Zero to hero: The transformation of the world's greatest top laner

Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho takes the stage at IEM Katowice 2015. Provided by Patrick Strack/ESL

Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, 21, stands in the crowded media room at the 2016 League of Legends World Championship. The eyes of the media from across the world shift to him and his team as they come off another win in the group stages. Cameras and recorders begin to appear, focusing on the ace of the team. Two years ago these same people might have ignored him. Now, as Smeb enters from behind a curtain to be greeted by the massive contingent of Chinese media at the event, he is one of the biggest superstars in the sport.

On stage, even more eyes are locked on Smeb, the ROX top laner shedding the skin of his past self to transform into a confident, well-spoken leader for his new team. There were days of sitting in silence after countless losses on Incredible Miracle, but now he was being cheered for by the fans. Women swooned when he took off his glasses in postmatch interviews. Whether he's backstage doing an interview or in front of thousands of fans watching him play live, the story is the same: All eyes are locked on him.

Smeb has been called the best top laner in the world for about a year's time now. Nowadays the specific niche of "top laner" is being dropped in favor of "the best," with him rivaling SK Telecom T1's ace Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok.

When you talk to him, he is straightforward, pausing to think of an answer before delivering it earnestly. When asked if any player had given him trouble in the group stages or stood out to him, he answered with a plain, "No."

He is the two-time, back-to-back winner of the MVP award in South Korea's premier domestic League of Champions. In the past four seasons, he's never dropped below fourth in the MVP ranking and led his team to three finals. After losing his first two, Smeb finally defeated KT Rolster 3-2 to take home his first major championship before voyaging off to the World Championships in America.

Smeb grew up near Seoul. He lived with various family members throughout his adolescence: his mom, dad, older brother, and at times with his grandmother and grandfather. His days in school were as mundane as could be. When it came to grades, he was an average student who didn't study enough to raise his rank, indulging in video games instead.

Back when Smeb was growing up, the world of professional competitive gaming wasn't an alien concept. Cable stations like Ongamenet and MBC broadcast professional Brood War tournaments daily. The shows showcased the heroes of the 2000s, such as the "Godfather of esports" in South Korea, Lim "BoxeR" Yo-Hwan, and his archrival Hong "YellOw" Jin-Ho. BoxeR, and especially YellOw, have transcended esports and have become variety stars.

"My older brother liked games so I watched him play and also started playing," Smeb said. "When I was young, I liked to go to the arcade. My desire to be good when I started a game became stronger so I also worked hard at League of Legends.

"I really liked StarCraft matches. It's because of the previous generation of pro gamers' influence that I thought the perception of a pro gamer career wasn't bad and I was able to take this path. The player that I liked the most is Kim 'Bisu' Taek-young. The reasons for that are because I played Protoss and because he was a very good gamer."

Smeb, who didn't have his head in the books, became fascinated by video games. He first started playing League because of a recommendation from a friend and climbed to Level 30 without too much issue, immediately starting ranked play right after. Nocturne was the first champion he learned.

After making a name for himself on the Korean ladder, he was eventually invited to his first pro gaming team: Incredible Miracle. IM, known as the "Gatekeepers of Korea," was a club known for its ability to stay in the upper flight of the South Korean league but never make the postseason. Smeb's parents were supportive of his move and allowed him to complete his schoolwork while also acclimating to the environment of living in a gaming house for the first time as a recruit.

For Smeb, his early days as a pro gamer were anything but glamorous. While Faker would make a seamless transition to the world of pro gaming, Smeb would struggle through his first few seasons. He was a weak player on an equally weak team, staying afloat in Champions by the skin of his teeth, taking a few gasps of air above water before being submerged.

"While Faker would make a seamless transition to the world of pro gaming, Smeb would struggle through his first few seasons."

