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SK Telecom T1’s problems stem from the inability to ‘balance the budget’

SK Telecom T1's struggles come from an inability to "balance the budget."
SK Telecom T1's struggles come from an inability to "balance the budget." Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

When an organization has the best team in the world, that tends to curry a certain amount of favor and leeway. SK Telecom T1 has sat atop the League of Legends world since 2015, arguably even longer, dating back to its first world championship in 2013.

SKT has been so dominant that a single regular season loss is seen as cause for concern. “What’s wrong with SK Telecom T1?” immediately pops up in forum posts and social media with fans, analysts, and pundits attempting to explain a single series loss.

Winning has effectively made SKT invincible in the eyes of many, a team without failings or flaws.

Amid the greatest loss streak in the organization’s League Champions Korea history — a league SKT has dominated since 2015 — that ability to adjust has seemingly fallen apart. No one would call the current SKT malleable after seeing its most recent performances.

Now, more than ever — including a 2014 slump — the community is asking: What’s wrong with SKT?

Digging for the root of the problem leads us to SK Telecom T1 #2 (SK Telecom T1 K in 2014). That team burst onto the competitive League of Legends scene as a brutal force of nature, a team with three strong lanes, the prodigious talent of Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, and a jungler in Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong who was constantly in and out of lanes in the early game, doing everything he could to ensure that they were ahead.

That style worked for a time, but SKT T1 #2 fell apart against MVP Ozone in the 2013 OGN Champions Spring Semifinals. Even in regular season victories, SKT T1 #2 appeared lost compared to other teams in terms of macro game, objective control, and minion pushes. If they couldn’t get the early leads that they wanted by force, they could be undone by superior map pressure and control.

Something had to change.

Faker and the bottom lane duo of AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin and support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon became the centerpieces of a two-pronged attack, and top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong and jungler Bengi took relative backseats to their flashier counterparts.

Bengi in particular developed a specific jungling style based on vision setup and the denial of SKT’s opponents’ vision that was continuously honed through years of experience with the team.

To put it another way, one of the reasons why SKT T1 #2 was able to adjust in 2013 is because the team had multiple players who were not as reckless as Faker and Piglet. They balanced their team budget, so to speak, by giving their more aggressive players a strong support network in Bengi, PoohManDu, and Impact.

Back then, in 2013-14, Faker was prodigious but not nearly the player that he is now. Many of his growing pains came towards the tail end of 2014 — the only year SKT failed to qualify for the League of Legends World Championship — and throughout the inaugural season of LCK in 2015.

With the creation of the LCK came the merging of all sister teams in Korea. For SKT T1 K and SKT T1 S, this precipitated the separate departures of SKT T1 S jungler Cho “H0R0” Jae-hwan, PoohMandu, and Piglet. Impact left shortly thereafter, and the new SKT Telecom T1 lineup consisted of top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan, Bengi, mid laners Faker and Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon, AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, and supports Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan and Lee “Piccaboo” Jong-beom. Only Piccaboo was not a former SKT T1 S or K member. Later in the 2015 LCK spring split, jungler Im “T0M” Jae-hyeon joined the team.

Experimentation is often a dirty word in League of Legends esports, but that’s exactly what SKT did with the team’s new lineup. Most expected Faker to start in the mid lane, since he was the better mid laner overall. Instead, the team used both Faker and Easyhoon interchangeably, often swapping back and forth between both mids within the same series.

At that time, especially after SKT’s surprising loss to EDward Gaming at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, swapping appeared at best an experiment with contextually mediocre results — remember, SKT still won the 2015 LCK spring split title and only dropped three series during that regular season — and at worst a gross misuse of talent that included the best LoL player in the world.

The key to unlocking this mystery lies in the play style of their top laner at the time, MaRin.

