As the League of Legends eSports scene prepares to welcome the first major international event of 2017, the favourites to finish on top is, once again, the Korean champions SK Telecom T1. With four returning members from the team that claimed last season’s World Championship, and arguably the world’s best player in star mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, SKT looked primed to cruise through MSI to another tournament title.
When assessing the strength of regions around the globe in 2017, there is no echoing sentiment of any ‘gap closure’ as was present ahead of the previous World Championship: Korea remains number one… followed by everybody else. A team from the Korean region has won the last four World Championships, the three teams representing South Korea were clearly the three best teams in the previous tournament. Even the performance of Korea’s eighth place ROX Tigers at the IEM World Championship showed that even bottom tier Korean teams can compete with the best representatives of other regions.
The reigning World Champions, SKT looked to have only grown stronger in the off-season with the addition of ROX Tigers star Jungler Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho and Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon from Immortals of the NA LCS. What was the already the undisputed best team in the world has somehow managed to grow even stronger, leaving many wondering if there would is any team that can come close to challenging them.
Then a deadly new KT Rolster began to form. It started with the two-time LCK MVP in Top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho joining the ranks, further bolstered by a bot lane that promised to compete with Korea’s best in AD Carry Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong. Reuniting with Mata, KT added another World Champion in Mid laner Heo “Pawn” Won-seok to the only returning member in Jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin. This completed the Korean “super team”, a team infused with World Champions and LCK MVPs that could surely challenge SKT’s grip on the title.
Yet, this new Korean “super team” would fail to dethrone the reigning world champions. In a match-up that may have been the most intriguing of all the regional championships, SKT faced off against KT after their two series in the regular season had gone to SKT by a razor-thin margin. Instead, the finals were anything but close as SKT pummelled Kt en route to a 3-0 series sweep to claim yet another LCK crown.
As we examine the teams who are heading to MSI, once more there does not appear to be a team who will be able to dethrone SKT. Although the LPL Champion has not been crowned, neither World Elite nor Royal Never Give Up seem to provide a serious threat to SKT over a five-game series in the knock-out stage. While SKT may lose a game in a best of one round robin, they are unlikely to stumble in a full series against the Chinese champion. Likewise, both G2 Esports and Team SoloMid would likely fail to take more than a game off of SKT in a best of five series.
If any team may be able to provide a close series against SKT, it is perhaps the Taiwanese champions and ‘Korean killers’, Flash Wolves. Led by the mid and jungler combination of stars Hung “Karsa” Hau-Hsuan and Huang “Maple” Yi-Tang, Flash Wolves were able to split their group stage matchups at the 2016 Worlds with a record of 1-1. After a season that saw them lose only one regular season game (to the second place finisher AHQ) and a victory at IEM Katowice where they went 7-1 against three of Europe’s best teams, Flash Wolves appear to be in the best form they have ever been as a team. While they may be able to provide a challenging series to SKT, it is hard to imagine them winning a best of five against the Korean champions.
As MSI continues to draw closer, the better question may once again be “who can come in second to SKT”? With many strong performances this season from Flash Wolves, G2 eSports, Team SoloMid, and both the Chinese finalists… that could prove to be a difficult answer to predict. With the regions (outside of Korea) closer than ever, we can only hope to have storylines as great as last years Counter Logic Gaming’s cinderella story, and SKT’s redemption run to the championship. While the Koreans seem firmly planted at the top, the crystal ball quickly becomes cloudy after that.