Esports

T1 is ruling the LCK, but is 2022 the “Faker’s Year”?

In his 10th year of leading the pack, will Faker claim his 4th World Championship?

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After T1 won the match against DWG KIA in Group Stage of LCK Spring 2022 today, T1 (previously known as “SK Telecom T1″) dominated the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) once again with 11 win streaks.

As one of the all-time storied champions in the history of League of Legends, T1 is a globally-influential powerhouse that bathes in the glory of its predecessor: SKT. During their tenure, SKT boasted three World Championship wins, two Mid-Season Invitational Championships, and nine LCK Championship wins. Majority of today’s T1′s fans have followed this team since the SKT era. Therefore, even though the management team changed the name, logo, and jersey of this team, it is still significantly important for T1 to keep its image of inheriting the honors and memories of SKT. Especially due to the team hosting Mid Laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok for the past decade since his debut in 2012, this star Mid-Laner who has already played under T1′s banner for 10 years. But it is just insufficient and unfair to call Faker “a star Mid-Laner”. As the only pro player in League who has 3 World Champions and two of them are back-to-back, Faker built up the SKT Dynasty. It is not exaggerating to say that Faker is the strongest symbol which connects the previous SKT and today’s T1, especially when all the SKT players and coaches that the fans are familiar with were either retired or left the team.

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These days, people are questioning the longevity of Faker’s career. How much longer can he sustain his level of competition when most of the players who debuted at the same time as him have already retired? This leads to the question: Is 2022 going to be the last year of Faker’s career? Is he capable of taking another championship?

“The Unkillable Demon King”

Faker is known by many monikers: the GOAT, the Michael Jordan of League of Legends, and even the Chosen One. But, the most well-known name used by the League of Legends community as a whole is “the Unkillable Demon King”.

In the early stage of Faker’s career, he was known for his aggressive plays on the lane and his near-perfect decision-making in almost every situation. Faker created advantageous plays for his team by soloing rivals in the Mid Lane, and continuously offering support to the other lanes as well. In the 2013 Season 3 World Championship, Faker’s KDA was 4.82, with average 4.44 kills, 2.17 deaths, and 6 assists in the games. In the 2015 Season 5 World Championship, Faker’s KDA rose to an unmatchable number-– 7.33, with average 4.58 kills, 1.5 deaths, and 6.42 assists in the games, which completely outplayed all the mid-laners in that year. ESPN also ranked Faker as the No.1 League player in 2016. During this period of time, other pro players were celebrated if they could solo Faker and win.

The last man standing

Many storied pro players like Yiliang ‘Doublelift’ Peng, Ming “Clearlove” Kai, Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, and etc. who once competed with Faker in the same era, have either retired or transferred to other positions. Even at T1, Faker has outlived three different team rosters and adapted to teammates with completely different playstyle.

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To date, Faker has reached over 1000 games in his professional career. Faker is just so into the games and there are rarely things that can distract him from reaching higher grounds. He seems fatigueless to keep adding more landmarks to his historic career and consistently improve his play. From Season 2 to Season 6, Faker used to play the assassin champions like Zed, Ahri, and Leblanc, or the burst-damage mage champions like Ryze, Syndra, and Cassiopeia. At this time, the primary objective for Faker was to destroy opponents’ Mid player on lane and carry the game.

However, the overall patches of League of Legends since Season 7 gave the Bot lane and Top lane more advantages and weights, plus Faker also suffered from reduced reactivity due to the age increasing, his playstyle changed from individual carry to satisfy the team’s needs. During this period, Faker played the champions like Galio, Lulu, and Karma which could reinforce other lanes in the early phase of the game, and perfectly protected AD Carry from enemies in the late group fights. In fact, you rarely can see any PRO mid-laner who is able to play as many different champions as Faker at Mid Lane. To date, Faker has now used 74 different champions in pro games throughout his career. Currently, the total number of the existing champions in League of Legends is 158-which means Faker knows the different mechanics of half of the champion pool.

