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The Tale of Two Prodigies: SK Telecom T1's Faker and MaRin

by theScore Staff Oct 31 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Robert Paul / theScore eSports

prod·i·gy

a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities.

SK Telecom T1 are not the greatest League franchise by chance. The reason why the organization is sending their second team to the Summoner's Cup Finals and have a 27-3 all-time record at the World Championships is because of three things:

  1. Money (look at how Samsung did this year when they paid their players nothing)
  2. Strong coaching staff and infrastructure
  3. The ability to find and develop young talent

In the history of this game, we've seen teams like the Copenhagen Wolves and Xenics Storm have the eye to find such prospects from the online ranks and develop them into pro players. The issues for them comes when it's time to pay them the same money that bigger teams looking for a new star will. For SK Telecom T1, possibly the greatest team at finding talent throughout the past decade in eSports, that isn't an issue. With their well-built infrastructure, experienced coaching staff, and the willingness to spend money to keep their star players, they are capable of plucking diamonds from the rough, polishing them, and then watching as they grow into legends under their brand.

Two generational prodigies in League were signed by SK Telecom T1 only months apart. At the beginning of 2014, SKT T1 created a secondary team to go alongside their main team that was captained by Reapered, a former domestic champion that won the first tournament he played in on his new T1 squadron. The second team was built around their mid laner Faker, a teenager that had rampaged through Korea's online solo queue, asserting himself as a once-in-a-lifetime prospect that had the potential to be the best player in the world. After only one season with SKT T1, Faker had already built a legacy in South Korea, having a movie-like start to his pro-gaming career by consistently killing national all-star, CJ Entus Blaze's Ambition, in-lane during his debut match.

By the end of the year, Faker had gone from hype to exceeding any possible expectation that someone could have put forward for him. He won his first domestic title in the summer of his first year, beating SKT T1's arch-nemesis, KT Rolster, in the finals of a series that saw them come back from an 0-2 deficit to win the Champions Korea title. That only helped his legend grow as he left his home country to travel with his teammates to Los Angeles for the 2013 World Championships. This is where Faker went from simply the strongest player in the scene to a household name for anyone who even just casually followed the eSports scene — he went on to win the Summoner's Cup with his seemingly green team that had only played together for a couple of tournaments.

From there, he would only add to his lore.

After winning Worlds and the MVP award, Faker completed an even more impressive feat by going through an entire Champions Korea season without dropping a single map en route to another domestic title. Highlight reel plays. A champion pool that stretched so far that he picked champions viewers hadn't thought about in ages. Mechanical outplays that showcased his technical abilities and his genius quick thinking. Even following a slump that ended 2014 and saw the end of his original SKT T1 team, his individual performances were still heralded, still considered one of the best in the world without even making it back to the World Championships the next year to defend his throne.

When it comes to traditional sport prodigies like LeBron James in basketball or Lionel Messi in football, Faker fits into the same mold. He had the pressure of an entire country watching him when he made his first steps into the world of professionals, and he broke through every challenge put in front of him. Domestic championship and a world title in his first year. MVP awards in South Korea and on the world stage. Alongside his teammates and under the tutelage of his head coach, kkOma, with the backing of the SK Telecom T1 empire, Faker worked his way from a normal teenager playing a video game by himself in his room to competitive video game superstar in less than a year's time.

If you were to imagine the best case scenario for a prodigy, Faker was it. A perfect first year. A hard working teammate. Flashy play. Quirky, engaging personality. Championships, individual accolades, and worldwide brand exposure. The story of the golden boy that became the crown jewel of the most powerful eSports franchise on the planet.

Only a few days after their 2013 World Championship, SK Telecom T1 would try to recreate the same magic they found with Faker. This time the solo queue standout went under the ID "MaRin," a top lane carry that was renowned online for his roaming pressure, incredible Rumble play, and mastery of taking over the game from the 'island' of Summoner's Rift. Of course, being a solo queue master and being signed by SKT T1 to start his own team, he was immediately compared to Faker. His pro-gaming elder (who was actually younger than him in terms of age) had paved the way for a road that MaRin would need to be perfect to complete.

On SK Telecom T1 S, a team that makes up a majority of the current SK Telecom T1 Summoner's Cup finalist team, MaRin was expected to debut and amaze everyone from the first few games like Faker. Pick Fizz and roam around the map, showing up in the mid lane randomly like he was known to do in solo queue and pick up a kill in the lane phase while his top counterpart is recalling to base. Destroy people with his superior mechanics. Compete against Faker's SK Telecom T1 K to see which online wunderkind is truly the best.

None of that happened. No super plays. No accolades. No fan fare following the first few weeks when viewers waited for him to breakout. Instead, MaRin played mostly tanks, picking a lot of Renekton and being the meat shield for his late-game focused squad in the climactic stages of the match. While SK Telecom T1 K had their unblemished season where they didn't drop a single map and solidified themselves as the best team in League history, MaRin and his teammates were putting viewers to sleep, routinely playing games past the 50 minute mark and trying to win games through attrition.

MaRin's rookie year ended without a trip to the World Championships, failing to even make the Korean Regional Finals when his team fell to the KT Rolster Arrows in the semifinals of the summer Champion Korea campaign. There was no fairy tale for MaRin. He was overshadowed by his peers on the main SK Telcom T1 team, and regardless of S' semifinal finish in the summer of 2014 compared to K's quarterfinal exit, they were still seen as the unimaginative brothers to their world champion kin.

For SKT T1's future captain, his story to the top was one of struggle and slow evolution. Faker transitioned into the pro-gaming world seamlessly, shaping his the identity of his team with his offensive traits. MaRin's first year with SK Telecom T1 S was drastically different, forced to play against his tendencies of being an aggressive player and having to fit into his squad's defensive ways. Although it wasn't a first year that would be turned into a Hollywood movie, it was an important period for MaRin. SK Telecom T1 S' games weren't exciting, far from it, but it taught MaRin to be an all-around player that could excel in either the utility role he was thrust into when he signed with SKT or the carry style that got him atop of the Challenger ladder.

One night before the 2015 Summoner's Cup Finals, MaRin is one step away from competing his destiny as a generational standout. The best player for SKT T1 throughout the tournament, he is three victories away from winning his first world championship and, unless one of his teammates have the series best series of their life, the MVP award for best player of the entire competition. As the captain of the team and co-shot caller alongside Faker, this new team created between the two prodigies is on the verge of accomplishing a flawless victory if they can sweep the Tigers in the Summoner's Cup Finals.

Even though Faker's ascent from solo queue prospect to Worlds MVP only took him half a year contrasted with MaRin's journey to make it to this step, it shows how there is no one singular way for a player to reach his full potential. It took Faker a few seconds into his pro-gaming debut to put himself on the map. MaRin, who has steadily improved over the course of the year and grown even faster during the summer split, has now become the player that people thought he'd be when they dubbed him 'Faker of the Top Lane' before he even played his first game. A reversal from his first days on S, this competition has been MaRin's stage to showcase his strength with not only champions like Renekton and Maokai but carries, too. He has steadily chosen split-pushing champions, constantly carrying and winning games for his squad in the first 12 games of the tournament.

2013 was the year that Faker made it known he was the best player in the world.

On Oct. 31, 2015, MaRin will go up against his greatest adversary of the World Champion in the form of KOO's ace, Smeb. In the case he can beat Smeb and lead the team he captains and shot calls for to the Summoner's Cup while simultaneously also being their ace carry, MaRin can stare Faker in the eyes for the first time as true equals — for he will have finally reached reached the top of the mountain as the world's strongest summoner.

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

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