"Everyone at the Nexon Arena and you in the chat were there when the dream died for SK Telecom T1," English-language caster Christopher "Papasmithy" Smith said at the end of the League of Legends World Championship South Korean regional qualifier. Gen.G would advance to play Griffin. SKT were headed home. The camera panned to a smiling Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in in the Gen.G booth, whose team had just eliminated the winningest organization in League of Legends history from world championship contention.
"Their run that saw them hit three consecutive worlds finals, win two out of three in 2015, 2016, before falling to then-Samsung Galaxy [now Gen.G], does end today," Papasmithy said.
SKT had not only been the most decorated team in League of Legends, but had done most of it with the same core of players: Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik, and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan. This was the first time since 2015 that this SKT core, save Bengi -- who coached from behind the booth rather than sat in the seat of SKT's jungler -- had failed to make it to the League of Legends World Championship.
And now, after a volatile offseason, only Faker and the substitute bot lane duo of Han "Leo" Gyeo-re and Lee "Effort" Sang-ho remain. SKT released the last remaining part of that original core, Bang and Wolf, to the free-agent market on Nov. 19. Bengi also left his coaching position, leaving Faker the only man remaining from SKT's heyday.
SKT's new nine-man, star-studded lineup is already being hailed as one of the great teams of our time, despite never having played a single match. Top laners Kim "Crazy" Jae-hee and Kim "Khan" Dong-ha, junglers Kang "Haru" Min-seung and Kim "Clid" Tae-min, Faker, AD carries Park "Teddy" Jin-seong and Han "Leo" Gyeo-re, and supports Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong and Lee "Effort" Sang-ho make up the new SKT.
On paper, it's the roster that could continue a dynasty, making last season's nightmare a blip, much like the last time SKT failed to qualify for worlds in 2014. Regardless of results, a lot of the names on this lineup, especially junglers Clid and Haru, show that strong winds of change are blowing through SKT.
In a game like League of Legends, where meta shifts often decide the length of a player's career, SKT's overwhelming success over five years is considered a dynasty. To this day, SKT represent the only dynasty that LoL has ever had -- and possibly ever will -- given the game's capriciousness. SKT did it with the same core of players and playing a similar style across multiple metas, relying on strong teamfighting, a good vision net, constant vision denial and late-game scaling that punished any mistake made by SKT's opposition. SKT won so much through the years that this playstyle, for better or worse, became known as the default playstyle of South Korea.
Much of this was due to how SKT viewed their jungle position. Bengi grew from a jungler who was constantly in his lanes in 2013, into the SKT vision net -- known for his intelligent pathing and warding patterns. Whether Bengi begat SKT's style, or SKT begat Bengi's signature vision and pathing is still up for debate, but SKT has wanted this specific style for their jungler ever since.
Even when the team picked up Han "Peanut" Wang-ho in 2017, his aggressive counter-jungling play slowly turned more toward warding patterns. When Peanut couldn't get the job done for whatever reason, the team would substitute in Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, another jungler that SKT had spent the previous year trying to turn into Bengi-lite, substituting in Bengi for the clutch, series-deciding games -- a decision that helped them win the 2016 world championship.
Now, with two aggressive, invade-heavy junglers in Haru and Clid, this likely means a departure from the signature SKT scaling style. Partnered with the options of Crazy or Khan in the top lane and the bottom lane of Teddy and Mata, this lineup, save jungle style, looks a lot like the 2015 iteration of SKT with Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan. SKT has a strong bot side to deliver in teamfights, and more aggressive top laners who occasionally necessitate jungle attention due to their tendencies to overextend.
SKT has another identity beyond their former core: Faker himself.
Along with coach Kim "kkOma" Jeong-gyun, Faker is the lone constant on this roster, making him part and parcel with SKT's identity. He has always had a strong voice on the team both in comms and also through his in-game playstyle. If SKT stabilize mid and bot through the laning prowess of Faker and Teddy alone, this opens up a world of opportunities for a more aggressive top side, especially when you partner Khan or Crazy's laning style with Clid or Haru's invades. The only potential issues come from vision, or a lack thereof. Clid and Haru sometimes don't pay attention to the position of their laners or team vision, leaving themselves open to collapses when they invade. Faker is known for his opportunistic trading in-lane that then allows him to control mid entirely. This too can have drawbacks for the team if a trade goes awry, or if SKT's jungler doesn't then use that advantage to place extra vision.
A lot of how SKT evolves this year will depend on Mata, both in his roam timing -- Teddy has already proven from his time with Kwon "Wraith" Ji-min that he's more than capable of laning safely in a 1v2 -- and his leadership. Mata is known as an excellent shot-caller as well as his smart vision placement. For the first time, we might see SKT's support take over vision net duties, helping Clid and Haru stay safe.
On paper, this lineup does mark a departure from SKT's past. Now we just have to see them play.