The two most successful players in League of Legends history have stood together on the same stage for the past four years.
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, 20, is always in the center of the photos, the eyes of millions directed at every flick of his mousing wrist and intricate acrobatics of his fingers on the keyboard. He has been called the "Michael Jordan of video games" and dubbed "God" in his homeland of South Korea for his unparalleled ability.
The second of the pair, Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong, is often left to one side in pictures in favor of a close-up on the aforementioned "God," his teammate on SK Telecom T1. When people bring up the players who've won two world championships, his name is also a footnote, like it'd be better for the narrative if there were only one name -- Faker's -- and not two. Bengi, 22, is a goofball compared to Faker's aloof coolness, always making weird faces in the player booth with the lanky mid laner at his side.
Over the past four years, they've been through everything together, from losing their first tournament, to winning the Summoner's Cup as rookies in 2013, to watching their original starting five on SK Telecom T1 fall apart after they failed to return to the World Championships in 2014. Even when the conditions have been less than optimal on SKT T1, Faker and Bengi have been together: the superstar and the steadfast sidekick.
Bengi: down but not out
Bengi knows he is not the greatest jungler in the world. Over the past two years, SK Telecom T1 have signed possible replacements for him. In 2015, after a rough previous year, the team decided to bring on a young rookie by the name of Im "Tom" Jae-hyeon, a specialist on the champion Udyr. It felt like it was the end of the road of for Faker's right-hand man. While the jungle talent in South Korea was getting better by the day mechanically, Bengi's development had halted. He reached the peak of his individual abilities, which weren't high enough to keep running next to Faker.
Before anyone could write a eulogy for Bengi, however, he returned at the end of the year in full force. Tom, who appeared to be on the path to becoming the new SKT T1 jungler, was usurped by the tortoise of the jungle. Where Tom lacked in experience and jungle know-how was where Bengi stood out, being able to trace each pixel of the map to know where to attack and help his team through map vision. Beyond his comfort in the jungle, it was his chemistry, the strong partnership he and Faker had built over the years, that couldn't be instantly duplicated with a faster, more technically sound replacement.
The 2015 year ended as it did in 2013: Faker and Bengi, smiling together with the Summoner's Cup in their grasp, thousands of cameras flashing to take a picture of the champions. A majority were probably directed at Faker, wanting to get the perfect shot of the man who surpassed all others and was the face of the professional scene. But, truth to be told, to see the entire picture, the whole scope of who Lee Sang-hyeok truly is as a pro-gamer, you have to unzoom your camera to see Bengi beside him, where he has stood for the prodigy's entire career in and outside of the game.
But the duo's glory days seem to be waning. Faker is not as dominant as he once was, and Bengi is benched. Although there are those who still rate Faker as the best currently in the world -- and that's fair, he's the greatest of all time and it's not like he's had a bad year -- another has exceeded him in terms of team and individual accolades. Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho and the ROX Tigers recently got over the hump of being perennial runners-up by winning the 2016 summer split of League Champions Korea. The days of the 2015 Summoner's Cup Finals, where the Tigers were the plucky, we're-best-friends-and-nothing-can-stop-us underdog and T1 were the undefeated Goliath, are fading into the distance. Back then, the story didn't end well for the power of friendship, and it was the undeniable connection of Faker and Bengi in the middle lane that won the series and championship.
Heading into this year's world championships, though, SKT T1 is at a crossroads. Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, the talented amateur from solo queue who joined SKT T1 to kick off 2016 and led the team to win the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship Katowice and the Mid-Season Invitational, isn't performing well right now. His inconsistent jungle play was always fixable throughout the course of the year, but there are no more tests or chances to fine-tune. It's the world championships. You perform or your season is over. Should SKT stick with its shiny rookie or turn to Bengi again, like it has in the past?
If Bengi gets to play at the worlds -- the team has used him recently in scrimmages -- this could, like it's been said the last few years, be his last go-around with Faker. A last autumn for the two players with the most world championships in history. Faker, the crown jewel, and Bengi, the one who has always sworn to protect him. It's nearly impossible to beat Faker with two hands, but when Bengi is at his best, it feels like Faker is playing with a third hand that can reach all barriers of the map.
The sidekick's legacy
To say Bengi adds to Faker's greatness might sound like a slight to the best player to ever download the game, but it's true. No player in the world knows Faker's tendencies better than the guy who has played with him for over four years at this point, even in the amateur scene before they debuted as pros. When everyone in the world, from the fans to the players on the opposing side, think Faker is going to go left, Bengi knows he's going to the right. Every single time Bengi has been counted out and had the towel thrown in for him, he has returned when Faker has needed him the most.
In a year of uncertainty when everyone from the former SK Telecom T1 left or retired, Bengi was there to be Faker's constant on the field. Anytime Faker has shown a weakness, regardless how irregular and slight, Bengi has always been there to shield him. With Bengi, when the two are playing at their best, Faker as the ace and Bengi as his confidant, "God" is the perfect League of Legends player.
So the next time you look at a photo of Faker hoisting the Summoner's Cup or raising his arm victoriously in the air, don't look solely at him. Look at the smiling friend next to him, who helped him become the best the world will ever know. You're not looking at one legend; you're staring at two.