It certainly wasn't against all odds that SK Telecom T1 managed to make another League Champions Korea final. As far as League of Legends goes, the game is still firmly in the SKT dynasty -- both domestically and internationally -- with no signs of slowing down. Having already qualified for the 2017 World Championship with championship points from the spring split, and coming fresh off of a reverse-sweep victory over erstwhile rival KT Rolster, SKT's players can enter the finals with clear heads and no other outside pressure than their own desires to win.
Based on their summer performance, this is certainly the best possible mentality for the team.
Every iteration of SKT has had flaws. Other teams have simply failed to capitalize on them year after year. No other organization can adapt as quickly as SKT, thanks in large part to Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, who remains the best LoL player in the world. In-game deficiencies and synergy issues never seem to last as long on SKT as they do with other rosters both in and out of South Korea.
Merging those who remained from the rosters of SK Telecom T1 K and SK Telecom T1 S into a cohesive unit, integrating a specific member into the existing unit, and coordinating substitutions to cover for meta problems are all things that SKT have overcome, seemingly with ease.
When the organization had to merge rosters, SKT found its stride towards the end of spring, facilitating then-top laner Jang "MaRin" Gwang-hyeong while substituting between Faker and Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon. SKT's loss to Edward Gaming at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational has all but been forgotten due to SKT's dominion over 2015 LCK Summer and the subsequent World Championship where it only dropped a single game.
When MaRin left the team in the 2015-16 offseason, NaJin e-mFire's Lee "Duke" Ho-seong called the organization himself to try out in the top lane. SKT doesn't have to scout new talent, although this doesn't stop it from doing so, because the name alone draws strong players. When Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong was having difficulty in the DPS jungle meta of 2016, SKT simply started a new jungler, Kang "Blank" Sun-gu. Although Blank drew the ire of the community, he was better than Bengi in that meta. This past year he made a name for himself by substituting in for the aggressive Han "Peanut" Wang-ho, ironically providing the same stability that Bengi did last year despite the two players' different jungle styles.
SKT have mastered the art of substitution like no other team, now pivoting around Faker in the mid lane while relying on Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan in the bot lane. And, although it was still in the process of figuring out how to work around Peanut and top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon's respective foibles this summer, there was little doubt that SKT would eventually find a solution that ensured another LCK title and World Championship.
Yet, SKT stumbled this past split, much harder than the team has ever done since the creation of the LCK in 2015. The team's 2017 MSI-winning roster of Huni, Peanut, Faker, Bang and Wolf, with Blank as SKT's primary substitute, never fully fixed its issues before the bot lane meta shifted out of SKT's favor following Rift Rivals. South Korea lost that event to the Chinese teams of Team WE, Oh My God, Royal Never Give Up and EDG. The members of SKT looked disconnected, their mistakes punished for the first time in a while. Upon returning to South Korea, SKT appeared to have learned the wrong lessons from its defeats.
This past spring, Blank was the solution to SKT's woes. When Peanut had a bad game or Huni was caught one too many times overextending in the top lane, SKT substituted in Blank who had an impressive undefeated streak. Blank took fewer risks than Peanut, making the most of SKT's strong river vision to farm and occasionally gank. Contrast this with Peanut's costly invades.
Yet this wasn't enough when SKT's bottom lane began to fall behind, largely due to a support meta shift that put Wolf at a disadvantage when compared to roaming initiators like Longzhu's Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon. Wolf didn't roam to match his opposing supports' vision or mid lane rotations and any advantages gained in farm or pushing in the bottom lane weren't enough to mitigate the pressure applied by his adversaries.
SKT doubled down on a scaling Kog'Maw pick for Bang and mage supports like Lulu and Zyra for Wolf; but the team either lacked another strong damage-dealer, or simply fell too far behind in the early game to adjust mid-game, where SKT previously would have enacted one of its signature comebacks.
SKT also suffered from out-of-game mentality issues. Bang found himself at the mercy of Korean netizens for a comment he made towards a viewer while streaming, and his detractors found his apology forced and lackluster when it finally came out. The SKT organization responded slowly to the community pressure, which allowed anger at Bang to build and boil over. The effects of out-of-game intangibles are difficult to pinpoint, but members of SKT admitted that this community criticism coupled with the team's string of losses made for a poor mental state.
The road back to victory has been less consistent than SKT would want to admit. Its wins over Ever8 Winners and BBQ Olivers in the final weeks of the split were not inspiring. It wasn't until SKT's stomp of Samsung Galaxy and reverse-sweep of KT in the playoffs that the team appeared in form.
