No one likes to lose. Regardless of whether it's in the comfortable setting of your home or in the dog-eat-dog world of competitive play, watching the large red letters that spell out "DEFEAT" cross your screen while your Nexus blows up into a shatter storm of pixels is not an enjoyable experience. In anything you put effort at being good at, no matter how insignificant it may seem to an outside viewer, you still want to feel a sense of gratification in the end.
GE Tiger's top-laner Smeb was a loser. Take that 45-minute loss where you played your heart out despite the fact that that awful, despicable Twisted Fate sat disconnected in the fountain and extend that for over a year-and-a-half. Constant losing. Constant grey screens throughout the game. Frustration. Anger. Loss after loss. An endless cycle of careful optimism before its struck down by the cruel hand of reality.
Smeb is one of the few outliers in eSports. Not only did he continue to live in the world of professional gaming through nearly two straight years of continuous blowouts and embarrassing losses, but he's now considered one of the best top-laners in the world. From the bottom of the barrel in the always turning and evolving Korean professional scene, Smeb fought through constant despair to find himself on the other side of the tunnel.
|Smeb's results on IM|
|Champions Spring '13||3||7||Last in Group Stage (12th out of 12 teams)|
|Champions Summer '13||1||5||Last in Group Stage (Tied 16th out of 16)|
|Champions Winter '13-14||X||X||Did Not Qualify|
|Champions Spring '14||2||4||3rd in Group Stage (Tied 13th out of 16)|
|Champions Summer '14||1||5||Last in Group Stage (14th out of 16)|
Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho's career in Korea began during the Spring season of the 2013 Champions Korea circuit with the gatekeepers of Korea, Incredible Miracle. IM was a team with talented players who could, at times, surprise the best teams in the league but were not strong enough to consistently challenge them. The potential was there, as Incredible Miracle were always strong enough to re-qualify if need be against the up-and-coming amateur teams, but the story always ended the same way — with Incredible Miracle watching the final rounds of the tournament from home.
The top-laner's early days with his new team were mainly seen behind the exterior of a tank in the form of Dr. Mundo, Shyvanna or Renekton. The main carries of the team, mid-laner MidKing and AD Carry Paragon, were the supposed aces of the squad. They were individually good players, having times where they could carry games and win off their strong individual play, but their play was the same as IM's personality — good enough to stay in Champions, but unreliable, sometimes going for a towering peak before plummeting down back to earth.
Incredible Miracle's first two seasons with Smeb were unspectacular, placing last in the group stage twice and finishing with an unremarkable 4-12 record. During their exit of the Summer season, something happened that seemed impossible for the gatekeepers: they didn't make it back into Champions. They were eliminated in the qualifiers, cutting the cord of despair and seemingly putting an end to the sad, and soon to be forgotten tale, of a poor top-laner named Smeb.
Remarkably, his career did not end there. A team falling out of their region's premiere league is the crossroads between a professional and an amateur. For a player who didn't put up big stats or do anything outstanding in his short two season stint, falling into the Challenger scene and working your way back into the league with the same team is an extremely rare feat. But that's exactly what Smeb did. The original Incredible Miracle team would return to Champions after a one season vacation, returning with only Smeb and MidKing.
If you thought that their return to Champions would be the start of this happy comeback story, think again. Incredible Miracle got back into Champions and immediately returned to their role as cannon fodder. In their only match victory in Smeb's tenure on IM, the gatekeepers beat Midas FIO during their Spring season group stage match. Midas, for all intents and purposes a semi-amateur team, got beat down by IM and fell out of Champions after their six straight losses. They never made it back into the tournament as an organization.
During this time, Smeb was living a double life of sorts. In the professional world, he was, well, a loser. He lost a lot. He was one of the worst players at his position for the past year in Champions and was routinely saddled with ineffective tanks, never really doing anything in lane and feebly dying to better teams. Online, however, Smeb bounced around the Top 50 in the Challenger ladder, playing champions like Riven, Nidalee and Jayce extensively, carrying games and showing a different side of himself that was rarely seen under the spotlights of Champions.
His final season with Incredible Miracle was another string of fruitless results. He was allowed to play more carry-oriented top-laners with the likes of Ryze and Irelia, but it was far too late to really do anything. IM changed their roster again in Smeb's final go-around, this time MidKing made his exit from the professional scene and was replaced by Thy in the mid-lane.
After a year-and-a-half of losing game after game after soul crushing game, Smeb stood alone on Incredible Miracle. He was the last standing survivor of a team that would never make a single playoffs round with him on it.
Incredible Miracle's final match of the season was against the defending world champions, SK Telecom T1 K. With their crushing victory over IM on the first map, SKT were locked into the second seed for the group, looking forward to the postseason where they hoped to reclaim their regional crown. Incredible Miracle were 0-5, tumbling along in their anguish.
