Cracks in the Stained Glass: SKT, MSI, and “the gap” between Korea and the world

by theScore Staff May 18 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of MSI / lolesports flickr

What is “the gap?”

Western League of Legends frequently returns to this question, pursuing it with Neo-like obsession.

“It is everywhere. It is all around us,” Morpheus intones. “It is that seemingly unassailable chasm that separates South Korean League of Legends teams from the rest of the world.”

But is it real?

Three consecutive Korean world champions. A diaspora of Korean superstars headlining teams around the world. An aura of invincibility.

Oh yes: the gap is real. The question is: has it shrunk yet?

Building the Gap

South Korea’s reign over the world of esports stretches back to the foundations of large-scale competitive gaming, perhaps best personified by the days of Starcraft: Brood War. The country’s history with pro gaming has produced a diverse array of advantages, from relative acceptance in the mainstream, which produces a larger pool of players to fish for talent, to a culture of coachability, to well established infrastructure that includes stable non-endemic sponsors and supporting organizations like the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA). Korea got the ball seriously rolling on esports long before most of its global competition, and has continued to snowball that advantage over time.

In League of Legends, the Korean advantage is manifested as the most competitive domestic league in the world, LoL Champions Korea (LCK), which features 10 teams stocked with homegrown talent — not an import player in sight — and led by some of the most respected coaches in the game. Over grueling 13-week regular seasons, only a few teams earn the opportunity to run the playoff gauntlet. When a team like Longzhu Gaming fades into a tie for seventh and misses the playoffs, despite featuring talent as strong as Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong and Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, it’s clear where the LCK stands in the global food chain.

The competition throughout the LCK is fierce, but one organization has repeatedly risen above: two-time world champions SK Telecom T1. In the 2016 Spring split, SKT weathered a rocky start to qualify for the playoffs as the third seed, then managed to take out the Jin Air Green Wings, KT Rolster, and the regular season-winning ROX Tigers, finishing with an impressive 9-2 playoff record. They had ascended the mountain yet again, booking their tickets to the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) for a second consecutive year.

The Korean Mythos at MSI

In the lead-up to MSI 2016, all talk focused on the middle of the pack: who were the leaders in the race for second? Some highlighted the LPL’s Royal Never Give Up, the home team for the Shanghai-based event. Many others called G2 Esports of the EU LCS the second-best team at the tournament. There were voices calling for the LMS’s Flash Wolves to rise up, and a few of the faithful even thought Counter Logic Gaming would do the NA LCS proud and come out ahead of the pack.

In every prediction, though, one team floated above the uncertainty: SKT seemed untouchable, a near lock to take home the only international trophy missing from their résumé. It wasn’t a question of, “Can anyone beat them?” so much as, “Will they drop a single game?”

For years, the Korean teams have been the unanimous favorites in almost every event they attend, and even when it isn’t unanimous, like at the 2015 World Championships, they tend to go ahead and win anyways. MSI 2016 was no exception. A flawless record at Intel Extreme Masters Katowice in March had fed into SKT’s ever-growing reputation, stacking on top of their 2015 World Championship title as yet another proof that not only is Korea the strongest region in League of Legends, but SK Telecom is the greatest franchise in LoL history. Meanwhile, a plethora of praise pieces ensured that every corner of the entire internet was aware of Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s status as “God,” the “unkillable Demon King,” the greatest pro gamer of all time.

Then a funny thing happened.

On days two and three of the group stages, SKT dropped four consecutive games. In defeats to Royal Never Give Up and Counter Logic Gaming and two losses to the Flash Wolves, SKT seemed to have lost their ability to play proactively, and combined that with a peppering of individual mistakes that their opponents happily punished. With Faker faltering, SKT’s playmaking had dried up, and they looked — dare we say it — vulnerable.

Blood in the Water

SKT got back on track for the rest of the group stage, earning four consecutive wins to enter the Semifinals on a positive note. Still, there was blood in the water, cracks had emerged in the stained glass. SKT’s stumbles in the group stage had humanized them, to the point that a good portion of the analyst community even predicted that Royal Never Give Up would overcome SKT in the semifinals.

Under those circumstances, two teams lined up to take a shot at the kings.

