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One night in April: Revisiting the stunning SK Telecom T1 S/Prime Optimus match from 2014 Champions Spring

SK Telecom T1 S and Prime Optimus played a peculiar match in April 2014.
All eyes were on OLDB and Prime Optimus in a stunning 2-0 upset of SKT T1 S in April 2014. (Screenshot/Slingshot illustration).

One night in April, the second-to-last day of OGN’s 2014 Champions Spring League of Legends tournament, SK Telecom T1 S prepared to take on the struggling squad of Prime Optimus.

The set was all but won by SKT T1 S.

“Even from the group drawings, the other teams were like ‘Yeah, we all want to draw Prime Optimus because we think they’ll be the easiest team,'” OGN caster William “Chobra” Cho said during Prime Optimus’ team introduction that night.

“They did get drawn into a group with both SKT teams and then the KT Arrows, who have been looking really good this season. So a bit of a rough first season.”

What followed was not a monumental moment in League of Legends history, but it’s one of many snapshots that made up the 2014 spring split and a match that played a role in shaping the current format of Korean League of Legends. Prime Optimus won 2-0: a significant upset, but not the type that’s often recommended as a “must see” series from the past. That praise is reserved for series like the 2013 Champions Summer finals between SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster Bullets, or either 2014 semifinals series between sister teams Samsung Ozone/White and Samsung Blue.

In the bottom corner of a medium-sized notebook, draw a stick figure. Now flip to the next page and draw the same stick figure, but raise the left foot slightly. Repeat this process for the entire notebook, every page with a slightly different motion, alternating legs. When the pages are rapidly flipped, the figure will appear to be running, a rudimentary demonstration of how animation is made up of a variety of still images that trick our eyes into thinking they’re in motion. Every one of those stills is now a professional League of Legends game: one specific snapshot in a sea of games that combines in our eyes to create patterns over the course of a season.

While watching events unfold in the present, people assume they will remember details once time has passed. They will remember specific contexts and circumstances. They will remember the games that were played on significant patch changes. They will remember teams in still moments, not in motion.

But that rarely happens. Even those who have followed League of Legends esports since Season 1 forget some of the stills outside of their favorite series and highlight plays. Yet, in the moment, reaction and analysis is always shortsighted. Nuances in the greater context of a series often don’t surface until years later.

This is what happened with Prime Optimus’ series against SK Telecom T1 S on April 4, 2014.

In 2014 Champions Spring, SK Telecom T1 S was not the SK Telecom T1 team that would soon follow. Fandom, fame, and everything that accompanies the team was reserved for Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s SK Telecom T1 K, reigning world champions and the team recently crowned OGN Winter 2013-14 champions after an unprecedented undefeated split.

Yet, SKT T1 S was on the rise. SKT T1 K’s oft-forgotten sister team kicked off the 2014 spring season with a surprising tie against none other than SKT T1 K after the two teams were both sorted into Group A with the KT Rolster Arrows and Prime Optimus. After stunning SKT T1 K in a tie, SKT T1 S swept the inconsistent Arrows 2-0. KTA and SKT T1 K had already played all of their Group A round robin matches, sitting at 4-2 and 3-3 respectively. With a 3-1 record, SKT T1 S was in an easy position to take first place in the group. Only a winless Prime Optimus stood in the way.

The expected victory over Prime Optimus would catapult SKT T1 S into the playoffs alongside KTA, leaving SKT T1 K on the outside of the bracket stage looking in for the first time since its Champions debut.

At that moment in time, teams could get away with having one specific play style, provided that they were better at that style than any other team in the world. SKT T1 S had already earned its name as a slow, boring team that forced opponents into, as OGN caster Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles said, “drawn out, grind-em-out affairs.”

“I want to see more decisive play from SKT S before I’m really sold on these guys,” Montecristo continued. “They’re just a little bit too passive, they’re very predictable in their picks.”

Prime Optimus began Game 1 on blue side, immediately targeting SKT T1 S jungler Cho “H0R0” Jae-hwan and top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan in Champion Select by banning Lee Sin and Renekton. Lucian was also a priority pick for Prime, despite the fact that this meant giving Bae “Bang” Jun-sik his Caitlyn.

The first hints at Prime Optimus’ plan came from AD carry Lee “ZetNjin” Jin-yong (later called Fury) taking Longsword as his first item on Lucian rather than the safer Doran’s Blade. Teleport was not a must-have spell on top laners yet, but recent buffs included a 100-second decrease on the cooldown if the summoner’s spell was used on an allied turret. Prime Optimus’ Kim “Hanlabong” Dong-ha (now Longzhu Gaming’s Khan) chose Teleport for his Jax.

Three members of Prime Optimus — ZetNjin, support Jeong “Kkyul” Myeong-su on Leona, and jungler Yang “Old B” Seung-bin on Elise — invaded SKT T1 S’ red buff while Hanlabong set up at Prime Optimus’ red. Bang and support Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan invaded late, nearly pushing Hanlabong off of his own red, but the Prime Optimus top laner escaped with the buff, and Old B returned to his own jungle in time to secure his own blue, ensuring a three-buff start for Prime Optimus. With the red buff, Hanlabong went top lane to join ZetNjin and Kkyul along with Old B, who pathed top lane after taking his blue and large wraith.

