Song "Smeb" Kyungho has high aspirations of proving his worth as the greatest player in League of Legends. Normally, the reigning holder of that distinction, Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok, is the player to do it against. The stars have aligned for the epic matchup of titans in the 2016 World Championship semifinal, the one matchup the ROX Tigers conveniently skirted in their climb to their first LCK split victory. They still haven’t defeated SKT.
Unfortunately for Smeb, he doesn’t prove himself here. SKT isn’t his testing ground because, in this matchup, he’s nearly irrelevant. The best he can do is push out his lane in the winning matchup ROX Tigers will inevitably draft for him and convene with Han "Peanut" Wangho as soon as they spot their opposing jungler. He may even benefit from an early gank to the top lane, which will most likely come uncontested by SK Telecom T1’s jungler.
Smeb cannot seize the opportunity to be the best because in the grand scheme of things, this matchup is only cursorily about him; it’s much more about the perceived weak links of both teams. It’s about SKT’s Kang "Blank" Sungu or Bae "Bengi" Seongwoong, and on Smeb’s own team, Lee "Kuro" Seohaeng. The weak links, the question marks, can sometimes tell spectators the most about how a team plays. In the case of SKT and ROX, they dictate the pace of the game and the style they’ll play in a set driven primarily by the jungle and mid duo of each team. Smeb’s best available action is to not mess up, which is hardly a path to glory. If there’s glory to be seized for the Tigers, it will be done by Kuro and Peanut.
But Faker himself will remain important and central. That has always been the case for his iteration of SKT in ways that it will never be true of the Tigers. No matter the meta, SKT is a mid-centric team, and mid takes control of more of the map for them.
bengi, the starting jungler for SKT upon Faker’s addition and the only other remaining component of the Season 3 World Championship roster, has an intelligent but straight-forward approach to the game. In conjunction with how Faker plays, this has created a simple system for the team to build upon. bengi relies on vision to track the enemy jungler and works to secure scuttle crabs in the side rivers. This gives his laners the freedom to act on their own, but that’s the main drawback to bengi — he provides more information, but the advantages SKT’s laners get are still their own unless Faker interferes with roams.
Blank’s addition only slightly changes the formula. Because Blank less reliably keeps tabs on the jungler and is more likely to play picks focused on farming and playing aggressively in fights, Faker has to take a lot more initiative to apply map pressure. In the quarterfinal against Royal Never Give Up, many of the matches were decided by Faker’s superior map movements. After Royal secured a lead in Game 4, the game turned when Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao backed after an unsuccessful roam top, and Faker took the opportunity to head to the bottom lane to get SKT's duo into the game.
The way mid lane and jungle operate together as well as side priority create the main difference in mechanism for the ROX Tigers. While SKT pivots off Faker’s initiative or bengi’s information, dictating when lanes can play aggressively, the Tigers rely much more on their jungler in general. SKT will prioritize giving Faker the strong matchup so he can push out his lane, but Tigers are much more likely to save their top lane pick for last to open a side of the map for Peanut.
With a strong pick, Smeb pushes lanes so he can roam freely. The Tigers don’t layer deep vision so much as really effective shallow wards. By placing wards at jungle entrances, the Tigers know when the enemy jungler goes for a camp. This way, they can use Smeb and Peanut to set up a top side invade and force out the enemy jungler.
Following this tactic, the Tigers can apply pressure to Kuro’s lane. Since Kuro falls behind, this will allow him the freedom to roam in case bottom needs help. Bottom becomes much less of a priority than for SKT. Kim "PraY" Jongin and Kang "GorillA" Beomhyeon play a much safer laning phase than SKT’s Bae "Bang" Junsik and Lee “Wolf” Jaewan with long-range picks to zone off the enemy lane rather than engage. Faker will usually prioritize bottom lane in his roams, leaving top laner Lee "Duke" Hoseong to play a more isolated matchup or rely upon the jungler for assistance, which rarely comes reliably.
