The Moment: KT Rolster's superteam experiment being put to the test

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KT Rolster support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong (OnGameNet/Twitch)
KT Rolster support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong (OnGameNet/Twitch)

We have countless reasons to be wary of “superteams.”

Littered on the competitive League of Legends cutting room floor are so-called superteams — 2015 Oh My God, 2016 Longzhu Gaming, and 2016 Team SoloMid, among others — that failed to reach the lofty goals set by their organizations and fans alike. It’s far more likely that a superteam will flop rather than flourish, regardless of the talent on paper.

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Now, that dreaded specter of failure looms over 2017 KT Rolster — the superteam du jour.

This season’s KT Rolster five are, separately, among the most decorated players in League of Legends history. Adding up their titles — just championship titles, not finals appearances — yields two OnGameNet Champions titles, one LoL Champions Korea title, two World Championships, five LoL Pro League titles, two Mid-Season Invitational titles, one KeSPA Cup title, and one IEM World Championship victory. Their roster has been touted as one of the strongest ever assembled, compared favorably with the Samsung Galaxy White team that won the 2014 World Championship (which had current KT mid laner Heo “PawN” Won-seok and support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong in its lineup.)

When KT looked shaky at the beginning of 2017 LCK Spring, the general consensus was that they would improve with time. Naturally, despite their talent on paper, it would be a while before the team would fully gel. Until then, they would rely on the raw power of their roster to overwhelm opponents.

And until they met MVP in Week 5, it worked. KT’s 2-0 loss to MVP was supposed to be the team’s wake-up call. Coach Lee Ji-hoon cited MVP’s victory as an important loss for his team before taking on erstwhile esports rival, SK Telecom T1.

KT Rolster facing SK Telecom T1 (OnGameNet/Twitch)

Against SKT, KT showed off their greatest strengths and most exploitable weaknesses. Their first series was one of the strongest best-of-threes that the LCK has seen since its inaugural season in spring 2015. SKT eventually took the series 2-1, but KT was visibly on the cusp of greatness.

Facing SKT a second time that same week, KT looked arguably weaker, trying out different champions against SKT in an attempt to topple their rival. Fully aware that they were not strong enough to best SKT head-on, they turned to creative compositions that they were unfortunately unable to execute.

Execution, not drafting or talent, has been KT’s biggest weakness this split.

A League of Legends roster is a delicate balancing act. Whether an organization has gathered a superteam, like KT, or simply stuck with the same assembly of players in hope of reaching their maximum ceiling, like MVP, a myriad of factors go into a team’s success. This can range from how loud the voices are on the team, personalities in and out of game, expected gold distribution, general resource distribution (including jungle proximity)…the list stretches on. All of this can get in the way of execution, especially with three strong voices on a team like KT in top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho, jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin, and Mata.

Although it would be easy to simply default to Mata’s experience and renowned micromanagement of his teammates, this won’t work on KT, a group of veteran players all with their own proclivities thanks to years of experience. It’s difficult to imagine Mata taking AD carry Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu aside and going over the finer points of last-hitting as he did for Royal Never Give Up AD carry Wang “wuxx” Cheng last spring.

In addition to the in-game learned behaviors of these five veterans, KT now has to find a unifying voice, something the team has visibly lacked on the Rift. It’s easy to criticize one player performing poorly — PawN has emerged as the primary target of community ire — but with so many veteran cogs in the machine, pinning blame on only one player is unfair.

There are also out-of-game issues that indubitably affect the team. PawN’s back problems plagued him during his two years with China’s Edward Gaming, and while fans may have hoped that these would magically disappear as soon as his feet touched Korean shores once more, they have not, sometimes making practice difficult. Throughout his career, Deft has taken losses hard — something that his Samsung Galaxy Blue teammates and OGN poked fun at in a 2014 feature. Most recently, Smeb missed a fan meet due to illness. There’s little doubt that the players are dissatisfied with their performances, well aware of the lofty expectations that were set for this roster prior to the season’s start.

It’s easy to blame this on the community, but much of the hype came from the players and KT staff themselves. Coach Lee made it clear that this roster was designed to beat SKT, unlike prior iterations of KT.

Yet, following their loss to Kongdoo Monster, KT is now in third place behind Samsung Galaxy and SKT. Sitting at 10-6 with two series left to play, KT is guaranteed a lower winrate than their 13-5 series record in both 2016 spring and summer. Last year, KT were condemned for sticking with support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan and mid laner Song “Fly” Yong-jun. Hachani was seen as a liability due to his penchant for face-checking the nearest brush and Fly’s odd champion pool was often called into question. Already, they’ve won fewer series than this supposedly worse iteration of the team.

KT Rolster jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin (OnGameNet/Twitch)
KT Rolster jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin (OnGameNet/Twitch)

With playoffs looming, KT faces even more pressure to perform. Based on how they’ve handled pressure this split, it’s difficult to see them as Korea’s MSI representative.

But perhaps some solace can be found in last year’s KT team. Despite the fact that they failed to make both MSI and the World Championship, 2016 KT managed to knock off SKT in the summer playoffs and narrowly missed beating the ROX Tigers in the 2016 LCK Summer Finals. They improved from spring to summer, and KT stuck with the team long enough to ensure growth. Like most teams, this lineup needs time, even if the renowned names on the roster seem like they would instantly improve any team.

KT Rolster in potentia can be the best team in the world. They can be whatever glowing adjectives we ascribe to their five superstars. In execution, however, they’re something entirely different. Time will tell whether this is just another failed superteam experiment or the team that finally knocks SKT from their throne. Hopefully, time is something that not only the organization, but the players themselves, will allow.

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

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