There has never been a team quite like SK Telecom T1 in League of Legends, and there might never be one like it again.
SKT has already created a legacy of dominance and is widely recognized as the best team in the world, and for good reason. Last week’s win against ROX Tigers clinched an unprecedented third birth in the finals of the League of Legends World Championship. SKT is already in a class of its own as the only two-time champion (2013, 2015).
After dispatching of the ROX Tigers in last week’s semifinals, the buzz heading into Saturday’s championship match is that SKT has already won; it’s essentially clinched the championship. This team has been in a similar spot so many times, that’s a fair conclusion to draw.
SKT’s consistency is even more impressive considering only two current players have been present for all of their finals appearances: Jungler Bae “Bengi” Seong-Ung (now a sub) and Lee “Faker” Sang-Hyeok, the undisputed best player in the world.
Between the 2013 and 2016 seasons (including a sister team), nine players came and went to leave SKT with its current incarnation, with only one small blip on the landscape of success.
Both of SKT’s teams failed to qualify for worlds in 2014 but in 2015 put together a single roster that won the spring and summer splits along with that year’s world championship. Since then, many forgot the 2014 season as SKT once again claimed the title of best in the world.
Yet the non-believers returned this season, to the point that the head coach Choi Byung-Hoon gave an emphatic interview about the overwhelming negative attention.
“The media, the casters, even Riot has said that they thought ROX would win,” he told OSEN after the semifinals. “Even if we weren’t talking about the differences in skill, it felt like the entire universe wanted us to lose.”
There was a desperate need for a rival for SKT, and the ROX Tigers, a team that was repeatedly put in second place by SKT, have been the closest threat to SKT. ROX succeeded in claiming the top spot in this year’s League Champions Korea summer split, with fans and pundits alike proclaiming that 2016 will be the year of SKT’s second downfall.
Yet the team that dethroned SKT in the 2016 LCK summer split, the team that many said had the best and only chance of taking down SKT, couldn’t cut it in the semifinals. A down to the wire fight still showed that SKT was on the top of its form.
The phrase “returning champions” comes to mind when describing SKT, not because they’ve ever left, but more because it feels like they put the Summoner’s Cup down only to pick it back up. During the opening ceremony of worlds, SKT appeared with cup in tow and placed it on the stand as celebratory steam spewed everywhere. Rather than a blessed parting, it had the air of someone dropping off the keys with a valet.
Approaching a grand final against Samsung Galaxy, that feeling seems even stronger. The players certainly think so.
Faker actually brandished a smile in an interview with Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere, breaking his usual polite — yet stoic — demeanor to prove that his team was far from stepping down, but closer to going above and beyond.
“I personally think I did really well,” he said. “I honestly now think that I am the best.”
SKT’s coach, Kim “KkOma” Jung-Gyun, someone who is very well known to throw caution to the winds looked almost uncharacteristically happy after SKT’s hard fought victory over the Tigers, and despite the amount of pressure both he and his team have to endure, he felt that everything is now lined up.
“It is relieving in a sense, and I think being in the position we are in right now is the best possible one that comes with pressure, so we’ll have to work through it,” he told Slingshot. “The universal answer is just to win.”
The stage has been set. It’s a perfect storyline for SKT for the finals. An unexpected faltering, conflict with doubt, overcoming of a rival, unending confidence, and a shot to make history. This year’s worlds is very much SKT’s to lose at this point, and they are mere inches away from creating the kind of record that will be remembered long after League of Legends — and might never be touched.
Plenty of fans and analysts are already picturing the SKT team hoisting up the Summoner’s Cup, reclaiming their title, and doing something that no other team is even close to replicating, let alone beat.
This time, SKT seems to be doing the same.