SK Telecom T1’s dominance in professional League of Legends has come to an end after a lackluster performance during LCK Summer 2018 led to the legendary organization missing out on the LCK Summer 2018 playoffs, and quite possibly, the worlds.
In 2013, a South Korean team began the region’s dominance in professional League of Legends. This was a six-month old team with three rookies and only two veterans, and a barely experienced pro-player turned coach.
Since their historic 3-0 over Star Horn Royal Club, only South Korean teams have won the world championship. Out of those five championships, three of them belong to SK Telecom T1. But, what goes up must come down, and for the first time since the team’s introduction into competitive League of Legends, SK Telecom T1 will miss the playoffs.
How could a team that made it into the world championship final not even make it into the top five in the LCK Summer 2018?
Let’s take a look at the different roles and how SKT has historically played around them.
The Top Lane
The top lane has always been depended on for split pushing. However, this was to be done with little to no resources allocated from the jungler or from the other lanes. Vision would not be invested in the SKT top laner, and he was to have sound instincts to carry out his task. He was to create pressure across the map so that objectives would have to be a choice for the enemy team.
Impact was a rather conservative laner and would always do his best to hold his own against the enemy laner. He also made sure that his tower did not fall. Meanwhile, for Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan, the split pushing approach was the same. However, MaRin was different in a way that he also looks to carry the game. He had other ways to influence the rest of the map: MaRin was always known to be very proficient in his use of the summoner spell Teleport.
After MaRin left, SKT replaced him with Lee “Duke” He-seong. Duke’s champion pool was more defined in his time with SK Telecom. He played tankier champions that could split push. That year, he was mostly on Poppy creating immense pressure from the team and splitting the map effectively so that the enemy would have to react unless they wanted to risk their base getting broken.
2017 saw SKT take in Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon. An aggressive-minded player, Huni played teams. Lane priority was situational for him as well. But, even though Huni played a lot of Maokai games, the team gave him the opportunity to shine every now and then.
Ill-Fitting and Inexperienced
The story with SKT’s top lane is not the kinds of champions that their different top laners have played, but the fact that these players have always been dependable in what was expected of them. They would do well in lane despite not being ganked by the SKT jungler, and would perform in a split push situation or a team fighting scenario later on. In addition, SKT’s top laner has always been a loud voice in the team, reading what play to make next and helping the team get to favorable situations in the game.
The reason why Park “Thal” Kwon-hyuk has not been impressive is not a question of mechanics. He is a player in the higher parts of the Challenger ladder, after all. What makes the difference between him and all the previous SKT top laners is veteran experience. Thal has not been able to clearly guide his team to victory, poorly executes fights, and makes questionable engages which lead to terrible misplays.
SKT’s remedy was to put him on more carry-oriented champions, as he is good in the laning phase, and sets up the possibility for him to become a point through which the team snowballs.
Park “Untara” Ui-jin’s problem, however, is that he has none of the traits the other SKT top laners have had. He does not even have the laning prowess that Thal has. He is too conservative in the laning phase, which means that while he does not lose his turret early, he loses the laning phase, and he does not do so gracefully.
The jungle position has always had a rather singular role for SK Telecom: Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong has always been a master of vision control. He was never the kind of jungler to take huge plays or pick a carry for his position. He is mostly on the tankier side of the champion pool, paths creatively, and sets up vision for his carries, usually for the middle lane.
A Bengi-shaped hole was left in the team following the departure of Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong after the 2016 World Championship tournament. Kang “Blank” Sun-gu was already there in the 2016 season, but his performances left a lot to be desired.
In the same vein, Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, who was taken in by the team in 2017, showed great performances in spring where he would single-handedly carry games. The team learned to play around his aggression, but then again, the metagame shifted.
The 2018 season eventually saw SK Telecom release Peanut, and they took in another rookie in Park “Blossom” Beom-chan. Blank already had serviceable performances with tank junglers by the start of this season, and Blossom was another aggressive jungler whose aggression the team tried to play around later on in the spring. However, Blossom had varying performances: some games, he would hard carry, and others he would end up dying a lot and surrendering leads to the opponent.
SK Telecom junglers are usually expected to cover for the middle lane, but the team hasn’t really found a viable replacement for Bengi. Bossom’s aggression simply doesn’t allow him to cover for Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok, while Blank appears to have pathing issues.
