With Worlds done after an amazing run by Samsung Galaxy, it’s easy to wrap up this year and look forward to the next. But something was a bit off about the finals. Something that begs the question: How and why did SK Telecom T1 fail in a best-of-5 series?
Normally it is regarded as common knowledge that such series are by far SKT’s strongest feature: their ability to change not only their picks, but also their entire playstyle during the 15 minutes they have between games. But this year, something was different and SKT looked shaky going on stage. What happened?
The raving rabbits
Even though SKT did not look like the world's best team in the group stages, no one really expected them to throw the finals. Sure, they were down two games, but let’s be honest — that’s what they always do. They’re so often 5k gold behind that it’s become their modus operandi.
Nevertheless, the first cracks were already beginning to show when they faced off against the rabbits from Misfits. The first game was business as usual with play so confident and solid that Misfits essentially weren’t even allowed to play the game. That’s also where everything was suddenly turned on its head. It was one of the few games at Worlds this year where SKT came out of the gate looking dominant. Playing strong early is what Misfits tend to do, but this series was like opposite day. SKT are usually the team who adapts during a series. This time it was Misfits.
Misfits adjusted by ignoring the “meta” and instead playing their own style. They grabbed champions like Blitzcrank and Fervor Leona for Lee "IgNar" Dong-geun and moved the must-include Ardent Censer to Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage’s Karma in the midlane instead of the usual support role. The idea was solid enough: get a kill lane in the bottom while retaining the Ardent Censer power spike mid-game. Meanwhile, Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian focused his time and energy on top which meant Misfits had two lanes where they were playing to get ahead.
It worked flawlessly. Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan, who were already struggling in a bad way coming into this Worlds, did not look great in any capacity and Seong "Huni" Hoon-heo Cho’gath was sent back to the stone age. Huni usually relies on Han "Peanut" Wang-ho or Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok to roam top and help him secure his aggressive snowball, but with Maxlore constantly lurking, Peanut alone wouldn’t give Huni the 2v1 he needed. Faker meanwhile was locked mid-lane by PowerOfEvil, unable to roam top without being heavily punished. Bang and Wolf were struggling to make a difference, and suddenly, SKT were being denied the asset they always use to win — options.
Still, bad games happen and most people were probably not thinking that this series was about to become one of Worlds’ best. Yes, SKT eventually won, but it was equal parts Misfits’ big stage inexperience and SKT suddenly “remembering” how to play. Few people would have found it unfair if Misfits had taken the fourth game, ending it on 3-1. Not because they were underdogs, but simply because they were playing better League of Legends.
The Chinese powerhouse
Even after they beat Misfits, SKTs problems were not closer to being fixed. When it came to the semifinal against Royal Never Give Up, all their issues reared their heads again.
SKT thought that what they saw in their match against Misfits was the new meta — and yes, Misfits did play it very well — but it was Misfits’ own style and it worked against SKT because of their suboptimal early game. SKT should have paid more attention to RNG’s matches against Fnatic though.
RNG don’t struggle early like SKT do, so copying the Misfits “early bully” strat didn’t work. It took them two games to figure this out. After that it was basically down to being lucky. RNG’s draft wasn't particularly good and failed to try and exploit SKT's bot lane who hadn't been performing during Worlds. Add to that, that neither of SKT’s two junglers had had an impressive tournament either, which was made evident when neither of them could ensure that their bot lane made it through the laning phase unscathed.
Managing to secure Faker’s Galio and putting Huni on a carry was what kept SKT in the games, but against SSG even that would prove insufficient.
The horrible finale
It almost feels like Worlds this year was leading up to this moment. The fall of SKT.
It’s almost hard to analyse because it felt as though SKT had forgotten how to play. While there were some moments of greatness, they were not nearly enough to actually take a game. Their strategies from the quarters and semis turned out to be useless against SSG’s dominant laning phases and systematic map control.
SSG were alert. SKT like to play passive and wait for mistakes, but SSG made almost none. What’s more, whenever SSG had to force a risky play, they made sure to set up the chess board in advance — push lanes, secure vision, sweep for wards. They forced SKT to come blind into every encounter, so even if SSG messed it up, SKT couldn’t punish them for it.
Adding insult to injury, SSG were getting the comp they wanted every single time as well. Disengage supports in Janna and Lulu, Malzahar mid to get easy picks around the map and shred tanks. They didn’t focus a lot of priority on their top picks, with the exception of one game where Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin’s Cho’gath had to fight Huni’s Trundle. But even there, CuVee managed to not drop the lane entirely despite the match-up disadvantage. Most games saw SSG winning at least one lane — often two — and going even in the rest, as well as infinite freedom to roam. Something Faker usually excels at doing, but clearly was not prepared to counter.
The overall problem
Throughout the tournament, the big glaring weakness of SKT was their inability to adapt to what their opponents were throwing their way, which was weird because under normal circumstances this would be among their main strengths. This time around, however, they were hurting from underperforming players in basically every lane except Faker, which betrays another core problem that SKT struggle with.
The former champions rely entirely too much on Faker. When PowerOfEvil shut down his roaming, SKT suffered badly. When SKT were losing games hard, it was Faker who single-handedly absorbed all the enemy team’s attention, allowing his teammates to bounce back and turn the game around. Sure, the others had some decent matches, and when Huni works he’s a force to be reckoned with, but overall it hasn’t been enough. This means coach kKoma had to try hard to find ways in which his players could get comfort picks they could fall back on. This would go a long way to explain why Huni had been playing so many carries, for instance.
An era has ended with SKT’s first Worlds loss, and it’s on kKoma now to figure out how to revitalise the team. We’re bound to see changes coming into the next season as, while every player on SKT is talented, there’s something about the way they mesh right now that isn’t working for them. Judging purely by their Worlds performance, every one of them is replaceable right now, Faker notwithstanding. It’ll be interesting to see if SKT can bounce back, or whether that really was the end of an era.