On SKT T1 S, MaRin was reportedly the player around whom the team would grow. Like Faker on SKT T1 K, MaRin was billed as a fantastic individual player, nearly peerless in his top lane solo queue exploits. Yet MaRin struggled to adjust to competitive play, and his need for resources seemingly strained the team. Often found pushed up over the team’s vision lane, even in the early laning phase, MaRin was a liability more than he was a carry. That, and a meta that favored Easyhoon’s stable of waveclear mid laners like Orianna, Ziggs, and Syndra, meant the team developed a slow and steady pace for which Easyhoon was blamed.

Upon his arrival to SKT, Easyhoon was rumored to be receiving his starting time due to his prowess on Xerath, Lulu, and Cassiopeia: Waveclear mids that favored his defensive, ranged style were en vogue at that time. Now that time has passed, the dust has settled, and both players have long since moved on to other organizations, it seems more likely that Easyhoon was starting to give Bengi a break.

With Faker in the mid lane, Bengi defaulted to the position of his right-hand man, facilitating Faker’s aggressive, punishing style to control mid. The problem was that MaRin, at that time, was an undeveloped player who did not control his lane or minion pushes well and was consistently over-extended across SKT’s vision line.

MaRin needed resources and help to succeed. In this case, resources weren’t limited to team gold allocation and ranged from champion choice to jungle attention and everything in between. Bengi couldn’t always provide the vision or attention MaRin needed with Faker in the mid lane. SKT simply didn’t have the budget, so to speak, to support both Faker and MaRin in certain situations.

That precipitated MaRin and Faker improving as players throughout 2015. Nowhere was this more apparent than at worlds, where MaRin stole the show, gaining an international fanbase overnight, even alongside Bang’s record-setting KDA in the group stages and Faker’s continued popularity. Quietly, Faker was given the least amount of gold of any mid laner at worlds that year, yet managed to do the most with it, all while Bengi paid more attention to the top side of the map.

Faker’s detractors would say he cannot play a more efficient, resourceful style. That simply isn’t true. But it is important to note that his default is still aggressive and opportunistic. Even if there is a great amount of risk present, Faker will bet on his own individual skill to beat the odds.

More often than not, he does.

That also means that he remains a strain on resources at times. Again, “resources” in the case of SKT (and most cases) doesn’t simply mean gold allocation statistics. It means vision control, jungle proximity and champion choices (how many winning lane matchups SKT has coming out of Champion Select) among a myriad of other small factors.

For years, the SKT jungle position has acquiesced to that. Bengi was molded by it, as was Kang “Blank” Sun-gu to some extent.

Blank is another important piece in the mystery of why the current SKT is faltering, not because he’s performing poorly, but because of his history on the team. For the majority of his time with SKT in 2016, the team tried to squeeze Blank into the Bengi-shaped hole that was its jungle position.

Blank never managed to fit the mold. Something always seemed a bit off.

Fans clamored for Bengi, ignoring the fact that the meta at the time was awful for the veteran jungler. Before benching him for Blank, Bengi had a few horrid Udyr and Rumble performances that are best left to be lost among the glut of games that made up the 2016 competitive season. Blank’s style suited the meta but not the team, and at times, he became more of a liability than anything else.

He was outside of the SKT budget in a different way. SKT top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong didn’t require the same resources or attention MaRin did in 2015. Instead it was Blank himself who took those resources, often becoming a DPS carry in team fights rather than facilitating his laners by ganking or setting up patented Bengi vision net through ward placement and vision denial. His continued struggles with SKT eventually paved the way for Bengi’s heroic entrance at worlds last year, his last hurrah before leaving SKT.

Now, let’s apply this balancing budget theory to the current SK Telecom T1: Top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, junglers Han “Peanut” Wang-ho and Blank, mid laners Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Kim “Sky” Ha-neul, AD carry Bang and support Wolf.

Bang and Wolf have gone relatively unmentioned thus far because they assimilated into the budget perfectly. They’re consistently strong together without needing much assistance from the rest of the team at all. The shift from melee initiators to ranged supports in 2016 only helped the SKT bot lane reach greater heights, since a meta of Karma, Zyra, and Nami suits a disengage-oriented support like Wolf perfectly.

