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With MSI on the horizon, a question creeps up once again: Can any of today's mid-lane stars dethrone Faker?

On April 6, 2013, an impatient crowd of a few hundred fans sat in a TV studio in Seoul, South Korea, as a 17-year-old boy prepared to make his professional esports debut. Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, fresh-faced and looking he’d be more comfortable in a high school library, walked onstage, his every movement tracked by the in-studio audience and scrutinized further by viewers at home.

The young mid laner was seen as the next crown jewel for South Korean esports organization SK Telecom T1. SKT’s trophy case, already filled to the brim with StarCraft hardware, would have to expand if Faker, seconds away from the start of his pro career, became what so many fans thought he could be.

Six minutes and 29 seconds into the game, the rookie’s legacy first took shape. Faker solo killed South Korean All-Star mid laner Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong to the surprise and roar of the packed crowd, and something else entirely began.

A legend was born: the Unkillable Demon King.

From that night onward, Faker became the player to watch in South Korea’s League of Legends scene.

A few months later, following a one-on-one outplay of Ryu “Ryu” Sang-wook that went viral, he became a household name to anyone who played League of Legends.

By the end of 2013, he was raising the game’s world championship in Los Angeles at the Staples Center, home of the NBA’s Lakers, with press the world-over scrambling to speak with the gaming world’s newest superstar.

The Unkillable Demon King became a legend that only grew throughout the years as the hardware continued to stack and his celebrity elevated, transcending barriers. He landed on the covers of magazines. Pop stars in his own country not only knew of him but were fans, wishing for the opportunity to play with him.

Although he wasn’t unbeatable, whenever Faker and his team faltered, they would evolve, growing only more potent. In 2015 and 2016, Faker lifted his second and third Summoner’s Cups, the chalice given to the world’s best team. International events no longer were about who the best League of Legends player in the world was but if anyone could stand up to the game’s main character. During the 2017 edition of the world championship, the Unkillable Demon King was painting his magnum opus, carrying his hamstrung squad to a third-straight grand final.

Then, on a chilly night in front of the largest paid crowd to ever watch an esports event at the Beijing National Stadium in China, everything changed. Faker doubled over in his chair and shed tears as the opposing side, Samsung Galaxy, erupted from their soundproof booth to celebrate their monumental victory. The Chinese crowd stood in almost stunned silence.

SK Telecom T1 had lost in a 3-0 sweep.

In an instant, the mystique had shattered. The mask of Superman slipped off to reveal the red, exacerbated face of a young man experiencing the anguish of failing to live up to the unrealistic expectations saddled on his shoulders.

On November 4, 2017, the Unkillable Demon King perished as millions watched from every corner of the planet.

Since that brisk evening that saw the esports world turn on its head, four men have chased the ghost left in the stadium that night. A quartet of South Korean mid laners have strived to learn what it means to live in a constant pursuit of perfection that the Unkillable Demon King left behind, including the boy who started it all.

This is their story.

The man behind the Unkillable Demon King mask

Faker Unkillable Demon King
Chasing Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s legacy is not easy task, and few players, if any, have come close to his level of dominance. | Illustration by Sydney Jones

At some point in your life, everyone wishes they had a time machine.

Be it the time in high school where you awkwardly asked out your crush to only face rejection, or something as simple as your alarm clock not going off in time for work. There are moments, sometimes split seconds, of our lives that we wish we could take back that could change the future forever, or so we believe.

Faker doesn’t shy away from the pain he felt that day in Shanghai, but something did change inside him that night. That series, those hours, are the type of thing you wish you could travel back to and fix. The idealized version of Faker that he works every day to keep tirelessly has vanished. For the past four years, he’s been running after that version of himself.

After capturing his first domestic championship since Beijing in 2019, his loyal diehard fans hoped that it was the return of the days when the Unkillable Demon King ruled the world. It wasn’t, though. Even then, in interviews, Faker spoke about how he didn’t feel like he was back to the level that he was at before at his peak.

