Before the Korean finals start tonight between Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's SK Telecom T1 and Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho's ROX Tigers, there has been a lot of discussion about the best two players on the planet.
Faker and Smeb are the best in the world because of their versatility. They can flex and adapt to whatever composition their team needs.
For this season, Faker has been primarily a catalyst to Bang's hard carrying in the AD carry position and now Blank's ace jungler form in the recent meta.
The same can be said for Smeb: Regardless of whether it's the carry juggernaut meta of 2015 worlds or the tank role that we now find common in the meta, Smeb is a game-changer.
Offense. Defense. Engage. Decision-making. Playmaking.
And the one factor that makes them the top players in the world: the takeover mentality. Each player, regardless of the meta, has the ability at any time to bring out a pocket pick (hey, they both love Riven) and win the game off their backs.
Obviously, League is a team game more than ever, and these performances can't be duplicated constantly in a best-of-five series. But Faker and Smeb have a switch they can flip at any time that allows them to slam the door on the opposing team.
Now the difference between the two is clear: Faker is a one-in-a-billion prodigy, and Smeb is the poster boy for work ethic.
The first thing people say when they hear this is, "Wait, are you saying Faker doesn't work hard? He probably works harder than anyone."
And you're right. Faker does work hard -- and most likely works harder than almost any professional player to keep his standing as the greatest in the world. When SKT T1 failed to make the world championships in 2014, he said he didn't even watch Samsung White win the title in their home country of South Korea.
Instead, he was practicing. Working on his craft. Perfecting it.
Faker fits into the same mold as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Michael Jordan -- loaded with natural talent and the work ethic to push himself further to make sure no one behind him can catch up.
When he first picked up League of Legends, Faker didn't want to be the greatest of all time. He didn't set out for this goal. That's why it's easy to call him a "natural" and a prodigy. He played normals until the queue took too long to find people with similar MMR, and then he switched to ranked games.
He was pushed into the world of competitive instead of striving for it.
His natural talent at the game was put under the spotlight, and his obsessive work ethic to be the best and never lose is what kept him the game:
Two Summoner's Cups, four domestic crowns and an IEM World Championship, along with other accolades.
When we look at Smeb, it's hard to understand how far he's come unless you've watched the Korean leagues consistently two years ago.
I remember when Smeb was one of the worst top laners I'd ever seen qualify for Korea's Champions. He was terrible. He had zero coordination with his team, tried to make flashy plays before failing miserably and was on Incredible Miracle, the laughingstock of South Korea.
Smeb was a decent solo queue player on carries, but that doesn't mean much in competitive play. I can't count the amount of players who I saw accumulate impressive results in solo queue and get signed by a team, only to completely fail on the big stage.
For example, Park "Bubbling" Jun-hyeong, CJ Entus' jungler, was one of my rising prospects coming into 2016. He had a high rank in solo queue, dominated on carry junglers and looked like a first-rate talent. Throw him into the competitive scene and it's been an entirely different story, with a lot more downs than ups in his rookie campaign.
You can argue getting onto a better team such as the Tigers unlocked some hidden ability in Smeb, but he's an entirely different player than he was two years ago. You can look back at the start of his play with the Tigers in 2015 and still see the amazing improvements he's made over the past year and a half.
He has gone from a player that was good at wacky pocket picks to a multidimensional player who can also shot-call. Similar to Faker, you can see him getting better and better with almost every passing game.
Since Faker stepped into the world of professionals, he has been running, and except for a few instances against the likes of Samsung White, he has never been touched or passed.
His love for the game and innate talent make him better than everyone in the world. Sure, there have been moments where Imp, Deft and Dandy have gotten ahead of him, but his tireless practice, focus and fixation on winning has always gotten him back to where he wants to be: looking behind his shoulder with everyone chasing after him.
Smeb, since becoming a pro, has had to learn how to crawl and walk before breaking into a run.
It's been a complete makeover from his early days. While it's easy to pinpoint going from a bad team to a good team as the reason why he's evolved, it's not so simple.
Being on a losing team, especially one that never found any success, can kill a good player's career. There have been numerous talents who were anchored to terrible teams, lost for a few seasons and then vanished.
In the world of professional gaming, where you're always afraid of losing your job to the next prospect in line, losing can break a person. Smeb had been broken down on Incredible Miracle; since then, he has changed his entire career in less than two years.
As trite as it is, he never gave up. While Faker was ahead of the game, Smeb had to do everything possible to stay in it. He scratched and clawed his way past others like him, others who fell off the path to greatness.
And ultimately, here we are.
Saturday, the 22nd of April.
Faker in front of everyone, his uniform slightly dirtied from a few battles here and there over the past three years. The undisputed greatest League of Legends player of all time. The man who has never lost in an LCK final.
Then there is Smeb, his jersey covered in grime.
He has made it here, right to the top of the line.
If the Tigers win tonight, Smeb, even if it's for a day, can truly feel what it's like to be the best player in the world.