KT Bullets – The Worlds Finalists That Should’ve Been

Oddball 2020-10-27 09:29:56

Victory! The cherished golden letters flashed on their screens as they destroyed the enemy nexus for the night’s final time. Many doubted them. In previous competitions, they always disappeared at the highest level. That would not be the case tonight.  The entire roster was in utter elation at their achievement. Loyal fans erupted in applause, cheers echoing throughout the studio. Critics were finally silenced, the team fixing all their problems, becoming a flawless unit. For anyone with the competitive spirit, it was everything you could ask for. They’d just won the semifinals of the most prestigious tournament in Korea. The strongest competition in the world. Already they had accomplished so much. Just looking at them, though, it was clear they craved more. An interview was conducted following the series. Congratulations were given. Jabs were thrown. But most memorable was the players being given the chance to describe their feelings in such a precious moment. They described the relief and satisfaction in finally delivering, performing to their standards. They explained their determination to continue their streak and keep dominating. They stated they were overjoyed to have the privilege of finally stepping onto the finals stage, at least once. To savor the moment of playing at the absolute highest level. To treasure transcendence. If only we’d done the same. It’s almost bitterly that I say that there was no team like the KT Rolster Bullets. Obviously, that’s a complicated compliment. Never had a team come so close to being the greatest, before falling at the wayside. Never had a team so viciously stabbed their fans in the heart with soul crushing losses. Never had a team so brilliant and impressive vanish like lightning. A rollercoaster that kept going down. What makes the Bullets so frustrating, is what they did right. Before them, never had a team had such a unique understanding of turrets, mastered Baron Nashor so completely, and so meticulously and beautifully taken control of the map. Their movement and rotations were refined to the point that one could almost find entertainment just watching the minimap. They were one of the most unique and innovative teams the game has ever seen, and despite never winning a major tournament, they stand as one of the greatest teams of all time. A dream team. A beautiful and heartbreaking story: among champions and rulers, the team that never had. Our story begins in the very early days of Korean League of Legends, in 2011. Foundations of the original great KT Rolster team began with StarTale (now known as Afreeca Freecs). A fairly successful Brood War organization, StarTale was one of the first major teams to recruit a League of Legends division. The original roster for StarTale was Mafa, Ryu, Joker (more famously Score), kkOma, and Vitamin. The team was quite suspect to roster changes, whether swapping players’ roles, or adding new players entirely. This included competitive mainstays like 5cean, Locodoco, and a player we’ll talk a lot more about, inSec. As these changes happened, they played in many early OGN competitions. They definitely showed promise, but were very mediocre, never winning a single competition. As 2012 ended, so did StarTale’s interest in the team, dropping them.

It doesn’t get much better than Ryu sporting the Bieber

The trio of Mafa, Score, and Ryu definitely felt they had something, sticking together to form the core of KT Rolster’s entrance into the scene. With Mafa and Score in the bottom lane, Ryu in the middle, the young prodigy KaKAO in the jungle, and Ragan playing top, KT Rolster B officially arrived. A tumultuous ride of excellence and disappointment was about to begin.  From the beginnings of Champions Winter 2012-2013, it was clear that KT Rolster B was special. English commentator DoA actually selected the team as his favorites to win the tournament. Ragan showed himself to be a decent threat amongst the formidable top lane competition. KaKAO was already proving to be one of the premier junglers in the world - mechanically talented with perfect sense for ganking. The former trio of StarTale were all finally coming into their own. Score and Mafa were becoming the most consistent and reliable bottom lane in the game, and Ryu a skilled and diverse mid lane talent.

