Jungle is the New Mid: Tracking Faker's role on SK Telecom T1

by theScore Staff Apr 30 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Patrick Strack / ESL/IEM

“I . . . I have never seen Ambition die like that in lane ever.”

-Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles

It happened so fast, the English OnGameNet casters initially thought it was a computer bug. Yet the game continued uninterrupted, albeit without CJ Entus Blaze mid laner Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong’s Kha’Zix for 25 seconds. With this play, solo queue phenom Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok immediately stamped his name all over SK Telecom T1 #2’s Champions debut in Champions Spring 2013.

The new Champions team unexpectedly upended CJ Entus Blaze 2-0 on the back of potent early game advantages that Blaze, in spite of their superior minion control, was ultimately unable to overcome. This series mapped out SK Telecom T1 #2’s modus operandi for their future opponents — snowball lanes early and use that advantage to crush adversaries slowly. Naturally, Faker was a large part of this, as he all-too-often bested opponents in lane without help. The end result was a team that molded around him without becoming solely about him, at least initially.

Increasingly at Faker’s side throughout 2013 was rookie jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong whose blueprint can be seen as early as SK Telecom T1 #2’s first match against Blaze. Bengi’s sole task was to ensure that his teammates were ahead in lane. On aggressive ganking champions like Jarvan IV and Lee Sin, bengi guaranteed that his lanes won. In today’s metagame this would appear rudimentary — win lane, win game, as the saying goes, is reserved for lower-tier teams who rely on a more solo queue mentality for victory. However, applying this to 2013 SK Telecom T1 #2 does a disservice to the team itself as well as the raw talent of its individuals and undermines how the team evolved together, including their highest highs and lowest lows.

Faker easily became the team’s brightest star, followed by rookie AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin. The more experienced top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong and support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon steadied the team, particularly the latter who was famously tasked with keeping the energetic and erratic Piglet in check. Their unmatched laning dominance, facilitated by bengi, earned SK Telecom T1 #2 a shockingly high finish in their first-ever OGN season, falling to eventual champions MVP Ozone in the Semifinals before sweeping CJ Entus Frost to claim third place. Simple lane supremacy could not win a Champions title, and SK Telecom T1 #2’s poor late-game teamfighting was enough to spell their demise.

Slight adjustments were made throughout Champions Summer 2013 where SK Telecom T1 continued to obliterate their opponents. Their first game of summer was a quick surrender from LG IM #2 on the back of a 2/0/14 Nunu performance and an overwhelming split push. Again, bengi was tasked with providing early pressure to snowball his lanes, but with the added job of supplying necessary crowd control and vision. It was in this season that bengi came into his own, displaying his signature style that most know him for today. While bengi would repeatedly find himself actively aiding lanes — especially for Faker and Piglet — he also made a name for himself by invading the opposing jungle and placing vision, further securing his teammates’ early success on his signature Jarvan as well as Nunu and Vi. Bengi’s vision control allowed his allies, particularly Faker, to play aggressively in lane on their own, even with less of his ganking pressure.

This is particularly important when considering the metagame at the time, and what Faker was wont to play. His fame skyrocketed in 2013 thanks in large part to calculated 1v1 outplays on assassins like Ahri, Zed, LeBlanc, even the occasional Syndra and Kassadin. Extra security from bengi’s vision net propagated Faker’s forward lane positioning. In 2013, the most general role of a jungler was that of a facilitator. Lanes held the more important carries, and even the title of “carry jungler” often belonged to aggressive gankers, like KT Rolster’s Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon or more cerebral pathing prodigies like MVP’s Choi “DanDy” In-kyu.

Fast forward to 2016 and a specific shift in how Faker relates to his jungler acts as a microcosm for current mid and jungler partnerships. In an interesting role reversal from 2013 bengi enabling Faker, SK Telecom T1’s new jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu was largely guided by Faker throughout LCK Spring 2016.

After a series of poor showings in the first few weeks of the regular season, SK Telecom T1 gave the starting jungle position to relative newbie Blank over the veteran bengi. Previously, Faker and bengi’s SK Telecom T1 K had struggled in mid-to-late 2014, when bengi’s effectiveness fell significantly due to extreme meta shifts that introduced double jungling with the top laner and fast outer-turret pushes in laneswaps. The team’s inability to adapt — in spite of continued dazzling 1v1 carry performances from Faker — punctuated the only season where SK Telecom T1 failed to send a team to the League of Legends World Championship. Unwilling to allow another meta shift to cost their team another chance at glory, SKT wisely started Blank for the remainder of Spring 2016.

