Bengi, Begin Again

by theScore Staff Jun 14 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA photo archive / LCK Spring 2016 / KeSPA

During the LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016 Finals, OnGameNet aired a short in-between segment for each team. The ROX Tigers made an attempt at bursting onto the pop charts with their cover of BIGBANG’s “LIES,” while jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong jokingly revealed his true role as SK Telecom T1’s mastermind.

An SKT staple, bengi has been with the SKT organization since they first created a second team in early 2013 — one of two remaining original members still with the team today alongside superstar mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Faker continued to dazzle audiences worldwide throughout LCK Spring 2016 despite his team’s slow start. But his teammate bengi seemed destined to announce his retirement at any moment, stuck on the SKT bench, waiting out another metagame that didn’t suit his natural playstyle.

Bengi had yet to play a single game for his team throughout the second round robin. When SKT were crowned LCK champions for the third consecutive split, it was Blank who played all four Finals games. Despite Blank’s poor performances in the Mid-Season Invitational group stages — and community clamor for bengi’s return — SKT stuck with Blank throughout the tournament, and bengi earned his third championship win without having set foot on the Rift in a Finals match.

“The last time I played in a match, I thought I was the reason why we lost because I played badly,” bengi told Inven after his return to the starting lineup in LCK Summer 2016. “I was working on improving my form so that I could make an appearance again, but it’s true that I ended up resting much longer than I expected.”

The first time SK Telecom T1 chose jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu over veteran bengi this year, it caused a community uproar. In a deciding Game 3 against the then-undefeated ROX Tigers in LCK Spring 2016, benching bengi was seen not as the search for an alternative solution, but an admission of defeat. The team dynamic was visibly disrupted without bengi, and Blank — whose only other appearance at the time was an unfortunate Game 1 against the Jin Air Green Wings — ended with an unimpressive 0/3/1 Elise to Han “Peanut” Wang-ho’s 4/0/4 Graves.

Yet, the IEM Season X World Championship at Katowice ushered in the era of Blank, who was more-suited to the DPS carry style of jungling than bengi. Bengi retreated to the SKT bench, allowing Blank time to gel with the squad, leading SKT to another LCK title and their first MSI championship. Now in LCK Summer 2016, SKT appears unbeatable once more, thanks in large part to the return of their veteran jungler, bengi.

“I heard it’s been 104 days since I last played a match,” bengi said in a broadcast interview after his return series. “I’ve been watching matches and working on trying to address some of my shortcomings, and I was trying hard in solo queue, too.”

This spring isn’t bengi’s first struggle with adjusting to a specific meta. This summer isn’t his first triumphant return to the team that has been his home since the birth of his professional career.

The longevity of a League of Legends player is limited compared to their traditional sports counterparts — or even StarCraft: Brood War, StarCraft II, DotA 2 and to some extent Counter Strike esports pros. A year in LoL can cover a myriad of different metas due to constant patch updates. Players and teams that are only strong on one specific patch aren’t likely to see long-term success. Even those teams that adapt well aren’t likely to sustain themselves beyond a split, never mind a year. SK Telecom T1’s overwhelming dominion over Korean LoL is something that will not be replicated by any organization in any region in LoL esports history. The fact that they’ve done so with two players that have not changed organizations or teams since joining SKT as professionals is even more impressive.

Naturally, Faker stole the show from the moment SKT signed him. SKT picked up the solo queue phenom in Feb. 2013 — the core of their new secondary team, having picked up Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu’s Eat, Sleep, Game roster for their primary team in Dec. 2012. Known as SK Telecom T1 2, Faker’s unit also featured rookie AD carry prospect Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin and a third rookie: bengi.

Contrary to the passive playstyle that he’s honed throughout years of professional play, bengi began as an aggressive ganker on a team full of strong lanes. From top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong to Piglet and the obvious choice, Faker, SKT T1 2 was stacked with laning prowess. Bengi spent the majority of his time in his lanes on proactive ganking champions like Lee Sin and Jarvan IV, ensuring that Faker and Piglet jumped out to early laning leads.

This strategy propelled SKT T1 2 through Champions Spring 2013 to a surprising 3-1-1 set record (7-3 game record) at the end of the regular season, first place in Group A and tied with Spring favorites CJ Entus Blaze. But relying solely on their individual prowess could only take SKT T1 2 so far, and they lost to eventual winners MVP Ozone in the semifinals.