“I don’t think my performance is great compared to my old days,” Faker said in an interview before a major final in April 2019, translated by Korizon. “I think I’m currently at 70% to 80%. I think I can increase my current performance by an extra 30% to 40% by the finals.”

He won that final, but come to the following international tournament, the sentiment ― the chase ― remained the same. Although one of the favorites to win that event, the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational, Faker’s team ultimately fell in the semifinals to Europe’s G2 Esports. Five months in the future, the story would repeat itself, G2 eliminating T1 from the world championship semifinals.

To Faker, what would be the apex for a majority of pro players is nothing more than a detour to the top of the mountain. He’s seen the very top ― back-to-back world championships, domestic dominance, the undisputed No. 1 player title ― and anything less just isn’t enough. Unlike others who are still running after the current Faker, trying to live up to the 2021 version, the now 24-year-old can only aim at one target: his past self.

While we count his record-breaking number of trophies, accolades and victories, Faker counts the number of missed opportunities. The world championship in 2014 he should have attended in South Korea but failed to reach. Those matches against G2 Esports where if he played better on Qiyana, there might be another Summoner’s Cup on his wall. That lost series in the middle of the regular season that the world would consider meaningless but still keeps on Faker’s mind as he lays in bed at night.

Yet, as his mask and aura of being the perfect Unkillable Demon King has melted, so has the cold exterior he was once known for in his early days. Whereas early in his career, he self-admittedly didn’t get along with his teammates, that’s changed as he’s grown as his own person, Lee-Sang-hyeok, and not Faker or the numerous nicknames given to him.

Though his mind is still on reaching the ultimate goal, climbing back to the crest of the mountain only he has experienced in League of Legends, things have changed. When one of his teammates has a poor game, Faker doesn’t solely focus on himself but the person beside him, being the arm around their shoulder needed to keep moving forward.

Still, his fans, possibly in the millions at this point, are awaiting the return of the Unkillable Demon King, and Faker wants nothing more than to feel complete once more. During the most recent domestic season when T1 benched Faker in place of a 17-year-old prodigy mid laner (sound familiar?) in Lee “Clozer” Ju-hyeon, fans revolted. They wondered if the new management that came into place at the end of 2019 destroyed the foundation built almost two decades prior.

When Faker doesn’t play, the substitute behind him has every mistake they make under the world’s most giant microscope. If the team doesn’t do well, then upper management is berated. In the instances Faker plays and fails to live up to the mirage fans have in their minds, he is “washed up” and on the verge of retirement.

“Nobody knows what next season [will] look like,” Faker said in a recent exclusive interview with Youtube. “But I think I can be the best player again.”

No one knows when Faker’s pursuit will end except himself. Although the evident answer would be another world championship, will that be enough to have him feeling like he’s caught his past self? Two world titles in a row? A three-peat? A perfect year where T1 wins every competition they enter?

Until that day comes, his fans will await, believing he will stand atop of all once more. And Faker, at the T1 facilities in Gangnam, will continue trailing into the unknown.

It won’t be as the naive boy or the legend in a demon mask, but as a man, OK with carrying the unimaginable weight of the world’s expectations on his shoulders.

The heir apparent

showmaker to usurp Faker Demon Killer King
Heo “ShowMaker” Su stands at the helm of a team that hopes to rival the SK Telecom T1 dynasty of old. | Illustration by Sydney Jones

There have been thousands of prospects that at one point or another believed or had someone believe in them they could take up the mantle of the Unkillable Demon King. They shot up the online ladder like a rocket and seemed primed to take over the world, or even better yet, exploded onto the professional scene with a string of magical performances.

But if there were a scientist who could somehow clone or create an android to mimic Faker’s ascension, it would be Heo “ShowMaker” Su. In the same month that saw the Unkillable Demon King fall, ShowMaker signed his first-ever contract, joining aspiring minor league team DAMWON Gaming. Together, along with fellow amateur players, they dreamed of one day playing in the same major league division with T1.