Royal Never Give Up: Strength in Combat

Royal Never Give Up came into their semifinal against SKT armed with powerful in-game weapons, in the form of exceptional individual talent, and featuring a pair of renowned, former world champion Korean players, Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong and Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok. RNG drafted proactive champion picks like LeBlanc, Elise, and even a surprise Leona to set up their usual game plan: hit them early, hit them often, and don’t let up. RNG’s aggressive, almost reckless play style had served them well throughout the group stages, and indeed all year, and it had proven effective against SKT’s slower, more measured, quintessentially Korean pacing.

RNG weren’t the first to attack SKT with relentless aggression: that was how AHQ and Fnatic threatened SKT, and how EDG ultimately overcame them at MSI 2015. But it was also an approach that had backfired in the past, including at this year’s IEM World Championship, where Fnatic, Team SoloMid and others threw every punch they could think of, and found themselves alternately connecting with brick walls or thin air.

For one game, RNG’s weapons held true, as they made play after play, connecting on enough of them to break SKT down. Then SKT did what they, and Korean teams as a whole, are so good at doing: they adapted, found a way to weather the aggression, and proceeded to take three games in a row, even blanking RNG in a rare perfect game where they gave up zero kills, zero Towers, and zero Dragons. RNG’s weapons — including their Koreans — were blunted.

Counter Logic Gaming: Strength in Mindset

In the finals, Counter Logic Gaming — joined this season by Korean mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun — challenged SKT in a much subtler way: they couldn’t match RNG’s sheer mechanical prowess, but they equipped themselves with an out-of-game weapon that was potentially much more powerful: a winning mentality.

Head Coach Tony “Zikz” Gray has cited the team’s mental fortitude and confidence as their primary strength, and it has served his team well all year, helping them produce a North American title and the best international showing by any North American team in history (unless you’re especially attached to Team SoloMid’s win over Team WE at IEM Katowice last year).

Korean teams' inherent confidence, built on a legacy of success, has been their least measurable advantage, but perhaps one of the most important. SKT’s Head Coach, Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun, showed his awareness of a mindset advantage when he promised, ahead of the finals, to make CLG “experience fear through their whole body and mind.” SKT’s sheer dominance against RNG in Game 4 was a literally perfect example of the effects of that mental warfare.

But despite all the history and all the storylines amassed against them, we listened to CLG in interviews, and we believed a win was possible, almost as much as they seemed to themselves.

Ultimately, SKT matched CLG’s confidence and came out victorious through superior in-game tools, better decision making and better execution mechanically, led by Faker’s resurgent playmaking. But while CLG may have lost the series, and with a worse final score than RNG, they played three winnable, back-and-forth games, and didn’t suffer the snowball of defeat that RNG fell into. In the end, CLG showed their mental strength.

Piercing the Veil

By results, “the gap” hasn’t gotten any smaller. SKT still triumphed at MSI, in fairly convincing fashion, showing the strength of their coaching staff and their ability to adapt and execute. If any doubts had arisen over the course of the group stage about the LCK’s ability to produce international winners, SKT quelled them by the time they raised the trophy.

Sure, there have been signs of growth from Korea’s competitors, even before MSI. Earlier this year, the Jin Air Green Wings lost a best-of-three set to CLG at IEM San Jose, the first time a North American team had ever beaten a Korean team in a best-of series. But there have been apparent threats to Korea’s supremacy in the past. At the 2014 World Championships, Najin e-mFire dropped a game to Cloud9 and fell to China’s OMG 3-0 in the Quarterfinals, though the Samsung sister teams ensured that Korea could still take home the title in the end. In 2015, the GE Tigers collapsed at IEM Katowice and lost a best-of-three to China’s Team WE, and SKT dropped the 2015 MSI finals to EDward Gaming after needing a full five games to get past Europe’s Fnatic.

Beyond the wins and losses, though, this tournament somehow felt different. At the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, multiple teams from multiple regions pierced the Korean mythos, if only momentarily. Korea-supremacists will argue that SKT’s vulnerabilities were largely a symptom of their own poor play, (and they’re right), but that’s beside the point: Korean blood was spilled, and more than just a few drops. That will have more teams asking themselves: if RNG, CLG, and the Flash Wolves can do it, why can’t we?

The world may not yet be closing the gap with Korea on Summoners Rift, but maybe, just maybe, the gap has begun to narrow in confidence, mental strength, and belief in the Korean mythos.

The gap is real. But as Morpheus once asked, “What is ‘real’?”

Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.