The scene was nearly perfect for Invictus Gaming's Song "Rookie" Eui-jin, League of Legends' grandest prize, the Summoner's Cup, sitting next to him. It was an hour following his team's 3-0 victory over Europe's Fnatic in the 2018 League of Legends World Championship final in Incheon, South Korea, and he was in a tent set up behind the stadium to field questions from the media. When Rookie and the rest of his team entered, the Chinese media in attendance stood up and cheered, while those in the back stood on the metal chairs in an attempt to grab the perfect snapshot of the newly crowned champions.
Rookie was considered by many to be the best player in the world this year, and now he's a world champion. His long journey from leaving his home in South Korea in 2014 to play professionally in China had finally been worth it. But the one person who could have made Rookie's victory perfect was not in Incheon on that day.
That person was off somewhere else in South Korea, not even watching the finals, practicing away in preparation for the battles yet to come. That person was Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok.
"I was looking forward to Caps, but unfortunately, I don't think he had a good performance during the finals stage," said Rookie at the post-final press conference. "The player that I would like to go against is Faker. His performances on big stages are so stunning. I'd like to lane against Faker on a big stage one day."
Since Rookie began his professional career in late 2013, shortly after Faker won his first world title, the comparisons between the two mid-lane prodigies have been endless. Like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in basketball, every accomplishment of Rookie's was measured against Faker's. Rookie, even in his first years, was a budding star. But he was no superstar, and that wasn't good enough. If Rookie was going to be the next Faker, playing on KT Rolster -- the longtime rival of Faker's SK Telecom T1 -- Rookie couldn't just be one of the best, he had to be the best.
Rookie won a domestic championship in his first professional year just as Faker did, but come the world championships, Rookie wasn't there. His team, the KT Arrows, failed to make the world championship, and the distance between Faker and Rookie became wider. Faker won a world title in his first year. Rookie didn't even make the world championship tournament. Rookie would never be as good as Faker. Case closed. End of story.
As with many South Korean players that 2013 offseason, Rookie would jet off to China for a big-money contract. Faker stayed on SK Telecom T1 and built a new roster around him, which would go on to win the next world championship. The rivalry would be put on the backburner while Rookie found his footing in China, learning the language and adapting himself to his new surroundings. Though Rookie would make the world championship tournament in 2015, he would go no further than the group stages, having to watch from the sidelines as Faker went on to win his second title. The next year, Faker would win his third, and Rookie wouldn't even be at the tournament, his team failing to qualify.
This year, it was a reversal of the status quo. Faker was at home, having failed to qualify for the world championship for the only second time and having the worst year of his pro career. Rookie, on the other hand, was having his best season to date, winning China's MVP award for the most recent domestic season and entering worlds as one of the few cemented superstars in the field.
Still, the man Rookie wanted to meet most across from him on the grand final stage was not there to greet him.
Until that moment arrives, the perfect day remains unachieved.
"There's always a wall that's called Faker," said Rookie at the All-Star event in Las Vegas earlier this month. "For me personally there are still a lot of things I can work on. Until I surpass that wall that is Faker, I don't think I can say I have no rival [as the world's best player]."
As they did in 2015, SK Telecom T1 went out and spared no expense to make sure Faker does not miss the next world championship. Following a disastrous year that saw SKT T1 fail to make a single domestic final or major international tournament, SKT cleaned house, with new starters at every position other than Faker in the mid lane. Most notably, the team hired the services of former world champion MVP Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong to anchor the team's decision-making.
In Faker's heart of hearts, even after the worst year of his career, he still believes he has no true rival. He is the best player in the world. To him, Rookie is his rival by default, finally worthy of recognition after becoming a world champion.
If Faker is the wall Rookie is trying to climb to become the best in the world, then Rookie is the obstacle that Faker plans to run through to regain what he believes is his.
"Because Rookie won this year, I'd probably pick him as my rival," said Faker in Las Vegas, also at the All-Star event. "But I'm still confident in my ability and I'm still confident in what I can do. So I'd still favor myself in the matchup versus Rookie."
In response to Faker's words heading into next year, Rookie laughed, eager to send a message to the man he feels he must overcome.
"It's good to see Faker so confident," he said. "It's always good to see confidence in other pro players. ... Faker is usually a very humble player, but seeing that kind of confidence, it's good, but at the same time when you have that much confidence and you fail, it also feels really bad," Rookie said. "So, Faker, I think you should be a little bit more humble, but at the same time, we'll keep an eye on SKT and hope they can improve and do what they can. And from our side, I think iG will do our best to be the best we can be."
Next year will be a year with no excuses for Faker. His team built a roster capable of winning a championship. When asked what his goal for next year was, Faker was direct, reaffirming that although China won everything in 2018, next year, South Korea would win it all back.
"Because of you?" I asked Faker.
"Yeah, I think so," Faker said.