An overview and retrospective on the kingdom of South Korean top laners

TheShy is part of a long line of South Korea top laners that excelled in League of Legends. Provided by Riot Games

INCHEON, South Korea -- In the middle of the third game of the 2018 League of Legends semifinal between China's Invictus Gaming and Europe's G2, the teems stood at a standstill. Although the Chinese squad took the first two games in resounding fashion, putting away the third-seed from Europe wasn't an easy take. G2's top lane star Martin "Wunder" Hansen was having himself a game on his Irelia, and the other heavy lifter on the team, mid laner Luka "Perkz" Perković was keeping up with Invictus Gaming's leader Song "Rookie" Eui-jin.

If G2 could grab an advantage in the mid-game, maybe they could win the game. If they won the game, maybe, just maybe, they could become the first team in the game's history to complete a reverse-sweep at the world championships. Hey, they pulled off the biggest upset at worlds when they took down China's other title hopeful, Royal Never Give Up, in the quarterfinals.

Why couldn't they do it?

Why couldn't G2 pull off another miracle?

And then, four-versus-five in the river, iG's own starting top laner, 18-year-old, Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok, decided to end things.

After watching his jungler Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning trade his life for the team's second infernal drake, the rest of his team started to turn back, happy with the trade. TheShy, bubbling on the cusp of greatness throughout the entire tournament, jumped forward on his Aatrox with a complete disregard to the numbers disadvantage. He saw and opening, and he took it. When the fight came to an end, three G2 members were staring at their own reflections from the grayed out screens and Invictus Gaming were picking up Baron, putting any thought of a memorable comeback to bed.

In one play, TheShy eliminated G2 Esports from the League of Legends World Championship, and after a year-long debate, put another tired discussion to rest.

There was no question who the best top laner in the world was after that play. The millions around the world watching the semifinal were looking right at him.

"All [of] my teammates were calling to back away, but I wanted to go in," said TheShy in the press conference following his team's victory in the semifinals. "I was in a position to go in without too much risk. I think that came to a good result."

South Korea has always been good at League of Legends. Before this year, the region had never failed to make the worlds final when eligible. Their "worst" result at the event was all the way back in 2012 when South Korea's domestic champion, Azubu Frost, lost to Taiwan's Taipei Assassins in a series that is still thrown around as one of the greatest upsets in esports. Like TheShy with Invictus, teams from across the world import South Korean talent, hoping to build championship contenders from the wealth of talent the country brings forth.

Yet, out of all the positions in League of Legends, South Korea's affinity to the top lane is the greatest. While Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok grabs the headlines in the mid lane, there has not been a position with as long of a line of world-class talent than the top lane in South Korea. Outside of a few small windows in the game's professional past, there has been a straight succession of South Korean players picking up the mantle as the best top laner in the world.

To become the best South Korean top laner in the world at one point in time means you'll be remembered forever. For TheShy, who was whisked away from South Korea in 2014 to become a streamer in China for Team WE, his path has been different from any of the legends to come before him. But with his quirky attitude, sleek face covered with large, thick-rimmed glasses, and a blunt, straightforward way of speaking, it suits him just fine.

South Korea-born and Chinese-molded, TheShy represents both regions.

"I'm really proud to be a [South Korean] player in China," he said.

A history lesson on the succession line of the South Korean top lane kings

Before we move forward, it's important to set up the lineage that TheShy is following. Come, reader, and let's walk the hall of top lane kings.

I. Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu (2011-2012)

Yes, before he was the wisecracking innovative coach of the best-placing North American team in worlds history, Reapered was the real first superstar South Korean top laner. He won the first South Korean domestic championship with his team MiG Blaze. Although he failed to make worlds in 2012 on Blaze, the team getting upset in the South Korean Regional Qualifiers by NaJin Sword, his team was still rumored to possibly be the strongest team in the world during the time of that year's world championship.

II. Yoon "MakNooN" Ha-woon (2012-2013)

Mr. "DO DIVE!" himself. Although his place at the top wasn't long, his reign sure was a memorable one. He became domestic MVP with his performance over Azubu Frost in the 2012-2013 winter domestic season and delighted crowds with his flashy antics inside and outside of the game. There was never a turret MakNooN met that he didn't want to dive under.

