Two Summoner's Cups.
The reigning and defending IEM and Riot world champion.
A myriad of individual accomplishments ranging from an amateur in solo queue to the MVP of the Riot World Championship.
An all-time win rate of 74 percent. Countless accolades. A highlight reel so long it'd take you a day just to upload it on the Internet.
It's fun to discuss the pantheon of great players in League of Legends. In a game that is hugely popular worldwide, with so many diverse leagues and play styles, it's fun to compare teams and players. Is this bottom lane better than that one? Is this new Chinese prospect the next coming of this particular Korean talent in the top lane? Oh wow, he just won his third domestic title -- where does he rank and compare in the all-time rankings?
Beyond all those words, hype promos, and lengthy debates, though, there are three undeniable facts: SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok is the greatest to ever play this game, is the current best player in the world, and, to the chagrin of his adversaries, there are no signs of him slowing down anytime soon.
I had fun discussing the matchup of the most recent Korean final between Faker and his possible heir, ROX Tigers' Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho. Smeb is an amazing player -- an absolute superstar in today's scene. He's flexible and adaptable, and he can fluctuate between being an offensive carry, defensive utility, and a leader in a single series. Since his breakthrough last year, Smeb has been on an ascent through the rankings, winning this season's regular-season MVP award in Korea and guiding his team to its second Korean final.
But he isn't Faker.
Regardless of how far he's come in the last year, even when his team looked to be in its best condition ever, Smeb couldn't take the title of best in the world for even a few hours. In a series where Faker was generally in a supportive role, SKT T1's ace was still able to come up with the biggest plays with the title on the line.
In Game 4, when the Tigers were threatening to push it into a deciding fifth set, Faker came through in the clutch -- a line used so many times before -- and perfectly navigated the winning team fight on his Cassiopeia to curb ROX's momentum for a series-winning ultimate.
The thing people don't realize about Faker is that he isn't the best because of pure mechanics. If we were to take the best players of technical skill, of course Faker would be on the list, but I don't think he's so far ahead of everyone else.
It is Faker's ability to calculate, know his limits, and make decisions in do-or-die situations on the grandest scale that puts him in a class no one can touch.
His mindset, however, is what keeps him there.
Every time that Faker has been upended, it's only pushed him to be stronger. The biggest loss of his career came last season when SK Telecom T1 fell in the Mid-Season Invitational finals to China's EDward Gaming in a stunning 3-2 series. In a meta considered his weakest, Faker was subbed into the series after the first three games, where his mid lane teammate, Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon, was considered the better option.
Faker won the fourth game and then lost in the fifth after a counter-composition deployed by EDG to perfectly neutralize his signature champion, LeBlanc.
After the historic loss, Faker could have fallen off. Easyhoon was playing better and more efficiently on the best champions of the meta like Cassiopeia and Xerath. Faker is a world champion and four-time domestic winner, and he's most likely set for the next decade-plus in terms of salary and prize money, so it wouldn't have been strange to see him take a step back. In esports, it's not unusual for even the best players to stagnate and eventually succumb to the rest of the player field.
They're still good players, but they're no longer the great players they once were.
The opposite happened, however, as the loss to EDG only made Faker practice harder. He varied his champion pool even more, and the summer season of 2015 was quite possibly his greatest. He steamrolled the mid competition, and T1 went on to repeat as champion, with Faker the undisputed starter in the mid lane. By the time the organization picked up its second world title, Easyhoon was moving over to China while Faker was re-signing with the squad to continue his worldwide dynasty under the T1 banner.
"In esports, it's not unusual for even the best players to stagnate and eventually succumb to the rest of the player field."
Getting to the top of the mountain is difficult -- incredibly so. When the community criticizes players from regions like Brazil or Oceania at international competitions, they don't truly realize how hard it is to become the best of that wild-card region. With how popular League is around the world, to make it to the top of a cutthroat league like Brazil, you need to put everything into your craft. From there, if you can actually win your region, whether it's a major or wild-card region, you have to swim into the massive waters of international competition.
This is where you see legendary players in their domestic leagues fall off. You can win as many titles as you want in North America and Europe, but you'll come crashing down if you can't win on the highest level possible. Winning a Riot-sponsored international event like the Mid-Season Invitational or the World Championship is something unimaginable for most players who play professionally. You have high-level talents playing right now in leagues across the globe who are paid great salaries and who put everything into their work, and you know what? They'll never even make it to an MSI or Worlds before they call it quits.
Faker is at the top of the mountain, and he has been for the vast majority of his three-year career. Think about all of those players from all of those regions who have the talent, drive and infrastructure around them, but who haven't reached the pinnacle of the ladder. Getting there is something that the average pro player can't even think of, yet Faker is still there, looking down at the rest of the world.
Mechanical skill, brains, and the ability to be clutch under pressure all come together to make him and his teammates the best in the world. The scariest thing about Faker, however, is his unwillingness to slow down. One title isn't enough. A three-peat isn't enough. Ten titles, on the global scale or in South Korea, won't be enough. In Faker's mind, losing isn't an option for him. He wants to win in the past, present and future, and no amount of money or fame will be enough to impede him from that mindset.
"Obstacles don't have to stop you," said Michael Jordan, the all-time basketball great. "If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it."
If the meta shifts or the game is flipped on its head by changes, Faker will figure out how to adapt to it.
If a new prodigy or challenger for his crown approaches him, Faker will go through him.
And if he does get beaten, because even the best have to lose, Faker will tirelessly work until he can get around the team that bested him.