Who is currently the best League of Legends player in the world?
In the landscape of a global game like League, this question has a lot of different answers depending on whom you ask. Someone who primarily watches North American play will answer one way, and someone who primarily watches Taiwan will say another. The important thing is opening up the discussion. To that end, here are my top 10 players in the world.
Let the debate begin.
1. Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok (SK Telecom T1)
I'm not betting against the undeniable greatest of all time until he loses in a best-of-five. Ever since EDward Gaming planned out the perfect anti-LeBlanc strategy to beat Faker at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, he hasn't been eliminated from a major tournament. He led SK Telecom T1 through a dominating 15-1 run at the 2015 World Championship. He rampaged through the Intel Extreme Masters World Championships in Poland. He defeated the Tigers in a final for a third straight time and took his fifth domestic title.
And when people started doubting him for the second straight MSI, what did he do? He came alive in the bracket stage, ran over the top-seeded and home crowd favorites Royal Never Give Up 3-1, and then systematically extinguished the American dream in the finals by sweeping Counter Logic Gaming.
Is Faker or SKT T1 having the best season right now? No. Does that mean I'm going to let myself look like an idiot by not ranking him first when in a few weeks' time he'll probably win his sixth South Korean title and soar off to the United States where I'll be covering Worlds? Heck no.
To be the man, you've got to beat the man. The reigning and defending IEM, MSI, and Summoner's Cup champion is "the man" of League of Legends.
2. Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho (ROX Tigers)
For me, Smeb is the player closest to unseating Faker as the world's best. He has won regular-season MVP in back-to-back seasons in the league's toughest region, something no one other than Faker has been able to do in the history of League Champions Korea. Smeb is the best top laner in the world, and he proved that at last year's Worlds where he was the ace carry of the Tigers team that made it up all the way to the finals ... before losing to Faker and SK Telecom T1.
In the spring split of this year, the ROX Tigers had an outstanding season and were rewarded with the regular-season title. Smeb was MVP, the Tigers were primed to win the playoffs, and then Faker showed up on his Cassiopeia, turned around Game 4 of the LCK finals, and Smeb was left as the bridesmaid for the third time against Faker.
Whenever Smeb has been inches, even less than an inch, away from being my choice as the world's best, he has been bested in a final against Faker. It happened at Worlds where Faker's Ryze shut the door on the Tigers, and it was the same story in the spring when Smeb couldn't outdo Faker or the rest of SKT T1.
Faker has always been destined for greatness. The mysterious amateur-prodigy-turned-worldwide-superstar's moniker resonates with everyone, even casual players. Smeb, on the other hand, worked his way up from the dirt of being called the worst player in South Korea during his rookie seasons and has won two straight MVP awards in the same league.
In a world where Faker is nothing but a fairy tale to scare children, Smeb is a multi-time domestic champion, Worlds MVP, and Summoner's Cup winner. Unfortunately, the Unkillable Demon King is real, and Smeb will need to win a major championship, most likely against Faker, to complete his underdog's journey to the heavens.
3. Ming "ClearLove" Kai (EDward Gaming)
With the inclusion of ClearLove, any of my top three could arguably be the world's best, and I would not contest those arguments. Clearlove is the timeless wonder of League of Legends. If Riot ever decides to open up a Hall of Fame, Clearlove should be a first-ballot inductee.
It's crazy to think Clearlove was a part of the World Elite Chinese dynasty that won IPL5 over Fnatic and was the undisputed best team in the world. All of his then-teammates have retired from professional play, but Clearlove trudges on, as the true pride of the Chinese scene and the heart of the EDward Gaming empire he helped create after departing from WE.
While there are many elite junglers in the world, a lot of them newer and flashier than Clearlove, he is a player that can be depended on to produce results. He was a key member in the EDG team that was able to thwart SKT T1's world domination last MSI in Florida; however, the team failed to get further than the quarters at the World Championships the same year.
While winning the Summoner's Cup isn't the be-all and end-all when it comes to a player's worth -- I'm not going to rank 2011 winner Bram "wewillfailer" de Winter over Clearlove -- it's a factor when Worlds is fast approaching. Out of the top three players in the world, one has won the trophy twice with two drastically different teams, and the other two have failed to lift even one.
4. Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu (EDward Gaming)
Deft is our second League Pro League player in a row, and also the second from EDG. Deft, another top player without a Summoner's Cup, might be the one who wants to win it most desperately. At 2014 Worlds, he failed on top Korean seed Samsung Blue when sister team Samsung White embarrassed them in the semifinals before eventually winning it all. After getting knocked out in the quarterfinals at last year's Worlds with EDG, Deft broke down crying, saying he wanted to return home to South Korea for the sole purpose of winning the Summoner's Cup.
Eventually, he decided to stay with EDG, and his obsession with winning the Summoner's Cup might come to fruition this year with a powerful EDG lineup that has an undefeated record in the Chinese region this past season.
