What makes Faker the League of Legends GOAT 10 years after his debut?
With how long Faker’s career has been, it can be difficult to convey just how far he’s had to come as a player to keep up with (and consistently) beat new players. To get to the bottom of what has kept Faker on top of the world, Dexerto tracked down people who were there all the way back in 2013 to ask about what made him so good back then and why he’s still the GOAT.
With Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok’s 10th anniversary celebrated on April 6 just as he and the rest of T1 almost unanimously took first place in every single all-pro ballot, it’s difficult to put into words just how immense Faker’s legacy is. It certainly hasn’t been easy for him to hold onto the title of “Greatest of All Time” considering he hasn’t won a world title since 2016.
Even as hundreds of other players have come and gone in the last decade, and Faker and T1 have gone through slumps, the Korean mid laner has always been a standout player and an innovator within the space. What he stands out for and the ways in which he innovates have vastly changed over the years, but the fact that he remains a master of his craft hasn’t changed even a decade after his debut.
To explore Faker’s illustrious career and try to explain what made him so special 10 years ago, Dexerto tracked down DoA, one of the casters who were there for Faker’s debut. We also caught up with Impact to talk with the only other player from T1’s original 2013 Worlds-winning roster that’s still competing. He provided some insight into what it takes to stay at the top of the game after several years of competition.
A striking debut in a different League of Legends
Watching Faker’s debut game with a frame of reference rooted in modern League of Legends makes the solo kill that put him on the map look, by comparison to his modern feats, kind of unimpressive. Through the lens of modern sensibilities, it appeared that mid laner Ambition (who would later go on to win Worlds 2017 as a jungler) was playing poorly, not that Faker made some career-defining play.
Ambition was trying to secure the cannon minion and hit level 6 so he could evolve his abilities as Kha’Zix, only for Faker to take him down in the short window that was given to him. It was clearly a misplay on Ambition’s part, but one that snowballed into Faker rotating bot lane and quickly securing three more kills for himself. From there, Faker steamrolled his very first pro game without dying once and immediately put himself on the map as a player to watch.
After being steeped in the analysis of modern pro play and a decade’s worth of progression when it comes to game mechanics and macro concepts, it can be hard to separate yourself from the game League of Legends currently is to look at the game it used to be.
So, to get a fresh perspective from someone who was there, we asked seasoned esports caster and industry veteran Erik ‘DoA’ Lonnquist about what that debut moment meant to someone who was casting the game live all those years ago.
“That really was a big moment. Nobody had been able to take advantage of the small window of vulnerability before like Faker did. I don’t agree that it was disrespect from Ambition that made him take his level 6 right there. I genuinely think he didn’t expect to be in danger.”
This moment wound up making Faker a trendsetter, a player that wasn’t afraid to take an objective look at League of Legends and figure out where he could find a way to tear open the meta and challenge preconceived notions about how the game should be played.
“All sports evolve over time too, and things that were groundbreaking when they happened often become standard. There was a time when doing an ollie with a skateboard was the best trick in the world. Now it’s the first thing everyone’s expected to learn. Faker’s kill on Ambition in his first game was absolutely the moment I thought to myself, ‘Alright, this kid really could be something special.'”
DoA’s intuition was spot-on. Faker would go on to win Worlds in 2013, 2015 and 2016 (plus MSI in 2017), and to have consistently strong finishes domestically with several LCK titles and a number of all-time records within the league. As DoA pointed out, Faker was one of the first players to challenge what was possible within League of Legends.
But he didn’t just innovate early in his career, he’s continued to iterate upon and evolve his playstyle to fit what his meta (and his team) needs most.
League of Legends wouldn’t be what it is today without Faker
From pioneering Riven mid and inventing a lot of her modern tech back in the early days of League of Legends to ringing in the omnipresent Gragas mid flex in modern-day pro play, Faker has always been a player who leads the way for emerging champion picks and trends within the game.
There’s an argument to be made that League of Legends wouldn’t be the same game it is today if it wasn’t for Faker driving the meta forward. DoA chimed in on this train of thought, saying that Faker has certainly accelerated the development of new strategies.
“I think he accelerated things a bit through his play. Not many players were able to replicate what he was doing on his signature champions, but it showed what could be achieved. I’m sure that pushed other players to a higher level than they would have been at otherwise. Faker wasn’t the first mechanical genius to emerge from the Korean scene, but he was the most consistent over the longest time on a greater variety of champs.”
It never felt like Faker was trying to throw things at the wall and see what stuck. And, with him having the most champions played in pro games at 75 unique picks in the LCK, that’s one hell of a feat. Faker always picks the champion he thinks has the best odds of winning, whether it’s in the meta or not. As a result, it’s common for the world to follow his lead, both in competitive matches and solo queue.
