There’s probably something to be said about the fact that the SK Telecom T1 of the past have three League of Legends World Championship titles attributed to their name, while today’s T1 (just T1) have zero.
Pundits and fans alike have argued about what’s held T1 back for years. Has Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok lost his edge? Does the org have the right support staff behind it? Are they changing players too much? Is the next generation of virtuosic mid laners really that much better?
The real answer isn’t nearly as dramatic: times change. Times change and both T1 and Faker have changed greatly over the years.
The South Korean esports empire has expanded its reach in the world of entertainment since its 2019 rebrand. Sponsoring unfiltered powerlifting streamers, breaking into multiple titles and signing creators from diverse gaming backgrounds became the new normal. These days, T1 is more than just League of Legends, and the same can be said of the org’s star player, Faker, and how we perceive him.
Since winning his last World Championship in 2016, we’ve gradually learned more about the 25-year-old who enters “Faker” into the Riot Games client every day. It feels almost disingenuous to refer to him by his Unkillable Demon King moniker at this point.
He loves science and reading. He’s staggeringly frugal. He gets nervous around famous K-pop idols. He makes sure to arrive at interviews on time so as not to cause trouble for production staff. He understands what it means to be both Faker and Lee Sang-hyeok.
What hasn’t changed about Faker is his desire to win, but he also understands you can’t always win just because you want to. Fortunately for Faker, he and T1 won on Oct. 22 against Hanwha Life Esports, and it wasn’t for lack of preparation and effort. But his journey at Worlds 2021 won’t end there. He and his teammates’ eyes are set on reaching the finals — and winning them.
Performing under the pressure
Faker’s mid lane match up against HLE’s rising star prodigy Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon headlined Friday’s series. Chovy is a player who defied expectations by qualifying for Worlds, then did so again (on a slightly smaller scale) by qualifying for the main event from the play-in stage. He did it all as the picture of a 1v9 player that can carry his team through any situation with the right resources, yet he wouldn’t have achieved any of it without his teammates.
Surely Chovy doesn’t see himself as a player that doesn’t need his teammates to win, but that pressure exists, and it’s a significant burden to place onto any one person. There are some that still expect Faker to carry every single game by himself, but how he’s performed so far in the face of that pressure at Worlds 2021 could be the difference between the Faker of 2021 and the Faker that lifted the Summoner’s Cup in 2016. Faker knows he can’t do it alone, and he leads his young teammates by example through his consistent and measured play.
“The last five years gave me a lesson that I lost my focus so I could have better focus on these matches at this World Championship,” Faker said in a press conference after T1’s win over HLE. “For these matches, I had a strategic plan to examine my counterpart’s skills and it worked really well.”
Faker picked Orianna and then Lissandra twice in T1’s careful dissection of HLE today, whereas Chovy played Zoe and LeBlanc. Draft strategy aside, this is the perfect example of how two star players with the same responsibility to carry their team took different approaches in doing so. Faker, the enabler, and Chovy, the enabled. Both players have different styles and strong points, but today, Faker’s experience won out. Plus, it didn’t hurt that to have the rest of his team backing him up, too.
After all, T1 have proven their worth as a cohesive unit and not just a group of players standing next to Faker. Even though they qualified for Worlds 2021 as the third seed for South Korea’s League of Legends Champions Korea, many people considered T1 to be the LCK’s true second seed over Gen.G, as T1 was the team that made the grand finals this past summer.
So far at Worlds, T1 have shown that they have some of the best performing players. Before today’s match, Lee “Gumayusi” Min-hyeong had the third-highest kill/death average of all remaining players at Worlds 2021 at 12.3, according to Oracle’s Elixir. Faker had the third-highest KDA out of all mid laners at 6.5. And Kim “Canna” Chang-dong ranked first among all top laners in the stat with a KDA of 6.3.
Immortals top laner Mo “Revenge” Kaddoura even called out T1’s young support Ryu “Keria” Min-seok as the MVP of the Group Stage.
“It’s pretty hard to choose one person for Group stage MVP, but it would probably have to go to Keria for me so far,” Revenge said. “This guy is an absolute menace.”
It’s clear T1 didn’t topple HLE today due to Faker alone, but his ability to draw out the best of those around him (whether they’re on his team or not) can’t be understated. That’s the type of player that Faker is today: one who knows what it means to inspire his teammates to buy into his vision.
After all, while he may be working towards his fourth title, his teammates are still looking to earn their first. And being a leader may mean clearing a path forward for your comrades, it also means helping those that choose to follow you in the pursuit of their own goals.
Reclaiming control of the narrative
In the music video for this year’s World Championship anthem, “Burn It All Down,” by PVRIS, the main character is quite notably not Faker. Instead, it’s DWG KIA’s Heo “ShowMaker” Su, the player with the potential to truly challenge Faker’s dynasty by winning his second consecutive World Championship this year.
“Based on this year’s performance, I believe the LCK players are my competitors,” Faker said in a post-game press conference. “They’re all the best players.”
As T1 progresses to the semifinals, it’s highly likely they’ll face tournament favorites DWG KIA over MAD Lions. And if those two LCK titans face off against each other, only one of these players, Faker or ShowMaker, will have a chance to achieve their goal of adding another Summoner’s Cup to their trophy case.
When people ask, “what’s the biggest difference between ShowMaker and Faker?” the most accurate answer might simply be that Showmaker hasn’t lost as many times. Faker understands more than anybody what it means to be a champion, and he also knows the pain of having that glory stripped away from him when it seemed right within his grasp.
Star Horn Royal Club, KOO Tigers and Samsung Galaxy. Those are the names of the teams that have watched with grey screens as Faker toppled their nexus for a third and final time in front of millions. Now, as Faker inches closer and closer to the final stage of Worlds 2021, his victories alone won’t pave the way to the Summoner’s Cup.
If Lee Sang-hyeok is to lift the trophy in November, it will be because of the small lessons he’s picked up along the way in addition to his teammates’ abilities. Taking time to read a good book, being considerate of others and striving to become the best role model you can be — these are the little learnings that compound to create experience. And while it doesn’t hurt to still be cracked at League of Legends, these days, those other qualities are what Faker seems to value most.
“I became taller, and my mindset changed,” he said. “I could enjoy the game more at that time, but now I see the games as the wall to grow myself, so I try to develop myself with the games.”
T1 will continue on in their quest for a fourth world title, and one thing is for certain: this team is strong, and Faker’s experience has made him unshakable at the 2021 World Championship.
Pop culture consumer and League of Legends thought-haver. Working on becoming a weirder person.