When SK Telecom T1 fell in the first round of the 2018 LCK Regional Finals against Gen.G, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok didn’t show much emotion. Perhaps the years of being a pro player taught him how to keep his feelings in check. Or maybe he was simply staring at his screen in disbelief, not realizing—refusing to realize—that a single loss just put an end to his World Championship ambitions.
For someone hailed as the best League of Legends player in the world, the thought of watching Worlds from home had to be devastating. Though, a part of him had to have expected this outcome. The 2018 iteration of SKT T1 was lacking in both synergy and firepower, and Faker was the only ray of hope in an otherwise faltering lineup. So, to a certain extent, his losses were justified.
Now, several months later, failure is no longer an option.
This off-season saw SK Telecom T1 going against their usual trend of raising promising rookies. Instead, they’ve put their stock into battle-hardened veterans like Khan, Clid, Teddy, and Mata. With Faker standing at the helm of this roster, 2019’s SK Telecom T1 has become the definition of a super team, a squad of star players built for the sole purpose of dominating every competition it attends. They’ve also given Faker a golden opportunity to climb back to the top and strengthen his legacy with another World Championship trophy.
But is this chance too late?
For the last two years, Faker’s playstyle was molded by the shortcomings of his teammates. Whether it’s playing a glorified caretaker on Galio or doing his absolute best to hard carry on Ryze and Azir, Faker is used to fluctuating between extremes. He’s a player that’s used to playing around the only reliable presence on the Rift, himself.
And that could be a problem.
Hints of this showed during the 2018 KeSPA Cup. For the majority of the tournament, Faker adopted a supportive role with the Aftershock Lissandra pick, and—at first—this approach paid off in spades. SKT’s first match against APK Prince went exactly as expected—a decisive 2-0 where every mistake on APK’s side was instantly punished by SKT’s superstars.
Faker also shined throughout the series. Despite getting camped by multiple enemies, he still got more CS than his mid lane counterpart and dominated teamfights and skirmishes. It was a stunning debut—one that left SKT’s fans hopeful for things to come.
Faker seemed to carry this momentum into the Round of 8 as SKT seamlessly dismantled BBQ Olivers in the first game of the series. But game 2 told a different narrative. As BBQ found more and more ways to stall out the game, Faker started trying to do too many things at once. Suddenly, his teleports were off, his roams were telegraphed, and his positioning left him wide open to enemy aggression. And if you took off the nameplates, the best player in the world would look like a run-of-the-mill mid laner scrambling to make his presence known on the map.
He wasn’t the only one underperforming either. Khan was bleeding kills in the top lane to the point Faker’s shortcomings faded into the backdrop, and even though SKT T1 clinched the W by capitalizing on BBQ’s mistakes, none of their players were smiling or cheering after the game.
This turned out to be a grim foreshadowing for their quarterfinal against DAMWON Gaming. A close game 1 victory put SKT into a prime position to close out the series, when DAMWON elected to ban Lissandra, pushing Faker away from his proven utility pick and towards his other extreme of hard carry champions. Inexplicably, SKT faltered.
The 2018 LCK season made Faker so used to cutting corners and setting himself up to carry through any means available that he instinctively defaulted to that same playstyle. This time, though, it didn’t go unpunished. Whether it’s overstaying his welcome in lane, miscalculating damage during all-ins, or not building Stopwatch against the Galio/Camille combo, Faker kept overstepping his limits—and DAMWON Gaming kept shutting him down.
You could argue that Khan and Mata also had a bad series. In fact, it’s Mata’s hectic engage next to the Baron pit that set the stage for DAMWON Gaming’s comeback in the deciding game of the series. But if Faker performed to his usual standard, he could’ve easily been the game changer that pushed SKT T1 over the finish line.
Of course, it’s premature to judge Faker and SKT T1 based on a single off-season tournament. But it’s clear that old habits die hard. Faker is still in a mindset where he constantly needs to make something happen and put himself into position to solo carry the game. And until he learns to trust his teammates, SKT will always be incomplete.
Still, some part of this thought is comforting. For the first time in a while, Faker is surrounded by players that can hold their own against LCK’s best. Underperforming teammates are no longer something he has to worry about, so he’s set to become the difference maker, the tipping point that can either elevate SKT T1 to greatness or drag them down all the way to the bottom.
For most players, the task of carrying such a responsibility would be downright overwhelming. For Faker, this is exactly the high-pressure environment he thrives in. If he fails to make a splash at Worlds in these circumstances… well, there are simply no more excuses.
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