He’s done a lot to earn this reputation, too. Faker has his flashy moments and quick sparks of showmanship on stage – but he’s generally known as a calm and collected player who lets his high level of skill speak for itself. Even people who don’t follow League of Legends anymore will tune in just to watch him play, and DoA pointed out that the time period in which Faker was the best player has, in some ways, contributed to his longevity.
“He was League’s best player in the era where the game was at the forefront of nearly everyone’s mind in competitive gaming. He also stands out because of other qualities like his fierce loyalty to T1 during a time when most of the top players in Korea left for big Chinese team paydays.”
Faker’s name is synonymous with T1 at this point, and it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. T1 is one of the biggest brands in esports, and Faker is the first player people think of when T1’s in the conversation. This is what makes him stand out from all-time greats in other esports like s1mple, JDCR, Daigo, and other players who have been competing for over a decade. He has a fierce brand presence, one big enough to get him collaborations and brand deals the likes of which we only see in traditional sports.
Or at least that’s true outside of South Korea.
At a time when League of Legends was in its infancy, Starcraft legend Flash was selling out entire airport hangars and making esports a real spectacle in a way that’s still talked about today. Esports really is just that big in South Korea. In America, odds are you’ll be able to walk around and at least find someone who has heard of Faker. In South Korea, even your grandma probably knows who Faker is.
According to DoA, this is in line with esports pros that came before Faker in South Korea. The big difference is that Faker just so happened to hit the scene at the right time to be an international superstar.
“As far as branding goes, Faker is really only doing what players like SlayerS_BoxeR or Flash did before him. South Korea has always paid special attention to superstars, whether it’s in gaming, soccer, baseball, or music. It’s always seemed like companies there are better at recognizing and capitalizing on that type of fame.”
Faker is generally well-read, and, as revealed in an interview with Inven Global, he tends to read nonfiction books and seeks knowledge constantly. He’s also spent a great deal of time trying to figure out ways to relax outside of the game and keep himself from burning out.
It’s hard not to imagine what Faker would have accomplished if he decided to take a different route in life and didn’t drop out of high school to pursue League of Legends, but the scene is lucky to have him.
While we couldn’t get ahold of Faker himself for the purpose of asking about his legacy, we did get in touch with Jeong ‘Impact’ Eon-young, one of the only players who has been competing as long as Faker. They won Worlds together back in 2013 and have each found their own success while walking very different paths.
Impact gives his take on esports “boomers”
Whereas Faker is a man of few words, Impact is a conversationalist. Interviewing him is rewarding; you give him a question and he’ll run with it. His passion and dedication to League of Legends are almost unrivaled.
Back in the LCS Spring regular season, we asked him some questions about his own mentality and approach when it comes to improving and whether he thinks he’s getting better and better as the years go on.
“I think I’m better. I mean, people have to get better. If people aren’t getting better, they’re going to fall behind. People are going to improve. Also, people think mechanics or a ‘sixth sense’ comes from being young. People have to guess, it’s all from your brain. You need to guess the future, guess what’s going to happen, guess what I can do. Humans cannot do that all the time and be that skilled, you have to guess a little.”
At this point, Impact loves to joke about people calling him and other older competitors boomers. He has run with the term and has owned it rather than being owned by it.
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“I’m kind of joking saying boomer, it’s kind of fun, but, to me, it’s not realistic to say boomers are bad.”
“People say boomers are bad because people retire after playing for a long time. Because they lost motivation, they aren’t improving, they aren’t learning the meta, and they aren’t becoming better. That’s why they get behind and choose to retire. If you try hard and follow the meta but you’re doing bad mechanically or just have bad decision-making, you’re not a boomer. You’re just bad.”
That’s where the key difference is. The wonderful thing about a game like League of Legends is that, regardless of age, appearance, and physical strength, the only thing that matters once you’ve loaded into a game is how you perform.
For both Faker and Impact, they’re still playing well enough to garner new fans and impress people that have been around since they won Worlds. Faker isn’t winning all-pro votes and Player of the Game nods because he’s got a decorated career; he’s getting recognition because he’s still playing well. The legacy he has built adds to the storyline, sure, but it doesn’t define who he is as a player now.
Faker has gone on the record in an interview with Naver news’ Yoon Min-seop saying that age has much less of an effect now than it did when League of Legends was rapidly developing as an esport. And, if Faker’s recent performances are anything to go by, he’s still got a lot left in the tank. Impact isn’t planning on retiring any time soon himself, saying that he’d consider it if he had a child and “liked having a family more” than playing the game. Or if a game better than League of Legends grabbed his attention. Otherwise, he’s here to stay.
“People can say that, ‘Oh, you should keep a good job and money’ and stuff like that, but, to me, it’s more about my teammates and how we can do better, you know? It’s like, ‘Oh, if I play like this and get a solo kill, my salary will go up.’ I don’t play for myself like a salary hunter, or play safe and do nothing like a doomer. I don’t do that; I play for the win. I’m not sure what it’d take to retire. Maybe I’d retire if I wasn’t top 3 in the top lane.”
