LOS ANGELES -- In Incheon, South Korea, the world was welcomed to the best top laner in League of Legends: Kang "TheShy" Seun-kok. It was a coronation of sorts for Invictus Gaming's TheShy, who was hardly bothered in the grand final, marching his way to the Summoner's Cup in a 3-0 victory over Fnatic of Europe. After the match was over and the champagne popped, he sat at the post-victory news conference, musing to himself if there was anyone in the world he considered a rival. Following a few seconds of thought, he answered as honestly as he could, staring down at the horde of media from across the globe.
"No, in the laning phase, I don't think anyone can match me," TheShy said.
Two weeks later and thousands of miles away from Incheon in Santa Monica, California, a newly turned 18-year-old was sitting in one of the practice rooms at the North American League Championship Series, attempting to mimic the way TheShy played Aatrox at the world championship.
We were at the Scouting Grounds, the annual combine Riot Games holds for hopeful North American League of Legends talent. Every year, Riot flies out 20 of the best players on the domestic online ladder who aren't yet signed to professional teams in an effort to find the next Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng or Eric "Licorice" Ritchie.
"For most of worlds, I thought top lane was pretty boring, but I liked how [iG] played around TheShy," the 18-year-old Aaron "FakeGod" Lee told me over lunch last week between Scouting Grounds matches. "I really liked that meta at worlds, and TheShy is really the player who embodies that kind of meta in the top lane."
FakeGod is further in skill from his favorite player than the distance between Los Angeles and Incheon. He's at the lowest rung in a North American region that has never produced a worlds finalist. Before Scouting Grounds, he wasn't even thinking about becoming a professional player. Recently enrolled at University of California, Santa Barbara, FakeGod accepted the invitation to the weeklong event only because it was close enough that he didn't have to travel far to participate, and he thought it'd be fun to see the faces of the players he knew only through playing online.
Of all the prospects arriving in Los Angeles, FakeGod was the least known. In a room with his coaches for the week, made up of members from NA LCS franchises 100 Thieves, Echo Fox and Clutch Gaming, they laughed about how at first they didn't even think he was real. He had to be a smurf of an already established pro player. In a scene such as North America, where meteoric rises just don't happen and the usual suspects hang around the top of the online ladder, the entrance of someone from out of nowhere seemed like a practical joke.
"I never had a long extended period of time to focus on playing League to try and get good at it. I had to focus on a lot of other stuff," FakeGod said.
It was true. Throughout his high school life, FakeGod, named after the legendary Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, had almost no time to play League of Legends. Not only did his parents want him to keep up his grades at a high enough level to get into the school of his choosing, but they also had him partake in cram school, an extra layer of schooling that took up the rest of his free time.
When he finally had a long break between graduating from high school and beginning his classes at his new university, a summer of free time to himself, FakeGod decided to see how far he could climb up the North American server.
"I think I was Diamond 1, and I climbed all the way to 800 LP," he said. Over the course of one summer, he managed to make his way to No. 6 on the overall leader board of all players in the region. When he was informed that he was accepted into Scouting Grounds, it was more of a cherry on top than a final destination. It was cool that he was being rewarded for his hard work, but with school starting, the event was a small pit stop before he continued his freshman year of college.
The raw mechanical talent showcased on the opening day of Scouting Grounds is what led the coaching staff of Team Mountain, 100T/FOX/CG, to pick him as the overall No. 1 selection in the Scouting Grounds draft. They didn't know what to make of the kid who, with the flick of a wrist, rocketed up the online leaderboard, and that's what intrigued them. While some of the other players at the combine were mainstays or even former pro players, FakeGod was an anomaly. Aside from a small tournament he entered in the first few months of college with his university team, he had never played on a team before.
Scouting Grounds was the first time he had proper coaching. It was the first time he was experiencing what it could be like to be a pro player.
On the first day of games, he was quiet. He would sit in his own corner, practicing solo queue, turning one-on-two ganks in the top lane on Aatrox like it was nothing special. In the official matches, he'd barely talk, but his lane dominance would speak for itself. Teams would try to keep him down in the top lane, but like he did in solo queue, he'd hold his own, showing glimpses of brilliance throughout. His inexperience would lead him to get caught out or too far up in a lane, but with a few movements of his wrist and dancing of the fingers on the keyboard, he'd be saved, turning an assured death into two kills and a gold lead.
"He maintained high diamond for several seasons and masters at some point, too, despite playing only a few games a week because my mom was strict with his schooling. He had cram school, high school," his sister, Annie Lee, told me. "Our internet is terrible, so we would lag, so he didn't play too often during peak hours either, but he graduated this year and randomly hit challenger and then Rank 6 out of nowhere. So I guess I didn't even realize how good he was either until recently."
No one knew how good he was until they saw him play.
During a review of one of the team's scrimmages, fellow tournament standout and teammate Jacob "Prismal" Feinstein yelled to the coaches in the room to rewind a teamfight. He asked if they could slow it down so they could see what occurred. In a river fight around the dragon, FakeGod flanked in on Kennen with his ultimate and effectively won the game for his team.
But what Prismal noticed and wanted to key on was how FakeGod got into the fight. He flashed at the exact right moment to dodge an Alistar combo that would have head-butted him right out of the battle. It was a play that if it had happened at the world championships would have been replayed time and time again in Youtube highlight videos. Instead, it was in a scrimmage at Shouting Grounds, with only Prismal, his teammates and his coaches there to marvel at the split-second decision-making.
"I'm a really flexible top laner," said FakeGod. "I'm really adaptive, meaning I can learn new things if I need to. I can play new things if I have to, be it a new champion or a new meta. It can be if I'm working with my jungler or if I'm left all alone as a carry. I don't think I'm weighed down by one particular thing, and I think that's a big strength of mine."
By the third day of Scouting Grounds, you could already see improvement in his play. He wasn't perfect, as expected from a green amateur player, but he was learning. During the first few games on the team, he was quiet as a mouse, letting his play do the talking with only a word or two, if needed in the late game. On the third day, he was calling out minion waves, timers and everything his team needed to know. He was chiming in when it came to objectives and where it'd be smart to go on the map. FakeGod was evolving as a player in front of all the coaches in record time.
"I just want to see it," 100 Thieves coach Neil "pr0lly" Hammad said when asked about FakeGod's potential as a pro. "When I talked to him at the start of Scouting Grounds, he didn't seem like he was convinced to go pro, like this was just a for fun thing. So I'm really curious if this will push him over the edge to have a taste of [competition] and see where it goes."
In the Scouting Grounds final, FakeGod's Team Mountain came out on top with a 2-1 comeback victory over Team Infernal. At the closing ceremony, NA LCS commissioner Chris Greeley awarded FakeGod with a trophy to recognize him as the top prospect of the event, voted on by the press, casters and coaches. When asked if he would sign a contract if offered, he laughed and said yes, if a team wanted him, he would take the jump to the world of professional gaming.
It could take years, but FakeGod, at the lowest rung in one of the weakest major regions, now has a path that can take him to playing against TheShy or his own namesake at a major international event. Last year's Scouting Grounds breakthrough player, Robert "Blaber" Huang, was signed by Cloud9 and played in the world championship not even a year after participating in the combine event. FakeGod's dreams aren't at arm's length, but like watching a plane in the distance, they're in sight. Possible.
The words "prodigy" and "North America" don't go together when it comes to League of Legends. But for once, watching FakeGod exceed expectations, lifting the top prospect trophy into the air for his sister to see, maybe, just this time, it's appropriate.