There should be no greater feeling in professional sports than winning your first championship. The elation with your teammates and management, the crowd jumping out of their seats to hail the champions. Not only did you win, but you were the MVP of the Grand Finals. You, yes, you, were the leading man in the biggest match of the season, putting on a show with your skills that should be remembered for the rest of history.
Bask in the glory, Mr. Most Valuable Player, you won it all — this is your shining moment in the sun.
"Wait, why didn't Faker play?"
"Wow, SKT didn't even need to use Faker in the Finals."
"Did SKT just win the title with their subs? They couldn't even beat the grunt before facing the final boss Faker."
For Easyhoon, even after winning the Champions Korea Spring Grand Finals 3-0 against the top-seeded GE Tigers and taking home the Playoffs MVP award, cannot have his moment in the sun. Instead, he is still looking directly at the back of the best player in the world, Faker, sulking in the shadow of a titan with his MVP trophy slumped on the ground.
Easyhoon was the better of the two mid-laners this season, regular season and playoffs, but it doesn't matter — as long as Easyhoon is on SKT, there is only one true heir to the throne of the empire in people's minds: Faker.
The Playoff MVP had little fanfare entering the Grand Final. I'll stand up and say I was one of those people, barely mentioning him in my Grand Finals preview, primarily featuring on the proposed duel of the calm, zoning-centric Kur0 against the Crowned Prince of SK Telecom, Faker. It was the more interesting match-up.
Easyhoon, outside of his single game folly against CJ Entus in the semifinals, played a remarkable season whenever he was fielded by SKT, living up to his safe, impenetrable style that has served him well over the past two years.
The Easyhoon that played in the Champions Grand Final wasn't the same player that was on MVP Blue two years ago, or even the Easyhoon that was playing a few weeks ago for SKT. While he didn't pick any new champions in the series with Cassiopeia and Azir, two champions who fit his way of playing, there was a new edge to him — a killer instinct that wasn't there before.
In the past, Easyhoon was the poster boy for safety; if there was any vision problems around the skirmishing area or he didn't have an 100% guarantee of his survival, he would play the long-game, letting his downed opponent live and focus on picking up gold with superior minion farming.
His series against GE Tigers was a different Easyhoon. Against another guarded, defensive-minded opponent Kur0 in the mid lane, Easyhoon became the aggressor. Out of character, he would burn flash to pick up a non-guaranteed kill or chase an opposing team's member into the enemy jungle without proper vision. A bit reckless at times, it all worked out in the end; Easyhoon still playing smart when he absolutely needed to, but his 0 to 100 style of lunging at GE Tigers put the top-seeded squad in a position they weren't ready for.
When the 3-0 finalized following two-and-a-half blowouts — the final game on the verge of a one-sided win before the GE Tigers rallied an eventually failed comeback — the atmosphere was weird. It was SKT's return to Korea's throne after almost a year absence, but it wasn't with the team people thought would get them there.
In place of a squad built around Faker from the ground up, the championship team was merely SK Telecom T1 S, one of the least exciting teams to ever excel in the professional scene, with T0M replacing H0R0 as their jungler. SKT T1 won the championship, yet it felt like there was still a looming second or third gear that they could have went to if the GE Tigers could have won a single game.
SKT's plan apparently went as so: Easyhoon and T0M would start the series as they did against CJ Entus in the second round. If they were to lose a game to the Tigers, the roster would shakeup, Faker coming in for Easyhoon in the starting mid lane position and possibly Bengi at the jungler position for T0M. The team talked after the final about how they weren't able to show everything they had prepared, including Faker, but were never forced to show it considering their mostly one-sided sweep.
The reason Faker wasn't played from the get-go, to the dismay of thousands of fans watching live and at home, is because Faker is not SK Telecom T1. He's the best player in the world, one of the most marketable faces, and has a long career ahead of him as the center piece of SK Telecom T1, but he is not SK Telecom T1.
SKT is the biggest eSport organization in Korea and across the world, holding a legacy that has now gone over a decade. From their start in StarCraft: Brood War with the man known as the Emperor, Lim "BoxeR" Yo Hwan, SKT T1 has always been atop of the competitive gaming world in Korea.
When Boxer fell off, he was replaced by a Terran player by the name of iloveoov, and when he started to grow old he was replaced by players from a newer generation. Whenever a new game has risen to take the attention of Korean eSports, SK Telecom T1 have been there, picking out their new talent that will lead them at that game to the top of the world.
They are an empire that will stand long after League of Legends and the games that follow it as the most popular and played game in South Korea. On the current SK Telecom T1 team, Faker is the best player and the key to victory if needed, but Easyhoon is also one of the top five players at his position in the world. Before the season when Chinese teams and other Korean teams sought after Easyhoon with big money offers to see if they could sign him, he declined, opting to stay on with SKT and play the understudy of the strongest player in the game's history.