With reported stage fright issues, and the now-massive shadow of bengi’s achievements with the team in 2013 and 2015, the decision to start Blank wasn’t initially regarded as a wise one at all. Prior to SKT’s appearance at the Season X IEM World Championship, the fact that Blank was listed as the only jungler bound for Katowice with the team earned no small amount of ire from SKT fans. Blank had been shaky at best in his appearances that season — many regarded his Game 3 arrival against the ROX Tigers in Week 3 as SKT giving up on winning the series — and sending him to an international event following the team’s unmistakable first round robin struggles appeared to be the height of arrogance.

Instead, Blank cut his teeth on his international opponents, finally looking like he belonged as a strong member of SKT in his own right. Doubts remained about how he would perform upon returning to Korea, but Blank and SKT quickly quelled them with a 14-6 overall record and 9-2 series record.

A large part of Blank’s maturation during LCK Spring 2016 is owed to Faker and once again how SKT molded their playstyle to suit not only the current metagame but to leverage their greatest strengths against their obvious vulnerabilities. In 2013, it was their lack of teamfight coordination and tight objective control, which they overcame through bengi’s vision safety net and unrivaled lane dominance. In 2016, it was focusing on the same late-game teamfighting that had eluded previous iterations of SKT to empower AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik while Blank caught up to speed.

During Blank and SKT's growing pains, another jungle and mid partnership dominated the LCK Spring 2016 regular season with reversed roles — eventually defeated by Faker and Blank in the LCK Spring 2016 Finals. Han “Peanut” Wang-ho burst onto the Korean scene this past split with an invigorated ROX Tigers. In spite of rumored attitude issues during his 2015 bungled debut on NaJin e-mFire, which saw veteran Cho “watch” Jae-geol start over the talented rookie, Peanut synergized with the Tigers flawlessly, giving their early game an unprecedented boost that former jungler Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin had been unable to provide.

The primary beneficiary of Peanut’s smothering jungle pressure was Tigers mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng. Maligned for the majority of 2015, KurO had previously been seen as dead weight, along with Hojin, holding the Tigers back from reaching their true potential. Once KurO had a jungler who consistently applied early pressure, murdered his jungle adversaries, and kept opponents out of mid lane, KurO was free to do whatever he wanted, resulting in a career split.

Where Faker had guided Blank through the jungle, Peanut guided KurO through the mid lane. Both duos met in the LCK Spring 2016 Final, with SK Telecom T1 unexpectedly coming out on top. Peanut was bested by Blank, who exploited Peanut’s Graves with the more proactive Kindred, and bested Peanut’s Kindred with the help of Faker’s roaming Vel’Koz.

Simply perusing Faker’s champion pool of the past split and comparing it to that of Summer 2013 showcases the vast shift in SKT’s priority from then to now. Orianna, Ahri, Zed, Gragas and Syndra were Faker’s most-played champions in the Summer 2013 regular season. By contrast, he spent the majority of his time on Lulu, Corki, Azir, Lissandra and Viktor in LCK Spring 2016. While much of this is due to the meta, noticeably absent in his most-played is LeBlanc — a signature champion of his — in spite of appearing in other Korean mids’ top five and having her own place in the meta.

Azir deserves specific annotation since the Emperor of the Sands stood out in 2015 as the primary reason for SKT starting Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon in the mid lane for half of Spring. Faker not only mastered Azir, he plays him as an aggressive assassin, unlike any other mid laner in the world. Most importantly he utilized these champions to control the center of the map, allowing his teammates more freedom. Where 2013 bengi had controlled vision around mid and in enemy territory, opening the Rift for SK Telecom T1’s aggressive lanes, 2016 Faker performed a similar role with wave clear and zoning utility mages.

Faker’s control allowed Blank to make mistakes and learn, adjusting his pathing accordingly. At first, Blank was only marginally more effective than bengi, and only come mid game when he grouped with the rest of his team for teamfights. Adept on the current set of jungle champions like Nidalee, Kindred, and Graves, Blank’s teamfight positioning was fairly strong from the start, especially as a secondary damage carry rather than a utility tank or crowd control initiator.

Unlike in seasons past, the term “carry jungler” has changed in 2016 to a damage carry that farms much like a fifth laner. A DPS carry requires different positioning and mindset — one that occasionally conflicts with the traditional role of jungler as a facilitator. This mindset appeared to come to Blank somewhat naturally, all he needed was a teammate to guide him through the early game and coordinate crowd control in mid-game skirmishes or full blown 5v5 engagements. Enter Faker.

From solo queue phenom naturally bending SK Telecom T1 #2's playstyle to suit his aggressive dueling prowess, Faker has evolved into a guidepost, controlling the center of the map and leading his teammates by example. His flashy outplays sustain highlight reel after highlight reel, yet he found even greater value for his team as a mentor driving SK Telecom T1 to continued heights.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. She still believes that the OGN Champions Summer 2013 Final between SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster Bullets is the greatest series in LoL history. You can follow her on Twitter.