Welcome to the Esports Equivalent, where we take one of the biggest traditional sports stories currently going on in the world and try to find a what-if comparison in the competitive gaming scene.
If you’re not a fan of basketball, or were just too busy on the 4th of July to notice, one of the biggest free agent signings in traditional sports history occurred. Former NBA MVP Kevin Durant left his longtime team, Oklahoma City Thunder, to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Anytime one of the top players in their field moves to a different team is a big deal, but the Independence Day signing is even greater in scope.
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The Warriors last season accomplished something no squad has ever done in an 82-game season: win 73 of those contests. Steph Curry and his teammates secured the record for the best regular season in NBA history. Golden State were only one win from repeating as champions in the finals, and it took a herculean effort from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveand Cavilers to stop it from happening.
Now, one of the best teams the NBA has ever seen has added Kevin Durant to its already potent shooting lineup. The signing has formed two warring opinions: Warriors fans who are happy to have what looks to be the best starting five in NBA history, and everyone else wondering how in the world this is considered fair.
To find the esports equivalent to the Kevin Durant signing, we head over to the so-called Mecca of esports, South Korea. In League of Legends, there is no other king than the one housed at the SK Telecom T1 headquarters. The team has won two of the last three Summoner’s Cups, are the reigning Intel Extreme Masters world champions, and have a Mid-Season Invitational crown in Shanghai. It’s also working on an unprecedented four-peat in its domestic league in South Korea, the most competitive region in the world. Led by the best player of all time, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, T1 has accrued one of the best statistical years. A fourth straight League of Legends Champions Korea championship and a third Summoner’s Cup in four years would solidify T1 as possibly the best organization in all of esports history.
But what if SKT T1 wanted to stack the deck even more? For Durant and the Warriors, chemistry on the court (or the Rift) is far more important than how pretty a lineup appears on paper. Looking at all the esports scenarios that could run parallel to Durant’s move to the Bay Area, one player stood out for me from T1’s main rival.
Enter: Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho
Since the organization formed in late 2014, Smeb’s Tigers have played a very similar role to OKC. One of the best regular season teams we’ve seen in the past two years, the Tigers have continually failed to win a title on the grand stage, similar to how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder have repeatedly missed capturing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. The Tigers faced off versus SKT T1 in three major finals over the past two years and lost all three in disappointing fashion, despite often being the favorite in the matchup. Anytime it felt like the league or tournament would turn out differently for Smeb and company, Faker would be waiting for them at the finish line, and all the hard work up to that point would be all for naught.
In 2016, Smeb received offers to play on various teams around the world for reportedly more money than the Tigers could offer him. But he decided to stay in order to take down Faker’s T1 once and for all.
But what if Smeb went the Kevin Durant route? A former MVP himself in the LCK, Smeb has been considered one of, if not the best top laner in the world since the formation of the team. The leader of his team and the player that has come closest to grabbing away the title of best in the world away, he still lacks the thing that will decide his legacy the most: a championship ring. He’s made two LCK finals and lost both times to SK Telecom T1. When the Tigers made an inspired run to the finals of last year’s World Championships thanks to Smeb’s carrying talents in the top lane juggernaut meta, it was SK Telecom T1 that took home the Summoner’s Cup.
Smeb joining SKT T1 would be interesting. While a majority of fans would consider it an upgrade position-wise, it’s important to note T1 already have one of the elites at the top lane role with Lee “Duke” Ho-Seong. A former MVP from his days on the hapless NaJin e-mFire, Duke is the type of player that is quieter and less flashy than Smeb, but puts up close numbers in his role. The addition of Smeb would be a slight boost when it comes to offensive stats; however, the real benefit is his communication and shot calling.
Unless Duke joined ROX in a trade, the signing of Smeb would also weaken T1’s greatest competitor, the Tigers, for a third Summoner’s Cup. Just like the Warriors did by chopping the head off of the team that took it to seven games during this year’s Western Conference Final, a Tigers team without Smeb just wouldn’t be the Tigers anymore. Smeb’s evolution from a subpar player to being the second best player in the world has made the Tigers what it is today.
Here’s how Smeb’s MVP standing has looked over the past four splits in Korea:
Spring 2015: Third
Summer 2015: Fourth
Spring 2016: First
Summer 2016: First (Halfway through season)
Sadly for Smeb and the Tigers, Smeb’s legacy (if he retired today) would be the most bittersweet. He’s one of the best top laners of all time, but not the best because of his lack of a title. Smeb needs that championship to establish himself as one of the greats.
If T1 did sign Smeb, that would majorly damage its closest competitor and bring on a player that has been top four in MVP voting and is an upgrade when it comes to communication. With Faker, Smeb, and Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, the reigning champions of all major international competitions would possess three of the best five or six players on the entire planet.
OK, let’s end this before we give SK Telecom any ideas.