A pair of League of Legends matches between the two best clubs in the world in a span of four days was circled repeatedly when the schedule for South Korea's LCK spring league was announced, and somehow, the SK Telecom T1 vs KT Rolster showdown surpassed the hype.
In two classic best-of-threes Thursday and Sunday, with the first being dubbed by OGN commentator Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith as possibly the best he has ever seen, the three-time and defending world champion SKT T1 outlasted its eternal rival to go two games above KT Rolster in the standings, firmly in first place.
This iteration of the "Telecom War" resembled a classic heavyweight title fight.
In the red corner was KT Rolster, the best "super team" ever assembled on paper in the seven-year professional history of League of Legends, playing generally a high-tempo, early-game focused brute style. In the blue corner was defending champion SKT Telecom T1 with Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok at the helm and easily the best team in the history of the game.
Think of KT Rolster as a knockout artist. Its fights, when things go right, are magnificent. Case-in-point, its perfect game last month over Samsung Galaxy -- arguably the third-best club in the world -- where KT Rolster's strength and coordination bowled over a team that can be considered a Worlds contender. Like Mike Tyson in his prime, KT has the potential to bull-rush forward and decimate opponents with a flurry of strikes at all angles. The team is the perfect balance of experience, shotcalling (Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong, Go "Score" Dong-bin, and reigning league MVP Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho) and raw damage. The scariest thing is that the team is still in its infancy, figuring out exactly what that identity is, only having played together for a little over three months and nowhere near a finished product.
"We're different from most teams in that we don't really have a certain style," Mata told ESPN contributor Young Jae Jeon in a recent interview. "I mean that in a good way. We're capable of playing drastically different styles, and actively aim to be proficient at all of them.
"Sometimes we look to win matches by simply playing 5v5s better. Sometimes we go for the 'tumble dry' where we avoid teamfights and win through staying ahead in map movement all game."
When it comes to avoiding teamfights in the first half of the game, there is no better team in the world the past three years than SK Telecom T1. Since 2015 when the organization had an overhaul with the dissolving of the sister team system, the club has been the quintessential counter-punching team. The parts surrounding the starting lineup have changed, but the engine has remained the same: coach Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun, bottom lane Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan, and mid Faker. During that time, the team has now had four different top laners and three different junglers situated around the core three members of the team.
On average, SKT, is still the second-best team in the league when it comes to the laning phase, accruing a 1,000 gold lead over opponents at the 15 minute mark. But when compared to KT Rolster, a team aided by the world's best jungler at the moment, SKT falls short, with its rival holding an almost 1,700 gold advantage at the same timestamp. When it comes to getting the all valuable first tower gold, KT is untouched in that category, sitting at a whopping 87 percent success rate at knocking down the opening turret. SKT, again in second, sits at a slightly above average at 56 percent.
Even so, SKT's defense thwarted KT's offense, and that might be because, like Mata said, KT Rolster is still trying to find its identity. It has the strength and speed of a Mike Tyson, a lighting-quick bruiser who can knock out a team in one mighty swing, but the club has also played the type of games where one could compare it to SKT, excelling by avoiding fights and simply rolling the opposing side in the objective game. Unlike SKT, KT, apart from Score, doesn't have a sturdy engine on which to rely. And it's not surprising that Score has been the player to thrive the most in the first half of the season while superstars like Smeb and Deft have both had issues at times finding their footing.
The entire two days of matches can be encapsulated by the finish of the first series. KT, after getting a sizable 3.5K gold lead in the early part of the game, couldn't keep the lead going into the mid game, and fell behind SKT T1's counter-play. When KT Rolster got two Barons, SKT T1 didn't break, and the team bided its time until it could make the necessary decisions to get back into the game. When KT took an objective or got a kill, there would be an instant reaction by SKT, not aimlessly walking around in the jungle or its base. At the end of the game, where KT pushed in with a desperate final array of punches to knock down the Nexus, SKT didn't sweat. The team bent as far back as it could go, but the team executed under pressure, held on with in-sync coordination, and won the game from the goalline stand.
In all six games the two played, KT Rolster had the upper hand in the laning phase in every the game it lost. The one game that KT did beat SKT, it snowballed its advantage from the first 15-20 minutes of the game into a quick victory. The issue for KT Rolster is that while in most cases Score's clinical jungle pathing, slick ganks, and the overall shotcalling by conductor Mata will steamroll teams, SKT T1's style and overall discipline is one that specializes in bending but not breaking.
SKT knows who it is and how to play. It doesn't matter who plays jungle or top, in the end, the players conform to the team's identity rather than the other way around. A player like top lane starter Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon can be MVP of the game and instantly swapped out the next game. Nothing is better than SK Telecom T1, and that's why, even when things are amiss, it isn't long until the ship is righted. It also helps that the team has the best player of all time in Faker sitting in the mid lane, opening up the entire rest of the map for his teammates with the amount of pressure he receives from opposing clubs. As long as the engine of SK Telecom T1 stays intact, the team won't lose sight of its strengths and relying on them in the moments where they're tested the harshest.
KT Rolster, downed by SKT T1, will get up and continue moving forward, finding its own strengths as a starting five. By the time the two teams meet again, KT Rolster will have a much better understanding, and if all things go well, the venue for the third "Telecom War" of the year will fit the scale of the matchup: thousands of screaming fans packed into an arena or convention hall, watching the two best teams in the world duke it out for the LCK spring championship and a spot at the Mid-Season Invitational in Brazil.