KT Bullets at OGN Winter 2012-2013

The new team demolished opponents, posting an unheard of 11-1 win/loss record by the end of the group stage. Similar domination appeared in the quarterfinals, and it started to look like KT Rolster B could be the best team in Korea. It was another team’s time to shine though, as they lost to the eventual champions NaJin Sword 6-1. Hopes again began rising for KT Rolster fans. The team replaced KaKAO with the arguably more formidable inSec. A familiar face, one who had since become a superstar since his time in StarTale, the new jungler was seen as an excellent addition. Paired with a promising young talent in top laner Ssumday (Ragan left for military service), and KT Rolster B looked supercharged. Further evidence of their promise showed in the 2013 MLG Winter Championship International Exhibition, besting some of the strongest Western teams. The team were again one of the favorites to win. In the group stage, they placed second only to CJ Entus Frost. However, it’s theorized that because of a wonky seeding format, KT Rolster actually threw their games against Frost to receive a better playoff matchup. Instead of facing NaJin Sword again, they would play the relatively unknown MVP Ozone. Seems like a relatively sound strategy, right? The move did not prove effective. Huge backlash from fans came due to the perceived collusion. That, along with MVP Ozone coming into their own as one of the best teams of all time, led to a 1-3 loss and another exit from Champions.  Following the Spring Champions iteration, KT Rolster B qualified for and won gold at the Asian Indoor-Martial Arts Games 2013, over some of the best teams in Asia. The team reintroduced KaKAO to the lineup, with inSec switching to the top lane (Ssumday subject to substitute). This, I would argue, was the strongest of their lineups.

[Insert popped collar joke here]

In the group stage, the newly named KT Bullets appeared as strong as ever, showing great strategy and communication. After a solid group stage and close quarterfinals match, the Bullets entered the semifinals, bringing us back to where our story first began. For so long KT underperformed. Always showing strength in the group stage, always disappointing in the playoffs. As soon as the games started to really matter, they either played sloppily or got dominated by better competition. That was not the case that night. At that point Frost was still considered one of the best teams in the world. Many expected them to win out the series, potentially the title. The Bullets were done playing second fiddle. The smack down they put on their CJ Entus counterparts was brilliant to watch. The way they systematically secured objectives and controlled the map was something never before seen. The games spiraled out of control in a matter of minutes. Every player was among the best in the world at their role, and their teamwork was truly first-class. They 3-0’d Frost that night, coming into their own as an absolute powerhouse. That’s what makes it so heartbreaking when they faced a rising player named Faker in the next series.

An image still haunting KT fans’ dreams

 I still vividly remember watching the OGN Summer 2013 Finals. I was a freshman high schooler, and had followed the Bullets for close to a year. They were the team that really got me into Korean League of Legends, like many others. I saw them play at the aforementioned MLG Exhibition. A naive Western fan, I watched KT Rolster B destroy Team Curse, and eventually best the legendary Gambit Gaming. A team I never saw before effortlessly destroyed my idols. I was floored. For the finals I woke up in the middle of the night, eager to watch the Bullets win. For a moment, it seemed like they would. Their compositions and control of the game were absolutely unparalleled. What many don’t remember about the famous series that night is that KT didn’t just win the first two games. They demolished them. They made SKT look like amateurs. Just like their series against Frost, it seemed they finally had the winning combination to be the best. To lift the Champions trophy. To fly to Worlds and become superstars. To win. Then Game 3 happened. SKT T1 locked in Zed and Vi. The combination of an assassin with Vi allowed SKT to gain picks against the Bullets, countering the objective based play. Their strategy was completely nullified. The score quickly evened to 2-2. Time for blind pick. The final game was unfortunately a fairly boring and one-sided affair. Initially close, SKT T1 turned the game into an all out stomp. Obviously the most memorable moment was at the very end. As SKT T1 came hurtling into the Bullets base. Ryu approached the mid lane base turret to kill Faker. inSec offered to use Shen’s Ultimate Stand United to teleport to Ryu and provide backup in the engagement. Ryu declines, saying he had it.
He didn’t. I had watched through the night so excited to see KT finally win. As the sun rose, it shined on T1. What was so frustrating is besides a transcendent team like SKT T1, it was clear the Bullets were on another level. In the Korean Regional Qualifiers for the Season 3 World Championship, they stormed through the gauntlet with unbelievable superiority. Both CJ Entus teams, among the best in the world, were obliterated in quick fashion by KT. It was just like before the finals. They methodically dismantled their opponents in a fashion that seemed almost disrespectful. But then they faced SKT T1 again. They would do worse than before.

