In an alternate universe, the hare wins the race. It sits comfortably on a throne as it waits for the tortoise’s head to snap past the finish line. And in that universe, what is Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok but the hare. And what is Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho but the tortoise.
And maybe we already live in that universe. While both of them can stake claim to being amongst the best the world has to offer, only one can brandish two World Championship belts. Only one is the undisputed god of League of Legends. Few players, if any, commanded as much respect as Faker prior to becoming a pro. He exceeded those expectations and was sensational from the onset.
On the other hand, Smeb’s rise to the top is a broken record of setbacks -- it’s one of the slowest ascents. Alongside current teammate, Lee “Kuro” Seo-haeng and Immortals’ Kim “Reignover” Ui-jin, they were part of the now infamous “Incredible Failures” squad that toiled at the bottom of the LCK. They were constantly on the brink of being relegated to irrelevancy. They weren’t supposed to be stars.
Smeb was sometimes cited as the worst top laner in Korea. “At the time,” Smeb says, “those assessments were true.”
Korea is renowned for producing the best talent in the world, but even amongst that crop, it’s the superstar top laners who’ve managed to create the most distance from their international counterparts. Smeb’s distinction as being the worst of them, then, particularly stood out. But it highlights the improbability of where he stands now -- as a back-to-back LCK regular season MVP.
His fortunes shifted when the Tigers were formed at the start of the 2014 season. They found immediate domestic success, but have been constantly thwarted by SKTelecom T1 when it has mattered most. At the 2015 Spring Split Final, their loss wasn’t exactly a surprise -- despite their record, they were still a new squad. Then, at Worlds, they weren’t even supposed to make the Finals.
They used some of the criticism as fuel. Smeb solidified his status as one of the top players in the world by leading the Tigers to the finals. But that underdog status nipped at the little heels in their brains. Smeb says, “We thought even if we lose, it’s alright. We were ranked as a B-Tier team.
We had no members in the Worlds Top 20 list.” So when they found themselves staring at SKT, a few wins away from having their legacy cemented, they did little else but stare. The Tigers aren’t accustomed to that stage in the same way as SKT. Where SKT has thrived through multiple esports titles, the Tigers have not. Despite successes, they’ve gone through four different title sponsors. There were times even last year where Smeb and his teammates had to worry about their funding and income even as they stepped onto the rift.
But together they laughed it off as best as they could. According to Smeb, it’s important to them to retain their identity as “a team that plays the game enjoyably.” “I’m the type to act frivolously within my team. I tell them, ‘I am the best.’ I go around saying things like that,” he says. “But honestly, my teammates ignore me a lot.”
They might be the only people in the world to ignore him now. The Tigers will be one of the favorites to hoist the Summoner’s Cup at this year's tournament. This is the kind of perseverance that lies behind the old fairy tales. The kind of thing that lets people believe in the tortoise. But like the rest of the world, all eyes are fixated on the same pinnacle. For a team that’s arguably been the second best, or at times the best, these past two years, they have almost no accolades to show for it. They’ve been held so tightly in SKT’s shadow that they could count that shadow’s heartbeats. Now, perhaps, Smeb can finally emerge from that shadow and leave his humble beginnings firmly behind him.