The best there ever was: how Faker's diverse champion pool makes him the game's most dangerous player

by theScore Staff Jun 12 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA

Millions have downloaded the game and played it. Thousands have tried to become a professional. Hundreds have broken through to the upper echelon of the strongest leagues across the globe.

But SK Telecom T1's mid laner, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, is the greatest League of Legends player of all-time.

No, he isn't always the best player in the world. There have been times where Faker's struggled and others have surpassed him, but he always comes back. While other players have peaks where the meta dictates how strong or weak they are, there is no getting away from Faker's influence. No matter what champions are in, out, or what specific position is currently at their perceived strongest, other teams needs to play around him.

Last year, when Faker's former world champion SK Telecom T1 squad was struggling and didn't return to Worlds to defend their title, there were better players in the world. Faker couldn't carry his team like he used to due to the deteriorating lineup around him. Still, when SKT were losing in the first round of Champions or getting eliminated from the World qualifier, everything was thrown at Faker. Even in matches where his team was severely outmatched, he was able to steal games here and there through sheer will at times, trying to push his team to Worlds to no avail.

While his peers and fans watched the 2014 World Finals where Samsung White eventually secured Korea's second straight championship, Faker was at work. Playing. Grinding. Pushing himself, so that would be the last time when he wasn't the one lifting the Summoner's Cup.

It's true that Faker hasn't always and won't always be the best player on any given day, but each day that he isn't the best, he will do everything in his power to make sure that he will come back stronger.

Although sheer mechanical ability is why Faker was plucked from the amateur scene to compete in the world of pros, that isn't what makes him the best player to ever play the game. There have been players with the same level of mechanical skill but they've all had half the impact on the game and nowhere near the longevity that he possesses.

When people think of Faker's champion pool, the first character to come to mind is LeBlanc. A champion that he was undefeated on for over two years, Faker finally lost a game on the Deceiver during the final set of the Mid-Season Invitational Grand Finals against EDward Gaming's Pawn. That loss was the biggest of Faker's career, considering that it was the first time at an international event in which he didn't walk away with a title. To make matters worse, it was against Pawn, a player who has continually terrorized him throughout his career and eliminated him from five different tournaments.

The loss could have broken others. After all, losing on your strongest champion, who has stood unbeaten for ages and has served as your ace in the hole, to a composition that was built primarily to stop it would cripple most professional gamers. Instead, it fueled Faker as he prepared for the 2015 Champions Summer season. The biggest change this summer: his champion pool has gone from an Olympic sized pool to an all-encompassing ocean.

Since the MSI Grand Finals, in which he took over for Easyhoon in Game 4, Faker has played 13 games. Of those 13 games, three have been played on Viktor (he now holds a perfect 5-0 record on the champion) while the other 10 have been played on a slew of different champions.

That's the thing about Faker. If you kill his seemingly unbeatable LeBlanc, he'll move to Viktor. If you ban out or beat Viktor, he'll move to a new champion. If you beat that champion, he'll pick up something completely random and beat you with it. He has no limitations, which makes him incredibly dangerous regardless of his condition before that game. He can have five bad games in a row, but if he gets an early kill in the laning phase during that sixth game. then that game can be over before the first dragon is taken.

There have been challengers over the years, hitting peaks comparable to Faker, but they've never lasted that long. During times when players would falter because of a shift in the meta or even a simple item change, Faker would adapt to his surroundings and keep making plays on whatever champion he was given. The Dade's and Ggoong's would come like the seasons, hitting highs when their champions were in flavor and nosediving when they were forced to try something out of their comfort zone.

There have been times when Faker isn't the absolute best, but even on champions like Xerath or Ziggs, unless he's blind picking them into unfavorable matchups, he can still carry games. Faker has played 37 champions in 204 games, showing how wide he can push the limits of his champion pool. The only champion he's played over 20 times is Orianna, his old standby, a champion where Faker feels like he can play numerous styles depending on the composition and opponent.

Standing out from Faker's variety of champion picks this season are Irelia and his most recent match against CJ Entus where he played Master Yi. It would be easy to check at the game's stat lines and give all the praise to Faker for his wins on unorthodox picks, but a lot of the credit has to go to the team behind him. No matter how great Faker is or how much he can do on his own, without a capable team behind him and believing in his picks, his insane flexibility wouldn't be nearly as potent.