inSec failing to make it to Worlds

Losing 3-1 to their telecom rivals in the Regional Finals, the Bullets’ aspirations for Season 3 were over. The Champions cup had slipped from grasp. Their tickets to Worlds would be kindling for the firestorm SKT T1 would unleash on the world stage. Because of the frustrating seeding system at the time, the KT Bullets not being allowed to compete in the Season 3 World Championship is one of the saddest injustices in the game’s history. They were the de facto second strongest team in the world, and easily could have rematched SKT T1 in the final.  One of the worst matters about their exclusion from Worlds was that the KT Bullets would have been even better than in Champions. Their fast push strategies fit perfectly with the meta.  A significant X-factor is that Score would have made significant strides. The patch played at Worlds significantly buffed Trinity Force, being built practically every game. This gave tremendous priority to Ezreal and Corki. Of all the Korean AD carries, who do you think was most known for those champions? Score. His Ezreal was arguably the best in the world, and he won games with Corki even out of meta. For god’s sake, one of his nicknames was Scorki!
No doubt these heartbreaking losses were challenging for KT. After disappointing results in WCG Korea, and a shaky first set against Samsung Blue in Champions Winter 2013-2014, many worried KT had lost their magic. All concerns would be nullified, as they swept through the rest of their group, and made quick work of CJ Entus Blaze in the quarterfinals. Again they showed fantastic communication and unparalleled understanding of objective control. Team fights we brutal slaughters. Barons were snuck away in the dead of night. By the semifinals, it was clear that almost no teams could compete with them. All but one. Faker’s SKT T1 K during that tournament still stands as the most dominant team of all time. It didn’t matter how great KT’s individual skill was. It didn’t matter how clever their playstyle was. Matched against the greatest team of all time, they didn’t stand a chance. They were quickly swept 3-0, none of the games being close. Another frustration Bullets fans have had to deal with, is that a good argument can be made that KT was the second best team in the world from late 2012 to early 2014. With the four Champions seasons we’ve gone into, KT always fell to the eventual champions - NaJin Sword, MVP Ozone, and SKT T1. Their paths to glory all required battles with KT. All these times KT were realistic contenders. It’s often said that the Bullets were the gatekeeper to gold. Sadly, they never opened the gate for themselves. The Winter 2013-2014 season was another disappointment for KT, but the early events preceding Spring looked promising. SKT T1 K announced PoohManDu’s removal from the roster. With questions of Faker’s team maintaining form, the Samsung teams still finding their footing, and CJ Entus ever more incapable of finding a winning combination, it was as though a red carpet had been laid out for KT to finally win. This time, KT had other plans. A picture was released revealing KaKAO wearing a KT Rolster Arrows uniform. This marked the end of the KT Bullets as we knew them. KaKAO was replaced with Arrows’ former mid laner Zero. Still not much is known about why the KT Rolster organization made such a drastic change. Rumors were that it was because of internal issues. One fact is clear: it didn’t work. Not only did they lose their star jungler, but all the aspects we’d come to know and love vanished. Their bot lane became inconsistent. Team fights became sloppy affairs. Even their trademark Baron calls seemed hackneyed.  The Bullets never again were contenders, consistently dropping out early in successive Champions seasons. One by one most of the players either retired or joined new teams. Every bullet has its billet. Calling themselves the KT Rolster Bullets was very fitting (besides being a hell of a lot better than just “B”). Like a bullet, they were precise, decisive, and incredibly deadly. Not ones to show off much on an individual level, KT had the best macro game in the world. This is not to say that their players were lacking in skill. Note: To help stay concise, I’m going to omit in depth descriptions of Ragan and Ssumday, due to their short periods of time on the roster. inSec was a beast. Pure and simple. Any player that has a move named in their honor has done something extraordinary. Enter the inSec kick. Qing into an opponent, ward-hopping behind them, and using Dragon’s Rage to send them to their demise. Such an action was not only beautiful to watch (especially as cleanly as in inSec’s hands) but highly useful. If eliminating a high-damage threat, he many times completely altered the course of fights. Though now considered a standard option for Lee Sin players, none would be doing so without the legendary Jungler. inSec brought so much more than a fancy kick. He was one of the most aggressive and mechanically talented junglers of all time. He utilized and won games with champions people previously found unthinkable (I’m talking Shaco).  More plainly, he dropped jaws. In the jungle, inSec was a joy to watch. Nobody else was like him. No other player commanded bans, willfully created kills, and carried from the jungle in the same manner as inSec. Besides being the best Lee Sin in the world, inSec was a master of nearly all champions he got his hands on. In many ways, watching inSec’s switch to top lane was both exciting and maddening. His play was strong, and he showed he could hang with the best top laners in the world, but it was also boring. Besides the occasional Lee Sin top game, almost none of the innovation or luster was seen in his top lane. The inSec we want to see is the one farming 400 CS on Jungle Zed, not slowly grinding tank champions. If there’s one thing I can complain about KTB (besides the traumatic losses), it’s them turning one of the most exciting players in the world to an indirect sleep aid. 
Related: World Elite: The First Dynasty - A comprehensive look at the first great Chinese team
Most games we’d see inSec farming on Malphite or Zac, building himself to a point he could initiate team fights and protect his partners. He did it fantastically, having an innate ability to create opportunities for conflict. No player before was so fearless in diving a backline. Even in a more soporific role, inSec demonstrated time and again he was one of the best playmakers in the world. As I said before, a lot more than a kick. inSec’s move to top lane was puzzling, but one line of reasoning was that his replacement was that good. Although almost completely different in playstyle, KaKAO was a similar master of the jungle.

