19-year-old Faker came out of nowhere to become the first true global star of gaming. But can the League of Legends prodigy carry a nation on his shoulders?
Photo Illustration by Richard Roberts
As part of the stories of the year collection, this piece is being resurfaced along with others in the coming days as ESPN Digital and Print Media closes out the year. Check out the full list here.
wo years ago, around the time that League of Legends became the most popular computer game in the world, chat rooms from Berlin to Beijing started to buzz about a mysterious Korean known as GoJeonPa who was tearing up the online ranks. No one had heard of him; many assumed he was a professional gamer slumming it in his spare time. Before long, word spread that GoJeonPa was actually a high schooler who lived on the outskirts of Seoul. By the beginning of 2013, he was the top player on the Korean server.
That spring, SK Telecom, one of several Korean companies that sponsor competitive gaming teams, announced it was forming a second League squad and had signed GoJeonPa. The teenager, whose real name was Lee Sang-hyeok, changed his gamer tag to Faker. When he debuted on the professional circuit in April 2013, the online chatter was deafening.
What happened next is now seen as a turning point in League of Legends history.
SK Telecom's first opponent was CJ Blaze, one of the most popular teams in Korea. The match was broadcast on Ongamenet, a cable network devoted to eSports. At the beginning of the game, when the teams selected their characters, or champions, Faker appeared on screen. Reed-thin, with delicate features and an elfin haircut, he chose Nidalee, a female warrior who can mutate into a cougar.
Because League is a five-on-five game shot from a bird's-eye point of view -- unlike first-person shooters like Call of Duty -- the game is tailor-made for spectators. As a studio audience looked on, Faker gingerly approached one of his opponents, an older, well-known player named Ambition. Ambition backed under a tower to upgrade one of his abilities, a process that momentarily froze his champion. Then, in a sequence so abrupt I had to pause and rewatch the clip several times, Faker evolved into cougar form, leaped under the tower and executed Ambition. Before the crowd could react, he sprang away.
The camera quickly panned to the bottom of Summoner's Rift, the game's lush, forested map, and found two CJ players squared off against a pair of SK Telecom champions. Faker suddenly came into view. Still in cougar mode, he jumped into the fray and slew one of the CJ players. When the other tried to run away, Faker changed back into human form, hurling a spear that killed his fleeing enemy. In less than 40 seconds, he had assassinated more than half the team.
"My mind is being blown," said Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, one of the studio analysts. "I don't know what to say about this." The audience members stared blankly at the screen, mouths agape. They looked as if they had just witnessed a crime.
Over the next 12 months, SK Telecom went on an unprecedented winning streak. In Faker's first season as a pro, the team reached the Korean semifinals. The next season, it went all the way to the world championship. In front of a sold-out crowd at LA's Staples Center -- plus 32 million online viewers -- Faker and his teammates swept a Chinese squad to take the Summoner's Cup and a $1 million prize. After returning home, they continued to steamroll the competition, winning 15 games in a row.
In Seoul, where eSports are more popular with teenagers than baseball, Faker became a household name. He starred in a commercial for SK Telecom, striding toward the camera in slow motion. The Internet birthed a hashtag, #thingsfakerdoes. Some League fans nicknamed him the Unkillable Demon King; others simply referred to him as God. "I think of him on the same level as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods -- people who brought their respective industries to the next level," says Jeon Yong Jun, a veteran announcer, or caster. "He was the first true global superstar."
It was perhaps only natural that such a prodigy emerged from Korea, which has dominated the eSports world for more than a decade, churning out gaming wunderkinder the way the Eastern bloc used to produce gymnasts. But no superpower can stay on top forever. Last fall a wave of Korean League stars announced they were leaving the country, lured by huge offers in China. In what became known as the Korean Exodus, two of the best squads, backed by Samsung, were razed, and three SKT starters left. When a Chinese team made a massive offer to Faker -- nearly $1 million, according to some reports -- it seemed inevitable that Korea's reign over League of Legends had come to an end.
Instead, something unexpected happened: The Unkillable Demon King decided to stay.
