The road to League of Legends superstardom is long and arduous. Proving their skill by rising to the top of their region’s rankings, garnering the attention of the pro community and joining an established team is just the beginning for players. The real League of Legends starts here.
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Each region has its own professional league. All of these are run and operated by Riot, with player salaries being paid in part by the company. In Europe and America, we have the League Championship Series (LCS). This consists of two tournament splits, both lasting nine weeks. Over the course of these nine weeks, teams in each region play against each other multiple times at the Riot studios in Berlin, with the top six going into a knockout series to crown the best team in the region. This coronation usually takes place at an extravagant Finals event at major stadiums in the United States and Europe.
Elsewhere in the world, we have the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) and the League of Legends Pro League (LPL), which are the official tournaments for Korea and China, respectively. Both of these tournaments have different formats, running at varying lengths but both using a strict best-of-three format (the LCS is also currently experimenting with single win and best-of-three formats in each region). Both tournaments also end in a knockout series to find the best.
The three best teams from each of the major regions listed above, plus four teams from smaller and ‘wildcard’ regions, such as Turkey, Taiwan, Brazil and Hong Kong, will then proceed to the World Championship tournament. This epic series tours a region for the whole month of October, bringing the highest level of League of Legends play to different areas of the world each year. At the end of the month-long tour the two best teams face off and the winner receives the World Championship title. This is the stage on which players truly prove themselves the best in the world, both individually and as a team. Every player on this list has participated at Worlds in the previous years, and are continuing to show incredible skill in their individual regions.
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We've added in their total earnings according to esportearnings, but this isn't a list of the most profitable LoL players - the numbers are just there for interest's sake. So, in no particular order:
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok (SK Telecom T1 - LCK)
Total earnings: $554,086.98
Faker is the closest we’ve got to a household name in League of Legends (for now). He’s a celebrity in his home country of Korea, and for good reason. His enemies have dubbed him the “Unkillable Demon King”, because his mechanical skill is considered by many to be second to none.
He’s been playing League of Legends since the 2013 Season, when he was plucked out of the LoL rankings at just seventeen years old. His current team, SK Telecom T1 was built around him and ever since has been an impressive force in the competitive scene. They hold two World Championship titles, from 2013 and 2015, and while their regular season record isn’t looking so great this year, you can bet Faker and friends will bring it when it matters.
While his team has changed around him, Faker has always been the centre point (or should that be mid-point?) of SK Telecom T1. During the 2015 season he shared the mid-lane with Easyhoon, an incredibly strong player in his own right, after SK Telecom’s two teams were forced to merge. At the time this was unprecedented and as the team went into the World Championships, no-one knew how this partnership would work on the global stage.
It was said by SK Telecom coaches that taking Easyhoon to Worlds was an attempt to keep Faker’s ego in check. Making him push himself to earn his place in those pivotal games, with the eyes of the world watching. Ultimately, this caused friction and Easyhoon left the team after they won the World Championship title, as he felt that he was in Faker’s shadow. Given the choice, I’d probably step out of the Unkillable Demon King’s shadow, too.
Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg (TSM - NA LCS)
Total earnings: $85,996.30
There’s something about European mid-laners. Maybe there’s something in the water which means the region breeds exceptional players for that role. Although judging by the way the EU LCS is looking right now, maybe that should be past tense. As a European export to North America, Bjergsen has seemingly escaped the decline seen in his brothers across the pond and is proving to be strongest player in Team Solo Mid (TSM), who are currently enjoying an exceptional 2016 season.
Bjergsen started his career on the EU LCS team Copenhagen Wolves, though he was too young to play professionally until he hit his seventeenth birthday three weeks into the split. The entire team was transferred to Ninjas In Pyjamas at the end of the 2013 season spring split, where Bjergsen continued until the end of the season. Despite his youthful skill, the team were relegated to the 2014 Promotion Tournament, meaning they had to fight for their place in the LCS.
Before the Promotion Tournament started however, Bjergsen left the team to join North American team TSM, where he still reigns as mid-laner. In his first season with the team he helped TSM not only reach the World Championships, but even break out of the Groups Stage. Only to be defeated by Samsung White, who were unstoppable in their domination of the tournament. TSM made it to Worlds in 2015, too, despite losing to their long-time rivals CLG at the Summer Finals. Sadly the North American region had a devastating Worlds 2015 tournament, with none of its three teams making it out of the Groups Stage.
Now it seems that TSM is riding on a high, as they dominated the 2016 regular season and look like incredibly strong contenders as we head towards Worlds 2016.
Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho (ROX Tigers - LCK)
Total earnings: $94,109.98
Like many on this list, Smeb started his League of Legends career during the 2013 season, however his first couple of years in the sport were not very successful. As top-laner of Incredible Miracle 1, he and his teammates found defeat after defeat and Smeb eventually left the team for good in 2014.
