Through years of multiple World Championship victories, League Champions Korea titles and the emergence of Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, it's still not a rare thing to ask, "What's the matter with SK Telecom T1?" SKT is the default South Korean team for many. Popular not only in South Korea but internationally -- synonymous with League of Legends victory, SKT is expected to win.
The slightest misstep, the first hint of struggle, the first sign of a stumble is immediately detected and scrutinized in the moment. It's then forgotten later when SKT manages to take it all. There have been many hiccups, multiple variations on, "What's the matter with SKT?" from the initial rise of the HUYA/GE Tigers, through the 2016 Kang "Blank" Sun-gu era.
As the majority of the 2017 LCK Finals crowd, shocked and disappointed, exited the Jamsil Students' Gymnasium while the members of Longzhu Gaming beamed at each other while lifting the Champions Trophy, this question was raised once more.
"How could they [Longzhu] ever beat SK Telecom T1?" Christopher "Papasmithy" Smith shouted hoarsely after the series. "The team that had never lost a Champions or LCK final, that had only ever dropped three games in six best-of-fives, they dropped three games today to a roster that no one saw coming."
So, what's the matter with SKT?
The answer partially lies in the team's decision to take top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon over 2017 LCK Summer stalwart Park "Untara" Ui-jin in favor of having both Blank and Han "Peanut" Wang-ho in the jungle. SKT struggled mightily against Longzhu's strong pushing lanes in the final, aided by a few off-beat SKT draft choices that naturally gave early momentum to Longzhu. Untara was unable to stand up to Longzhu's Kim "Khan" Dong-ha, and SKT appeared stronger against Longzhu with Huni in the top lane, despite the fact that he was targeted and dismantled in the deciding Game 4. SKT knows that it has trouble when its lanes aren't pushing, and sent Huni -- the better 1v1 player, despite pushing up and taking risks -- to mitigate pressure top side. The organization isn't preparing to play it safe. SKT cannot beat Longzhu, a likely opponent in the bracket stage, without Huni.
Currently first in Group A, Faker and Co. are undefeated against AHQ e-Sports Club, Cloud9 and the bedraggled EDward Gaming. And yet, SKT has not performed well at Worlds.
Some of this is indubitably due to perception. When a favored team doesn't bulldoze its opponents in record-breaking times, suddenly every player is performing more poorly than expected, the drafts are suspect, and every play is ground to dust for a slide under the community microscope. The SKTs of 2015 and 2016 -- especially during the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational Group Stages -- had their own moments of scrutiny on the international stage. Now it's 2017's turn. SKT is in first place largely due to mistakes from opponents, like EDG's loss of a 9,000 gold lead after a deciding teamfight 29 minutes into the game.
It's appropriate that support Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan initiated this fight. Wolf emerged as a public, default leader of SKT during tough extenuating circumstances for his laning partner Bae "Bang" Jun-sik this past summer, revealing himself as an emotional heart of the team.
"I'm embarrassed, humiliated, frustrated, and angry," he said on Twitter, taking SKT's summer losses and placing the blame on himself.
This came amidst visible struggles to keep pace with the shifting support meta. He was late to match opponents' roams, costing SKT bot side pressure, and stuck to Lulu to go along with SKT's protect-the-AD-carry compositions for Bang. Although SKT excels at late-game teamfighting, these compositions didn't work well for it, especially when other teams were able to apply pressure early in multiple lanes. SKT took to the Rift with a similar composition against EDG, but it found its teamfight. It scaled. Wolf stepped up.
SKT found itself in a similar, less dire, situation against AHQ a day later. A few small missteps in the other direction, and SKT would likely be down 1-2, rather than sitting pretty at 3-0. Peanut has continued to look lost when the map collapses back towards SKT, as if he's shocked that his lanes have the audacity to lose and perhaps not realizing the loss of pressure from scaling champions like Sejuani. Although SKT is winning, they haven't solved the issues that plagued it in the regional finals, and is looking similarly disjointed in the early game against teams with weaker top side setups and less-formidable laners than Longzhu. SKT isn't the only team that has yet to find a balance between scaling for late-game fights and applying early pressure, but since it knew this was an issue for it before Worlds began, the lack of adjustment is concerning.
A bright spot on SKT, in personality and play, is Wolf. This shouldn't be too surprising, despite his disappointing summer, given the focus on Ardent Censer support champions. This gives Wolf more of his personal laning favorites while playing into SKT's willingness to sit back and scale while keeping the early game even at the least. Yet, Wolf's recent heroics came on Rakan, one of the flashier champions in the current support pool and a pick that Wolf showed remarkable prowess on in the LCK Finals, until he was overshadowed by Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon's Thresh.
After the EDG game, Faker credited Wolf for the turnaround, saying that the support had let them know he could go in. It was a simple matter of following up, and killing Tian "Meiko" Ye's Janna. For SKT, the answers given are always deceptively simple -- follow up, practice, trust your teammates -- that make flashy plays and teamfights stand out even more in comparison.
Last year, SKT entered Worlds as a second favorite, a rarity for the organization. This year feels different, with SKT's regional final loss to Longzhu still fresh. In 2016, the favored ROX Tigers still lived in the shadow of SKT. They didn't have to face the Korean powerhouse in the final, and had yet to beat them in a best-of-five. SKT arrives at this Worlds already defeated by a team that they are still preparing to face. With Ardent Censer supports and strong teamfighting, the scales may tip in its favor once more.