incidentally, it once again vindicated kkOma's choice to trust his players.
A Blank on the map
To say that Blank hasn't been good in League Champions Korea Spring 2016 is a gross understatement. In his Champions appearances before IEM, he wasn't bad, he was non-existent.
Blank’s LCK debut came in Week 1 against Jin Air Green Wings and their surprising triple-carry composition, formed around Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong’s top-lane Graves. SKT ran Blank alongside rookie mid laner Lee “Scout” Ye-chan, who stood in for the world-renown Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok — one of only two appearances Scout made for SKT before being released earlier this spring.
Scout provided little pressure in the mid lane, while Blank failed to do anything but farm until the eight minute mark, when he set up a failed tri-bush ambush with support Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan and AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik. Even without overwhelming pressure from opposing jungler Park “Winged” Tae-jin, Blank's presence was imperceptible throughout the match. TrAce’s incessant pushing onto SKT’s top lane turret pinned Duke's Tahm Kench back, while Jin Air mid laner Lee “Kuzan” Seong-hyeok’s Corki kept Scout’s Lulu at bay. With very few opportunities to make an impact, and a general lack of awareness of the game state, Blank looked lost.
He didn't fare much better in subsequent appearances. Of all Korean junglers in LCK Spring 2016, Blank has the lowest kill participation at 52 percent. He also has the lowest KDA (1.3) of his LCK jungle counterparts and the second-lowest gold differential at 10 minutes (-252), outdone only by his teammate bengi at -278 for the worst. All this gave SKT little reason to start him over bengi, even as the latter struggled with the current meta.
For all his ups and downs, bengi has been a key cog in the SKT machine. His playstyle helped shape SK Telecom T1's predecessor, SK Telecom T1 K, and he continued to be an important asset to the team after S and K merged. Unfortunately, bengi also has a history of struggling to adapt to shifts in the jungle meta, and the recent rise of aggressive jungle duelists like Nidalee, Kindred and Graves has made him falter.
bengi lives for invading opponents’ jungles to drop deep wards that allow his teammates to push their lanes aggressively. This suits Faker’s playstyle, and was a large part of SK Telecom T1 K’s success throughout Season 3, which ended with the team’s first World Championship victory. In 2015, the return of bengi ushered in another World Championship win, making him and Faker the only two-time World Champions in League competitive history.
However, bengi and the team failed to even qualify for the 2014 World Championship, and struggled throughout Champions Spring and Summer 2014, as more proactive junglers like Samsung White’s Choi “DanDy” In-kyu and the KT Rolster Arrows’ Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon took center stage. Even with their over-aggressive foibles, Baek “Swift” Da-Hoon and Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon were more effective than plodding bengi, whose pathing was bogged down by the newly popular lane swap into four-man fast turret push. The new double-jungle style also hurt bengi, as top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong had to shadow him through the early game to gain necessary experience. All of this disrupted what bengi loved to do for the team, and in turn the team was affected by the loss of vision and pressure.
The first half of Season 6 has been ruled by a different style of lane swap that results in mirrored turret pushes. Teams will often have all tier-one side-lane turrets down early, opening up the map on the sides while mid lane becomes the new focus. Combined with the rise of aggressive jungle duelists, the new meta has once again neutered bengi. The only champion he's been able to play his style comfortably on is Elise, and attempts to find another strong pick for bengi have been wildly unsuccessful — his two Udyr games against Longzhu Gaming stand as the most unfortunate example.
Without a consistent jungle presence, top laner Duke is often left without enough jungle wards to Teleport effectively. Beyond that, SKT has struggled to integrate the former NaJin e-mFire player into their overall gameplan. With the majority of Duke's competitive experience coming last year on e-mFire, he's unused to a team that actually communicates, and has admitted in post-game broadcast interviews that he’s still adjusting.
Duke hasn't fit in with SKT nearly as well as the team's previous top laner, Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan. The latter was not only SKT’s shotcaller for Season 5, but — like 2013 Faker in the mid lane — MaRin received the majority of resources and jungle attention in the top lane from bengi, allowing him to push aggressively and carry his team. MaRin received the largest gold share of any Korean top laner in LCK Summer 2015 at 23.8 percent, and bengi was regularly in his lane for the first of what was often many ganks to get him ahead.
Thus far, Duke receives a similar amount of gold (23.1 percent) and has a gold lead of 102 at 10 minutes (in spite of the team average of -362 gold at 15 minutes). However, he's failed to transform these advantages into team wins. Due to an obvious lack of communication and less jungle pressure, Duke was as much of a question mark going into IEM Katowice as Blank.
Showing up at Katowice
Blank spent the majority of his time at IEM Katowice on Nidalee or Gragas, farming up early. Of all the junglers at the tournament, he averaged the highest CS differential at 10 minutes (10.6) and the second-highest gold lead at 10 minutes (293) as well as the second-highest CS per minute at 4.6. He then translated these leads into skirmish and teamfight wins, joining up with his teammates when needed. SKT's focus on teamfighting this season seems to suit him well, and he'll do well in the LCK if he can accumulate the same early game edge that made him so successful at Katowice.
Although he did group with the rest of SKT for teamfights, he still had a middling kill participation of 68.5 percent, hinting that he still struggles to provide early game presence to SKT’s lanes. Blank doesn’t appear to be an aggressive jungler like ROX Tigers’ Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho, who embraces the duelist playstyle and kills opponents outright in their jungle. Instead, Blank accumulated early CS and pressure advantages through farming and the occasional invade, denying his opponents resources and showing up in lane when necessary. His style was wholly different than that of bengi, who allowed all three of SKT’s lanes to push with wanton aggression.
Blank hasn’t quite nailed down the intricacies of his own pathing — he was caught out more than a few times when he attempted to kill enemy vision in their territory, or set deep vision of his own. At the same time his lack of deep vision made it more difficult for Faker to get away with his trademark overextension. As he showed in 2014, Faker often feels the need to single-handedly make up for his team’s deficiencies, which can be very risky, especially without backup from his jungler.
Fortunately, SKT's renewed teamfighting focus at IEM Katowice not only meant that Blank was more at home, but that Duke was able to finally assist his team in a meaningful way. Duke ended with the highest KDA of any top laner at the tournament (6.5) in spite of averaging -170 gold at 10 minutes. His contributions came more from joining up for 5v5 teamfights in the mid-to-late game with Teleport — something he's struggled with throughout the LCK Spring 2016 season. Not only was his Teleport communication vastly improved, but his teamfight target prioritization was crucial in many of these fights, particularly while on Poppy.
While SKT still has many kinks to work out, their IEM Katowice World Championship win will likely give them a confidence boost as they return to tackle the remainder of their spring schedule. Blank and Duke should feel proud of their individual performances and, more importantly, their synergy with the team throughout the weekend.
What initially looked like a questionable choice from kkOma and SKT resulted in yet another accolade added to the organization’s resume. Now the team waits for their sagacity to pay off once more, with a hopefully re-energized SK Telecom T1 entering the second round robin of LCK Spring 2016.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.