T1 have been the kings of South Korea for almost 7 years now. Despite being dethroned in 2014 by the unstoppable Samsung sister teams, and again by that same org in 2017 with Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong’s legendary Worlds run, they’ve never really left the top for long. So why have they become so boring to follow?
The lack of international success in recent years has hurt T1’s legacy, but no one’s been even close to taking the title of most successful team in the history of League of Legends. They’ve accrued Three World Championships while no one else has managed to achieve two and they still have the most accomplished player in the game. Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok might not be at his peak form anymore, but his constant adaptations and shifts as a player combined with the unrivaled experience make him one of the best franchise players to build a winning team around. Although these are positive remarks, they just add to the reasons why T1’s loop of moderate-yet-underwhelming achievements are so disappointing.
South Korea’s fall from grace coincided with SK Telecom’s downfall. In 2017 a lot changed in the international League of Legends landscape with Samsung Galaxy’s win. It was the first time an LCK team not called SKT won the World Championship and the way they beat Faker and the rest of the roster in the Finals was incredibly dominant. It was also the last year South Korea won any international competition and the end of the mythical aura surrounding the best LCK teams — especially SKT.
Before Misfists took the Faker and Kim "Kkoma" Jeong-gyun roster to 5 games in that year’s Quarterfinals, the top two South Korean teams had always felt unbeatable in international tournaments. More often than not those teams had to eliminate each other in Quarters or Semis, and the Finals of the tournament were just a dominating win for SKT against a European or Chinese squad. If you’ve watched either of the last couple of World Championships, you’ll know the tables have most definitely turned.
The international scene is arguably much more exciting to watch now — although the apparent curse of the 3-0 Finals remains. However, the LCK has undoubtedly become boring, along with their main representative T1. The “in the end Koreans win” routine in Worlds was indeed repetitive, but we were still witnessing the best League of Legends possible at the time and, despite the dominating finals between LCK and non-LCK teams being boring to watch, the top teams of that era gave us some of the best series the game has ever witnessed (mandatory mention of SKT vs ROX Tigers).
The routine that began in the LCK after that era ended is truly disappointing to watch. There hasn’t been a lack of exciting teams and the amount of start-level players showing up rivals that of the LPL, yet the League completely crumbles when it comes to playoffs and even more when international competitions begin. The narrative has been going like this: SKT makes a roster change but manages to dominate Spring Split; MSI (Mid Season Invitational) is disappointing; they return in a slump but manage to recover before Summer Playoffs, qualifying between 4th or 6th; they run through the outdated LCK Playoff Format and dominate every team in their way, despite those rosters looking much better than them during regular season; Worlds comes around and they look like a middle of the pack, albeit decent team; the exciting rookies never reach their potential against top international competition.
Rinse and repeat.
This problem has been plaguing the legendary organization and League at the same time. It feels like time stopped for both at the end of 2017, and that adaptations are either too slow to be made or they’re never implemented at all, as has been frequently mentioned by the English Broadcast team, especially Nick "LS" De Cesare. Stubbornness in draft, picks being ignored while others are insistently opted into despite no one else playing them, predictable game plans and sub-optimal utilization of world-class players. The LCK doesn’t lack talent or experience, it suffers from a complete lack of innovation and T1, as the frequent representative of the league, is also the mirror of its most glaring problems.
Things do seem different due to how well DAMWON Gaming are performing in Summer, especially since both are exciting recipes on paper. DRX are a super team led by Kim "cvMax" Dae-ho, a controversial coach that seems to have brought new ideas onto the table; DWG are the ultimate proof of what talent can achieve in the LCK and under Lee "Zefa" Jae-min’s leadership seemed to have reached a new level of success. Yet it is impossible to ignore the eerie similarities this season is having to the narrative I described above. T1 looked amazing in Spring after a roster change, didn’t even manage to make it out of groups in Mid Season Cup (not the MSI format, but the only indicator of international success we have this year) and began Summer with a worrying slump. They’ve now stabilized in 4th and are officially qualified for playoffs. Everything is pointing to a DRX or Damwon victory in the playoffs, but I fear that T1 might just do what they’ve been doing for the previous two years and what would follow would be yet another disappointing Worlds performance.
In the past two years, metas have shifted, power levels have fluctuated, but T1 have stayed at their consistently disappointing level. It feels as if a wake up call is needed to bring the organization to the present day and both DRX and Damwon Gaming seem capable of doing so. Whatever result Korea achieves in the international stage, 2021 should be a year of drastic changes for the perennial representative of the region, especially with franchising being implemented in the LCK.
I hope this is the year the rookies crush T1 and show what they’re made of against every other region. Next year, let’s see the Emperor's return.
If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @Kaaaosh.
Images courtesy of LCK and Lolesports' Flickrs.
For more League of Legends content, visit our League of Legends hub