League of Legends' Lee Sang-hyeok, known as "Faker," is one of the greatest athletes in sports today.
If you want to be a stickler over competitive video games versus traditional sports and debate over the word "athlete," fine. Faker, 20, from South Korea, is one of the best competitors in the world today. Really, if we want to make it even more simple: Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok is one of the best people at his job in the world today.
However you want to categorize Faker in the world of sports, he's special. Generational talents, regardless of what competition you talk about, don't come by very often. In the world of video games, the South Korean phenom with such nicknames as "God" and "The Unkillable Demon King" might be the greatest of all time.
Last Friday night, inside Madison Square Garden in New York City, Faker delivered another of his iconic performances in front of a sold-out crowd of thousands. It was the semifinal of the 2016 League of Legends World Championship, and Faker, the defending champion with his team SK Telecom T1, faced off with their greatest rival for the past two years, fellow South Korean club ROX Tigers, who came in second place last year behind SKT.
The series was ripped out of every Hollywood sports movie you've ever watched. Stoic, bulletproof Faker was the villain. The ROX Tigers were the lovable group of misfits who had overcome adversity the past two years to reach the top. The team's star player, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, came into the World Championship as the competitor chosen to usurp Faker as the best in the world. In the domestic league of South Korea, SKT had failed to pull off an unprecedented four-peat due to a loss in a semifinals; instead, the Tigers won their first major championship by beating SKT's semifinals opponent.
"In the world of video games, the South Korean phenom with such nicknames as 'God' and 'The Unkillable Demon King' might be the greatest of all time."
Friday's World Championship semifinal had higher stakes for the Tigers. They had failed time and time again for two straight years to defeat SKT T1 in a major playoff match, and this could have been their final chance to take them out with this particular roster. ROX threw everything and the kitchen sink at the defending world champion, even deploying trick strategies that could be equated to a "Statue of Liberty" play in American football or the "Flying V" formation in "The Mighty Ducks." Although the Tigers pushed Faker to the brink using these crowd-pleasing strategies, even up 2-1 in a best-of-five series, they weren't capable of putting him away.
SKT T1 rebounded, inserting veteran member, two-time world champion and Faker's right-hand man, Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong, into the lineup for the final two games. Although the crowd backed the Tigers, urging on the underdog to dethrone its personal white whale -- chants of "LET'S GO TI-GERS!" with rhythmic thunderous clapping raining down from the rafters to the ground floor -- it wasn't enough. Faker and SK Telecom T1 won, and the Tigers sat at their desks, hands in faces, wondering how, after all the planning, after all the tireless work and after throwing everything they had at their enemy, how they didn't couldn't defeat him. The core of the Tigers stayed intact during last year's offseason while receiving bigger offers from foreign clubs. Why did they stay together? They were best friends, more family than teammates, and they wanted to overcome SKT T1 once and for all.
In his signature red jacket, Faker faced the press after the matchup, calling it one of the most difficult series he had ever played in. "I'm not really affected by long series, but I did get a little hungry after Game 4, so I had a chocolate bar and was all good," he admitted with a grin, his every word being scribbled down by the worldwide media covering the event. Every simple quote or throwaway line is magnified when coming from "God" himself.
The difference between the Tigers and Faker is that while the Tigers, one of the best teams to ever play professionally in League of Legends, dreamed of victory, living for the moment they could win it all, Faker doesn't dream.
He either believes he is not good enough to win, or he will win. And more often than not, including this year's World Championships, he not only believes he can win it all -- he knows, without an inkling of doubt, he'll win.
To understand the legend behind the name, you have to look to the past.
The first spark of greatness
It's the spring of 2013. Faker's stardom is more of a hope than a reality. Faker is a highly touted prospect signed by SK Telecom T1, Korea's most respected esports organization, and makes his debut in the country's premier tournament League Champions Korea.
In his first professional game, Faker plays against South Korea's best mid laner in Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong of CJ Entus Blaze, one of the tournament's favorites. In the 7th minute, Faker secured his first kill as a pro, pouncing on Ambition with the champion Nidalee to solo-kill the South Korean All-Star. SKT T1 would go on to win the game thanks to Faker's immaculate 6/0/7 kills/deaths/assists debut.
"I had a lot of preparation with Nidalee before the game, so I chose her," Faker said afterward. "At the moment of the solo kill, I felt like Ambition had made a mistake, and that's when I went in and got the kill. After that, I just kept on throwing spears and the game was over."
Ambition and Faker will once again meet more than three years after that fateful solo kill in the middle in the 2016 Summoner's Cup Finals. Since the mistake that was seen as a passing-of-the-torch moment between the world's best mid laner at the time and Faker, the one to take the crown, Ambition has changed everything but his ID. He's a grizzled veteran now on the youthful Samsung Galaxy roster that has a 17-year-old rookie starter in the form of Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk. He's also changed positions from mid lane to the jungle, meaning that in the final it will be Ambition's job to protect his mid laner, Lee "Crown" Min-ho, from meeting the same fate he did in 2013 against Faker.
Like the Tigers, this could be Ambition's best (and last) chance of getting revenge on Faker and winning a world championship.
