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“Tough year” reflects SKT’s journey to remain on top

Although none of the members of SK Telecom T1 explicitly said it, reading what they said throughout the League of Legends World Championship reveals that maybe this championship run weighed on them a bit.

Whether it was coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun talking about losing interest, Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan decrying pressure that comes with being SKT or Lee “Duke” Ho-Seong speaking almost in exasperation at the team’s championship news conference, it’s clear this run took a little more out of SKT than its previous two championships.

“It was a tough year, but it feels like all that hardship is leaving me,” Duke said. He didn’t go any further into what made it such a tough year, but he didn’t need to.

SKT has been the gold standard for professional League of Legends for the past four seasons. Last year, SKT became the first team to win two world championships. Saturday’s triumph over Samsung Galaxy in five games made SKT the first three-time champion and the first to win consecutive titles.

The looks on the faces of the players afterward reflected a sense of relief almost as much as joy. SKT wasn’t your typical champion, a team that rose to the top to finally achieve a goal. SKT simply met the minimum expectation of what was supposed to happen.

“After such a tough year, I want to thank the players,” KkOma said. “With such high standards, we often get criticized from fans with one loss, but I hope to repay the fans that cheer for us with results.”

SKT won this year’s spring split of League Champions Korea and the Mid-Season Invitational, then started the summer LCK split 5-0. It appeared SKT was again destined to win worlds, and nothing would stand in its way. Then losses started piling up to the point that SKT finished third in the summer split and didn’t even make the finals of the summer playoffs.

The ROX Tigers became the fan favorites — the popular pick for those who grew tired of SKT’s dominance — en route to winning the LCK summer split, while with every loss the questions seemed to repeat: What’s wrong with SKT?

As it turned out, nothing. But the combination of pressure to succeed combined with clamoring for someone other than SKT to win sure seemed to make this run a bit more draining for the eventual champions.

“There isn’t a way I relieve that pressure personally, since the minimum is to win games, rather than finding relief, and that takes away a lot of the fun,” KkOma said. “I also feel like the pressure is also making me lose interest, because career wise when we look at our team, we had the most amount of victories this year, but because we didn’t win the summer split, the perception of our team becomes bad.”

Even Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the MVP of the final and undisputed best player in the world, said he went into worlds “with a heavy heart.” Still, SKT did what it always seems to do: Find a way to win no matter what.

And how do they celebrate? What comes next? The only thing they’ve really ever known: Win again.

“We want to aim to get three back-to-back win,” KkOma said. “With mounting standards, we still continue to win because we want it more and practice more than any other players. I hope the fans will notice that side of the team in future.”

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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