Seeking solutions for SK Telecom T1's recent slump

Faker and SK Telecom T1 have shown signs of decline in recent months. Riot Games

It's unusual to be worried about a twice-over world champion team. Sure, after a title's taken, all sorts of things can happen. Rosters change, players retire or transfer elsewhere, and other teams start to rise up to the standards it set. It was probably too much to expect SKT T1 to repeat that frankly miraculous 2013-14 winter split, coming out of Worlds that year to thoroughly dominate the Korean circuit without dropping a game -- but, at the very least, we expected it to be a contender.

We weren't expecting it to be losing to the Afreeca Freecs.

People now speak of an even-season curse -- that just as SKT T1 was easily the best team in the world in 2013 and slumped in 2014, the current SKT T1 roster that dominated 2015 was ill-fated for this current season. But the idea of a curse is that something supernatural and out of its capability to address is behind its ill fortunes -- and that neatly preserves the players' reputations and absolves it of responsibility for the decline.

When the Dignitas Baron curse is discussed, or Liquid's perpetual fourth-place finish, it's shorthand for waving off a messy slog of communicative or internal dynamics issues -- hard to analyze and break down without getting into the messy and irresponsible business of amateur psychoanalysis. With SKT, though, there are some blatant statistical and gameplay factors that can explain why it's in the bottom half of the standings -- and at risk for failing to make playoffs.

Fact of the matter is: its entire jungle strategy needs to be rewritten. Again.


One small stumble for man...

The last time SKT jungler Bengi had a season like this, Kha'zix, Evelynn and Rengar were metagame-relevant picks, and the jungler was expected to be a significant portion of their team's overall damage output. He was unable to win on either Kha'zix or Rengar at the time (a flat 0 percent win rate for both in the regular season), and held a below-50 percent rate on Evelynn averaged across both splits -- in fact, he found it hard to break past more than three KDA total on anything but comfort picks like Lee Sin and Elise.

On Patch 6.2, where SKT T1's biggest losses this split's occurred, it was all about the carry junglers again -- this time with Nidalee, Graves and Rumble. Like with the 2014 jungle metagame, these were champions that prioritized clearspeed and damage output above anything else. Rather than frontline initiators or supportive crowd control ambushers like Rek'sai or Elise respectively, these were champions that wanted their teammates to back them up instead of the other way around, providing space and opportunity to lay out the bodybags on the opposing team.

That requires damage items, and damage items need farm. Bengi at an average of 3.71 CS per minute this split is only above substitute SKT jungler Blank and CJ Entus jungler Bubbling, making him the second-worst farmer in the LCK. And Blank, having played a meager handful of games, barely counts.

If not farm, then at least kills, right? If he's simply ganking constantly and picking up player bounties, a low farm score doesn't necessarily hurt too badly -- and to Bengi's credit, he's at the center of the table for overall KDA and nowhere near as badly off as SBENU Sonicboom's ironically named Flawless.

That said, Bengi's also near the bottom of the table for kill participation, being involved in just 67.3 percent of all of SKT T1's kills so far this spring -- it's not that he's been ganking or ambushing people. He's just mostly not been dying as much as less experienced junglers. But "mostly not dying" is just another way to euphemistically say "being bloody useless."

...one giant fall for the team

Bengi isn't nearly the only weakness in the SKT T1 lineup -- bot laners Bang and Wolf are similarly suffering, statistically -- but the stark difference between on-meta and off-meta Bengi is notable, and seems more strongly correlated than any other factor for the team. For better or worse, not even Faker's quite as influential on the team's fortunes -- though given that Faker Plays Everything, odds are he wishes he was.

Bengi, however, has a very specific range of champions he plays well: supports and tanks. His 2015 season was defined by Jarvan, Rek'sai, and -- to his credit -- a much improved Evelynn. It also featured the occasional Vi, a rare Sejuani, and especially a legitimately threatening Nunu (wielder of a 28-point KDA across two summer games). These are all setup champions: they run up, lock down a target with crowd control and let their team handle the fight while shrugging off the damage levied at them. And that is exactly the opposite, stylistically, of Nidalee or Rumble.

The teams attempted to compensate for it by finding champions that sit midway between high-damage and high toughness, going with Graves and Udyr against Longzhu IM and Freecs. But even with their rapid clearspeed in his favor, there wasn't a single game in either set where Bengi's ever held a farm lead at any time, often falling 30 or more behind the opposing jungler.

That doesn't just hurt his itemization -- it often means he's too late for everything that happens in the game. When Faker was pushed up against Coco eight minutes into the LZIM set, both junglers knew that the fight was going to occur mid-map. But Bengi was a full five seconds behind Chaser -- too late to even see the artful combination of Frozen Tomb into Cocoon that permanently and fatally locked up Faker for first blood.

Against Freecs, it was somehow even worse. LirA's much faster and more efficient jungle pathing ran circles around Bengi and scooped up buffs at-will -- not entirely unexpected on Nidalee, as her last rework made her a brutally efficient player-versus-environment sort of champion, but the damage was further compounded by the deep warding and map control exerted by the carry jungler.

That vision disparity came back to haunt SKT T1 twice in game two, against a team that had no outstanding claim to being a match to a world champion. The first, at 18 minutes, was a Teleport play behind SKT's lines that ended up with a triple kill on LirA and a gold lead for the Freecs. The second, 32 minutes in, was herding as a work of art: SKT's retreat path was entirely visible, cut off at the right places by major threats to funnel it toward Baron Nashor, and concluded with a Glacial Fissure across all five players within a chokepoint just as Poppy rams in with Teleport again.

You don't get much better setups than that -- and especially not against a top team.

Getting back up

These repeat failures raise a dour question: Should Bengi be replaced? 6.3 and 6.4 is going to muddy those waters, as Gragas's re-entry into the metagame, and Lee Sin's recent prominence in other circuits, expands his pool of viable options with a couple of proven classics.

Doing so hews SKT closer toward the play style that won it championships, or basically Bengi acting as Faker's third Summoner Spell: Call Fire Support. And there's a reason why this works, beyond the simple fact that any team with Faker is going to naturally gravitate toward accentuating that strength. The most recent patches have also given rise to dedicated multi-AD Carry compositions, and Gragas's strong area-denial suite plays well into that, either knocking back fellow frontliners or keeping targets slowed down enough for the auto-attacks to pummel them back to respawn. Same, of course, can be said for Lee Sin with Dragon's Rage and Tempest/Cripple.

The real question is what it'll do when the metagame changes on it again. And to that, there's no clear answer.

SKT has only fielded Blank four times so far this spring, and from the scant few performances he's clearly trainee material -- still not prime-time ready. But among those games, we have Elise, Graves and Kindred: whatever else, the kid is clearly a carry-oriented jungler, and also signals that SKT T1 is clearly aware of the weaknesses in its lineup.

It makes sense for them to stick to the more veteran player for now -- again, Bengi might not be a carry jungler, but at least he isn't outright dying on the field. But if the team's entire fortune rests on whether or not playoff patches match its jungler's play style, then the clock may be ticking on Bengi's career. It might find itself in an AHQ situation, substituting a player depending on map-side to shield a champion pool limitation... or Blank's going to have to get really good, really fast.

It's going to be a rough season, either way.