From a distance, picking the favorite in Friday’s League of Legends World Championship semifinal match between SK Telecom T1 and the ROX Tigers would be difficult.
SKT is the defending world and Mid-Season Invitational champion and the only team win two world titles. The Korean powerhouse has lost just a single best-of series in international play since the start of 2015: A 3-2 loss to EDward Gaming in the final of last year’s MSI.
But SKT finished third in the summer split of League Champions Korea, which was won by the ROX Tigers team SKT defeated in last year’s world final. The Tigers have almost universally been called the best team heading into worlds, even though they haven’t defeated SKT at all this season.
On a deeper level, the question or favorite vs. underdog is easier to answer because SKT is expected to win every tournament it plays. That’s become as set in stone as any meme, trend or result in professional League of Legends. If SKT is playing, SKT is supposed to win.
“The thing I feel each time is that the average strength of teams (at worlds) is getting better each time, which makes worlds more difficult,” legendary SKT coach Kim “KkOma” Jeong-Gyun said through an interpreter last week. “Despite that fact, the expectations for our team to perform at worlds continues to be very high, so it gets very tough when we make it here.”
Anytime SKT loses a match during the LCK regular season, online forums light up pondering what’s wrong or if this is the year SKT is finally vulnerable. When SKT exited the summer playoffs in third place, and its worlds berth wasn’t confirmed until the outcome of the ROX Tigers/KT Rolster final, there was speculation SKT might fail to even make it to worlds if it had to qualify through the regional gauntlet tournament.
KkOma has tried to quell expectations at times but has inadvertently fanned the flames. Coming off the MSI victory in May, KkOma said in an interview that his team wasn’t in peak form and fans should have lower expectations for the summer split. After SKT started the summer split 5-0, KkOma issued an apology for his earlier statement. Only then did SKT’s brief fall actually take place, which led to the third place finish.
All the victories have actually made it difficult for KkOma to win in the broader sense. He has constantly walked the line between being confident in his team’s ability and trying to corral expectations whenever possible. But it’s simply not.
“There isn’t a way I relieve that pressure personally, since the minimum is to win games, rather than finding relief, and that takes away a lot of the fun,” KkOma said last week. “I also feel like the pressure is also making me lose interest, because career wise when we look at our team, we had the most amount of victories this year, but because we didn’t win the summer split, the perception of our team becomes bad. So I think that’s why I’m losing interest. We’re always expected to win.”
In one respect, that comment itself is another vintage KkOma paradox. “The team is too good that it’s not fun anymore.” And it’d be correct to point out many players and coaches would love to bathe in SKT’s success. But what that success comes an insane amount of pressure.
The responsibility has worn on even Lee “Wolf” Jae-Wan, one of the most light-hearted members of SKT who said he “absolutely” does not enjoy the pressure.
“I do have a competition in me as a pro gamer, but the nature of competition is that one wins while the other must lose,” Wolf said last week through an interpreter. “I don’t like the hate and harsh words that tend to go to the loser. I think that negative response is a form of pressure, and that it’s not uniquely a Korean thing.”
Wolf tried to deflect the pressure being solely on SKT, adding that “I think that’s to be expected for professional gamers.” But that’s not exactly true. There’s the pressure the rest of the teams face. And there’s the pressure of being SKT.
SKT has answered all questions on the international stage. It will look Friday to become the first team to reach the world final three times — and next week, of course, become the first to win it three times.
With that would come all the glory and joy of the previous two. It would also relieve the pressure SKT has endured all year — at least, that is, until next season. Then the cycle begins again.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games