In the most bittersweet ending possible, Smeb was given Riven in his final match. He outplayed Impact in the top-lane and the rest of his team followed suit to earn a meaningless victory in terms of advancement in the tournament. SKT played cockily, knowing they couldn't surpass Samsung Blue in the standings and didn't play up to their full capabilities. As it always was with Incredible Miracle, they had their ups — those sweet, short living moments of optimism — but they would quickly fade, revealing who they truly were: a flawed team with no hope to ever become a winner.
|Smeb's career on IM|
When it was announced that Smeb would be making a return to the pro scene with the newly create GE Tigers, the most common response was, "Smeb?" He was one of the better players at his position in solo queue, placing in the Challenger ladder, but then you remember the almost two year span of him constantly losing. Players that usually fell out of their main regional league once were almost never heard of against in the professional scene, but this was a player who not only fell out of Champions but got back in it with the same organization. This time around, he was making a second comeback with an entirely new team looking to get into Champions Korea.
Before we talk about how Smeb was able to mature as a player and turn his career around, let's start by stating the transparent elephant in the room: the GE Tigers, by a wide, gargantuan amount, are better than Incredible Miracle. There were players on IM who could come up big at times, but it's impossible to argue that Smeb's teammates on GE aren't a huge upgrade in talent and consistency. Not to mention the added bonus of having NoFe, a former professional player who Smeb played against in his debut match, behind the team as a head coach to output his clear direction for the team.
Now that we've brought up that obvious factoid, it's also clear how much Smeb has grown as a player with a better structure around him. Even when the Tigers were still finding their footing through the qualification stages and dropped a game to Smeb's old Incredible Miracle teammates, the forsaken top-laner was able to produce on champions like Jayce in ways he was never able to before. As they qualified and they progressed through the pre and regular season, Smeb had gotten more confident as a player and has grown into a world-class top-laner.
The most precious thing the Tigers have given Smeb is freedom. The ability to be free flowing, not stuck in the singular role as a tank. While Smeb didn't have good results on tanks with Incredible Miracle, don't let that fool you — he's not a weak tank player. Far from it. The thing with tanks is that no matter how well you play, none of it makes any difference if your carries can't back you up.
A strong tank with an equally great team behind him results in won team fights, the carries getting fed off massive killing streaks, and an eventual crushing win.
A strong tank with weak, ineffective carries behind him results in the tank going in, soaking up damage, and eventually dying after his team doesn't have enough power to do anything to the opposing squad.
With a team that has a true ace, GE's AD Carry Pray, and good secondary carries Kur0 and the aggressive Lee in the jungle, Smeb has the support needed if he is put into the role of a Maokai or Gnar. He can set up those big plays with crisp engages or a nicely timed teleport, locking down the pinpointed target and letting his carries take care of business.
But as good of a tank player as he is, Smeb's greatest skill is his free flowing versatility. There are better tank players in the world, there are better utility, support type top-laners around the globe, and there are stronger, more powerful pure carry top-laners, but Smeb is a player that can play any type of role needed at his position at an elite level.
|Smeb's top champions of Spring '15|
He's a magician in the top lane, always pulling out new tricks when needed.
When Gnar was the biggest priority for his position, he learned how to play it and excelled at the champion, amassing a large amount of wins on the boulder throwing beast. The GE Tigers introduced the Jugger'maw composition and relied on either Kur0 or Smeb to play Lulu to speed up and shield their main carry in Kog'maw. Smeb brought out the support champion and made it ban worthy in future matches, showing his adeptness in that style as well. Oh look, Hecarim in the top lane is a thing now? Smeb was one of the first players to pull out the champion in Korea, and he played it a high level, carrying on the champion as the true ace.
One of the biggest things SKT will need to scout for in their Grand Final match against the Tigers is Smeb. He isn't technically the strongest player, not the best in lane when it comes to farming or getting ahead massively in the early stage, but he's a diverse player that isn't afraid to try new things. He's been quick on the meta switches, playing whatever GE needs him in the composition they cook up.
|Smeb's career on GE|
That's the scariest thing about GE's top-laner: you'll find more refined players in Korea in the top-lane but he's capable of pulling off wild all-ins, surviving tower dives with slivers of health, or playing a wide variety of roles that could see him as the ace carry, the secondary carry, tank or utility champion.
Time will tell if Smeb has what it takes to sustain his high level of play and continue his ability to shift into any role the meta throws at him, but one thing is for sure: Smeb is no longer a loser.
And on Saturday night in Seoul against the former world champions SK Telecom T1 with the best player in the world, Faker, in the Champions Korea Grand Finals, Smeb is not only going to try to make himself a winner — but prove Incredible Miracles can happen as well.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports. Thank you to Inven.co.kr and eSportspedia for stats involving Smeb. Also, thank you to Smeb for proving that even a two year long losing streak can end with you becoming a world-class player.