The story of KT Rolster in League of Legends, as any fan of the team will tell you is one fraught with heartbreak and the phrase, “Almost doesn’t count.” KT have an infuriating way of coming within a hair’s breadth of the domestic Champions (later LoL Champions Korea) title before falling just short of winning, starting with the KT Rolster Bullets of 2013 summer, all the way to the 2017 Regional Finals’ 0-3 loss to the eventual world champions of Samsung Galaxy. Now their latest iteration has once again failed to win the LCK title and the right to represent South Korea at an international event. KT’s last appearance at an international tournament was the 2015 League of Legends World Championship.
Yet, as a KT fan since the KT Rolster Bullets’ international debut at the 2013 MLG Championship, I can’t bring myself to be particularly sad about this loss. It was expected. KT looked like a third-place team for the majority of this past split behind both the Afreeca Freecs and Kingzone DragonX, and finished the season in third place.
Their victory over SK Telecom T1 was cathartic. Even with the obvious caveat that this is hardly the best version of SKT — it’s the SKT organization’s worst since the eradication of sister teams in the 2014-15 offseason — the playoff victory, and a winning record over SKT in the regular season is still a confidence boost given KT’s prior mental hangups when facing their telecom rivals. Nothing exemplifies this more than support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong pulling out a roll of toilet paper from his bag after the series and using a generous amount of it to mop his sweaty brow. They finally did it. KT have seemingly tweaked their default 2017 superteam lineup into something more malleable this past spring, with notable growth throughout the split. If KT continue along this path, they could make a serious run at the summer title.
In League of Legends, team’s most-lauded lineup on paper is rarely its most successful one. Of all the KT teams post-Korean Exodus and sister team era, KT’s worst lineup was the only one to make it to a world championship. That year, KT didn’t even make it to playoffs in 2015 LCK Spring. The team was integrating long-time KT Bullets AD carry Go “Score” Dong-bin into the jungle position and also suffered from what were, more often than not, three losing lanes from top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, mid laner Kim “Nagne” Sang-moon, and the bottom lane duo of No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon and Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan. KT’s woes were exacerbated by Hachani dying on routine vision rotations, which frequently did not line up with Score’s pathing. Hachani stepped down from the team, leaving room for Jeong “Fixer” Jae-woo and later Lee “Piccaboo” Jong-beom, the latter of whom led the team to 2015 Worlds alongside the then-KOO Tigers and an unbeatable SKT. KT qualifying for this world championship said more about the quality of League of Legends in South Korea at the time than the quality of the team.
Since their appearance at 2015 Worlds, KT have not qualified for another international event save the 2017 Rift Rivals tournament, which is less of a major tournament and more of an international exhibition. Competition in South Korea has only grown fiercer. Vacancies left in the 2014-15 offseason have been filled by young, rising stars or, more recently, by the old guard themselves, returning to the LCK. Last year, three high-profile names returned to KT — Heo “PawN” Won-seok, Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu, and Mata — rounding out a superstar lineup with Score and former ROX Tiger Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho. This roster not only failed to win an LCK title and qualify for Worlds, but didn’t take a single regular season series against rival organization SKT. With expectations set sky-high by the team members and coaching staff themselves, the season was labelled a failure and led to the the departure of long-time head coach and general manager, Lee Ji-hoon.
Under a somewhat new coaching staff, KT remained a third-place regular season team this past regular season, echoing last year’s spring performance, albeit with one more series victory and a winning record over SKT. Unlike last year, they didn’t even make the LCK Spring finals.
So what’s new about this KT Rolster and why have hope for the future?
The obvious answer is KT mid laner Son “Ucal” Woo-hyeon, who was the LCK’s most outstanding rookie of the past split. Ucal sat on the KT bench since mid-2017, and only recently became age-eligible following his birthday this past January. Presumably, he scrimmed with the team for some time prior to his debut, especially given PawN’s chronic health problems.
Towards the end of 2017, PawN’s laning issues began to take their toll on the entirety of KT. He had previously struggled to have a push in mid and his mid priority only worsened throughout 2017 LCK Summer. This was combined with PawN’s lack of pressure elsewhere. He often looked lost on the map compared to his teammates and, unlike his performances in 2017 LCK Spring or his time on EDward Gaming in 2015-16, KT’s opponents weren’t chasing after him. With PawN not drawing pressure like he used to, KT’s mid-to-late game map movements were far more predictable.
It’s unfair to attribute all of KT’s problems to PawN’s lack of mid pressure. As late as this past split in their playoff series against the Afreeca Freecs, KT push for advantages when it’s not necessary, and have a tendency to misplay what they prioritize in draft. This isn’t a singular player issue, although Smeb seems to bear the brunt of community criticism since his ill-timed initiations are more visually obvious, and involves various members of KT aggressively pushing their advantages when the more prudent play would be to organize around neutral objectives and force opponents to come to them.
Ucal only fixes one of KT’s problems: mid priority. He makes certain that KT have pressure in mid — and KT typically draft him strong waveclear champions like Azir and his signature solo queue pick of Taliyah — which in turn unlocks either Score or 2017-18 offseason jungle pickup Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae. Rush isn’t the most dynamic pathing jungler, but he knows how to press a lead, which pairs well with KT’s generally strong early game and Ucal’s mid priority. Starting Rush with PawN’s inconsistent mid lane play would have been a recipe for disaster, and KT recognized this from the start, saving Rush for not only a meta that suited his invade-heavy aggressiveness, but a time when Ucal was more familiar with the team and LCK stage. For the latter half of the 2018 LCK Spring split, KT have prioritized integrating Ucal onto the team as their starting mid laner and, until their playoff series against the Freecs, it was smooth sailing for the rookie.
The Afreeca Freecs targeted Ucal’s champion pool somewhat by banning Azir in two of their four games and Swain in all four, but also used slightly off-meta picks to snowball their own early games. Ultimately, it was the Freecs’ stronger coordination and ability to capitalize on KT’s aforementioned impatience that earned them a hard-fought trip to the LCK finals.
Despite KT’s mistakes, this lineup appears more flexible with the arrival of both Ucal and Rush, the latter of which was almost written off as mere fanservice in a meaningless regular season game. Rush not only allows Score to scout his opponent, but offers a more aggressive early-game playstyle to supplement KT’s pushing lanes and newfound mid priority from Ucal. The resilience that was missing from KT’s 2017 lineup, which arguably reached its skill ceiling mid-2017 summer. Ucal and Rush aren’t plug-and-play perfect, and they don’t fix KT’s lack of patience, but they both have a lot of room to grow and a perfect environment of talented veterans to help them.
Historically, KT have always been a summer team. With Ucal and Rush integrated into what was the organization’s superteam lineup, they have a chance to reclaim that summer team title once more.