When tasked with the daunting prospect of creating a top 20 players of all time list, I cheated the first encounter. The initial violation was in requesting assistance, but the more heinous was in offering zero reasoning or logic behind the order. Initially, it was just a number of names – and that was the fatal error.
There are multiple ways to arrange and debate the greatest players of all time, what’s important is not who is where – but why. We can argue and snip these lists until we’re blue in the face, but that debate can only start when presented.
And let me be clear, there are flaws to this list. Firstly, I’m an LPL expert, most of my background and knowledge concerns the Chinese League of Legends scene – so, naturally, my list will weight that direction. To counteract this bias, to the best of my ability, I approached several sources I trusted concerning the surrounding regions and instead of asking for numbers, I asked for series.
I watched tournaments and games at the recommendation of others; which brings me to my other flaw: Scope.
To be frank, I have a shitty memory. Likewise, I only really entertained the notion of analytically looking at league of legends in Season 3. That misses a massive window for the first real competitive scene. Any list I put together will be at the disadvantage to those that followed from the beginning, so I feel it’s important to underline the variables and measurements scored and in what time frame.
This list will completely exclude Season 1. Why? The primary reason is that obtaining VoDs from this time frame is a nightmare, but I feel a better reason – even more valid to the integrity of competition – is that Korea and China were not competing. Giving Fnatic the benefit of Season 1 World Champions when they didn’t have to go through half the competition is like hailing Babe Ruth for his home-run record when only one race of pitchers were allowed in the game.
Was it important? Absolutely. But I’d like to see how many balls he would have sent flying with Marichalon the mound.
You get the idea.
The major advantage I do get with scope is that I’m submitting this list after the most recent split where a lot of the competing names had isolated performances to answer questions about inflation. So, from Season 2 through Season 5 Summer Split. From here, it’s about weighing (and explaining) what I deem the most valuable qualifications:
This is the most debatable – what will be referred to as “the eye test”. Naturally, people will try and measure this with “achievements”, which will appear further down on the qualifications. This variable exists as an answer to “ELO Hell” in the competitive environment. Yes, it can be measured through various statistics and win percent and other jargon people like to skew for the specific purpose of talking someone up – but sometimes, players do fall into “Space Prison”; this is here as their Shawshank Redemption.
Where is it weighted? Again, the most debatable and open to interpretation. I’m of the opinion that the skill ceiling of League of Legends has increased, so recent success in an era that should be tougher than ever should count for more. Likewise, under-performing as the meta leaves you behind and your inability to adapt should hurt. This doesn’t mean I’ll glance over the dominance of the Season 2 heroes, it just means that not everyone is excused for rotting on the throne.
The most straightforward – what did these players accomplish and win during their careers? This is important, but it gets fairly muddy and begs the question: does a player need to have international experience to be on the of the greatest of all time? The easy answer is: yes. The complicated answer is: KakAO.
Where is it weighted? Surrounding competition. If you won your domestic title when half your talent was exported it doesn’t mean as much as when you clawed through the elite to your crown. Likewise, winning the International Wild Card doesn’t equate to having a LCS title; some shit just smells better than the rest.
Duration of Dominance
This resonates back to scope for me and that I’ll weight recent results with a fresh memory. How long did you reign king? Having a single good tournament run, even at the World Championship doesn’t mean shit when the guy behind you rode high for six months.
Where is it weighted? Showing up when it counts matters, likewise, in what company you shared when you decided to kick-ass. But sorry Uzi and Toyz, this is your exit.
What defines you as important in your moment, and it why was it better than everyone else? Let’s put a name your talents or - if it makes you feel better - we can call it “ingenuity”, or it’s lesser tandem: style.
This is the obvious and easy answer. When deciding who would be the best player of all time, Faker undoubtedly is the unanimous response. But why? Well, SKT were one of the most dominant teams League of Legends has ever witnessed during their Season 3 and OGN Winter run - literally going undefeated. And there’s something beautiful about pointing to the mid lane and exclaiming: Him. He’s the carry of that team.
The undisputed God of the middle lane.