'League of Legends': A marquee event
"League of Legends" has swept across the globe in recent years, and tens of millions of gamers now play each month. Check out just how big the eSport has become.
ONE NIGHT IN April, SK Telecom is playing Samsung Galaxy at Ongamenet's studio in downtown Seoul. To get to the set, you take a series of escalators through a massive department store, gliding past racks of futuristic beauty products and kimchi refrigerators as you ascend to the roof. Just outside the studio's doors, a young nurse named Kim Han Sol is standing in 4-inch heels, wearing a leather skirt and a black flat-brim that says FAKER in all caps. "He's the most impactful player," she says, absentmindedly stroking one of her thick pigtails as if petting a cat. Kim vividly remembers Faker's first game, against CJ Blaze. "I was very happy. There were a lot of expectations, and he fulfilled them all."
After Faker won back-to-back MVP awards in 2013 and 2014, his supremacy was indisputable. But last spring, SKT started losing -- and backlash began to foment. Headlines on eSports websites asked whether the team's empire had fallen; forums exploded into arguments over whether the 18-year-old star was past his prime. Although most League experts pinned the squad's decline on Faker's teammates, by the end of 2014, when SKT lost in the playoffs, everyone agreed: God had come back to earth. In October, another Korean team, Samsung Galaxy White, hoisted the championship cup.
When I walk into OGN's studio, I'm struck by how closely it resembles a game show set. Teams play in glass booths that face the crowd, and two sets of announcers -- Koreans and English speakers, dressed in checkered blazers and ties -- sit between them, in front of a giant screen displaying the game. OGN's head producer, Crisis Wi, says the channel is the country's most popular cable network among males in their teens and 20s. A recent match drew 500,000 viewers online.
After a slow start this year, SKT brings a hot streak to the match tonight. If the team wins the spring finals in a few weeks, it'll advance to the Mid-Season Invitational in Tallahassee, Florida, where it'll face victors from other regions. (The world championship is slated for October.) Meanwhile, Samsung, which was gutted by the Korean Exodus, has lost eight of its past nine matches. About an hour before the game, the team's new players trudge into their booth, keyboards in hand. Clad in white leather jackets, with matching black glasses and feathery bangs, they look like the world's least intimidating motorcycle gang.
For most pro gamers, the future isn't bright. It's hard to make a career after retiring.
- Former Korean pro Jang Gun-Woong
As I watch from the back of the set, Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, the American play-by-play announcer, walks by and spots Faker behind the stage. "There he is," he says, pointing. "The man, the myth, the legend. The tiny Korean kid." Sensing a rare opportunity to speak to God alone, I hustle across the set. It's warm in the studio, but Faker is wearing a red SK Telecom parka. At 5-foot-8 and 119 pounds, his frame barely fills out the uniform; his cheekbones are so sharp, they cast shadows across his face. He tells my translator he's about to head backstage to get his makeup done. The network slathers the players in luminous foundation, which makes them look like bloodless extras in a vampire movie. I ask Faker whether he hates it, and he says no. "My skin is not so good," he says.
When the Buff Girl, who hypes up the audience before games, skips by and says hello, Faker blushes. (In League, to "buff" a character is to increase its powers.) I try another question: Is he afraid of losing? "I don't get nervous anymore," he replies. One of his managers suddenly appears. She asks my translator whether we're discussing SK Telecom's strategy. Before he can say no, Faker is gone.
Because Samsung is so weak, SKT doesn't even play its star tonight; it subs in his backup, Easyhoon. In recent weeks, there have been rumblings online that Easyhoon -- bespectacled, with sloping bangs and a melancholy expression -- is just as good as God. "Faker is better overall," DoA says when I pose the question to him later. "But the argument can be made that Easyhoon is as useful." Two rows behind me, I see Kim, the nurse, coloring in a sign with a marker. It says: Easyhoon is dreamy.
When the game begins, it quickly becomes obvious that Samsung is overmatched. In League, the teams spawn from opposite corners on the map, and the main objective is to destroy the opponent's castle, or nexus. Along the way, champions harvest gold and power by slaying neutral creatures, accruing weapons and taking out their enemies. At its highest level, League is a deeply tactical game, but it's easy for neophytes to enjoy. Kills are good. Multiple kills are better. SKT easily wins both games.
