SK Telecom T1 is not only the strongest League of Legends team in the world, it is the greatest League of Legends team of all time. As the most consistent leaders of Korean League of Legends, SKT has two Summoner’s Cups, a Mid-Season Invitational title, an IEM championship, domestic titles, and enough smaller first place finishes to fill the gaps of their trophy wall.
While the roots of the organization’s League of Legends team had dominant top laner Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu at its center, the main line SKT that fans know today was built around mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. SK Telecom T1k, Faker’s team, would find incredible success both domestically and on the international stage, winning a world championship in Season 3, and then sweeping both Champions Winter and All Stars Paris with a perfect record. T1K would eventually slump in Season 4 and, after failing to qualify for worlds, merge with SK Telecom T1S (the evolution of Reapered’s team) as per the newly implemented sister team ban. The new team, simply SK Telecom T1, would find similar success, taking home another world championship in Season 5. SKT is so strong, victory is simply an expected reality for the organization at any event it attends.
While the team has risen to such great levels as a whole, it is Faker who has taken the spotlight. His incredible play and mastery of the mid lane have largely pulled discussion away from his counterparts on the Rift. The team’s newest top laner, Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, is a star player himself, though. As one of the top lane titans of recent Korean League of Legends alongside the likes of Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and Kim “ssumday” Chan-ho, Duke has proven himself to be world class. Duke premiered his mastery of the top lane in the 2015 Season as a part of NaJin e-mFire (NaJin’s own result of the sister team ban). He was a reckoning force while on e-mFire and despite a performance that was mediocre at best from his team, received the MVP award for the spring season of 2015.
Today, Duke has a little over half a year under his belt with SKT and has already accomplished more with them than some organizations do in their entire existence. With a good amount of time passed for Duke to adapt and fit within the team, his performance and achievements are beginning to stack up next to SKT’s top laner before him Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan.
If Duke is a star player, MaRin is a modest tactician. As the shot caller for SKT during what some would consider the strongest leg of the team’s history, MaRin’s value goes beyond in-game threat. While he wasn’t a carry god like some of the other top laners in the league, MaRin’s raw effectiveness on SKT is something that Duke may find hanging overhead as the season progresses.
In terms of kill participation, on the other hand, Duke has a significant lead on MaRin. This is evidence not only of Duke being a player ready to fight and scrap but of the difference in SKT’s play style and the ever changing meta of the game. During MaRin’s first season for SKT after the sister teams combined, they had a lot of focus on the bottom lane, with much of their power and threat seen in their AD Carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, while MaRin was on super tank champions such as Maokai, and more of an initiation threat for the team.
In Duke’s first season with SKT, however, the top lane was an area of greater focus. High impact damage tanks such as Poppy, Trundle, and Ekko, as well as carry oriented-champions like Fiora and Gangplank were at the forefront of the meta, making it almost a disappointment to see Duke’s damage share values below MaRin, who played 11 games on Maokai and 10 on Gnar during the spring 2015 season.
While the high-number picks for MaRin showed him to be one of the greatest tank players at that time, they open questions about his champion pool. On the other end, Duke has one of the deepest champion pools of all the top laners in the League with 11 unique champions played over 41 games, and in the current summer season has an astounding nine champions played (greater than MaRin after a whole season) over the current span of only 17 games as of Week 5.
MaRin: First Place Champions Spring Playoffs ‘15, First Place Champions Summer Playoffs ‘15, First Place Riot Games World Championship ‘15, Second Place Mid-Season Invitational ‘15, Semi-finals League of Legends KeSPA Cup ‘15.
Duke: First Place IEM Season X World Championship, First Place LCK Spring Playoffs ‘16, First Place Mid-Season Invitational ‘16.
The obvious catch regarding Duke and MaRin in terms of accomplishments is that MaRin played a full year, from spring season through worlds, with SK Telecom, while Duke has only had half that length of opportunity with the team. Regardless, both players have similar records of success. With the strength of SKT as a team, it can be argued that their level of dominance will overcome the influence of one position being swapped. But there are still some discrepancies between the two player’s achievements.
If we look at MaRin’s results halfway through Season 5 (Duke’s equivalent of time with the team) he actually falls behind his new replacement, with one domestic title and second place at MSI vs. Duke’s domestic title, IEM title, and MSI first place finish. While the IEM Season X World Championship is circumstantial (SKT did not compete in IEM while MaRin was on the team) it is still a significant accomplishment and was the first sign of international prowess for Duke as a part of his new team.
