Since the inception of its professional domestic league almost five years ago, the country of South Korea has been known for its world-class top laners.
From the days of Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu leading MiG Blaze to the first Champions title to Yoon "MakNooN" Ha-woon becoming the first recipient of the MVP in Korea during his title run with NaJin Sword, the top lane has always been a position of pride for South Korea. And whenever legends of the top lane would deteriorate or retire, promising talents would take their place to create their own legacy.
Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong
Park "Shy" Sang-myeon
Lee "Flame" Ho-Jong
Choi "Acorn" Cheon-ju
Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok
Lee "Duke" Ho-Seong
Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan
These are the names, along with Reapered and MakNooN, that have shaped the foundation of South Korean League of Legends over the years.
Impact's superb Jax play prevailed over China's Royal Club to win Korea's first Summoner's Cup on SK Telecom T1.
Shy's longevity on CJ Entus has allowed him to start with the same organization who scouted him in solo queue more than four years ago.
Flame's solo lane domination needed to be seen in 2013 to be believed and prompted the creation of the term "Flame Horizon" for whenever a player out farms his positional adversary by over 100 CS.
Acorn and Looper of Samsung put a stranglehold on the position in 2014 when the top lane shifted from the one-on-one theatrics of Flame's style of play to more team-oriented teleporting and utility tanks.
After the Samsung top laners departed to China, it was Duke. Even with the top laner's heroic efforts to carry, the former top laner of KT Rolster made his name by winning the MVP on a hapless NaJin team that missed the playoffs with a 5-9 record.
But ever since then, the top lane position (in not only Korea but also the world) has been controlled -- outside of Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan's apex in 2015 -- by two players: KT Rolster's anchor, Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho, and the ROX Tigers' ace, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho.
Over the past three seasons of League of Legends Champions Korea, the premier league in South Korea, the pair of aces have won all of the regular-season MVP awards, with Ssumday winning in the summer of 2015 and Smeb winning in both the spring and summer of this year.
"KT's slaying of SKT T1 in the semifinals has opened up the third possibility that many thought we'd never see: ROX vs. KT."
Saturday's matchup between the ROX Tigers and KT Rolster is a battle between the two clubs that have been under the three-peating thumb of SK Telecom T1 the past two years. While there has been a "Big 3" in Korea for more than a year now among T1, the Tigers and KT, the result has been the same: Either the Tigers or KT playing Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's T1 in the final, and SKT T1 winning in decisive fashion. SKT's overall domestic finals record over the past two years sits at 9-2.
KT's slaying of SKT T1 in the semifinals has opened up the third possibility that many thought we'd never see: ROX vs. KT, and the battle between the world's two greatest top laners. Ssumday, the centerpiece of the KT Rolster organization, and Smeb, the man who embodies everything the Tigers stand for as a team.
The two battled in the semifinals of last year's summer split, and it was Ssumday's KT that advanced in a close set. Smeb got the upper hand in the World Championships, where the Tigers knocked out KT Rolster in the quarterfinals to eventually finish second place in the world against, guess who, SK Telecom T1.
Since Smeb toppled Ssumday in Europe a year ago, the Tigers frontman has taken the mantle as the world's best in the top lane while simultaneously battling with Faker to be called the best in the world. Ssumday, who was embarrassed by Smeb at Worlds, and then by Faker in the semifinals of this year's spring split semifinals, has finally redeemed himself; this finals is his chance to make amends for his falters in the past.
The Heir of KT Rolster
While the finals between ROX Tigers and KT Rolster feels like it'll be the first big championship win for either of the team's top laners, it wouldn't actually be Ssumday's first domestic title if KT win on Saturday. The KT Arrows, widely regarded as the worst team to ever win a Korean championship, won in the summer of 2014 with an ultra-aggressive, kill-or-be-killed-even-harder team that won each of its playoff matches 3-2 to narrowly tightrope its way to the finish line.
Ssumday in 2014 on Arrows was a good, solid role player. That's to not take away from his accomplishments on the team. It was a five-man effort which pulled out the victory, but he wasn't anywhere near the player he is today. Back then, the team was built around the mid lane and jungle power of stars Song "RooKie" Eui-jin and Lee "KaKAO" Byung-kwon with Ssumday acting as a cog to make the machine run smoothly. He had moments where he would simply win lane and snowball from there, yet, for the most part, the Arrows was KaKAO's team - the charismatic leader who won the MVP award that summer.
