The first big mystery of the 2018-19 League of Legends offseason was whether SK Telecom T1 would be able to hang on to star mid laner and company man Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok.
This turned out to be the mystery that wasn't really a mystery at all. Faker stayed with SKT as expected. The wait for Faker's 2019 teammates was short, too. With the additions of former Jin Air Green Wings AD carry Park "Teddy" Jin-seong, former Longzhu Gaming/Kingzone DragonX top laner Kim "Khan" Dong-ha and former Samsung Galaxy White and KT Rolster support Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong as pieces of a stunning 10-man lineup, this new SKT seemed poised to return South Korea's domestic league to the top of the competitive League of Legends food chain.
This was the attitude and framework that accompanied the new SKT into the 2018 KeSPA Cup. After their debut, a 2-0 win over APK Prince, fans and analysts were salivating over the possibilities of this roster. The team's next performance included a perfect game against the bbq Olivers in under 23 minutes. In that Game 1 against bbq Olivers, Teddy netted a double-kill, thanks to a four-man bot-lane dive at seven minutes and never looked back. It wasn't until Game 2, four games into SKT's KeSPA Cup experience, that anyone managed to kill the new SKT ADC.
"Somehow 'perfect game' doesn't do it justice," English language caster Christopher "Papasmithy" Smith said. "They're the dream team."
"The perfect-est game possible," fellow caster Max "Atlus" Anderson joked.
"I think it's the dream game, Atlus, from the dream team," Papasmithy said. "This is some Harlem Globetrotters stuff coming through from SKT T1."
"It's bbq and APK Prince, but even if you're only watching one side, what criticisms do you have for any of the decisions or even the micro plays from SKT based on game No. 1?"
Yet in that series, cracks began to show, despite the 2-0 series scoreline. Game 2 was a far cry from the perfect Game 1 against bbq Olivers, and SKT's series against upstart Damwon Gaming -- the anointed "scrim gods," according to Western teams in South Korea for October and November's League of Legends World Championship -- showed that this SKT lineup still has a long way to go.
After a mistake-laden performance, SKT lost to Damwon 2-1 in the quarterfinals, and that same Damwon was easily brushed aside by Griffin in the following semifinal. SKT are talented, but like all rosters, they need time to gel. Since they have a lot of star players and veterans aligning, this could take longer than some other teams with younger talent. Existing player hallmarks were already apparent in SKT's KeSPA Cup run, from Teddy's excellent teamfighting skills to Khan's less-than-ideal Teleport timing.
There are a lot of names reserved for rosters such as this year's SKT, 2017-18 KT Rolster and other on-paper powerhouses. They're the super teams and dream teams. But these teams rarely find the success reserved for unexpected rising stars or upstart groups of rookies. If the KeSPA Cup is anything to go by, SKT will still be one of the teams, if not the team, to beat in the upcoming split.
The name and brand of SKT are synonymous with South Korea's dominion over the League of Legends landscape. SKT's new roster is, according to fans, a harbinger of what is to come for the LCK in 2019. This year will be different for South Korean organizations, or so coaches and players have said. After being kicked in the teeth at 2018 worlds and failing to bring a single team past quarterfinals, the LCK must adapt and become more aggressive and innovative.
Previously, South Korea was known not only for having the best solo queue talent but also for an infrastructure that trained teams to play each meta as closely to perfection as possible. This all fell apart this past year, when none of the LCK teams was able to adapt and adjust to a more solo-lane-focused and proactive style.
Just like its domestic league, SKT is shifting the way it plays. Free-agency acquisitions Kim "Clid" Tae-min and Kang "Haru" Min-seung are both known for aggressive invades and ganking patterns. Faker has always loved to stretch past perceived limits of laning. While on Jin Air, Teddy was known for his remarkable forward positioning in teamfights, managing to do the largest possible amounts of damage even when his team was significantly behind.
KeSPA Cup is a training ground of sorts. Teams want to win, but they're also using this offseason tournament as a chance to push their limits, try new things and get a feel for how a new roster dynamic will work. This is a sneak peek at the foundation of the new SKT, not a hard-and-fast representation of how the team will look in 2019. The tournament also provided insight into the expectations placed on SKT.
As for what that means for South Korea and how much the region has changed from a stagnant 2018, only time will tell. SKT, and South Korea, still have a lot of work to do in terms of early aggression.