Monday Morning Mid-Laner: SKT T1’s Faker

When Riot’s Season Three World Championship event began, all eyes in the group stage rested on the performances of one player: SK Telecom T1’s mid-laner, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok.   Of course, all of the Korean teams were expected to do great things going into the tournament; the “Korean hype train” was strong indeed, and as someone who spent a lot of time watching the matches in Korea’s OGN Champions Summer unfold I had a lot of hope for the Korean teams going into the world tournament.

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Faker, though, stood out among that crowd even during the extremely competitive OGN season.  As the popularity of assassin champions in the mid lane grew, Faker’s Ahri and Zed became the stuff of nightmares, and he was able to perform feats of pure mechanical prowess and intuition in mid lane that quickly became the stuff of legends, such as his incredible Zed vs. Zed 1v1 with KT Bullet’s Ryu during the Summer Champions final, where he was able to pull out a victory in the 1v1 despite beginning the fight severely behind on health.

But that was all par for the course for Faker in Korea, where he led his team to a victory in the Korean Regional Final against the same team in a similarly outstanding performance.  Faker and SKT T1 were relatively new faces in Korea this season; SKT was a new team assembled out of new players and took Korea by storm during the Champions Spring tournament.  Placing third in the most competitive tournament in LoL in your first go at it is nothing to sneeze at, and it would prove to be a portent for SKT and Faker’s meteoric rise to come.  As Worlds began, then, great things were expected from Faker and SKT T1, and they did not disappoint.

Granted, they got off to a bit of a rocky start, dropping a game in the group stages to China’s OMG and then having some hair raisingly close matches against North America’s Team SoloMid.  But even when his team did poorly, Faker seemed incapable of failing.  Managing to keep an insane amount of cool during heated moments in the game, he pulled off amazing plays such as lasthitting a minion mid-gank in order to hit level six and gain the ultimate that he needed to escape the gank itself.  Even during the loss to OMG, Faker still performed amazingly well, with a surgical level of calculated aggression that enabled him to snatch kills off of his lane opponent even in straight up lane fights.

This sort of mechanical perfection from all of their players carried SKT into the World Final, where they met China’s Royal Club for the titanic best of five showdown.  This matchup was a perfect clash of the old and the new; Royal Club contains several players who have been in the LoL scene since 2011 and earlier, and was a true veteran’s assembly of experienced, seasoned players, while SKT was a fairly fresh squad of players who, by and large, weren’t well known in Korea prior to joining the team.

The crucible of OGN Champions proved to be an effective one, however.  In the end, it seemed like the Koreans’ ability to keep a cool head was what enabled them to triumph over Royal Club in the final and secure the entire tournament and the Summoner’s Cup.  Royal Club’s trademark early game aggression seemed somewhat tempered in this matchup, and it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to think that the nerves of the situation may have prevented them from exhibiting the same kind of insane aggression they’d shown in earlier matches in the tournament.

One of my friends directed me toward an incredibly insightful article outlining the idea of “mental guard break” , where a team or player’s morale can be so devastated by the situation and performance of an opponent that they render themselves incapable of performing on the level necessary to win.  Here, it seems like SKT’s experience with the high octane crowds of Korea’s OGN events enabled them to keep their cool and perform at their highest level even with the pressure of the world on their shoulders, and that gave them the edge against Royal Club, with Faker’s extreme precision and mechanical ability forming the head of the spear that they drove into Royal’s defenses.

With the World Championship victory under their belt, what’s next for SKT T1?  Champions Winter, of course.  They may have won on the global stage, but it’s still entirely likely that their greatest challenges lie ahead in Korea, where untold amounts of hungry teams are just waiting to steal that top spot.  Coming back triumphant from the world stage will undoubtedly be a boost to their confidence, but it remains to be seen if SKT T1 will be able to hang onto the title for long, or if one of their erstwhile Korean rival teams will go for the throat in the Winter and show them who’s truly the best.  Whatever the case, Faker will be with them, teaching the world what it means to be the god of the mid lane.

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