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What's in an SKT jungler?

SKT Peanut simply doesn't fit in, though it might not matter
All photos courtesy of Riot Games

It’s the eighth day of competition at the League of Legends World Championship main event, and the first match of the final day of the group stage. At 2:44, Han “Peanut” Wang-ho smites and clears his red buff. He’s Level 3. The jungler turns to take the top side river scuttle crab and places his trinket ward in the top side river round brush for good measure. He then invades AHQ e-Sports Club‘s jungle. On the bottom side of the map, Peanut’s opponent, Xue “Mountain” Zhao-hong, mirrors his movements, already informed of Peanut’s decisions thanks to an AHQ ward in that same brush.

At four minutes, Peanut returns to base for his first buy while Mountain clears out AHQ’s krug camp.

“Peanut largely has spent this tournament around top and mid lane providing wards,” Christopher “Papasmithy” Smith says on the English language broadcast. “Almost a throwback to Bengi of last year.”

As if by command, Peanut turns his attention to AHQ’s bottom side jungle. He has a Tracker’s Knife in his inventory. He wards the bottom side river round brush. He wards AHQ’s brush just below their raptor camp. He wards AHQ’s krug camp. Outside of the location — the bottom side of the map for Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan instead of the top side for Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon — Papasmithy’s prediction comes to fruition in less than a minute.

Peanut was announced last November as the newest member of SK Telecom T1. A day later, former Fnatic and Immortals top laner Huni signed. Legacy jungler Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong had left SKT days earlier, and his departure presumably signaled the end of an era.

Bengi had never known another organization, and SKT cornerstone Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok had rarely known another jungler. Im “T0M” Jae-hyeon’s appearances throughout 2015 League Champions Korea spring were infrequent and his time on the team short-lived. Kang “Blank” Sun-gu stepped up spring 2016 — when Bengi struggled on all meta champions outside of Elise — but was regarded as a temporary fix by fans because of the nature of the substitution. When SKT was outpaced by Counter Logic Gaming and Royal Never Give Up at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, fans cried out for Bengi. That summer, and throughout the League of Legends World Championship, SKT played Bengi whenever the team appeared to struggle.

It’s difficult to say, even now, whether it was Bengi’s jungle style that forged SK Telecom T1 #2, and later SKT’s, expectations for what a jungler should be, or whether the team irrevocably shaped Bengi’s jungling style. For one tournament only, 2013 OGN Champions Spring, Bengi was a more aggressive, ganking jungler, solely focused on paying attention to his lanes. Then, SKT T1 #2 was a lane-dominant machine that lacked the finesse or minion control of competitors like Samsung Ozone, who knocked SKT T1 #2 out of the quarterfinals with a 3-0 sweep. Following this loss, SKT T1 #2 changed its approach — and Bengi’s role. Bengi’s primary job throughout the latter parts of 2013, all of 2014-15, and the games he played in 2016, was to create an impenetrable vision net to track the enemy jungler, both by placing wards and clearing opponents’ vision. Later, that was augmented by his wealth of experience in the jungle, which allowed him to react instinctively to opponents’ routes. He kept his lanes safe, and devoted attention to Faker in the mid lane or whichever of SKT’s side lanes the team was trying to play around at that time.

Bengi’s legacy is now reflected in Peanut’s current pathing, which varies wildly from Peanut’s time as the prodigious upstart of NaJin e-mFire, or the aggressive “battle ward” of the ROX Tigers.

Paired with the brazen nature of Faker, the arrival of Peanut and Huni was heralded as a new SKT. For the first time in SKT history, Faker would be without his jungle counterpart, and the organization could no longer rely on Bengi to step in and save the day. The acquisition of Peanut seemed to signal SKT was ready to take the team in a new direction, building on the SKT tradition of strong lanes and using them to support Peanut’s frequent, opportunistic invades.

That hasn’t worked out as SKT had hoped. Rather than Peanut and Huni bringing a new swagger and aggressive style to SKT, the slower-paced style of SKT during the 2015-16 seasons has hurt both Huni and Peanut. Opting for a less risky top laner who behaves less precariously in lane, SKT started Park “Untara” Ui-jin throughout most of the summer regular season and playoffs. For his part, Peanut has warded far more — gone is the “battle ward” of 2016, a name born from his dismal warding statistics and combative counter-jungling — on SKT, but his pathing is a shadow of Bengi’s efficiency and effectiveness.

It feels wrong, and Peanut appears uncomfortable. SKT’s bread and butter has been strong lanes, strong denial of vision, and more recently in 2016, strong team-fighting. SKT has since adjusted its draft from the sole-damage AD carry compositions of the team’s post-Rift Rivals slump, but even then, Peanut has not applied a strong early-game presence, and looks woefully lost when SKT’s lanes aren’t pushing. Even in situations where he should have an edge, like his recent LCK summer finals Gragas game against Longzhu’s Moon “Cuzz” Woo-chan and Zac, Peanut failed to take advantage of the matchup, and SKT eventually lost the game. The loss wasn’t solely due to Peanut, but his lack of potential early pressure on Cuzz was one of many factors.

Following SKT’s 5-1 group stage finish at worlds, fans began complaining about Peanut’s lack of early game presence. They called for Blank to start over Peanut. If this sounds familiar, SKT was faced with the same situation for all of last year. Then it was Blank who would start, struggle, and afterward, Bengi would step in to save the day.

“Fans wanted me out of the team,” Blank said in the 2016 LCK spring final introduction video. He began laughing, but his face scrunched up almost as if he was crying.

In that same video, the Tigers complement then-jungler Peanut’s arrival. “Hojin left the stage at the perfect time,” then-AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in joked at former Tigers jungler Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin’s expense.

“It seemed that I would do well regardless of team,” Peanut said.

Fast-forward a year later, and Peanut is not doing well on SKT. In his first two routes — before backing — against AHQ, Peanut had no lane ganks, placed five wards, and only invaded two short-lived times to deny Mountain camps. His passivity allowed Mountain’s Sejuani to scale into relevancy and eventually pass on this favor to mid laner Liu “Westdoor” Shu-Wei, who was rewarded for blind-picking Fizz. At 37:31 AHQ took down SKT’s nexus. Again, the loss isn’t solely on Peanut, nor is it because he’s a bad jungler. But, much like Blank before him, SKT is trying to fit Peanut into a Bengi-shaped hole that he’ll never fit.

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