After the match, a few dozen fans wait outside the studio for autographs. Most of them are women, with similar hairstyles (bangs) and outfits (baggy sweaters with short skirts and heels). One girl is wearing a white hamster onesie; as she kneels down to pick up a box of chocolate cream cookies, a gift for the team, her fuzzy tail drags between her legs. When fans approach Faker, bearing chestnuts and stuffed animals and gifts wrapped in pastel tissue paper, he bows. He carefully places their presents in a pile, then holds their phones out for selfies, tilting them just so. One girl hands him a metallic pen and asks him to sign an autograph book, and he writes FAKER in all caps. He pauses, then adds: haengbok hasaeyo. Be happy.
Seong Joon Cho
Seong Joon Cho
At a match in Seoul, Faker gets his makeup done before appearing in front of adoring fans. Seong Joon Cho (2); Courtesy Riot Games
A FEW DAYS later, I turn onto a side street in Seoul's Gangnam District, following a sign that says 02 PC BANG. Down several flights of steps, I enter a dark, windowless room furnished with rows of computers. An older woman sits near the door, next to a display of energy drinks. The cafe is silent except for League's telltale sound effects (coins tinkling, weapons firing). Near the back of the room, three Korean men sit shoulder to shoulder, tapping at their keyboards. One of them, a 27-year-old named Kim Hyun-jun, says he comes here a couple of times a week, usually for five hours at a time.
When I ask him whether he's heard of Faker, he looks at me as if I've sprouted a third eye. "Of course," he replies, while his friends snicker. "Everyone knows him. Faker is God."
Korea has more than 12,000 PC bangs, many of which are open 24 hours a day. They started cropping up in the late 1990s, when the Asian financial crisis spurred the government to invest in broadband. According to OGN's Wi, the recession helped spawn the Korean eSports craze. "The unemployment rate went up, and there was a huge amount of people looking for things to do," he says. "So they started playing video games." Today it seems counterintuitive that in a country where young children carry smartphones that aren't yet available in the West, people still flock to old-fashioned Internet cafés. But there are sociological reasons for their persistence. In Seoul, where many families live in small apartments, kids are less likely to play shooter games in their living rooms. Instead, they escape to PC bangs.
The first eSport to sweep the country was StarCraft, a real-time strategy game that's as complicated as chess. StarCraft was released in 1998; by the middle of the 2000s, Korea boasted a thriving professional league, a regulatory agency (the Korean eSports Association, or KeSPA) and two cable networks dedicated to gaming. But at the end of the decade, StarCraft was losing steam -- just in time for Riot Games, a small company based in Santa Monica, California, to bring League of Legends to market. Riot doesn't break out user numbers by country, but more than 27 million people play the game every day. When professional teams started to form in Korea in 2012, an advanced infrastructure of coaches, sponsors and training houses was already in place.
Faker lives with his teammates in an apartment on the fringes of Seoul, in an area populated by half-empty office buildings. The players share bedrooms. When they wake up around noon, a cook comes in and prepares lunch. Afterward, they walk a few minutes to their training center. For the next eight hours, they practice by scrimmaging against other teams, occasionally taking breaks to study game film. Faker usually practices by himself for at least four more hours.
When I visit the facility, SKT's coaches, Choi "L.i.E.S." Byoung-hoon and Kim "kkOma" Jeong-gyun, are in their shared office, sitting side by side in matching leather chairs. I ask kkOma, who is playing League at his computer, what he thinks of the Korean Exodus. "It depends on the results of this year's championship," he says, one hand rapidly clicking on a mouse, eyes locked onto the screen. "If Korea wins, it isn't a problem. If another region wins, maybe there is."
When I mention Faker, kkOma furrows his brow. "It's a team game," he says. "When the team doesn't do well, Faker doesn't do well. He looks as good as he does because there's a baseline set by the rest of the team."
Outside the coaches' office, God himself stands in the hall, gazing at a picture of the 2013 roster posing with the Summoner's Cup in Los Angeles, the players beaming as they each point a finger to the sky. I ask him whether he's still in touch with the players who left Korea, and he says no. "I'm busy practicing."