MSI is the most telling facet of Duke and MaRin’s accomplishments, and possibly the greatest sign so far of Duke’s ability to perform while on SK Telecom. Not only did Duke and his team finish first place (albeit following the worst international performance in SKT history during group stages), he was an absolute monster during the tournament. With the highest KDA of any player at the event at 7.0, Duke truly proved himself at MSI and was able to easily neutralize every top laner at the tournament including CLG’s biggest carry threat Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaya in grand finals. MaRin left his MSI the previous year with a disappointing second place finish and in many ways a performance below that of Duke’s a year later, with a 2.7 KDA and on average a creep and gold deficit at 10 minutes when compared to his opponent.
Oftentimes the aspects of a player that are most influential are beyond their stats and achievements. Sometimes there are even attributes beyond the game itself that can give an edge to one side or the other. For MaRin, this is seen greatly in his leadership and shot-calling abilities. While MaRin was on SKT, it had some of the sharpest and cleanest macro play and decision making in the world. With an amazing ability to move in and out of fights, rotate around the map, and most of all punish the mistakes of their opponents, SKT wouldn’t just beat other teams, it would pick them apart with surgical precision. If coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun was the head of this operation, MaRin was his assistant surgeon.
For Duke, his champion pool, as well as carry potential, can not be understated. His teammateFaker is a perfect example of the value this brings. When a player is so feared and dominant with such a deep pool of champions to pull from, it draws so much away from the enemy team, not only in time and resources in game but in pick ban as well by forcing the opponent to work around their strengths. Duke clearly has the potential to become that, and with Faker and Bang already poised to take control of any game SKT plays, a third threat of this level is the stuff of nightmares for any opponent they may face.
In addition to these extra positive aspects of individual players come extra negative ones, too. MaRin is one of the greatest examples of this by having one particular and awful habit. Any frequent watcher of LCK knew of his tendency to push the lane constantly without wards down and in turn get ganked. For a part of his career on SKT it was almost an every game occurrence.
Duke, on the other hand, has yet to show a specific bad habit, to this level, although he often shares a common eagerness in lane that can get him in trouble with the enemy jungler. If anything, Duke’s slow adaptation is something that can be critiqued during his first season with SKT. While the majority of the time Duke was serviceable and got the job done (while not often having an incredible performance), there were definite lapses of communication between himself and the team. That said, his teleport timings have already begun to show signs of improvement.
One easily overlooked factor when comparing Duke and MaRin is something that provides a constant boost to either player’s image. This constant is Faker himself. To put it bluntly, life is easy alongside the greatest to ever touch a keyboard and mouse. With such a star in the midlane Duke, MaRin, and SKT members past and present, have been able to fall in line and easily follow behind Faker (think: ‘95-’96 Chicago Bulls). The star mid laner creates a bubble of perceived skill around him, and while most members that have played alongside him have been world-class, the likes of Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin (currently on Team Liquid in NA) and MaRin himself (now a member of LGD in China) are a testament to the way being on SKT and playing with Faker can elevate a player to stardom.
Wrapping it up
Duke and MaRin are both very talented players. While playing on the greatest team in the world, with the greatest player in the world one lane below you, it’s hard to stand out from the winning machine that is SK Telecom and show yourself as a particularly shiny and strong cog. With MaRin, his shotcalling and ability to neutralize other top laners set him apart. For many games and matchups, he was a guarantee for SK Telecom that they would have solid initiation, a solid tank, and frankly not bleed out from the top lane. Duke is different. He is more of a wild card for the team. With a slow start, he didn’t break from the shadow of MaRin in the Spring. But at MSI Duke showed his potential as a carry threat, something SKT rarely saw out of MaRin for the previous year of competition.
To add, Duke is already improving at a steady pace, and SKT is still looking strong in the summer season. Duke has a KDA of 4.96, has shown the incredible depth of his champion pool, and is becoming a force to be reckoned with on SKT. He has a KDA of 22.00 on Trundle, 13.00 on Ekko, and even 21.00 on MaRin’s signature champion, Maokai. Beyond this, Duke is definitely more tuned in with the team than during his earliest days on SKT, and his teleport decisiveness and jungle synergy are improving with it. All in all, Duke looks to be settling into his new roster, and with the top lane being shaken up with new champions and more chances to carry, Duke will have the platform to prove himself even further.
With MaRin, SKT had a world class shot-caller, top laner and teammate, but with Duke, it has heaps of untapped potential. If he is able to reach the level of influence and strength on SKT that he had while on Najin in his MVP season, a strong argument for Duke surpassing MaRin can be made. However, with the current state of his play, although Duke is improving, I’d say he stacks up about even to SKT’s old shot-caller.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games.