Faker, a Korean 'League of Legends' eSports legend at only 25


Every sport has its stars, but few come anywhere near Sang-hyeok Lee's role in e-sports. — dpa

Every sport has its stars, but few come anywhere near Sang-hyeok "Faker" Lee's role in e-sports.

Those paying tribute to his prowess at the League of Legends (LoL) struggle to find words to describe his prowess, with comparisons ranging from Ronaldo to God.

Faker, 25, is already a multi-millionaire thanks to his skill at LoL, a competitive online video game enjoyed by 115 million active players around the world.

Faker's role is T1 mid laner, and the South Korean has won three world championships so far. He is in the eighth year of his professional career.

"He is number one, and I don't think anyone comes close. He has no equivalent at the moment," Maurits Jan "Chronicler" Meeusen, a commentator for the Korean LoL league LCK, tells dpa.

Asked to describe Faker, he says: "It's just so hard, it's like asking to describe how important is a religion in the country, right? You’d quickly go use comparisons to other sports. Currently like (Lionel) Messi, or (Roger) Federer or (Rafael) Nadal."

Faker's career began in 2013, when he was 16 years old and had no professional experience. He was signed to play for SK Telecom T1's second team, and together with his teammates, he surpassed all expectations. At the end of the season, they went to the World Cup and became world champions in their first attempt.

"Koreans being good wasn't really a surprise, but Faker was a player that came in solo (and) killed one of the greatest Korean mid laners at the time, Ambition, in his debut game. And then moved on to stomp Worlds." That in itself was already very surprising, but Chronicler says the following years were key to cementing Faker's legacy.

After all, there were other players who looked that good for a year and were then never heard of again. For Faker, it was just the start.

Though SKT T1 missed qualifying for the World Championships the following year, he returned to form the year after with a team built around him.

In 2015 and 2016, the World Championship went to SKT, and Faker finally gained the unofficial title of best player in the world.

Faker was exceptional "because of the amount of attention he was able to draw while still functioning as a hard carry for his team," Chronicler says. "You needed to deal with Faker, because (if) you didn't do well against Faker, then you would lose."

Then there were years that didn't go according to plan.

In 2018, SKT missed the summer season play-offs and the World Cup.

Faker was able to "basically single-handedly drag his team," says Chronicler. "Those are the moments where people were like, just this play is just... insane. It makes no sense what he's able to do."

Nowadays, rivals are catching up. But Faker's reputation remains impressive. If you ask other professionals who they would like to beat to prove themselves, they always say Faker, says Chronicler.

In South Korea, Faker has long been a star beyond the e-sports League of Legends scene. He's even appeared in an ad with footballer Heung-Min Son.

But even as an e-sports star, it is unclear what course his professional career can take, as all men have to complete 18 months of military service in South Korea before they turn 30 years old.

Exceptions are made only in exceptional circumstances.

Chronicler says Faker might even depart from the scene this year; he's the biggest player and has all his options open, he adds.

Faker himself has also started to think beyond LoL.

"It's not everything in my life, it's just a part of it. When my life as a professional gamer is over, and a new phase of life opens for me, I'll get to do things I wanted to do," he says in an interview with journalist Ashley Kang, according to a translation.

But for now, he's confident.

"Nobody knows what next season will look like, but I think I can be the best player again," he says in a video on his YouTube channel. – dpa

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