III. Park "Shy" Sang-myeon (2012-2013)

No, TheShy is not related to this Shy. Shy, maybe the most innately talented player ever in the top lane, went from picking up League of Legends for the first time to playing in the world championship the very same year. He was allegedly signed to Azubu Frost even before his first account hit Level 30. The master of Jax himself, Shy never won a world title, but he did finish as runner-up in 2012 with Frost.

IV. Lee "Flame" Ho-jong (2013-2014)

At the height of his power, Flame was the most powerful top laner in the world. Before Faker showed up onto the scene, Flame was the best player in the world. His creep stalling tactics, impeccable laning phase, and hard carry performances still hold up to this day. Flame was so good in his prime the phrase "Flame Horizon" was coined in the west by Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, describing the act when one player amasses a CS advantage of 100 over his opponent.

V. Baek "Save" Young-jin (like for a month in 2014)

The outlier in the succession line. Every player on this list is still remembered fondly to this day ... except for Save. It was a weird time for top lane at the end of 2014. Save, the star player of NaJin White Shield, burned bright for a single tournament, even making the finals after out dueling Flame in a five-game epic to get there. His Shyvana was the best in the game's history. He came out of nowhere but led White Shield to a spirited worlds run where they'd crash out in the quarterfinals versus China's OMG.

After losing at worlds, Save left South Korea like many other players in the search of a big payday from one of the splurging Chinese teams. Funnily enough, Invictus Gaming signed Save, but because of the organization also signing mid laner Rookie and jungle superstar Lee "KaKAO" Byung-kwon, Save was left out in the cold. He only played a few games in the LPL before being demoted to the secondary league where he'd play out his days before quietly retiring from the scene.

VI. Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho (parts of 2015, 2016, parts of 2017, parts of 2018)

Smeb is unfair. If it wasn't for him, players like Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho, Lee "Duke" Ho-Seong, or maybe even Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon could have had their time alone in the sun. For the better part of four years, Smeb has been the best top lane player in the world. If he retired right now, he'd go down as the best top laner to ever touch the game, and the only debate against him is that he's still searching for his first world championship.

He won back-to-back MVPs, something only Faker has done in South Korea. He's won domestic titles on both the ROX Tigers and KT Rolster. He can be a hard carry like Flame or MaRin but also play a defensive-style at the same world-class level. Back when he first began as a professional player, he was one of the worst players in the league. After joining the Tigers in the 2015 season and growing from there, he's blossomed into an all-time great.

Smeb should be a world champion one day. This year could have been his year if it wasn't for a bespectacled kid wearing an iG jersey.

VII. Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan (2015)

The 2015 worlds MVP, MaRin is a difficult player to rank among the all-time greats. After talking about players like Smeb and Acorn, MaRin is almost the complete opposite player. Not every team can thrive with MaRin. He can be a difficult player to fit into a team, as seen be as his stints on the Afreeca Freecs and in the LPL in China. But, when he found the perfect team, like in 2015 with SK Telecom T1 alongside Faker, there was no one who could stop him.

VIII. Kim "Khan" Dong-ha (2017-2018)

Love him or hate him, Khan was the best top laner in the world at points in 2017 and 2018. Sure, that might say more about the circumstances -- Smeb slumping, Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin only caring when he can win over $1 million, TheShy sidelined with an injury -- but you can't take away his back-to-back domestic crowns and MVP award he won. His signature Jayce pick has become legendary. Although he lacks in other parts of the game at times, his laning might be the best of anyone in this succession line.

He's fiery, a trash talker, and believes he should be king. After seeing TheShy perform at worlds like many expected him to breakthrough last year and entirely missing the tournament this time around, Khan will have a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder going into 2019.

IX. Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok (2018-?)

The future is here.

Out of all top lane kings, only one, MaRin, has won a world championship. Generally, top lane hasn't been the gateway to the Summoner's Cup, but this year could be different. In the final in Incheon, TheShy will look across the stage at someone a month his junior, Fnatic's own hotshot top laner, Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau. Bwipo, in his first year as a professional player in a major region, is a fan of TheShy from the days when the South Korean youngster was a simple streamer, steamrolling opponents in solo queue on his signature Riven.