Like Samsung Galaxy’s Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, Wolf hasn’t looked nearly as strong in recent weeks. In their last three series against the Afreeca Freecs, Jin Air Green Wings, and Longzhu Gaming, SKT put Wolf on Lulu and Zyra, which limited his playmaking abilities in and out of lane, especially against No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong’s Thresh (his best champion) and surprise support Kennen.

That isn’t to say Wolf should bear the brunt of SKT’s woes, but he provides a good starting point to look at the current SKT budget.

Since the 2015 merger, SKT has relied on Bang and Wolf to be a strong 2-v-2 bottom lane, drawing pressure without ever becoming a liability. In the team’s most recent outings, Bang and Wolf have been more of a laning liability. Roaming supports like Snowflower and Afreeca’s Park “TusiN” Jong-ik provide more pressure for their teams outside the 2-v-2 than Wolf and Bang can draw through simple laning. That puts added pressure on Faker, who may not receive equal benefits from Wolf, even when Wolf does roam, that his laning opponent is receiving from their roaming support.

In the spring split, that meant Huni would often rotate down into the mid lane, forcing the opponents’ junglers into more predictable paths while providing pressure mid or invading the enemy jungle for vision. Huni loves roaming and Teleporting to help his teammates. So much so that he sometimes draws criticism for his overly-optimistic Teleports into already-lost skirmishes.

Huni is much like Faker in that, if he sees an opportunity for an aggressive play, he’ll take the aggressive play and accept the risk. Playing primarily tank champions throughout the spring masked much of his overly-aggressive tendencies that he showed while on Fnatic and Immortals, as he was often able to soak up damage during overextensions without incident.

Peanut also opts for high risk, high reward plays, and he was known for that during his time on the ROX Tigers.

Last year’s ROX was a special team of talented individuals who were willing to follow up on each other’s engages no matter what. Even when that was technically a bad idea — like their all-engage composition of Kennen/Nocturne/Lissandra/Ashe/Alistar against e-mFire in the spring split — the rest of the team followed up without issue.

SKT’s default, more reactive approach of punishing opponents for their mistakes in the mid game is vastly different than what Peanut grew accustomed to on the Tigers. His oft-disjointed attempts to force plays with the team are another case of a player not quite fitting the SKT mold. Watching his miscommunication with the team manifest itself in ill-advised invades, ganks, or skirmishes calls to mind Blank’s struggles last year with the team. Although the two players are different in their personal jungling styles, neither fits onto SKT as quickly as they, and the team, would have liked.

Interestingly enough, Peanut’s struggles had until recently led Blank directly into the Bengi role of substituting into a series after a Peanut loss, only to lead SKT to victory. Although some would argue Blank has finally assimilated himself into Bengi’s jungling style, it’s more that Huni on tankier champions, or the summer addition of a comparatively reserved top laner in Park “Untara” Ui-jin, has allowed SKT more comfort with Blank’s early-game farming.

Starting Blank still hasn’t helped SKT as of late. The entire team appears to be suffering from communication breakdowns regardless of who appears in the booth. SKT doesn’t have the budget to handle three aggressive players in Faker, Huni, and Peanut on one starting lineup. Bang and Wolf aren’t drawing the same amount of pressure in 2-v-2s, and Wolf isn’t creating as much pressure outside of lane as his support opponents.

SKT, like any other team in any competition esports or no, has weak points and opportunity areas. Detailing them doesn’t detract from SKT’s success. Instead, understanding them makes SKT’s dominance even more impressive: A team so malleable that it can adjust to almost any situation or meta.

Including Rift Rivals and its latest loss to Longzhu Gaming, SKT has lost nine games in a row. Mental pressure mounts after each consecutive loss, especially for a team like SKT that simply isn’t accustomed to losing. Right now, the components of SKT just don’t seem to add up to a cohesive unit, and that prior flexibility will now be pushed once more.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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