After falling to ESC Ever in their final series of the LoL Champions Korea Summer 2016 first round robin, SK Telecom T1 looked to be on the decline. Perhaps, the rest of Korea had managed to catch up to SKT and would keep them out of first place, or at least give them a good, competitive fight.
SKT went a long way towards silencing their critics this week.
Jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu attributed many of SKT’s LCK Summer 2016 Week 7 improvements to the ESC loss, explaining that they learned a lot from the defeat. SKT are no strangers to unexpected losses, and falling to the Afreeca Freecs at the end of the LCK Spring 2016 first round robin did little in the long run to slow SKT’s advance across the latter half of the split. In fact, SKT kicked off the spring's second round robin by beating the Freecs in their first series. They went 8-2 in the Spring second round robin, dropping series only to the ROX Tigers and KT Rolster. This season, the competition is tougher, with even the tenth-place Longzhu Gaming capable of taking a series off of SKT despite the former’s continued lack of strong in-game decision making. There are no guaranteed wins.
Until they lose a split, SKT remain Korea’s raid boss. In the new landscape with no automatic victories off of bottom teams, SKT are still in a strong position to take the season. They’re the organization that no other team has been able to take out since the sister team merger and reformation of Champions Korea into a league rather than a tournament. No matter how uncoordinated or reckless SKT appear to be, they inevitably pull their team together, learning how to play around their own weaknesses well enough to overcome domestic and international opponents alike.
Until they lose a split, SKT are always part of the narrative, looming in the background even when another team takes the top spot in the regular season.
The race for first is risk averse?
Ownership of first place in LCK Summer 2016 changed four times throughout Week 7, from KT Rolster to the ROX Tigers to Samsung Galaxy, and finally to SK Telecom T1. KT had it going into the week before they lost to the Afreeca Freecs 2-1, transferring first place over to the Tigers, who quickly handed it over to Samsung Galaxy with their loss to SKT and Samsung’s victories over ESC Ever and Longzhu Gaming. Finally, SKT took the top spot back with their win over KT towards the end of the week.
So who is the best team in Korea?
As always, the default is SKT. They have yet to rise to the same level of dominance that they did in LCK Summer 2015 — a testament to their ongoing struggle to find jungle pressure with both Blank and Bae “bengi” Seong-woong combined with frequent overextensions from top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong and mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Yet, SKT are winning games, and finished this most recent week with important victories against two of their closest rivals, KT and the Tigers. Most recently, Blank has found a new home on Gragas, one of his only successful picks while on Star Horn Royal Club last year.
SKT have visible flaws, but were able to cover up most of them this week with phenomenal performances from Faker, including a showstopping LeBlanc showing in their first Week 7 series against the ROX Tigers. While first place changed multiple hands this past week, it landed in the hands of SKT. Where SKT previously were punished by opponents for their recklessness, they dialed that back a bit this week, capitalizing on the mistakes of their opponents instead.
All of Korea’s challengers — KT, the Tigers, Samsung Galaxy, or even MVP or the Jin Air Green WIngs — have similar weaknesses for opponents to exploit.
In a first round robin interview with Inven, Samsung’s jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong detailed what he believed to be Samsung’s major team problems — fighting when they shouldn’t, incorrect lane assignments and refusing to fight when they have the upper hand. Recognizing when to fight or not is something that many of Korea’s top teams fail to do properly — this was on full display in Week 7, especially in SKT’s matches with both the Tigers and KT Rolster.
“The Korean teams’ default mentality is to not make mistakes,” Ambition told Inven. “I think we’re getting longer matches because once something happens and they think that they have the advantage, their next thought is to never give it up. The solution to these strategies is to overcommit and create super plays, but you don’t see a lot of those plays.”
A few of this past week’s matches defy this logic — especially SKT’s Game 2 slugfest against the Tigers — a possible sign of changing times in Korea. While teams will inevitably default to the safest route, squads like KT Rolster and the Tigers are trying to press forward by making aggressive calls. In both of their series against SKT, their choices worked against them, as they both pressed advantages when they should have backed off, allowing SKT back into the game.