The resulting four-man push later became a staple of the meta. Prior to this series, most teams in Korea had executed three-man dives to push turrets in lane swaps, but Prime caught SKT T1 S completely off guard with its four-man push.

The four Prime Optimus players continued to push toward the base of SKT T1 S. Shocked, SKT abandoned its three-man response in the bottom lane — which hadn’t been able to match the speed of Prime Optimus, taking one turret to Prime’s three — to recall and stop Prime from taking the top side inhibitor. Their confusion also allowed mid laner Noh “Ninja” Geon-woo to pressure the mid lane turret by pushing out his minion wave. Due to Teleport, Hanlabong was easily able to protect his bottom lane tier-two turret.

Prime traded these turrets for the top laner’s experience. MaRin’s Shyvana easily froze the top lane wave in front of SKT T1 S’ base, accruing more experience and gold than Hanlabong.

Yet, Prime Optimus didn’t allow SKT T1 S to breathe. While Hanlabong tried to catch up by farming Old B’s jungle before meeting MaRin in the top lane, Old B joined his duo lane bot side.

At seven minutes, Prime Optimus had four turrets to SKT Telecom T1 S’ one.

The winless team also had the only kill of the game and a 4K gold lead. Prime’s three-man bot lane push had forced MaRin to push his lane top side, breaking the freeze and allowing Hanlabong to return to lane with slightly less risk.

After the early turret massacre, Prime prioritized Sweeper’s Trinkets on both Old B and Kkyul, taking advantage of decreased cool downs on trinket swaps to quickly clear out any SKT T1 S vision.

At 19 minutes, SKT T1 S lost its first inhibitor. About 15 minutes later, it also lost the game. Old B jumped out of his seat, screaming in the booth.

Prime Optimus’ Game 1 victory over SKT T1 S remains one of the more visible displays of one team preparing heavily for specific patch changes and catching their opponents off-guard in a new metagame. Game 2 was far sloppier — neither game is a showcase of mechanical prowess or skill — and Prime snowballed off of a Hanlabong solo kill onto MaRin in the top lane to create an unbeatable split push with his Jax.

“Well we have a Korean drama on our hands, Monte,” Chobra said as SKT T1 S’ nexus fell for a second time that night.

“The sad story of K and S.”

Old B grabbed a black marker and scribbled something on his hand. As the cameras zoomed in on his face, the jungler opened his palm to reveal a smudged “SKT.” He crushed the letters in his fist dramatically, grimacing for added effect.

The 2-0 loss stung the entire SK Telecom T1 organization. Never had there been a Champions set as ripe for match-fixing as this one, and allegations flew furiously on both Korean and English-speaking forums.

What if SK Telecom T1 S had thrown the series to allow the organization’s more popular team — Faker’s team — to make it through in SKT T1 S’ stead?

Suspicions only grew after SKT T1 K stomped SKT T1 S in 25 minutes during their best-of-one tiebreaker.

SKT T1 K advanced and fell to Samsung Galaxy Ozone in the quarterfinals. Old B, Hanlabong, and Ninja joined the World Elite organization in China. ZetNjin landed on Samsung Galaxy.

Sister teams were forced to disband and unite under new rules for 2015 that allowed one team per organization. This was likely spurred by suspicions raised following 2014 Champions Spring, where both SK Telecom T1 teams happened to be drawn into the same group. The Champions tournament was renamed League Champions Korea and remade into a league.

The memory of a League of Legends esports fan — also the dedicated interest, or emotional investment of a League of Legends esports fan — is short. With each game, series, patch, split, season or international event, fandom shifts. Older fans often leave fandom of professional LoL for other interests, leaving a vacuum rarely filled by new fans, who follow teams in their present. Only the very dedicated bother to research the history of their favorite teams, which makes sense, especially with the lack of familial history or years of fandom culture endemic to traditional sports teams and fandoms.

Looking back at the SKT T1 S and Prime Optimus series, with emotional impulses of the then-present long faded from memory, it’s a lot easier to see it as a lack of preparation in a shifting metagame. OGN’s Champions tournament format was lauded for many reasons, but one of the drawbacks was that so few games could lead to massive upsets, like Prime Optimus’ victory over SKT Telecom T1 S thanks to the arrival of a favorable patch. The building blocks of Prime’s four-man fast push were adopted by other teams in Korea. Regardless of whether this was due to Prime’s success, scrimming against Prime, or simply solving the mystery of the new patch in a similar fashion as Prime, Prime’s strategy worked and SKT T1 S reacted poorly.

SK Telecom T1 S was never known as a flexible team. The allegations that they only won with mid laner Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon on Ziggs are a bit exaggerated, but regardless of specific champion choices, SKT T1 S played the same way: A slower-paced, scaling style that significantly lengthened the opponents’ average game times. It’s not shocking a team like this would be stymied by a fast-paced strategy that spread them thinly on the map.

This is but one of many still snapshots that made up the journey of SK Telecom T1 S. Hardly their most flattering look, the 2-0 Group A loss to Prime Optimus stands as an obvious example of how a team can enter a new meta completely unprepared and be brutally punished as a result.

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