Leopard print glasses were never so intimidating

Although sharing expertise in the likes of Lee Sin and Elise, and having mechanical skill comparable to inSec, KaKAO wasn’t one to carry from the jungle. What did he do instead? He ruthlessly prowled across the map, consistently feasting on enemy champions. His early game pressure was like a damn fire hose. If he didn’t only speak Korean, you could assume he picked up the meat-only from listening to too much Joe Rogan. The epitome of carnivorous junglers, KaKAO’s coordinated tower dives with Ryu and inSec were the backbone of KT’s early game. That style, paired with great team fighting and game sense, made KaKAO easily the best player on the team. Ryu is someone I’ve always felt and expressed admiration for. On an individual level, Ryu was to League of Legends what Ryu is to Street Fighter. Humble, disciplined, and ready to fight. Moreover, he was good, but not the best, in nearly every facet of mid laning. His champion pool never reached the depth of someone like Cool. His mechanical ability never instilled fear the same way Dade did. And he could never dominate a lane matchup the same way Faker did. Ryu was incredibly proficient at every aspect of his role, but never really stood out in any particular skill. The one aspect that could be said for, was his selflessness. Shunning pride and personal glory, Ryu strictly played for the team. His style revolved around calculated dives, coordinating with KaKAO and inSec to ambush targets in order to secure objectives. Anything to make their position on the map better, Ryu did. Even if it led to his death. Many players would scoff at the idea of intentionally trading kills with the enemy, but Ryu saw it as a means to a much more advantageous end. This form of aggression was highly unusual at the time, and still is. So unselfish and skilled, he was everything a team could want. The only thing he wasn’t, was Faker.  Fate really cursed Ryu at his peak. At the end of Season 3, a strong argument could be made he was the second best mid laner in the world. However, Faker casted a colossus-like shadow that never allowed Ryu to shine.  Score and Mafa were the most unnoticed players on KT at the time, but that serves as a compliment. They never flexed, and never flopped. Score was the best passive AD carry in the world. His expertise on Ezreal and Corki were sights to behold, but besides that he mostly imitated Ryu’s game philosophy: ignoring personal eminence in favor of the good of the team. He didn’t rack up enormous CS counts or expect his team to always protect him. Rather, he always stood at his team’s side, doing his part in pressuring the map and taking objectives. Mafa was another player overshadowed by better players. One could assert him at his peak as a top 3 support player. The main problem was that the top 2 were MadLife and Mata (piece of advice: if you play Support in Korea, starting your name with an ‘M’ has a proven success record). While the latter created legacies built off of aggressive genius and flashy plays, Mafa quietly won games barely getting his hands dirty. Him and Score never lost lane, always entering team fights with just enough firepower to win. Quiet killers. Notice a recurring theme with this KT squad? Every player was selfless. This was the very definition of a team. Each member focused their efforts entirely on supporting the unit. That’s where they truly shined. No team up to that point was so intelligent and diverse in strategy. Their flawless rotations, innovative compositions, and unmatched ability to sneak Barons were what made the Bullets so beloved.  What was so fun was that their games were unlike any other. Even teams better than them, like SKT T1, won games in a much more standard fashion. Win lane, win team fights, win the game. KT did something completely different. Even if they fell behind in lane or lost a team fight, the Bullets had other roads to victory.  To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. The KT Bullets lived this adage. Their skilled coordination and communication prohibited any fighting not on their terms. Enemy towers quickly crumbled with their fast-push compositions. And Barons were snuck away in the most surprising and unique methods possible. KT were super efficient in taking towers down. They had the highly disciplined ability to out-rotate their opponents and approach towers alone. With their compositions perfectly suited for swiftly taking down towers (especially Score and Mafa’s preferences for Ezreal and Fiddlesticks), they were able to easily destroy their enemies' defenses uncontested. They rarely engaged fights during their fast-pushing phase, oftentimes outright avoiding aggression from the enemy. Even engaging in a fight with KT was a troubling idea. Unless one won such an engagement (a dubious prospect) outright, KT almost always ended fights by taking objectives afterwards. It would be an injustice not to extensively discuss KT’s Baron Nashor play. No team before (and in some senses after) were so brilliant in their control of Baron. They accomplished this using multiple methods. 

