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History Repeating: Analyzing KT Rolster’s post-SKT slump

KT Rolster continues to struggle after losing to SKT.
Despite its forming of a "superteam," KT Rolster can't seem to get past the mental hurdle of losing to SK Telecom T1. Photo courtesy of Riot Games/Slingshot illustration.

When the League Champions Korea spring split schedule was revealed, two series immediately stood out. In Week 6 of the regular season, KT Rolster would face SK Telecom T1 twice in a span of four days.

Fans and analysts circled the dates, March 2 and March 5, on their calendars. SKT and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the reigning world champions, against the recently-formed KT Rolster superteam that included mid laner Heo “PawN” Won-seok, AD carry Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu, and Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong, who returned to Korea from their two-year stints on EDward Gaming, Vici Gaming, and Royal Never Give Up to play on this specific KT team.

KT was fast, entertaining, and fairly messy. It garnered early leads through superior laning and mechanics combined with Go “Score” Dong-bin’s smart jungling, and toed a fine line between winning and losing. Despite Score’s strong early pathing and a good understanding of lane assignments, KT’s games were riddled with mistakes, over-aggression, and disjointed team fighting.

It came as a shock at the time — the KT Rolster superteam losing to 3-3 MVP in Week 5 — but in hindsight, the loss was long overdue. Losing to MVP specifically highlighted KT’s most glaring weakness: it had no coordination as a five-man unit. Where MVP was a team of five with two sub-par mechanical players (AD carry Oh “MaHa” Hyun-sik in particular), its synergy and team fighting made it more difficult for a team like KT  — a group of strong players with little to no coordination — to capitalize on MVP’s individual mistakes.

When it finally came time for KT and SKT to play each other, both teams had a 7-1 record and sat atop the regular season standings. These battles were for first place in the LCK.

The games were the best of the regular season, even in the far sloppier second series, and better than most playoff series. This was the best League of Legends in the world.

Both series ended with a 2-1 SKT win. The first series in particular was close for KT, and its early-game approach against SKT was smart, albeit ill-executed.

KT’s SKT hangover began against bbq Olivers in Week 7. KT swept the seventh-place team but the games themselves were shaky. Seemingly shattered from the SKT series, KT’s teamplay grew worse, not better. Rather than using the SKT series as a springboard for addressing its problems, KT continued to falter, hitting rock bottom in Week 9 with a loss to last place Kongdoo Monster. A Week 8 loss to Samsung Galaxy, another top-tier Korean team, and Week 9 loss to MVP were understandable, but losing to Kongdoo was near-unforgivable given the talent discrepancy between the two rosters.

Something was devouring KT from the inside, and it wasn’t a simple fix.

KT steadied itself prior to the playoff gauntlet. It defeated regular season nemesis MVP easily before dispatching of Samsung Galaxy with a smart bot-lane focused strategy that started in Champion Select, effectively removing Samsung AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk from the series. Finally, KT played around the strong lanes and transitioned their advantages in the mid game. KT still failed to beat SKT in the spring finals — the 3-0 SKT sweep was not nearly as close as the regular season series — but KT appeared to be OK. Some rosters take longer to gel than others, and KT ended the split a far better team than when Week 1 began.

Half of a split and another 2-1 regular season series loss to SKT later, the question is now: Will this KT Rolster ever come together?

From one angle, it’s a bit of an unfair statement. KT is still one of the best teams in Korea. Teams like Longzhu Gaming, the Jin Air Green Wings, and Afreeca Freecs have noticeably improved from prior splits. Samsung Galaxy and SKT remain at the top, and the bottom-tier of the LCK has rid itself of Kongdoo in favor of the more talented Ever8 Winners. KT is still in the fight for the top spot in the best league in the world.

Yet, based on the team’s own statements when the roster was announced, they’re aiming higher. The roster was assembled with the goal of taking down SKT, who have won all LCK titles save one: they were eliminated by KT in last year’s LCK summer playoffs. KT paved the way for the ROX Tigers to win a long overdue domestic championship.

