SK Telecom wireless stores, or affiliated retailers, pepper the streets of Seoul, South Korea. If you miss one, there will inevitably be another around the corner, a lighted red and light orange SK Telecom symbol greeting you cheerily next to a signboard with mouthwatering photographs of kimbap and bibimbap from the restaurant upstairs. SK Telecom is an arm of the SK Group, one of South Korea’s largest chaebols (Samsung is the largest). Not only are the wireless stores everywhere but the company is involved in a variety of different entertainment options, construction, shipping, and recently acquired Dow Chemical Company among many other businesses and investments. The SK Group is everywhere, including the obvious to a League of Legends fan: esports, under the branch of SK Telecom.
There’s no better metaphor for how far SK Telecom T1’s name has dominated the League of Legends competitive landscape. Since the telecom giant entered the LoL scene in 2013, an SKT team has won or been at the top of nearly every domestic and international event. The organization has more titles than any other team in League of Legends history, and not only managed to scout and sign but also retain the best player the game has ever seen: Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. SKT is synonymous with “Korean LoL team” and Faker is synonymous with SKT.
Before the 2017 League of Legends World Championship began, I discussed the three teams that would represent Korea at this event: first seed Longzhu Gaming (League Champions Korea summer champion), second seed SKT, and third seed Samsung.
I was asked if Samsung could beat SKT. I said yes.
I was asked if SKT could take it all. I moaned and groaned about SKT’s existence before admitting that yes, I had picked the two-time defending champions to take it all once again.
SKT is the team that defies analysis. It’s the team of “all we do is win.” It’s the team that lost four straight games at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational and miraculously bounced back in the knockout stage. At the worlds last year, the ROX Tigers were the favorite and SKT still found a way to win. The Tigers and long-time foe KT Rolster present odd circumstances against SKT: they’re teams that should, by analysis, win yet fail to do so almost every time.
Much of SKT’s mystique is actually quick and thoughtful adaptation. SKT has a history of adapting in Champion Select and working its way through a victory from game-to-game. This is what made a 3-1 loss to Longzhu in the LCK summer finals so surprising. SKT adapted in Game 3, but Longzhu struck back in Game 4, targeting Heo “Huni” Seong-hoon’s Cho’Gath and snowballing Kim “Khan” Dong-ha’s Jayce with help from Longzhu’s jungler Moon “Cuzz” Woo-chan, and mid laner Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong’s Taliyah. Strip away the in-game name plates from this SKT team — sans Faker at times — and the mystique and the history of SKT disappears. What’s left is a team that hasn’t been consistent for most of summer, and certainly hasn’t been great.
Following Korea’s surprising demise at Rift Rivals, SKT entered a startling slump. The team forced single-damage, protect Bae “Bang’ Jun-sik compositions with scaling AD carry champions that were quickly overrun by SKT’s opponents in the early game. Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan looked lost, despite the SKT’s and Wolf stubbornly sticking to mage supports in a more engage-support meta. He failed to match opposing supports’ roams, making for a weaker vision net on the bottom side of the map. These champion choices also fell prey to bot lane engages, dives, or simply were out-pushed in lane, ceding even more pressure to SKT’s adversaries. SKT had seemingly settled on Park “Untara” Ui-jin, an adequate laner who lacked Huni’s killer instincts and carry prowess but took far fewer risks. Jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho appeared a shadow of his former Tigers self, rarely invading aggressively for anything but a passing ward, the next player caught in the cycle of SKT junglers. Even Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, who was substituted in when Peanut struggled, looked worse when his lanes collapsed backwards, towards SKT’s side of the map.
Among Longzhu, KT, Samsung, and SKT, SKT had the largest percentage of time spent with a major deficit (28.2 percent} and the lowest percentage of time spent with a major lead (28.7 percent). Those numbers placed them below middling teams like the Jin Air Green Wings and the Afreeca Freecs. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it showcases just how difficult it was for SKT to get any sort of early advantage. The team’s percentage of time before 40 minutes was almost equally spent between having a major gold lead or a minor gold deficit and SKT finished tied in record with Samsung Galaxy at 13-5, one series loss more than both Longzhu and KT at 14-4. A more revealing statistic for SKT is the team’s average turrets lost per game in the 2017 LCK Summer regular season at 5.8. This puts the team at fourth, where SKT finished, but can be cited as further proof of SKT’s poor early game. For comparison, KT Rolster only lost 4.1, and Longzhu 4.4.
When SKT was in trouble, it fell back on scaling, team fighting, and waiting for its opponent to make a mistake. In the past, SKT had always been able to rely on the team’s quick adaptations in series and consistently strong macro knowledge to make up for its own mistakes or a stronger early-game opponent like KT or the Tigers. It’s no surprise that SKT turned to this as a default. Relying on opponents’ mistakes and a possible Faker hard carry performance had always worked before. It failed against Longzhu, but at that point in time, SKT was already qualified as Korea’s second seed thanks to a spring championship title and the team’s recent playoff run. SKT’s Group A struggles further displayed the team’s early game weaknesses to the world on the international stage. Yet, SKT stuck with its strategy, and the team exited the group stage as the first seed from Group A, capitalizing on EDward Gaming and once, AHQ e-Sports Club’s impatience in the late game.
Misfits opened its quarterfinals match looking outclassed by SKT. SKT’s worst games are often the first that the team plays in any given series. Game 1 is where SKT relaxes a bit in draft sometimes, allowing opponents to have their favorites before SKT adjusts and wins, but SKT’s first game against Misfits featured a killer composition for the Korean side and few opportunities for Misfits to catch up. After Game 1, the series looked like it would be a 3-0 stomp. SKT had done it again.
Then Misfits adapted. Misfits, like Longzhu, pressured SKT early in side lanes. Rather than top, it was the bottom lane of Steven “Hans sama” Liv and Lee “IgNar” Dong-geun that prospered with smart, off-beat engage support champions like Leona and Blitzcrank to pair with Hans sama’s Tristana. Misfits moved Ardent Censer into the mid lane with Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage on Karma or the jungle on Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian’s Ivern. By Game 4, Misfits looked like the winner of the series.
Faker played well all night. He even acted almost like a jungler in a few of SKT’s early games to try and cover for Peanut and Blank’s lack of pressure, but in that Game 4, he once again proved why he’s the best player in the world. Ryze was a sore spot for many mids at Worlds with a dismal win rate. Faker showed why teams kept picking him up, carrying his team back from the brink in the mid-to-late game. SKT won 3-2. It wasn’t a clean victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Before worlds,, I predicted SKT to win. This was not based on the team’s recent performance against Longzhu, but based on the team’s ability to adapt at previous international events. How much credit should we give to history? How much of SKT’s strengths truly lie in the team’s intangibles? How many times can Faker single-handedly drag the team to a victory that SKT would have lost with only a slightly-worse top tier Korean mid laner? I still don’t know the answers to these questions, but this particular SKT team, purely based on analysis and not how the organization has adapted in the past, will find winning worlds near-impossible.