They say that the test of a true champion is how they react after a loss. Whether they can bounce back or whether they crumble is how you can know their true quality.
If this is true, then SK Telecom T1 have proved themselves, not only through the organization’s three World Championship titles, but after rebounding from an exceptionally poor showing during the last LCK split to win playoff matches against Afreeca Freecs Samsung Galaxy and now, KT Rolster.
SKT’s most recent victory against their telecom rivals cements the team’s pedigree and qualifies the reigning champions for both the finals of the LCK Summer Split and – more importantly – the 2017 World Championship tournament.
— SK telecom T1 (@sktelecom_t1) August 19, 2017
It was, however, far from a flawless series for SKT. Games 1 and 2 saw a very strong performance from KT, particularly from the bot-lane duo of Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong and Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu with Mata’s Thresh and Deft’s Kalista, proving an almost unbeatable combination that steamrolled over SKT. Kalista would be banned by SKT in Game 3.
After losing the first two games of the best-of-five series, however, SKT were able to reverse-sweep KT by pulling out commanding wins in the remaining three games.
While there are many reasons that SKT was able to turn around the series, including an exceptional performance from their star mid-laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok on Corki in all three games, perhaps the most likely to be overlooked is the substitution of their jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho for Kang “Blank” Sun-gu.
In each of the three decisive games, Blank’s actions lead to First Blood for his team and his cross map presence led to early objectives and relatively decisive snowballs.
Speaking to Korean outlet, Inven Global, after the game Blank remarked:
“I was told to play burden-free. And to be honest, as a player, I feel much more comfortable when I’m subbed in for a losing game – because it’s not entirely your fault if your team ends up losing.”
Beyond stimulating a shift in morale for the team, for many analysts and commentators, Blank has proved to be the spiritual successor to SKT’s former jungler and three-time World-Champion, Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong.
Bengi was widely known for his supportive jungle style, for deprioritizing farming in his jungle in order to assert pressure around the map through vision control and counter-gank threats which allowed his laners to play more confidently.
Historically, both Blank and Peanut have not been known for this kind of supportive style, being known instead for early aggression and a preference for damage oriented jungle champions like Lee Sin, Graves and Nidalee.
However, with the shift in the jungle meta-game towards tanks that can be flex-picked into the top lane, Peanut seemed to struggle in this series (despite his solid performance on Gragas against Afreeca Freecs and Samsung Galaxy), looking somewhat lost on Maokai in Game 1 and ineffective on Jarvan IV in Game 2.
In Game 3, Blank on Gragas seemed to demonstrate a revival of the “control and pressure” style for which Bengi was known, having a clear read on the movements of KT’s jungler, Go “Score” Dong-bin, and using this knowledge to make plays across the map.
Game 4 proved to be very similar with Blank’s jungle pathing resulting in pressure on mid and top lane that SKT was able to successfully convert into kills for Faker and top-laner, Park “Untara” Ui-jin, and an eventual victory.
While Game 5 seemed to be defined more by mistakes from KT, with the true turning point for SKT coming from Deft getting caught out of position in the mid-lane, Blank’s Jarvan IV proved indispensable in early skirmishes and teamfights.
— lolesports (@lolesports) August 19, 2017
Blank’s role on the team seems now to be analogous to a panic button, one that gets pressed when victory is uncertain, allowing SKT to shift gears to a different style of play.
While one always needs to be cautious about over-hyping the actions of a single player in a team-oriented sport, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, with Blank in the jungle, SKT was on a 20 game winning streak until they lost to Samsung last month.
If the test of a champion is being able to bounce back from defeat, Blank’s performance against KT proves his quality and status as a reliable sixth man to an already strong SKT line-up.
Things are by no means perfect for the reigning LCK champions, but with this win over KT they have earned themselves a place at the 2017 World Championship, regardless of the outcome of their match against Longzhu Gaming on the 26th of August.
Fans and analysts alike will be watching the decisive series closely to see what role SKT’s junglers play in deciding the 2017 LCK Summer Champion.