At the LEC studio in Adlershof, Kim "Clid" Tae-min and Park "Teddy" Jin-seong were in the middle of an interview. A giant Baron Nashor figure loomed over their chairs in the studio entryway. The two sat, chatting about their year with SK Telecom T1 (now simply called T1) and their upcoming appearance at the League of Legends World Championship.
As they began to talk about the differences between being on a popular team like T1, Clid and Teddy were interrupted by the arrival of Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. Faker was scheduled for a different video shoot and it was asked if he could possibly do his interview now. With practiced ease, Teddy and Clid unclipped their lavalier microphones and handed them to the approaching video crew. They gathered their phones and walked out of the spotlight to join Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok in the shadows. The trio murmured in Korean, Teddy and Clid teasing Faker a bit good-naturedly, before he walked into the spotlight and sat down. His posture was perfect. The baron statue suddenly looked all the more intimidating, imitating the pressure on Faker as the face of T1.
Clid and Teddy moved off to the side, chatting quietly while scrolling through their phones. After a quick five-minute interview, Faker walked off to his next features shooting location. Teddy and Clid resumed their interview, smiling and laughing as the chairs squeaked loudly when they sat back down.
When we talk about T1, we talk about the organization's distinguished history, not only in League of Legends, but in all of esports. We talk about three League of Legends worlds titles, four worlds finals appearances, and their dominion over the game from 2013 through 2017. T1 marks the closest thing that League of Legends esports has had to a traditional sports dynasty. We also talk about Faker, the face synonymous not only with T1 as a brand, but League of Legends as a whole, well beyond South Korea. T1 is Faker and the pressure to be the best team at all times because as Faker is the singular face of the game, T1 is the face of South Korea, even when they failed to make it to the world championship last year. They are professional and prestigious.
But T1 is so much more, showcased in small moments like slight teasing in the wings of a video shoot. Spending time with the team reveals a genuine warmth beneath a more serious façade.
For example, if the team was stranded on a deserted island without food or water, Teddy cited himself as the first to die, while throwing out a jab at his jungler.
"Clid is going to survive the longest," Teddy said. He put his hand on Clid's leg and squeezed. "He's a bit... robust."
Clid began laughing.
"He likes to eat anything," Teddy said. "He would start eating all the bugs so I think he has good survivability. As for who is going to die first it's going to be me because I'm pretty fragile. I don't think I would last that long."
Continuing to laugh while looking at Teddy, Clid agreed.
"I think I'm going to be the person who would survive the longest because I'm like a cockroach. I can sleep anywhere. I can eat anything. I can survive for a while."
Clid then couldn't resist teasing an older member of T1, support Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong.
"But I think Mata is going to die first because he hates doing anything so he would just not bother and die."
With another laugh, Teddy cited T1's communication and camaraderie as the team's greatest strength going into worlds this year.
"Everyone's really close to each other," Teddy said. "It's like one big family."
At the lone computer setup in T1's waiting room, Teddy queued up as Lee Sin in a solo queue match while waiting for his teammates to finish their individual features. I asked him who was a better jungler, him or Faker. He immediately said Faker. As Teddy continued to play, his time on the Jin Air Green Wings as their solo carry threat was referenced. Teddy sighed.
"Ah, Jin Air," he said. After a pause, he began to laugh loudly.
There was a lot to unpack in that sigh and laughter, but it was apparent that Teddy is happy on T1, and will try to make the most of his first worlds appearance. Contrary to his streaming personality, Teddy is quieter in person. In interviews, he tends to trail off in thought, either distracted or unsure of what to add. By contrast, Clid is more cheerful. He seemed to bring out the joking side of his teammates' personalities. Leaning over Teddy's shoulder, Clid gave his bot laner a brief pat on the back as we joked about how Teddy could potentially take Clid's job as the team jungler.
The T1 waiting room for that day at the LEC studio was covered in photographs of G2 Esports, the team that defeated T1 at the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational semifinals and went on to become tournament champions. G2, not T1, have been the favored team going into worlds. Like T1 set the tone for all of League of Legends in previous years, G2 have been credited as the creators of the current metagame, and by extension, Europe has been said to be the strongest region at this year's tournament.
For the first time since 2013 - depending on how you felt about T1 following their summer victory over KT Rolster Bullets that year - T1 are not entering a world championship group stage heavily-favored. That particular pressure has shifted to G2. Yet, T1 still carries the weight of South Korean League of Legends as a whole. Last year was the first time that a South Korean team failed to win worlds since that 2013 SK Telecom T1 squad, and it happened on home soil in Busan. No South Korean team made it past quarterfinals. T1 have the daunting task of trying to restore South Korea's former glory, something that they themselves admitted when attending MSI and later faltering on that stage. Ultimately, it was a learning experience.
"When I was at MSI there was a bit of pressure and a bit of nerves," Teddy said. "We didn't perform that well but we grew as a result."
"I was able to experience a variety of things from facing different teams," Clid said of his own performance at MSI. "For example from facing G2 I was able to be exposed to different champion pools and as a result my horizons have expanded."
"I learned more about the off-meta picks," Teddy added. "My view on non-AD carries has shifted somewhat. We thought going into MSI that we were the best team in the world and having that experience has made me be a bit more guarded."
Going into worlds, the goal for Teddy and Clid is to take what they learned at MSI and apply it to their performance in Berlin. Despite the larger stage and tough group with both Royal Never Give Up and Fnatic, Clid said that the team has less pressure now than they did going into MSI.
"Yes, the fans are saying that this is group of death and when I look at it I agree," Clid said. "However, in order to go to the stages beyond, you have to beat your opponents no matter who they are. It's important for us to push through it in order for us to have good momentum for the rest of the stages."
They're seeing group stage as yet another obstacle en route to proving the true strength of T1, as they are in 2019.