5. Bae "Bang" Jun-sik (SK Telecom T1)
Along with Deft, I really couldn't decide whom to slot as the current best AD in the world. Bang, the de facto ace of T1 during times where Faker only plays Karma mid for months on end, has been debatably T1's best player this year; he has established himself as more than just the utility AD who gets starved out due to the top and mid roles getting all the resources.
Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan's departure to China freed up Bang in the bottom lane to become more of a leading man in SKT T1's starting five, and the swift-footed AD carry has a domestic title, IEM world championship, and MSI crown to show for his upgraded role.
6. Han "Peanut" Wang-ho (ROX Tigers)
The only reason why I don't have Peanut at the fourth spot is because everyone above him has had a longer tenure at this echelon in comparison. Last year on NaJin e-mFire, Peanut was misused and benched for a large part of his rookie season instead of getting the time needed to work out the small kinks in his game. On ROX, he has found his soulmate in Smeb when it comes to playing together, and the young jungler has transformed into a well-rounded player a year after NaJin wasted its chance. Smeb and the Tigers have believed in Peanut from the very beginning and have worked through his rough patches to get to where they are now.
If Peanut and Smeb can stay together -- I'm looking at you, China, with your billionaire sons and North America with your former NBA players -- it's likely the two could become the greatest one-two punch in the game's history. The two are on the same wavelength when it comes to playing the game, and Peanut's emergence has taken Smeb from the top 10 to, in my opinion, second-best right behind Faker.
7. Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong (Royal Never Give Up)
The "Maestro" himself, Mata sits on my ranking as the best support in the world at the moment. For me, while ROX's Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon could certainly be in this position as well, Mata's ability to actually win a major tournament and lead a team to gold rates him slightly higher than the ROX Tigers support.
GorillA is as solid and been more or less as good as he was at the end of last year when he was in the debate for the world's best, but ROX this split has been carried by the dynamic duo of Smeb and Peanut. When it comes to Royal Never Give Up, Mata is the man that stirs the pot and is looked upon by his teammates as some sort of demi-god that was purchased by mone-- I mean, bestowed by divine intervention.
Although Mata fell to Faker at MSI (hey, so has everyone on this list not named Bang), he still has a chance to tie the SKT T1 ace in Summoner's Cup wins if he can lead RNG to a championship this year. If he can, Mata would become the first player in history to not only win the Summoner's Cup on two different teams, but be the first to win it in two different regions as well.
8. Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho (KT Rolster)
It's hard to argue Smeb isn't the current best top laner in the world, but Ssumday will try to change people's minds in the LCK playoffs and possibly at Worlds. Last year, when Ssumday and Smeb were battling for that honor, it was Smeb who outclassed Ssumday in the quarterfinals of the World Championship to eliminate KT Rolster from the tournament. This current summer split, it was another clash between the two dynamic top lane carries, and it was once again Smeb who came out the victor, winning the league's MVP title by a hair over Ssumday.
KT Rolster sits in the semifinals of the LCK summer playoffs after slaughtering Samsung Galaxy, and Ssumday will need to overcome Faker's SK Telecom T1 on Friday to make it to the finals where the Tigers and Smeb currently sit for another swing at the best-top-laner-in-the-world title.
9. Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon (ROX Tigers)
The third Tiger on the list should give you an indication on how talented the team is. Although Smeb and Peanut are the outstanding carry duo of the team this split, GorillA continues to be the consistent backbone of the team.
GorillA will be participating in his fourth LCK championship this coming season, and he's also qualified for the last three World Championships with ROX the past two years and NaJin White Shield before that. The only thing separating Gorilla for being on the same tier as Mata is his absence of a championship, which is similar to Smeb with Faker. GorillA lost to Samsung Blue in his first LCK final and has dropped three straight major finals to SK Telecom T1 in the past two years.
It feels like now or never for the Tigers. Three world-class players and a possibly wounded SKT should result in gold in the LCK summer postseason or the World Championship for the perennial runner-ups.
10. Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg (Team SoloMid)
Here we go, readers: the most divisive part of this ranking. I almost made this list only nine players because of the logjam of players at the 10th spot. I first had Song "RooKie" Eui-jin here, then switched him out for Taiwan's electric Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang, and I even considered putting one of G2 or Immortals' players at this spot. But when I really thought about it, I decided to go with Bjergsen.
He's the best player in the history of the North American League Championship Series. He is a two-time MVP of the league and could become a three-time winner in the coming month. He's consistent, he's an excellent all-around player, and if I had to choose a single Western player to build a team around, I would choose Bjergsen. He's similar to Song "RooKie" Eui-jin in that he has been individually impressive but hasn't broken through with a big performance on the Worlds stage. The difference between Rookie and Bjergsen, however, is that Bjergsen will most likely get a chance at changing that this year with the best TSM lineup ever assembled around him, while Rookie is marooned on a capsized vessel.
Bjergsen has the necessary tools to move up this list. We'll see if he can as the summer transitions into the russet leaves of autumn.