Then, KT had obvious weaknesses or quirks that drew community criticism. Mid laner Song “Fly” Yong-jun wasn’t known for his superior laning, and his champion pool was odd. Support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan never rid himself of his penchant for face-checking brushes, sometimes costing his team map pressure.

Despite the faults, that KT team — rounded out by top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, jungler Score, and AD carry No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon — managed to beat SKT in the playoff gauntlet and nearly beat the ROX Tigers in the summer final. On paper, this team of returning champions from China and veteran players Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and Score should best most other Korean teams if its in-game execution is good.

Unfortunately for KT, the execution remains inconsistent at best. Sometimes the team appears worse than in the spring, despite having more time to gel and learn how to communicate with each other. Unlike KT’s oft-criticized 2016 counterparts, this year’s team has yet to beat SKT in a single series, regular season or otherwise. KT’s 2016 record against SKT — 2-4 in series with a 35 percent overall win rate — isn’t impressive, but it’s better than its 2017 record, a dismal 25 percent win rate with no series wins.

Perhaps the most important question regarding the KT superteam should be, will it ever beat SK Telecom T1?

Moving beyond whether the individual players are capable of this feat — they are– the question is intrinsically tied to whether the roster will ever work together. Many of KT’s woes have been ascribed to the fact that they quickly embraced and stuck with an early-to-mid game style that stands out in relief to SKT’s slower, punishing play style. Again, that is a bit of an unfair comparison that ignores how difficult it can be to fight against a strong early composition, especially if the team wielding it can transition smoothly into the mid game.

When comparing the two styles, mid game execution stands out as the most crucial component for both approaches. That is where SKT excels, punishing every mistake made by the opponents, even if the early game is lackluster. By contrast, KT falls apart here due to over-aggressive dives and pushes, mistimed team fights and poor usage of their vision line.

Given the talent and lack of coordination, it’s easy to see why KT has focused on strong laning to make the most of what the  team has. With no lane swaps at early levels, a smart pathing jungler in Score, and generally strong laners, it’s an intelligent decision that should have allowed for KT to develop communication over time.

But communication and execution still haven’t improved enough to become the dominant team KT initially promised during its initial roster announcements. Although they’ve had more time to develop, their synergy is often fractured.

KT often has the right idea. For example, they’ve focused on giving PawN strong waveclear champions like Galio and Corki that allow him to hold mid lane, mitigating his laning struggles shown this past spring. PawN has responded accordingly with the second-highest KDA of all LCK mid laners (5.9), the second-highest kill participation (73.8 percent), and a few outstanding individual performances. Despite strong statistics, PawN still looks disjointed from the rest of his team, limiting what KT can do with any pressure he applies.

Although Smeb has performed much better this split in the top lane, there’s still a sense of resource strain between him and AD carry Deft, as if KT isn’t quite sure how to best allocate its resources. Score has had a comparatively lackluster summer compared to his past three splits, with more predictable pathing, mechanical mistakes, and miscommunication with his lanes. Like clockwork, following the recent 2-1 loss to SKT, KT faltered, this time against the seventh place ROX Tigers.

Skill ceilings of teams are tricky to define, as are internal or mental issues that may affect a team after a particularly tough loss. Once again, KT was so close to beating SKT 2-0 before a costly team fight in the bot lane sealed its fate. If KT had communicated just slightly better in fights and backed off a bit more, it would have likely won the game.

There’s a saying in Korean League of Legends that the summer belongs to KT Rolster. KT teams have traditionally had better showings in the summer split. Logically, that should apply to the current iteration, not because of tradition or some sort of mystical summer split buff, but because if there was ever a time for this team to come together, it would be now, when it’s had more experience as a unit. That makes the loss to ROX particularly egregious. With a stronger LCK field, KT doesn’t have time for a post-SKT slump.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games/Slingshot illustration

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