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In the spring of 2013, KT faced off against Reapered’s SKT T1 #1. In one of their matches, KT built Spirit items (Jungler items effective for killing monsters) on three separate players. This allowed them to unexpectedly take Baron 20 minutes in. No team had ever even attempted something that bold.
During the 2013 MLG International Exhibition, KT showed expertise in contesting Baron. At 46:40, we see the Bullets in what most would consider a dire situation. Score and Mafa dead, Ryu at the bottom of the map, and all five members of Gambit charging towards the Baron pit. Most teams in this position would cut their losses, give up Baron, and not risk any more deaths. Without hesitation, inSec immediately approaches the Baron. Fearing a Smite steal, several Gambit members focus their attention on inSec, first Darien, then Alex Ich. With inSec falling, Ssumday and Ryu join the brawl, the latter joining inSec in death. By this point, KT stalled long enough for Score and Mafa to respawn and regroup, and have Gambit’s health bars chewed away by Baron damage. KT uses this to pick up several kills, using the fallout to take Baron, and eventually the game.
My personal favorite KT Baron has to be the one against NaJin BlackSword in OGN Champions Winter 2013-2014. At 1:45, we see what looks like inSec overextending in lane, drawing aggression from three Sword players. With their dominating vision control over the Baron area, the rest of KT approaches the pit undetected, inSec simply acting as a red herring. He takes Sword on a comical chase, distracting NaJin from the Baron pit, before teleporting to his teammates and taking the objective uncontested. The level of complexity in such a call is mindblowing. You see? KT were sages of Baron Nashor. They used innovative builds and strategies. Their communication and decision making were otherworldly. Most importantly, they were just so damn clever. They took so many Barons uncontested because teams didn’t even think to contest. KT’s gameplay could be seen nowhere else. The KT Rolster Bullets are one of the most important teams in League of Legends. Some might find that to be a ridiculous claim. A team relevant for less than two years? One that never won a premier competition? How could a team like that be held with such weight? All I ask, is to imagine League of Legends’ without the Bullets. No team before KT was so good without a true carry. They proved how strong one could be without striving for personal glory. They did so with some of the most brilliant strategies seen, something multiple teams would draw inspiration from after the fact. Remnants of KT’s tactics could be seen in teams around the world for many years. An unmentioned aspect of KT’s influence is how successful the players went on to be. It was an explosion of successful shrapnel. Almost every player experienced later success in League of Legends, even the players we mentioned little of. Ssumday and KaKAO won Champions the following summer. Zero and inSec reached the finals of the Season 4 World Championship. Ryu became a successful and beloved player in Europe and North America. Mafa was one of the best coaches in the game’s history, helping Invictus Gaming win Worlds 2018. And Score stayed with KT Rolster, to ascend as one of the single greatest players ever. I couldn’t find much info on Ragan, but I assume he was a badass in his military service.  Finally, the Bullets’ losses are fundamental to the game’s history. Like BoxeR, Faker needed his own YellOw. In the summer of 2013, the Bullets gave us one of the game’s greatest series. They gave League of Legends a proper introduction to the Telecom Wars, one of esports’ classic rivalries. And they gave Faker the perfect opportunity to cement his status as the best. Remember, he actually won that duel. It was a surprise. Not many players in Ryu’s position would have even been close to killing him. Not many teams would have had the chance to be reverse-sweeped. The dark story of the Bullets made Faker stand brighter. It’s a sad story, but also a happy one. Despite never winning anything significant, the Bullets gave joy and inspiration to a generation of fans. Players, coaches, and writers alike still talk fondly of the Bullets being one of their favorite teams. Living in our hearts, they’ve never lost. They serve as a reminder that even if one can’t stand among the greatest, the fruits of their labor can still be tasted. Even if it can’t be hoisted, glory can still be achieved.
If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @OddballCreator. Image credits: OnGameNet, DailyEsports, Korzion, Inven, and MLG  

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