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With Faker benched, SKT searches for identity

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The Fall of the Unkillable Demon King? (3:24)

After seeing teammates rotate in and out of the lineup around him for much of the year, Faker now finds himself riding the bench. Ovilee May and Emily Rand explore. (3:24)

Before SK Telecom T1 faced the Afreeca Freecs on Wednesday in Week 7 of the League of Legends Champions Korea Summer Split, a picture of the team's coach, Kim "kkOma" Jeong-gyun, seated in the mid lane seat for SKT appeared on social media. This was SKT's new mid laner. The joke was that the chair reserved for SKT's mid laner is all-too-often called Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's seat. Yet Faker hasn't sat in "his seat" since a loss two weeks ago to rival telecom organization, KT Rolster.

In Faker's place sat former Phoenix1 mid laner Choi "Pirean" Jun-sik. Prior to the Afreeca series, SKT was undefeated with Pirean starting, tearing through Hanwha Life, bbq Olivers, Jin Air Green Wings, and even top-tier team Gen.G.

An old philosophical argument introduces the ship of ancient Greek hero Theseus. Theseus has long since passed, yet his ship from a great battle is enshrined in a museum. As time inevitably marches forward, timber rots. Pieces are replaced in the interest of restoration. The question of whether that ship is still Theseus' ship, or something else entirely, arises.

Is the memory of Theseus enough to maintain the ship's identity as his ship, even if the original parts are no longer present? Is this still Faker's ship?

In esports, fans attach themselves to players much more frequently than they do to organizations. Faker transcended this by becoming synonymous with SK Telecom T1. It was Faker who led SKT to the organization's first OGN Champions Korea title and League of Legends World Championship in 2013, mere months after his team, SK Telecom T1 #2 (later SK Telecom T1 K and finally just SK Telecom T1) had been formed. It was Faker who helped lead SKT to two more Worlds titles, two Mid-Season Invitational titles and five more domestic titles from 2014 to 2017.

Throughout the years Faker has remained steadfast and loyal to both the SKT organization and his home region of South Korea, even as many of his peers sought larger fortunes abroad.

The untouchable identity of SKT has been unassailable for years thanks to Faker's dazzling, transcendent performances. SKT would always find a way to win, regardless of how sloppy the team appeared to be before a playoff or finals series began. Faker, as recently as the 2017 LCK Summer Finals and the 2017 World Championship, still looked wholly capable of dragging his struggling team to another domestic and international title. He, and SKT, fell short both times, losing to Longzhu Gaming in the summer finals and Samsung Galaxy in the Worlds finals.

Faker was, and still is, the best player to have ever played League of Legends, even if he isn't the best player in the game at the present time. That title currently belongs to Royal Never Give Up AD carry Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao, despite his own recent break from competitive play to recover from fatigue and potential injury.

Faker, too, is now on the bench, although injury and fatigue have little to do with this. Starting on July 21 against Hanwha Life Esports, Pirean sat down in Faker's chair and has yet to leave.

This is a matter of identity. And SKT's identity without Faker remains a mystery.

The Pirean-for-Faker swap isn't the first time that SKT has experimented with benching the face of its franchise. It's also not the first time that SKT has tried out a unique roster permutation or role swap at the beginning or middle of the season. Most of the community has already forgotten support Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan's spring stint in the jungle position, or even that Pirean and company started Week 2 of this split in what now can only be seen as a test run against MVP. SKT lost that series 1-2.

Yet, Pirean receiving the nod over Faker ushered in an unlikely SKT resurgence. Before Pirean started against Hanwha Life, SKT was 4-7, well out of the playoff race and a potential (albeit unlikely) relegation candidate. With Pirean in the mid lane, SKT has made a surprising run at a possible playoff spot with four straight match victories until the team's most recent loss to the Afreeca Freecs.

To the community, Faker was, and still is, SKT.

Faker's playstyle has also defined the team for years. Even as bits and pieces have changed around him, his laning aggression with more passive side lanes and a supportive (in playstyle not champion choice) jungler has been SKT's modus operandi since 2015. Pirean, like Easyhoon so many years ago, isn't as talented as Faker, but plays safer in-lane. Unlike Easyhoon or Faker, Pirean also focuses on side lanes a bit more, which aids Blank in the jungle. It's no coincidence that Blank has looked stronger with Pirean in the mid lane.

Faker's continued absence on the Rift also isn't out of the ordinary for the current metagame. Other iconic veteran players have gone as far as to bench themselves, like Fnatic's Martin "Rekkles" Larsson. Yet, Pirean doesn't have the same carry prowess, nor can he single-handedly win a game for SKT like Faker can. The recent loss to the Afreeca Freecs with Pirean starting points to Pirean being a temporary fix rather than an actual solution for SKT.

SKT without Faker, still isn't quite SKT.