Following another shocking 0-2 day, the call to bring back Bae “bengi” Seong-woong to the SK Telecom T1 jungle has reached a fever pitch. While SKT has not been playing well as a unit, jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu is an obvious target for the majority of criticism against the team. He has missed crucial smites, mispositioned in teamfights, and applied little to no early map pressure.
Yet, unpacking SKT’s discouraging 0-4 slide requires more than crying out for a simple jungle substitution. Bengi’s return may be imminent, but it’s important to understand what bengi brings to the jungle, why Blank was chosen over him since the Season X IEM World Championship at Katowice, and why bengi would be the better choice for SKT at this time based on the manner of their struggles.
SKT are unused to losing. It simply doesn’t happen to them. The last event that SKT did not win was the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, which went to Edward Gaming after a grueling and well-thought-out best-of-five series. Entering the tournament as a favorite, SKT was also pushed to five games by Fnatic in their semifinal. One of the stars of this series, and SKT’s appearance at that tournament, was bengi. Come Game 5, bengi locked in Nunu — a signature champion for the jungler — and made Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin’s life miserable with exponentially better pathing, exemplifying just how much professional experience bengi has under his figurative belt.
Initially chosen as one of SK Telecom T1 #2’s rookies, bengi’s task was to appear in his team’s lanes and help them amass early advantages, especially for mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. SK Telecom T1 #2 won games by stomping their lanes before slowly crushing their opponents with superior mechanics. Their meteoric rise to international stardom began in their inaugural OGN season, Champions Spring 2013, where they earned third place. As SK Telecom T1 #2 continued to develop and cement their identity, bengi’s role evolved from a more obvious lane facilitator to game coordinator. Invading opponents’ jungles, bengi placed key wards, allowing his lanes to push incessantly — far more than they would have been able to otherwise without being punished by their adversaries.
By contrast, Blank’s professional experience prior to SKT was a short stint with Star Horn Royal Club after Choi “inSec” In-seok managed to do his worst, real-life Pantheon impression, breaking his leg in the process. Star Horn’s five losses and three wins without inSec were hardly Blank’s fault. The team’s morale was already long gone before Blank ever set foot on the Rift. However, morale was something that affected Blank, and the jungler struggled with mental issues upon arriving at SKT in 2016. According to SKT head coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun at IEM Katowice, one of their recent successes at that time involved bringing in someone to address Blank’s anxiety, allowing the jungler to relax.
In light of his poor performances during the group stages of MSI 2016, Blank’s confidence is likely shattered. SKT left the LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016 Finals brimming with confidence, and this too has been depleted with each passing loss, shown by their horrific collapse in their second game against Taiwan’s Flash Wolves. It’s easy to point to Blank’s obvious Baron Smite miss to the Flash Wolves’ Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan, but this is a microcosm for SKT’s issues throughout this MSI event — uncharacteristic mechanical misplays and the return of communication errors that hadn’t been present since before IEM Katowice.
The key takeaway is that, without strong mid and jungle control, SKT crumbles. They’ve spent the majority of LCK Spring 2016 reinventing themselves into a tight, late-game teamfighting team on the back of a career season from AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik. Placing Faker on waveclear champions with crowd control for fights — notably Azir, Lissandra and Lulu — the superstar mid laner can keep mid pushing while additionally facilitating both Bang and Blank, who primarily plays DPS carries as dictated by the current jungle meta.
Blank was first seen in an SKT uniform against the Jin Air Green Wings in Week 1. Unprepared for Jin Air’s triple AD composition and top laner Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong’s Graves, Blank quickly exited the booth after Game 1 and bengi returned to the Rift, his seat having been warmed a bit. SKT still lost that second game to Jin Air, but Blank was not seen again until Game 3 against the ROX Tigers where his arrival was widely considered to be a white flag from SKT. Blank did little to dissuade the Tigers’ Han “Peanut” Wang-ho from dictating the pace of the game, and SKT visibly suffered from the lack of pressure.
As the meta shifted to more DPS physical damage carries like Kindred and Graves, SKT failed to find picks for bengi to execute his signature invades and vision net, allowing for SKT’s laning aggression. Bengi tried out Udyr and Rumble with little to no success, and his Graves was wholly underwhelming. In his first round robin wins with SKT, bengi still looked less effective than he had previously, even on his 2015 favorite, Rek’Sai. This mattered slightly less with Bang in the bot lane — an overall safer laner when compared to bengi’s previous AD carry, Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin — but Faker was, and continues to be, prone to overextend. The absence of bengi’s vision net also affected top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, whose trouble communicating with his new team was compounded by a lack of available wards to target for teleports.
It’s important to distinguish champion choice from bengi’s playstyle. Bengi can be successful on a number of different champions, and has been throughout the years. He can probably still play to a more aggressive ganking style, although it’s rarely been seen since his first days on SK Telecom T1 #2 because it’s not been what SKT, throughout numerous iterations, has needed from their jungler. In the first round robin of LCK Spring 2016, the only champion on which bengi was able to execute his classic style was Elise. Blank was a completely different jungler. He lacked bengi’s vision control and pathing intelligence, but he played more meta champions and his positioning was that of a carry more than a crowd control facilitator. SKT committed to starting Blank at IEM Katowice, and he remained their starting jungler for the second round robin and the team’s recent Finals victory.
In bengi’s absence, crowd control duties shifted to Faker, giving Blank time to find his footing while SKT struggled through the growing pains. IEM Katowice marked a turning point for Blank on SKT, and the team continued to improve as the season wore on. Miscommunication in teamfights lessened, Duke’s teleport timings improved, and Blank became a legitimate carry threat thanks to the long leash given to him by Faker’s mid lane control. In the LCK Spring 2016 Finals, Blank finally appeared to have come into his own, and SKT looked to be an unstoppable entity headed into MSI.
Instead, Blank has been at his worst, and his team has fallen around him. Presumably pressured to carry his team, Faker’s overextensions appear all the worse without any sort of early jungle pressure from Blank. Likewise, keeping Faker back on his side of the map has been a highly successful strategy against SKT, as it removes Blank from the early game completely. Teamfights have broken down due to the same communication errors that plagued the team early in the spring, and Duke’s teleport timings have ranged from slightly off to bizarre and incomprehensible. To make matters worse, Blank’s neutral objective control has been abysmal, with Karsa’s recent out-Smite only one of an ever-growing list of incidents.
Bengi’s worst renders him non-existent. His mistakes are not as obvious as Blank’s, but their effect on the team is somewhat similar. When bengi performs poorly, the mid lane again collapses, and over-extension by Faker is duly punished. Without well-placed wards from bengi’s vision net, Duke’s teleports will still look somewhat atrocious. However, what bengi can bring is experience and a steady hand. Faker obviously trusts bengi — you could argue that he trusts him to the point of dependency in some circumstances — and the mid laner along with the rest of SKT desperately needs someone they can trust in order to salvage any hopes of winning this tournament.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.