When Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu and Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong initially announced their intentions to return to South Korea from China in November 2016, Inven's resident cartoonist penned a Game of Thrones image that showed the two staring at a frozen wall labeled Champions Korea, wondering why it seemed so high. The obvious implication is that it's far easier to win in China than it is in South Korea. Deft and Mata's prior success would not help them in their quest for a Korean championship title.
This is only partially true.
Yes, KT Rolster's failure is yet another reminder that super teams don't often work, but it's how it failed and why that are the more important pieces of the equation. KT did adapt in summer to a point, and still faltered at the finish line. Its lack of a title and Worlds spot doesn't further prove how much better South Korea is than the rest of world more than it showcases, once again, the importance of good scouting and coaching when assembling a lineup of individuals.
It also reminds us that League of Legends is a team game, and team play has only grown more important through the years. While teams are still inclined to stockpile stars, and we are inclined to glorify them, the team aspect of LoL is now always at the forefront. One player cannot carry a team or an organization to a World Championship. Even SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok has had to adjust.
The KT "super team" of 2017 was met with a healthy dose of optimism and a side of skepticism. Super teams had rarely worked out in South Korea or elsewhere, and categorizing this roster as such seemed to only cement its doom in the upcoming 2017 LoL Champions Korea Spring split.
Something odd happens with super teams after they fail. There's a mad rush to pick apart the roster and retroactively rewrite the history of the individuals or the team. Maybe they weren't so super after all. Maybe the star players advertised weren't actually star players once isolated from their previous teams. Maybe these players always had these weaknesses, but their teammates' strengths made up for them.
Since the Korean Exodus of the 2014-15 offseason, much attention has been given to individual star players leaving the region. Not all of them have been successful. Deft, Heo "PawN" Won-seok, and Mata were. Yet, League of Legends has become more of a team game than ever and their respective successes require context.
Although 2015 EDward Gaming wasn't given the moniker of "super team" upon its inception, it earned it retrospectively. At that time, Tong "Koro1" Yang was EDG's up-and-coming team captain. Jungler Ming "ClearLove" Kai was having a breakout year, despite having played since 2011. Tian "Meiko" Ye had a banner rookie split with 2015 EDG and is now one of the best supports in the world, and this is all before mentioning PawN and Deft as imports.
Mata's success on Royal Never Give Up in 2016 was unexpected. Returning to his Samsung White shotcalling roots, he led a young, talented team of mid laner Li "Xiaohu" Yuanhao, jungler Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu, and AD carry Wang "wuxx" Chen along with former SSW teammate Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok to an LPL finals victory over EDG. RNG finished first in the group stage of 2016 MSI before it was beaten by eventual winner SKT in the knockout stage. He fared better with this squad, which was worse on paper, than when star AD carry Jian "Uzi" Zhihao joined RNG for summer.
EDG ended up being a super team in its own right for a time, whether by design or sheer luck. Mata struggled more on RNG with the addition of star player Uzi rather than the rag-tag spring team that made waves at MSI. This is all without mentioning loads of other Korean imports in China who failed to have the desired impact and success.
By contrast, during that same time period between the Korean Exodus and the formation of the KT super team roster, Go "Score" Dong-bin had attended two more LCK finals and the 2015 World Championship with KT. Neither the 2015 lineup nor the 2016 were considered superteams -- both had glaring weaknesses that did them in eventually -- yet it was more successful than this year's lineup. Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho's Tigers were initially forecast as a middling LCK team in 2015, especially since Smeb himself had yet to reach his current heights and AD carry Kim "PraY" Jong-in hadn't played professionally since his lackluster final days on NaJin Black Sword in 2014 Spring.
Smeb and Score were partnered with the returning PawN, Deft and Mata after all five of them were already considered Korean superstars: The Korean super team to end all super teams.
KT entered 2017 LCK Spring swinging, but problems quickly arose. Its play was riddled with miscommunication. PawN was targeted as the team's greatest weakness when he couldn't hold mid consistently, Mata often looked more like KT Hachani than SSW Mata, and Smeb's Teleports further supported the fact that KT had in-game synergy issues.
Perhaps KT thought that it would be able to distribute resources adequately or that they would all somehow click on the Rift immediately, negating their respective individual issues, but this simply didn't happen, leading fans and pundits to say that certain players were washed up, playing an "older style" of LoL, or just plain bad.
PawN's mid lane playstyle dates back to his arrival on EDG at least, and arguably since his time on SSB/SSW. The way those teams often overcame it, especially EDG, was to send him into side lanes as a distraction, while the rest of the team set up for a different objective. As long as he could draw pressure by wandering around the map, EDG won.
It's also easy to forget that Deft's laning was his weakest point while on Samsung Blue. The team seemingly came to expect that Deft would be down a few kills early, and put him on scaling carries like Kog'Maw. Come late game, SSB simply out-teamfought their opponents and Deft's early deficits didn't matter. Deft returned from China a stronger laner after two years with Meiko, but still had inherent weaknesses in lane that were exacerbated by Mata's forward positioning, which also put Mata in hot water during his time on Vici and RNG.
Deft and Mata often played like they weren't communicating with each other at all. Deft's teamfighting strengths were also neutralized somewhat when the team avoided fighting and focused on laning as they worked on their synergy together. This wasn't as much of an issue this past summer, but does present another example of an individual player weakness that was always there.
Even then, KT drafted to their laning strengths and improved throughout the year. Come summer, this roster made up one of the top three teams in South Korea with a near-unstoppable early game that had evolved from simple laning prowess to smart assignments and stronger drafts that made the most of KT's players.
KT was home to no fewer than two of the best players in their respective positions, with arguably a third who could eek into the running depending on how much a player's legacy matters to the individual making the list. Mourning the loss of KT also means bemoaning the fact that the effervescent Smeb and ever-reliable Score won't be able to showcase their talents once more on the Worlds stage.
There was a similar community reaction to KT's loss to Samsung when ex-KT mid laner Song "RooKie" Eui-jin and Invictus Gaming lost to Team WE in the Chinese Regional Finals, despite the fact that Team WE was the better team. For every team that has come close to a spot at Worlds this year, more top-tier individuals have fallen just short.
While South Korea is indisputably a stronger region than China overall, both have struggled to find a balance between picking up star players to form paper-perfect rosters, and allowing teams to develop more naturally through scouting. Even Faker's SKT grappled with how to fit in jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho and top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon. When evaluating teams, perhaps it's finally time to shift our thinking more from individuals to team play strengths. Top players will still always be celebrated, but how five LoL players win or lose as a team is now the most important and interesting study.