Faker grew up in the Gangseo District, not far from the SKT training center. He and his younger brother were raised by his father (he says he hasn't seen his mother in a while) and his grandparents. From an early age, he was an autodidact, the kind of kid who solved Rubik's Cubes and read foreign books to teach himself new languages. His father, a carpenter, was slightly bewildered by his precocious son. Sang-hyeok always loved games -- learning them, practicing them, conquering them. He discovered League when it launched in Korea in 2011, and he started playing it around the clock; before long, he was so good the Korean server struggled to match him with players of equivalent skill. When SKT approached him, he had just started high school. After joining the team, he dropped out.
Faker shows me the computer room where he practices, then leads me to a lounge furnished with a massive leather sectional, a shelf of trophies and a rack of sneakers from New Balance, one of SKT's sponsors. A cooler is stocked with sports drinks provided by another sponsor, Pocari Sweat. The sofa is big enough for sprawling, but Faker perches on the edge, his hands clasped together. When I ask him to describe his life at the training center, he paints an ascetic picture. He has no real hobbies outside of gaming, and he's never had a girlfriend. The walls of his room are blank. He likes water.
I tell him I've read that he owns a couple of plants and ask him what they look like. "There's a tree-ish one and a grass-ish one," he replies. He pats the tufts of hair above his temples, a recurring tic.
Initially, SKT's coaches were put off by Faker's shyness. One was even worried he might have a speech disorder -- some days, he uttered only a few words. "He didn't talk very much, so we had reservations about whether he would be good in a team environment," Choi says.
I think if I practice hard, I will indisputably be the best again.
But when Faker talks about League, he visibly relaxes. I ask him how he can play so many champions -- while most gamers have mastered a few characters, he's played more than 30 at the professional level -- and his eyes light up. "My strength is in understanding the flow of the game, when to fight and when not to fight," he explains. "Regardless of which champion I play, that strength is there." As he recounts his professional career, details trickle out. At the 2013 world championship in Los Angeles, his team took him to Universal Studios; he smiles broadly when he recounts the Transformers ride. Sometimes, he opens his practice sessions to fans and plays American pop music in the background. His favorite artist is Taylor Swift.
He admits that fame perplexes him. League fans on Naver, a Korean Internet portal, track his every move. A recent Reddit post ruminating on whether he was flirting with a Korean television presenter drew hundreds of comments. When he makes a rare trip outside SKT's training center, he's often recognized by teenage admirers. "I usually wear a baseball cap," he says.
Faker doesn't like to talk about the offer from China. When I bring it up, his mouth twists a little and he rubs his hair again. "A lot of players who left say it's been difficult," he finally says. "I think going abroad is a good experience, but personally, I want to stay in Korea and win the world championship again." I ask him whether he believes he's the best player in the world. "Not yet," he says. "There are a lot of people on my level now. I think if I practice hard, I will indisputably be the best again."
DOA AND MONTECRISTO, the American casters, both live in Kyunglidan, a trendy neighborhood with narrow streets lined with jewel-box-sized cafés and craft breweries. We meet there for lunch -- jaeyook bokeum, or stir-fried pork belly -- with Susie Kim, a translator and former StarCraft caster. When I ask the group why Faker is regarded as the best player in the world, MonteCristo, who goes by Monte, jumps in: "How would you grade a professional athlete? Like, what makes LeBron great?"
I rattle off a few words: athleticism, skill, decision-making.
"It's the same. It's exactly the same," Susie says.
The League equivalent of athleticism is called mechanics, which refers to a player's ability to use his mouse and keyboard to make swift movements, like dodging shots. In this respect, Monte says, Faker is peerless. He points me to a video of what is widely seen as the greatest play in League history, clipped from a 2013 game between SK Telecom and the KT Bullets. Faker is dueling another player, Ryu, and they're both playing the same champion, a ninja named Zed. After a brief skirmish, Faker's Zed appears about to die, so he darts away. Then, just when Ryu thinks he has the fight sewn up, Faker unleashes a startling set of moves, cutting down his opponent in a blinding flash. The audience goes nuts. "He used six different abilities in the span of two seconds," Monte says.