No other team exemplifies the conundrum of how safe to play like the Jin Air Green Wings.
Beginning as a “Robin Hood” team that wins games against the best only to fall to the worst, Jin Air have evolved into a puzzling mess of a team. Jin Air’s first win against SKT in Week 4 was impressive at the time. It pointed out many of SKT’s weaknesses while relying on the traditional Jin Air style to simply undo their opponents by making fewer mistakes and taking everything slow. This style has been Jin Air’s undoing lately, and the team has struggled to make proactive calls in their most recent games, choosing inopportune times to fight and often allowing the game to drag out too long, to the point where their opponents will choose the correct fight and immediately go for a win.
Following their recent victory over the Jin Air Green Wings — the final match of LCK Summer 2016’s seventh week — the ROX Tigers looked relieved at best. It was a hard-fought win where they earned a victory more off of the back of Jin Air’s negligence rather than their own merit. Going forward, for the rest of the LCK Summer split and later at the 2016 World Championship this will be the greatest test for Korea’s top teams — choosing intelligent fights and pressing their advantages proactively without ceding too much due to reckless aggression.
Series to Watch
SK Telecom T1 vs. ROX Tigers
Do you miss the good old days of Season 3 where Faker could translate the most minute of lane advantages given into a full-blown game takeover? Then do I have a match for you. In their first game against the Tigers, Faker completely takes over the game on LeBlanc, showcasing exactly why it remains one of his strongest individual champions. It’s rare that a single player can control a game like Faker does here in today’s meta, and while the game itself remained close throughout, he was always an unforgettable threat.
Despite the 2-0 sweep by SKT, this series is relatively even, unlike the first time these two teams met in LCK Summer 2016. Game 1 comes down to a few mistakes from the Tigers, which SKT and Faker are swiftly able to exploit, turning them into victories. Game 2 features a whopping 49 total kills that once again finds the Tigers choosing a few too many disadvantageous fights for an eventual SKT victory.
SK Telecom T1 vs. KT Rolster
Alongside the Tigers' recent LoL rivalry with Faker’s SKT, KT have a longer-standing but similarly-lopsided rivalry with Korea’s top team. They almost had this series until, in true KT fashion, they shot themselves in the foot due to poor decision-making and ill-timed aggression.
Game 1 showcases a strong Aurelion Sol performance from KT mid laner Song “Fly” Yong-jun. KT are one of the only teams in the world that run this comp with a relative amount of consistency and success — it shows off their coordination and the map control that accompanies an Aurelion Sol pick allows jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin to play more aggressively. Score’s Kindred in this game is fantastic.
As always, KT is not only in a battle with their opponents, but a battle with themselves, moreso than any other team in the LCK at times. While the discussion of the week centers around SKT, just how good they are, and just how aggressive or passive a team should be, KT’s unimpressive decision-making factors into this narrative. Their over-aggression directly allowed SKT back into Games 2 and 3.
Player of the Week
SK Telecom’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok
As previously mentioned, the current League of Legends landscape makes it more difficult for one player to hard carry a team. Faker has always displayed an incredible carry prowess regardless of meta or what his team needs from him. Last split, Faker evolved from the center of his team to a gold-efficient menace while AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan took center stage at the 2015 World Championship. Earlier this year, Faker settled back into mid lane waveclear duty while providing crowd control and initiation for his team, his mid lane control allowing Blank to adjust to the SKT jungle position.
There are a myriad of weeks where Faker could easily be named “player of the week.” He’s just that good. His consistency creates a baseline of excellence that sometimes fades into the background in light of exemplary uncharacteristic performances from other LCK players.
The reason why Faker gets the nod this week is simple: SKT still aren’t firing on all cylinders. One can pinpoint crucial mistakes from both the ROX Tigers and KT Rolster that aided in SKT’s two victories this week. SKT are still struggling to find their rhythm, but Faker is a constant. Whether relied upon for initiation, waveclear, or a hard-carry assassin performance, Faker will figure out how to win, and use that information to carry his team to victory.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She's still a KT fan even though they let her down again this week. You can follow her on Twitter.