KT Arrows – Remembering the most unique Korean champions

Oddball 2021-04-20 09:10:17
  When I started researching this article, it brought me back to legendary clips like this one. It's a silly clip, but it got me thinking. As someone with a background in rap music, there are many parallels in the competitive world of hip hop to esports. There's established legends like Jay-Z and Faker, rising stars like DaBaby and Zeus, as well as one-trick ponies like Rick Ross and Bdd. One aspect more common in music than in gaming is the one-hit wonder. An artist that lights up the entire world before vanishing into obscurity. One League of Legends team that fits the bill is the KT Rolster Arrows. The Arrows are the Sheck Wes of League of Legends. If you don't know who Sheck Wes is, he released the incredibly popular song Mo Bamba. Since then, he's...been known for making Mo Bamba. That's basically it - a textbook one-hit wonder. Many ridicule this situation, saying it points to a lack of talent from the artist. Sheck Wes will always hold a place in my heart, though, because Mo Bamba is awesome. It gets the blood pumping. It's exciting. And although it might've been short-lived, it was fun while it lasted. That brings us to the KT Arrows. It's still a team that we're not sure how good they were. They were probably the most inconsistent elite team in history. One second they looked like the most brilliant squad ever formed, a second later they looked slated to join the LCS. The team was short-lived, and was only ever considered great for less than a month. It might seem weird, then, to write an article proclaiming the greatness of such a brief and volatile team. The KT Arrows will always hold a place in my heart, though, because their play is awesome. It gets the blood pumping. It's exciting. And although it might've been short-lived, it was fun while it lasted. There was no grand Royal Road for our heroes. For quite a while, the Arrows were more the JV-squad in the KT Rolster organization. As their sister-team (KT Rolster Bullets) contended for championships, the Arrows contended with what to do with all their spare time whenever they dropped out of a tournament in the early stages. They were bad, and very unstable. The team saw multiple roster changes, and soon were completely unrecognizable from their original state. The team that would become the KT Arrows entered competition in the winter of 2012 - comprised of Vitamin (Top), ReSEt (Jungler), Zero (Mid), and Wall (Support). None of these players were of much consequence, except for Zero, who would later make the finals of the 2014 World Championships with Star Horn Royal Club. Locked and loaded, the team had a rough time finding their footing - dropping out in the quarterfinals in that competition, as well as their first series in NLB. It was at that point, however, that our protagonist entered.  Because of the Bullets' acquisition of the legendary inSec, their previous Jungler KaKAO was moved to the Arrows. In case you live under a rock: KaKAO was cool. He was a charming combination of haughtiness and merimment, paired with some snazzy Leopard print glasses and a sick Lee Sin. As one of the most talented and exciting players in Korea - a rising star that led the Bullets to their third place finish that season - this was a big deal. A bright young talent would be the perfect spark for the Arrows - or at least we assumed. Actually, the opposite happened. The team dragged KaKAO into their cesspit of mediocrity, not making it out of groups in any competition. Although his individual play was strong, it was not enough to turn the team around. The star Jungler went running back to the Bullets after one season. Around this time, the KT organization began running into turmoil. Although KaKAO and the Bullets were one of the best teams in the world, they had no luck beating Faker and SK Telecom T1. At the same time, the Arrows continued to suck. They didn't even qualify for Champions Winter 2014. The team would make a turn, though. As they continued losing, and players were swapped in-and-out constantly, the foundations of the real KT Arrows emerged.  KT Bullets' prodigy ssumday moved over, as well the rookie player...um...Rookie. KT Rolster saw talent in CTU's Hachani and Xenics Storm's Arrow, who were also invited. All that was left to fill was the Jungle, and they wouldn't have to look far. Due to reported internal conflicts, KaKAO left the Bullets to rejoin the Arrows. The star player of the KT organization, rejoining an unproven band of upstarts. The KT organization was doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome - seems like insanity, right? Well, yeah. Because that's exactly what the new KT Arrows were.  The team didn't find many challenges qualifying for Champions Spring 2014, entering the season's group stage drawing with a ton of swagger. This was bold, considering their rival organization SK Telecom was  the strongest force in League of Legends. Faker's SK Telecom T1 K had just come off an unprecedented perfect season in Champions Winter, and the freshly-bled SK Telecom T1 S looked even more dangerous than before. Teams were praying not to have to play one of them in the group stage. KaKAO wanted both. The KT Arrows were selected to play in the same group as SKT T1 K. For many it would be demoralizing to have to play against such a frightening opponent. Not for KT's wonderboy. After the selection, KaKAO proudly announced that it was his goal to destroy the entire SK Telecom organization. What follows is one of the most gangster moments in the game's history.
