This time last year, many League of Legends fans thought the SK Telecom T1 dynasty was well and truly dead. Any spark of life left after their 3-0 defeat at the hands of Samsung Galaxy in the 2017 Worlds finals was snuffed out when Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and SKT failed to make it to Worlds in 2018 for the second time in the organization’s history.
SKT could only watch as the defending world champions, the team that had shaken competitive League to its core, failed to get out of the group stage. They could only watch as both the Afreeca Freecs and KT Rolster were eliminated in the quarterfinals. They could only watch as China lifted the trophy for the first time in the region’s history, with North America and Europe also achieving higher placings than Korea. The gap had closed and Korea was no longer the best in the world.
But this year, SKT is returning to Worlds. And they have a chance to prove they’re still the best.
A roster overhaul
The beginning of this year heralded a change. The organization rebuilt around legendary mid laner Faker, with star talent coming in at all roles. Fans and pundits immediately branded them a super team. Faker was joined by Kim “Khan” Dong-ha in the top lane, former LPL jungler Kim “Clid” Tae-min, Jin Air Green Wings ADC Park “Teddy” Jin-seong, and legendary support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong.
Despite a second-place finish in the 2019 LCK Spring Split regular season behind the seemingly-unstoppable Griffin, SKT rose to the challenge and obliterated the fledgling organization 3-0 in the playoffs. This allowed SKT to make a return to their first international event since their Worlds defeat. Although they lost 3-2 in the MSI 2019 semifinals against eventual winners G2 Esports, SKT proved that they were back and could contend with the world’s best.
But a horrible start to the Summer Split dropped them to ninth place with a 1-5 record—their only win came against the now-relegated Jin Air Green Wings. Many fans feared that the ghosts of 2014 were returning to haunt SKT. But getting dominated by Griffin in week three sparked a turnaround, and all of a sudden, SKT ripped through the LCK. It took until week nine for them to lose another series and be knocked off their first-place perch.
SKT split their final two games against the two new teams in the league, Damwon Gaming and Sandbox Gaming, to end up going into the playoffs in fourth place and facing a wildcard match against Afreeca. They then took down Afreeca and then destroyed Sandbox and Damwon in 3-0 sweeps to return to the LCK finals where Griffin were waiting. A single game in that series was the only sacrifice they had to make to lift the LCK trophy once more and lock in Korea’s first seed at Worlds.
Back at Worlds
Now SKT have returned. Faker will surely still be feeling the sting from losing the Worlds title in 2017 and will be hungry to claim a fourth title for his organization. This is arguably the strongest team that Faker has ever had by his side. And for a team that narrowly lost to Worlds-favorite G2 at MSI, an SKT finals appearance is certainly possible. But they’ll have to get through their group first.
RNG can never be counted out, even though their last deep run at Worlds was in 2014. Fnatic return to the Worlds stage after making it all the way to the finals last year. While many fans consider Clutch an afterthought, you simply need to remember Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon’s heyday and understand his drive to succeed against two of his former teams.
But this isn’t about the other teams in the group. This is about SKT’s return to power and their return to the era of Korean dominance in League. If they’re going to win, Clid has to show up. During the LCK Summer Split, he left a lot to be desired, never really becoming another carry for SKT and instead playing a more supportive role. When the playoffs hit, however, he upped the ante, nearly doubling his K/D while improving his average assists and forward pressure across the board en route to becoming the playoffs MVP. That’s the sort of aggression and level of involvement he has to maintain to keep pace with Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong, Hung “Karsa” Hao-Hsuan, Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski, and Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen—some of the best talent at the tournament.
Broxah and Karsa are world-class junglers, but Clid is often touted as one of the best in the world—behind Tarzan, of course. If he can enable Faker on a carry, like we saw in the LCK playoffs, it’s a scary proposition for any team, but he’ll need to assume the role of carry himself to make SKT a bit less predictable. In those playoffs, he used high-damage junglers like Elise, Sylas, and Trundle, and he clearly had a knack for them, as he greatly out-performed his former self from the regular season on playmakers like Sejuani, Lee Sin, and Jarvan. Luckily for Clid, the meta so far at Worlds 2019 has been all about those high-damage, aggressive junglers. So there’s no excuse for him to not maintain his stellar playoff form.
Failing that, both Khan and Teddy are strong mechanical players who can work wonders with a priority draft and some early ganks, but that would mean pulling Clid’s attention away from Faker to favor a bot lane match-up instead.
The scars of their horrible start to the Summer Split still linger, however. They show that if this team isn’t clicking, they can still be taken down. Every team in the LCK, with the exception of the now relegated Jin Air Green Wings, walked all over SKT, and Korean fans will be hoping that the SKT that shows up is the team that broke the spirits of four other teams en route to a second consecutive LCK title.
If you’re betting on results, you aren’t looking at SKT—you’re looking at G2. But if you’re betting on a return to the golden days of competitive League, SKT might just be the team that will go all the way and win a fourth world championship.