But the 2015 Season was a turning point. Smeb joined the newly formed HUYA Tigers. A team that would later be known as GE Tigers, KOO Tigers, ROX Tigers and even just as Tigers. But it was under the banner of KOO Tigers that the team would see their greatest success to date. Smeb helped his team reach the 2015 World Championship, where they surprised everyone with an incredibly strong showing as they rocketed through the tournament, reaching the Finals against SK Telecom T1. Here they ultimately perished, dashed against the rocks of the Unkillable Demon King himself, though they did manage to win a game during the best-of-five final. Something not achieved by many other teams during the Worlds 2015 tournament.
Smeb seems unwilling to rest on his laurels as second best in the world, however, and continues to improve and impress during the regular season of the LCK. He has won two MVP awards in 2016 and there’s a strong chance we’ll be seeing him attempt to beat his record out at Worlds this year.
Bae "Bang" Jun-sik (SK Telecom T1 - LCK)
Total earnings: $285,703.89
It’s no secret that Korean League of Legends players are considered to be the best in the world. A strong eSports culture in the region, plus the early adoption of the best-of-three format in the regular season, means Korean players are bred for tournament play. Bang is the AD Carry for SK Telecom T1, and the second member of SK Telecom T1 on this list.
Bang began his career in late 2012, as the AD carry for Najin Shield. Like Smeb, he met with failure early on and transferred to Xenics Blast, then to SK Telecom T1 S (sister team to Faker’s SK Telecom T1 K). Here his team continued to struggle somewhat, though they were making visible improvements. But it was at the start of the 2015 Season, when SK Telecom T1 S and SK Telecom T1 K were merged together, when Bang really started to shine.
The team sang together in its new form and, as much as people might like to attribute their success to Faker, their 2015 World Championship win was truly a team effort. They went undefeated throughout the tournament, only losing a few games during the entire month-long tour. Bang was an unstoppable force, whose late-game power was pivotal in the team’s World Championship win.
Bang’s strength continues to grow as he cements himself as one of the strongest members of SK Telecom T1 during the LCK regular season. It won’t be easy for anyone to steal their championship title when Worlds 2016 comes around.
Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen (G2 eSports - EU LCS)
Total earnings: $54,387.99
It’s possible you know Zven by a different name. Some know him as Phlow. Others as Zvanillan. For a long time he was Niels. His identity crises are fitting, as he spent his first two years as a semi-professional League player bouncing between several different teams. Zven played in regional tournaments under the banners of Tricked eSports, Intellectual Playground and SK Gaming Prime, to name a few. Unable to find much footing, he took a break from competitive League of Legends during the 2014 Season.
His return was a triumphant one. At the end of 2014 it was announced that he would be joining Origen as AD carry, a new team set up by ex-Fnatic mid-laner xPeke. This team had no LCS credentials and had to spend the Spring Split working their way through the Challenger Series to claim an LCS spot. Not only did they do this, but they bulldozed their way through the Summer Split and straight into the World Championships, where they finally met defeat at the hands of SK Telecom T1 in the semifinals. Not bad for a team in their rookie split.
Throughout this impressive ascent, Zven (known back then as Niels) just seemed happy to be invited to the party. He had no time to metabolise his successes and become drunk on them and so he became known as one of the humblest players to play at Worlds 2015.
Since then, he has parted ways with Origen to join G2 eSports, an incredibly strong team in the EU LCS which is taking great strides through the regular season. Zven wasn’t alone in this transfer. He brought his support, Mithy, along for the ride and the pair appear to be seeing great success on the new team, while Origen continues to flounder.
Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu (EDward Gaming - LPL)
Total earnings: $170,160.68
Deft’s strength in League of Legends is matched only by his emotional sensitivity. Both of these things make him one of the most endearing players in the world and it’s his passion for the game and his drive to win which makes him such a formidable opponent.
As AD carry of MVP Blue during the 2013 Season, Deft showed enough promise to be picked up by Samsung Galaxy Blue, a team which would prove its strength in the run up, as well as during, the 2014 World Championship. Both Samsung Blue and its sister team Samsung White made it to the world stage and the pair faced off against each other in the semifinals. Sadly for Deft, White would win the duel and, ultimately, take home the Summoner’s Cup that year.
Sometimes after a loss Deft would let his emotions get the better of him and this led to the formation of a strong friendship between him and Fnatic’s AD carry Rekkles, who famously consoled his opponent with a hug and words of encouragement.
Deft is known for his superb mechanical play and was one of the highest damage-dealing players during Worlds 2014. His departure from Samsung Blue, and from the Korean LCK to the LPL, saw him land at EDward Gaming. One of China’s best teams, now even better with Deft’s skills at its disposal. Thanks to this, they made it to the 2015 World Championship and despite being placed in a group with SK Telecom T1, made it into the knockout stages. Here they lost 3-0 against a mighty Fnatic, including his best frenemy Rekkles.
EDward Gaming are enjoying an incredibly strong split in the LPL, so perhaps this is the year that Deft can take home the Summoner’s Cup he so desperately craves.
Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin (Immortals - NA LCS)
Total earnings: $61,673.16
Many players on this list started their careers with dubious performances, but none moreso than jungler Reignover. His time on Korean teams Incredible Miracle 2 and Incredible Miracle 1 earned him the pun nickname GameOver. As you can probably guess, he and his teammates didn’t do too well.