KaKAO had done so much in a single move. He crippled the chances of both SKT T1 teams from making the playoffs. He solidified the reputation of himself and the rest of the Arrows as a confident group of hustlers. Finally (and most importantly), he had just given his team a ridiculously difficult group they would have a hard time making it out of. The theatrics were over. Now they had to play them.  The beginning games of the group were not encouraging. SKT T1 K still played with a completely dominant style from the past, only this time their sister team looked just as lethal. SKT T1 S not only split games with the former, but wiped the floor with the Arrows 2-0. Both looked poised to qualify for playoffs. KaKAO seemed destined to end up with egg on his face, and for the Arrows team to once again circle the drain. As I mentioned before, however, the Arrows were insane. There was not a fan alive that expected them to take a game off of SKT T1 K. Imagine our surprise when they ended up sweeping them 2-0 (especially this guy)! via GIFER In a single group stage series, the Arrows had established themselves as a team worth the (self-prescribed) hype. There were a couple of caveats, however. Their victory over SKT T1 K was less impressive when taking into account how poor (by their standards) they performed for the rest of the season. For a number of reasons the team was not the same, even though they looked in form initially. It's very possible their slump began with the Arrows. If you disagree with that - no matter how impressive KT looked in that series, it presented the major flaw of the team: their inconsistency. They were a slot machine - no matter how brilliant they looked in one game, there was a good chance they'd seem brain-dead in the next. The fact that they lost 0-2 against SKT T1 S shows that. Beyond that, the team lost handily to CJ Entus Blaze in the quarterfinals. Though the Arrows certainly showed tremendous promise, they were a wildcard. They were jokers. They were dangerous. Champions Summer 2014 is where Samsung ruled the world. Most debates regarding Samsung Blue and Samsung White didn't surround if one of them could win the tournament - but rather which one. The only team that was held in discussion with them was SKT T1 K. Everyone else was tied for last compared to the three giants.  KT fans watched the Arrows with cautious optimism. They certainly looked great - their aggressive playstyle was prime entertainment. All members individually were performing beautifully: showing strong mechanics and racking up impressive stat sheets. And they won almost every game in their round robin, though the group was probably the weakest in the competition. It was still difficult to tell how good the team was. Many worried a repeat of the early Spring exit would come again. It looked bad in their quarterfinals series against a slumping Najin White Shield (NJWS). The Arrows strung out a dire Game 1, but looked completely inferior to the late game finesse of NJWS. The second game was even more demoralizing, with them getting stomped in around thirty minutes. This was just signature Arrows play, though. They were determined to cause as many heart palpitations as possible. Game 3 saw another close game, but one in which the Arrows demonstrated their ability to clutch out long matches. It was easy street from there. The next two games were heavily in favor of KT. In what looked like a 3-0 for NJWS morphed into a classic reverse-all-kill. In the semifinals, they'd once again face the youngbucks of SKT T1 S - a team that had previously swept them. I won't tease you with a bunch of anticipation (as this series was really frustrating to watch), I'll just say the Arrows won 3-2. Though they won their semifinal series 3-2 against SKT T1 S, the matchup poked a few holes in the championship aspirations of KT fans. The Arrows once again were an inconsistent trash-fire - at time's they'd look like garbage, but turn around and be incredibly dangerous. For all intents and purposes, this should've been a clean sweep for the Arrows. SKT T1 S were not an impressive team, and KT showed this by giving them multiple spankings. At the same time, the Arrows allowed their telecom rivals to stretch out some games they had no business losing - almost costing them their trip to the finals. The slot machine continued hitting jackpots, but how long would it last? This was compared to the might of Samsung Blue. The team had won in the previous season, and came into the finals convincingly beating their sister team. It was a red carpet entrance. Also, the team was led by the extraordinary dade, who had just broken the record for most runs to the finals, and was arguably the best player in the world. In fact, all of Samsung Blue stood near the top of the world. With the exception of their Jungler over KaKAO, every player of Samsung Blue was better than the Arrows. It was an impossible task. However, sometimes you hit all sevens. The Champions Summer 2014 Finals stands as one of the greatest series in all of esports. MonteCristo sums it up in one game with the question "WHAT IS HAPPENING?" It encapsulates everything that's magical about the Arrows. The series was close on all levels. It was your classic game-five-blindpick Summer Finals (a tradition at the time). The games constantly teetered back and forth - with the Arrows bringing out strategies that defied understanding (both positively and negatively). Even individual team fights turned in favor several times over.  