Over the course of four days starting Thursday, the two best League of Legends teams in the world, South Korea's SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster, will do battle in a pair of best-of-three matches with first place and a guaranteed spot in the spring LCK Finals on the line. Both clubs hold identical records of 7-1 (14-3 map score) coming into the doubleheader, and a sweep of this week's matches for either would all but assure themselves a place in the mid-April's postseason final.
The rivalry between the two, dubbed the "Telecom War," goes further than just League of Legends. The two biggest telecommunication companies in South Korea, KT and SKT, have been at the forefront of esports in their home country since the beginning. When StarCraft: Brood War broke through in South Korea, SK Telecom T1 (2004) and KTF MagicNS (2001) came to be, beginning one of the fiercest rivalries in all of South Korean sports, traditional or esports.
Being dubbed a "super team" is nothing new for KT Rolster. In the early days, KT was regularly compared to the likes of Real Madrid or the New York Yankees, buying superstar after superstar in the Brood War landscape. The team's biggest signing, and who would become the club's icon until a young Terran under the ID "Flash" would appear, Hong "YellOw" Jin-Ho was one of the best players in the world and top Zerg. On other the end, SK Telecom T1 was built from the ground up by one man, the godfather of sorts for esports in South Korea, Terran player Lim "Boxer" Yo-hwan, a man who captivated male and female fans alike with his thrilling plays, genius strategies and cool onstage appearance.
The legacies of the two rivals (which has continued far past the end of their playing careers) would shape their respective clubs, as well. Starting from 2004, SK Telecom T1 would go on to win 10 different team titles, including various Proleague (the top team league in South Korea) honors. KT, on the other hand, struggled, routinely coming up short in the playoffs and losing to SKT in the 2005 Proleague Finals even with a lineup that likely cost more than most of the teams in the league combined.
Fast forward to today, and the SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster (formerly MagicNS) rivalry has not changed much from over a decade ago. No longer is it Lim Yo-hwan but Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok leading SKT into the future, the amateur prodigy winning a world championship in his rookie season and now considered far and away the game's all-time greatest player with three world titles to his name. KT Rolster, who got into League of Legends before SKT T1 even signed a team, has been to the world championships only once, getting to the quarterfinals before losing, and having to watch as Faker and SKT won their second Summoner's Cup trophy. When it comes to domestic play, the score is even more lopsided, with SKT's five titles compared to KT's single title, won by the KT Arrows, a team to this day that is still known as probably the weakest club to ever hoist the championship hardware.
Last year looked to be different, though. In the semifinals of the summer season, SKT T1, the heavy favorites to win its fourth straight LCK title, got upset by KT Rolster, the bridesmaid reverse-sweeping its nemesis to make its fourth South Korean final. There, KT Rolster lost a crucial Baron by two hit points in the ultimate fifth game, and the club succumbed to the silver-place curse, falling to the ROX Tigers and losing its ticket to the world championships in America. KT Rolster also failed to make it through the regional qualifiers to worlds, losing to Samsung Galaxy in the final round, ending the organization's season only weeks after thinking it could have a chance to win a world title with a win over SKT T1 in the LCK semifinals.
The dual losses to ROX and Samsung, coupled with the fact that SKT would go on to win its third world title in four years, propelled KT Rolster to making heavy changes in the 2016 offseason. The biggest of which was the release of ace top laner Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho, marking a major change in KT's philosophy of building a roster. Ssumday, born and bred on KT, was the team's crown jewel who worked up through the system as a substitute player before finally becoming one of the world's best players in 2016 and a leader on KT. The dropping of Ssumday and acquisition of his main rival, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, the best top laner in the world, was a shift backward to how KT operated in the old days: If you can't beat the best, buy the best.
Gone were four of the starters on KT Rolster, except for team captain and star jungler Go "Score" Dong-bin, who was said to be a catalyst for the other star players to sign with the new KT. First was Smeb, and then a few days later it was former world champion and Mid-Season Invitational winner Heo "PawN" Won-seok, famously the player to knock Faker out of a major league or tournament four times in his career. Soon after, the super team was completed when it added world-class AD carry Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu along with former World MVP Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong as support.
