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SKT: Return of the kings

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Expert
15th April, 2019
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I’ve written a lot about 2018 being the year that professional League of Legends changed. Apparently, though, no-one told SK Telecom or G2.

To be clear, though, the overarching theme of this change was never really Team X is bad now.

What changed was the meta-game, and the fact that new teams rose to the top (new regions, even) was because this suited their playstyle.

IG didn’t become the best team in the world overnight – their aggressive playstyle just became the correct way to play the game. The wary, hesitant style that Korean teams had used to dominate international competition since season two seemed to have been defeated.

The statistics bear this out. China, home of world champions Invictus Gaming, has the highest average kills per game of three main regions at 25. Europe, the other region that gained the most ground in 2018 is second with 23 kills per game while Korea sits back in third with just 21.

LCS, for the record, also sits on 21

Where this starts to get really interesting is when you switch to the same stat for playoffs. Across the board, these games had more kills. The already kill-hungry LPL goes up to 26 average kills per game and they still have a couple of matches left in their playoffs.

Here in Europe, LEC actually overtook even China during our playoffs, going up to a whopping 27 average kills per game. Granted, our grand final was a hammering, with G2 picking up 21 kills in the 18 and a half minutes of Game 3, but that merely underlines the point I’m getting at here: aggression is good.

Korea, historically the barometer for what is good League of Legends, supports this idea too. The region with the lowest average kills per game in its regular season suddenly shot up to joint second place in playoffs. Korea as a whole might still prefer a methodical, risk-averse style, but like both Europe and China, its best teams are happy to get their hands dirty.

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This lines up nicely with the meteoric rise of Griffin over the past 18 months, despite their crash landing in the LCK playoffs last weekend.

Griffin were lauded for their exciting play style and it paid off all the way up to the playoffs final. They topped the LCK easily, even beating SKT in both of their previous matches while topping the charts for both kills per game, kill-death ratio and game time.

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Does Griffin’s loss, damningly one-sided as it was, mean that the old style of Korean play is back in vogue? Will SKT rule the world with careful, considered play (and the odd miraculous team fight thrown in for good measure)?

Well, that second part is possible, but don’t confuse this SKT with previous incarnations. This SKT likes kills almost as much as Griffin. Indeed, the playoff final wasn’t just SKT saying ‘no’ to Griffin’s aggression, they countered it and responded with their own. Hecarim and Riven are not champions you pick for a vision-centric, map-control game.

The LCK playoffs showed that SKT are well and truly back, but, like all good teams, they have adapted to the game. The right way to play has not changed, it’s just that SKT has got good at it.

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What of Griffin, then? On paper, this matched was a mouth-watering prospect: two fan favourites going head-to-head in a meta-game that highly favours aggression and early game skirmishes. How did the team that personified these traits more than anyone else in their region fall so very far short when it really mattered?

For starters, they got too cute. Pantheon is a cute idea as a support, especially when paired with another crowd control-heavy champion with a lot of burst like Taliyah. But Pantheon, even in jungle or top lane where he gets gold, falls off a cliff as the game wears on. Putting him in a composition with Olaf was just asking for trouble if Griffin couldn’t absolutely dominate the early game of Game 1.

They played more straight-up in Game 2, but Faker and Clid put on a clinic. Faker of old made a return for this game and Griffin could almost consider it a write-off in a lot of ways. It’s a little reductionist (and untrue) to say The Unkillable Demon won one to five, but sometimes great players have a performance like this and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Game 3 was almost a repeat of Game 1, but where the early game went even worse. Elise replaced Olaf in Griffin’s jungle, but she has a lot of the same issues and SKT took full advantage of them.

In the end, SKT’s success is a sign not of the meta-game shifting back towards the conservative play style of old, but of SKT adjusting to the new style. The kings are back, at least for now, but exile changed them – gave them a new perspective.

A change is as good as a holiday, they say, and SKT have looked refreshed and refreshing this year.