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The Moment: SK Telecom T1's new groove

SK Telecom T1 are crowned 2017 Mid-Season Invitational champions (Riot Games/lolesports)

SK Telecom T1’s first-ever best-of-five series against Taiwan’s Flash Wolves doesn’t last long. A mere hour and a half from the moment that both teams take to the Rift in Game 1, SKT is on the Flash Wolves’ Nexus for the third time, sweeping the series. Their victory came so quickly that catering had barely arrived before the energetic Korean team filed into the press room for a post-game conference.

Until this moment, the Flash Wolves had the upper hand against the world’s greatest League of Legends team, SK Telecom T1, all in best-of-ones. They had earned the nicknames, “SKT Killers” and “Korean Killers” due to their winning record.

On Friday, May 19, 2017, that record swings in SKT’s favor. Flash Wolves previously had the advantage at 4-2. With a single best-of-five sweep, SKT now own their head-to-head record at 5-4.

“Did you know it was going to be so quick?” Yahoo Esports asked SKT top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon after the series.

“Yeah,” Huni replied.

“All along?”

“Yeah.”

“Are finals going to be that quick for you?”

“Yeah.”

It’s a familiar scene. The members of SK Telecom T1 partially obscured by falling confetti, their hands around yet another trophy. The 3-1 finals series against G2 Esports isn’t as quick as Huni had predicted, but it’s another victory for SKT nonetheless.

Although SKT’s 2017 Mid-Season Invitational championship title was expected, the team has a different attitude this time around. As they walk through the maze of hallways in Rio de Janeiro’s Jeunesse Arena, they have a natural style, even a slight swagger.

Since 2013, SK Telecom T1 have been a confident team, but this is the first event that confidence is present in everything they do: the way they walk, their press interviews and interactions, inside jokes and jabs on the MSI main stage, and their playstyle on the Rift.

“I don’t think there’s a really good team that can beat us or give us problems,” Huni told me after Day 1 of the tournament. “Our goal is just winning MSI and we’re going to try hard for ourselves.”

Huni’s SKT teammates followed his confident lead, saying multiple times throughout the tournament that they would win.

“If we keep playing at this level, and also fix some of our mistakes that we have made, it won’t be that difficult to achieve no losses this championship,” SKT support Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan said after Day 3.

On Sunday, May 21, Huni and SKT followed through on their words. The bold prediction of an undefeated tournament run didn’t come to fruition, but they earned yet another trophy for the SKT case.

The arrival of Huni and former ROX Tigers jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho in the 2016-17 offseason quietly ushered in a new era for SKT. Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, already an aggressive laner himself, would have two additional dive buddies in the duo, along with one of the most consistent bottom lanes in the world in Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan.

SKT didn’t falter in the 2017 LoL Champions Korea Spring standings, but they did looked shaky at times. Peanut, who had never been an intuitive, pathing jungler even while on the Tigers, struggled to adjust.

Kang “Blank” Sun-gu at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational (Riot Games/lolesports)

Part of this is due to the expectations of the SKT jungle position since the days of SK Telecom T1 #2 in 2013. Forged by Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong, SKT T1 #2 developed a style that encouraged Bengi’s intelligent pathing and warding patterns, rather than deferring to a more gank-heavy early game.

Initially, Bengi was also a jungler who ganked more frequently on the likes of Lee Sin, Jarvan IV, and Vi to get his laners ahead and start the SKT T1 #2 snowball. Bengi’s play evolved into the default SKT jungling style. Facilitating Faker in the SKT mid lane became Bengi’s primary objective. He achieved that by tracking his opponents in the jungle and laying down a strong vision net. Despite hiccups in 2014, and later in 2016, Bengi created and embodied the SKT jungle.

All other SKT junglers have slowly been assimilated into the Bengi mold, for better or for worse. Kang “Blank” Sun-gu in particular struggled to adjust his pathing when stepping into the starting jungler position in 2016. Although he made visible mechanical errors that immediately drew attention, the bulk of community ire towards his mistakes was somewhat misplaced, since it was more due to team adjustments rather than individual performance.

SKT’s acquisition of Peanut came two days after Bengi’s departure. For the first time, SKT would not have Bengi to fall back on if their latest jungler couldn’t mesh with the team. When Peanut initially had trouble meshing with the team and communicating with his lanes, Blank stepped up — and into the Bengi position.

With a year on SKT under his belt, Blank combined his natural affinity for DPS jungle champions with intelligent pathing and warding to aid Faker. Where Faker had perviously facilitated Blank as the jungler adjusted to the team in 2016, Blank repaid the favor this past split.

Blank came to the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational as SK Telecom T1’s substitute, but did not play a game. Even after Peanut’s more questionable early games — his pathing on Ivern was particularly interesting and inefficient — SKT rallied around the young player. There was never any doubt, even when Peanut lacked early game impact. The rest of the team did what SKT has always done better than any team in the world, adjusted.

Han “Peanut” Wang-ho and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational (Riot Games/lolesports)

SK Telecom T1 have never been an insecure team. Taking their lead from the quiet and focused Faker, they’ve had an aloof and overly-polite veneer until this year. Now with Huni and Peanut, the team is louder, more chatty. Peanut valiantly tried to talk to me in English. Wolf asserted himself in and out of interviews. They talked trash. Even if they were not faultless in game, they backed up their words with actions, helping each other grow as a team.

After interviewing Wolf for the second time, I thanked the SKT support as he was quickly ushered to his next media destination. I turned to his translator Lee Ho-min, thanking him for his translations. Ho-min laughed.

“Wolf is a fun interview,” he said. “They have all been having a lot of fun here.”

It’s SKT’s second Mid-Season Invitational title in three years, adding to their three League of Legends World Championship titles and four domestic championships in that timeframe. Now, they have a bit more swing in their step to go with their recent spotless international record.

Emily Rand’s love of the 2013 KT Rolster Bullets will never die. You can follow her on Twitter @leagueofemily