It was chaotic, beautiful fun - just what we'd come to love from the Arrows. Samsung Blue still showed just how good they were - all of their players appearing in top form. KT were just that good. They showed what was possible when they reached their highest-high. After winning the final game (which didn't look close but seemed so in KT's shaky hands) the KT organization won their first domestic League of Legends title. From there they'd head to the World Championship, win the tournament, and go on for years as one of the most consistent and tenured teams in history. Just kidding. It's not the way of a KT fan to not get kicked in the teeth. And it was not the way of an Arrows fan to get an expected result. To qualify for Worlds, the team still had to run the gauntlet at the Season 4 Regional Finals. Once again, they'd enter a competition with a ton of swagger. KaKAO commented that they expected to make it to Worlds fairly easily. This time though, the slot machine did not hit a jackpot. The slot machine didn't just bring a loss. It malfunctioned, caught on fire, and exploded 0-3 to Najin White Shield. They were demolished, and lost all chance of competing internationally. That's what you sign up for with the Arrows. And that's where the team ends. Soon money from China coaxed KaKAO into leaving the squad, and new rules from Riot caused KT's two teams to merge into one. Like a firework, the  Arrows were quickly a thing of the past. At the same time, they were a beautiful, fiery display of aggression, creativity, and mechanical skill. It was fun to watch. Ssumday was a sturdy anchor in the top lane. Coming onto KT Rolster a solo queue starlet, the organization knew he had potential. He didn't show it completely on the Arrows team, but he was still a very good top laner. He wasn't even inconsistent - he usually had good games, just not many earth-shattering ones.  Ssumday emphasized a fairly low-economy playstyle - but still aggressive. He always did well in lane and had a pretty strong champion pool. His teamfighting skill was great, as he not only acted as a reliable tank for the rest of his team, but had a keen sense to hard-engage opponents with champions like Maokai. Although he was still finding his step in the game, Ssumday was an effective and dependable player to balance out such a wild squad.
Leading that squad was the ever-exciting KaKAO. He was arguably the strongest Jungler in the world at this time, his only competition being DanDy (who had a far stronger team backing him). No player before KaKAO served such heavy early-game pressure. It was like the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Favoring constant roaming, some players in his position would worry about falling behind in gold. KaKAO was confident in his playstyle, though, knowing he could easily stay even with a tower or kill. He had an excellent understanding of a game's pacing, almost always being exactly where he needed to be. His versatility was equally impressive. He was capable of playing mechanically intensive champions like Lee Sin and Elise to a tee, while also being perfectly comfortable on more farm-driven characters like Nocturne. It was from 2013-2015 that KaKAO was at his strongest. He was very good in-all this time, but his play on the Arrows stands out. The reason for this was that the team perfectly suited his style of play. When on a team like the KT Bullets (a very talented team), KaKAO wasn't completely on the same page as a very disciplined player like Score. When with Arrow, however, KaKAO need not worry about if his teammate would follow up on his aggression. 
Besides his trademark aggressive early-mid game, KaKAO possessed all the tools of an elite level jungler. Brilliant pathing, strong teamfighting ability, and some of the flashiest mechanics in the game. Some at the time criticized his decision making as uncalculated and unsafe, but closer inspection reveals the opposite. KaKAO had some of the most brilliant decision making we've seen. Not only did he always play early games perfectly, but his thinking in the late game sometimes defied belief. Just look at this example from Game 4 of the Champions Summer 2014 Finals.
The Arrows are in a fairly good position, but SSB still has an excellent composition and are known for winning fights even when behind. With Kayle's Divine Judgement and Zilean's Chronoshift able to crucially keep dade and Deft alive, the feat of winning a decisive teamfight against them looked almost impossible. Instead of return to base and purchase items, KaKAO chooses to wait patiently in a brush. He's able to catch Heart's Zilean out position, force him to use his Chronoshift on himself, and subsequently kills him. Removing that threat from SSB, KaKAO confidently applies Paranoia to rush back into the teamfight. A won fight, a won game, and a won tournament. Nothing short of a brilliant move bus brilliant player.  Rookie was in the same position as Ssumday - he was only in his first form at this point. He definitely was one of Korea's strongest mid laners, but not at all mentioned in the same breath as PawN, dade, or Faker. He was your prototypical unpolished talent: ridiculously impressive mechanics, terrifying laning and playmaking ability, large champion pool, and a fearless aggression that was sometimes too strong for his own good. At the same time, his teamfighting skills didn't match that of the world's best, he had a tendency to tilt, and his decision-making still needed to be worked on. All the makings of a world-class player were there, it was simply a lack of experience. 