Champions Summer 2013 marked the true beginning of SKT’s rise, ushered in by renewed attention to SKT’s lanes from bengi, and coupled with the evolution of his play. While Faker’s MVP points skyrocketed throughout the season — to the point where Faker joked that he donated Piglet a few kills so he wouldn’t be lonely in post-game MVP interviews — bengi developed what is now considered his signature style. Placing deep wards, especially for Faker in the mid lane, bengi’s pathing shifted away from early aggressive ganking and more towards setting up SKT’s vision, providing a safety net for their lanes to push without disruption.

His champion pool also shifted. In Champions Spring 2013, bengi spent the majority of his time on Jarvan IV, Nasus and Lee Sin. The Blind Monk disappeared completely in Champions Summer 2013, replaced by Vi for times when bengi wanted to dive the enemy backline, and his most-played champion was his now-signature Nunu. “Piglet likes Nunu,” bengi joked in a postgame interview after their Champions Summer 2013 quarterfinals victory over the Jin Air Green Wings Falcons. While bengi is known for his synergy with Faker, Champions Summer 2013 also cemented his teamwork with Piglet, who had a strong split, capped off with a phenomenal finals series against the KT Rolster Bullets.

bengi did everything necessary to ensure that Piglet and Faker were able to secure early leads and build on them throughout the game thanks to his inventive ward placement and all-important crowd control come time for skirmishes. SKT T1 2 were a team that bludgeoned their opponents to death with overwhelming laning dominance and aggression. This playstyle earned them the Champions Summer crown and, eventually, the Season 3 World Championship.

Renamed SK Telecom T1 K, bengi and Faker’s team was as close to flawless as any team has been in the history of LoL during Champions Winter 2013-14, undefeated en route to their second OGN Champions title. Although SKT has had dominant showings since — and made an undefeated run through the 2015 World Championship — no run has matched their rampage through Winter 2013-14, a victory lap for their Season 3 World Championship title.

“When we were on our tenth win, I didn’t even know we were on a winning streak,” bengi said in his Winter 2013-14 Finals post-series interview. “Slowly, once we hit double-digits, people around me were like, ‘Hey, dude, did you know you have 11 wins, now 12 wins?’ And then it started clicking and here we are with a perfect record.”

Although bengi will throw in the occasional trash-talk phrase if prodded, SKT’s veteran jungler is all-too-often humble, sheepish, and happy to talk after a win. While Faker and Piglet were the obvious carries of SKT T1 K from the team’s inception, throughout the 2013 World Championship, and 2013-14 Winter, bengi was cited as the player who had undergone the most individual growth.

bengi often ended up overshadowed not only by his own teammates, but his top-tier competition. An unassuming figure, bengi didn’t have the same cerebral mindset as Samsung Ozone’s Choi “DanDy” In-kyu or the aggressive flourishes of either KT Rolster jungler, Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon or Choi “inSec” In-seok. Instead, bengi was best at supporting his teammates through vision and patient pathing or timely lane appearances.

If you ask him, bengi vehemently denies that he is able to take care of his teammates, off or on the Rift. “I’m not good at looking after my teammates because I have a lot of shortcomings myself,” bengi said in his postmatch interview after his recent return in LCK Summer 2016. “I’m too busy looking out for myself as it is.”

Since 2013, bengi and SKT have evolved and struggled together. bengi’s playstyle is intrinsically tied to what was needed of him in Champions Spring and Summer 2013 — a supportive jungler with peerless vision control and creative pathing decisions to back up his vision net. There were many reasons for SKT T1 K’s fall from grace that followed their highest height at that point — Champions Winter 2013-14.

All good things must come to an end, and this was also true of SKT T1 K’s undefeated streak going into Champions Spring 2014, broken by none other than their own sister team: SK Telecom T1 S. SKT T1 K later suffered an 0-2 set loss to the upstart KT Rolster Arrows, and had to rely on besting their sister team in a one-game tiebreaker to make it out of groups at all. New support Kwon “Casper” Ji-min (now Samsung Galaxy’s “Wraith”) bore the brunt of the blame for his new team’s lack of cohesion in both the 2014 LoL Masters and early Champions Spring 2014 group stages. Losing support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon did hurt SKT T1 K’s overall dynamic, but bengi also began to struggle as teams implemented a three-man or four-man turret push following a 2v1 laneswap.