This is where Faker and Impact have a lot of overlap. Faker’s loyalty to T1 has come at the cost of some big paychecks in the past, having entertained offers from other organizations in the past. However, he is more focused on winning and developing T1’s team into the best roster it can be than securing an eight-figure contract with the orgs that have been interested in buying him out.
So, what motivates players like this to keep competing? To top other players and previous versions of themselves in the never-ending pursuit of being the best player in the world? The short answer is that it’s really hard to say, even for the players themselves. We can only guess or try to ask questions about the subject.
To try and get to the bottom of what keeps Impact going, we asked him whether or not he wishes he’d stayed in Korea all those years ago. If he stuck with SKT and Faker, he could have gone for more than one world title. But the fact that he came to NA was a big part of what motivated him to better himself, his team, and the region.
“I had to trust myself, and that’s how I became more confident. That’s how I can do more than think about myself. With SKT, we were good together, but I kind of followed them. Sometimes they’d follow me, but I kind of followed them. If I stayed with SKT, I probably would have played two more times at Worlds, won Worlds, and retired. I mean, I could have gone to the LPL at the time, but I chose not to go. I’m really thankful I chose NA because I think NA made me improve more than other regions would have.”
But Faker hasn’t had a big transition like this in his career. He’s been with T1 since the very beginning, even if the name of the org itself has changed here and there. While Impact’s insight was very helpful when it came to understanding what it takes to be a top-level competitor for years and years on end, this is where his experience and Faker’s are drastically different.
So, what’s keeping Faker going?
Passing the torch and re-igniting his own inner fire
There are a lot of things Worlds 2022 will be remembered for: DRX’s Cinderella run, a story that saw them going from Korea’s worst team at Worlds to the very best. The Mapo High School storyline between Deft and Faker was the clash of two esports greats and resulted in a banger best-of-five series that had fans of both teams at the edge of their seats until the very end.
But there’s one photo, one image frozen in time that stands out as the most important moment at Worlds 2022.
Ryu ‘Keria’ Min-seok was crushed after losing the World Finals. He had played alongside Deft and Pyosik on DRX, and losing to his old teammates on the biggest stage in the world pushed him beyond the breaking point.
Everyone on T1 was feeling their fair share of frustration after their loss, but they all put those feelings aside after seeing Keria. This was a powerful moment on its own, but it wasn’t the first time Faker had lost the world title at the very last leg of the race.
2017 World Finals. With wins in 2013, 2015, and 2016, Faker had never lost a world final he’d attended up to that point. SKT was the team, and, despite having a somewhat shaky showing up until their clash with Samsung Galaxy, SKT had the fans at their back.
Then they got stomped 3-0. It wasn’t close. After their loss, this is what it looked like in SKT’s booth.
Everyone on SKT just looked disappointed and generally bummed out except for Faker; he was devastated. He wept for several minutes, having to be shaken by Bang before he came back to reality for just long enough to fist bump the other players before being left there, crying alone.
In both 2017 and 2022, the loss of the biggest match of the year came with a torrent of negative emotions. But it’s really, really hard not to see how Faker has grown in the way he and his new teammates took the loss. Winning as a team feels great, and it’s easy to keep morale high when you’re on top of the world. But being able to lose gracefully as a team and support each other is a feat on its own.
Despite having a rough end to their 2022 competitive year, T1 bounced back stronger than ever.
In 2022, they had set a win streak record in Spring. T1 looked like the most dominant team not only in the LCK, but in the world. While they weren’t able to replicate that exact record in 2023, they’ve topped it in their own way.
In the all-LCK voting (also known as all-pro in other regions), T1’s entire team took first place. When voting for the most valuable players in every position, T1’s entire team was at the top. And the voting wasn’t close, either.
Keria also managed to snag Season MVP even after losing Worlds 2022 the way he did, making himself one of the only support players to receive such high honors in any region. Faker may be the name people associate T1 with, but he isn’t the one running the show. It’s truly a team effort.
Faker isn’t the greatest player of all time because of his strong mechanics or his past victories at world championships. He also isn’t so because of the records he’s broken and the strategies he’s pioneered. Faker is the greatest player of all time because he has never got complacent and because he has been able to improve enough, both inside and outside the game, to keep himself from falling behind.
When he was paired with a bunch of rookie players, fans started to ask whether Faker was passing the torch to them. They questioned whether he’d play with the team for a bit before getting replaced by a younger mid laner, ending the career of League’s greatest pro player in a way that would be almost impossible to top.
Faker is passing the torch, sure, but he’s also re-ignited his own inner fire alongside a roster of young, ambitious players looking to make history together. T1 is already looking like a frontrunner for the 2023 world title, and we’re only two months into League of Legends’ competitive year. He’s still one of the very best, and that likely won’t change any time soon.