This article is part of our The Big Game series.
The Prediction: SK Telecom T1 3-1
The Short Version: Both teams had an abysmal quarterfinals performance, but the strengths of SK Telecom T1 line up very nicely against Royal Never Give Up, who has yet to demonstrate an ability to exert the early game pressure that has been the bane of SKT T1 at this tournament.
The Long Version: Before the quarterfinals, this prediction would have overwhelmingly gone the way of Royal Never Give Up. Worlds 2017 has perhaps been the worst international showing from SKT to date, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the running quite yet. While SKT T1’s narrow 3-2 victory over the Misfits shocked the entire world -- it was the first time in the game’s competitive history that a western team had ever taken a Korean team to the full five games -- it was an example of two good teams playing their hearts out against each other. The results might have been shocking, but it wasn’t due to SKT T1 playing worse than expected, just that Misfits were in unprecedented form.
If SKT T1’s quarterfinal match was a clash of two small titans, then Royal’s was two toddlers slinging mud at each other. Their opponents, Fnatic, were unequivocally the weakest team in the quarterfinal and yet the games were still shockingly close and often decided in ways that aren’t befitting of a supposedly top team. Royal’s winning formula all throughout 2016 involved a combination of smart jungle pressure from Liu “mlxg” Shi-Yu -- who is currently straight up feeding on a regular basis -- and engages that were both and decisive enough that even Korean teams were often caught off guard. The Royal of 2017, however, appears to win their important games via ridiculous Baron steals that require the opposing team to be less coordinated than most solo queue squads. Comparing the two teams is a sad, sad experience for any fan of the LPL, and makes it clear just how far this Royal squad has fallen, as well as makes one wonder if a certain other three-letter Chinese team shouldn’t be in this quarterfinal instead.
Alas, it is RNG and not EDG who is here, and thus the dreams of a Chinese team in the final look quite dim. Make no mistake, SKT are more vulnerable right now than they’ve ever been in the organization’s history, but Royal simply don’t have the tools to exploit that vulnerability. Any time SKT has crumbled, it’s been on the back of their horrifically bad early game. Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon has proven time and again why bringing him to this tournament was a complete mistake, especially since his understudy, Park “Untara” Ui-jin, was dropped from the World's lineup to include Han “Peanut” Wang-ho on the team, who has so far most distinguished himself as a high-bounty mobile ward. SKT’s weakness in the side lanes and jungle has been exploited numerous times over the course of this tournament, and a wide array of teams have managed to secure enormous early game leads against them as a result. While many of those teams have failed to seal the deal -- both EDward Gaming and Misfits most notably -- they’ve still been closer than teams from previous years could even dream.
Unfortunately, it’s a stretch to say that Royal can emulate the same early game dominance that these other teams have shown. Their early game stats aren’t as bad as SKT’s -- not like that says much, seeing as SKT T1 have the worst early game stats in the entire tournament -- but they’re also not exceptional. Most importantly, mlxg hasn’t exactly been having the best showing of his life at Worlds 2017, and all of the teams that have put SKT in the proverbial dumpster in the early game have featured very aggressive junglers that don’t have mlxg’s rather concerning fascination with suicide. Royal has largely leveraged their teamfighting prowess to get this far, and that’s a very dangerous game to play with SKT. While there’s no doubt that Royal can, in certain circumstances, take it to SKT -- hence the 3-1 prediction, not a 3-0 -- it seems insane to bet against SKT’s mid-game teamfighting after they’ve already come back from deficits that would bury literally any other team in world.
Royal definitely has a road to the finals here if they can get their act together and actually pressure the early game in the way they used to, but without Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong on the roster that simply seems to be beyond Royal’s abilities, and thus a Finals berth will almost certainly prove to also be beyond them as well.