The rising stars

With talented younger teammates like Lee “Gumayusi” Min-hyeong and Ryu “Keria” Min-seok (currently one of the best bot-lane duo in LCK), Faker and T1 have a great opportunity to reclaim their throne as Worlds Champion this year. Especially after attending last year’s World Championship and making it to the semi-final, the younger players in T1 gained more experience on the world stage. Their teamwork ingame seems to go smoother and their synergy nowadays shows much improvement from that of SKT in 2020. However, T1 is not the only rising star in the sky. There are still many great opponents laying in wait.

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DWG KIA, also known as Damwon Gaming, is currently third-placed in the LCK. However, no team should underestimate the Mid-Jungle duo played by Heo “ShowMaker” Su and Kim “Canyon” Geon-bu. The twin stars of DWG KIA once helped the team claim the World Championship in 2020 and they are arguably thought as the best Mid-Jungle duo in today’s League of Legends. In their most recent match against Kwangdong Freecs, ShowMaker’s creative tank build on Ryze helped his team secure the Baron in Game 1 even though the team lost both the Jungler and AD Carry in the group fight. Undoubtedly, DWG KIA is still a powerful opponent due to its players constantly presenting individual outplays, though it is still finding their rhythm.

Despite the many challengers in the LCK, T1 must pay more attention to the LCK’s long-standing rivalry region-LPL: the League of Legends Pro League in China. In the past 4 years since 2018, the LPL ended the LCK’s long tenure of dominance on the world stage. LPL teams nowadays not only have outstanding players, but also develop many strategies to counter LCK teams’ traditional macro tactics. The two most representative teams would be EDward Gaming (EDG) and LNG GAMING (LNG).

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After a long period of lying low, EDG finally claimed its first ever S-series World Championship in 2021, and saw a good start to the year in the 2022 LPL Spring Split with a win-loss record of 14-3. Even though the top-laner Li “Flandre” Xuan-Jun is still trying to find his rhythm after his return from temporarily left, Lee “Scout” Ye-chan and Park “Viper” Do-hyeon (EDG’s champion Mid laner and AD Carry), still maintained their high levels of competitiveness in the match against Invictus Gaming (IG) yesterday. Another powerful weapon for EDG is its experienced support player: Tian “Meiko” Ye. In this season, Meiko not only successfully helps Viper claim advantages on the lane, but also invades his opponents’ jungle and other lanes more frequently.

In the new season, with the signing of Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang, Funplus Phoenix’s former champion mid-laner, LNG continued its victory in the Rift. Unlike most of LPL teams’ mid-centric macro strategies, which has been predominant throughout League of Legends this spring, the LNG seems more comfortable applying tactics like fast pushing side-lanes and flanking onto the mid lane. This tactic is extremely effective for LNG, especially after Doinb in the mid lane. Doinb is good at commanding and collaborating with teammates. He does not take over a huge portion of his team’s resources, he understands the macro, and he leads his teammates to execute all the strategies. Looking back to the 2018 League of Legends Rift’s Rivals tournament, when Doinb played Kled for RW against KING-ZONE DragonX (KZ), he dashed into the backline of KZ in the Dragon Pit and finished the group fight with an impressive 1v3 play which saved the LPL region from annihilation.

Legends never die

In a direct homage to the statement released to announce Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA in 1995, T1 used “I’m back” in the announcement of Faker’s re-sign. In the joint statement made by Faker and T1, Faker committed to remain with T1 for the 2022 LCK season, and he officially became one of the part-owners of T1.

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From my perspective, Faker is doing well this season to the date. He has played different champions to cooperate with the team’s strategies, but at the same time he is still able to carry the games with his classic assassin champions like Leblanc. If T1 is able to make it to the Worlds this year, or even win their fourth Summoner’s Cup, I believe Faker will keep playing until the current roster sees a massive change, or when the time comes for him to fulfill his mandatory military service. I believe it is 100% likely that he will not leave T1 even in retirement, and likely continue his career as a coach or manager at the club he dedicated his entire career to.