While Peanut looked good against Samsung's Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong, he did not fare well against KT Rolster's Go "Score" Dong-bin.
This leads to a few questions about the SKT jungle going into finals. Blank completely controlled Score when he subbed in for the SKT reverse-sweep, and neither he nor Peanut should have too many issues against Longzhu's rookie jungler Moon "Cuzz" Woo-chan unless Faker is unable to contain Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong. SKT also seems to have settled on Park "Untara" Ui-jin over Huni as the starting top laner, which means fewer dynamic plays topside, but more room for Faker to take risks if he wants.
Where SKT has built a legacy around its ability to overcome any and all obstacles standing between it and another title, SKT's finals opponent, Longzhu Gaming, have failed to find success at every turn, this upcoming finals match notwithstanding.
One team has been to every LoL Champions Korea final since the league's inception but one.
One team has never been to playoffs, never mind a championship final.
It's understandable why veteran AD carry Kim "PraY" Jong-in had to tell his younger teammate Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong to expand his horizons and dream for the finals. Whether Bdd momentarily underrated how far his team could go due to Longzhu's history -- including his own time with the team in spring where he did not start a single game -- or his rocky debut with CJ Entus, the instinct to temper expectations of Longzhu has historically been warranted.
Born from the ashes of Incredible Miracle, Longzhu Gaming was meant to be a hybrid of Chinese money and domestic talent. Although Longzhu had already sponsored the Incredible Miracle organization, the bump up to the team's titular sponsor in the 2015-16 offseason was seen as a response to the Korean Exodus one year prior. With sister teams, the traditional OnGameNet tournament structure, and a massive amount of native talent gone, the 2015 LCK spring split was a mere seedling rising from a volcanic cataclysm.
Although the level of play and amount of teams increased by 2015 LCK summer split, SKT was the clear winner, head and shoulders above all other Korean teams. Longzhu was rumored to have offered larger amounts of money to its players than other teams in South Korea at that time (save SKT), fulfilling its goal of a Korean super team born of rising and established domestic talent.
This plan backfired horribly. Longzhu couldn't settle on a starting five and lacked SKT's touch when it came to player substitutions. Nearly all of the players picked up by Longzhu were resource-dependent, either in gold distribution, jungle attention, or both, and the rotating players of 2016 Longzhu couldn't coordinate with each other to set up even simple cross-map plays at times. Unable to leverage any sort of laning advantage -- or early game power farming from then-jungler Lee "Crash" Dong-woo -- Longzhu either rolled over and died, or continuously threw the team into disadvantageous skirmishes. The team escaped relegation in both 2016 splits, but didn't come close to making playoffs.
Retooling the roster in the 2016-17 offseason, Longzhu decided to build a team around the veteran bot lane of PraY and GorillA, along with rising stars like Bdd and Crash. Bdd didn't start for the entirety of 2017 LCK Spring, the combination of Crash and mid laner Song "Fly" Yong-jun was neither stable nor successful, and most of Longzhu's wins came from PraY's monstrous carry performances.
Longzhu's in-game mistakes were plentiful and obvious, far more so than those of SKT. But, like SKT's losing streak that began mid-2017 LCK Summer, there was something brewing beneath the surface on Longzhu. After the split ended, reports surfaced that Longzhu's payments to players and staff had been late. Contracts had also been presented late, and the lack of funding from the organization had weighed on the minds of players and members of the coaching staff. KeSPA eventually stepped in and took over operations of the team, something they had not done since the days of SBENU Sonicboom.
Yet, with the monetary issues presumably resolved under KeSPA's stewardship, Longzhu has thrived. Top laner Kim "Khan" Dong-ha has had a standout split, returning to South Korea for the first time since his rookie year with Prime Optimus. Bdd has delivered on much of the speculation that accompanied his unsuccessful debut last year. Not only has he had strong individual performances, Bdd's lane pressure and awareness has provided necessary breathing room for the rookie Cuzz, who isn't quite up to par with a lot of South Korea's jungle talent. If anything, Longzhu is too reliant on Bdd, in a similar way to SKT years ago, too reliant on Faker stomping the enemy mid laner. Cuzz can be a liability in the jungle, and SKT will find work-arounds to Longzhu's laning strengths, especially in a Best of 5 where SKT is given more time to adapt and respond.
Longzhu has a tough task on Saturday, a challenge that -- if the last series it played is any indication -- it's not up to quite yet. It's nice to see a fresh face in the finals, but barring an improbable amount of in-game improvement over these past few weeks, that fresh face will have to fight for its World Championship spot in the Regional Gauntlet.