On SKT T1's side, changes were also afoot. Unlike other champion teams, SKT has never been afraid to make changes to the roster outside of Faker in the mid lane. In its three world title years, each SKT T1 roster started a different top laner, and that will be no different if they win it this year. Former starter Lee "Duke" Ho-seong left for China's Invictus Gaming and was replaced with globetrotter Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon. The jungle position was also changed, with longtime player Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong deciding to move to China alongside SKT's acquisition of ROX Tigers jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho. To SKT, it never has been about building a "super team" -- because, to them, they've always been one. SKT can always can get better, and as long as perfection escapes them, complacency is the ugliest word of all.
Coming into this year's meeting between the two sides, on paper, it couldn't be more even. As mentioned before, the clubs have identical records with similar single losses to their names. KT Rolster got upset by a crafty MVP squad, and SKT was upset by former captain Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan in a series against the Afreeca Freecs. At points during the first half of the season, both clubs have looked unstoppable; in KT's case, it was a perfect game against worlds runner-up lineup Samsung Galaxy, and for SKT it was during the first few weeks of the season when the team could play whatever they wanted against whoever they wanted en route to crushing victory after crushing victory.
And while things change, one thing remains the same for SKT: Faker in the mid lane.
Before a few hiccups the past two weeks, Faker was arguably having one of the best periods of dominance in his career as an individual. He had no rival in the mid lane, and there were times when Peanut, SKT's AK-47 to aid Faker in crushing the centerpiece of the map, was not even needed. In team fights, it has been the supportive play of once-believed one-dimensional offensive player Huni that has won SKT a lot of games, setting up Faker to roll through the enemy team like bowling pins on Katarina.
While SKT plays through the mid lane, KT puts more emphasis on the side lanes, especially with Deft in the bottom. Deft, a star on Samsung Blue and then a superstar once moving over to China to lead EDward Gaming's dynasty in the LPL, is living up to all the praise he received over in his two-year China excursion, playing at a peak level during a meta where AD carries are expected to struggle. PawN, Deft's teammate on EDG, is the perfect mid laner for how KT Rolster wants to play the game; he's more of an NBA point guard than shooting guard. The former Samsung White mid laner is better at opening doors and lanes for the other players on his team than the other way around. That's not to say he can't hard carry a game or two, but PawN is at his best when he's surrounded by superstar talent, like on SSW, EDG and now KT, where he can facilitate rather than be the one receiving the ball.
So far, when it comes to shot-calling and map movement, KT, even with a brand-new lineup, has been superior. At times, the team has sleepwalked to victory, ignoring the fighting aspect of the game and rolling over lighter opposition with control of the side lanes. Smeb, a large voice on the historic KOO/ROX Tigers lineup in 2015 and 2016, is matched by the "Maestro" in Mata, who can make clear and decisive calls for all the lanes. Then when you add the jungle pathing mastery by Score, the team's captain, and his knack for getting his side lanes rolling through smart and efficient ganks, and you have a team that is probably months ahead of schedule with how strong they currently are.
SKT, though, has forever been the sleeping giant. People forget, but the ROX Tigers, both in spring 2015 and 2016, came out of the gates faster than SKT. It wasn't until the playoffs when SKT, with a few months of strict and diligent practice under its belt, came out of its slumber and played like a championship-caliber team. Although the results are better for SKT this season, the team, like usual, is slow on the uptake, and that is something coach Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun is best at unlocking. An eye and cultivator of talent, it took months for kkOma to unlock Duke, the last SKT top laner, and help him finally find his footing on the team. Compared to MaRin and Duke's first months on the main SKT roster, Huni, the player most expected to struggle with the changes on SKT, is doing better than either in the early spring.
The overall macro play of the team has been sloppy at times, winning through sheer power than finesse, but like other kkOma and Faker-led teams, it's going to take probably three to four months before we see anywhere near a finished product. Even on the golden rookie team on which kkOma and Faker won the world title in Faker's rookie season, SKT T1 fell in the semifinals to MVP Ozone (and Mata, also in his rookie season) before coming back the next season to win it all and forward their momentum onward to the world championships in Los Angeles.
From Boxer versus YellOw to now Faker versus Mata, the Telecom War has not been this big since the mid-2000's when thousands (some say up to 100,000) people converged onto the beaches of Busan to watch the two most prestigious South Korean esports clubs fight for superiority in Brood War. It won't be 100,000, but the OGN studio will be packed, as another chapter in the Telecom War is written, the world champions of SK Telecom facing off with a super-charged KT Rolster lineup.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.