It was the ROX Tigers’ final to lose. Unlike last year, they had not petered out towards the end of the season. Unlike last year, there had not been a significant shift in the meta approaching the final. Unlike last year, the Tigers were the best team in the world.
The last time SK Telecom T1 made it to a Champions Final at all even with their counterparts, and not heavy favorites, was back in Summer 2013 against the KT Rolster Bullets. This spring, for the first time in their storied history, an SK Telecom T1 team was widely considered an underdog headed into the final series.
Their rare underdog status in the LCK Spring 2016 Final mattered little as the final nexus fell in favor of another SKT victory. The current iteration of SKT has players that fall into each of these categories — born great, achieving greatness through hard work and ambition and accepting the mantle of greatness thrust upon them — forming one of the greatest League of Legends franchises in the game’s history.
Seeking greatness: Duke
After a disappointing year on NaJin e-mFire, Lee “Duke” Ho-seong was tired of losing. No sooner had his contract with NaJin expired than Duke was on the phone with SK Telecom T1. He wanted to win a championship, and to do that he contacted the reigning domestic and world champions. Duke had more than shown his individual prowess while on NaJin, earning the regular season MVP award in LCK Spring 2015. If NaJin won, Duke was likely a primary, if not the sole, reason for the victory.
Yet, Duke and 2016 SKT were not a perfect marriage at first. By his own admission, Duke was unused to a team that communicated as frequently as SKT. In the wake of a career year from former SKT top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan, the initial fervor around Duke’s arrival died quickly as he had trouble adjusting to his new team. His Teleport timings became memetic broadcast commentary, suffering not only from his personal lack of communication but fewer optimal wards from jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong with which to join his team for skirmishes. As SKT brought in Kang “Blank” Sun-gu and further shifted their focus towards larger-scale engagements that made the most of Blank’s DPS carry jungle picks and AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik’s teamfighting prowess, Duke settled into his role as an initiator.
Duke is still prone to individual mistakes. In their recent finals victory over ROX Tigers, he had a poor Poppy ult that cost SKT a fight and subsequently the game by placing Tigers’ AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in into prime position. However, he’s learned to brush them off and continue to aid his team. Ultimately, Duke’s diligence and desire for greatness aided SKT in yet another domestic championship victory.
Greatness thrust upon him: Blank
Everything in the current iteration of LoL relies on teamwork and communication — far more than seasons prior. If the meta shifts, or a specific cog in a team’s machine no longer fits for whatever reason, the team collapses, even if they have the best player the game has ever seen on their roster. This happened to SKT once before in 2014, when the metagame shifted away from jungler bengi’s vision-centric patient pathing into more aggressive ganking or counter jungling showcased by KT Rolster Arrows’ Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon and Samsung White’s Choi “DanDy” In-kyu. At times, bengi looked woefully lost on the map and, in spite of Herculean efforts from Faker, SK Telecom T1 K fell from grace.
Mirroring 2014, this past spring was rough for SKT, but the team adjusted far more quickly. Using the Season X IEM World Championship at Katowice as a springboard, the team chose Blank over bengi as their starting jungler. In a role-reversal of bengi’s attentiveness to Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s lane in 2013 and early 2014, Faker was tasked with controlling the mid lane to ease Blank into farming and pathing more efficiently. Once wracked with nerve and stage fright issues, Blank was nurtured by SKT into a fairly formidable jungler. In going up against the aggressive Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, Blank was a significant underdog in the 1v1 matchup in spite of strong performances against Go “Score” Dong-bin in SKT’s recent playoff series with KT Rolster.
Against Peanut, Blank stepped up, providing necessary vision for SKT’s flanking plays as well as teamfight damage on Kindred and Graves. Where Faker had previously been a catalyst for Blank, the LCK Spring 2016 Final finally saw Blank act as a safety net for Faker, repeatedly saving him from ROX’s Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng’s all-ins. Stepping into bengi’s shoes, especially after a particularly strong year from “Mr. the Jungle,” couldn’t have been easy, but with time, Blank proved capable of the greatness thrust upon him as a member of SK Telecom T1.
Born great: Faker
Prodigious, brilliant, and resourceful, Faker remains the best player that LoL has ever seen. Reinventing his role on SKT time and time again, Faker has been the beating heart of SKT and the franchise’s star since his 2013 debut. From whispers of his rise through the ranks in solo queue to his Zed outplay in the Summer 2013 Final, and his unprecedented self-sufficiency throughout the 2015 World Championship, there’s no doubt that Faker was born great. Watching his progress throughout the years leaves little doubt that he remains focused and driven, constantly pushing himself to greater heights.
In 2016, Faker’s initial role was that of a teamfight initiator. With bengi and Duke both struggling early in the first round robin of LCK Spring 2016, Faker orchestrated SKT’s teamfights, enabling Bang on late-game scaling carries. This shifted to a more caretaker role when Blank took over jungle duties. Faker kept the mid lane under control, allowing Blank to move around the map more freely and learn his own limitations. As Blank acclimated himself to the SKT jungle, the team’s fighting coordination improved, with greater involvement from Duke and continued spectacular performances from Bang. Regardless of the fact that Faker can no longer solo carry in the obvious sense, as long as this all-time great is on the SKT roster, they always have a chance at victory.
Achieving greatness: Bang
In a region previously dominated by the flashy Gu “Imp” Seung-bin, Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin and controlled patience of Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu, Bang was oft-overlooked, even within his own organization of SKT. Stuck on the less-decorated SK Telecom T1 S, Bang simply existed for most of 2014. Even with dazzling domestic performances throughout 2015, the SKT AD carry was often disregarded until his smashing 2015 World Championship showing. There he boasted the highest KDA (15.8) and was barely touched by opponents, netting the lowest relative death rate of any starting player at the tournament with 9.5 percent. This speaks not only to SKT’s determination to keep him safe, but Bang’s remarkable positioning, particularly on the likes of Kalista and Tristana along with Lucian and Ezreal during the regular season.
Now widely recognized as the best AD carry in the world, Bang’s steady improvement throughout his career is a testament to not only how hard he has worked, but how he carved his own niche within the SKT oeuvre. Joining a team with the best player in the world, Bang’s performances insist that opponents and viewers alike stand up and take notice of him specifically, no small feat when Faker is seated next to him in the booth. More than any other player on the current SKT lineup, Bang’s growth showcases remarkable determination.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. SK Telecom T1 has never accepted anything short of greatness, and the franchise continuously seeks the top spot in every event, every tournament, and every single match.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.