Once upon a time, SK Telecom T1 was the team that could not lose. Before Samsung Galaxy broke the telecom giant's reign over the League of Legends World Championship with a crushing 3-0 sweep in the 2017 Worlds finals, SKT was expected to win. Even in that very finals series, there was always that tickle at the back of viewers' brains, the slightest feeling that even if SKT were down, the most decorated League of Legends team in history was never out. This tingling SKT sense remained until Samsung's Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk flashed and took out SKT's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok in a dramatic reversal of the two in the 2016 Worlds finals. For the first time since 2014, SKT was not the reigning world champion.
SKT's summer 2017 woes began with a four-game regular season loss streak. Support Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan publicly apologized for his team's performances on Twitter. He stated that he was, "Embarrassed, humiliated, frustrated, and angry," while promising that the team would return to better days of season's past. At the time, it was considered a measurement of the high standards held to SKT by the players themselves and the community. When all you do is win, four losses in a row, even against strong teams like Longzhu Gaming and Samsung Galaxy, is an unacceptable streak of losses. SKT was supposed to remain at the top of the standings.
Nearly half a year and the team's first League of Legends World Championship finals defeat ever, SKT is in more trouble than ever. With the "all they do is win" spell broken months before in the finals against Samsung, there is no longer that sense that SKT will eventually figure out how to win, or that Faker -- still the best player to have ever played League of Legends in its history -- will bail them out with a stunning individual performance.
SKT downgraded the team's top lane position in the 2017-18 offseason, retaining Park "Untara" Ui-jin and signing Park "Thal" Kwon-hyuk after Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon departed. The team has swapped between rookie support Lee "Effort" Sang-ho while trying out longtime SKT support Wolf out in the jungle with mixed results. Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, who was presumed to be SKT's starting jungler before the season began, often looked lost, a mark of the entire team's lack of coordination. SKT seemed adamant to repeat the plug-and-play style that the team started in 2015 with Faker and Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon swapping between matches with shakier or less experienced talent in the substituted positions of top lane, jungle, and support.
Faker is usually stoic in post-match interviews, but he spent the entirety of his most recent one with a slight smile on his face. SKT finally snapped a five-game loss streak with a win against bbq Olivers. It wasn't the cleanest victory, and included a 74-minute Game 2 loss that was eerily reminiscent of SKT's 95-minute Game 2 and eventual series loss to the Jin Air Green Wings in Week 1, but it was a start. Faker's relief was palpable.
Seated to his right was Park "Blossom" Beom-chan, SKT's rookie jungler who won an MVP award in his first professional match. Blossom answered questions with a sheepish smile, seemingly in shock that he was on this stage at all.
"When I get nervous, I think a lot more, and that over-complicated a lot of things," Blossom said of his in-game slip-ups. "Keeping it simpler should be a bit better for next time."
"It seems that he doesn't think that much when he's playing," Faker later said of his new jungler. "Sometimes that's a good reason, he doesn't have to overcomplicate things before he goes in."
The jungle role has been a volatile position for SKT, who kicked off this season by testing Wolf in the jungle. In hindsight, this particular swap makes sense, although the team has seemingly since abandoned this plan. As an experienced player on SKT, Wolf's rudimentary pathing and communication with his lanes resembled similar starts from former KT Rolster AD carry Go "Score" Dong-bin and former CJ Entus mid laner Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong. Due to his lack of jungle-specific experience, SKT started Blank against more experienced junglers like Score, Kingzone DragonX's Han "Peanut" Wang-ho, and the Afreeca Freecs' Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon.
Blossom's debut was completely different, indicative of his solo queue jungle style, and perhaps just what SKT needed to jump-start the team. The rookie jungler made multiple mistakes, and was punished for some of them by bbq, but had a completely different mindset than that of an experienced player like Wolf stepping into the jungle role for the first time.
Yet it's not all about Blossom as a jungler, or the SKT jungle position. Bae "Bang" Jun-sik, who along with Wolf has never been known as a strong laning AD carry, has performed better than community criticism would lead you to believe. SKT's miscommunication on the Rift has led to poor teamfighting, leaving Bang unable to do what he does best, put out damage in teamfights. Faker has been caught out while backing, and has visibly felt enormous pressure to carry SKT out of its slump, leading to small mistakes that he would usually never make. While adjusting to his new role as an SKT starting support, Effort has made rookie positioning errors that, while not game-losing, are costly when added in with all of SKT's other problems.
Throughout the team's 2017 summer woes, various SKT members came forward to say that substituting players was sometimes nothing more than gaining a fresh perspective or mindset and had nothing to do with playstyle. In this way, despite his flaws and inexperience, SKT starting Blossom was to the team's benefit.
SKT's series against the bbq Olivers was a microcosm for the team itself, its struggles and its future potential. Blossom kicked off Game 1 with proactive play on Jax, but was subsequently punished for his overaggression and mispositioning in Game 2. Again SKT played defensively, clearing minion waves with Azir and Sivir until bbq finally managed to mow them down with help from an Elder Drake and Baron buff. Game 3 was all about Faker's carry performance on Kassadin. SKT haven't figured it out yet, but there are signs of life.