Twenty-five minutes into SK Telecom T1's group stage match with China's EDward Gaming at the League of Legends World Championship in Wuhan, China, the home crowd could not be happier. Each kill against the three-time world champion South Korean club SKT raised the audience decibels to the next level. A sea of fans lit up the stands like a Christmas tree, holding signs displaying love for EDG players on light-up boards. In a game in which the crowd favorite, EDward Gaming, needed to get ahead early to have a chance, it did just that.
One kill after another, it was on the verge of being one of the fastest and most dominating victories at the tournament this year. SKT wobbled and was out of sorts; every opportunity to stabilize was taken away by EDG, and each successful maneuver was backed by a unified roar of approval from the audience. Getting ahead of SKT was one thing, but this was a whole different scenario. This wasn't a simple snowballing of a first kill into a solid gold advantage. This was an avalanche.
But then, EDG was winning until it wasn't anymore. Like countless times before, a new challenger had posed a threat to SKT's claim of best in the world, and once again, that challenger failed in miraculous fashion.
When the South Koreans walked to the stage following their historic comeback win over the Chinese league champion, the stunned crowd dropped their personalized signs to the ground and could muster only a respectful cheer, still in disbelief. The fans wanted to believe EDG could become a rival to the best team in the world.
Unfortunately, at the moment, SKT has no true rival. And if nothing improves in South Korea or the rest of the world, there won't be a real challenger for the foreseeable future.
Although the name Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok is the first one you think of about the dynasty of SKT, the fruits of success of the world's most decorated esports organization were laid long before the gaming prodigy booted up a computer for the first time.
Back home in South Korea, SKT T1 is not just an esports team. While the esports craze has taken over internationally with the success of StarCraft II worldwide in late 2010 and League of Legends a year later, competitive video gaming has been around for almost two decades in South Korea. An organization since April 2004, SKT T1 is not unlike the Dallas Cowboys in America or Manchester United in England. In a country with the fastest internet connection average in the world, South Korea is deep-rooted in computer culture, with teenagers (and even adults) flocking to internet cafes known as PC Bangs to pay an hourly fee to play their favorite games alongside friends. Those same kids would go home and watch esports on dedicated gaming cable channels, witnessing the esports boom of South Korea in the early-2000s, with SKT leading the charge and the "Godfather of Esports" Lim Yo-hwan the team's creator and most famous figure.
"SK Telecom T1 holds close to a monopoly in the mind space of Korean fans and pro players alike. [Its] name is synonymous with greatness, and Koreans always gravitate towards [a] winner," Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith, an English commentator for OGN in South Korea, said. "Whenever public tryouts for positions are announced, players will put down their name and compete on equal footing. Your previous accomplishments mean nothing when you're trying to find a way onto this all-conquering squad."
As kids in Los Angeles rolled up balls of paper in the classroom, threw them into the air and yelled "Kobe!" to emulate Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, the South Korean pro esports players of today grew up seeing the iconic logo of SKT and dreaming of playing with the "Emperor" Lim Yo-hwan, winning championships and being a part of the best video game team in the world. Clubs such as KT Rolster and Samsung Galaxy have similar pasts, but their legacies can't compare to SKT's. While KT and Samsung had their moments, SKT never stumbled, moving on from one legend to the next, with the torch passed at the perfect time to continue the cycle of greatness. Lim Yo-hwan would regress, and his protege, Choi "iloveoov" Yun Sung (now a head coach in League of Legends for the Afreeca Freecs), would take over where he left off, even eclipsing his elder's achievements.
"Getting the chance to become on the SKT squad is making yourself an instant favorite for every accolade that can be achieved in a calendar year: LCK title, MVP awards, MSI, Worlds," PapaSmithy said. "SKT is never less than a joint favorite for the top honors achievable in a player's career."
That consistency and the trust the SKT corporation has in its esports branch is what has kept its T1 organization ahead of everyone else in League of Legends over the past four years. Whenever a possible rival has emerged, that team has broken apart due to the lack of backing from its umbrella company.
Samsung White could have changed the entire history of League of Legends if its corporation matched salaries with the Chinese teams that signed Samsung White's players after winning the 2014 World Championship. Instead, Samsung decided to go into a full rebuild, the players who kept Faker and SKT from qualifying for the 2014 World Championship went to China, and SKT held onto its core, thus maintaining its prominence. Faker had the chance to go to China and make far more than he earned in the 2015 season, but due to the likes of Yo-hwan and other greats and his overall passion to become the best once more, he stayed with SKT.
SKT's next great rival, the KOO/ROX Tigers, ended in similar fashion to Samsung White. However, the Tigers never defeated SKT on as large a stage as SSW did or won a world title. But the two teams had a series of the best matches the game has ever witnessed. The Worlds semifinal last year at Madison Square Garden in New York City is a must-watch for any fan of the game. But as with SSW, following its defeat at Worlds, the team broke up due to a lack of money to go to the players. The stars outgrew their salaries, and the team's ace, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, joined KT Rolster.
Now, Longzhu Gaming is the next possible great rival for SKT. Longzhu became the first team to dethrone SKT in a domestic final this summer, and with the right balance of veteran and young talent, the starting Longzhu lineup has the potential to be even greater than the current SKT and usher in a new era of League of Legends. The problem is, as it was with the past two teams, the organization itself lacks funding. KeSPA, the governing esports body in South Korea, took over Longzhu this past season when it was revealed that the team had a history of paying players late. As a team chock-full of talent and personality, alongside the new franchising models in North America and China, the chances of Longzhu staying together past this tournament -- even if it wins Worlds -- seem slim to none.
"SK Telecom T1's success is something that has mystified top analysts and pundits alike ever since they began their grip on international League of Legends competition in 2013," Smith said. "Is it having the best player to ever play the game, Faker? Is it having the mind behind each and every of their successes, coach Kkoma? Is it the extensive support structure of one of Korea's Flagship Mobile Phone Carriers SK Telecom, a sponsor that has invested in esports since 2004? Is it the Korean culture, with its focuses on respect for elders and the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts?
"Realistically, it's an amalgamation of these factors. SK Telecom across multiple esports have shown they have the golden ticket to success, and it'll take more than a house tour or speculation to replicate their legacy."
As the fans in Wuhan return home for the evening wondering what it'll take for their EDG team or someone else from China to become SKT's rival, that thought is not exclusive to them. International teams can import only two non-residents per team, and for the South Korean teams who do get to SKT's level, it's a cycle of a year or two of contending before going their separate ways for greener pastures. All the while, SKT stays the same, with the prestige and backing from the telecommunication company keeping it as it has always been since entering esports: at the top, the envy of every team in the world.
Kids grow up in South Korea watching esports on television and hoping to one day don an SKT jersey.
Longzhu might beat SKT this year, but unless it finds a sponsor that can pay the wages its players will demand following an incredible past six months, kids won't be dreaming of wearing a Longzhu jersey. They'll be asking what happened to that one organization that beat SKT at Worlds before breaking up?