My name is Lee Sang-hyeok. My American fans call me “God.” My Korean fans know me as “the Unkillable Demon King.” I actually prefer God, because it feels just a little bit higher.
In game, I’m simply Faker. I’m 20 years old, and I’m the best League of Legends player in the world.
My parents bought me my first PC when I was eight years old, but before that I had gotten my start in gaming the same way as most other kids. I played PlayStation and some other consoles, I blew into my cartridges to make them work and some of my earliest memories are of just me and my friends beating the crap out of each other in Dragon Ball Z: Budokai.
I wasn’t interested in playing competitively when I was younger. The idea of gaming in front of thousands of people in a packed arena, with millions more watching online, never entered my mind. It was in 2011, when I was in middle school, that I discovered League of Legends. I guess you could say I took to it pretty quickly. I watched pro StarCraft as a kid, but I never really revered any other esports athletes. But in the early days of the League pro scene, I studied “HooN,” the former mid laner of EDG. I read his guide to Ryze — a champion I still occasionally play today — and that sent me down the path toward pro competition. I got better and better until I hit level 30, and was being put in matches against the top talent in Korea. I was still an amateur player, but I was winning, and I eventually earned the No. 1 spot in the server rankings.
I didn’t really consult with my parents before inking a deal with SK Telecom in 2013. I actually never had a conversation with them at all about becoming a professional gamer. Instead, I just kind of implied that it might work out O.K. if I took this seriously. My parents don’t necessarily actively root for me or cheer for me, but they’ve granted me the freedom to pursue my dreams. Esports can be a very volatile environment, so I understand their concern. But I think things have turned out pretty well so far.
I’ll admit it.
After ROX Tigers dominated the third game of the semifinals of the 2016 League of Legends world championship last Friday to put us down 2–1, there was a moment where I thought we might actually lose the series.
I try not to not show emotion during competition. I ask my teammates to do the same. We keep calm, remain stoic and do our best to not get ahead of ourselves. I tried to remember that we’d been in situations like this before. In 2013 we were down 2–0 to the KTR Bullets in the OGN Summer Finals, only to reverse sweep them with authority the next three games to win the series. In League of Legends, it only takes a few big plays to do away with any anxiety. So when ROX beat us easily that third game last Friday, I did have some doubts, but I also knew we could turn things around quickly if we just remained focused.
There are a number of smaller tournaments over the course of the year, but worlds is what we all play for. There is a gilded championship cup and millions of dollars on the line. No tournament is more lucrative or more prestigious in our esport. My team has won worlds twice. Once in 2013, and again in ’15. If we win the title this year, we will have taken home the championship three times in the four years that I’ve been a professional gamer.
It’s important to win as much as you can because you never know when your career will end. I’ve seen so many talented players make it to the top and then quickly burn out. Everyone is always gunning for your spot. When we started to lose to ROX, I noticed the crowd began cheering more for Smeb and Peanut. They’re great players, they deserve the recognition, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t piss me off. It may sound arrogant, but I’m confident that I’m really good. If I’m losing to players that I know aren’t on my level, I’ll get angry. The last two games of that series, you saw how I play when I’m angry.
We came back quickly with a commanding performance in Game 4. As soon as I trapped Kuro for Bengi’s backdoor gank, I knew we were going to win. I’ve been playing with Bengi since the day I joined SKT, and that was one of the best games of his career. It was over after we killed Baron and wiped their team in the top lane. The mood in our locker room was a lot more comfortable before Game 5. We went over strategies and I ate a chocolate bar. An hour later we were celebrating our third berth into the Grand Finals.
If I’m losing to players that I know aren’t on my level, I’ll get angry. The last two games of that series, you saw how I play when I’m angry.
It’s funny to look back and think about how only a few short months after signing with SKT I was playing for my first League of Legends world championship at L.A.’s STAPLES Center. Hoisting that trophy in front of all our fans will always be a career highlight for me. It was the first time I realized that people actually knew who I was outside of Korea. When I sat down in front of my PC, I was touched by how passionate non-Korean fans were — how they were willing to get loud and cheer. One of my favorite examples of that was during the 2014 All-Star tournament in Paris, when the entire arena sang “Happy Birthday” to me. When I first started playing League I was a little overwhelmed by how rowdy the live audiences could be, but I relish it now. It’s what makes this industry great. If you want to be a pro gamer, you’ve got to be able to deal with a raucous environment. I’m not the same player I was a few years ago. Now, I’m right at home under the lights.
When my League career started taking off, I fantasized about what it would be like to be famous. Today, having had so many experiences being mobbed in public, I can’t say I totally endorse fame. But every time I pose for a picture with a fan or get asked for an autograph, I remember how important it is to be kind. That’s something I will carry with me for the rest of my life, both in esports and outside of it.
Does that mean that I want to be involved in League of Legends for the rest of my life? I don’t know. There are so many things I want to do. I’ve often thought that once my esports career is over I’ll go away to school and study science. I’ve always found physics and chemistry intriguing, but now I’m getting more interested in neuroscience.
Twenty years from now I’m sure esports will grow in ways we can’t even imagine, with more players, more viewers and bigger arenas all over the world. Who knows, maybe an American team will have finally won worlds by then? I don’t know where I’ll be at that point — maybe still involved in League, or maybe doing something completely different. My teammates and I are normal guys. I like Taylor Swift, and sometimes on our off-days we play Warcraft III. (Just for the record: I’m the best Warcraft player on the team, and in the world.) Honestly, the only thing I’m really concerned with is that people look back on my time in the spotlight with fondness. If future generations are going to grow up wanting to be like Faker, then I’m going to do my best to set a great example.
This weekend, we’ll be back at STAPLES Center going against Samsung Galaxy in the world championship final. As always, we expect to win.
My time with SKT has already been such an amazing journey, and I’m thankful for every day of it. Earlier this year, I felt myself gradually getting weaker. It was like my skills were getting worse and the rest of the world was gaining on me. I’ve often wondered what makes me great at League of Legends, and the best way I can describe it is that I structure my playstyle through calculation and intuition. I’m always learning new things. I can predict events before they happen, and that helps me to be in the right place and make the right play a step sooner than everyone else.
For a while there it felt like my intuition was off, and I didn’t know if I could recover. But right now I feel like I can play forever. At the start of the year, I’d have fears that I was falling from the top and that maybe people were right when they said other players were eclipsing me.
Editor’s Note: You can read a Korean translation of this article by clicking here.