Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok has had one of the best careers in the history of esports. He’s won titles across several continents and has a legion of loyal fans. And things are about to get better next year as his team, SK Telecom T1, just signed a bevy of stars to play with him.
Related: Five things Faker hasn’t won—yet.
It’s fun to go back through Faker’s storied career and pick out some of the key moments that changed his destiny. Who knows what would have happened, good or bad, had some of these things gone any other way. Surely Faker would still be a champion, but would we remember him differently?
To find out, we looked at the top six “what if?” moments of Faker’s career.
6) What if Ryu lived?
Faker’s debut in 2013 as a professional League player was an instant success. He solo-killed CJ Blaze’s Kang “Ambition” Chang-yong in his first game. But that was a routine play—it was more of a goof by Ambition, evolving a Kha’Zix ability while Faker was near.
Faker’s Zed play against Yoo “Ryu” Sang-wook later that year was another story. It is quite simply one of the most stunning plays in League history.
Ryu was so, so close to pulling out the kill on Faker. And who knows what would have happened if he did. For Ryu, this was the beginning of the end for him on KT—and in Korea. For Faker, this was the moment he truly arrived in an international sense. And it would carry him all the way to his World Championship later that year.
5) What if Wh1t3zZ bought a ward?
At Worlds 2013, Faker and SKT played well but were hardly at juggernaut status yet. Faker showed nerves in the semifinals and SKT were perceived as underdogs in the final vs. Royal Club. Three out of four analysts predicted Royal to win.
The predictions were vindicated by Royals’s strong start to the first game. They took the first turret of the game by outplaying SKT in a lane swap. Royal mid laner Lo “Wh1t3zZ” Pun-Lai was playing Orianna, one of the strongest mages at the tournament that year, and was bullying Faker’s Gragas. He forced Faker to recall early and set up an advantageous buy for himself.
And that’s where everything went horribly wrong. Instead of a ward, Wh1t3zZ bought a health potion. Then, this happened:
Wh1t3zZ never saw SKT jungler Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong and didn’t expect him to arrive right when Faker hit level six. That one play changed everything. SKT took complete control over the map and Faker was unstoppable in the victory.
And it wasn’t just that game, either. Royal were spooked by Faker’s Gragas counterpick. They banned Orianna themselves games two and three and lost meekly in a sweep to hand Faker his first international title.
That win had huge ramifications on Faker’s career, but also on Royal’s. At the time, Royal ADC Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao was considered a star as good as Faker. In the years since, Uzi has never gotten closer to winning his first Worlds, while Faker has added to his championship legacy. It’s impossible to tell where those two would be today if their roles were reversed in that first meeting back in 2013.
4) What if Easyhoon won game three?
It’s almost impossible to imagine SKT without Faker. But that’s exactly what happened at MSI 2015, when Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon and Faker shared the mid lane role. In the final against EDG, it was Easyhoon who carried the torch, starting the first three games.
Easyhoon popped off in game one, going 9/0/8 on Cassiopeia. But EDG came back and won the next two maps. It’s fair to wonder what would have happened if Easyhoon had a better game three on Lulu. It’s not like the loss was his fault—EDG simply roamed better as a team and won the side lanes handily. But if SKT had won instead, it’s likely Easyhoon would have stayed in for game four. How much would have changed in both his and Faker’s careers if it was Easyhoon who brought home the MSI trophy for SKT?
Instead, what happened is history. Facing match point, legendary coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun subbed Faker back in. He won game four, and even though EDG counterpicked him in the last game and won the series, SKT’s path was set. When crunch time rolled around, mid lane was Faker’s. He was cemented as the team’s starter later that year and won Worlds again. Easyhoon played a valuable role in the championship run, but eventually left for China after the season. We’ll always wonder if Easyhoon could be the face of SKT today if he had just won game three.
3) What if Impact never left?
A consistent theme for SKT has been constant change in the top lane. Nearly every year, someone new fills the role. Some, like Lee “Duke” Ho-jong and Gang “MaRin” Geong-hwan, have worked out beautifully, while others, like Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, have fallen just short.
But it’s possible that none of this would have been necessary had SKT retained their original top laner from the first World Championship, Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong. Since leaving, Impact has carved out a nice career for himself in North America—he’s a resident in the region now. And he’s still considered one of the most reliable top laners in the world.
It’s fair to wonder what could have been if the top-jungle-mid trio of Impact, Bengi, and Faker had stayed together. Maybe instead of missing Worlds in 2014, the team could have made five straight appearances from 2013 to 2017. Other players have floundered after leaving Faker and SKT, but given Impact’s strong play over the last few seasons, he surely could have made a difference for a dynastic squad.
2) What if Bengi hadn’t saved the day?
There haven’t been that many dicey moments across the three World Championships that Faker’s won. One time they were tested to the limit was in the semifinals of Worlds 2016. ROX Tigers were the best Korean team for much of that year, and they went into Worlds as the favorites. ROX top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho was number one in the pre-tournament player rankings, not Faker. When the two teams faced off in the semifinals, many fans lamented that their meeting came one round too early.
The match between ROX and SKT still stands as the best series of League of Legends ever played. ROX brought out a support Miss Fortune that wreaked havoc with SKT’s drafts. Desperate for an answer, kkOma turned to his bench once more and brought Bengi back on stage.
Before Worlds, Bengi had a tough year as he struggled to adapt to the meta and was benched for long stretches. But against ROX, he came alive. Playing Nidalee for the first time as a pro, he dominated game four to bring SKT back from the brink. ROX were shattered and SKT closed out the series on the way to Faker and Bengi’s third title.
Bengi has since retired, but the ramifications from that crazy Nidalee game are still affecting Korean League of Legends. The fun-to-watch Tigers team broke up after Worlds. Only one player, jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, who teamed up with Faker on SKT, has won an international title. It looks like bot laner Kim “PraY” Jong-in is retiring now, having never won on the biggest stage. Smeb teamed up with a bunch of superstars on KT Rolster but has yet to find that level of success. Tigers fans are left wondering what might have been.
Winning Worlds that first time in 2013 changed everything for Faker. It’s anyone’s guess what it would have done for the Tigers in 2016.
1) What if Faker went to China as part of the Korean Exodus?
The biggest “what if?” of all regards Faker’s decision to stay with SKT over the years. Back in 2014, when Chinese teams threw big money at Korean pros, Faker received several rich offers. Whether it was loyalty, commitment to country, or maybe pure comfort with SKT, Faker decided to stay.
That decision has proven monumental for how we view Faker, SKT, and League esports in general. Faker has set the standard for what a player and team can achieve. Every Worlds winner from now on will be judged against the standard that he and SKT set. That just wouldn’t be the same if Faker left for another team.
Now, after enduring a rough 2018, Faker is back with SKT, ready to compete for more trophies in 2019. It will be fun to see what inflection points lie ahead of the best player in League history.