Meet Faker, the 24-year-old who carries an entire sport on his shoulders
You may not have played League of Legends (LoL) or even understand what Esports is, but there's a good chance you recognize the name Faker or have seen him smiling down from a billboard somewhere.
Having played for T1 since 2013, the 24-year-old has become an iconic figure in the world of Esports and the hero of many a young gamer.
It wasn't that long ago that Faker, whose real name is Lee Sang-hyeok, was one of those young gamers himself. Way before he turned pro, Lee was a regular high schooler who liked to play computer games at PC rooms.
Lee says that before he turned pro, he played a lot of different games. It's only since he became Faker that it has been all about LoL.
“Before I became a pro gamer, I played a lot of different games,” Faker says. “Since I like playing games so much, I played this and that. But after I turned pro, I haven’t had much time to play other games and only playing LoL helps me out a lot. So I don’t play other games as much.”
While he’s widely the best in the world at LoL, when it comes to other games, Lee admits he's an average player.
Before the Faker gaming handle was born, Lee used the name GoJeonPa. But as soon as the handle Faker came into Lee's head, he knew he had to change it immediately.
“Well, I thought Faker sounded cooler,” Lee says. “And I thought the meaning of the name sounded alright, as well as the way people call it. So I chose it.”
Like any athlete in any sport, Lee's career really started because he liked playing the game, he played it a lot and he got good at it. His success followed because he continues to enjoy playing the game, but that doesn't mean there aren't days when it becomes just another job.
“There are times when it felt really boring and difficult,” Lee says. “But I think those moments are temporary. Since I like the game, I’m able to continue [playing].”
Despite those slow days, Lee says he has never regretted his career path.
“It’s fun,” Lee says. “By playing this game, I get to meet a lot of people and have a lot of fans. I’m very satisfied.”
To non-gamers, LoL might seem like a fairly violent pastime — the goal, after all, is to kill each other and destroy the opposing team's headquarters — but it is just a game. Outside of the computer, Faker is quiet and relaxed. In fact, his favorite hobby is reading.
“When I read, I don’t really care about the genre,” Lee says. “I just read everything. I read various topics. At the moment, I’m reading a book about math.”
Lee may be a laid-back bibliophile outside of LoL, but he didn't rise to the top without being ferocious inside the game. Even this year, when T1 has struggled to make a mark at tournaments, Faker's reputation has never taken a hit.
There's a reason for that reputation, and the statistics prove it. With so many tournament titles under his belt, it is difficult to work out which of Lee's many achievements stands out the most, but it has to be the LoL World Championships. To this day, Lee is one of only two people to have won three times; in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
Aside from the titles, the 24-year-old was also the first player to have reached 1,000 and 2,000 kills in League of Legends Champions Korea, cementing his legend in the world of Esports.
But that’s not all.
Back at the 2018 Asian Games (Asiad), Lee also got to represent Korea, as Esports was being played as a demonstration event at the Asiad. Although Korea ended up picking up a silver, finishing behind China, representing his country was a new experience for Lee.
“Although it was a demonstration event,” Lee says, “being able to wear the Taegeukgi on my chest and represent Korea did feel different.”
That Asian Games appearance was a huge moment for Esports, seen now as the moment it really began to be taken seriously as a proper sport. It’s not only the Asian Games, as there has also been talk of Esports eventually making it to the Olympics.
“When I got to compete at the Asian Games, it was definitely a good experience,” Lee says. “And if there’s a chance in the future, I would like to compete again.”
From competing to Korea and T1 to appearing in advertisements around the world and becoming the de facto ambassador for an entire sport, Lee has faced plenty of pressure from life at the top. But the 24-year-old has been living that life for so long now that he's starting to get used to it.
“In the past, I did feel some pressure,” Lee says. “But now, I just think of it as an obvious responsibility, and since I’m used to this kind of lifestyle, I don’t feel much pressure.”
Not feeling much pressure doesn’t mean that Lee doesn’t have aspirations. Despite his achievements, Lee is working to become an even better player at all times.
“Every time, I try to pass myself,” he says. “If there are areas I need to improve on, I try to find it as quickly as possible and fix them.”
As a first-generation LoL player, Faker is still considered the best in the world. Regardless of the sport, no club wants to become a one-man team, but in Lee's case, T1 really is the Faker machine.
“I feel that I’ve been playing [this game] for a while,” Lee says. “But since there’re still a lot of first-generation gamers playing, I don’t think I’ve really thought of myself as a first-generation gamer.”
He may not have considered himself a first-generation gamer in the world of LoL, but looking at his achievement with T1, Lee's resume is pages long. Considering his outstanding performance, even T1’s CEO Joe Marsh and COO John Kim both agreed that “Faker is T1.”
Faker isn't as keen to stand alone in the spotlight.
“[T1] is a team that I’m part of,” Lee says. “I’ve been with T1 for a very long time. So I think a lot of people could put me and T1 together.”
Every season, Lee is offered millions of dollars from other clubs around the world, but he has never left T1. With his loyalty to the club, he has now become part owner and captain of the team.
Despite now having a stake in the company, Lee says he doesn’t feel different.
“There aren’t any major changes compared to the past,” Lee says. “Since I’m still active as a pro gamer, it feels the same.”
Moving forward, he has goals both for Faker and for his future career as Lee.
“Since I’m focusing on my career as a pro, my goal is to win as many titles as possible,” Faker says. “Looking beyond that, I want to keep on doing what I want to do and live happily. That’s my goal.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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