Defeat is the undertow of competition, threatening to swallow victims into a sea of despair, humiliation, and regret. Some are able to stay safely on shore, only getting their feet wet, and others are sucked in until nothing is visible on the horizon.
During his first two years of professional play, Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho was like debris floating in that ocean. An abysmal player on Incredible Miracle — the infamous gatekeepers of the old Champions circuit–viewers, casters, and analysts barraged him with jeers and criticisms, unaware of the potential he was cultivating in practice. A second chance let him show the world the fruits of his labor.
Smeb’s story is one of a man who paddled his way back to shore. One stroke at a time, he overcame the tides until he finally stood in the same territory occupied by some of the greatest players in League of Legends history. A poster child of hard work, a beacon to outcasts everywhere, Smeb captured the imaginations across the world.
This is how he got there.
“I didn’t really like Smeb top” – Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles
During the tail end of winter in Hannover Germany, inside Hall 23 of the Deutsche Messe, Smeb took his seat for the IEM World Championship. It was 2013 –League of Legends as an esport was taking its first steps past infancy. The League Championship Series was just a month old, Korea had yet to establish its iron-clad rule over the international scene, and Riot Games was involved with few competitions.
Only 17, Smeb had much growing up to do, and life was going to make it painful.
Incredible Miracle had made short work of IEM San Paulo with only a single loss in the run a month prior. Before the championship, Smeb joined and Jeon “Lilac” Ho-jin changed to jungle to accommodate the rookie. Against the well-known Europeans Paul “sOAZ” Boyer and Evgeny “Darien” Mazaev, Smeb was a mixed bag — bad positioning and decisions marred his slight outplays. Once IM faced CJ Entus Blaze, though, Lee “Flame” Ho-jong gave Smeb his first taste of what was to become a steady diet of crushing defeat. Going out in the group stage, IM headed back to Korea with little expectations and Smeb failing to impress anyone.
The problems persisted even as IM changed other positions and took on a second team. By the OGN Summer 2014, he was surrounded by entirely new teammates. It led to his own jungler and the enemy junglers targeting him more: the reward and punishment for veteran status. His new squad was worse than the one before, lacking anything worth complimenting.
“I wondered why I was so poor and had bad results even though I tried hard,” he reflected with osen.
Perhaps the team could not have productive discussion. Maybe the coaching staff was incompetent. Or did no one else care as much as he did?
Looking back, it’s possible to see the foundations of what would make him an elite top laner. He played numerous champions in each circuit, provided the metagame allowed it. Some pocket picks like Lee Sin saw marginal success, but he mostly bombed because of his atrocious laning. In team fights, his goal was to get to the backline and kill the carries, but his dives were offbeat from how his team wanted to fight, and it was difficult to execute with his disadvantages, he fed himself to the enemy more often than not. If he improved, then perhaps he’d find success with this unbannable carry style. First, he needed to go even or get ahead in lane, and understand how to adapt his play to the compositions needs, especially when he was forced onto tanks. Learning those would require focused, diligent, and reflective training.
In solo queue, Smeb hovered around the top of Korean challenger, playing the likes of Riven — champions who were too snowball-reliant for competitive play. When defeat hammered down on him, he redoubled his efforts to improve, grinding away constantly. This was in part of a desire to improve, but also a love for the game. In an AMA on Inven, he described how he became obsessed with League to the point where he would sleep an hour a night while in school in order to make time to practice. For many, the current of losses might sour the enjoyment of the game, but that didn’t happen with Smeb. Support from his family — a rarity in South Korea’s strict culture — and friends served as a life jacket, keeping him afloat as the sea tried to pull him into the depths.
“When I was with Incredible Miracle, I didn’t have a very good grade, so during that time it was hard. When I became a player I thought that I was the best, but actually when I was on IM it wasn’t like that, and I lost confidence,” he told The Score last year. “Confidence is the most important thing, so I worked hard to get it back.”