Even more impressive, DoA adds, is the breadth of Faker's champion pool, which makes it easier for him to adapt to new patches to the game -- the "meta," in eSports parlance. Because Riot upgrades League every few weeks, players live in perpetual fear of having their favorite champions' skills diminished. Imagine if the NFL suddenly announced next year that rushing touchdowns were worth only five points, or if MLB expanded the strike zone for left-handed pitchers. Although the constantly changing meta keeps the game fresh, it can be agonizing for professionals. Some players never recover from an ill-timed patch.
That's one of the reasons the average eSports career is so short. Professional players typically retire before their mid-20s; like figure skaters, they peak long before then. Older gamers must battle slowing reflexes and fatigue, as well as injuries to their necks and wrists. "As a male teenager, it's easy to play video games for 16 hours," Monte says.
Because many Korean players skip college, their career options after retiring are limited. "A lot of pro gamers don't come from wealthy backgrounds," Susie says. "A good number of them are doing this because they're supporting their families." Increasingly, she says, players realize they have limited time to capitalize on their skills, which is driving some of them to leave the country. Although most professional gamers in Korea earn five-digit salaries and a few elite players make over $100,000 (Monte says Faker probably makes more than twice that; SK Telecom declined to comment on his salary), Chinese teams boast massive war chests. One squad, Invictus Gaming, is owned by the son of Wang Jianlin, the richest man in mainland China. This winter, Invictus added four Korean players to its roster.
Pro players also make money by streaming, allowing fans to watch them practice while advertisements pop up. One retired player in China, Wei "Caomei" Han-Dong, has said he makes more than $800,000 a year streaming. Korean teams have begun to stream a little, but in general, "they think it's inefficient," says Lee "CloudTemplar" Hyun-woo, a retired-gamer-turned-caster. "In Korea, to make money you have to put up results." Demand is out there, though. This February, a minor scandal flared up when a Twitch user started streaming Faker's practice games without permission.
Riot Games' Korean headquarters is located near Sinsa Station, a hotbed for plastic surgery. The airy office boasts the usual Silicon Valley trappings: arcade games, a Lego table, even a drum set. League is free to play, but Riot makes money -- $1.3 billion last year, according to SuperData Research -- by charging for cheap in-game features such as skins or custom kits for champions. Many of these add-ons become popular after professional players use them.
To stem the flight of Korean players, Riot and KeSPA, the league's regulator, have enacted a few changes. Last fall Riot instituted a new region-locking system that restricts Western teams from recruiting too many foreigners. Richard Kwon, Riot's Korean communications chief, hopes to persuade the government to grant reprieves from mandatory military service to successful eSports athletes, as it did for MLB star Shin-Soo Choo. Yet he insists the Korean Exodus is overblown. "What's different about the Korean scene is there's a very strong amateur scene," he says. "We can find and raise new talent easily."
Another Riot Games staffer jokes: "Faker Two."
Korean workplaces are famed for their emphasis on collectivism. No individual is greater than the group, and no quality matters more than unity. "Teams will say, 'If a player can't handle the amount of pay he's getting, we'll just send him off,'" CloudTemplar says. "'We can start fresh with a new player.'" Korean players aren't naturally gifted at video games, he says -- they're just better trained, with superior coaches. "That's probably our greatest strength," he says.
But what happens, I ask, when the coaches start to leave? "We'll just have to put in even more effort," he says.
Courtesy Riot Games
Courtesy Barry Bonds
As a crowd of 4,000 looked on in Florida, Faker ended up battling with Korean players who had left the country. Seong Joon Cho; Courtesy Riot Games (2)
SKT'S FINAL MATCH of the spring is against the GE Tigers, a team that beat SKT earlier in the season. Both have already qualified for the playoffs; tonight they're playing for pride. Before the studio opens, I meet Faker's father, Lee Kyung-joon, and two aunts at a coffee shop near OGN's set. As soon as we begin talking, one of the aunts grasps my arm. "He is the pride of our family," she says.