Despite this, ReignOver tried out for SK Telecom T1 before the 2015 Season began. He was offered the substitute spot, but instead decided to move halfway across the world to Europe to join Fnatic. It may have been one of the best decisions he’s ever made. 2015 Fnatic was an unstoppable whirlwind whose strong Spring Split paved the way to an undefeated Summer Split and rocketed the team into the 2015 World Championship. ReignOver was known for his ability to synergise with his teammates, particularly top-laner Huni and AD carry Rekkles.
After a shaky start Fnatic made it to the semi-finals before ultimately being defeated by the KOO Tigers 3-0. A surprising result that prematurely ended Europe’s Worlds dreams. The Fnatic dream team crumbled soon after, as ReignOver and his fellow Korean Huni (who very nearly made it on this list) left to join the North American team Immortals. This super team proceeded to stomp around the NA LCS, wreaking havok, with their eyes set firmly on Worlds and the Summoner’s Cup. GameOver, indeed.
Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez (G2 eSports - EU LCS)
Total earnings: $79,100.20
Because of the age of some players when they gain professional contracts, their conduct can be less than desirable. Mithy is one of those players. Despite making it to the 2013 Season World Championship quarterfinals with his team Lemondogs, he was banned from playing in the LCS shortly after for toxic behaviour.
During this time he played with Ninjas In Pyjamas, who at the time were not part of the LCS or Challenger series. When this ban lifted at the end of 2014, Mithy found himself on xPeke’s new team Origen, acting as Support for his AD Carry Zven. The team blitzed through the Challenger Series to join the EU LCS in the 2015 Summer Split, and ultimately made it to Worlds. Their swift ascent ended at the semifinals, where they faced off against an impossible foe, the Unkillable Demon King Faker and the rest of SK Telecom T1.
After a disappointing 2016 Spring Split, Mithy and his AD Carry Zven transferred to G2 eSports, where the pair exploited their synergy, contributing to the team’s continued success in the region. Mithy’s strategic mind was well documented during Worlds 2015 and his shotcalling can be just as good as his ability to keep his AD carry alive.
Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho (KT Rolster - LCK)
Total earnings: $67,838.48
Korea has the market cornered on top-laners, it seems. Smeb and Ssumday have been battling it out for top-lane supremacy, while on the other side of the world Huni has been representing the region in Europe (Fnatic) and North America (Immortals). Sadly there wasn’t room for all three on this list.
Ssumday has been on KT Rolster since his career started back in 2013, though back then the organisation had two teams. The KT Rolster Bullets and the KT Rolster Arrows. Ssumday was a member of both at different times, until they were merged just before the 2015 Season began. During that season the team made it to the World Championship after performing well against practically every Korean team except SK Telecom T1. Out at Worlds KT Rolster did well enough to escape the Groups Stage, but fell against KOO Tigers in the quarterfinals.
Ssumday has upped his game in the 2016 Season, and he and Smeb are directly competing to prove who is the king of the top lane. So far Smeb’s out in front, thanks to some extra MVP points, but should both teams end up at Worlds this year it will be fascinating to see them both clash on the global stage.
Ming "ClearLove" Kai (EDward Gaming - LPL)
Total earnings: $260,230.70
At the grand age of 23, ClearLove is the old man of this list. Retirement doesn’t seem to be on the cards just yet though, as EDward Gaming’s jungler seems to be just hitting his peak. Having started playing the game in 2011 ClearLove has a wealth of experience, much of it in high-level tournament play, with three World Championship attendances under his belt.
In 2012 ClearLove had a short lived team called Team Phoenix, formed of players who he played with on a Chinese MOBA called Xin Zhang De Ye Wang. After less than two months the team disbanded and ClearLove joined Team WE, with whom he’d attend his first World Championship in 2012. Sadly they were crushed during the quarterfinals by CLG EU, a fate which would soon become eerily familiar to ClearLove as his career progressed.
Internal struggles in Team WE meant that the 2013 Season, while many others in this list were just beginning their careers, would be a low point of ClearLove’s. Despite achieving eleven tournament victories, the team failed to qualify for the World Championship. He left the team and joined EDward Gaming before the start of the 2014 Season.
While ClearLove and EDward Gaming made it to Worlds in 2014, his personal performance was not living up to his potential. Videos of his plays during the tournament were shared on Chinese social media and forums and used as the butt of jokes in the region. Again, they did not make it past the quarterfinal stages. 2015 was a similar story, though ClearLove was playing much better, having an extra year of tournament play under his belt. Unfortunately, Europe’s Fnatic would be the ones to stop them from reaching the semifinals this time.
But the team’s improved strength was evident from their performance at the Mid Season Invitational, a smaller tournament that takes place between the Spring and Summer Splits, attended by the top teams from each region. During MSI EDward Gaming took a decisive victory against SK Telecom T1, winning the tournament and (for a short time) proving themselves to be the best in the world.
ClearLove and the rest of EDward Gaming have shown their ability to beat SK Telecom T1 and their performance during the 2016 Season demonstrates that spark is far from dwindling. Can they make it to Worlds and, more importantly, proceed past the quarterfinal stages? With ClearLove in the jungle, the curse may yet be broken.