In the Master Yi game, the victory was more about Wolf's Annie and Marin's Morgana locking down the enemy team and letting Faker clean up the kills. They focused Coco early in the game, setting up a multi-man gank in the middle lane to get Faker rolling early and grant him a huge CS lead. With an early advantage and the other lanes rolling, the game was about SKT's rotations across the map, smart skirmishing, and setting up plays for Faker to zip into and look good in.

Faker can take these unique picks that others can't capitalize on and make them work, but he needs the team behind him working around that choice to successfully pull it off. Faker is the team's heavy sword, able to cleave off the heads of any enemy in their path, and SKT were able to use that sword against CJ to perfection and run away with an easy 2-0 win over the other undefeated team in the league.

This works both ways. At times, Faker plays the utility role with Lulu and defers to the rest of his team to carry the game. This is where Faker uses Bang as the sword of the team, shielding him, speeding him up, and using Lulu's Wild Growth when needed to take out the opposing team. Faker's expansive champion pool and styles allows SKT to throw out different compositions and ways of playing, sometimes not even relying on Faker as a threat and allowing Bang along with Marin to be the main damage carries.

Alright, so he's versatile, mechanically gifted, smart, hard working, and influences every game he loads up. But to me, the thing that certifies Faker as the best player to ever play the game, is the guy that has sat beside him for the past two plus years: Bengi.

When you talk about Bengi, he's almost the opposite of Faker. He's never been a true mechanical jungler, always lagging behind the likes of Dandy and KaKAO. His versatility isn't all that great when it comes to his champion pool. His macro game is solid and he knows how to execute a well coordinated plan, but his split second, rapid fire decision making isn't very sound and can get his team in trouble at times.

Despite all that, Faker and Bengi have created a partnership that can stand up to any pair in League's history. With Faker, Bengi doesn't need to be a carry jungler and can focus on what he's good at: warding, executing drawn-out plans, and most importantly, protecting and helping Faker in the middle lane. He's the extra arm and eyes that Faker deploys across the map, twisting across the terrain to make sure that SKT's mid laner can go for a quick roam if needed.

The addition of Tom to the SKT roster made it appear like Bengi's time was coming to an end, but the chemistry with Faker can't be discounted. No matter how more mechanically sound Tom is compared to Bengi, or if he has a wider, diverse champion pool, the duo of Faker and Bengi is something that's been crafted over two years of going through everything together. From Faker's first game to a pro to winning a world championship together, Faker and Bengi have gone through the highs, lows, and have won three Champions titles together.

On any other team in the world, Bengi is most likely sitting on the bench while Tom is starting. Like the greats in other team sports, Faker elevates the play of the players around him. He covers up their weaknesses and helps them pull out their strengths, creating a stronger team and leading them to success in competition. With any other mid laner in the world, Bengi would be a dull knife that's years passed his prime. But if you put Faker and Bengi together, then Bengi becomes a weapon that Faker can utilize to go above and beyond his skill ceiling.

Great players can win games by themselves.

The best players are the ones who elevate the play of everyone around them.

A 73 percent all-time win-rate through the first 204 games of his career in Korea.

Three Champions Korea titles.

Two domestic MVP awards.

One world championship and an MVP award to go along with it.

Oh, and don't forget he's only 19-years-old, in an organization that raised the best players in Korean eSport history. To boot, he has a support behind him that will do everything in their power to surround him with the best talent possible. In his prime with no end in sight, his innate skills and adaptability give him the tools to stay atop of League of Legends for years to come.

The next stage, if everything goes well during Champions Summer, would be Worlds. Missing his chance to defend his title last year, 2015 would be Faker's next chance to make up for the year lost during the fall of SKT at the end of 2014.

If he makes it there, Pawn and EDG will almost definitely be awaiting him, wanting another shot at eliminating him from a tournament. Teams across the world will key on Faker, loading the mid lane to try and keep him down. Mid laners will try to make their careers by grabbing a solo lane kill off him, wanting to put their names in the history books by taking out Faker. Fans will be watching every move he makes, wondering what crazy pick or move he'll put out next.

Everyone in the world wants a shot at the greatest player in League of Legends history.

Luckily for everyone, the greatest player of all-time wants a shot at them too.

Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.