In February of 2013, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok debuted as SK Telecom T1's rookie prodigy. Even with the buzz from solo queue, no one could have predicted the rise of the star mid laner who would change the landscape of League of Legends, inspiring and challenging players from all over the world for a chance to take down the Unkillable Demon King.
Almost five years after Faker's debut, he and SKT fell for the first time in a best-of-five at a League of Legends World Championship, but that's less shocking than it sounds. In the offseason leading up to the 2017 world championship, a handful of the old stars that pushed SKT out of a worlds berth the only time in Faker's career returned. Some of the greatest talents in LoL flooded League Champions Korea, and KT Rolster formed a roster with the express purpose of defeating Faker's SKT.
It wasn't KT Rolster, however, that felled SKT in the end. It was Longzhu Gaming in the 2017 LCK Summer final and Samsung Galaxy at the world championship final, two teams that didn't recruit major names from the "reverse exodus." Rather, Samsung succeeded by keeping the same ragtag roster with which it qualified for last year's world championship final. Longzhu cobbled together a misfit roster of players with a similar story to Samsung when it first formed its five-man squad: one or two established veteran leaders and rookies or players who hadn't received major success before joining the organization.
Samsung's win reminded spectators that team play, not star power, triumphs in LoL. It follows an established history of success for teams with a mix of young players and older veterans that develop together. This is a lesson that SKT itself has long championed, and it's no coincidence that the first year a Faker-led SKT hired two pre-established stars instead of building its own talent also ended in its first world championship loss.
In that regard, Samsung and Longzhu this year gave SKT a taste of its own formula. After SKT's disastrous failure to qualify for worlds in 2014, it rebuilt around Faker by pulling members from the much less successful sister team, SKT T1 S, and developing them. Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan's pre-SKT legacy had some shoe-horned similarities with Faker's: the promising solo queue star was sought-after and signed, but didn't make the same splash debut on S. The move to the main team gave MaRin a career year alongside Faker, and 2015 is still remembered as SKT's most dominant year overall.
People who focus on Samsung's story will think of the power of a roster that stayed together, but that's just part of the picture. A closer examination of SKT's history and when it looked the strongest sheds better light on Samsung's success and, more importantly, why SKT crumbled in the final.
SKT's most dominant world championship iterations did come with roster changes of three or more in that same year, but most importantly, the best SKT rosters consisted entirely of players developed within the organization. SKT didn't attempt to reforge cutlasses into rapiers; it started with liquid metal in the first place. Against a backdrop of the return of some of South Korea's biggest names from abroad, Longzhu won the LCK final, and Samsung won the world championship. Squads that put team play over stars yielded success, and players brought up in a team's system beat more talented organizations with new, unmalleable additions.
With few exceptions, SKT has always developed its own stars. Faker, Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong and Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin began as a trio of complete rookies in the same OGN season. Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong and Lee "PoohManDu" Jeong-hyeon had only scant experience before joining the SKT organization. Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan came to SKT S with similarly meager experiences. In 2016, the addition of Lee "Duke" Ho-seong of KT Rolster and NaJin fame marked the first signing SKT had made with a strong resume outside of the SKT rosters -- and 2016 was SKT's shakiest worlds showing before this year.
Prior to Duke's addition to SKT, many had already challenged MaRin's title as best top laner in the world with Duke's name. He developed from his debut with KT Rolster from a Renekton one-trick into a dedicated split-pusher who always managed to pull pressure. That formula initially made KT Rolster Bullets famous with Choi "inSec" Ins-eok's swap to the top lane. KT Bullets preferred to have its top laner constantly pulling pressure, and if he got caught, it could make something happen on the opposite side of the map. On NaJin, Duke continued to play in a similar fashion, trying to one-on-two the top and jungle to carry games.
With SKT, Duke was noted for initially having difficulty contributing to comms, and his split-pushing fixation led to mistimed Teleports or a failure to group for objectives. The formula that led to his first individual success -- KT Bullet's IEM World Championship victory -- seemingly couldn't be undone.
In 2017, SKT doubled down on star power. It hired Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and Han "Peanut" Wang-ho, two players who had earned domestic championships on teams with subtly different formulas to SKT's.
Peanut came up with ROX Tigers as an inexperienced jungler after a period of failure on NaJin. He developed to play to top pressure generated by Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho for invades and the opportunity to catch and two-on-one the opposing jungler.
Huni played with two different top teams in Europe and North America respectively, but jungler Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin often focused on enabling him with vision and ganks. Arguably, Smeb and Reignover were the reason these two transfers played so well prior to signing with SKT. When Huni and Peanut joined the reigning champions, they were left without a strong sense of synergy and relied more on Faker to transfer pressure from mid to top.
Not being able to generate consistent pressure through top and jungle left SKT in a difficult situation. Since the introduction of MaRin, Bang and Wolf to the lineup, SKT has tried to pick and play out winning top lane matchups. Top lane generated pressure and transferred it to the mid lane to open the map quickly, and Bang and Wolf scaled more to play out team fights. Though SKT could adapt well to different metas and vary its system subtly, this core formula hasn't changed, and when Bang and Wolf were forced to play pushing lane picks like Varus, SKT struggled to play as a unit around bottom lane. Bang's performance collapsed in the final against Samsung Galaxy.
Players that debut and develop on the same teams tend to adapt to one another and create tendencies in their own play to compensate for one another. Duo lanes that play together for years are extremely valuable, but when a team of five has found success with a specific style, it can be hard to teach old dogs new tricks. Two years in a row, SKT has run into this problem. This year, it got caught.
Of course, the addition of an adaptable veteran player can level up a roster of rookies, especially if the veteran is more of a role player willing to put in extra effort to change for the team, but it seems most difficult for star performers to change. When the Chinese League of Legends Pro League teams recruited Samsung members in the offseason before 2015, many of the best players League has ever known were doomed to fail because the teams that signed them didn't understand their specific predilections. The 2016 LGD Gaming roster with MaRin had three constantly aggressive lanes but kept rotating out the jungler as if it would magically discover one that could be everywhere at once.
LCK organizations remained on top since the departure of some of its most well-loved stars to the LPL because of their ability to raise their own talent. Samsung picked players from solo queue and less successful teams and eventually surged to the top of the world stage with guidance from Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong. Longzhu took a similar approach with the ROX Tigers' flexible bottom lane veterans, Kim "PraY" Jong-in and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon. Longzhu may return next year without any roster changes like Samsung did to exact revenge, but with limited time together, Longzhu still bested SKT's attempt to put three star players together and make it work.
For 2018, SKT needs to go back to the drawing board and remember its own lessons. You often can't teach an old dog new tricks, but luckily for SKT, developing players from scratch is a trick it already knows very well.