Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok smirks slightly, before tossing his head, his usual stony-faced expression replacing the briefest flash of emotion. A glance at the rest of his team reveals small smiles and a slight fist pump from Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan before they rise from their seats to shake hands with their opponent.
Also rising are Europe’s G2 Esports, utterly defeated. SK Telecom T1 kept G2 to only one turret, no dragons, and three kills — to SKT’s 23 — in a 24:24 rout to cap off an excellent start to what was presumably another international victory for the powerhouse Korean organization. The somber, disappointed faces of the G2 players are met with the serious expressions of SKT. It’s all clinical, ordinary, expected.
As they file offstage, Lee “Duke” Ho-seong looks briefly down at his sneakers to ensure that he doesn’t trip on the step, while Faker gives a small, somewhat awkward wave to a cheering Chinese crowd at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center.
It’s a scene epitomizing what was expected of Korea’s champion at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, but it happened far fewer times than the team would have liked. This familiar vignette — the serious, thoughtful expressions, dejected looks on opponents’ faces and endgame “Victory” screens — was replaced with four successive group stage defeats on Days 2 and 3. Despite the total collapse of Europe’s G2 affecting the overall standings, SKT found themselves in a somewhat precarious position come the final day of groups. An improbable, yet possible G2 comeback loomed over SKT until the Korean team firmly slammed the door on Europe’s MSI playoff hopes. The win came on the back of an impressive 4/2/12 Lee Sin performance from jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, whose 10.7K total gold was more than any G2 player managed to earn in that entire match.
An easy target for SKT’s group stage woes — and the team’s struggles throughout the split — is Blank. His initial appearances in the LCK saw him outshone by the likes of other top talent in the league. When the team started him over Bae "bengi" Seong-woong at IEM, it was widely regarded as a learning opportunity for the relatively untested jungler against a weaker international field — despite coach Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun asserting to the contrary. Despite becoming the primary starter for the team Blank continued to live in the shadow of bengi and his opponents.
kkOma and SKT committed to Blank, starting him in all of the team’s second round robin series, and Blank repaid them with increasingly strong performances. In the LCK Spring 2016 Finals, Blank surprisingly held his own against ROX Tigers’ Han “Peanut” Wang-ho with intelligent pathing choices that took advantage of Peanut’s champion choices.
Aside from one game on Elise, Peanut was unable to farm into relevancy or have the same overwhelming early pressure that had characterized his gameplay throughout the regular season. Even when the Tigers' jungler appeared in lanes early, the ROX Tigers were unable to go toe to toe with SKT in late game teamfights, led by Faker, Duke and Blank with AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik always able to clean house. Peanut’s stifling presence from the jungle was one of the main reasons why the ROX Tigers were favored in the spring final, and his inability to punish Blank and SKT early as he had only a few weeks prior marked his team’s downfall. Blank’s newfound pressure coupled with his role as a secondary DPS carry in teamfights appeared to herald a 2016 MSI tournament where SKT would fail to drop a single game in the group stages. After their aforementioned Day 1 victory over G2 Esports, this seemed all but guaranteed.
The jungle position has made or broken teams during the 2016 MSI group stages. While Blank isn’t solely responsible for his team’s 0-4 skid partway through groups, breaking down what went wrong with SKT begins with his early pathing and comprehensive jungle style.
|Jungler||First gank||First Blood||CS Differential at 10 Minutes||Kill Participation|
Blank’s CS differential at 10 minutes immediately stands out. It’s the highest of all junglers at the tournament and third-highest of any player in the 2016 MSI group stages behind SuperMassive e-Sports’ Nicolaj “Achuu” Ellesgaard (10) and Li “Xiaohu” Yuanhao (6.8) who are an AD carry and a mid laner respectively. Having that large of an early CS lead over opponents for a jungler is remarkable and immediately pokes holes in the oft-repeated assertion after SKT’s losses that Blank is simply a bad player.
