Throughout the course of the 2018 season, SK Telecom lied dormant. As a team that was trying to win on its legacy alone, it was becoming more and more obvious that history wasn’t enough to bring home a title. The SKT dynasty that had stood atop the world for years was crumbling before our eyes. And although we had seen the death of an era, we were witnessing the rebirth of an organization.
Last season proved to be a troubling test for SKT, as the seemingly perennial champion of the LCK had stumbled its way into the playoffs in the Spring, while the Summer Split saw the team finish with a record below the .500 mark for the first time in its history.
Finally, after nearly half a decade of dominance, it seemed as if there was trouble in paradise. The team was struggling, the players were losing faith in themselves, and fingers were being pointed left and right. And although there was a certain air of tension surrounding SKT, it became obvious that one thing was for certain: it was time to start over. And so, the team moved into a state of stagnation and proceeded to evaluate its possible outlook for the next season. It was time to find valuable assets in the midst of immense struggling.
Usually. when a professional sports team struggles, whether its players are on the field or behind computer screens, fans will often look to the star player for answers. For example, even though it’s an unquestionable reality that the Green Bay Packers are an awful football team, reporters and fans alike still depend upon Aaron Rodgers to miraculously mend the team’s problems. On a similar note, it’s clear that Faker is the greatest League of Legends player in history, but if he isn’t given the necessary tools to win, it’ll be nearly impossible to make anything happen.
As last year showed, those tools were practically invisible for SK Telecom. Significant pieces of SKT’s championship-winning formula like Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Han “Peanut” Wang-ho were replaced with ho-hum disappointments in Park “Untara” Ui-jin and Kang “Blank” Sun-gu. It was almost as if SKT understood that 2018 just wasn’t their year. After failing to capitalize on the “super-roster” that the front office created the year prior, the team took the time in 2018 to assess the situation and prepare for the future. The rebuilding process was officially underway.
However, after an already busy offseason for the team, it’s safe to say that the SKT “rebuild” was more of a “recharge”. Teams like SKT don’t need extended periods of time to find their footing and re-emerge into the sphere of contention – and once teams like them are able to find their stride, they can become incredibly scary overnight.
There’s a certain sense of legacy and history behind SKT. In the same vein that Free Agents are attracted to teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics, it’s clear that SK Telecom has established the same winning culture that has existed in the upper echelon of sports for decades now. The organization has entered an exclusive club of teams that can simply attract players through its history and longstanding tradition of winning. When a baseball player signs to the Yankees, there’s a hope that one day, they may be mentioned in the same breath as Babe Ruth. When a League of Legends player signs on to SKT, there’s the hope that they may one day stack up with Faker.
Speaking of Faker, perhaps the biggest bargaining chip that SKT has to work with is his presence on their roster. Usually in sports, when a team has a player of great value already on their squad, that team can then use their presence as an influence on potential free agents.
Think of the Golden State Warriors for a moment. After coming off an incredibly dominant season headlined by Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant was an easy pickup for the organization. Even this year, grabbing Demarcus Cousins at a discounted price was made much easier for Golden State due to their incredible recent success. In the case of SKT, Faker’s presence and the incredible legacy that the organization has already created were probably enough to seduce players like Kim “Khan” Dong-ha and Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong onto the roster. Needless to say, this is why it was so important to keep Faker on the team and resign him to a deal that could help both parties progress to points that could be beneficial for both of them. Last year, it was impossible for Faker to command an army with no weapons. Now that he has those weapons, he could easily lead the organization to yet another world title.
And while presence and history can often be enough to bring enough to recruit new players onto a roster, executing with them is an entirely different story.
With a roster that’s holding onto some of the most prestigious All-Star level talent in all of League of Legends, it’s fair to say that SKT could genuinely have one of, if not the strongest teams in all of Korea – perhaps even the world. And yet, having a “dream team”- caliber lineup might not be enough. Last year, KingZone DragonX came into the season with one of the strongest “on-paper” rosters in all of League history. However, after faltering in a pivotal fourth game at the MSI Final, the team stumbled throughout the second half of the season, failing to even qualify for the World Championship. As KingZone proved – in the same vein as plenty of teams before them – with every new challenge, tests will certainly come along.
And for SKT, this season will most definitely serve as the ultimate test. After the organization failed to capitalize on its window of opportunity back in 2017, 2019 might just prove to be a turning point in the team’s history. With Faker serving as the anchor of the roster yet again, while being supported by weapons with bountiful talent, who knows where the team could go? And now, with a redemptive spirit fueling the team and a fully-fledged star who’s capable of leading some top-level troops, it’s safe to say that SKT is one of the most promising teams in all of competitive League of Legends – again.
Anyone who might have thought that SKT wouldn’t be able to bounce back immediately and jump right back into contention was fooling themselves. We should have known better. The kings are back to reclaim their throne, and if the team’s 2019 campaign is even one tenth as explosive as its offseason, the rest of the world should be immensely worried.
Photo Credits: League of Legends, Riot Games, SK Telecom T1