Over the 2018 campaign, they would battle through adversity to make it into League Champions Korea, the premier competition in their home country. But although they advanced through the qualifiers, Showmaker’s name would go from an afterthought to traveling like wildfire at the 2018 world championship set in South Korea.

As the weeks went along and the teams dwindled in numbers, the names DAMWON and Showmaker came to the forefront. Though only a team that just qualified for the LCK, the top international teams still left talked about them as if they were already in the upper echelon of talent in the world. Players regaled stories about DAMWON’s unstoppable solo laners, Showmaker and top laner Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon, as if they were the boogeymen that hid under their beds at night.

While Nuguri towered over fellow players and followed suit with his ever-aggressive style, Showmaker, small in stature and spectacled, was the team’s talisman. Nuguri could go off the deep end with his blitzkrieg style, or the bottom lane might stumble, but Showmaker would be the calming, consistent presence that kept things humming.

He was a renowned Katarina player as an amateur, dancing through enemy teams like a knife through butter. Once he joined the pros and experienced his rookie year, Showmaker decided that playing the flashiest style would not have the best results. On a team with Nuguri and fellow mechanically gifted rookie Kim “Canyon” Geon-bu, Showmaker took a step back at times, sacrificing personal accolades for overall team victories.

DWG KIA League of Legends
DWG KIA stood atop the League of Legends in 2020, and the South Koreans hope to continue that success during the Mid-Season Invitational. | Provided by Riot Games

His coach at the time, Kim Jeong-soo, praised him for his attitude, noting that he was the “perfect player” and that he never once had to scold him for not working hard enough. In terms of mechanics, he wouldn’t be left behind against anyone. He was excellent at communicating and taking feedback. He was a great teammate to his comrades. And if there were moments where Showmaker fell behind the pack, it would only push him further, nose to the grindstone and ready to learn from his failures.

This attitude was never more apparent than Showmaker’s first true painful loss as a pro at the 2019 world championship, where DAMWON fell in the quarterfinals to G2 Esports. After watching the world finalists led by mid laners Rasmus “Caps” Borregaard Winther and Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang, this provoked Showmaker to play even more selfless for his team in the coming year.

At his best, Showmaker’s game is fluid, as if it was the element of water. At any given time, he can play a champion who can take over the competition by himself. Still, he’ll fill the gaps needed for his teammates to excel when called upon. Learning from the mids that took over the 2019 world championship, he perfected what it meant to be a roaming player for DAMWON, always there at what seemed to be the perfectly timed moment.

His Twisted Fate was almost an auto-victory for DAMWON throughout 2020, ShowMaker ending with a 12-1 record on the teleporting card thrower. When DAMWON drafted a composition that they felt comfortable in, it was torture for the opponent to withstand. Regardless of how well the opponent did in the kills scoreboard, they were always on the backfoot. At every opening and weakness, ShowMaker was there, the perfect bridge from one teammate to another.

In the games where he’s asked to carry, he carries.

He plays the perfect midfielder in the games he’s asked to facilitate, dishing out easy kills for everyone around him.

Today, ShowMaker is the reigning world champion, back-to-back domestic champion, and on the verge of helping create the second-ever League of Legends dynasty, following Faker’s SKT. To add to it all, his current coach, Kim “kkOma” Jeong-gyun, is the one who partnered with Faker in their conquest of three world titles.

As if out of a Hollywood movie, a cyborg-like player who can do it all for his team is led by the coach who was there from the beginning. Their names even rhyme. Faker. ShowMaker. The script writes itself.

ShowMaker is not only fighting against the stature of a legend that did everything he’s accomplishing first, but also the growing legend of his partner in the jungle. His synergy with Canyon is as seamless as the rest of his play. However, his teammate is often the center of attention, ravaging his peer in the jungle and playing the starring role of the world champions. When the 2020 worlds came to a close, and the ending music blared over the speakers, Canyon held the Finals MVP trophy, not their mid laner.

