Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok is the best Top laner in League of Legends, and is a strong contender for not just the best to ever play the position but any position. This despite the Korean phenom's having not even reached three years of competitive play. Over his five LPL splits and three big international tournament appearances, TheShy and his invictus Gaming (iG) side have won an LPL title, the S8 World Championship and finished top four at both MSI and Worlds in S9.
China struggled for many years to convert its best teams into international champions. Uzi's RNG had a number of cracks at the Worlds crown, though only the S8 run was a clear-cut failure to seal the deal. Korean Rookie was already the long-established king of the LPL since many years back, but the arrival of fellow Korean super-star TheShy began the process of evolution by which iG went from a good team to one of the best line-ups to ever compete.
TheShy is too good. His mechanical prowess feels unfair. His outplays look like solo queue highlights, even when they are against the best players in his region and the world and in official competitive matches. Nobody can lane against him. He is a nightmare in skirmishes and team-fights. Long gone are the days of only forcing a few carry champions and now he plays anything and everything, even opting into losing match-ups, that he still wins and thus transfers obvious draft and pressure advantages to the rest of the map.
As an aficionado of Top lane carries, I will clearly state that nobody compares favourably to TheShy and likely nobody ever will. Welcome to the outlier of the Top lane. Others simply hold trophies or medals if their team wins the tournament, but TheShy reigns supreme.
Enter the dojo
When a great player begins to emerge, manifesting the big game performances and consistency of excellence to deserve comparison with the best players in history, I often imagine it as the premise of a Kung Fu movie in which the protagonist must climb the dojo to prove himself. Moving up the levels, our hero is faced with ever-increasingly dangerous and skilled opponents to face, learn from and overcome, should he hope to continue his quest. At the top of the dojo, he will face the final boss and triumph or be destroyed, literally or physically.
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TheShy plays one of the most decorated and dominant positions in the history of League of Legends for players from his native South Korea. Faker is the region's enduring icon and impossible standard of performance, but look at the other players who have occupied his role in LCK and you will find no real rivals for him. Hence, iG's Rookie long crafted his game in the LPL for years, becoming the kind of defining star who could challenge Faker and has recently achieved better international results than the SKT legend.
Top lane triumphs
Outside of Season 3, when Faker was arguably at his peak individually and in a game which could accommodate a massive range of out-plays still, all of Faker's championships since have come with carry Top laners. It began with the incessant Top lane pressure style of MaRin - a near caricature of dominant Top lane carries, such as my favourite Flame, demanding Jungle attention. Then came Duke, a former league MVP, who many will likely remember for playing tanks or bruisers much of the time in SKT, but was very much a carry player in mentality and early aptitude in his career.
Even through to the infamous Huni's ill-fated run, SKT were still claiming titles and going to the Worlds finals, albeit with a flawed and fractured team identity. Finally, Khan came into SKT as an even more extreme mirror of Huni, but with such highs as a carry that he was a puzzle worth gambling on solving, even if it ultimately did not yield an international title to go along with the back-to-back domestic crowns. Top lane in Korea has been an essential focus for winning championships for the region's greatest dynasty and the other elite sides were not much different.
The lineage of great Top lane carries extends to the beginning of Korea's time competing in LoL and began with MakNoon, a forward-moving dynamo of exuberant Top lane play-making. So single-minded in his playing mentality that his NaJin organisation created a second team, Sword, and built it around him, eventually going on to win an OGN champion with him as the MVP of their run.
Parallel in time to MaKNoon was Reapered, a player both capable of hard carrying games and championships himself - his IEM Cologne 2012 performance being one which is too ridiculous to even recount at this moment, and at the same time shot-calling his Blaze team around the map and taking towers to create pressure in an era when so many top teams still simply sought to team-fight.
Similarly intelligent, but more individually focused, was sister team Frost's Top laner Shy, not to be confused with the subject of this piece. Shy was the best Top laner in Korea's top league for a time, providing both consistent star power and incredibly reliable laning, even on less obvious champions for one so proficient at the time, pre-tank meta.
Back on Blaze, Reapered's fractious departure from the team saw him replaced by Flame, who went on to become the best player in the world in only his second split, one which had already seen the introduction of a phenomenal rookie Mid laner called Faker. For a full year on, Flame continued to destroy opposing Top laners in cs, making his habit a global meme of hitting "The Flame Horizon" - lapping the other player with a 100 cs lead upon them. He was also a monster team-fight presence, with his team playing around him to remain on the brink of elite status.