With an oppressive champion pool and dominating performances that cannot be banned out, his mechanical mastery knows no rival or limitations. Faker transcended the meta and defined the modern expectations and bar for mid lane play. He continues to reign in Korea as the absolute and holds more than just the World Champion Title. When thinking about how I could possibly upset Faker on this list I contemplated the one drawback: resources. Faker demands the sacrifice of Bengi’s inventory for his hunger and this made SKT obvious in their decline. Enemy teams knew where Bengi would apply pressure which made his pathing predictable - likewise, moving into carry-style jungling with the rise of KakAO and (the flexible) DanDy made Bengi’s ward diet suspect. What gold could Bengi scrap together when every resource was given to mid? The other player that comes to mind with these faults is Uzi, who sits on complete opposite spectrum of Faker in terms of this list. The difference is that when given the responsibility of carrying his team Faker consistently showed up - which is why his trophy case is that much more impressive compared to Uzi. Concerning positioning, the player at his heels would be DanDy and there’s zero dispute for me that SKT accomplished more than Samsung Ozone/White. Yes, it can be theorized that Samsung White could have made a SKT run on their return, but I’ll stick with the proven track-record. Faker’s resource flaw isn’t enough to give DanDy a shot at the King.
I have to talk about these two as a package. Initially, I had Mata ahead of DanDy just because I weighted the revolution of the vision game; especially in the unsure weeks when the vision meta was reformed. Mata lit the way to efficient management and information gathering in the new trinket system and set the standard for back timers and ward placements that are still popularized today. And all of this before you even discuss his dominant lane presence and superior mechanical ceiling.
But in the entirety of Mata/DanDy’s careers (so far) Mata has had a lot more lows and flexible performances with DanDy remaining more consistent - even at Ozone’s famed choke for Season 3 Worlds, where Dade, Imp, and Mata dropped the ball, DanDy remained a constant threat through every botched game. Likewise, when weighting Mata’s command over vision it was often in tandem with DanDy, their ward counts linked together and roaming in a pair to secure what is arguably the most oppressive control in competition. Mata may have been the shotcaller, but DanDy was 50 percent of what made Mata amazing and playing from the more impactful role. Maybe it says something that Mata has to take a backseat to a Jungler and Mid laner in terms of influence on the game? Maybe that’s unfair. Either way, it’s a slim enough gap to make them a package deal.
In terms of their most recent performance in the LPL on Vici Gaming, DanDy underwent a role swap into the top lane while Mata cycled several Chinese ADCs before settling with Xuan. Though VG struggled all year to be more than a one-dimensional one-strategy pony, the dynamic duo managed to make a fair play-off run flanked with rookie players, continuing to prove their ability to perform with limited resources.
This was tough. My initial reaction to organizing the list went something like: “Shit, there are way too many Samsung members on this list.” Likewise, it didn’t help Dade that I am not a fan of his recent performance in the LPL - and most recently - LPL relegation. Where does Dade stand about the rest? On two OGN titles. Despite a lackluster showing on the international stage, Dade still performed in the toughest region and competition in Champions; qualifying for countless Final runs. And though Samsung White were the World Champions - domestically - Samsung Blue accomplished more for a longer period of dominance and only on the hinge of Dade’s impact. Often credited with his ability to perfectly time the most clutch cooldowns, Dade helped define Samsung Blue as the ultimate teamfighting team and defined a style that dominated the Korean circuit. He’s one of few to claim two OGN titles and the only to do so on two completely different rosters, and despite never having a world crown, his impact in a region's height of talent makes him one of the most devastating players in the mid lane.
The godfather of Attack Damage Carries. Weixiao, like Faker, modernized an entire position, creating the standard of kite and cooldown management. He sat on the throne of one of the most dominant teams, World Elite, to ever play League of Legends that went domestically and internationally undefeated for six months, topping his achievements with an IPL5 title.
I struggled between Dade and Wx. Do two OGN titles really outweigh the legacy World Elite built and the title of best attack damage carry ever? In the end I decided on yes. I couldn’t logically have Dandy/Mata over Wx but draw the line on Dade - although I think it’s important to underline the differences in career between these players.
Yes, Wx defined an entire role and plays the part of Faker for ADC - but I didn’t think that was fair to Dade because he’s second to the best player to ever play the game. Wx was more consistent than Dade throughout his performance; Dade suffered extreme highs and lows on his career, even taking the nickname as the “Spring King”. But the fact of the matter is that I weigh the level of competition that Dade dominated during the golden era of OGN. And although Wx faced down some of the most dominant teams of his era in Season 2 I don’t believe that World Elite in their prime could compete with half of what Dade accomplished on two different rosters.
Triple crown wearer: OGN, LPL, and a World Championship title. When I initially approached this list it was between Season 2 and Season 5 Spring Split 2015. Imp had yet to earn his LPL title with LGD or unveil his current god-like form.
Let me be clear - Imp has always been great - and I never bought much into the debate that Mata made Imp’s career (and Imp got to prove that when he and Mata parted ways); a lot of the runs Ozone made into Finals were on the back of Imp’s performance when the Spring King went to hibernate.
