Faker at the 2023 Asian Games: who is Lee Sang-hyeok and how much League of Legends’ Lionel Messi is worth

Lee’s player tag is synonymous with mind-blowing plays, just as backyard players shout ‘Kobe’ after a tricky jump shot, and his official nickname is “Indestructible Demon King.”

In 2013, Lee embarked on a professional esports career and leads the SK T1 team, having spent his entire career with the Seoul-based giants. That’s more than a decade at the top of the most competitive league in the world.

While playing with the team, Lee became the first player to reach 700 games and 2,500 kills in Korea’s top division, LCK (League of Legends Champions Korea).

Here’s what you need to know about the man who became the face of a global franchise worth $1.38 billion in 2022.


Chinese esports team wins League of Legends world championship amid Beijing gaming crackdown

Chinese esports team wins League of Legends world championship amid Beijing gaming crackdown

Following your passion

Lee Sang-hyeok was born on May 7, 1996 in Seoul and was raised by his single father and grandparents. Lee Kyung-joon, a carpenter, had a laissez faire attitude toward the passions of his two sons.

“They didn’t stop me, they just told me to do whatever I wanted,” Lee told Korea Now in an interview.

A studious student, Lee was already an avid gamer before he was introduced to LoL in high school. It didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself as a fan and for the then called SKT T1 K to come calling.

“As a single father, my role is to support my son,” Lee Kyung-joon told ESPN after his son dropped out of Mapo High School.

“He is doing this because he wants to. I thought…if he didn’t let him do what he wanted to do, he might regret it. Then I started thinking, ‘Wow, he’s really good at this.’”

Lee, who originally played under the name “GoJeonPa”, was already showing his potential in 2013. The new T1 team won its inaugural world title, before going undefeated in the 2014 winter season.

South Korean esports player Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok (center) during a launch ceremony for the South Korean team ahead of the Asian Games. Photo: AFP

Failing to qualify for the World Cup the following season, several Chinese clubs circulated lucrative playing and broadcasting contracts. It was the prelude to what is now known as the “Korean Exodus” of 2015. Lee ultimately rejected the offers.

Faker and his team lost just one game on their way to winning their second World Cup that season, with their workload shared with Lee Ji-hoon, or “Easyhoon.”

In 2016, a brilliant T1 lifted their first MSI (the only major trophy that eluded them at the time) and won back-to-back worlds.

Despite winning his second straight MSI, Faker was left in tears at the 2017 Worlds after being neutralized by a legendary Samsung Galaxy in the Beijing finals.

“I’ve seen him have some tough games, but this is the first time I’ve seen him cry,” his father told ESPN.

That the team had established itself as one of the greatest in history was beside the point. Lee had crumbled under the pressure and missed out on a third consecutive world championship amid increased competition.

“Mind control is very important,” he said. “I usually judge myself and try to improve myself, so I become a role model and work hard.

“At first, I felt like a burden (being called GOAT), but since I no longer care how others see me, I feel very proud to have that title.”


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Meet Japan’s First Professional Esports Team Made Up of All-Senior Players

Although T1 bowed out of the 2019 World Semifinals, a revitalized Lee guided them to two more LCK titles and became the first to achieve 2,000 kills in the league. He was rewarded with a stake in T1 Entertainment and Sports.

The team suffered another defeat in the 2021 World Cup semi-finals in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2021, raising more questions about the future of an “aging” Lee.

However, he re-signed with T1 last November and is now part of a group that experts have touted as the sport’s most mechanically talented team to date.

As Lee’s career entered its eleventh year, he achieved another LCK, surpassing Kang “Gorilla” Beom-hyeon to become the player with the most assists in league history with 4,137.

During the 2023 season, Lee was sidelined for weeks with an arm injury. During his time away, T1’s record fell from 6-2 to 7-9.

Longer life expectancy

“I can see why there is prejudice around ‘older players’ in this scene, because that’s how it has been until now,” Lee told Korizon Esports after the team’s 12th consecutive LCK victory in 2022.

“Most players’ careers end in their 20s. But I am of the opinion that the players currently active in the scene will enjoy a longer lifespan. We will continue to see more examples supporting this argument in the future.

“A lot of older players, even those who haven’t played as long as I have, have now retired. The veterans who remain are the ones who can adapt quickly to the new meta.

“I would say ‘survival of the fittest’ played a role here. But in the end, I would say there is no drastic link between a player’s age and their performance.”

In fact, Lee had predicted that in 2018. “I want to continue until I’m 27, or even older,” he told The Korean Herald. “And I’m sure I can continue to do it.”

After more than a decade in the game, no one (not even the dozens of players touted as “the next fakers”) has even come close.

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Ocean Champion

While most elite players specialize in a few dozen of the game’s 159 characters, or “champions,” Lee masters them all.

In an LCK game in March 2022, Lee broke his own record for unique picks by a mid-laner with 72. His champion pool is so large that fans refer to it as an “ocean.”

Lee’s adaptability to continuous updates and patches from developers Riot Games, and his opponents’ strategic use of the rule that allows each team to ban five opposing champions in pre-game selection, is considered one of its greatest strengths.

“My strong point is understanding the flow of the game, when to fight and when not to fight. Regardless of which champion you face, the strength is there,” Lee told ESPN.

Combine that with his impeccable technical skills and knowledge of the game, and you have the Indestructible Demon King. Put him on a team of younger, hungrier players, including last season’s LCK MVP Ryu Min-seok aka “Keria,” and his opponents will have a problem on their hands.


Esports debut at 2019 Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines

Esports debut at 2019 Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines

Asian Games Experiment

The only important piece that has eluded Lee is an official national team title.

He hopes to add the Asian Games title to his trophy case this year, which could pave the way for a performance at the Olympics in the future, although that may not happen for some time.

To add to the intrigue, there is a high potential for a confrontation between Korea and China, not at the franchise level, but directly under their national flags.

Lee’s Korea was stunned by continental megastar Jian Zihao, or “Uzi,” and his team from China in the finals of the 2018 Jakarta Games, where esports was included as a demonstration sport. An official gold medal would give him major bragging rights.

“At the Asian Games (in 2018), I felt like a more diverse demographic of viewers were watching us. We definitely feel more pressure going into the matches,” Lee said after Jakarta.

“But from all the newfound attention, I felt like more and more people were accepting and interested in esports.”

For Lee and his South Korean teammates, there is more than just a gold medal at stake at the Asian Games.

South Korean male athletes are exempt from mandatory two-year military service if they win a gold medal at the Asian Games or the Olympics.

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How much does it cost?

“Faker” is as popular as it gets. It tops a game played by 180 million monthly active users, and the 2019 World Finals garnered more than 100 million unique viewers, surpassing the NFL’s Super Bowl in 2019.

Lee’s first Twitch livestream peaked at 245,100 (simultaneous views, not overall), setting a world record at the time.

As of August 2023, Lee had won around $1.47 million in prize money.

Lee’s popularity at home is only magnifying. He has starred in advertisements with soccer icon Son Heung-min and has been compared to international K-pop sensations BTS in terms of cultural influence.

There is a documentary that compares Lee’s career to that of Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo. “O Fenomeno” even put the winner’s medal around Lee’s neck at the 2017 MSI.

“Every time I am compared to Sonny and BTS I feel grateful. “It is an honor for me,” Lee told Naver. “Receiving this attention from the world motivates me to work even harder.”

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