Now standard in today’s LoL playbook, this strategy actively harmed bengi’s ability to place the necessary vision that both Faker and Piglet needed to push aggressively onto their opponents with ease. Instead, bengi was tasked with ensuring that Impact didn’t fall too far behind his laning adversary by double-jungling during his early levels. The entire team had to adjust, and failed to do so during Champions Spring 2014, barely making it out of groups before losing to Samsung Galaxy Ozone in the quarterfinals. Unused to losing, SKT T1 K dropped down into the secondary NLB tournament.

“We won Summer with a reverse all-kill. We won Worlds. And we won Winter without a single loss. If I think about it now, it doesn’t feel real,” bengi said prior to taking on Samsung Galaxy White (formerly Ozone) again in the Champions Summer 2014 quarterfinals. “I felt a little bit that we would drop out, but I didn’t expect to get wrecked like that. When we went to NLB, our mental fortitude had been completely shattered.”

Due to missed smites, lack of vision control, and his inability to keep up with the likes of DanDy and KaKAO, bengi’s stock was at its lowest throughout 2014, with his own teammates losing faith in him at times. “DanDy is very good at smiting,” Impact said before the Champions Summer 2014 quarterfinals. “But bengi’s pretty bad at smite fights anyway.”

“Bengi just seems to roam around the jungle like Tarzan,” Samsung's DanDy said during the same pregame segment. “I think that since Faker isn’t as dominant as he was before, bengi seems to be having trouble.”

With an automatic bid to the 2014 World Championship on the line SKT T1 K once again fell in the quarterfinals to White, necessitating a run through the Regional Qualifier gauntlet. There, SKT T1 K nearly made it out, but fell to NaJin White Shield who stormed through both KT Rolster teams before besting the reigning world champions 3-1. True to DanDy’s words before SKT T1 K lost to White, placing in the qualifier rather than automatically to the World Championship, they had to sit from the comfort of their own homes while DanDy and White rolled through the tournament, eventually earning the 2014 Summoner’s Cup.

bengi and Faker are irrevocably bonded. Both came up through the SKT organization at the same time, their playstyles influencing each other until bengi’s lack of vision adversely affected Faker’s laning dominance, and Faker’s lack of lane control allowed enemies to creep into bengi’s jungle, suffocating SKT T1 K throughout 2014. Following the sister team merger, SKT surprisingly retained the majority of their players — due to the then-unheard-of decision to pay them well — including both bengi and Faker. However, Faker spent half of the LCK Spring 2015 split on the bench while Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon sat in the booth.

Determined to make the most out of the ability to have up to 10 players on their roster and substitute them in between games, SKT also acquired jungler Im “T0M” Jae-hyeon in Feb. 2015. Towards the end of the split, SKT began to field T0M over bengi, despite the fact that the recent introduction of the Cinderhulk jungle item combined with the meta stable of jungle champions naturally favored bengi’s preferred playstyle. After falling 0-2 to CJ Entus in the playoffs, bengi was called upon to help carry his team to victory, and performed exceptionally well in all three games on Rek’Sai, outdone only by teammate Bae “Bang” Jun-sik’s Game 4 Lucian performance and Faker’s return to LeBlanc in Game 5.

“I thought we had nothing to lose in this match so I did not hesitate in attempting ganks,” bengi told Inven after the close 3-2 victory. “I want to win in the finals to feel the joy of being the champion once again.”

However, bengi did not play at all in SKT’s 3-0 sweep of the then-GE Tigers at the LCK Spring 2015 Finals. Instead, the team fielded both Easyhoon and T0M while the veteran duo of bengi and Faker sat on the bench. At the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, all eyes were on bengi and Faker come the semifinals as Europe’s Fnatic unexpectedly pushed SKT to five games. Bengi returned to his signature Nunu, outclassing Fnatic’s Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin with superior pathing, jungle control, and vision — a classic bengi showing that benefitted his own teammates as much as it infuriated his opponents.

In the finals, locked in another close series with China’s Edward Gaming, bengi and SKT were outdone in Game 5 by EDG Coach Aaron in the draft and jungler Ming “ClearLove” Kai on the Rift, the latter of whom used his own signature champion, Evelynn, to best the tournament favorites and win the title.

SKT returned to Korea determined. Abandoning their spring strategy of swapping players, they focused primarily on fielding bengi and Faker as the core of their team. Again, bengi’s playstyle shifted to suit his team. No longer in need of as much assistance as required in years past, Faker still pushed up in lane, kept safe by bengi’s vision. With the center of the map secure, bengi focused his attention to the top lane rather than mid, giving team resources to Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan. MaRin paid back bengi and SKT with monstrous carry performances that only became more impressive through SKT’s near-undefeated run through LCK Summer 2015 and undefeated (in series) run to their second Worlds title at the 2015 World Championship. The only team able to take a game off of SKT the entire tournament were the KOO Tigers in the World Finals.