His final game with IM in summer of 2014 was a spark to restore the confidence that had been battered by tumultuous waves of failure. It was the final match of Group A. The Season 3 World Champions SK Telecom T1 K, dubbed “Judgement Day,” by casters, had dominated IM in the first game of the best of two series, securing its advancement to the playoffs and damning IM to elimination. Although the result was inconsequential, Smeb didn’t want to go quietly. Finally allowed to play his Riven into Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong’s Renekton, Smeb blitzed the field in a performance never before seen from him. He killed Impact twice within a minute, once without his jungler’s assistance. With his lead he hunted SKT down, solo carrying his team to its only victory. This was the Smeb who prowled solo queue unleashed at last. Yes, SKT didn’t take the game seriously, but Smeb hallowed the server of his last IM performance. That September, he was a free agent.
Floating on his back, far away from any land of success, the cold waters didn’t bother him anymore. With a sigh, he turned over and swam as hard as he could, keeping himself warm through his own effort to get back to shore.
“The most precious thing the Tigers have given Smeb is freedom.” – Tyler “Fionn” Erzberger
Samsung White crushed the League of Legends 2014 World Championship, bringing home Korea’s second consecutive world title. So far ahead of everyone else, the reign of Korea seemed certain. But as the cool winter began to set in the humid peninsula, player after player departed. The Samsung teams, which had ruled the League of Legends scene at home and abroad that year, lost every one of their elite players. Dozens of other star talent and small names left, drawn by the lucrative contracts of China, or the opportunities in North America and Europe. Adding insult to injury, Riot Games intervened in KeSPA, the governing body of Korean esports, and implemented a league format similar to the LCS while also abolishing sister-teams. With the mass exodus of pros and changes to the unique, hyper-competitive format, many declared Korea down and out for the year. In the future, we would learn that was not the case, but at the time it was a blow to fans of the region.
For Smeb, it was a second chance.
While other Koreans had history and looked for profit, Smeb stayed put, maintaining his impressive solo queue standing in the top 50 of challenger. Free of stress, he sharpened his skills, relishing every game.
One day, Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng, a fellow stranded player and former Incredible Miracle player for the sister team, reached out on behalf of the Tigers. “We are making a team. Are you interested?”
Smeb took the offer straight away.
“They were all older than me to begin with, and I thought I could do well,” he explained.
Expecting an opportunity, what Smeb found was a brotherhood. The quintet of KurO, Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin, Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, Kim “PraY” Jong-in, and Jeong “NoFe” No-chul were like him. They were discarded passengers deemed undeserving of rescue on the high seas as organizations quickly consolidated remaining talent. Finding each other, they created a team, hoping it would be the raft to traverse the sea and find land. All they needed was a top laner, and KurO’s invitation secured Smeb. The group bonded quickly, and the friendships finally gave Smeb company as wishful as he.
Qualifying for the spring split of League Champions Korea, little was expected of the squad of abandoned Najin players and Smeb. They struggled to maintain a sponsor, changing through HuYa, GE, Koo, and now ROX within the span of a year. There was no issue, however, winning and drawing attention to themselves.
Surrounded by stronger players — veterans in a region where such talent was a scarcity — Smeb’s foundations, honed through defeat and practice, were utilized. His wide champion pool gave the Tigers a terrifying versatility, allowing them to jungle who supported and carried game to game. He had learned to adapt to new champions, his first notable one being Gnar. His team shared his blood lust, diving the back line with a synergy he had never possessed with IM. His months of practice in solo queue came to fruition, finally able to lane toe-to-toe with the likes of Shy and ssumday, players who had previously trashed him. The synergy with his new teammates was unmatched, symbolized in the Juggernaut Kog’Maw playstyle they created. All that, along with defeating SKT, the favorites to win LCK, in the first round robin propelled them in analysts minds as the best team in the world.
The Tigers’ boisterous behavior grew its popularity. Donning a different flashy uniform every week and singing loudly in the booths with smiles on their faces, the Tigers were the antithesis of Korean culture — fitting for a misfit like Smeb. It was a sign of camaraderie, but also gluttony: it had either been never or a long time since the players had experienced such success. It must have been like landing on shore and throwing oneself onto the sand, rolling around in the ecstasy only those who treaded water endlessly could experience. Of course, the Tigers wanted to explore every facet of the island they could, eyeing the closest mountain – -the IEM World Championship at Katowice.
“I think that the Korean league is the best in the world. We will make Korea proud at the IEM Grand Finals,” Smeb boasted, ready to become a new icon to Korean esports.