Originally I had Imp at 12th - so shoehorning Imp to 6th before the Legacy stretch of the list seems to suggest that I’m putting too much weight on a LPL title. No, it’s about Imp’s career trajectory relative to legacy players like Alex, Froggen, and Madlife. It’s not the LPL title that breaks the camel’s back - it’s the duration of his dominance.
Imp has had slumps, and although his career is still not as long as someone like Froggen, Imp has never had a period where he is completely irrelevant in an international discussion. Likewise, his accomplishments in the constraints of the time frame of his career are unmatched. There is simply no one like him, and I think in the scope of achievements and current form, Imp is approaching for a shot at the King.
But he needs to take down WeiXiao first.
The most obvious trending theme for the list is that the opening 4 spots are dominated by players who defined the top positions during what I recognize as the highest level of competition for League of Legends. After paying respects to the players who achieved the most during that time frame, we move into the “legacy stretch” of the list. Like Wx and Faker, Alex Ich defined a playstyle for the mid lane but was far less consistent than Wx in his individual performance within the team dynamic. He struggled in the transition from Moscow 5 to Gambit in finding “meta” picks that he could thrive with before reforming Khazix mid. True, where Gambit floundered early, they would eventually make it back to the international stage at Worlds where World Elite would disappear - but they barely scraped by. Plagued by issues across all positions, Gambit would sink repeatedly and what were once a defining moment for aggressive play turned into a mediocre or serviceable EU team. But as the shotcaller and mind behind the most dominant Western Team, Alex Ich still has my heart and his key role in creating a playstyle that understood the limitations of standard laning revolutionized the pace and structure of the game.
Where Mata is credited with the modern standard of support play and vision control, MadLife proved that you can hard carry from the support position and pushed the skill cap on multiple champions with his creative play making. Like Alex, his career is full of extreme highs and lows, as well as a roster riddled with less than desirable teammates. So this begs the question of why MadLife has to take a backseat to Alex - he’s certainly had an upswing recently in his career, continuing to play in the toughest domestic region with better results than the previous year, while Alex sits in the North American Challenger Series. And if Alex’s higher seeding is because he was the mid for the most dominant Western Team, MadLife was a primary carry for Frost - who were able to best M5's longtime EU rival in CLG.EU on multiple occasions. So where did these two titans land when they crashed into each other? The answer: they didn’t. TPA beat both of them in Season 2 Worlds and we never got to see the epic showdown. Not until Moscow5 became Gambit Gaming did Alex solidify his lead by beating both Frost and Blaze at IEM VII.
In the end, MadLife is to support what Wx is to ADC - but Moscow5 changed the structure of the game. Madlife is impressive, but it’s taken splits to get his act together and we’re finally seeing the fruits of his labor now that a lot of talent has left the Korean scene.
Why is Froggen below Alex Ich? If you compare their heights, both dominated similar time periods. Likewise, Froggen also revolutionized a standard of playing in the mid lane - prioritizing farm versus kills as an efficient way to amass gold.
Unfortunately for Froggen, I still consider CLG.EU the height of his achievements when examining the relative competition when Alliance dominated the EULCS, and although CLG.EU had the superior historic record against Moscow5, these titans last meeting gave Moscow5 the running edge prior to the Season 2 World Championship.
At the Season 2 World Championship CLG.EU would have to battle through the group stage, dropping a single game to Najin Black Sword, before dropping to Frost in the Semi-Finals across bracket from Moscow5. Fans never got to see these European giants clash on the World Championship stage, but CLG.EU technically had the tougher climb in that tournament and went just as far as M5.
Biggest argument for Froggen are that his career and individual performance were stable for longer next to Gambit’s floundering, but let’s close the book on this argument either way and recognize my bias for blood.
Feels a little crowded from Season 2 on this list, but I assure you that this ends the Legacy stretch of the list (for the majority). Much like how WeiXiao and Faker have been credited with their standard of play for a particular role, Diamond gets the honor for carving out the jungle position that InSec would later refine. No other Moscow5 members are in my Top 20 and I suspect there is little dispute that Alex and Diamond defined Moscow5 for the threat it proved to be on the international stage. The aggressive invade style of Alex’s forward pressure and the double jungle of Gosu Pepper and Diamond debuted the roam meta that would later dominate.
Diamond gets to sit at the feet of his peers on the list due to his recent performance, including being benched for a short stint. With Alex qualifying the Renegades to the NALCS and Froggen continuing to be a cut above in his individual performance despite his team’s overall shortcomings, Diamond legitimately looks a bit rusted compared to his former glory.
It’s not enough to drop him out of the top 10 of all-time with his overall legacy and impact on the role, but the next stretch of the list are the up-and-coming that only need another split of accomplishments before things begin to get crowded.