Faker feeling the weight of SKT's shortcomings

Faker and SK Telecom T1's roller-coaster 2018 spring split (4:54)

After a tough start to the season that saw SKT fall to the bottom of the LCK, Faker & Co. have found a way to bounce back. Tyler Erzberger joins Victoria Arlen to examine their struggle and subsequent resurgence. (4:54)

Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok does not look any different than most 21-year-olds -- glasses, a simple smile on his face, a quiet demeanor -- but he certainly isn't treated like one. Outside of an interview room at the League of Legends All-Stars event last summer in Los Angeles, reporters from around the world gathered around a clear glass window on the door, craning to sneak a picture or trying for an interview of their own.

Most players can get by with a simple wave to the fans or a few autographs, but not Faker. Wherever he goes, a posse follows, whispers his laundry list of nicknames spouted behind him ("God," "Unkillable Demon King" to name just a few) as media and fans alike want to get a few moments of his attention.

"Of course, it does work to me as some sort of burden," Faker said. "But I try really hard not to let it go into my head. Those 'God' or whatever nicknames I have, I try to be myself when I'm playing the game."

A month prior to the All-Star event, the cool exterior of the world's most famous video game player was shattered in front of millions.

At the 2017 League of Legends World Championships, Faker's SK Telecom T1, entering its third consecutive world final looking to pull off a historic three-peat, was swept in the final by South Korean rival Samsung Galaxy at the Bird's Nest in Beijing.

Faker dragged his team all over the World Championships, putting on arguably the most impressive performance of his illustrious career in the semifinals against home-crowd favorite Royal Never Give Up of China in Shanghai, but it wasn't enough to get across the line. In the final, Samsung was the better overall team, and all that was left on SKT's side was a player who loves almost nothing more than League of Legends and plays with the world on his shoulders, millions of eyes on his every twitch of the finger on his mouse and keyboard.

When the death knell came in the final, Faker doubled over in his seat, tears in his eyes as a Riot photographer took the lasting image of the event: the best player in the world, often unfazed by victory or defeat, showing what this all meant to him. As he left the stage, he stared back, longing to have a do-over. Just one more chance. If he could do it all over again, surely, somehow, someway, even with his team's deficiencies, he could find a way to win.

"I think it's natural for anybody to show emotion," Faker said. "I think it's a natural thing to do. Regardless of whether that show of emotion is criticized or praised, I think it's great that they're a lot of people who appreciate that kind of show of emotion, and [it] should be the way it is."

Behind the quiet demeanor of a boy thrust into legend before he turned 18, everything Faker has done in his five-year career has been to better himself as a player. Whenever there was a setback, he would retreat back to his practice room, work with his team and return better than before. Back at his lowest moment in 2014, when SKT failed to make the World Championship, he returned the next year with a new team around him and went on to have the most dominant path to a world title in the game's history, dropping only a single game in the month-long tournament.

This year, it has been a different story. When the offseason began, rumors swirled about who could join SKT to restore it to the top of the world. Maybe former SKT world champion member Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong would rejoin the squad, or maybe another former SKT world champion, Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan -- who was credited as the leading voice on the 2015 title-winning squad that blew past the competition -- might re-emerge. None of that happened. By the time SKT T1 made its return to the League Champions Korea last month, it was largely the same squad Faker had to carry throughout the final half of the 2017 season.

The team did promote support Lee "Effort" Sang-ho from practice roster to the main squad, and it signed two relative unknowns, top laner Park "Thal" Kwon-hyuk, who was playing in the European minor league, and Park "Blossom" Beom-chan, a jungler without any professional experience. It was a grab bag of talent.

If the name "SKT" were stripped away from the lineup and the past accomplishments of long ago were forgotten, the team itself, outside of Faker, would be ordinary. In South Korea, where winning a domestic title is considered more difficult than winning a world championship, the team was average besides Faker. After saving his teammates time and time again at the 2017 World Championships and pushing himself to the brink until there was nothing left to give, Faker did not receive a helpful hand on his shoulder. He received even more pressure, more responsibility and more weight to carry.

