At the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational, SK Telecom T1 support player Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan listed off his star teammates. Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok was naturally first, and Wolf listed himself last with an affable laugh.
This wasn't the first time Wolf lamented his position as a moon to the brighter suns of SKT. On Nov. 17, 2016, Wolf joked with Inven's Kim Byung-ho in a coffee shop. "Interview? I've never done anything other than a winner's interview after a game," he said. The implication being that everyone wants to interview the stars of SKT, and Wolf was not considered a star.
In that same Inven interview, Wolf also gave us a taste of his own unlikely future. "Honestly, I don't like playing support very much," he said.
Wolf wanted to shine.
A cursory glance at Wolf's solo queue account shows him playing multiple roles on the ladder. Like most South Korean professional players, Wolf doesn't stick to his assigned role on SKT while playing solo queue. Spamming Shyvana and Kha'Zix despite his presumed position as the starting support for SKT isn't all that out of the ordinary for an LoL Champions Korea player. This is why, outside of a few, well-kept rumblings from scrims, Wolf's appearance as SKT's jungler in Game 3 of their first series against the ROX Tigers last week shocked LCK spectators, casters and analysts.
SKT AD carry Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Wolf were heavily criticized for their underperformance after SKT was swept by Samsung Galaxy at the 2017 League of Legends World Championship. This past offseason, SKT picked up support Lee "Effort" Sang-ho. Despite Wolf and Bang's extensive time together, SKT was expected to swap between the experienced Wolf and the younger, more aggressive Effort.
Instead, SKT stunned the world by revealing Wolf as its jungler after the ROX Tigers decimated SKT's top side of Park "Untara" Ui-jin and jungler Kang "Blank" Sun-gu.
South Korea has two shining examples of roleswapped junglers who have gone on to have domestic and international success. KT Rolster's Go "Score" Dong-bin switched to jungle from the AD carry position in 2015 and is known as one of -- if not the best -- jungler in the world. Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong stepped into the jungle role for 2015 CJ Entus. He later led Samsung Galaxy to two Worlds finals and is currently a reigning world champion.
For Score and Ambition, the transition wasn't pretty. Score had no idea what to do with KT's losing lanes in early 2015 and was rendered utterly useless. That same season, Ambition acted as a fifth laner, ignoring his lanes completely in favor of powerfarming and failing to provide the support to his team expected of a strong jungler. Both took multiple competitive splits to become junglers rather than team leaders who happened to be in the jungle position.
Wolf's jungle debut has also been less than inspiring. Like his role-swapping compatriots Score and Ambition, his understanding of efficient pathing is still rudimentary. In his first jungle match, Wolf miscalculated his damage during a Level 3 Sejuani gank, leading to First Blood for the ROX Tigers. He was easily tracked by ROX's Yoon "SeongHwan" Seong-hwan and Jin Air Green Wings' Eom "UmTi" Seong-hyeon. Both Faker and Untara rotated into the top side jungle to place vision for Wolf so he could farm, and Faker also did a lot of heavy lifting, using his presence on Ryze to take pressure off of Wolf in the jungle.
If Wolf is being evaluated on a scale of whether he's a good jungler, then the answer is no. If you want to add a dash of optimism, then the answer is not yet. Yet if Wolf is being evaluated on whether he's the right player for that particular leadership role within SKT, the answer is more complex. Following the awkwardness of Blank's first split with the team, Bae "bengi" Seong-woong's position as a reliable option toward the end of 2016, and Han "Peanut" Wang-ho's struggles throughout last year, SKT doesn't appear to want a traditionally strong jungler. Instead, they want a player who can fit into a role of facilitating Faker and setting up vision for neutral objectives, especially in the river. This previously caused Blank issues throughout 2015, and Peanut in 2016 when both failed to fit the bengi-shaped hole left in SKT.
With Blank -- competent at worst -- and rookie Park "Blossom" Beom-chan on the bench, the question of why Wolf is SKT's new starting jungler turns into why the team is not starting Blank instead. Blank had the best season of his career in 2017. Coming off the bench for Peanut, his narrative was compared to bengi's in 2016, despite their different jungling styles. This was supposed to be Blank's year, with Blossom behind him.
That being said, Wolf is a self-described "mood maker." Alongside the other players of SKT, Wolf stands out as a jocular optimist who can dispel lingering negativity from a tough loss. Despite his lack of competitive jungle experience, Wolf's unique personality is likely invaluable to SKT. Since 2015 and the days of Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon, SKT has been known for making odd choices in player substitutions and draft. Wolf is the latest in a long line of head-scratching decisions from SKT management. Roleswapping and becoming a strong competitive jungler takes time and experience, even in the most successful cases of Ambition and Score. If SKT wants to win now and reclaim its throne this split, Wolf jungling isn't likely to get it there.