When SK Telecom first approached Kyung-joon about signing his son, he was wary of pulling the boy from school. But a teacher convinced him that Faker could easily earn a degree later. "As a single parent, it's my role to support my son," he says. "He's doing this because he wants to." When SKT won the world championship, Kyung-joon was blown away by the response. "I started thinking, 'Wow -- he's really good at this,' " he says. "He's worked very hard. He's giving it his all."
I ask him whether the rumors about China's lavish offer were exaggerated, and he hesitates, just as Faker did. Finally, he shakes his head: It happened. But why would anyone turn that down? "He wanted to stay with SKT," he says. "I feel it's good to show loyalty to the organization that brought you up."
Before the match begins, Faker is sitting inside SKT's booth, practicing with a teammate. When Faker plays League, the hand that rests on his mouse barely moves, but his tendons are constantly pulsating, rising and falling like strings on a guitar. One of his feet bounces up and down. As he navigates the map, I watch him closely, trying to identify what makes him so great -- trying to connect the corporeal presence in front of me with the lethal killing machine on the screen. But nothing jumps out. He looks like a normal boy, albeit an unusually focused one, playing video games with a friend. Eventually, he leaves to get his makeup done.
At the beginning of every match, there's a phase called the draft in which each team picks five champions and bans three from the map. Because each character has a unique set of skills, drafting is a pivotal part of the game: Monte tells me at least 30 percent of winning depends on roster composition. Faker excels at a number of champions, but he's never lost a game while playing LeBlanc, a vampy female assassin. Unsurprisingly, GE bans her immediately.
SKT easily takes the first game, but the second match lasts longer, the teams trading blows for about 30 minutes. At one point, a GE player tries to jump Faker from a hiding place, a move called ganking. When Faker dodges the attack, the crowd bursts into applause. Eventually, all five GE players bump into four members of SKT; sensing an advantage, they initiate a fight. After SKT holds its ground for a few seconds, Faker suddenly bursts onto the screen, driving a wedge into the fracas. SKT wins the battle, and before GE's champions can re-spawn, SKT destroys their nexus. Game over.
Afterward, one of the Korean presenters interviews Faker, who perches on a stool next to her, his creamy makeup melting under the spotlight. She asks him what it's like being the face of SKT.
"I hope that we can gift them with more wins and prestigious titles," he says.
"Do you have anything to say to your fans?" she asks.
He sneaks a glance at the crowd. "In the second game, we made a lot of mistakes. I feel regretful."
There's a concept in Korea called mangshin, which roughly translates to "losing face" -- bringing shame to your community. "Say a team in the States doesn't perform well," says Will "Chobra" Cho, a Korean caster. "You'll criticize them, but you'll still have a parade. In Korea, it's like, 'You didn't do well? Don't even think about coming back.'" For example, he says, after the Korean team lost in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, fans went to the airport to throw toffee at the players. (They meant it as an insult.)
Some League stars have admitted that after leaving Korea, they felt unburdened. One of the best players in the world, Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu, left Samsung to join China's Edward Gaming last year. Deft says Chinese fans are less critical. "In Korea, the fans are gong-gyuk," he says, using a phrase that means "to attack."
In 2012, a Korean player named Jang "Woong" Gun-woong glanced at the screen behind him during a match, which is forbidden in professional play. His team was immediately punished, and League fans ripped into him online. A year later, he retired, then wrote about the incident on Reddit. "I was criticized as [a] traitor of the country," he wrote. "I was 22 years old back then; I had no idea what I have to do." The online hatred was so unbearable, he wrote, he checked into a psychiatric hospital.
Woong, now 25, lives with his parents in Mok-dong, just south of the Han River. Over a cup of lemongrass tea, he tells me he quit gaming for a number of reasons. The fans, he says, were "pretty vicious" -- but he also felt his skills were on the wane. "I don't like change very much, and the game was changing," Woong says. He tried coaching after retiring, but it didn't work out, so he returned home to work part time at his father's business. Soon, he plans on enlisting in the military. "For most pro gamers, the future isn't very bright," he says. "It's hard to make a career after retiring."
