For 3 consecutive years now, the Korean regional finals have been more competitive than the World Championship finals themselves; many (and not wrongly so) believe Korea to have consistently elevated their game well above other regions. Aside from a couple of hiccups that came during the Intel Extreme Masters Season 9 World Championship where TSM surprised the world and the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational when EDG flexed their essentially Korean roster, the LCK has been the undisputed paragon of League of Legends excellence.
The 2016 Spring Split of the LCK saw two-time world champions SK Telecom T1 duke it out with ROX Tigers in the final playoff series. However, SKT was looking particularly shaky through the first half of the season, finding themselves in the bottom half of the league, before a complete resurgence to finish third place in the regular season. Despite the upwards momentum that the former champs were riding, the majority of casual fans still believed the ROX would prove to be unstoppable.
But the early stages of the playoffs would tell a much different story. After dominating Jin Air 3-1, SKT completely rolled over the number two team, long time telecom rivals, KT Rolster. Even with the talented Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho anchoring a team of veterans. Lee “Faker ” Sang-hyeok made a statement that obviously went unheard by many. Taking the popular champion Ekko, he reminded everyone not only of the ridiculous AP scaling on the time-manipulating boy, but also of his champion pool; even when you ban Azir, Ryze, Lissandra in attempts to target Faker, he is still the best player in the world.
The ROX-SKT series demonstrated the complete package that SKT brings to the table. Lined up against regular season MVP Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho, alongside the rest of the ROX roster which led the LCK in kill-death-assist ratio, SKT looked to be facing a freight-train, reminiscent of 2014’s Samsung White. The Tigers’ macro strategy and coordination looked impeccable, and the meta game seemed to favor each of their players’ champions.
What actually transpired was a complete disregard for the meta picks from SKT. Faker pulled out three different pocket picks – Zilean, Vel’koz, and Cassiopeia – on his way to dismantling his opponent in a 3-1 score. Series MVP Lee “Duke” Ho-Seong even pulled out his Rammus top in the final game of the match. The pre-series edge for ROX – Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho’s supposed superior jungling to Kang “Blank” Sun-gu – seemed to be completely invalid, as both players held each other fairly accountable throughout the early stages of each match.
To the Rest of the World: Take Heed
SKT is as strong as they have ever been. The questions from their early Spring performance have been answered through their playoff performances. They bring with them one of the few dominant 4-threat teams since Moscow 5 ruled the world in 2012; you never know which one of SKT’s superstars is going to be “Like Mike” in the following match.
Western teams should probably not be looking to take strategies straight from SKT’s playbook though. Their human capital makes for a completely different asset base to control games with; ROX is still the standard for a well-controlled game, dismantling weaker opponents. The rest of the world has one more split to catch up strategically, then discover their own unique edge to have a chance to prevent SKT from repeating as world champions.
It looks like strategic diversity has almost reached saturation for this current meta across the globe, as we see very little variation in strategy; the arms race is one of optimization rather than innovation. But wild card (not the Wild Card regions, trust me) still remains that could be the catalyst of dethroning SKT: Riot’s crazy decisions in the upcoming patches. That may just be the only thing that can derail this complete juggernaut, seeming poised to dominate the world one more time.