SK Telecom T1’s dominance of the professional League of Legends scene has become commonplace by now. Birds fly, grass grows, sun shines, and SKT wins. The Korean powerhouse’s win at the Mid Season Invitational (to the shock of nobody) sparked a notion that SKT’s constant winning made the game boring.
On the surface, that makes sense. Fans and analysts evaluate entire group stages about who ends up in SKT’s group and project the fate of certain teams depending on when they play SKT. If SKT reaches the grand finals, which always happens, its victory seems to be a bygone conclusion, and whatever poor saps have to face SKT are destined to lose. Tournament outcomes have become predictable — even stale for some — as SKT will always win.
SKT has won its last five international tournaments. No other team in League of Legends history has won more than one international event in the game’s history. The dominance is staggering. It’s anything but boring.
Not only does SKT consistently deliver excellence on stage consistently no matter the opponent, the story of SKT’s legend alone is something that sports dynasties are made of. With consecutive MSI championships, three world titles, and six League Champions Korea titles, SKT has transcended the status of a “good team,” and has taken a life of its own. Every opponent fears SKT. Every tournament in which SKT plays comes with massive expectations to the point where winning is the only acceptable outcome.
The narrative question surrounding SKT has become just how long this dynasty will remain intact, and whether or not anyone in the world can threaten to end it. The very idea of a team being on the top of the world over the course of four years and multiple different iterations should baffle viewers, and the idea that SKT continues to improve in spite of all that success and a forever changing game is perhaps most impressive.
Even if the overall narrative of SKT’s dominance might seem stale, have the games been stale? Was the 2015 world final against the KOO Tigers boring? What about the rematch in last year’s world semifinals? Or the world final against Samsung Galaxy? Those were some of the most hyped games in League of Legends history, and they reached that level because SKT was in them. Because SKT was tested. Because even though SKT won, it was so exciting to see how close someone could come to beating them.
When SKT does fall by the hands of some other team, Korean or otherwise, this current stretch of dominance will only add to that moment. This is a boost only SKT can give, as it is in a unique position of excellence, and passing of the torch to the next great team is an image fans are eager to witness from generation to generation.
We’ve already seen small examples of that with Taiwan’s Flash Wolves, who created an international following being “SKT Kryptonite” at international tournaments with a string of best-of-one wins against SKT. Without SKT, the intrigue surrounding the Flash Wolves would not be nearly as high.
Even when teams lose to SKT, they can still walk away with more than when they started. Last year’s ROX Tigers acted as the possible usurpers to the throne, but their story quickly became about how close they were to doing so — not that they failed. Most recently, G2 Esports walked away with defeat from the MSI finals, but did so with more international attention from the East and West by simply taking one game off SKT. The examples have one fundamental element in common: Their stories were emboldened by going up against SKT.
From a big picture perspective, SKT’s dominance is good for League of Legends. SKT provides a shining example for the game: a recognizable team with a huge following that comes through consistently in the biggest moments. It’s difficult to ask for anything more from an ambassador for the game. SKT’s crossover into the mainstream, both in Korea and the West, does wonders for the game’s reputation.
As time progresses, SKT’s current run of dominance will be perceived with more admiration, and there’s a precedent for that in other esports. In Counter-Strike, Fnatic is heralded as the best team in CS:GO history, and the team was reviled by fans (in part because of a now-infamous boost during DreamHack Winter 2014, but that’s a different story). Fnatic was perhaps also the most vilified team in the game in part because of how dominant it was. Almost two years removed from the peak of that angst, the reformation of that lineup earlier this year was met with fondness and even nostalgia.
In traditional sports, dynasties can last much longer than in esports, and they create thrilling rivalries. The New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady in American football are simultaneously the most loved and hated figures in sports. They generate years of interest and stories surrounding just how good they are. They last for decades and continue to excite fans by either giving them something to follow — or by giving them something to hate and aspire to topple.
Dynasties don’t last forever. They wax and wane over time, and each time one does, it leaves something behind for the rest. SKT is one of a kind in League of Legends, and it’s not certain we will get to see anything else like it. We might not see anybody topple it. But the anticipation of that moment will be enough to fuel years of interest.