Once again, it was all on Faker, the legend -- not the mortal, giving it his all every second of the day to live up to that legend everyone needed him to be -- to make things work. He had to make things work.

"SKT's quest to find a new identity throughout the start of LCK Spring 2018 saw both the team and the fans struggle to answer questions that SKT had seemingly solved throughout their four years run from Season 3 to present: How should SKT T1 play?" Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith, the lead English commentator of LCK in South Korea, said to ESPN. "Did SKT have the right squad of players for success? Was Kkoma's drafting designed to get the best out of the roster they currently had? SKT has never had much time for self-reflection -- it has always been focused on winning its next title. For a five-series span, it didn't seem like SKT was likely to win its next series, let alone grander aspirations."

For the first six matches of the season, the team looked more comedy show than world champion. The team's holes were pulled apart further with the lack of upgrades on the roster, and worse than that, the team's communication -- which was once the strength of the entire organization -- was nearly nonexistent.

Even Faker began showing the wear and tear of being expected to do everything at once. Small mistakes that you would have never expected from him began to happen. He would make a highlight-reel play one second and then, absentmindedly, get caught out and deleted the next, creating a domino effect that would reverberate throughout the team. In the games SKT won early in the season, Faker had to play like it was the final game of a championship match, putting on a peak performance to get his team the victory. Except instead of doing it against the best teams in the world while thousands of people in attendance cheered on his every move, it was in front of a much smaller audience -- maybe a couple hundred -- as SKT pulled out a nail-biting victory over one of the lower-ranked teams in the league.

At 5-5 just over halfway through the LCK spring split, SKT is in contention for the playoffs. For most teams, a chance at the playoffs promotes optimism, especially after a slow start.

Not for SKT. Not for Faker. When Faker's goal is a world championship, playoffs should never be the sole achievement. They are only a stepping stone on his path to the ultimate destination.

"With Faker cemented as the only true carry mindset player of the expected starting five-man roster at the start of the season (Untara/Blank/Faker/Bang/Effort[Wolf]) it was clear that Faker would need to be the one to force his team forward," Smith said. "Aggression is something that comes naturally to some but is very hard to teach to others, and you need someone to invite enemy aggression in order to allow every member to get the most out of their champions.

"For once, Faker seemed fallible, caught focusing on something other than the action in front of him like shopping or watching other parts of the map, being too overzealous in making a play seemingly feeling like only he had the burden of all SKT's success each game. With Faker it is only a question of when his next highlight play or carry performance would come, but the level to which his team was leaning on him during the start of LCK Spring 2018 clearly had a measurable effect on his play."

On the final day of the All-Stars event, Faker wasn't at the LCS Arena. The South Korean All-Stars unexpectedly lost in the semifinals to the team from China. Instead, he and the rest of his team were at the Santa Monica Pier, taking photos and relaxing on their final day in America before traveling back to South Korea. For that one day, while others were playing in front of the fans and the center of the attention, he was just Lee Sang-hyeok, a 21-year-old enjoying his day on the beach with friends, watching as the sun set behind the Pacific ocean.

Months later, back in the routine of daily practices and in the midst of another long year of competitive games, he can't be just Lee Sang-hyeok. The ID "Faker" has become larger than the man connected to it. MVP awards, domestic glory and even recognition at international tournaments such as the Mid-Season Invitational won't do. To live up to the expectations he and the world have set, nothing other than redemption at the Worlds stage will do.

When Faker broke down crying in Beijing, it was because he is his own harshest critic. No nickname given can hold the same amount of burden that Faker puts on himself. To him, it doesn't matter whom SKT put around him. He trusts the only head coach and organization he has ever known, and if he doesn't win Worlds, it's no one's fault but his own.

"My goal has never changed: It's to win the World Championships, nothing else," Faker said. "Coming in second place, to me, personally, is not a very satisfying result. So what I want to do next year is to really give my all into it and get the [Summoner's Cup] again."