Smeb's actualisation from potential bust to MVP level talent for numerous years gave ROX Tigers the super-star talent they needed to build a would-be dynasty around. His squad failed many times in finals and could not grasp the world championship they seemed destined to eventually win, but Smeb was vying for the title of the best at his position for many consecutive years in one of the world's most cut-throat regions. Out-lasting his rivals was Smeb's ultimate validation as an individual star.
Alongside Smeb were MaRin, Ssumday, and Duke. None would match his consistency, even if some of them accomplished more with their teams. Khan came later, but proved too fragile to withstand both meta shifts, the demands of a larger champion pool and the pressures of international play. At least until this year, when he seemed to have gone from surplus-to-requirements at times in Spring to a much more well rounded Top laner by Worlds.
Most recently, Korea's Top lane factory sent out Nuguri. A rookie to the LCK, he became a star thanks to his team DAMWON's focus on playing around him and his uncanny sense for map movements and how to impact a game beyond out-laning or out-playing an opponent directly.
TheShy spent what in LoL would amount to half of a player's career honing his talent as a streamer in China, but since becoming a professional player he has made up for lost time with a seemingly exponential star power creep set in motion. It's no disservice or disrespect to the aforementioned names, most of whom would make up a "Top 10 Top laners in history" list, to call TheShy better than all of them and currently sat occupying the top spot in the dojo, the final boss all must now face if they wish to be called the best.
When I first saw him play, I pondered the folly of naming oneself "TheShy", when there had already been a Korean Top lane icon called "Shy", who had both been a Korean champion, reached three straight finals and even appeared in a World Championship final. The task of measuring up was too much to expect of a solo queue prodigy.
Now, it's clear to me that Shy will be forgotten to the mists of time thanks to TheShy's incredible star power and game-defining impact. Just as few modern-day fans will know or appreciate the game of 60s Lakers star and small forward Elgin Baylor and only know the superlative play and staying power of LeBron James, so many will only remember one shy boy.
Forged in the fire
TheShy's origins are as mysterious and unique as his ultra-aggressive but effective playing style. Where all of the Top lane stars previously mentioned were products of the Korean competitive scene, TheShy was only briefly attached to an LCK team - never actually being fielded - and transferred to China to become a streamer for Team WE from 2014 to early 2017. Leaving his native land at only 16, he had been ranked 65th on the Korean solo queue ladder and primarily played the champions Riven, Yasuo, Jayce and Nidalee.
Those champions and his streaming sessions would build a legend around him before he ever stepped onto an LPL stage. Most famed for his Riven play, he even had an absurdly-difficult-to-execute combo for the champion named after him: "The Shy Combo". Chinese fans would refer to him as "the first ranked Riven". Supposedly some KeSPA (Korean Esports Association) teams had shown interest, but WE had snapped him up as part of their new focus on recruiting Korean talent, having already brought on board now ADC star and Worlds semi-finalist mystic.
TheShy was everything one might expect of a highly skilled streamer player on the Chinese server. His play was immediate montage-bait and so abusive and exploitative his intentions towards the opposing Top laner that one could easily be forgiven for imagining he could fall flat on his face in competitive play, as Huni has at times done in the West, thanks to a ceaseless mindset to carry.
That TheShy went on to not only perpetuate this style of play but near-perfect it and to a level beyond the reach of any rival Top laner is the primary reason he holds unique status at his position and has immediately shot up the historical rankings. In TheShy, China was able to claim its own Faker. A talent impossible to match and who could be built around to produce championships for the region and leave opponents unable to even craft a game plan that could have prevented their demise.
As the Street Fighter character of Blanka's origin were described in the 1994 live-action of being a soldier strapped into a chair, forced to watch non-stop violent images and pumped full of steroids, leading to a crazed and violent killing machine, so TheShy was forged in endless streaming sessions of pushing past the limits of the paradigm of conventional Top lane play.
Becoming a monster
TheShy went from a wildly erratic but deadly carry in 2017, diving towers mere minutes into the game with side-kick Jungler Ning, to a player clearly explosively good, but also willing to play many more champions and now developing a degree of consistency to his play. Still, with former World Champion Duke on the roster as well, iG could sub out TheShy if they felt his performance too much of a liability or lacking in the more stable style they wanted from the Top lane.
It wasn't until Season 8 Worlds that TheShy was fully unleashed and Duke practically banished to the shadowlands of the bench, seemingly forever. TheShy was the best Top laner in the tournament and perhaps even the best player, though Jungler Ning won the MVP honours for his essential impact on the squad's style. Nobody could stand against TheShy in a one-versus-one. The second game of the G2 semi-final, when his Aatrox four-man smashed Europe's second-best team, was merely an exclamation point to the sentence that TheShy was the best Top laner and heading for untouched status through eternity.