Ssumday has been KT's pet project over the last three years. He came into the league as a bright-eyed rookie who only knew how to play Renekton and spent time on the bench before evolving into an instrumental part of the championship Arrows team. When KaKAO and Rookie left to join the ranks of other elite Korean players chasing a higher salary in China, Ssumday, the third or even fourth man on the title-winning Arrows team, was now pushed into a role as a main carry.
"The KT Arrows, widely regarded as the worst team to ever win a Korean championship, won in the summer of 2014 with an ultra-aggressive, kill-or-be-killed-even-harder team. "
Maybe more than any other player in League of Legends, Ssumday has followed the same timeline, albeit a bit more spedup, as many traditional athletes who've become superstars. They're drafted and protected in the early days before being put into more strenuous situations. Ultimately, after all the grooming and preparation, they're ready to be the leader and ace of the club that entrusted its future to them.
Ssumday is that kind of a player. He debuted around the same time as Faker, but instead of being an all-star from day one, it's been a steady process from KT Rolster, building him up to be one of the best players in the world. He's been in finals, won a championship as a role player, and now, in his second year as "the man" on KT Rolster, he's ready to hoist a trophy won off his shoulders as the heir KT Rolster always thought he could be.
The Story of Smeb
Usually when kids struggle with something, someone older will approach them and tell a story about how with enough hard work they can someday become a master.
I don't want to pull back the curtain or anything, but a lot of times that story the kind person tells isn't reality. Floundering with the same task after a certain amount of time means someone just doesn't have the knack to excel there. Usually a new path is the answer.
The story of ROX Tigers' Smeb is something out of an overly cheerful picture book. There once was a boy who really liked playing games. The boy thought he was so good at a particular video game called League of Legends he decided to go pro. Sadly, when the boy played in the world of pros, he soon found out he was seriously lacking. The boy was made fun of, becoming a joke to the commentators as the worst at his position.
But then one day, after seemingly quitting his dream, the boy returned to play on a new team with fellow outcasts and rejects. The hodgepodge of players grouped together to become the best team in the world, and the boy who was once the joke was becoming one of the very best. After two years of progression, the boy had become a man, and his teammates were atop the globe as the greatest team with the once-loser now the team's star player.
Seriously, it sounds like bad fan fiction, but it's true. Smeb was a joke. He was really, really bad. He had a silly ID (no one really knew what it meant in the Western region), and his play was nonsensical much of the time. It all changed when he joined the Tigers, a band of rejects plus world-class support Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon.
"Seriously, it sounds like bad fan fiction, but it's true. Smeb was a joke. He was really, really bad. "
Smeb is the ultimate outlier in not only esports but also sports in general. He wasn't a highly touted rookie who had a few rough seasons before he turned it around. To put it as bluntly as possible: Smeb was definition of a failed professional in esports when he was on Incredible Miracle when he started out. His team never competed in the playoffs, and outside of a few nice performances, he was a player whose name many were hard-pressed to remember after his weakling team was eliminated from the premiere league.
On Saturday, Smeb will walk into the finals with the chance to become the champion of the league that once made him a punch line. He's won the MVP twice this year, and with a runners-up at Worlds under his belt, Smeb could become the greatest top laner of all time if he wins the domestic title and then wins the Summoner's Cup in the fall.
Faker's story of the Unkillable Demon King is a special one. Like LeBron James or Tiger Woods, Faker was a once-in-a-generation prodigy who exceeded the lofty expectations. He is far and away the greatest player to ever play the game. When you expected greatness from him, he delivered, and so the title of "God" was presented to him.
Smeb's story, though, might be even better. There are many examples of superstars like Faker, but there is no other story like Smeb's. He rose from a player once considered the absolute worst in the league to back-to-back MVP awards and a few steps away from becoming one of the greatest of all time right behind Faker. While millions have failed at their craft after putting everything into it, Smeb is the one case of a man who was shunned and laughed at by the world and persevered through it all.
Ssumday is an heir of a franchise.
Faker is a God.
Smeb is just a boy turned to a man who didn't let anything or anyone take away his dream.
And strangely enough, that's even scarier than an Unkillable Demon King or an heir to a throne.