MSI Preview: The SK Telecom T1 Dynasty

by theScore Staff May 2 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Patrick Strack / IEM Katowice 2016 LoL / IEM/ESL

Just as royal lineages held onto their thrones through peace and conflict, accumulating power, influence and wealth over decades and centuries, a proper sports dynasty is an organization that continues to win regardless of who's on their lineup or how the game evolves around them. Dynasty is a term all-too-often applied in conventional sports, but in League of Legends, only one organization comes close to earning it: SK Telecom T1.

With two World Championships, the 2014 Riot All-Star Invitational, two IEM victories in 2012 and 2016, and five domestic titles — OGN Champions Summer 2013, OGN Champions Winter 2013-14, LCK Spring 2015, LCK Summer 2015, LCK Spring 2016 — SKT are easily the most decorated League organization.

That list leaves out the numerous times an SKT roster has earned a spot in the postseason, or come within inches of a domestic or international title. But even just considering a topline summary of their achievements, SKT have outclassed every other top-tier LoL organization in their region — the most competitive region in the world — going back almost four years.

He would always win the fight

Heading into MSI with a prestigious pedigree and a recent LCK victory, SKT have all the hallmarks of an utterly dominant incumbent. However, it's worth remembering they struggled to find their footing at the start of 2015 and again at the beginning of 2016. Both times, it took at least the first round robin for the team to adjust to an offseason shuffle, and both times, one player stepped up to become a pillar of strength for the team. That player was unassuming AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik.

When sister teams SK Telecom T1 S and K merged at the end of 2014, SKT T1 K support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon and AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin were released, and their S counterparts, Bang and his support Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan, assumed their duties on the new SK Telecom T1. In spite of K’s struggles in 2014 — especially that summer, which marked the first Champions season that the S side finished higher than their K counterparts — the then reigning world champions, along with Piglet and Pooh, were widely considered superior players, and the decision to replace them with Bang and Wolf was met with skepticism.

Bang was a safe, positioning-based AD carry, picked up from Xenics Blast, and formerly with NaJin White Shield. Unlike Piglet, who was known for his flashy outplays, punchy attitude and overwhelming lane dominance — especially during his rise in 2013 — Bang was unobtrusive and generally conservative, despite tearing up solo queue.

He joined the team at the same time as another solo queue superstar, Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan, but the team failed to come together around the top laner, and carry duties fell to mid laner Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon, a player known for his safe laning on high-waveclear zoning mages. In 2014, SKT T1 S became synonymous with Easyhoon’s Ziggs. Viewers and casters alike began to lament the plodding pace and inevitably long game-times of S matches. As the team evolved through the summer season and embraced their new slow-and-steady identity, Bang was tasked with playing late-game hypercarries like Kog’Maw, Twitch and Ezreal.

It’s difficult to imagine the current SKT Bang struggling on late-game carries, especially Ezreal, but his summer 2014 winrate with the Prodigal Explorer was zero percent. He fared better on Kog’Maw (50 percent) and Twitch (67 percent), but these champions failed to make the most of Bang’s greatest strength: deft positioning throughout skirmishes and extended fights. Instead, backing up Easyhoon’s late-game control mage of choice — Ziggs if possible or Orianna — Bang was little more than late-game insurance.

However, in 2015, Bang learned to embrace the role of a late-game carry. His showstopping performances last year carried SKT to victory in high-pressure situations — most notably in a stunning Game 4 on Lucian against CJ Entus in the LCK Spring 2015 Playoffs. He still wasn't seen as anywhere close to the world’s best AD carry — until he racked up a whopping 71 KDA in the group stage of the 2015 World Championship. Ending the tournament with the highest KDA (15.8) and the lowest share of his team’s deaths (9.5 percent) of any player attending, he was instrumental in the organization's second world title.

Bang has only improved over the past split. In the first round robin of Spring 2016, when SKT failed to synergize with their new top laner, Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, and jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong’s style fell out of favor, Bang was often the only thing carrying SKT to victory. In order to make up for bengi’s lack of map pressure — and later ingratiate new jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu into the SKT fold — Faker was assigned to control and waveclear mages, and the carry duties fell almost exclusively to Bang. Yet he rose to the occasion with style, carrying the team with mobile and elusive champions like Lucian, Ezreal, Sivir and his 2015 signature champion, Kalista. The rest of the team molded around his late-game prowess, and in the process found their own style as five.

Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday

Thanks to Bang’s reliability, and Faker steering Blank in the right direction, SKT muddled through the first round robin of LCK Spring 2016 even without any sort of cohesive identity. They ended on a particularly sour note, with a 1-2 loss to the Afreeca Freecs, still considered an insignificant underdog at that point in the season. A lack of overall jungle pressure, a weak grasp on the current meta and problems with communication plagued the team, especially where their new top laner Duke was concerned.

When MaRin assumed the starting top lane role for SKT in Spring 2015, he was hardly the top lane monster that laid waste to opponents at the 2015 World Championship. Instead, MaRin was a solo queue superstar who had failed to pan out on SKT T1 S, leaving all carry duties to Easyhoon and Bang. SKT nurtured MaRin through 2015, giving him the resources he needed when necessary, and Marin returned the favor with dominating performances that eventually earned him a hefty paycheck and a trip to China for Spring 2016.

By contrast, Duke had already proven his worth prior to joining SKT, in his stint with NaJin e-mFire. Racking up the most MVP points of any player in LCK Spring 2015, Duke was the star of NaJin, even over acrobatic AD carry Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min. Duke requested a spot with SKT in the 2015-16 offseason, stating that he wanted to be on a team that could win a championship (and presumably fed up with NaJin). It seemed like a perfect fit.

Instead, he became a lightning rod for any and all criticism of SKT in early Spring 2016, thanks to his poor Teleport usage and general tardiness in teamfights and skirmishes. On NaJin, top lane had been an island for Duke. He was often the reason why the team won, but it was a one-man effort without any apparent communication. In his initial remarks about SKT, Duke marveled at how talkative everyone was. Meanwhile, SKT's jungle pressure faltered — first because the shifting jungle meta prevented bengi from placing deep wards as well as he used to, and then because Blank, a jungler with few LCK performances, struggled to find his own footing.

Using their undefeated run through the Season X IEM World Championship at Katowice as a foundation, SKT slowly rebuilt their identity through the second half of the split. They tightened up their late-game teamfighting, and Duke found his place on the team thanks to Maokai and Poppy, showing off a much-improved initiation sense as well as strong teamfight target selection. While he had one minor hiccup against ROX Tigers in the LCK Spring 2016 Final, it was clear from his play that his communication and synergy were stronger than they ever had been.

An MSI miss

Now that this 2016 squad has discovered their identity, they look unstoppable — a signature narrative for SKT teams. They enter the Mid-Season Invitational as heavy favorites, but with a bit of a chip on their shoulder over last year’s disappointing finish.

SKT were the favorite to take the title at last year's MSI as well — right up until a single game against EDward Gaming in the Grand Finals. After a grueling semifinal with Fnatic, SKT were bested by an EDG lineup that was firing on all cylinders, and a smart Game 5 draft from EDG coach Ji “Aaron” Xing.

MSI was only established last year, but it’s also the only significant trophy missing from SK Telecom T1's collection. Having won both 2015 Korean finals and the World Championship, SKT came close to having a completely undefeated year — but for MSI.

Look for that to change this month in Shanghai, where the SKT dynasty plans to add yet another title to their wealth of power and influence.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. In case you couldn't tell, she thinks SK Telecom T1 will win MSI. You can follow her on Twitter.