A single Mountain Drake was the only thing standing between the Afreeca Freecs and a perfect game over SK Telecom T1 in Game 1 of their Week 5 series. The Freecs have recently made a habit of playing SKT closely and with their 2-0 victory over SKT this week, the Freecs now have a surprising 5-3 regular season winning record against the reigning world champions.
“I played a game with the ROX Tigers’ Kim “PraY” Jong-in yesterday,” Freecs top laner Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo said after the Freecs’ win over SKT. “I told him that I would avenge the ROX Tigers, and I’m happy that I really avenged them today.”
An honor reserved for the best team not only in Korea but in the world, SKT live with a large target on their backs. Every team in Korea wants to beat SKT, since it’s a win that means something given that SKT are the current domestic and international champions. LCK Summer 2016 hosts the most competitive field that Korea has had since Champions Summer 2014, and SKT’s success invites the very best from their opponents — all-too-often, their best isn’t good enough to beat SKT.
Since the sister team merger, no organization has come anywhere close to achieving the same success in League of Legends esports as SKT. Home to the best player in the world, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, SKT is the only organization that can be called a dynasty — a distinction reserved for consistent excellence in traditional sports. Even when SKT appears to be down and out they inevitably manage to pull off a victory. SKT’s presence over competitive LoL domestically and internationally is so overbearing that it actively rewrites the history of any struggles that the organization has had, including much of 2014 during the rise of the Samsung teams and their more recent regular season performance in LCK Spring 2016. Due to their finals victory and subsequent Mid-Season Invitational crown, it’s difficult to recall that SKT were not favored at the start of their playoff run, nor were they particularly impressive through the MSI group stages.
Yet, based on this same history, an SKT win seems inevitable. Even now, with back to back losses against the Jin Air Green Wings and the Afreeca Freecs, SKT is still overwhelmingly favored to win the LCK Summer title. SKT always win.
A large part of the SKT winning formula is the phrase, “Things Faker does,” which has recently been expanded to, “Things SKT does,” following their complete dominion over 2015. “Things SKT does” creates a large umbrella under which Faker 1v1 outplays, SK Telecom T1 K’s undefeated run through Champions Winter 2013-14, and AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik’s Spring 2015 Game 4 Lucian performance against CJ Entus all reside.
Like the best player in any traditional sport is wont to do, Faker sets the tone for SKT and the dominance of Korean LoL over all other regions. Faker’s name is synonymous with SKT and also excellence in LoL esports. Since Season 3, Faker has played a high-risk style that relentlessly pressures his opponent regardless of jungle pressure. The phrase “Things Faker does,” was born of this playstyle. Faker preys on the insecurities of his opponents while displaying none himself. His mid lane adversaries begin to wonder if there’s a jungler nearby since Faker plays so far forward in lane, as if the opposing jungler doesn’t exist and his jungler is patiently waiting in a side brush, ready to strike. Coupled with his ability to calculate the precise amount of damage needed to kill an opponent, this is a deadly combination that almost always ends in Faker’s favor.
Faker’s ceaseless aggression has shaped the teams and playstyle of SKT since the creation of SK Telecom T1 #2 in early 2013. SK Telecom T1 #2 made a name for themselves as a lane-dominant team, one that crushed opponents in lane before they could out-rotate SKT T1 #2 in objective control. No one player exemplifies the Faker effect quite like Bae “bengi” Seong-woong, who evolved from a proactive ganking jungler that wanted his lanes to garner immediate early advantages into a vision-control master with intelligent pathing, tracking opponents at all times. The latter style fit Faker’s relentless lane pressure perfectly, allowing the star mid laner to rack up kills — some of which seemed impossible due to health or champion matchup — contributing to the “Things Faker does” mystique. For every thing that Faker does, there’s a failed attempt from another Korean mid who lacked the precision, ability to calculate damage or genuine confidence that radiates from every Faker play.
This aggression works 99 percent of the time.
The other one percent leads to series like SKT’s Week 4 loss to the Jin Air Green Wings, and more recently their abysmal showing against the Afreeca Freecs. While fans typically write off these losses as a simple slump, or a generally bad SKT performance, this is the other side of the SKT equation — things Faker and SKT do that don’t work out because they’re punished by their opponents.
“[Faker] flashed forward to kill me in set 1. I watched that and thought, ‘Ah, those guys are human too!’” Jin Air Green Wings support Choi “Chei” Sun-ho told Inven after their 2-1 victory over SKT. “Lulu didn’t seem like that good of a pick. We shared words on how we can definitely win as long as we got to the late game without much trouble.” Chei’s exclamation that SKT are also human reiterates the glamour that both Faker and SKT have fashioned from their victories. Prior to this series against Jin Air, SKT was fresh off of a 2-0 drubbing of MVP, which included an embarrassing Game 1 that MVP never wishes to see the likes of again.
Jin Air have a bad habit of treating their opponents in an overly-cautious manner, often ceding objectives or pressure where they could have advanced on the map. However, it was this patient play that eventually allowed them to end SKT’s unbeaten streak in LCK Summer 2016, capitalizing on SKT’s overly aggressive maneuvers.
This is hardly the first time that SKT’s aggression has been their undoing. As early as SK Telecom T1 #2’s 3-1 loss to MVP Ozone in the Spring 2013 Semifinals, SKT have been punished by the same thing that makes them so successful — their ceaseless aggression. The 2016 Mid-Season Invitational group stages provided more recent examples of this, with Faker and jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu falling prey to early Level 2 and Level 3 ganks and being punished for their overeager responses. Although it’s far more treacherous, teams can try to best SKT by becoming even more aggressive than Faker and company, like the Freecs did in their Week 5 win.
“Honestly, this draft shouldn’t have worked from Afreeca. It’s very high-risk,” OGN English caster Christopher “PapaSmithy” Smith said on broadcast as the Freecs’ top laner Heo “Lindarang” Man-heung’s Trundle destroyed SKT’s top lane tier-two turret with the help of mid laner Son “Mickey” Young-min, expanding Afreeca’s gold lead to 12K at 22:30. “But they took the risk, they made their gambles, they went for the Teleport play top. If you do that and you don’t get the kill or a couple of members die, you probably lose the game. If you go for that five-man dive with no minions, don’t pull it off, you probably lose the game. This time, both bets paid off for Afreeca and they’re reaping the rewards.”
As reiterated by Papasmithy, this is actually the most difficult way to best SKT, since they’re much more experienced with playing around risk and turning perilous situations in their favor. With strong talent in every position on SKT — including the best player in LoL history, Faker — coordination and confidence are required to beat SKT in a series. No team has been able to defeat SKT in a meaningful, championship series aside from Edward Gaming at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, where EDG Coach Ji “Aaron” Xing crafted a composition meant to specifically take advantage of Faker’s LeBlanc.
When thinking positively of “Things SKT does,” or “Things Faker does” remember that losses like 2015 MSI or the recent 2-0 Afreeca victory represent the tradeoff that accompanies playing with such certainty. These losses aren’t random, they’re an unfortunate casualty of the way SKT loves to play — precariously balanced around the overwhelming confidence of the best player in the world. Then remember that no one has been able to consistently defeat an SKT team since the merger and that, when playing to Faker’s aggressive style, SKT have only added to their pile of trophies, medals and accolades, reiterating their position as the best team in the world.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.