I ask him if he still plays League for fun. "Not often," he says. "Maybe once every two days."
When Faker plays LoL, he looks like a normal teenager -- but a very focused one. Seong Joon Cho
BY THE TIME the Mid-Season Invitational arrives in May, the debate over whom SKT should start -- Faker or Easyhoon -- has ballooned into a full-blown controversy. After thrashing GE in the Korean finals, the team brings both players to Tallahassee for MSI. Deft, whose team easily won the Chinese league, tells a reporter from a Riot website that he sees Easyhoon as a greater threat. "Faker is really good at making plays that change the game," he says. "But the current meta doesn't really allow that to happen."
The tournament takes place on Florida State's basketball court in front of a sellout crowd of 4,000. The stands are roiling with young people, teenage boys and girls -- so many girls! -- and cosplayers dressed up in elaborate costumes, PVC-and-felt simulacra of characters. When I spot a roving pack of muscle-bound bros in tank tops wearing backward FSU hats, I assume they're lost -- until I notice one of them is carrying a sign that says NERF IRELIA, a hyperspecific joke about a League champion. They are all pumping their fists.
The great paradox of eSports is that even though games are played online, competition is still bound by physical constraints. If an American player tries to log on to the Korean server, for example, she'll encounter slight delays. Because teams must battle on common ground, foreign rivals meet only at international tournaments. American and European squads generally have not fared well.
Most of the fans in Tallahassee are rooting for America's representative, Team SoloMid. It gets clobbered. SKT skates through to the semifinals, where it faces a European squad, Fnatic. Everyone assumes the Koreans will win, but the series is surprisingly close -- at one point, Faker dies multiple times. After an announcer wonders aloud whether SKT should consider replacing him with Easyhoon, several people in the crowd roar with assent. The next night, when the two remaining teams walk onto the stage for the finals -- Edward Gaming in black satin jackets embroidered with dragons, SKT in navy and white -- Faker is conspicuously absent. SKT has decided to start Easyhoon.
The Koreans take the first game, but the next match is a struggle; Deft, the expat, scores multiple kills. SKT loses the second and third games. Now facing elimination, the team heads backstage, followed by a camera broadcasting back into the arena. As the players gather in a huddle around kkOma, a murmur of recognition ripples through the crowd: Easyhoon isn't there. He's been subbed out. The fans rise to their feet, chanting Faker's name.
When he walks onto the stage, the entire arena erupts.
Once the game begins, SKT plays with a renewed sense of purpose. The team starts winning fights and harvesting points, building up strength as Faker stalks the center of the map. "There's just a different aura coming out of SKT," one announcer says. The team easily wins, and the series goes to a fifth and final match. This time, in the draft phase, EDG makes a foolish mistake: It doesn't ban LeBlanc.
Soon, though, it becomes clear the move wasn't an error -- it was a trap. EDG has assembled a roster specifically designed to attack LeBlanc, and with Faker largely neutralized, the EDG players begin roaming the map in a murderous pack. As they rack up kill after kill, the odds swing in their favor. Finally, after 37 minutes, the Chinese team destroys SKT's nexus, and a voice thunders from a nearby loudspeaker: "For the first time that I can remember ... a Korean team has fallen." Silver confetti drizzles over the stage, and SKT disappears.
Afterward, as I look for Faker backstage, I find myself thinking about a question I asked him back in Korea: What are you going to do when this is over? Over the course of a few weeks, I brought this up with about a dozen gamers, and most were stumped. Several admitted they hadn't thought about their future. Others said they'd enter the Korean military and figure it out later. The only person who answered quickly was Faker, which was surprising, given his usual reserve. "I want to study," he said. He hasn't settled on a subject, but he likes science. He loved the movie Interstellar. As I search the arena, I remember his response, and I wonder whether he does too.
Eventually, I catch sight of him outside, lined up with his team on a makeshift red carpet in front of a paper background. Hundreds of fans are gathered in the warm Florida night, waiting to take their picture with SKT. They come forward, one by one, genuflecting before God. Every time, he bows and smiles back.
Mina Kimes Mina Kimes is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.