SK Telecom: The Forgotten Hero
“SK Telecom winning is boring.”
That phrase and sentiment has spread through the League of Legends’ scene like gossip in a high school. Whether it’s because of romanticising the underdog, a tiredness borne from the perception of a single outcome repeating, the scorn of another fandom, or a lack of knowledge about the subject matter, there are people who are blind to the inspiration of SK Telecom by a false conception of the team. Shorthand storylines and labels have been applied, like “villain,” in substitution for a genuine understanding of SKT’s own struggle this past year. We’ve forgotten the heroism of SKT.
As casual fans, analytical observers, journalists, broadcast talent, or participants, we cast the teams and players like actors to fulfill roles that either fit an objective evaluation or our own preconceptions. For example, a football fan in Colorado is likely to adopt the Denver Broncos as “their” team and cheer for them. In doing so, that fan can then cast other teams as “enemies,” either based on historical rivalries like the Oakland Raiders, or whoever the Broncos play on a given day. It’s no different in esports, save for a lack of regional identification and a sharper focus on individual players rather than organizations (though, identifying with a team because they represent your country is still possible in esports, as is identifying with a team not from your region in sports).
Regardless of why, people become fans of teams or players in competitions and hope to see them win. Competitors are seen as the opposition whose victory is not the desired outcome of the fan. That perception has various levels to it: a person can like both teams in the grand final of an event, but prefer team X to win over team Y. A person can really admire team X, but hold disdain for team Y, and so would be unhappy with a victory for team Y. A person can be apathetic to both teams and not care who wins because their favorite team isn’t either X or Y, and etc.
A lot of people have chosen not to cast SKT as their favorite team, but rather as the ultimate enemy. As the champion from last years world championship and the most successful League of Legends team of all time, it’s easy to say “they’ve won enough,” and paint them as the successful villain that some scrappy, heroic underdog must overcome in the climactic final battle. But a true villain is rare in esports, especially in League of Legends. In the most literal sense of the word, being a villain is about being malicious and devoted to wickedness. It’s possible to incorporate elements of that into an image, like G2 esports, and to sell yourself as the bad-guy to diversify yourself, and we should welcome that kind of branding, but wanting to win a competition no matter how many times one already has is hardly an act of villainy.
What we’ve forgotten is that SK Telecom is its own hero with its own story, like every other team. They are competitors who have worked through several difficulties in order to achieve something fantastic. They have their own fans who cheer and admire it. It has a story grounded in mounting expectations and stumbles, but its defined its legacy by stepping up when it mattered to edge out victorious.
At the start of the 2016 season, SKT had two issues: first, it had to deal with a carry jungler meta that flagship jungler Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong was out of place in, and it had to incorporate a new top laner, Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, into the team after 2015 world’s MVP Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan left. The solution to the jungle issue was to use Kang “Blank” Sun-gu over Bengi, which carried its own issues.
Duke’s integration took some time, and though he still lacks a global synergy with his team compared to other Korean top laners, he has been reliable in lane and a great role player with flexibility. SK Telecom stumbled through 2016, dropping unexpected matches in the two League Champions Korea regular season, a weak group stage showing at the Mid Seasonal Invitational, and getting reverse swept in the summer semifinal by KT Rolster. These problems caused some to consider the ROX Tigers to be the favorites to win the world championship, and ROX nearly had its chance, had it not met and narrowly lost to SKT and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok in a best of five semifinal.
No matter how weak SKT has looked, it has only failed to come up in the clutch and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat once this year. All the other times--IEM Katowice, LCK spring, MSI, worlds-- it has either collected itself for an impressive run, or managed to scrape through the trying moments and come out on top.
One of the better examples of the latter would be game 4 against ROX, when Bengi played Nidalee for the first time in his career. That choice itself was because of a mistake by coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun in the ban phase, which necessitated SKT playing it to prevent Han “Peanut” Wang-ho from playing it. But Bengi surprised everyone with an admirable performance on the pick that left people scratching their heads as to why SKT was hesitant to have him play it in the first place.
The series with ROX at worlds is full of clutch moments like these, with Faker landing critical spells and forcing summoners or making incredible escapes that prevented ROX from winning. That element should not be lost just because SKT stood victorious against a rival that has never beaten it.
It’s understandable for people to be drawn to other storylines. The charm of the ROX Tigers with its boisterous personalities and aggressive play style combined with its lost boys’ narratives and Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho’s zero-to-hero journey makes it an enticing team to follow.
The same can be said for the Samsung’s: a lineup assembled over two years after the organization had to start from scratch following the Korean Exodus of 2014. It started unimpressively as the last in the league but over time it improved through roster changes, most notably Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, and made a miraculous run through worlds after defeating KT Rolster for the first time ever in the gauntlet. There’s an underdog appeal laced with interesting characters in both teams.
But SKT has a story larger than that. It is building a legacy that only the greatest of all time, Faker, can. Future esports historians will look back on the career of Faker as one of the greatest individuals across the entire scene. He is a phenomenon, a once in a generation kind of talent. What he is doing is proving that. He has been able to step up to new rivals and defeat them, sometimes in crushing manners, and other times in the tiniest of margins. It’s wonderous that a talent like him exists, and his accolades guarantee that he will be forever remembered as such.
SKT winning is not boring. It is the breaking of any notion of limits. It is the making of a history to be celebrated for years to come. It is, or rather should be, an inspiration to every competitor. Afterall, surpassing the greatest of all time should mean something.
Colin 'CDMangaka' Nimer is a freelance esports writer primarily stationed at SlingshotEsports. Follow him on Twitter at @CDMangaka.