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The Young Man in the Red Jacket

by theScore Staff Oct 19 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / 2016 World Championship / Riot Games

Bowing automatically to everyone he brushes past, he makes his way to the nearest couch and slowly falls over, his upper body perpendicular with his legs. He’s unassuming, clad in a red and white jacket with black track pants, and his movements draw little attention. There is no flair for the dramatic in his gestures, no exasperation in his small frame. His body remains rigid, as if the gaming chair were still attached, falling with him onto the couch. He falls over like a cartoon character.

We are crammed in a makeshift hallway, formed from the existing pillars and a black curtain that separates us from the crowds of fans streaming down the stairs in the celebrated Chicago Theatre. His teammates have already been ushered to their various assignments, leaving him alone. Close at hand are multiple cameramen. Continuous clicking and mechanical whirring of the cameras chronicle his every movement. Flanking a small walkway onto a balcony filled with crushed red velvet couches, curved around tables, resembling booths in an old but upscale restaurant, we wait. Players, coaches and staff walk through. He sits up suddenly, eyes darting from face to face, quickly brushing his hand through his bangs — a gesture now iconic to his character, born of nerves or impatience.

This is 20 year-old Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the best professional player in League of Legends history. Less than a half hour ago, he helped orchestrate another SK Telecom T1 victory, this time over China’s Royal Never Give Up in the 2016 League of Legends World Championship Quarterfinals. The lavish French baroque surroundings only serve to make him more unassuming than he already is, vastly different from the brand new OnGameNet e-Stadium in Sangam, or Nexon Arena in Seochu-gu where Faker spends the majority of his time playing in LoL Champions Korea. Built nearly a century after Balaban and Katz’s Chicago Theatre, the OGN stadium is a slick testament to continued growth of esports.

The day before, Samsung Galaxy stood on the same balcony where Faker sits now and waved to their fans in the vestibule below who gathered immediately, erupting into cheers. If Faker decided, in this moment, to step out to the railing, he would instantly cause a scene as fans would flock below to get a glimpse of and possibly a wave from the greatest to ever play the game. Faker is one of the most famous names in the history of esports, but here, surrounded by the grandeur of an early, 20th-century movie palace, he seems almost small.

Less than an hour ago, he was anything but. Faker’s dominance on Malzahar against lane-opponent Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao sealed their Game 4 win that ended the series 3-1 for SKT. Despite xiaohu’s smart Aurelion Sol roams, Faker held his own against the Star Forger’s strong early game, stalling out RNG’s lead while relying on Malzahar’s late-game scaling. He’s especially in tune with much-maligned SKT jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, who was brought in for veteran Bae “bengi” Seong-woong after RNG took the first game of the series. Faker ended this fourth and final game with a 6/3/10 scoreline and a 73 percent kill participation, tied with Blank for the highest on the team.

The audience rarely looks at players during a professional match. Unlike traditional sports, spectating is reserved for tracking the characters on the screen. The players who command them are forgotten. But when Faker plays, the eyes of the audience and the myriad of media cameras are naturally drawn to him. The same unassuming young man who feels so out-of-place in the Chicago Theatre’s excess stands out against the lights, the din, the spectacle. And in-game, he is impossible to ignore — his spacing, his laning, his precise calculations which always seem to put whatever champion he chooses in the right place at the right time.

“He moves in a way that’s different than any other player,” Cloud9’s William “Meteos” Hartman says after facing Faker in the group stages. “It almost feels like you’re playing against a robot, or people who are scripting. The way he moves is extremely weird and it makes it difficult to hit him with skillshots. He lives up to the hype.”

Here, Faker is a giant.

Faker’s dedicated and straightforward personality — he says very little outside of the Rift — is at-odds with his in-game audacity. In the game, his every action asserts a cool dominion over his opponents while offering a guiding light to his teammates. This is Faker’s third World Championship in four years. His two prior appearances led to SKT hoisting the Summoner’s Cup above their heads, undisputed champions of the League of Legends world.

“Hello,” he says, bowing politely when I walk up to the couch.

I usually enter interviews with Korean players with a bow and a hushed, “Annyeonghaseyo.” If I haven’t met them in a prior interview, the translator assigned to me jokes that his services will be unnecessary, to which I respond that it’s one of four things I actually know how to say in Korean. With his, “Hello,” Faker effortlessly takes control of the situation. As I place my phone flat on the table to begin recording, the clicks from nearby cameras resume. If our scene matched the decor, we would be accompanied by blinding flashes and the faint metallic scent of burning magnesium. As it is, their giant lenses appear in my periphery. Faker yawns and brushes his bangs again. If he notices the cameras at all, he doesn’t acknowledge them. Instead, he turns to me, waiting for my first question. As I speak, he nods after each sentence. If he doesn’t actually understand what I’m saying, it’s the best acting performance I’ve seen from a professional LoL player. He patiently waits for every word, but keeps his responses precise and emotionless.

“We were worried for this World Championship because we had some shaky performances,” he says when I mention their automatic qualification to the tournament. “We’re just really relieved that we were able to make semifinals once again.”

That semifinals appearance was not necessarily assured. SKT qualified on circuit points as Korea’s second seed, failing both to win and simply make the LCK finals for the first time in two years. In the recent group stages, SKT looked far from their effortless dominance in the 2015 World Championship, dropping a game to Taiwan’s Flash Wolves, and fumbling their mid-game transitions repeatedly.

Against RNG in Game 1, SKT fell behind. SKT top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong struggled to group and flank with his team, and RNG’s strong early lane assignments snowballed the Chinese team’s early advantages. SKT clawed their way back with a strong mid game, only to be bested in late-game teamfights. In this series, RNG struck first.