Throughout his professional career, bengi has been surrounded by flashy teammates and top-tier jungle opponents, leading him to become a lightning rod for criticism of SKT as a whole. “Jungling is a sad position. You become an example of game politics and you especially have to be careful of Top, or when you gank less than the opposing jungler. When you play jungle you have to play like you’ve taken on the role of ‘dad’. If the game gets even a little bit difficult, it’s so easy to blame the jungler,” bengi told Inven prior to SKT’s appearance at the 2015 World Championship. As his stock rose throughout 2015, so did his public image, taking the shape of a veteran leader rather than a washed-up has-been.

“I feel it with my entire being that my image has become better. The frequency of people cursing at me has decreased, and even if I don’t perform the same I’m not criticized as heavily as I was before. I even get nicknames now.”

The most well-known nickname for bengi is now “The Jungle,” which has grown in popularity after his career resurgence in 2015 and subsequent repeat World Championship. It’s fitting for an unassuming person like bengi, who works best when he blends in with the jungle, placing vision and helping his teammates while guiding team resources in the most beneficial direction for SKT’s success — Faker, Piglet, MaRin.

This past spring could have been another disaster for bengi, similar to his drop in performance during Champions Spring and Summer 2014. He struggled mightily in the first few weeks of LCK Spring 2016, unable to play to his natural role of facilitator on any champion but Elise. SKT tried out a variety of other options — including a few abysmal Udyr games — before turning to Blank come IEM Katowice. Bengi watched from the bench as SKT won another domestic championship without fielding him in the starting lineup.

Despite winning the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, Blank turned in a shaky performance at his second international event. Days 2 and 3 of the MSI group stages, SKT went 0-4. At the end of Day 3, fans clamored for bengi’s return, if only to right the ship with his veteran presence. This was an unprecedented turn of events. In previous seasons, it was bengi who was cited as the weakest link. Stepping into SKT’s jungle position meant that Blank now bore the brunt of team criticism, a more recent example of bengi’s 2015 statement that jungle is a “sad position.” Due to Blank’s visible mechanical misplays and inability to affect his lanes, the community fervently wished for bengi to be substituted in, lest SKT lose prior to even reaching the bracket stage.

“To explain it simply, you should think that bengi could see play at any time,” SKT coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun said, prior to facing Royal Never Give Up in the semifinals. “When he does, I think he’ll show up in splendid fashion with a great performance.” Never one to fully show his hand, kkOma started Blank in their 3-1 semifinals victory over RNG and 3-0 sweep of Counter Logic Gaming in the finals.

Bengi’s next start came against CJ Entus in Week 2 of LCK Summer 2016, a full 104 days after his last appearance in the booth for SKT. “My favorite champions got better and my disliked champions got nerfed in the recent patched version,” he told Inven after his return. “I definitely think it got easier for me to play.”

With Rek’Sai returning to the meta, among other champions, bengi now has a few more preferable options, yet is still focused on improving at those champions he has struggled on previously. In his most recent series against Samsung, bengi played Kindred in Game 1 before returning to his comfort pick of Rek’Sai.

"My career has been going on for a long time and I didn’t set any goals in particular during that time. I have a general goal to win the Summer season. I’m not that good at setting goals, given my personality, but I still want to show people that I’m always trying my best,” he told Inven after the CJ Entus wins. “I would like to express my gratitude to the fans who waited for me. I was always asked, “When are you coming back?” when I streamed or met my friends, and that made me hungrier and hungrier to see some play time. I am truly delighted that I got to play in today’s match.”

He’ll never be a flashy player, an exuberant personality, or a professional that draws attention to himself. Bengi thrives without being noticed, further allowing him to support his teammates. For as much as bengi has been molded by SKT, he too has left his mark on the organization, and it’s impossible to imagine him anywhere else. He's a diligent facilitator, who has been with SKT through their lowest points and greatest accomplishments, holding up his talented teammates for the world to see.

Special thanks to @bnununu and @xoprestige for their translation work. Original interviews from Naver and Inven.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She didn't actually realize that she had this much to say about bengi until now. You can follow her on Twitter.