Qualifying through the regular season record, Smeb was going back to Europe, but now he and his squad were the favorites to win the title. Boasting yet another stylish uniform and teasing fans with a special one for the final, the Tigers were ready to laugh at the ocean they had escaped from the summit. Dispatching Cloud9 and SK Gaming, the Tigers’ next victim was World Elite, the 12th place team from China. Korea’s best against China’s worst.
Game 1 was a rout as expected: 22 kills to 7, 10 towers to 3, 4 dragons to 1, and a baron. Only one more victory separated the Tigers from the final, but that’s when it all changed. Team WE rallied and won the next two games to stun the Tigers, who were eliminated at the semifinals in the largest upset of League of Legends history.
The venom from fans burned the Tigers veins.The endearing outfits were decried as distractions from practice, the confidence now arrogance, and the shouting and laughter obnoxious. The mythos of Korea being rendered weak was now given hard evidence; how else could its best team lose to the worst of the region that had acquired most of its developed talent? Smeb and the Tigers were not the face of Korea’s pride, but shame.
Returning home, the Tigers were dealt further injury with the introduction of Cinderhulk. Hojin was unable to adapt quickly to the tank junglers, complicating the stress the players already felt from IEM. Still, the Tigers had too many victories to drop from first place, and were seeded in the final. The confidence that Smeb so desperately clung to was fraying, not only in himself, but his teammates. In the final against SKT, the Tigers were swept 3-0. The kicker? SKT didn’t even play Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong. The Tigers lost to substitutes.
So began the relationship of SKT being one step ahead of them–the island natives who prevented Smeb from climbing the tallest peak.
The humiliation dragged Smeb and his team farther into despair. The Tigers started the next split with a new sponsor, KOO, and a losing streak. The chemistry wasn’t there.
“I think our performance decreased as the teammates weren’t able to trust each other after our loss in the finals,” Smeb reflected in the summer split.
Smeb kept fighting. He knew he was capable of taking a championship, or rather believed. It was a necessity to him. That unwavering positivity was a beacon of hope for the Tigers. Although Smeb was the youngest of them, and the least successful prior to joining, he had become the primary shot-caller for the squad, the voice pushing them forward. All those mistakes and failures from IM were lessons that taught him how to play at the highest level. Of course, he had to be resilient enough not to let so much loss kill his hope and be smart enough to learn.
As the meta shifted towards top lane carries, Smeb was in his element. Split-pushing, dueling, and diving the carries, Smeb now understood when he could approach, when to retreat, and how to create advantages for himself. In times of desperation, he’d call Hojin to his lane for repeated ganks, desperate to take the game into his own hands. Slowly, the smiles returned. What the Tigers were learning how to take victory with grace — to walk before they climbed.
While Smeb possessed an uncanny potential for evolution, his teammates were limited in some way. KurO could never compete with Faker; Hojin was mediocre jungler nearing the end of his career. A weak early game made it difficult for the Tigers to create leads, and while their mid game skirmishing was nearly unrivalled, regardless of deficit, the likes of KT Rolster and SKT could fight just as well (but also snowball early leads). The Tigers nearly made a run to the summer final from fourth place, but KT Rolster halted them. After KT was later demolished by SKT in the final, the Tigers’ circuit points were high enough to qualify for worlds as the second seed from Korea. Smeb was once again returning to international competition in Europe. Ironically, it seems Smeb can only qualify for international competition on the continent in which he debuted.
The tournament was the platform for the world to see what a real top lane carry looked like, and Smeb was in the conversation for the best in the world. Still, he was overshadowed by Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan’s success. Both were top laners who shot-called for the team with enormous champion pools and the ability to carry. What later distinguished Smeb was his individuality. MaRin was gifted with the most resources of any top laner, requiring a system that enabled him to outperform Smeb, who could trade blows with fewer resources. Once he lost that by leaving SKT after worlds, MaRin could no longer compete with Smeb.
