There is a Korean proverb that goes: “the more ripe the rice plant, the more it lowers its head,” the meaning being that truly accomplished people remain humble. At first glance, this proverb rings true with SK Telecom T1’s head coach Choi Byung-Hoon, who has been making very interesting comments regarding his team’s perceived success in the League Champions Korea summer split.
Head coach Choi has said before that the weakest team in the earlier stages of the LCK summer split is SKT, citing fatigue after a tough schedule, that they will be fighting to simply make it to the postseason, and maintained a very cautious stance regarding their first game against CJ Entus (which they handily won). On the surface, these are words that come from the team that is regarded as the best in the world, showing the type of humble mentality that is tied with such prestige.
But there is more than one way to read his comments.
What’s being missed on the surface of these rather controversial comments are the hidden contexts underneath. One of the things that is one the head coach’s mind has to be the two new wild cards that have entered the LCK: ESC Ever and MVP.
Before this summer split, there was never a case where an established pro team getting relegated. However, for the first time in LCK history, not one, but two secondary league teams bested pro teams to promote themselves to the LCK. Given the history of the LCK, seeing two brand new teams with potentially brand new rosters and play styles must put a lot of extra pressure to the coaching staff. Not only that, pro players that have been working with and against the same pros might also be thrown into a loop, which forces them to rethink their play styles or perhaps face some weaknesses that weren’t too apparent before. Two brand new teams have the potential to shake up the entire scene, and that alone is enough to put older pros on their toes.
Another dimension to SKT’s caution is its position as the top of the region. By being the best in the LCK and the world, SKT has to continue to be on top to simply meet expectations. Especially in a region that is competitive like Korea, all the pro teams are looking to topple SKT by any means necessary. Everyone in the world will be looking at SKT’s every game (or at least keep an ear out for any news), and the moment SKT drops a game, it will draw the attention of millions of fans even if the game was ultimately inconsequential. SKT’s games are under the scrutiny of people who expect the world’s best team to always win. It’s possible to think that the head coach is trying to curb expectations earlier on so such attention doesn’t negatively impact the overall mentality of the team or to relieve some pressure.
Just to be clear, this type of thinking is without a doubt, nuts. Being constantly wary of other teams at any given time cannot be a healthy mindset to have as a head coach because it can easily go to your players as well. This type of thinking has been reflected in Bang, as he recently said in an interview that he was concerned of becoming worse not because they lost scrims, but because they didn’t win all of them in a “satisfactory” way. To reiterate, a top tier player in the best team in the world was afraid of getting worse because they didn’t win hard enough in games that don’t count.
The point isn’t that teams should be happy with simple victories, but seeing as this is SKT we’re talking about, it comes across as rather suffocating. If victory and vindication isn’t the reward, what are these players spending so much time for? SKT has won every single first place trophy in League that it’s now collecting multiples of them. It’s come to the point that what SKT is fighting for is maintaining an image of perfection, and it’s hard to imagine that there is any moment for acknowledgement of their success. (In another shocking turn, Choi apologized this week for his pre-split comments saying he underrated his own team)
At the same time, it’s difficult to argue with results, and SKT has proven time and time again to be untouchable. When you are playing from the position as a champion, then the mentality can naturally transfer into maintaining your position as the very best. Bang put it perfectly in another interview saying that SKT don’t prepare games around opponents, but focuses on their own mistakes. If no one can currently challenge your position on a regular basis, then your attention is directed inward. This seems to be the way both coach Choi and the players are going towards. Winning is now second nature to SKT, so now the objective is to determine “how” they win. The challenge is no longer found in their opponents, but from themselves. What the challengers must now do is try to climb a mountain that continues to grow taller.
We have yet to find a single team in or outside to be an ample challenger to SKT. The organization continues to evolve and develop, a strategy designed to deny any weakness or point of entry, and it’s becoming more daunting to tackle an organization that is already far above the rest. Perhaps head coach Choi’s mentality is the secret behind their success, or perhaps it always was in the hands of players that never want to step down from where they are.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games.