“We may stumble, but we never crumble.”
SKT T1 coach Kim “kkOma” Jeong-gyun said this after SKT T1 won the 2016 LCK Spring Split. As if all the players were trying to prove that statement, SKT T1 reached the upper rank by the end of the season, despite all the slumps and unfavorable situations that stood in their way. A common phrase among fans at the time was “The last thing to worry about in the world is SKT T1 getting good results.”
The team lost last year’s summer split and Worlds to Longzhu Gaming and Samsung Galaxy, which broke their undefeated LCK finals record as well as their streak of winning all World Championships they’ve attended. Despite those losses however, their career is still matchless. After all, even being the runner up in the LCK and Worlds isn’t easy; it’s not something that can be accomplished through luck or simply by being good in a certain meta.
However, entering the 3rd week of the 2018 LCK Spring Split, SKT T1’s emergency bulb is about to light up. Their current score is 1W 3L, putting them at 9th of the 10 teams. Compared to KSV (formerly SSG), Kingzone DragonX (formerly Longzhu Gaming), and kt Rolster, who are all also fighting to get to the top, this is truly an awkward rank for SKT T1.
The situation is similar in the NA LCS with TSM. The team is currently at 1W 3L, and some are saying that “SKT T1 = South Korean TSM”. Before, Faker would often make a comeback in unfavorable situations, but recently, some of Faker’s mistakes have had a detrimental effect on the matches.
Some may say that those losses are just early-season speed bumps, but watching some of SKT T1’s performance in those lost games was like watching a punch-drunk boxer.
■ More Rookies and the Wolf in the Jungle. Was the rebuild successful?
Many blame SKT’s poor performance on their recent team rebuild. Compared to KSV, Kingzone, and KT, who maintained their main roster, SKT T1 lost Huni and Peanut. Although the two weren’t performing well since the summer, they were crucial to the team’s victory at the Spring Split last year. After seeing them perform well in Echo Fox and Kingzone, it seems as though SKT T1 shouldn’t have let them go.
Of course, SKT has Untara and Blank to fill in the positions. They also have Thal and Blossom as substitutes, along with Wolf playing both support and jungle. Overall, besides the mid laner Faker and ADC Bang, the rest of the team are rookies. Looking at Faker’s debut and Longzhu’s Cuzz last year, it’s clear that even rookies can have monstrous strength. However, the rookies of SKT have yet to prove themselves to be better than the original players.
The coaching staff went through some change as well. Head coach Choi “cCarter” Byung-hoon resigned from his position and kkOma took his place. This change somewhat parallels kt Rolster having Oh “ZanDarke” Chang-jong take over Lee Ji-hoon’s position, but kkOma has Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyun and Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong by his side, so his situation is the more favorable of the two. However, some of kkOma’s controversial pick & ban decisions from last summer has called into question the reliability of the coaching staff.
In summary, the current SKT T1 has a reputable name, but is not very different from a newcomer team. It’s possible that the team right now is weaker than when they merged team S and K together.
■ A total mess. The macro of SKT T1 is broken.
Taking a look at the team’s in-game performance, the picture doesn’t seem to get any better. Most strong teams start of matches with a solid laning phase, but since last summer, SKT hasn’t had a very compelling laning phase. Faker has often picked champions like Ryze or Galio so that he can support other lanes, and he was still able to keep up with CS in his own lane. That strategy has not gone as well recently. Before, mid laners would often challenge Faker and end up giving him a kill, but now teams tend to create diversions and avoid actual confrontation with Faker. This strategy has proven quite effective, as it makes it harder for Faker to support other lanes while also causing him to lose his influence on the game and dominance in his lane.
The situation is similar in other lanes as well. Bang came back from his severe slump and is performing a lot better in 2018, but his performance on champions other than Ezreal is still sub-par at times. Now that the bottom lane is easier to control due to the 8.1 patch’s Stopwatch and Targon’s Brace, Bang still has a bit further to go before he gets to peak performance.
Two problems more dire than the laning phase are the macro post-mid game and shotcalling in teamfights. SKT’s weak laning phase was already revealed last year, but the team often made up for that flaw through macro and teamfights. However, this year’s SKT has been making questionable decisions in macro and having messy teamfights, which are shortcomings usually only found in lower-tier teams.
These weaknesses stood out drastically in their last game against kt Rolster. When a fight started at kt’s jungle near red, they were blocked by Azir’s ultimate. If they just backed off, they would have kept the advantage, but they hesitated and tried to gain more from the situation, which led to a severe loss.
▲ Game 3 against kt. A moment of hesitation turned their advantage into a loss.
The questionable decisions continued in the match against Kingzone. SKT T1 had a combination that was strong in the late game, and played quite well until mid game. However, they tried to force the enemy to give up objectives, which led to a teamfight that ended the game in Kingzone’s favor. Last year’s SKT would give up objectives at times, but balanced the gold difference through other means. In comparison, the current team does not have as wide a scope with their macro-management.
▲ Giving up the objective plus suffering damage.
Though the jungler actively moves around and lights up the map, he often gets caught or cut off from teamfights. With the jungler’s power severely reduced, he loses lane presence and pressure, making the laning phase even weaker and giving the enemy the initiative with objectives.
With the jungler getting cut off, SKT is often missing their tank in teamfights. Without proper peel, the DPS players are unable to properly deal damage, and Faker gets taken out right at the start of the fight. This is not the same SKT T1 that was able to turn almost any bad situation into an advantage with one teamfight; the current SKT is a mess.
When asked if SKT is likely to have good results in this Spring Split, it is hard to answer with a positive. However, the team has come back from the brink on more than one occasion.
They have been world champions, but have also been delegated to challengers the year after being world champions. After climbing up from the pit, they again won the world championship in 2015. In the 2016 LCK Spring Split, SKT T1 started off Round 1 with 4 losses, but like all slow starters do, they became champions in that split, won the following MSI, and claimed their 3rd Worlds championship.
Just last summer, at the start of Round 2, they had a 4 game losing streak and a 0-8 record. However, they were able to tap into their potential and placed second in the summer split and in the World Championship as well. This is SKT T1.
All in all, the most important match at this time is the match against MVP (February 1st, KST). MVP was shut out in all games, becoming the heavy underdog of LCK. If SKT T1 loses to them, slow starter SKT may not be able to start at all. But, if they play well against MVP and build up momentum, the following match against Afreeca Freecs (February 4th, KST) could go well.
After descending from the throne to become a contender, will SKT T1 be able to come back from this gloomy rift? There are many obstacles that lay before kkOma and his team; the fans continue to watch, understandably worried, yet still hopeful.