Eyes on the Prize: KT Score talks about challenges as the grounding player on the team

On an uncharacteristically hot day in the end of May, I visited the KT Rolster teamhouse, which the mere mention of reminds one of summer. I was there to see Dong-bin “Score” Ko, the iconic player as well as the most experienced one. After short pleasantries were exchanged, we went to a nearby ice cream shop to alleviate some of the early summer heat.

Score told me it was his first interview since the spring season. As someone who closely covered LCK, I was able to recount the KT matches during the regular season like it was yesterday: the start of the super team, losing two times in a row against their nemesis SKT T1, that brief slump then finishing third in the season, a perfect 3-0 victory against Samsung in the playoffs, and, finally, closing out the season as the runners-up after losing to SKT T1 0-3 in the grand finals.

I thought it was impossible not to bring up the finals, but I was conflicted about how to approach the topic because it was a largely one-sided series, evidenced by the score and the actual gameplay. As such, I was certain that he had many regrets and disappointments regarding the series. Yet, Score nonchalantly started talking with his signature boyish smile, as if to spite my worries.

“There’s no denying that people had high expectations for us, ‘super team’, going into the season, but we had different things in mind. Spring was for getting ourselves in sync with one another, and we thought it wouldn’t be until summer that our performance reaches full force. Then we got to play against SKT T1 in the finals, and everyone changed their mind to wanting beat them for sure this time. We didn’t perform as well as we prepared. Not only that, we easily gave up the remaining games after fighting for the first one. We were a little bummed out, but the experience wasn’t heartbreaking or anything.

In fact, my teammates couldn’t be further from being new faces; now they are like seasoned veterans to me. I mean, talk about experience! They’ve all had names for themselves in their old teams. So, it naturally takes time and effort to build teamplay. It was more about slight conflicts in opinion rather than full-on confrontations. The head coach thought similar problems were bound to happen, so we already knew for sure that they would. Spring was when that problem was best exemplified. These problems tend to become glaringly obvious when we lose, and losing two games in a row against SKT T1 was the height of the issue.

That said, my teammates have a pretty large desire to win, even compared to other pros. Maybe that’s why we give in to each other a lot when there’s an argument. I think we’ll perform better since most of these issues have been all ironed out. We were hellbent on winning in the spring, but we’re much more so in the summer. It may be a hellish grind because we have to really put everything into it, but I believe we’ll see good results that are worthy of the name ‘KT of summer’.”

Though a desire to become champions is something every pro gamer shares as their ultimate goal, I got the feeling that a championship title may have a special place in Score’s heart. Contrary to the accolades and praises he gets for being one of the top players, he’s consistently failed to win trophies for some reason. It all started in the summer of 2013 when he was reverse-swept 2-3 by SKT T1 in the LCK finals. Score said he is most regretful about that match in particular. He recalled thinking “I’ve got this” after taking two games and added that things would’ve been much different if he won that series.

Since then, Score continued to fumble on finals, and Korean fans responded by giving him a mocking moniker involving the number 2, a tribute to his accrued runner-up titles and some of the odd occurrences that have happened in his career. Though some of the names he got may leave scratches on his pride as a pro gamer, he embraces them wholeheartedly by accepting them as a sign of affection.

“I used to be easily hurt by mean comments when I first debuted. After a certain time passed, however, I realized they don’t matter that much. That isn’t to say my nicknames involving the number 2 are ill-spirited. [laughs] What I’m trying to say is that I’ve come to care less about those things. I don’t think it’s a bad image. It also means that people are paying attention to me. Unless they’re attacking me personally, I think most of my nicknames are harmless. After all, they make for fun and interesting memes.

A similar thing happened when Smeb first joined the team. You know, about Baron steal and the number 2. I couldn’t resist, so I had to bring it up. I asked him to please steal for me next time. Back then it was all in good spirit. These days though, I forbid anyone to speak of it again. I have my teammates by the balls.”

I was able to sense his extensive experience as a pro gamer from the witty way he responded to my questions. After his debut in 2011 on StarTale, Score transferred to KT when it first established a League team in October 2012 and has stuck with the team since then, making this year his 6th. Following the footsteps of Flash, he has become a franchise star player for KT. They couldn’t have stayed this long together if KT didn’t choose Score and vice versa.

“I personally thought it wasn’t meaningful to transfer to another Korean team if I were to leave KT. I believed I should head overseas if I was leaving. But I still wanted to play in Korea. I guess my team trusted me, and my terms weren’t bad either. So I ended up sticking with KT for all this time.

I don’t really feel that I’m a franchise star. I guess I don’t feel qualified because I haven’t won trophies despite my seniority on the team.”

I asked him if there were any former KT players who were most memorable. After a short pause, he listed Ryu, Mafa, and Zero. Score told me that he spent the most time with them together and has fond memories of hanging out. Score also revealed that he still keeps in contact with everyone.

It would be amiss to not talk about KT Arrows, the sister team to KT Bullets. Back in the day, Arrows was perceived to be the weaker of the two, a perception backed by objective data. However, it was Arrows that took home an LCK trophy, not Bullets. “My first immediate emotion was jealousy. I’ve always thought that I’d be truly happy for them because of them being a sister team and all, but I was wrong. I was really jealous. It still felt good since they’re the sister team. We were all very close because we lived together in the teamhouse.”

I steered the interview back to recent events. As KT underwent a massive rebuilding coming into the 2017 seasons, Score saw new teammates in all lanes. Like it was made abundantly clear, KT brought together the best talents to be become champions, and they showed a completely new team color in the spring season. After signing a support player, KT completed their 6-man roster. The team has all the pieces of the puzzle. The only thing left to do is to put them together and see before them the complete picture – a championship title.

“If the old KT used to look for teamfights in the mid to late games, the new KT looks to dominate the opponent from the laning phase. I think that’s the biggest in-game change. I guess aspects outside the game also changed because of all these new members. Some of my old teammates were pretty wacky, but none of them can top Smeb. Hmm… Mata comes pretty close, too. Deft didn’t used to be that way, but I guess he’s taking after other older players. [laughs] Anyway, it’s the first time that the team’s characteristics has changed. I can probably attribute it to the fact that everyone except for me is new on the team.

We now have Chance as a substitute support as well as a new trainee for mid. Their mechanical skills are impeccable, probably due to how young they are. The mid trainee and I are 9 years apart. [laughs] The teamhouse atmosphere used to be really rowdy because we had StarCraft players and whatnot, but last spring season was so quiet. I feel like the team is more whole after these two people came in. These days, the training room is full of energy, thanks to the youngest trainee who’s so upbeat.

After LCK switched to a full league format, all teams are getting better. Even struggling teams bring comparable plays to the table. But we’re also getting stronger as well. My goal for the summer is finishing first in the regular season. After heading to playoffs right away, my end goal is to win the playoffs and directly advance to Worlds.

KT has been historically a team that many people expect to do well in the summer. Though we let you down in the spring and probably wouldn’t be able to match our old form, I hope many people have high hopes for us. I’ll try my best to live up to your expectations.”

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