Has the SK Telecom T1 K Empire Fallen?
Has the SK Telecom T1 K Empire Fallen?
Throughout the course of human history, empires have risen, and fallen. Video gaming empires operate on much the same wavelength. North America’s Team SoloMid was one of the pre-eminent franchises in the early days of League of Legends, and now they’re just one of the many teams looking up at the Korean powerhouses of the game. One of those powerhouses is the Season 3 World Champion, SK Telecom T1 K. The team has enjoyed success since their inception, but even they are falling on hard times in Korea’s OGN meat grinder. The question for them isn’t so much can they sustain success, it is can their empire regain the primacy it held for the greater part of a calendar year.
SK Telecom T1 K thunders onto the scene
SK Telecom T1 #2 (now SK Telecom T1 K) formed roughly a month before OGN Champions Spring 2013. Despite a brand new lineup, they shocked the Korean scene by winning their group en route to a third place in the tournament. Their impressive debut, headlined by rookie phenom Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok in the middle lane, was a sign of things to come.
The team’s ascent continued through Champions Summer 2013 and the Korean Regionals Finals. In the process of winning Champions Summer 2013, SK Telecom T1 K had four members finish first in the positional KDA rankings, with Faker earning MVP honors for the entire tournament. They carried their momentum into Regionals where they secured an all-important spot in the Season 3 World Championship.
SK Telecom T1 K Wins Season Three
The team entered the Season 3 World Championship with a tremendous head of steam stemming from their two recent triumphs at home. They eviscerated their group with a 7-1 record, and tore through the bracket stage with only a pair of defeats to NaJin Black Sword before taking down Royal Club 3-0 in the Grand Finals. And yet, the team hadn’t hit their ceiling of the success. That would come from the beginning of the 2014 season in OGN Champions Winter 2013-2014.
Perfection for SK Telecom T1 K
Entering OGN Champions Winter 2013-2014, SK Telecom T1 K was the favorite. However, no one could have predicted what happened during the tournament. Not only did SK Telecom T1 K earn first place, they rolled to a perfect record, only finding a serious challenge in two of their matchups. They beat established powers such as Samsung Galaxy Ozone and the KT Rolster Bullets by unheard of margins. The rest of Korea crumbled under their weight as the squad decimated the competition.
The undefeated run through the tournament gave T1 K their an unprecedented second OGN championship. Similarly, Faker earned another MVP which made him the only repeat winner of that award - that is, until Champions Spring 2014 where Samsung Galaxy Blue’s Bae “dade” Eo-jin earned his second MVP.
Cracks appear in the SK Telecom T1 K armor
Shortly after the conclusion of Champions Winter 2013-2014, the first real adversity hit the squad when support and team captain Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon announced that he would be taking a sabbatical for health reasons. The team replaced him with a top rated support in Kwon “Casper” Ji-min, but the experiment proved fruitless. After uninspiring performances in the SK Telecom LTE-A LoL Masters Tournament, and early in the group stage of Champions Spring 2014, PoohManDu returned to the team to try and right the T1 K ship.
PoohManDu’s return did not solve the issues that SK Telecom T1 K was having, and while they did manage to get out of the group stage of Champions Spring, they fell 3-1 to Samsung Galaxy Ozone (now Samsung Galaxy White) in the quarterfinals. They would continue to fall in the bigfile NLB Spring 2014 tournament, only pulling out a disappointing third place finish.
What happened to the unstoppable T1 K?
PoohManDu’s retirement cannot be understated. He was the elder statesman of the team, a player the rest of the team could look up to. The brief departure had an especially detrimental effect on AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin who had to relearn all of his bottom lane synergy twice. During the 2014 Paris All-Star tournament, the team admitted that their confidence was shaken from the collective downturn they all experienced in competitive play.
The oft-overlooked part of T1 K’s fall is that the game has changed around them. During their meteoric rise during Season 3, the mid lane was arguably the most influential position on the Rift. A fed mid laner on an assassin champion could - and often would - tear an opponent apart single-handedly. What made SK Telecom T1 K so good, the thing that empowered their run, was making sure that Faker could be that unstoppable killing force. More often than not, jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-ung was able to get vision on the enemy’s side of the map, and get Faker going in the middle lane with a gank or a countergank. Once Faker started snowballing, he was skilled enough to carry his team to victory.
The start of the 2014 season continued to play into T1 K’s hands. Top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong excels at playing tanky champions, particularly Renekton, Shyvana and Dr. Mundo. As a result of the lack of kill pressure in top lane, was able to farm freely, and then appear at a crucial moment to secure victory for SK Telecom T1 K.
All of that changed with the current metagame, as the 2v1 lane swap meta can put the top lane out of action for extended periods, denying them of farm and effectiveness. Sure, the double jungle strategy has come about as a result, but clearing camps and trying to keep the top laner relevant is top priority. However, that comes to the detriment of bengi’s formerly successful strategy of creating forward vision and creating chaos. It adds up to an inability to create opportunities for Faker to capitalize on.
The problems plaguing SK Telecom T1 K were exacerbated by the two Samsung Galaxy squads hitting their stride as the metagame changed. Where bengi was out of his element, Samsung junglers Choi “DanDy” In-kyu and Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon were able to adapt quickly, and help stabilize their teams in the early game by relying on their ability to read opponent’s ganks and counter them. Furthermore, the Samsung top laners, particularly White’s Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok, gained more strength thanks his ability to utilize Teleport better than just about anyone else in Korea.
Samsung Galaxy’s two squads being empowered by metagame shifts while T1 K suffered led to both teams looking as if they surpassed SK Telecom T1 K. That belief was reinforced when both teams beat T1 K in the finals of the LoL Masters Tournament.
Empire in jeopardy, can SK Telecom T1 K rally?
SK Telecom T1 K is obviously in a weakened state, but the metagame is beginning to turn back to T1 K’s favor, and that gives them an excellent chance to shore up their crumbling empire. The two losses to Samsung Galaxy in the LoL Masters finals provide a blueprint to the comeback trail.
In both games, the two combatants ran very heavy area-of-effect team-fighting compositions that were designed to win big teamfights, and destroy big chunks of the map after such a win. The games were full of kills and generally eschewed the objective-focused 2014 season style for something resembling the 2013 season.
If that trend continues, it plays into SK Telecom T1 K’s wheelhouse. All five of their players are as mechanically gifted as any players in the game today, and their teamfighting prowess has always been exceptional as a result of that. An early fight win for T1 K has an outsized effect on the game because it kickstarts the natural aggression that the team has shown throughout their run at or near the top of professional League of Legends.
SK Telecom T1 K’s next chance to prove that their empire is rebuilt, and back to being the best comes Friday, June 27th when they face Samsung Galaxy Blue in more group action during OGN Champions Summer 2014. Should T1 K again falter against Blue, they will have to wait until the bracket stage of the tournament since the other two teams in their group, Incredible Miracle 1 & 2, are not among the elite of the tournament.