“I’ve done 4 years now and I think it’s time I won a championship. I want it to be this season.” – Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho
Last offseason saw few pros leave Korea for opportunities abroad. MaRin did, though,, and it’s easy to wonder what might have happened had Smeb left his friends to join SKT. The fit would have been perfect: his champion pool was comparable, his play style similar, and he functioned as a shot-caller and team captain. An SKT with a true triple threat, versatile in each of the three lanes, had the potential to be best of all time. Smeb, though, was content with his ambush of tigers, and SKT picked up Lee “Duke” Ho-seong and groomed him to its needs.
At 23, Lee Hojin decided to retire from competitive play, which led to the Tigers acquiring Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, former substitute of the now departed Najin E-mFire. Turning 18 in February, he was now the youngest member of the squad. Smeb acted like a parental figure of sorts, keeping Peanut focused and preventing the same cockiness that had infected himself a year ago set in. The Tigers, now sponsored by ROX — which was meant to represent that the team was “rock” solid — burst out much like the previous year. The Tigers were able to fight together so well from behind; now with early advantages, they were truly terrifying. Analysts noted Peanut’s lack of warding, but the success of the squad was hard to argue against.
ROX again ruled the spring, the meta was shifting to tanks — this time in Smeb’s top lane rather than Peanut’s jungle — and SKT had ramped up over the split and fought its way to the final. Many favored ROX to win, but with Faker neutralizing KurO, the Tigers were unable to force fights with their vision deficit, and SKT’s team fighting outmatched the Tigers. Still, all the games, save for the first, could have gone either way for ROX, and SKT did not clean sweep the final for the first time in LCK history. The only game the Tigers won was on the shoulders of Smeb’s Ekko, one of the few top laner champions able to solo carry. He could beat SKT, but he needed more.
Such is the limiting factor of Smeb’s career. As the best player on his team, his ability to impact the game is directly related to what the metagame calls for. The top lane is a volatile role, unlike the ever steady mid lane that has always been a relevant carry force and the damage role of AD Carry. Had the metagame called for Fiora, Gangplank, and other duelists and not supportive tanks like Maokai, Smeb would have had the chance to wrestle the crown from Faker.
The Tigers seemed terminally ill with peaking too early. Two splits now, the rambunctious squad was dominant immediately, but as the season goes on it fails to adapt to its own underlying issues, losing when it mattered most. Meanwhile, SKT survived roster changes — one of them being the incorporation of rookie Kang “Blank” Sun-gu — and steadily improved over the split under Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun’s guidance. Smeb could grow and adapt just like SKT, but at a rate the rest of his team collectively could not match.
But Smeb’s success in undeniable. Second place is not first by any stretch, but he’s consistently been within the top three of events he’s attended, save for IEM Katowice, in the past year– a long way from his finishes on Incredible Miracle. The first top laner to achieve a pentakill in Korea, the spring 2016 regular season MVP, his skills are apparent. Through an unshakeable confidence, he’s trained himself to become one of the best League of Legends players in the world.
At the start of the spring split, Smeb was asked if he thought he was the best top laner in the world, Smeb replied with “No, I don’t think I’m at that level yet. I think it depends on what I’ve achieved this year.”
Smeb may have missed another chance at a trophy, and time is ticking for him. Already four years into a career, there’s no telling when he’ll reach his peak, if he already has, or when he’ll begin to decline. But there is no denying that what he has achieved is an incredible miracle. The crown of LCK or the Summoner’s Cup, at this point, would be a deserved decoration to his hardcore fans, and the last remaining proof to any disbelievers that he has become the best top.
Smeb had started his career written off as a drowned victim of esports. But where so many have disappeared beneath the surface, he remained afloat, bobbing in the sea with confidence. Turning a deaf ear to naysayers, he fought the tides and swam for the horizon, believing he could make it. He had shaped himself into a survivor, and once he had found the Tigers, he was no longer alone. Although they have yet to climb the highest mountain, prevented from advancing by its current occupants, they are not ones to give up just yet.
Smeb’s accomplishments aren’t highlighted with trophies, medals, and titles, but one that captures the hopes and dreams of any esports fans. Many of us wish to become like our idols, rising above our own limitations and mediocrity to become something more–a spectacular oddity. Smeb is that wish given life. A mortal who became a god; a hopeless loser that defied all labels and decided what his own name meant.
Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho is the greatest top laner in the world. While that title will one day slip from him, the odyssey he underwent to claim that title will forever be unmatched.