Powerfarming trades early aggression for mid-to-late game teamfighting damage, and late game teamfighting is something that SKT has drafted for and developed all season. Yet, Blank’s penchant for farming over any significant early pressure is one of the reasons that ROX and Peanut were favored going into the Spring Final. By contrast, Blank’s increasingly efficient pathing in the final and ability to apply a bit more pressure in the early game is one of the reasons — along with a legacy of organizational and regional dominance — why SKT was heavily favored to sweep through the group stages in the first place.
Stymying Blank and SKT at 2016 MSI has been a rise in early, proactive gank patterns even on the likes of Graves, who seemingly has less to offer than his jungle counterparts of Nidalee and Kindred. Blank’s upcoming opponent, RNG’s Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu, has become synonymous with level 2 and level 3 ganks, regardless of champion choice. Against the rest of the MSI field, Blank ganks less, makes the first move less, and participates in fewer first bloods. Farming more than his opponent has often meant very little when said opponent already had a 3/0/0 mid laner at 11 minutes.
The collapse of the SKT mid lane has accompanied Blank’s lack of proactivity, with opponents targeting Faker early and often. Prone to over-aggression in lane, Faker has shown the similar disregard for opponents that has characterized his entire career. Unfortunately for SKT, he has been duly punished for it, his playstyle exploited in service of shutting down Blank and pressing SKT back into their own territory.
Faker has been Blank’s constant companion, guiding him throughout the split thanks to his overwhelming mid lane prowess. While Blank had appeared more independent in the LCK Spring 2016 Final, he has suffered from Faker’s mid lane woes in the MSI group stages. Rare mechanical misplays and overly-confident calculations — especially from Faker — have led to both looking uncoordinated and a bit lost. This has been Faker’s worst international showing in his storied career, and it’s affected SKT on multiple levels.
SKT’s late game teamfighting success has often relied on Faker or Duke for initiation and crowd control. Even on engage supports like Alistar — the most-played support in his career — Wolf excels on disengage and re-initiation rather than kicking off a teamfight like RNG’s Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong. Blank has filled in the role of a secondary damage alongside Bang, leaving fewer initiation options open for SKT.
This past MSI group stage marked a perfect storm of desynchronization for the Korean champions who worked so hard to improve their teamfighting throughout the regular season. Blank’s lack of proactivity hurt in the face of junglers like Mlxg and Flash Wolves’ Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan who easily took advantage alongside their proactive roaming supports — Mata and Hu “SwordArt” Shuojie. Faker’s over-aggression was exploited, ceding mid lane control to opponents while Duke found himself faced with similar communication issues that had plagued him in the beginning of the Spring Split. His Teleports throughout the group stages were laughable, due to both timing and ward placement, a microcosm of SKT’s general disorganization during the MSI group stage. As one of SKT’s primary initiators, the team’s failure to integrate Duke is another piece to their 0-4 puzzle, especially since the team remains committed to late game teamfighting.
Yet, this commitment, along with years of consistent success and a proven ability to adapt, is exactly why it’s so difficult to bet against SKT in a best-of-five series. It’s one thing to beat the Korean champions in a best-of-one group stage match, but the approach changes entirely in a best-of-five. SKT have proven time and time again that they’re capable of making game-to-game adjustments en route to victory. Last year’s MSI Final against Edward Gaming stands as the only winning example of an international team tailoring their strategy within a series to best Faker's SKT, a final likely still fresh in kkOma’s mind.
RNG is a strong team that has used the MSI group stages as a springboard for their personal development and evolution, yet their in-game misplays have often been just as egregious and obvious as SKT’s group stage failures. In their last two group stage matches against G2 Esports and RNG — both victories — SKT showed significant signs of improvement. Blank, who had failed to gank or apply pressure first in all but two of their previous games, made the initial move to get his team ahead, including a three-buff start over Mlxg in their final game.
Four days after their initial 2-0, Blank cradles his head in his hands, looking relieved. SKT’s trademark stony faces, aside from a rare Blank smile, last through handshakes with a disappointed but determined RNG team. As the members of SKT file offstage again, Blank jogs up to Wolf and the support smiles, ruffling Blank’s hair while the two amble off. They look reassured, like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. Their upcoming semifinal with RNG will be another grueling, and likely explosive, test, but one that an entire season of strife has prepared them for.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.