This is not to paint the picture of a player only ever performing very well, though. TheShy had some performance issues this summer, as part of iG's post-MSI slump, but could not be held down indefinitely and rose again to dominate the LPL gauntlet and qualify for Worlds.
Dawning of the nightmare
A demon occupies the Top lane for iG. Rampaging through the LPL and onto the international stage, TheShy is a player who has become an all-around Top lane player, yet sacrificing opponents rather than his carry mentality. A contender for the best laner in the world at any position, it's a sign of how ludicrous the star power of iG is now that his team-mate Rookie is a rare example of a player that beats him out in that metric.
Still, consideration must be given to TheShy's champion pool becoming outrageously wide so as to even accommodate the flex picks Rookie may want in the draft. If you deny iG's two icons then good luck dealing with the bottom lane conventional wisdom used to say you should attack instead. Ask yourself which champions TheShy is the best on and you'll come up with a signature list that seems beyond greedy for one player.
TheShy's utterly unique strength as a Top laner is seen not just in the impeccable out-plays, but even more so when he is a weak side player or has the map split against him. Not only will he continue to win lane and torture the other Top laner, but he can do so with or without Jungle attention and in bad match-ups and versus the other best Top laners in the game. TheShy's Vladimir would confuse a newer viewer into imagining the champion came online immediately and was a monster Mid game carry. It isn't, at least when played by anyone other than TheShy.
Amazing as he is at turning ganks, TheShy does not play alone, though. Earlier this year his Jungler Ning had the highest top lane proximity of any Jungler and it is their powerful two-versus-two play and eire ability to connect their minds, despite TheShy being from an entirely different country and not being fluent in Mandarin, for their extreme plays.
At the Season 9 World Championships, iG were perhaps a coin-flip to get out of their group and an entirely unreasonable pick to reach the finals or win. Yet, by the time the tournament had seen the team eliminated, as deep as the semi-finals, TheShy would have been a primary candidate for MVP, had such an award been possible to grant to someone who did not play on the final day. Kayle was a pick that looked useless in many Tops' hands, leading to speculation it had been a scrim stomper but was less effective as it was being used on stage, but TheShy had the champion looking broken to a silly degree.
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Even if he was a bizarre primary contributor to iG's elimination in game four, against eventual champions FPX, across the rest of the series and even some of that game, he had been an unbreakable titan withstanding anything sent at him and returning the punishment tenfold.
Smashing through the ceiling
TheShy's most immediate strength upon becoming known as a streamer was, of course, his extremely high level of mechanical skill. Today, he has highlight montages solely of his professional play which would shame what even some of the best Top laners of all-time could do in solo queue. Coupled with that impossible skill level is a degree of smooth execution that makes him appear calm as he fluidly performs a flawless combo or one-v-twos an enemy Top laner and the Jungler who naively thought the gank would be his chance to get a kill. TheShy can kill one-versus-one in a manner that breaks the paradigm that people speak Faker's S3 exploits to explain is no longer possible in the modern day.
TheShy's play-making extends far out of lane, though, and sees him a tyrant in skirmishes and a strong team-fighter. His mentality for out-playing the opponent is pure and no immature refusal to play the game "the right way". TheShy is one of those rare handful of players who have pursued the maddening genius of extreme out-plays through the other side of risk and into a realm of ability where anything is possible and he routinely gets kills with next-to-no-health remaining, which he clearly could not have calculated consciously, but knew would come intuitively.
To again go to a Street Fighter analogy, if Flame represented the intense drive of Ryu to master the fundamentals and achieve ultimate power and Shy was the more easy-going but still talented Ken, then TheShy is Akuma, a demon boss here to torment the other great competitors and dash the traditions of orthodox play.
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TheShy does not simply go all-in on his opponent each time he sees an opening, but lulls his enemy into believing there is a safe zone, where no threat for a kill exists, only to dispell that illusion with a sudden turn of force and driving bloodthirst to dominate.
"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see."
TheShy is the only player in my seven years of analysing great LoL players and from all the major regions that can truly be compared with Faker as a play-maker. Rookie has the individual chops to measure himself as a Mid laner, but TheShy has that enticingly magnetic draw of being one who will attempt in an official match something which would be inadvisable and controversial in a practice game and then execute it and find success.
Here is the only other great Korean player to be possessed of the same degree of obscene talent paired with the transcendent genius of their vision for plays. Super-Star. Prodigy. World Champion. I just call him the best to ever do it. He is TheShy.