Five years is an eternity in esports.
Maybe that’s why Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is known as “God”—because he’s stayed on top for nearly that long. It feels like he was anointed right after his spectacular debut in the mid lane for Korean giants SK Telecom T1. Since then, Faker has held the title of world’s best player nearly continuously. A lot has changed—Nidalee and Kha’Zix aren’t even played as laners anymore. The one constant has been Faker’s crown.
There have been challengers. Most are other mid laners who show immense talent, like Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong and Heo “PawN” Won-seok—and don’t even bring up Rasmus “Caps” Winther, who debuted with the nickname “Baby Faker.” PawN even won a World Championship in 2014. But over time, all have been summarily dismissed, a sign that they probably never deserved the comparison to begin with.
The closest thing to a true contender was top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho, who took over the number one spot on the pre-Worlds rankings last year. Smeb spent a year gunning for Faker, but his reign wouldn’t even last a month. When the lights shone the brightest, Smeb was unable to take down SKT despite a 2-1 lead in the Worlds semifinals.
This year, Smeb has taken a step back as his new team, KT Rolster, failed to jell. In his place, a new challenger in the top laner has emerged. In just his first split of play as a starter for a top-tier team, Kim “Khan” Dong-ha has been a revelation.
He’s now a LCK champion and headed into Worlds on one of the hottest teams. Is he the best player in the world?
A phenomenal debut
None of the so-called challengers had a debut year like Faker’s. Starting with that solo kill and ending with the World Championship trophy made for one hell of a rookie season. Even Smeb struggled for years before his ROX Tigers really started challenging SKT last season.
Khan is the exception. He absolutely bodied Smeb in his first LCK game. We weren’t sure what to make of Longzhu’s victory in that series. After all, KT have disappointed nearly the entire year, and we’ve seen other sensations like Longzhu flame out.
How he did it
Khan achieved this success by literally bending the meta to his will. In a meta full of OP tank champions and items, Khan is the one top laner who has consistently stuck to splitpush carries. Even Smeb has picked a bunch of Shen this summer in a bid to keep his team safe.
Khan is his team. His game log is full of AD bruisers that just want to push all the way to the enemy Nexus. Who can blame him? It’s worked nearly flawlessly. He has a 10-1 record in the LCK on Jayce, one of the riskiest top lane champions. Jayce can pressure and push from level one like few champions. But he’s also very squishy and has zero impact without a lead.
But Longzhu have made it work by funneling resources into Khan and letting him carry. He has the highest percentage of his team’s laning CS of any top lane regular. And he’s turned it into phenomenal damage, a category in which he also leads the charts.
Longzhu followed Khan all the way to first place by the end of the Summer Split. We all know what happened next—the precocious young Longzhu team took down SKT in a series that wasn’t even close.
With an LCK title in his first split, what questions remain for the prodigious top lane talent?
It’s almost a bit unlucky that Longzhu did so well in the Summer Split that they won the LCK championship having played only one best-of-five. Sure, SKT were rolling by the time they entered the stage for the final—beating Afreeca, Samsung, and KT in succession will do that. But Longzhu had a couple weeks to prepare for one matchup. And they didn’t reveal any strategies or weaknesses in a long playoff run.
We just haven’t seen Khan dominate for as long, or as many series, as Faker. That’s one of the biggest holes in Khan’s resume—what happens if he were to play a succession of best-of-fives, like he’ll have to do to win Worlds?
Smeb and KT actually showed what can happen when they got a second crack at Khan. In their series near the end of the summer, KT were prepared to shut Khan down. They put a ton of priority on top lane. At first, it looked like Khan would dominate anyway.
But KT’s relentless pressure eventually cracked Khan’s defenses.
They bullied Longzhu out of their top side. And in a somewhat rare display of KT macro play, Smeb’s teleports were much sharper, allowing KT to snowball the series as a team.
The best bot lane in the world
The final question is actually the strength of the rest of Longzhu’s roster. Ironically, his mid laner is BDD, one of the Faker wannabes that fell short before. He’s been a strong laner, someone who gives his team even more options for map control. A lot of the time, that turns into parties in the bot lane. And with a bot lane as good as Longzhu’s, why not?
Longzhu’s duo lane of Kim “PraY” Jong-in and Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon are the best in the world, and it’s not even close. In fact, their superiority over all others may be even greater than the gap between Khan and Smeb.
GorillA in particular is a problem for Khan’s solo-carry resume. He’s one of the smartest players in League, someone who can hide weaknesses and find win conditions more than most. Last year, he organized a young ROX Tigers team into a fearsome foe, probably the second best team in the world. Just look at the uneven performance from Smeb and Peanut this year, and you get a feel for how important GorillA was to the Tigers’ success.
In some games, Longzhu focuses the bot lane in order to create pressure, which in turn, lets Khan push. In others, they focus his lane and dive repeatedly. Their ability to switch styles and win in a variety of ways points to GorillA’s steady, level-headed voice in organizing the team’s macro.
While GorillA deserves recognition in his own right as one of the best in the world, narratives often center around carries. If Khan can continue to win and put up the numbers he’s had the whole year, it may not matter that the rest of his team are all stars as well. But that’s the key.
Khan has to continue to win.
Can he finish the fight?
The biggest question remaining is whether Khan can finish. Smeb came down to earth this year, maybe as a result of last year’s stumble at Worlds. Like a tennis player who breaks serve only to get broken himself, Smeb just couldn’t solidify his grasp on the “best player” title despite being up 2-1 on SKT.
Longzhu may not be favorites at Worlds this year, but they are right there with SKT at the top. And while LCK championships are extremely valuable—some players believe a championship in the crucible of South Korean is even more impressive than a world title—for the vast majority of fans, Khan will have to win Worlds. Few players have pictures of them next to the World Championship trophy. That’s because Faker has won so many of them.
If Khan can break through and win it all next month—and maybe even take down SKT on the way—all the questions will be answered. Faker’s legacy will remain intact, but Khan will be known as the best player in the world.