With Korea’s SK Telecom T1 third League of Legends world championship title, one of the most interesting questions is how did it all begin? Fans already know the dynasty that is SKT, but not many know the formative years of how it started. Luckily for them OSEN’s Ko Yong-Joon sat down with head coach Choi Byung-Hoon and Kim “KkOma” Jung-Gyun to talk about the past and future of SKT T1.
In 2012, SK Telecom just folded its competitive Special Force team as Korea’s Special Force Pro League ended. Choi, the coach for the then-defunct Special Force team, pitched the idea of creating a League of Legends team to SK, and as competitors such as KT started to form their own, SK would appoint Choi as the head coach.
“I pitched the idea of making a League team, thinking that I needed to do something,” Choi told OSEN. “After it got approved, there were a lot of things I needed to work on. At the time I wanted to work with (kkOma) after seeing some of his broadcasts. I named him when I talked to the company saying that ‘there is this very well-known person and I’d like him to be added to the team.’ I think the giant snowball we have right now started rolling since kkOma was added to the team.”
KkOma had accumulated more than, 9000 hours of streaming experience at the time and already worked with big name players such as Go “Score” Dong-Bin and Won “Mafa” Sang-Yeon as the coach for Team StarTale, making him a prime candidate for any coaching position.
“I had a lot of interest in esports since I was a student, but I could give it a shot after my military service,” kkOma said. “When I was a player, I couldn’t produce results despite my hard work. I had the dubious honor of being the first player to have an article about his release. Usually those types of articles would be about contracts ending or retirement announcements. I turned to streaming after my release, but I couldn’t give up on my dream. I was confident that I could play better than anyone else, and I really wanted to work in esports. That’s when SK Telecom contacted me.”
KkOma’s SKT squad would go on to make a name for itself by placing third in League Champions Korea’s 2013 spring split — a mere three months after its creation — winning the summer split, and finally bringing home the Summoner’s Cup. But disappointment was right around the corner, as both SKT teams failed to qualify for worlds in 2014, marking the first (and only) slump of SKT.
“We didn’t make it to worlds in 2014, but there were plenty of opportunities,” Choi said. “We basically blew all of those chances so it was sad, but we took some time to reflect. But this year was especially difficult. I think kkOma would agree. The bliss of victory would only be a moment. If we lose we had to withstand the criticism, and even when we won, there would be endless sentiments of ‘who did well’ or ‘they almost lost because of whom.’ I understand that with many wins and championships that expectations get higher, but no matter what the team did, there would be endless criticism, so it pressured the entire team. I personally experienced panic attacks. If we fell even further I was worried about a situation where we would have to apologize to the fans. There were a lot of thoughts going on.”
KkOma added: “I understand that the only answer in a pro’s world is to win. Even in interviews, people would say that they need to win. However, because all the other teams are working much harder than anticipated, being first isn’t easy. Being first back-to-back is even more difficult. Even in other sports, being champions every year is a difficult task. One win still means a lot, but it weighed heavily on my heart because at times it would still mean that our evaluation as a team was lowered. I wanted to be happy and moved with one victory, but it was upsetting that a win would deliver a sense of relief rather than happiness. I hope the fans will help the team to feel the elation of winning once again.”
Another point of interest of SKT is the loyalty and close friendship the players seem to have with each other and with the coaching staff. The most interesting stories being those of Bae “Bang” Jun-Sik and Kang “Blank” Sun-Gu, players who have gone through psychotherapy to maintain their mental strength. Even SKT’s relatively new top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-Seong refused a higher pay rate after Najin’s disbanding, electing to go to SKT instead.
“I want to stay with the team next year,” Bang told OSEN. “If the coaching staff remains the same. Money is important, but what’s more important is that both head coach Choi Byung-Hoon and coach Kim Jung-Gyun stays as well.”
With the 2017 season mere months away, even a world championship team like SKT is getting ready for the next split with mounting expectations and equally elevating level of play in the LCK. KkOma shared his thoughts that he wants to aim for another title while working hard to maintain the team’s form in the LCK.
“I’m careful in sharing my thoughts about the coming season, but I am more cautious of LCK teams rather than international teams,” he said. “With heightened level of play, I expect the LCK to be a much more competitive tournament than worlds. I wish to show the fans what I truly think one day. I want to aim for a four time world champion.”
Photos courtesy of Riot Games