That is the burden Showmaker has accepted to take on. He could have pushed to be the fire in the mid lane, crafting a lane kingdom in his image, spinning like a Beyblade top on Katarina. Instead, diligent in practice and preparation, he’s working towards being the spine of one of the greatest teams League of Legends has ever seen.

As long as ShowMaker is in the mid lane, DWG can keep standing tall, sometimes damaged but never broken.

The uncrowned monster

Chovy
Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon may not have the same titles as Faker or Showmaker, but his powerful playstyle is reminiscent of the once Unkillable Demon King. | Illustration by Sydney Jones

The legend of the Unkillable Demon King was rooted in gold. Each new gold medal added to the collection expanded the mythos of the world’s top gamer even farther across the planet. But that alone wasn’t what turned Faker into the larger-than-life character he became in the middle of the 2010s.

It was how he played the game. In those early days of Faker’s rise, when a single player could take over a League of Legends game, it was the teenager’s merciless style that drew a crowd. Even before the outduel of Zed took his status into the stratosphere, Faker was diving entire teams of five and conquering them one by one.

Faker’s attacks were as pretty as they were ruthless. It felt like every night was must-watch television. Sure, if you didn’t live in Asia, the time zones might force you to stay up until the middle of the night, but did you really want to miss a Faker game? Every time he loaded into the battlefield known as Summoner’s Rift, there was a chance to see something never done before, and no one wanted to miss out.

Almost a decade since Faker destroyed sleep schedules around the world with his terrifying blend of beauty and bloodshed, that nervous excitement of something spectacular perhaps on the horizon is resurgent in Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon.

If ShowMaker’s play is like the fluidity of water, then Chovy’s style can only be described as something resembling a burning fire, always ready to overwhelm, with sparks flying the instant his champion of choice loads into the Rift.

When Chovy enters the mid lane, an almost unwritten rule is enforced on his opponent: Two of us will enter this lane, and one of us will die. That someone won’t be me. Now, let’s begin.

It wasn’t always like this. Chovy almost didn’t become a pro at all. It took former pro player Kim “cvMax” Dae-ho almost dragging Chovy out of his bedroom to try out for the minor league squad Griffin. That encouragement to leave his house and enter the world of pros became the best decision Chovy ever made, CvMax turning from stranger to confidant and mentor.

Griffin, along with Chovy and other talented amateurs, took the South Korean scene by storm. Before there was DAMWON, there was Griffin, the older, tougher brother. The season before DWG promoted into the majors, Griffin beat them to the punch and went from nobodies to the talk of the town, making the LCK finals in their first season. Back then, in the summer months of 2018, Chovy was good but sometimes unremarkable compared to his peers, such as jungler Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong or Park “Viper” Do-hyeon at AD carry.

A few short months later, he’d evolved, expanding his champion pool into an ocean. His mechanical ability, which was already impressive for a rookie, took another enormous leap, as well. Chovy was more confident, especially in his laning, and took a step from behind Tarzan and Viper to become the focal point of Griffin.

Soon, the mid lane became his domain. No matter his opponent, the unwritten rule was made manifest, and the game transformed from League of Legends into a do-or-die fight over every single minion wiggling its way down the path. It would begin with one missed minion and then another, Chovy’s pressure forcing either submission from his opponent by recalling to the Nexus or making them go down swinging. As the years have gone along, fights aren’t even a question of if Chovy will win the coming exchange ― it’s a question of how far behind the other player will be when it’s all over.

Chovy is chasing the throne of the Unkillable Demon King.
Chovy hasn’t settled into any one team as his true home, but he has improved consistently every year. | Provided by Riot Games.

In terms of his aura, there is no one closer to the throne left behind by the Unkillable Demon King than Chovy. He has it — that unexplainable factor that makes him shine even among his world-class peers.

Chovy lacks the other half of the equation, which holds him back from the mantle, the arena where ShowMaker currently excels: championships. He sits uncrowned for all his flair and dominance, never having won a major international tournament or a domestic title.

