The League of Legends World Championship play-in stage begins Oct. 1 in Seoul, with 12 teams competing for the final four spots at the game's premier tournament. With the tournament approaching, ESPN broke down the rosters and picked the best players at each position. These difference-making stars could make or break their teams' world title dreams in South Korea.
First up, we have the top laners.
1. Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, KT Rolster
What a career it has been for Smeb. At the beginning of his time in the pro scene, he wasn't just bad -- he was called one of the worst professional players in the South Korean scene. His performances in the early days were laughable. After reinventing himself on the KOO Tigers, the narrative changed. Only two years after being seen as one of the weakest players to ever step foot on stage, he became the best top laner in his home country and transformed into the strong arm of South Korea's newest powerhouse.
Since climbing from the very bottom to the top of the world, Smeb is still searching for the last piece to establish himself as the greatest top laner to ever play the game: the Summoner's Cup. In 2016, it appeared that everything was coming together for Smeb. His team, the ROX Tigers, was the favorite to win it all, but a comeback victory by arch-nemesis SK Telecom T1 in what very well could be the greatest series ever in League of Legends stopped Smeb's journey short at the semifinals.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons have been the next stage of his career. Now that he is the captain of the best team in South Korea, the domestic champion KT Rolster, nothing less than a championship will satisfy Smeb. His most recent season in the LCK might go down as one of his best, even compared to his back-to-back splits where he was named league MVP.
Some players are a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. That's not Smeb. He's a master of all trades, flexible as you can be in the top lane, and if China wants to lift the Summoner's Cup for the first time, it'll have to go through Smeb.
-- Tyler Erzberger
2. Kim "Kiin" Gi-in, Afreeca Freecs
Kiin first appeared on the radar with his carry performances on Ever8 Winners in the 2017 League Champions Korea Summer Split on the likes of Camille, Jax and Renekton. While Kiin received some attention, he wasn't as highly praised or as well-known as the team's jungle/mid duo of Kim "Malrang" Geun-seong and Park "Cepted" Wi-rim. Following this team's last performance together in the 2017 KeSPA Cup, Kiin was picked up by the Afreeca Freecs and had to fill the large shoes of Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan.
Although few expected Kiin to perform poorly, he has vastly exceeded expectations to become one of the best top laners in South Korea, if not the best. Kiin has proved himself as a well-rounded top laner who succeeds regardless of his assigned role in any given Afreeca draft. His excellent teamfight targeting makes him a crucial part of Afreeca's engages when he's on the likes of Gnar or Ornn, but he also has a unique flexibility that allows Afreeca to make last-minute draft swaps. Kiin also naturally excels on carries, and Afreeca turned toward playing more through him and the top side of the map on split-push carries like Quinn. He's the type of top laner that you can build a draft around, either as a flex point or primary carry.
-- Emily Rand
3. Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok, Invictus Gaming
Invictus Gaming's top laner is one of the most exciting players at his position. Much like Kiin, TheShy prefers to flex on carries, but he can get the job done on tanks as well. Lee "Duke" Ho-seong received more playtime than TheShy this summer, but it's evident that TheShy's aggressive laning and skirmishing is still key to the early-game focused identity of Invictus. TheShy lacks international experience, but his mechanical ceiling displayed in the League of Legends Pro League against some of the best still pins him as one of the premier top laners at the event. Assuming that Invictus continues to facilitate TheShy's success via matchups and jungle pressure, he will rise as one of its stars in South Korea.
-- Xander Torres
4. Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho, 100 Thieves
Ssumday is here to remind the world who he is. The former KT Rolster ace has assimilated himself well in North America since arriving in 2017, and like former teammate Song "Rookie" Eui-jin, who stars for Invictus Gaming in China, has been quick to learn his new home country's main language. Ssumday came to North America with little to no understanding of English, and now the 22-year-old can conduct English interviews without the need of a translator. It's easy to overlook Ssumday on an NA LCS team, but don't be fooled: Ssumday is still one of the best top laners in the world, and if 100 Thieves can rally behind its superstar player, maybe the North American underdog can make a little bit of noise in South Korea this October.
5. Yan "Letme" Jun-Ze, Royal Never Give Up
It's unfortunate that roster restrictions will likely force RNG to choose between bringing Letme or the more carry-oriented, split-push style of mid-turned-top laner Liu "Zz1tai" Zhi-Hao to Worlds. Each brings a different look to RNG as much as its two junglers do on a team that, while still focused around Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao, relies on the performance of its solo lanes, especially when it comes to splitting pressure on the map.
There's a narrative among Chinese fans that Letme isn't necessarily a good top laner but his playstyle naturally drags opponents to his level. While we, obviously, disagree with this, the underlying concept is that Letme is incredibly difficult to destabilize in lane. His playstyle isn't easily punishable by opponents, and if they do go for riskier aggressive plays against him early, he frequently makes them look foolish. While Letme is known for his tank play, especially in helping coordinate RNG's strong 5-on-5 teamfights, Letme has a strong, stable champion pool as well. He might not light the world on fire with dazzling carry performances, but he's a steady, crucial component of what makes RNG such a dangerous team.