Can SKT still win Worlds?
This phrase, uttered in jest every time SK Telecom T1 -- the default best team in the world since 2015 -- has lost unexpectedly, began feeling heavy the past couple of months. After a nine-game losing streak in the middle of the League of Legends Champions Korea split, stumbles against bbq Olivers and its playoff final loss to Longzhu Gaming in convincing fashion, some have called this SKT's lowest point since 2014, when the organization missed the World Championship entirely.
Tales of SKT's unassailable status above every other team in the world have been historically exaggerated. Every time it has won an international event, there has been a mishap along the way. In 2013, SKT traded matches with Oh My God and NaJin Black Sword. In 2015, SKT lost the Mid Season Invitational to EDward Gaming and had hints of a top-jungle reliance. And in 2016, SKT lost early games like excess change, didn't make it out of groups in first place at MSI, lost to KT Rolster in the LCK semifinal and had both a five-game semifinal and final at the World Championship.
Many are quick to forget that every time Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok has hoisted the trophy at the end of the year, SKT had to make it to the top after being covered in bruises. Spectators try to cheapen other teams' victories by insisting SKT was always the favorite; it was never going to be close.
Why should this year be any different?
Since SKT rebuilt its team in 2014 with Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan in the bottom lane, the squad's vision and jungle attention has often had a more top-side approach. SKT used pressure generated from mid lane to ensure guiltless ganks on the top, with the enemy mid laner unable to roam and create a numbers advantage. In 2017, SKT doesn't have that luxury. With top laners rotating in and out, players have attempted to get pressure in the bot lane instead with mixed success, and a lot of Faker's leads in mid get wasted.
Although SKT's problem is new, its resilience shouldn't be underestimated. Whenever the team has looked weak in the past, it has adapted in time. It's hard to dismiss that history.
Longzhu Gaming's victory over SKT in the LCK finals highlighted the ability of Longzhu to play well around top lane, amass a lead for Kim "Khan" Dong-ha and transfer pressure to the opposite side of the map. What those who celebrated that victory neglected to note, however, was what SKT's bot lane was doing in the meantime.
The answer: not much.
In Game 1, for example, the bottom lane matchup between SKT's Ashe and Tahm Kench picks and Longzhu's Varus and Alistar was pretty even because of Tahm Kench's ability to both answer push and negate Alistar's engage.
Despite this somewhat even matchup, the pressure from the early strength of SKT's Leblanc pick into Orianna and the amount of pressure Gragas can exert with a winning mid laner into Zac should have allowed Bang and Wolf a great deal of freedom to play aggressively. Even if Longzhu's Jax had built an advantage and Teleported down, Shen's ultimate would allow SKT to respond quickly, and the threat of the combination of Leblanc and Shen in a dive should have given SKT's bottom lane a great deal of agency.
Faker even diligently invaded Longzhu's bottom side jungle to keep the entrances and raptor camp warded. SKT jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho had the luxury of being able to invade and deny camps from his counterpart, Moon "Cuzz" Woo-chan, and Peanut did so intermittently -- just not enough to keep Cuzz down completely.
Even so, Peanut managed to accrue more of a gold and experience advantage over his opposite than SKT's bottom lane did. Compared to the lead Khan picked up against SKT top laner Ui "Untara" Jin-Park, a 35 creep score advantage at 10 minutes, Bang's three CS over Longzhu AD carry Kim "PraY" Jong-in hardly warrants mention, especially considering that Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon built Relic Shield while Wolf started with Ancient Coin.
In Game 1, with a theoretically weaker jungle and mid matchup, Khan managed to pressure Untara relentlessly with almost no response from SKT on the bottom side of the map. Faker set up, but SKT didn't coordinate plays to dive bot or punish Cuzz. Khan's snowball simply went unchecked.
From there, it only got worse as SKT doubled down and drafted nearly all losing lanes in Games 2 and 4. Longzhu deserves praise for its snowball in Game 4, as noted by North American caster Aidan "Zirene" Moon in his recent episode of The Breakdown, but with poor laning matchups in mid and bot, SKT had almost no way to answer the top lane pressure and needed Longzhu to make a mistake to get back into the game.
The bot lane was exposed in the semifinal series against KT Rolster as well when Kalista's bottom lane pressure set SKT's duo 33 CS behind at the 15-minute mark.
SKT has almost never relied on its bottom lane to get pressure for it in the early game, and when it has, that choice has been made in a meta where the support can choose mages. Wolf has excelled more on mage supports that keep the lane shoved, but even then, SKT hasn't played to bot pressure.
Bang and Wolf simply haven't had to lead the team in the early game. Now, they have to take a more active role in a meta where Wolf's champion pool isn't as strong.
As a result, SKT's problems are different from what they have been in the past. In the current meta, it's harder to transfer pressure from mid lane to bottom or top because of the roaming supports that are in vogue. Faker is just as likely to be punished for getting a lead in lane without control from bot lane as he is for losing lane entirely.
But though SKT's problems may be different, every time analysts have laid them out in the past and have predicted against it, SKT has toughened up. It shed the holes poked by naysayers in 2015 and 2016, using the September bootcamp period efficiently to get to a point where coordination trumps weakness. Yes, mid lane advantages in isolation may matter less now than they have in a long time, but betting against SKT still feels like a risk -- and for good reason. Even without a roster change, SKT can still regroup and find a solution.
Faker has to find more things to do with mid priority. Traditionally, he has pressured his lead in lane and worked with his jungler 15 minutes in, but the current meta might require him to make more bottom side roams early on. If SKT drafts a strong or even bot lane matchup, it should pressure that lane in much the same way Longzhu pushes its top side. As long as SKT can keep bottom lane competitive, it can rely on teamfighting to close games.
If worse comes to worst, SKT added Peanut and Heo "Huni" Seong-hoon to its roster for a reason. They have craved more action in the early game, and going back to top side pressure at higher risk may be an option.
Either way, as long as SKT has its current toolkit, it has a path to the Summoner's Cup. Yes, this time is different -- but yes, SKT must still be the favorite to win it all.