For Faker, also like with the Tigers, he doesn't mind being the bad guy. He's going for the jugular, and a third world title.
Faker turns international superstar
Back to 2013. A few months after his debut as a professional, Faker is in his first major finals. He's made the final of the summer season of Champions against the feared KT Bullets roster that played the perfect all-for-one team style. It's a clash between Faker and SKT's individual raw brilliance versus the Bullets and their tenacious objective-focused play that ground teams to the bone.
After falling down 0-2 in the series, SKT T1 made a spirited comeback and tied up the series with one game remaining. In the last game, per South Korea's rules at the time, both teams were able to blind-draft whichever five champions they wanted in their composition with no pick or ban phase. Faker and KTB's mid laner Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook both pick the assassin Zed in the middle lane.
At the end of the match, Faker's Zed pulls off the greatest individual outplay in League of Legends history against Ryu, capping off his first championship victory and launching him into superstardom across the globe following the clip going viral online.
"After the final, I found out the clip went viral and I got really famous from it, so I was really happy. But I thought it was a bit of luck, as well." Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok
When asked about that key play, Faker said, "[That] moment itself wasn't actually significant to the outcome of the game, so all I was thinking about was [beating KT] and winning the final. After the final, I found out the clip went viral and I got really famous from it, so I was really happy. But I thought it was a bit of luck, as well."
Faker becomes two-time world champion
In the fall of 2013, Faker wins his first World Championship Summoner's Cup on SKT T1 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A month after the clip that went viral to make him a superstar, Faker journeyed abroad for the first time to make himself known in the Western market. SKT T1 went 15-3 throughout the competition en route to the title, and it swept the final against China's Royal Club in one of the most lopsided major finals in League history.
What was that first World Championship final like for him? "Honestly I can't really remember because we had a pretty easy win. The only thing I remember is the stage [at Staples Center]. The crowd was cheering really loud, that's it. [To compare] I still remember how I felt when I won the summer split [against KTB], though."
Two years later in Germany, Faker wins his second world title with SKT T1. This time, SKT defeats fellow South Koreans the ROX Tigers in the final. SKT T1 ends up with a record of 15-1 for the entire campaign, and its only loss is the third set of the series against the Tigers.
"I don't particularly remember the champions I picked," he said. "The only memory I have about that moment was that me and my teammates did great."
The man with no rival
Currently, there is no rival for Faker. Smeb, who doesn't even play the mid lane position, was positioned to overcome Faker as the world's best player, having won two straight domestic MVP awards, but he couldn't come up big when it mattered the most. In last weekend's semifinal against SKT, Smeb wasn't the same dominant figure he was when facing other teams in the competition.
When Faker's back is pushed against the wall, he shows why he is the greatest. There's almost no suspense. No matter how far someone bends his arm, he finds a way out, repositioning himself and making sure it never breaks. The only team to ever truly beat Faker is the Samsung White club of 2014. The team repeatedly bested SKT T1 and Faker in the middle and late months of 2014, and its victories over Faker in quarterfinals of the spring and summer domestic leagues forced SKT into a last-chance gauntlet to qualify for the 2014 Worlds. Faker failed in the qualifier, and White eventually went on to win the world championship. The one World Championship that was held in his home country of South Korea where he is so revered, Faker didn't make it. Instead, he stewed over his loss, promising he would practice enough to make sure this feeling of defeat would never overcome him again.
In the offseason before the 2015 campaign, Samsung White disbanded, the team's players all taking large contracts in China to play in its domestic league. Faker was allegedly offered over $2 million per year to leave SKT T1 and join the Chinese circuit, but he declined, staying with SKT T1. The decision would work out in the end results-wise, at least, with Faker winning his second world title in 2015 while none of the Samsung White players in China made it past the quarterfinal stage.
With or without a rival, Faker keeps pushing himself. For many, having someone greater than yourself is what pushes you to be the best. For Faker, mastery of the game, and seeing how far he can go as an individual, with no other human as a measure, is his mindset.
In the world of sports, there are stories that transcend the playing field. The Chicago Cubs versus the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, a matchup between two clubs with a combined drought of 176 years since winning a title; the No. 1 pick in this year's NHL draft, American Auston Matthews, who scored four goals in his first game as a professional on the Toronto Maple Leafs; Norwegian chess world champion, Magnus Carlsen, who at 25 years old will look for his third championship this November against Sergey Karjakin of Russia; 22-year-old baseball wunderkind Shohei Otani, who is currently playing for Japan's championship as not only one of the best pitchers in the league but also as one of its best hitters.
Basketball, football, curling, everywhere you look, at one point or another in time, there are stories that transcend sports interest and break through to the mainstream. The 20-year-old video gaming prodigy is on the verge of breaking through that barrier.
So come Saturday, regardless if you're a diehard League of Legends fan, a casual watcher, or never heard of esports in your life, do yourself a favor: find a way to watch Faker go for his third world championship. You might not understand the game in full or the nuances that make him great, but from the reaction of the crowd, to how he moves his character, to how his eyes and fingers dart around endlessly like he is performing a life-or-death surgery, you might start to understand his determination.
His all-time greatness.