There’s no trace of worry or relief in Faker’s eyes. He stares beyond me, the first in what is guaranteed to be a long line of interviews to get through before he leaves with his team. His eyes are distant and calculating, always elsewhere.

“I just analyze my own mistakes and try to fix those mistakes,” he says when asked of his team’s inconsistencies leading up to this Worlds tournament. “There were some performances today where I was feeling good and had a really good condition, but mostly I try to go over my own personal mistakes and fix those."

Throughout LCK Spring 2016, he was instrumental in raising Blank as a professional jungler, opting for crowd control champions that allowed him to control teamfights so Blank could become a DPS carry. Now, he keeps the mid lane pushing so bengi and Blank can roam freely. “In the current meta, being a mid laner requires every aspect of the game — laning phase, controlling vision of the middle of the map, and also basic mechanics.” Faker’s answer to his role as a mid laner is general and airy, without even the slightest hint of highlighting just how important his presence is to SKT.

“I just try to adapt to each player’s playstyle and the overall team composition. So I don’t feel any hardship adapting to two different junglers,” he says. “For instance, if we have a very passive composition, it’s up to me to play very defensive in the mid lane even in situations where our team’s jungler is behind the opposing team’s jungler. I also have to play very passively because they have more lane dominance.”

Lane dominance has become the key to winning a League of Legends match since a massive structural overhaul to the competitive fabric of the game eradicated lane swaps. Leads and winning lanes mean everything, and this style has been Faker’s livelihood since his debut with SKT in Season 3. Picking Varus into Xiaohu’s Viktor, Faker got out to an early lead after a skirmish in the bottom side river gave SKT two kills three minutes into the match. From this moment onward, SKT were in full control of the gold lead and the game.

The crowd chants of, “RNG” — a combination of Chinese fans and hometown spectators bereft of a NA team to support — quickly turned to “SKT.”

Passivity is not often ascribed to Faker, whose career has been defined by his relentless aggression both in and out of lane. Harnessing this aggression and wielding it has been SKT’s greatest strength. At times, like their group stage performances at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational and during the LCK Summer 2016 regular season, this has hurt them. Solely targeting Faker has never been a successful long-term option for SKT’s opponents. Punishing his forward lane positioning as a key to unlocking and unraveling SKT’s control of the jungle is now the more successful alternative than simply killing Faker repeatedly, which only allows for SKT to immediately respond in their side lanes, especially with AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, one of the best in the world at his position. Of all Korean teams this summer only KT Rolster had stronger discipline over jungle monsters and minions, which lead to invaluable map pressure. Unsurprisingly, it was KT that ousted SKT from their fourth straight LCK title, eliminating Faker and his team in the playoff gauntlet.

Facing SKT means facing Faker, the slight young man in the red jacket who is dwarfed by the opulent surroundings of the Chicago Theatre but still commands the immediate atmosphere with a quiet confidence. His presence in game is exponentially more self-assured and terrifying for his adversaries.

Faker’s upcoming semifinals opponent, ROX Tigers Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng has all too often been on the receiving end of Faker’s in-game ruthlessness. When I speak to him a day later after the Tigers secure their semifinal spot opposite SKT, he shakes his head and laughs while remembering their competitive history.

“I don’t have good memories of Faker,” KurO says. “In all other tournaments, my memories of Faker are usually bad memories. We also have won against him a few times, so there are a couple of good memories. I think Faker just uses the jungle very well with the mid lane and they have very good jungle/mid synergy. So, I think this time around, it’s time to make some good memories and finally beat them.”

SKT have a historically strong matchup against KurO’s Tigers, and much of this is due to KurO’s inability to best Faker. The day I meet him, SKT’s semifinals matchup is still undecided. Faker shrugs thinking of SKT’s potential semifinals opponents. When it comes time to face them on Friday, Oct. 21, he’ll load into the game as he always does, ready to play for another title.

Faker isn’t the only one who has shown disinterest in SKT’s competition. Bang, Blank, and Duke have all expressed a similar sentiment — the Tigers might be the pre-tournament favorites, but they will prove that SKT is still the best. No other League of Legends organization has earned as many prestigious awards and accolades as Faker’s SK Telecom T1. They are the reigning world champions, out to defend their title.

“There is a simple reason why we’ve been dominant for such a long time,” Faker says. “We practice more than other teams.”

Korean teams have won three of the five prior League of Legends World Championships. This is the sixth Worlds tournament in the game’s competitive history, and three of the four semifinals teams hail from Korea, including SKT. Faker and company kicked off the past three years of Korean dominance, claiming the Summoner’s Cup in Season 3 as the first Korean world champions, and again in 2015 as the first team to ever win Worlds a second time.

The SKT regime in competitive LoL can’t simply be attributed to more practice, but that’s certainly part of it and Faker appears to practice more than anyone, his internal desire to stay at the top a constant motivator.

I bow slightly, thanking both him and his translator. Faker bows back with a practiced smile and a quiet, “Thank you.” His eyes are still distant. His parting words are clear and concise.

“If I were to win a third championship it would probably be the best moment of my career,” he says with a smile. There’s a hidden addendum to his response. It would be the best moment until the next LCK final, international competition, or the 2017 World Championship.

This young man has a cell phone case of his own likeness and legions of fans from around the world. His quiet nature clashes with the flashiness of his play and the grandness of the theater. He carries himself confidently and simply. I understand his success a bit better having met him.

He stares past everything in front of him. He’s always thinking ahead.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.