"I remember being at the very bottom and being a low ranking pro gamer for [two] years after becoming a pro gamer. It was very difficult," he said. "Also, I was a good [AD carry] as an amateur, but IM wanted a top laner. It was because I wanted to be a pro gamer that I switched to being a top laner even though I was inexperienced. Now that I think about it, top lane is a position that requires a lot of experience. I wonder if that's a reason for my poor performance."

The top lane has always been the pride of South Korea. It has consistently produced the best top laners in the world since the game's inception, and Smeb's early days were against the best his region had to offer. The top lane, by 2014, was more than just dueling your opponent one-on-one in the laning phase. Smeb was forced to properly communicate with his team when teleporting into battle, and the introduction of lane-swapping (the act of both teams swapping their bottom-lane duo into a matchup with the solo top laner in the laning phase) put him in a difficult position to survive.

Although he'd show flashes of brilliance on his signature Riven, those happy memories were quickly forgotten. For every good play full of life and vigor, there would be ten washed-out screens signifying failure. Every win was met with even more disheartening losses. And for every step forward, there were even more steps back.

"Even when I left IM, I thought it [was] obvious I would continue working hard at being a pro gamer," he said. "Even though I worked hard for two years, the results didn't show it so I had the heart to start over in a different environment."

By the end of 2014, Smeb's name began appearing atop the Korean Challenger ladder. On Incredible Miracle, Smeb was primarily under the role of being the tank player for the team. He was the meatshield that his carries were supposed to use to succeed. Unfortunately, IM's carries weren't good; it meant Smeb would die without any damage to fight back, dropping to the ground seconds before his teammates would succumb to the same fate.

Online, however, Smeb was a carry player. He showcased the mechanical and technical skills he wasn't in the position to flaunt on Incredible Miracle. There were times he would be given the rare opportunity to be the carry, but generally, Smeb was a forgettable player.

"Whether the first person from the Tigers to contact me was Kuro or Gorilla, I don't really remember," he said. "I got contacted by one of [those] two, and the members of the team seemed good so I joined. When I started playing for IM, I was still inexperienced in many ways. I saved the experience and practice from those two years at IM. How to live in a gaming house, how to communicate with teammates, how I should work hard to do well, etc. I learned a lot so I was more mature."

When Smeb reappeared on the Tigers, it was like seeing a ghost in new clothing. "Smeb? That guy?" was a common expression when the lineup was announced for the qualifications of the 2015 season of Champions. The team, outside of star support Kang "Gorilla" Beom-hyeon, were a bunch of misfits and rejects from other clubs in South Korea. Jungler Lee "Lee" Ho-jin was an unremarkable mechanical player formerly of the NaJin organization. Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng, the starting mid laner, was the definition of average. Finally, the team's most well-known player, Kim "PraY" Jong-in, had seemingly retired from professional play in the middle of the 2014 campaign before returning to play with the Tigers.

Smeb was an oddball on a team of oddballs. Even Gorilla, who was considered one of the best supports in South Korea, was categorized as weird for joining a team that was seemingly below his skill ceiling. Smeb, who saw his dream of being a pro-gamer die while on IM, was given a second chance.

"When I first saw him, he seemed like a passionate player," said Gorilla. "I thought he would be really stubborn because he has been a player for a while, but it wasn't so."

"Honestly, while I didn't watch [him on Incredible Miracle] in detail, at that time I saw him win against SKT once and was surprised," he continued. "I thought he did have talent."

Gorilla was correct in his assessment of Smeb: He had talent, and lots of it. On the Tigers, a more mature, experienced Smeb was given the chance to play the style he was always suited for.

"When I was in IM, I didn't realize how important solo queue was," Smeb said. "Before I left IM, I practiced hard in solo queue and had a high rank. That experience gave me a lot of confidence and I think I learned a lot from it."

The Tigers went from oddballs and rejects to the top team in South Korea in little under three months. A boy who grew up idolizing StarCraft's Bisu, one of the biggest heartthrobs for fangirls in South Korea, was now the Bisu for a new pro-gaming generation.