Probably the greatest aspect of Rookie at this time (something I wish we saw more of) was his incredible synergy with KaKAO. Both had an insatiable hunger for blood. The early-game pressure KaKAO provided paired with Rookie's relentless aggression was a match made in heaven. It was a common sight to see KaKAO secure an early lead for Rookie that he would then snowball out of control. It was definitely a sum greater than its parts: together they could be one of the most threatening duos in the world.  Arrow and Hachani were wild. They did their best to encapsulate the spirit of the Arrows team, by being as unpredictable as possible. In lane they could take out the best duos in the world just as easily as they'd both die before ten minutes. One of their best attributes was their team fighting ability. It matched well with the rest of the lineup's constant engagements, and their positioning was as good as any high level duo. Using a champion like Kog'Maw, Arrow found the sweet spot in being smart enough to stick behind KaKAO and Ssumday to provide damage safely, while not being too scared to get his hands dirty. Hachani was at his best on the likes of Morgana and Thresh - always chasing down opponents looking for a pick.  No one considered them to be one of the best bottom lanes in Korea. Hell, even a few Chinese teams could boast better ones. What they did right, though, was match the spirit of the team. Both Arrow and Hachani had a strong tenacity for making plays. Both jumped at the opportunity to grab a kill. A fun, aggressive duo that was just what the doctor ordered for the Arrows.  As a team, the Arrows were exciting. Whether that came in the form of joyous hype from a genius outplay, or complete frustration from something bone-headed, the Arrows always got the blood pumping. Their draft phase was not as polished as other top Korean teams. Compared to the likes of SKT T1 K and the Samsung teams--ones who adjusted their compositions to counter that of the enemy-the Arrows's strategy felt like they were throwing darts blindfolded at a board with their favorite champions on it. 
If they weren't able to get the champions they wanted, they'd many times choose weird cheese picks, as if to throw their opponents off. It never worked out well. It's of no surprise that they were very skilled in blind-pick matchups. In fact, in their short time as a team, they never lost a game in blind-pick On the Rift they were a bit more refined, but not much. The team was easily able to get ahead. The first fifteen minutes of an Arrows game could make them look like the greatest team of all time - their ganks and early playmaking the stuff of legend. Whether it be from too much aggression or a lack of decision, the Arrows gave up many games that were clearly theirs to take. Their teamfighting was constant thanks to the happy trigger-fingers of Ssumday and KaKAO, but even then their positioning could be awkward and have someone dying for nothing.  The fearlessness to engage was incredible, even when on the ropes. Where other teams would cut their losses and play defensively when in a rough situation, the Arrows were always eager to spring into action and find kills where others wouldn't see them. This is one of my favorites (as you can tell, Game 4 is one of the best games of League of Legends played. Watch it): For their time, the Arrows were the most chaotic and entertaining team to watch, equal parts brilliant and insane. A lot of their overaggression and dumb decisions never worked, but it's important to remember that many times it did - enough to win the premier tournament of the world. Yes, they'd intentionally envelop themselves in a haze of chaos from which they could see. The enemy couldn't either.  Compared to other teams of their era--Samsung White, SK Telecom, hell, even their sisters the Bullets--the Arrows were not as influential of a team. Not even close. That's one of the beautiful things about them, how frozen-in-time and unique from everyone else they were. That's not to say though, that the Arrows' shadow is still not seen. Most of the players of the Arrows have had long and prosperous careers. KaKAO, had a decent career in China - making Worlds with Invictus Gaming in the subsequent year, but suffered a dropoff in skill short after that. Still though, he has somehow continued to compete seven years later, in a variety of regions. He even made it to Worlds in 2020! Although they never won another championship, Arrow, Ssumday and, Hachani all enjoyed solid success when continuing on with KT, earning several top three placements in LCK. Ssumday finally lived up to his potential - having years as one of the best top laners in the world. He still competes in the LCS to this day.  Arrow also enjoyed a long and prosperous career in North America - even winning the Spring Split Most Valuable Player Award in 2017. He continues on as a coach in the Challenger scene. Finally, Rookie has ascended to become one of the greatest players of all time. His tenure in China has been a tremendous success, winning the 2018 World Championship and for a time becoming the best player in the world.  It's hard to gauge what the impact of the Arrows on gaming culture. They were so flash-in-the-pan that it would be dishonest to try to make assumptions on the masses. All I can do is say what impact the Arrows had on me (and other fans). In the time before Korean players joining the LCS, the Arrows were the first exposure for many to the personality and charm a Korean team could have. We saw this in their games: contrasting from the common strict discipline of their contemporaries, to a playstyle that appeared to be dictated by following their gut. We saw this in their personalities: compared to the seasoned and professional attitude of other teams, a loveable and goofy culture surrounding them. We saw this in the Arrows. The Arrows were one-hit wonders. Anomalies. But that isn't a bad thing, it's one of the reasons they're special. A beautiful mix of talent and heart, there has never been another team like them.  ognKakackle
If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @OddballCreator. Image sources: Tech in Asia, Riot Games, OnGameNet, 100 Thieves, Samsung, KT

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