"I wanted to face [TheShy] at MSI," said Bwipo in an interview over dinner with ESPN before the semifinals. "His mechanics! TheShy combo! The Riven combo, you know it? That's something a lot of people know about. He was so good at Riven one of the standard mechanical combos were named after him. He must be a pretty good player. I've always had a whole lot of respect for him."

Bwipo, who dispatched of fellow standout western rookie Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, in the semifinal, doesn't get too excited about a majority of possible match ups. Before he faced Licorice, he gave the Canadian credit for how well he was playing, but it was a one-on-one duel that didn't get his blood boiling. He didn't want a final with Martin "Wunder" Hansen, someone who he sees every week at the European LCS. He wanted TheShy. That's the match up -- Bwipo grinning ear to ear, imagining the opening ceremony with the new South Korean top lane king staring him down -- that got his adrenaline pumping.

"That's what would get me going," Bwipo said, taking a second to think about the magnitude of the match up. "That's what I want. That's what I want."

For TheShy, asked a similar question on who he would like to face in the final in a press conference, looked nonplussed.

"There isn't any particular player that I would like to go against," he said. "However, I still have the memory of being defeated by Fnatic at the group stages. Therefore, I'd like to meet Fnatic again."

The road to becoming the next successor to the South Korean top lane throne hasn't been a walk in the park, though, for the teenager. Earlier this year after turning the world's eye on him with his explosive play in the LPL spring split regular season, he would have to sit on the bench after developing a hand injury. Although his substitute and former world champion, Lee "Duke" Ho-Seong, performed admirably in TheShy's absence, the spark he brought to the team was sorely missed. The team failed to even make the spring split final after he stepped away to recuperate.

Overall since the beginning of the 2018 Chinese domestic season in spring, Invictus Gaming is 57-11 when TheShy is in the lineup. If TheShy is in, regardless of who Invictus Gaming is going up against, they can win.

That's the beauty of Invictus. They're not a perfect team. Their jungler Ning can be too instinctual at times and find himself three levels behind at 10 minutes into the game. The team's bottom lane, while good and capable of winning games, can also be inconsistent. iG's macro isn't the greatest. They can be reckless, sloppy, and sometimes even downright laughable in their decision making.

But when you have the best mid laner in the world with Rookie and the best top laner in the world in TheShy, gaping holes can be covered. Any time a team can bring arguably two of the best five players on the planet to a shootout, a game is never out of reach.

Like his teammates, TheShy too can be reckless. He's not perfect. Earlier in the tournament, he was actually fined $1,000 for intentional feeding, griefing and negative behavior in multiple games in solo queue. Last year, there was some controversy in his home country when he was repeatedly seen on public streams rage quitting in games with fellow professional players.

He's cocky and sometimes try to do too much because of how talented he is, like in the quarterfinal KT Rolster where his hubris on Fiora in game three prevented a clean sweep. But that's who he is. For every game where he'll be a reason why the team lost by playing too loose, there will hundreds more similar to the one versus G2, in which he is the game changer between a possible defeat and a stomping victory.

TheShy is an odd one. Out of any pro player in the world, he might be the one who loves ARAM the most. On his secondary account on the South Korean server, he has numerous games of ARAM over the last two weeks. Pyke, Urgot, Anivia, Xayah, it doesn't matter. He loves ARAM. When it comes down to mechanics, he believes no one can beat him.

Bwipo will try in Incheon.

The rest of the top laners in China will try next year.

And if TheShy continues on the pace he is going, next world championship, there won't be a No. 10 in the succession list. Smeb, Cuvee, Kim "Kiin" Gi-in, and fresh-faced rookies like DAMWON Gaming's Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon can all try as much as they like, but we might be at the beginning of a new era we'll be talking about for a long, long while.

Say hello to the new king, world.

He doesn't expect to be handing down the crown anytime soon. Beat him in an ARAM first, maybe, then he'll talk.