Over the two-year history of the Tigers, the team has gone through various sponsors and titles. They were first the Huya Tigers when the club qualified for the 2015 season of Champions. That spring, the team would become the GE Tigers. Not too long after that, the GE Tigers would turn into the KOO Tigers that went all the way to the Summoner's Cup Finals. After KOO was dropped as a title sponsor during the offseason, the team was simply the Tigers for a few weeks before rebranding for the final time as the ROX Tigers, the name the players stand under to this day.

ROX is not a sponsor or a title of some product. "ROX" is a derivative for the word "rock," and that was how the team saw themselves. Their bond together, as friends and a family, was as strong and solid as rocks.

"Every pro gamer, no matter who, wants to win at the very biggest tournament," said Gorilla. "Now that I'm no longer so young, I think, if we won this year's world championship on top of LCK, it would be such a blissful year."

Standing in Smeb and the Tigers' way from the Summoner's Cup is the same team that has stopped them before: SK Telecom T1. If the Tigers are the fun-loving, joyous best friends who stuck together through thick and thin, SKT T1 are the unbreakable machine that never stops rolling forward. The rivals have faced off in three finals, and each time SKT has prevailed over the Tigers. At last year's World Championships, the fans in Berlin tried their hardest to support the Tigers, chanting endlessly in hopes of a close series, but Faker silenced them all.

When Smeb faces Faker and the rest of T1, he reverts back to the boy who was ridiculed on Incredible Miracle. Even though Smeb has won a domestic championship, it wasn't against SKT T1.

If Smeb wants to truly become the best in the world, there is no other way around it: he must kill "God" inside the world's most famous arena, Madison Square Garden.

"There's actually a lot of very sad moments [in my career], but recently what comes to mind is the spring finals [against SKT T1]," said Smeb. "I really worked hard, harder than ever before, and I was bursting with confidence but we lost to SKT so it was very sad and difficult."

"[SKT T1 to me] is the mountain I always need to overcome."

When you speak to Smeb, unlike other players, he does not shy away from the competition for the title of "best in the world." He wants to be known as the best, and he knows the man he needs to dethrone to attain it.

"I think that not only is Faker a player who has amazing mechanics and intelligent plays, but also he is a player who doesn't slack off even when he is in the seat of the best," said Smeb. "To surpass Faker, I need to have all of his strengths. I think that my strength is good communication with members of my team. If I can have both, I think I can become the best player in the world."

The semifinals could be his final chance with the Tigers to take down the deity he wants to surpass. It is not technically the grand finals, but for Smeb and the Tigers, it might as well be.

The thunderous rookie start in the spring of 2015? SKT T1 swept them 3-0 in the finals and ended the singing and laughter.

The passionate run through the 2015 World Championships even with the team's title sponsor folding? Faker turned the finals venue into a library and quieted the boisterous Tigers for a second time.

And in the spring of this year, when Smeb put everything into practice to defeat them? SKT T1 beat them for a third time, not even needing to go to a fifth map to take care of the Tigers.

ROX's semifinal against SKT T1 is not merely a best-of-five series where the winner moves on and the loser goes home.

To the Tigers, this semifinal -- this one match -- is two years of blood, sweat and tears. It is everything corny song sung in the pick/ban phase. It is every joke made in a postgame interview. It is every uniform or costume they've worn throughout their five name changes and countless changes in style. It is every scream in the practice room at 1 a.m. when someone gets a pentakill. It is every morning they've opened their eyes, and every night they've closed them, dreaming of finally beating SKT.

"I don't know how to describe the members of the Tigers," said Smeb. "Family, friends, I could describe my teammates that way. The things I don't show my family, the things I don't show my friends -- there are those things -- but I can show those things to them. It's hard to describe, but I don't think I'll ever have a team like this again. The people who let me comfortably show the best that I can play. I'm so lucky to have come to where I am. I think I'm so lucky to have met these teammates. While they are players with tremendous skill, even without their abilities, they are really good people with whom I am fortunate enough to have shared and pursued a dream."