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Esports League of Legends

SKT Peanut: Evolution of an apex predator

peanut

Wangho “Peanut” Han earned international acclaim as the star jungler for ROX Tigers (ROX) at Worlds 2016. His hyper-aggressive playstyle and clutch Baron steals on “Lee Sin” won over legions of fans. After losing out to SK telecom T1 (SKT) in the semifinals that year, Peanut would later leave ROX Tigers to join SKT. Over the past year, Peanut’s playstyle on SKT has grown increasingly measured and calculated, far less aggressive than his performance on ROX. Coming into quarterfinals at Worlds 2017, Peanut’s lackluster performance raised several red flags. Despite the criticism, Peanut delivered when SKT closed a five game series against Royal Never Give Up (RNG), to send the reigning champions to their fourth World finals appearance. Let’s take a look at how SKT as a team, built Peanut to evolve beyond his former glory.

SKT’s Winning Formula

peanut
Credits: LoL Esports Photos

In their Worlds victories in 2015 and 2016, SK telecom T1 made great utility of their six-man rosters. At Worlds 2015, SKT ran with Ji-hoon “Easyhoon” Lee as the mid-lane substitute for Sanghyeok “Faker” Lee. In this season, SKT used Easyhoon to adjust how the team played stylistically. Then in 2016, Seong-ung “bengi” Bae stood as the team’s substitute jungler and specifically, the “game-closer” on multiple occasions. While most teams struggle to effectively utilize their six-man rosters or avoid using subs altogether, SK telecom seems to have figured out the formula.

At the semifinals of Worlds 2016, SKT found themselves down 1-2 against regional rivals, ROX Tigers. Coach Jeonggyun “kkOma” Kim made the call to sub in bengi over starting jungler Sungu “Blank” Kang. When the pressure was on, bengi delivered two stellar performances, sending his team to the finals. Over the 2017 season, Blank worked to fulfill the role of his mentor bengi. In the quarterfinals series against Misfits Gaming (MSF), Blank subbed in for Peanut as SKT’s match-closer, sealing away the series 3-2.

How does SKT continue to be one of the few professional League of Legends teams that can use substitutes effectively? Teams and players in the past argued that by having a substitute, team-scrims suffer. Because subs and starters have to share scrim time, teams effectively lose out on maximum practice time with a single player. Theoretically, this logic makes some sense, but how does SKT consistently perform with multiple subs and new players cycling in/out every season? The answer seems to lie in the relationship between SKT’s starters and subs.

Growing Pains

peanut
Credits: LoL Esports Photos

In 2016, while Blank was the starter for SK telecom, many critics saw him as the weaker jungler compared to the veteran bengi. However, Coach kkOma continued to use him as SKT’s starter, eventually leading SKT to their third World Championship. This dedication to the players undoubtedly pushes both starters and substitutes to grow. This is an aspect of coaching that many teams and players across all regions seem to ignore or overlook. While a starting position is certainly prestigious, SKT’s substitutes exist not as some second-rate bench-warmers, but as bastions for when the cards are down. When SKT call on bengi, and now Blank, the opposing team understands that SKT’s ace has stepped onto the Rift.

SKT uses these substitutes to create a symbiotic relationship between players like Peanut and Blank. The jungle duo constantly grows by watching each other’s play. The substitute ‘paradigm’ for SKT is fundamentally beyond that of any other League of Legends team. Because of this relationship, Peanut’s capacity to grow during the World Championship has been fascinating to watch.

When casters and analysts cited his poor showing in both the group stage and SKT’s quarterfinal match, Peanut’s mental toughness was put to the test. In high pressure situations, many players succumb to criticism. The doubts surrounding Peanut mounted further when Coach kkOma selected to start Blank in SKT’s semifinals series. Was Peanut performing so poorly in scrims that SKT would bench him in such an important match? The answer was a resounding, no. kkOma took this opportunity to push Peanut beyond the doubters and critics. When SKT found themselves down 1-2 against Royal Never Give Up, kkOma called on Peanut to close.

evolve and overcome

peanut
Credits: LoL Esports Photos

Peanut loaded into game 4 on Gragas, a standard “Cinderhulk” jungler with which SKT could both engage and disengage teamfights. Gragas did not reflect Peanut’s hyper-aggro playstyle, instead he played the role his team needed. For the past year, Peanut worked to prove himself on non-carry champions and in a crucial elimination game, he delivered. After winning game 4, SKT looked at the final match of the series. Again, Peanut would be their closer. Standing undefeated, with an 8-0 record in elimination games, SK telecom ran the risk of losing it all. The burden weighed on Peanut’s shoulders. In the ensuing 41-minute game, the SKT jungler would cement himself as one of League’s clutch apex predators.

Coming in game 5, Peanut locked in Jarvan IV as his champion of choice. After taking red buff at level one, Peanut found a window of aggression. As RNG’s bottom-lane extended aggressively, Peanut made a brilliant punish, ganking at level two to secure first blood not three minutes in. He maintained this early proactive style to push SKT into a comfortable ~2.0k gold lead throughout the mid-game. Then, at 33 minutes, Peanut found the game-deciding pick onto RNG’s jungler Shiyu “Mlxg” Liu. This single pick earned SKT a Baron buff that would start an unstoppable siege into RNG’s base. SK telecom closed out the game after clutching a massive teamfight at the Elder Dragon.

In his post-series interview, Peanut spoke to coming into those elimination games with a “different mindset” than when he was starting. He said, “Since I was subbed in this time, I could fully focus on the series.” Despite a rough summer split and start to Worlds 2017, Peanut grew remarkably during the tournament. After dropping out in semifinals in 2016, Peanut has a shot at redemption this year. Will this growth be the deciding factor at Worlds 2017? Can Peanut continue to adapt both on-stage and in his mind?

Featured Image: LoL Esports Flickr

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