SKT’s use of vision by their jungler is much more intense. While the Tigers want to target and confront the jungler, eliminating the need to know where he is by making him less effective, SKT want to provide information to lanes, necessitating deeper wards placed by bengi or Blank. Because of GorillA’s increased likelihood to roam and ward, the Tigers will rely on him more for vision, but SKT’s junglers are among the most prolific warding junglers of the tournament with Blank averaging .89 wards per minute to Peanut’s .77.
Again, this puts a lot of emphasis on Faker to win his lane on his own. Shallow wards can be followed up if mid has complete control, which is what usually happens when Faker obtains a strong matchup. So far, SKT have only lost two matches at Worlds. The first loss to Flash Wolves happened with an early Cassiopeia mid lane pick that didn’t respond well to ganks from Hung "Karsa" Hauhsuan and a constantly pushing Aurelion Sol. The second loss came when both side lanes simply lost on their own, and after taking a turret at 11 minutes, Royal Never Give Up’s duo lane rotated to the mid lane to pin Faker down.
The Tigers’ losses have also seemed to come at the loss of mid lane and jungle pressure. Peanut wants to invade the jungle with a winning top lane, but if Kuro is so pushed under turret that the enemy mid laner can react faster, it becomes risky for Peanut to invade, regardless of the side of the map. That’s likely the Tigers’ biggest flaw — and a major reason they have failed so frequently against SKT.
Historically, Kuro hasn’t reacted well to pressure from Faker and his more calculated style of 1v1. This makes it very difficult for Tigers to get mid lane control, especially when they prioritize Smeb’s matchup. With Kuro’s common misplays in mid lane, often failing to secure the first wave effectively, it may not even be worth it to give him the counterpick option and try to wrestle Faker.
That’s why a lot of this matchup will rely upon the bottom lane as well, and not just because the current meta emphasizes the 2v2. Perhaps the most even matchup is between the teams duos and the ROX Tigers may have to prioritize it more, which is something they demonstrated they could do against EDward Gaming. If they can free up GorillA early the way RNG freed up Cho “Mata” Sehyeong in Game 1 of their quarterfinal, they could keep mid lane stable for Kuro.
Again, this relies heavily on Peanut’s agency. When Peanut has performed poorly, the team has turned to Kuro to roam effectively, but in an isolated mid lane scenario with minimal jungle interference from either side, Faker has shut down Kuro easily, especially with SKT’s tendency to choose mid lane last and counterpick. To beat SKT this time, Peanut cannot afford a game of indecision and poor planning.
But what about the top lane? Smeb shouldn’t have difficulty subduing Duke and maintaining a pushed lane, but the reality is that in the past, without the other pieces falling into place and Peanut or Kuro exerting map pressure, Smeb hasn’t been able to turn this into anything.
Sometimes, the fact that SKT is so much about Faker can seem like a flaw. He won’t back up his jungler as much if Blank chooses to invade. If bottom lane loses on its own instead of at least going even, he can tunnel on trying to bully his mid laner to occasionally disastrous results. This can actually limit SKT's jungler’s agency overall rather than helping the team.
But the difference is that, in limiting his team on occasion, Faker takes on the responsibility of still carrying the game, and he has an extremely high success rate in doing so. By contrast, the Tigers don’t get as much out of saving their top lane pick for last to counterpick the matchup. Duke’s practiced ability in an isolated duel will at least keep Smeb from snowballing so out of control that he can win the game alone. Rather, it leaves mid lane and jungle open to being controlled instead.
Many see the path to become the best as playing well against Faker, but there are no other players that can accomplish what Faker does — not really, and given the emphasis on team play that League of Legends has, it’s not typically advisable to design a team like SKT. As impressive as Smeb’s career has been and as much as he does for his team in facilitating Peanut when they have a lead , he’s not the same instrumental piece for Tigers as Faker is for SKT.
If Tigers do finally overcome SKT this weekend in New York, it will be as a team, with Smeb functioning as only a secondary mechanism for success. But if SKT, with their patient map control, rise once again, it will be because the emphasis they put on Faker to control the game, even in a jungle and bot-centric meta, paid off.
No matter the result, Smeb doesn’t have a chance.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.