Traditional sports of every discipline have iconic teams. Even those that aren’t interested in sport will know that the likes of Real Madrid, New York Yankees, Ferrari and the New England Patriots are leaders in their disciplines.
Those teams have built their brands around being the best at what they do. Each and every year they are viewed among the favourites to make it to their sport’s major finals. Esports is still young, but we’re starting to see a number of organisations making a similar impression.
League of Legends has two standout teams: SK Telecom T1 (SKT) and Team SoloMid (TSM). Fans from around the world know these names, they cheer for these teams and know for sure that both squads will put on a great show. Even when they’re not on top, these teams are known as champions, having captured titles left and right.
What happens when you label yourself as a champion, but you’re unable to win? SKT and TSM found out in the 2018 Spring Split, as both teams failed to live up to their reputation, but what was the cause of their decline?
There are two key problems that are affecting their performance, the first of which is toxicity.
Former TSM players have been vocal about the toxic environment in the organisation. Losing is not fun for the TSM squad. For TSM, winning is the only option and losing has deep consequences that can damage a player’s mentality.
There has been talk of internal pressure, arguments between the players and pressure from the fans.
An incredible amount of pressure is also placed on SKT players by the organisation and the fans. Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, former SKT Jungler, spoke about the team’s environment. According to the Jungler, playing for SKT is serious business. There’s no room for joking or playing around. If you’re wearing the uniform, you’re there to win.
Korean organisations are known for their extreme training routines. Players are expected to play for up to 12 hours every day. Nowadays, teams are turning to 10-man rosters in order to increase practice time.
Speaking to esports journalist Thomas Gafford last year, Peanut said:
“When I was in ROX Tigers the whole team was actually very humorous and the booth inside when we were playing the game, we joked a lot, the whole atmosphere was very friendly,”
“In SKT it is very serious inside the booth and when the game starts we only focus on the game,”
In consequence, SKT has become the kind of environment every player tries to avoid. Yes, playing for SKT can do wonders for a player’s career but it comes at a high price. Not all players are willing to go through that process, especially experienced players with little left to prove.
If no new players are willing to join the team, the organisation must rely on what they currently have.
Creating a star
Like teams, there are also a few names that sports fans never forget — those that have created themselves a legacy of excellence and glory.
In ten years time, League of Legends fans will still remember Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, a player widely regarded as the best in the world. Dubbed the Unkillable Demon King, he’s the face of SKT and competitive League of Legends.
He started his career in SKT, where he went on to become regarded as a king, icon and legend. The team built its brand around their star player. SKT is Faker’s team and the organisation responds to his needs. However, when you have such a prominent figure, it’s difficult to promote any other player due to the risk of upsetting the star of the show. No matter what kind of performance his teammates put in, Faker knows that SKT is all about him.
However, problems start to emerge when your star is taking up all of the space in the room. Faker’s annual salary is alleged to be upwards of $3 million, plus incentives like sponsorships and tournament prize money.
He makes more than all of the players in some smaller teams combined. Yet, SKT must offer these huge wages in order to ensure that Faker sticks around. However, that means that the squad is left lacking in other areas.
A team effort
While Faker is a vital part of SKT, one player alone can’t win a game. League of Legends is a team game, after all.
Bot Lane is taken care of. Bae “Bang” Jun-sik is one of the best AD Carry players in the world. Bang hit a rough patch in 2017, but he has returned to form in 2018. The ADC put in a number of remarkable performances during the regular season, but was unable to carry his struggling teammates.
However, SKT has inconsistent players in both Top Lane and the Jungle. The coaching staff goes back and forth between Park “Blossom” Beom-chan and Kang “Blank” Sun-gu. By the end of the regular season, it seemed that Blank was the chosen one. However, once SKT reached the play-offs, KT Rolster managed to nullify Blank’s impact in game. SKT found themselves without an answer and crashed out of the playoffs.
Top Lane is another problematic area for SKT. Park “Untara” Ui-jin was supposed to take over after Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon left the team. The organisation was fully aware of Untara’s performance issues and decided to turn to the market in search of a new Top Laner.
To the organisation’s surprise, none of the experienced Top Laners showed an interest in joining the roster. Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan was one of the candidates. However, instead of returning to his former team, he settled for a lower tier team in the LPL.
Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong also refused to return to SKT. Impact is a notorious player in the NA LCS. After a successful run with Cloud9, he decided that it was time to change teams. Yet, despite an offer from SKT, he decided to turn them down.
In this case, the economic situation made all the difference. SKT have put all of their resources into one player, making it difficult for them to offer the big contracts needed to attract other star players.
In the end, SKT settled for Park “Thal” Kwon-hyuk a player that had made a name for himself in Europe.
Actions and reactions
Team culture is one of the biggest reasons why organisations fail. Without the optimal environment for players to develop, there’s no way for a team to improve.
Times are changing and TSM and SKT are two clear examples that the old ways are no longer good enough. As the competitive scene develops, teams are starting to understand what’s at stake and are not afraid to go for glory.
Both TSM and SKT will miss the upcoming Mid-Season Invitational. SKT placed fourth in the LCK Spring Split, while TSM placed sixth in the NA LCS. These are the worst results in these team’s history. If anything, the first half of 2018 should have been a huge wake up call.
Contracts are signed and most players are currently committed to one team for the long-term. Instead of changing the pieces, TSM and SKT need to learn how to use those that are available to them. The question is, will they make it to the World Championship, or will this year’s tournament be without its biggest stars?