Demystifying SK Telecom T1

by theScore Staff May 15 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / MSI 2016 / Riot Games

As Counter Logic Gaming’s nexus falls for the third time, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok takes off his headphones, pushes his chair back away from the “Victory” screen on his computer, and smiles. The Shanghai crowd roars.

With the 3-0 victory, he's attained the one international title that eluded him last spring — the Mid-Season Invitational. Already acknowledged as the best player in the world, Faker has now also won every possible international prize in League of Legends.

The stage lights up with the star-shaped logo of his home region’s LoL Champions Korea, as Faker rises from his seat on autopilot, ready to shake the hands of North America’s MSI representative — the latest team to fall at the hands of the SKT juggernaut. A familiar scene for those who have been watching Faker and SKT for years.

AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik rises beside him, but instead turns back to look across Faker’s now-empty chair at SKT’s jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu. Blank looks incredulous at first, but then he looks to Bang for approval, grins, and stands up. The AD carry holds out his arms, grinning like a proud father, and Blank hugs him tightly. Seeing them embrace, Faker turns and gives Bang a brief pat on the back, adding his endorsement to the rare emotional display.

Perhaps this brief acknowledgement stands out in relief because it reminds us that SKT are not gods. It says “we did it,” as if there wasn’t any doubt — yet it also acknowledges the unexpectedly difficult road SKT took to reach this moment. Even Faker himself, undoubtedly the best player in League of Legends history, is still very human, with struggles and breakthroughs and proud achievements.

In the ephemeral world of professional League of Legends, Faker is an anomaly, a one in ten-million talent who's stayed true through the rise and fall of lesser champions. Regardless of his supporting cast, or which version of the game he happens to be playing, Faker can overcome. When his team needed him to be a high-damage assassin, he dazzled audiences with Ahri, LeBlanc, and Zed. When his team needed him to be more self-sufficient so they could maximize top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan’s carry potential at the 2015 World Championship, Faker became the most gold-efficient mid laner and the best Lulu player in the world. When his team needed him to control the mid lane so Blank could adjust to the jungle position, Faker became Blank’s guide, a reversal of the relationship he had with veteran jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong. Known as SKT’s carry, Faker has fulfilled any and all requests the team has made of him, even if it has meant taking the backseat and facilitating teammates' flashy plays.

Faker and SKT came into MSI as clear favorites, and on Day 1 they annihilated SuperMassive and G2 Esports. In spite of a few obvious in-game mistakes, it looked like the team was set to sail through the event, possibly even without dropping a single match — just like at IEM Katowice earlier this year.

Instead, SKT’s story in the first week of MSI was one of poor decision-making compounded by uncharacteristic individual errors, overly-aggressive laning — especially from Faker — and a complete lack of jungle pressure. SKT stumbled through groups, bookending a streak of four losses on Days 2 and 3 with wins on Days 1, 4 and 5 and squeaking into the playoffs with a 6-4 record and fourth-place ranking. The team's mistakes baffled anyone who saw their performance at the LCK Spring Finals. A 3-1 victory over the ROX Tigers had already calmed fans' fears that the team wouldn't be fit to represent Korea this time around, but at MSI, all of their regular-season woes returned to haunt them.

bengi's less experienced replacement was a lighting rod for criticism, along with top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong. Always a reactive jungler, Blank failed to apply early pressure and was nullified completely by full-on assaults on SKT's mid lane meant to punish Faker’s forward positioning. Duke failed to group with his team in time, and his Teleports once again attracted the ire of the international fanbase.

SKT weren't broken. When they met China’s Royal Never Give Up in the semifinals, they did what they always do — adjusted. Turning the tables on RNG jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu, they punished RNG’s aggressive tendencies with superior vision and a Soraka pick for support Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan that kept their health bars topped off in skirmishes. When RNG tried to limp away with blinking health, SKT reinitiated, besting the Chinese side in teamfights. In classic SKT fashion, the games looked more and more one-sided as the series wore on. It ended with a perfect game for the Koreans.

Standing between SKT and the MSI trophy was the pride of North America, Counter Logic Gaming. While SKT had been treading water in groups, CLG used them to make a statement for their team and region. They were still the underdogs; the odds favored a 3-0 by SKT. But if SKT's goal was, in the words of coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun, to “let [CLG] experience fear through their whole body and mind,” they failed. Through the first two games, CLG fought them at every turn. The American team would not be cowed, on or off the Rift. Even after being outclassed in Game 3 and swept out of the finals, they were proud to have earned their place as runner-up.

SKT has been demystified, at least for CLG — but that makes SKT more dangerous, not less. They’re human, just like their opponents, yet the gap between them remains. SKT makes mistakes, like every team does, but where they cannot be matched is in how they learn from their mistakes and grow ever-stronger through adversity.

Following the handshakes with CLG, Faker makes a beeline for the MSI trophy, raising it above his head before his team catches up. They fan out around him as kkOma and legacy SK Telecom T1 #2 support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon, now turned coach, look on with sheepish pride. As medals are presented, the members of SKT shuffle their feet, attempting to look stoic but with smiles peeking through.

Confetti cannons go off, startling Blank. He jumps back, looking slightly embarrassed, but Faker looks at him and grins. “You get used to it,” his expression says. Duke cracks a rare smile.

Though the path this squad have taken has been different than other lineups before them, the end result is the same — another SK Telecom T1 victory. This time, they are that much stronger in light of their hardships.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.