That's the power of SKT: they are not one single person. Some teams will come and die with one powerful player, but SKT, no matter who falls and who rises, will always stand the test of time. They will pay the most in Korea. They will get their star players commercials and sponsor ad deals. If you are on SKT T1, it's like playing for the Los Angeles Lakers in basketball or Barcelona FC in football.
To be the biggest star you can possibly be in Korea, SK Telecom T1 is the team to go to — reliable, long-lasting history of championships and superstars, and a mentality where getting second place is never good enough.
|Faker and Easyhoon's Career Stats|
When you look solely at stats, the two players are comparable except for in two places: winning percentage and kills. Winning has been hard to come by for Easyhoon, starting out with the less-than-great MVP Blue in his first few professional seasons before moving onto SK Telecom T1 S, where he hovered around the .500 mark for his year on the team. Faker has been a more consistent, comfortable team situation, playing in the same organization his entire professional career and only in 2015 playing with a drastically different team than he started with in his rookie season.
The other edge is kills, the obvious factor you think of when you think of Faker and Easyhoon. Faker is an all-around monster; he can kill you, die marginally, and still get his other team member's kills with a a good amount of assists. Easyhoon is known for playing a sheltered style that helps him die less, and he is also considered one of the best utility-type mid-laners when it comes to getting his teammates kills, but he's never been the scariest player when it comes to being a solo carry.
But that's changing, as we saw in his series against the GE Tigers. Easyhoon is still one of the hardest players to kill in the world, but he's slowly started to be more spontaneous, adding the element of going for a kill if given the chance. When he used to let prey get away and focus on farming minions only, this new side of him gives him another weapon to add to his arsenal.
Now, when enemy mid-laners get beat in lane and go low health-wise against Easyhoon, they won't be as likely to stay in lane or test if he'll burn a flash or another summoner spell to go for an under the tower assassination.
The evolution of Easyhoon from last year to this year has been considerable. He only accumulated a meager 3.4 kills per game with SKT T1 S last year, mainly being a background character and worrying more about stalling the game out than getting ahead early with kills. He's turned that around with practically the same SKT T1 S squad as last season, now averaging 4.8 kills in 2015 and playing a more forward, less merciful style.
That is the one thing that keeps Easyhoon away from Faker's level: his ability to carry games on his back. To be the ace. To be the guy that wants the responsibility of the game solely on his shoulders. While Easyhoon has always been the guy to help his teammates win games, Faker has been the player throughout his career who has had people help him win matches. He's put himself into the ace position countless times and challenged his mid-laner opponent, and he's won, snowballing a solo kill early to a comfortable victory.
If, and this is a big if, Easyhoon can become that reliable carrying ace that Faker has shown he can be throughout his career, then Easyhoon will be able to look Faker in the eyes and call himself Faker's equal. Until then, Faker will be in a class of his own, with players such as Cool, Pawn, Rookie, and Easyhoon looking above at the best player in the world, all wanting their shot at taking him off his perch.
It would have been simple for Easyhoon to run away. He had offers in the off-season to join the myriad of Koreans who went to join teams in China. He could have signed a lucrative Chinese contract and been the face of an LPL-contending franchise, not needing to be in the shadow of no one.
North America, Europe, Taiwan, Brazil. Easyhoon had a list of options he could have went with if he really wanted to run from his position as Faker's substitute. If he wanted to stay in Korea, there would have been a line of teams wanting to know what he wanted for his services.
But he didn't run. He didn't take the money and leave. He didn't join another Korean team and give up the right to be the franchise player for SK Telecom T1. He stayed with SKT T1, working hard in the shadow of Faker, fixing holes in his game and rapidly improving as a player through the first half of 2015. Now, with a Playoffs MVP under his belt and a Champions title won under his leadership as an ace, he... he's still in the shadow of Faker. He is still, ultimately, the substitute.
Yet, I don't think that fazes Easyhoon. He's never been the star. When he was a rookie and making a name for himself on MVP Blue, Faker joined the league the very next season and destroyed Easyhoon in their first head-to-head match-up.
When he joined SK Telecom T1 S, he was again looking up at Faker on SKT T1 K, playing on the less attractive, boring-to-watch sister team to the reigning world champions. He's always been working hard to get better, expanding how he plays and wanting to get better in areas that he lacks.
The next step is the Mid-Season Invitational. There is no guarantee that Easyhoon will play a single game; maybe SK Telecom T1 wanting to give Faker the opportunity to win his third straight major international competition with SK Telecom T1. If that happens, Easyhoon will be left sitting in his familiar position on the bench, watching the player that has always been one step ahead of him leading the team that he led to a domestic championship only a week earlier.
Faker's shadow is unavoidable and inevitable. As long as Easyhoon stays on SK Telecom T1, the chances of him surpassing Faker and being the starting mid-laner is minimal. The likelihood of the fans accepting him as Faker's superior is even less likely. But for the first time in the best player in the world's career, Faker can't be completely comfortable: a challenger's eyes are glaring a bullseye into his back.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports. Follow him on Twitter.