Faker has always been the superstar of the team. Heralded as the best player in the world, Faker has always been quite aggressive in the laning phase. If one were to make a mistake when laning against Faker, the unkillable demon king will always be sure to use it to his advantage.
Since Bengi’s departure, however, Faker’s play has started to show its weaknesses. Due to incomplete vision coverage by Peanut, Blank, and Blossom, Faker has been susceptible to ganks from enemy junglers and/or supports. As a result, he is not able to obtain advantages early on. Additionally, he has gone on a personal slump during LCK Summer 2018; he often finds himself dying and out of position.
This risky playstyle with Faker and priming him to be the main carry of the team has not been paying off. This is why the team brought in Choi “Pirean” Jun-sik. Pirean is, of course, less flashy than Faker, and he lanes more safely than Faker does, quite similar to what Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon used to do in 2015. However, this safer playstyle requires less coverage for the jungler and opens up other options for the team to invest in in terms of resources.
The Bottom Lane
During the time of SK Telecom’s first world championship, the two threats that were at the team’s disposal were Faker in the mid lane, and Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin in the AD Carry position. Both were aggressive players who would constantly attempt to push advantages and outplay their opponents.
Following Piglet’s departure and the reformation of the teams in the LCK era, Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan found their way into the roster. Bang was a teamfighting AD carry that the team relied on to hold the lane; Wolf was a laning support who assisted Bang in holding the lane. Bang and Wolf’s time to shine in games often came later — the team counted on Bang to comfortably scale to a point that he becomes a considerable threat, and Wolf’s teamfight decision-making is absolutely on point.
The problem is that due to the playstyle of the team to give priority for Faker, the bottom lane usually gets the shorter end of the stick in drafting. In addition, roaming supports have become more of the norm over the course of LCK Summer 2018.
Here is where Han “Leo” Gyeo-re and Lee “Effort” Sang-ho come in. Leo, a rookie fresh from solo queue makes riskier plays. Effort, on the other hand, is famous for playmaking supports like Pyke, Gragas, and Blitzcrank. Both have proven effective so far, and we might just end up seeing more of them after LCK Summer 2018.
During LCK Summer 2018, a lot of problems have been prevalent: the team appears to be in disarray. The lack of reliability from the top lane has become quite a problem for pressuring objectives. Thal often looks promising, but he’s still more potential than proven commodity right now.
Blank’s pathing has been quite shaky when paired with Faker. The experiment with Pirean opened up a lot more avenues for the team in general, but lacked a big carry outside of Bang. With Pirean, Blank was more aggressive with his pathing and was able to secure more neutral objectives such as drakes and Rift Scuttlers. Bang and Effort received more room in the draft to carry the team.
During LCK Summer 2018, SKT usually plays an immaculate early game with Faker, but decision-making falls apart in the middle to later stages of the game. The team would usually go for a risky Baron play that would cost them the game. This was prevalent especially in their last Rift Rivals. Upon subbing out Faker and putting Pirean in the roster, the Baron rush plays disappeared. The team appeared to be performing better overall, but overall that pressure point in the middle lane due to Faker has disappeared.
However, the team’s macro play does not look perfect yet. The team often uses Galio and Shen as a crutch to be able to shrug off mistakes in rotations, overextensions, and invading. Being able to make cross-map plays with these champions are what enable SKT to be able to match enemy rotations.
SK Telecom T1 has shown us that gods do bleed, but here’s a thing for all of us to consider: their identity as a team has to evolve, since the game evolves so much over time.
Do they have to reconfigure the team around certain roles, or do they just need to improve the current talent that they have? Do they need to find another jungler who can play like how Bengi used to, or do they finally need to let go of Faker?
The team is currently out of the running in the LCK Summer 2018 and out of the playoffs. However, it’s not over yet. They can still make it to the Worlds Qualifier gauntlet. SKT still have a chance to stage a miracle run and get to Worlds despite everything, and who knows what will happen once they get there?
In League of Legends, people always tell us not to bet against SKT. They do possess the potential to surpass their opponents, and we have to see if the old adage still holds true.
What do you think of the current struggles of SK Telecom T1 during the LCK Summer 2018? Do you think they could come back in the regional qualifier or would they have to set their sights on the next season instead? Let us know in the comments section below!