Every follower of Korean League of Legends knows the story of Smeb. Even if you’re an international fan who is not up to date on LoL Champions Korea, you’ve probably heard of the ROX Tigers' top laner, billed as the second-best player in the world to Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok.
There’s something special and resonant about the Smeb story. It has that elusive, bootstrapping quality that makes the impossible seem possible. In each retelling, his ascension from Longpanda award nominee for the worst top laner in Champions Summer 2014 to the best top laner in the world come 2015, and runner-up to the best player in the world come 2016.
Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho stands as a shining beacon of hope that any player — no matter how bad they look at one point in time or how awfully they perform at a professional level — can reach the upper echelon of their role if given the time and at good atmosphere. Now, any time a new player struggles upon debut, the example of Smeb is almost immediately held up as a potential end — the top laner that could.
In turn, Smeb’s story, with a heaping helping of recency bias, has done its part in rewriting the history of top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho — another top laner who, until last year, also hadn’t tapped into his full carry potential.
Yet, where Smeb was downright awful in the early days of his professional career, Ssumday was simply mediocre, making him far less interesting in the court of public opinion. Where Smeb had a meteoric rise to the top, Ssumday’s journey has been a plodding slow burn, with a payoff that was well worth the wait.
Picked up by KT Rolster for their B squad in February 2013, the former PSW Ares top laner replaced Im “Ragan” Kyung-hyun prior to Champions Spring 2013. Legacy jungler Choi “inSec” In-seok arrived at the same time from CJ Entus. In the international exhibition at MLG Dallas 2013, the new KT Rolster B cut their teeth on North America’s Team Curse and Europe’s Gambit Gaming. Ssumday made a bit of a splash on Renekton, showed timely Stand Uniteds on Shen, but it was inSec who garnered the most attention for his aggressive jungling style. Returning to Korea for Champions Spring 2013, Ssumday finished in a respectable fifth place for top lane KDA standings at 3.28, and tenth place in overall MVP standings for the season. KT Rolster B fell to future spring champions MVP Ozone in the Round of Eight, and KT Rolster returned to the drawing board.
Once again, Ssumday was overshadowed by inSec, who replaced Ssumday in the KT Rolster B top lane to make room for jungler Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon from KT Rolster A. He watched from the sidelines throughout Champions Summer 2013, where the renamed KT Rolster Bullets made it all the way to the Summer Finals before their famous reverse sweep loss at the hands of SK Telecom T1. Ssumday cites this time on the bench as one of the most difficult points in his LoL career.
“When I was a sub for the KT Bullets. It was the hardest time for me as a player when I couldn’t play any games,” he told Fomos in an interview prior to the 2015 World Championship. “That spot really had a heavy burden to carry. Not being able to play meant that you became more anxious, and it was really hard to be motivated. It was a time where the burden would just keep growing.”
In October 2013, Ssumday was moved to the KT Rolster Arrows and became their starting top laner after the Arrows’ unsuccessful experiment with Yoon “MakNooN” Ha-woon where the team failed to even qualify for Champions Summer 2013.
This new generation of the KT Rolster Arrows featured Ssumday as their most experienced player when Ssumday was just shy of turning 18 years-old. Ssumday’s overly-aggressive tendencies often got the better of him and his teammates, despite an infusion of younger talent in the form of mid laner RooKie and support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan. Due to coordination mistakes and more than a few mechanical mishaps, the Arrows again failed to qualify for Champions.
It wasn’t until KaKAO returned to the Arrows that things began to fall into place in Champions Spring 2014 when the Arrows topped Group A but lost to CJ Entus Blaze in the Round of Eight. The Arrows became Korea’s loveable coin-flip, with beautifully-executed turret dives one moment and ill-advised base-diving the next. Ssumday was also a part of this, unable to consistently make the most of his aggression without opponents turning it back on him. He was a perfect fit on the Arrows, but also part of their overzealous nature that all-too-often cost them games against smarter and steadier opponents. Even throughout their Summer 2014 run and eventual Champions title, Ssumday’s name wasn’t championed like KaKAO’s or RooKie’s. KaKAO was seen as the team leader — corralling the Arrows' relentless aggression and wielding it against their rivals with purpose — while RooKie was the up-and-coming superstar. Ssumday, like AD carry No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon, was seen as more of a role player, albeit a much-improved one.
Where Ssumday did evolve — and where inklings of his breakout 2015 year in LoL Champions Korea first showed themselves — was in his tank and utility play. Previously, Ssumday had made waves on his signature Renekton and occasional Jax, sometimes pulling out monstrous carry performances if given the opportunity. Yet his Gragas and Maokai were of particular note because of the way he used them to facilitate his teammates in fights.
In comparing Smeb and Ssumday, this is the one area where Ssumday comes out ahead of his top lane adversary — his tank play. Smeb is the best top laner in the world, but Ssumday manages to eek him out in this one category. Ssumday’s target prioritization this past year on the likes of Maokai, Poppy, tank Ekko and Gnar is unmatched by any other top in the world. Perhaps it’s because Ssumday spent so much time in the shadow of other carry tops that he honed this utility skillset.
Unlike Ssumday, Smeb has run hot and cold his entire career with little to no middle ground. His time on Incredible Miracle offers a more extreme version of Ssumday’s time during the Arrows’ struggles as a new team. IM failed to coordinate together, and Smeb was prone to taking on their opponents by himself in a more solo queue fashion. His frustration was palpable, but he seemingly offered little to his team by way of coordination and communication despite obvious care and effort. Even in the Tigers more iconic losses throughout 2015 and 2016, Smeb has had noticeably jarring performances, where he occasionally panicked and called his jungler — either Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin in 2015 or Han “Peanut” Wang-ho in 2016 — to the top lane, costing the Tigers pressure elsewhere on the map.
Yet Smeb rose to become one of the best players in the world due to effort and the Tigers, who were willing to rely on and facilitate Smeb, erasing his more solo queue tendencies and bolstering the top laner’s confidence. While Smeb was shopping around for teams in the 2014-15 offseason, Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng sought out Smeb specifically, giving him much-needed reassurance that served to propel Smeb and the Tigers to the top of the LCK. Now Smeb is the best top laner in the world. His decision-making, coordination, and mechanical skill have all increased exponentially since disappointing days on IM. All it took was a dash of confidence from his teammates and a herculean amount of hard work.
In the LCK Summer 2016 split, Ssumday has lurked just below Smeb in KDA and MVP standings. The two have been stars of their respective teams that now meet in the LCK Summer 2016 Finals, where all eyes will be on the top lane and another chapter of their histories will be written.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.