There is no emotion more paralyzing than fear. Whether it is the unknown sound in the night, the monstrous aberrations in our minds, or the chance that we will experience pain (whether emotional or physical), fear grips our hearts and shackles our souls to a weight that drags us down in the sea of despair.
Right now, teams in League Champions Korea are paralyzed with a respect that has mutated into a fear of the best team in the world. SK Telecom T1 has established itself as the pinnacle of League of Legends. No other organization has won as much: two world championships, consecutive OnGameNet first place finishes –one of those as undefeated — with three consecutive first places in LCK, a win at this year’s IEM Katowice and the Mid-Seasonal Invitational. Every possible title a Korean team could win has been achieved by SKT, the reigning champion of all of them.
Through all those victories, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the greatest player of all time, ruled the mid lane while other positions occasionally swapped players. Since the start of 2015, SKT has kept a fairly consistent lineup, only changing top laners, swapping junglers when the meta required, and temporarily flirting with a substitute in mid. It has experienced pitfalls, such as the start of this spring when Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong struggled with a jungle meta that focused on carry junglers and Lee “Duke” Ho-seong took his time to synergize with his new team. Despite looking so weak, SKT substituted Kang “Blank” Sun-gu for Bengi and trained diligently until it developed into a juggernaut once playoffs came. It swept through the competition, only dropping a game to ROX Tigers in the final.
For the first time since last summer, SKT looked mortal. Even then, ROX Tigers, the team that dominated the entire regular season, could only take a single game from the defending champion. It seems that in this era, SKT will always rally to defend its crown.
This observation loomed over the minds of LCK competitors during the summer split. It became commonplace to see players express their fear of SKT. Before Jin Air’s upset of SKT in week 4, Chun Jeong-Hee, head coach of Jin Air Greenwings, stated in an interview that his team had “a 5 percent chance of winning (against SKT).” An “Ian” Jun-Hyeong, MVP’s mid laner, told Inven, “I feel like I’ll lose against (Faker) regardless of what I do.”
It is understandable for teams to perceive SKT in such a light. It has the team, the players, the staff, and the titles to require all the respect. SKT knows this: it is why it can get away it can get away with gleeful “apologies” to fans for underselling expectations.
But that respect should not be allowed to seed itself in the minds of competitors as fear. Being a competitor is having the courage — if not the audacity — to say “I can beat anyone.” Having that trait opens the possibility to do the unthinkable. It removes the excuses, the reasons, the mental blocks within one’s mind. It allows one to search for answers to the question, “How do I defeat my opponent?” One who allows fear to rule their mind will answer that question with “I can’t.” A person who conquers fear will search for the answer, work until they are capable of executing the plan, and then do it.
Despite Jeong-Hee’s pessimistic prediction, Jin Air managed to defeat SKT in Week 4. Afreeca Freecs defeated them the next week. SKT’s woes continued as it lost the next series to ESC Ever, but in Week 7, it struck back with a commanding 2-0 over ROX Tigers and a 2-1 over KT Rolster, the teams it is most likely to face during playoffs. SKT continued with two additional series wins over MVP and Samsung with graceful form. Afreeca was next in line: could it repeat its performance or was SKT simply off in the last encounter?
That series, Afreeca made LCK history by again defeating SKT 2-0, making it the first team to hold a 4-0 record against Korea’s titans since LCK’s inception. Afreeca was fearless, as Son “Mickey” Young-min continued to dive no matter how embarrassingly awry some of his attempts went. The rest of the squad embraced the mindset and stayed true to its pick-focused style rather than bow to the lords of League. And they did it nonchalantly.
“I’m not all that excited after winning a game I thought we would win,” ikksu told inven. “We had a prepared composition, and with the coach’s encouragement, we had an incredible amount of confidence. That’s why I thought we were going to win.”
Ikksu exemplified the mindset necessary to defeat a champion. Letting the reputation of the competitor before oneself only distracts from the task at hand. It’s easy to forget that SKT has had rougher than expected season, even if Longzhu swept SKT in their final match of the season. It’s easy to forget that SKT has shown several weaknesses, such as Blank lacking early pressure, or Faker constantly overextending, or Duke not having enough support in a carry top lane meta, when all one thinks about is how SKT still managed to win spring after having more problems or how it dominated at the MSI playoffs after coming fourth in groups. No matter the issue, SKT has shown that when it reaches playoffs, it becomes a dragon defending its hordes of treasure.
As spectators, we are allowed to watch in awe and either despair or revel in the carnage. A competitor can’t afford that luxury. They are tasked with claiming their own glory, and defeating SKT in the big match is the final challenge. Fear and respect must be used as instruments to prepare, not as an excuse for losing.
Afreeca, with its pick heavy mid-focused play style, had the answer to SKT and knew it. Now that it was eliminated by Samsung in the wildcard match, it feels as if SKT is destined to win LCK again. The matches ahead are against KT Rolster and ROX Tigers, teams that have never beaten SKT in a best-of-five, even when analysts considered SKT to be the underdog. Part of that is how well SKT prepares. Part of it is how neither KT or ROX’s mid laners can go toe-to-toe with Faker. And part of it is the fear of SKT.
It takes much more to beat SKT than childlike optimism. It takes extreme effort to accomplish that: hours of studying identifying weaknesses, then weeks of practice to execute the plan when the pivotal time comes. But before all that, a team must press beyond the fear of SKT, the fear of Faker, the fear of losing, and fear itself.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games.