SK Telecom T1 fell at the final hurdle at the World Championship this year.
Everyone knew that it was going to happen at some point. However, it was still shocking to watch the dismantling of the World Champions at the hands of Samsung Galaxy.
Nevertheless, signs of weakness were already there during the LCK summer split and the situation did not get any better after Worlds.
The start of SKT’s slump
In order to understand SKT’s issues, we need to analyse both the performance of past players as well as the showing of the team’s two new agents.
Following the disappointment of Worlds, Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Han “Peanut” Wang-ho departed SKT.
This left the team with Park “Untara” Ui-jin in the top lane and Kang “Blank” Sun-gu in the jungle and while both of them showed signs of promise, it was clear that SKT would need reinforcement in these positions; this, together with the struggling but veteran bot lane duo of SKT, presumably gave head coach Kim “kkOma” Jeong-gyun some serious headaches during the off-season.
However, nothing was hinting yet at SKT’s impending implosion.
During the summer split, Blank was routinely subbed in to turn around the series and Untara had a 19-6 record in the regular season. It seemed that SKT had the luxury to have a couple of up and coming substitutes which retaining their core of Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan.
Nonetheless, flaws began to show from the pre-season Kespa Cup.
While they made it to the semi-finals of this knockout tournament, losing to the respectable Longzhu Dragons, their games in the quarter-finals were more indicative of their emerging issues.
There, with Blank and Untara starting, SKT only marginally managed to knock out Griffin, a mediocre challenger team from Korea.
SKT were pushed to their limits in an absolute bloodbath, handing their opponents over 50 kills. Griffin managed to take the match to a nail-biting third game. That is despite the fact that the meta suited the aggressive picks that Wolf plays (Check out his Zyra performance at the MSI Finals), as well as the fact that a team with such established coaching staff is expected to master the meta much quicker.
A month after their Kespa Cup shortcomings, SKT moved to sign Park “Thal” Kwon-hyuk and Park “Blossom” Beom-chan.
Thal is a player with bags of experience. He has previously played in the European Challenger series. Likewise, he has regularly held a top 10 spot in the Korean Solo Queue.
Blossom is another raw talent from the ranked ladder.
Where SKT are struggling
While it is important to understand that they have considerable shortcomings, the old SKT lineup cannot hold its own. While Bang still has decent damage output in the later teamfights, SKT’s bot lane is usually losing the early 2v2.
If we also consider that Blank has had his best games on tank junglers and that he is there to support his lanes by providing vision for them, as well as the fact that Untara has less carry potential that the higher tier tops in LCK, this situation leaves Faker under immense pressure.
This has shown in his performances.
Uncharacteristic mistakes, like flashing into walls and forcing situations, show that he is feeling to pressure to carry SKT to victory.
He has done so on a number of occasions this season — against Rox Tigers and bbq, for example — but, for the most part, he can’t do it alone.
Synergy issues and individual failings are connected to the current situation of the meta and provide yet more reasons for SKT’s meager record this split.
SKT’s strategy is centered around denying vision to the energy and, unsurprisingly, Wolf has the lowest Ward count per minute of game time in the league.
This play style is like that of a boa constrictor, but it is quite difficult to execute, since a single slip-up could be enough for the prey to escape.
Untara, while stable, is not a clutch player and SKT has often lacked decisiveness in the early stages of the season.
Meta changes pile on the pressure
The metas of patches 8.1 and 8.2 were quite forgiving of early game mistakes due to the abundant waveclear and the available tools for stalling and scaling in the rune setup.
Consequently, this raised the bar of execution level to close out games. This in turn helped teams with solid teamfighting and getting multiple barons or elder dragons had a much smaller impact on the game as a result.
It wasn’t by chance that the record for the longest competitive game in League of Legends history was set in the first four weeks of the current split. Jin Air and SKT played out a 94-minute game that featured nine slain Barons.
This change favours teams with strong teamfighting or splitpush and it discourages objective control.
Furthermore, the scaling nature of the meta led to drafting issues. With Bang and Faker being main carries and both Untara and Thal needing help to keep up with their lane, there appeared to be drafting issues due to the fact that the meta favoured scaling picks.
Despite Bang being third in the league for damage per minute and having the second to last deaths per game ratio, his CS difference at 15 minutes is below half of the ADCs in the league.
Drafting a scaling ADC that has a weak early game runs the risk of failing to make it to the late game.
On the other hand, Faker and Bang cannot draft scaling losing lanes together since this, together with the bleeding top lane, leads to three losing lanes and enormous pressure on the map.
Simultaneously, the mid lane meta in 8.1 was particularly stale with Zoe, Azir, Malzahar and Ryzein the spotlight.
Under these circumstances, it was easy for teams to target ban Faker’s picks that offer outplay opportunities or only allow open picks like Zoe that are not strong in teamfights and thus greatly diminish his impact on the map.
This limits the game plans that kkOma can adopt and it makes SKT somewhat predictable.
Ever since SKT suffered an eight game losing streak in the 2017 summer split, other teams have started to believe in the possibility of winning against SKT. A lot of questionable plays that would’ve gone unpunished in previous seasons have backfired for SKT.
It is clear that teams have stopped fearing the legendary team, on the domestic stage at least.
It is easy to see what SKT had planned heading into the season. They hoped to have a veteran lineup and give experience to their new talent, notably the stable Thal and more explosive Blossom.
Nonetheless, SKT’s main roster has failed to perform. The team needed to make swift and drastic changes to turn things around.
The first effort was to substitute Blank with Wolf in the jungle. One can assume that part of the reason for this was the fact that Blossom needed to adapt to the competitive level of play before making his debut.
This did work for a while, but experienced junglers were able to abuse Wolf.
Now it seems necessary that the newcomers take matters into their own hands and help SKT to save this split.
If SKT doesn’t deal with its weaknesses, we will watch the most successful LoL team of all time go from world finalists to playoff failures.