The four chances Chovy has had to raise the LCK trophy have all ended in his defeat. Two of those finals were against Faker in performances where his monster persona shattered almost from the first seconds of the series. With his mid lane supremacy taken away, it left behind the timid boy who was once too afraid to try out to be a pro against the player he wants to overcome.

His latest chance at capturing a title placed Chovy against ShowMaker and DWG themselves. On DRX at the time following his two-year stint on Griffin, the difference between ShowMaker’s DWG and Chovy’s DRX was abundantly clear. There could have been an argument that Chovy was the overall stronger player with a potential ceiling higher than anyone has ever seen, but that didn’t matter. ShowMaker, effortlessly combining with his team, showcased the gigantic gap between DWG and DRX as five-men units.

One team relied on a savior to turn water into wine. The other knew a brother would always be behind them, ready to yoink them back onto their feet if they fell.

And that’s what Chovy must fight against to reach his main objective. Unlike Faker and ShowMaker, who have found seemingly permanent landing spots at T1 and DWG KIA to build their respective dynasties, Chovy has been a nomad since leaving Griffin. He signed with DRX for a year before the 2020 offseason before signing another one-year contract, this time with another South Korean franchise in Hanwha Life Esports.

At every turn, Chovy has bettered himself, growing from year to year, taking another long step forward in his development. His celebrity is increasing with every new viral outplay highlight or record-breaking individual accolade. And while not at the level of ShowMaker or other mid laners, his roaming and selfless play has drastically improved.

As his hunt for his elusive crown continues marching toward one do-or-die brawl after another, a question will continue to hang above the world’s most fearsome laner.

Can someone truly become a king if they never find a kingdom to call home?



The shadow

bdd
Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong may not have the same flair as his peers, but his steady strength is helping Gen.G compete for LCK dominance. | Illustration by Sydney Jones

Faker has the legacy and worldwide celebrity.

ShowMaker has the current world in the palm of his hand, moving ever so closer to his own empire, with him as the centerpiece.

Chovy has the aura and individual skills to go toe-to-toe with any League of Legends player on any of the seven continents.

Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong has none of those things. Instead, he has a tireless work ethic that has gotten him to where he is today and a rightful place next to the other three players already profiled. And yet, Bdd has none of the acclaim.

If you asked a fan who has won the most South Korean regular-season MVPs in the region’s almost-decade long history, the obvious answer would be Faker. Once told that is wrong, the names of retired heroes like Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and Bae “dade” Eo-jin would follow.

But no, it’s none of them either. It’s not the talisman ShowMaker or the unstoppable Chovy. It’s Bdd, the man in the shadows, meticulously running toward a throne that was supposed to be his.

Before DWG KIA became world champions or Chovy turned mid lane into a birdcage for his prey, there was a 16-year-old amateur lighting up YouTube with Zed montages that reminded fans of a single player.

In those days, it was Bdd’s destiny to become the future of the mid lane in South Korea. He signed with CJ Entus, an organization with a successful history looking for its crown jewel in League of Legends following a few rough years. It was going to be Bdd. It had to be Bdd.

As players could only turn pro once they turned 17, his birthday became something fans counted down as a present to themselves. CJ Entus was on their last legs and needed a superhero to save them. Thus, once Bdd had his 17th birthday, fans welcomed the player who would rebuild the once-storied franchise and bring them back to glory right alongside SKT.

Those expectations were too heavy for a teenaged Bdd to withstand. The rookie explosion never came, and instead there were growing pains. What should have been a period for Bdd to grow into the player he had all the tools to become turned into desperation for survival. CJ Entus needed him to be more than he was, and no amount of YouTube montages could prepare him for the stress of the situation at hand. And in the blink of an eye, they were both gone.

CJ Entus relegated, never to return to the LCK.

Bdd, a wunderkind exposed and discarded, left by the wayside.

Bdd is seeking the Unkillable demon king's throne
Despite stumbling after CJ Entus folded, Bdd changed his playstyle and returned to the upper echelon of the LCK. | Provided by Riot Games.

He wasn’t the first prodigy to fail once the fresh paint wore off. Esports, in a nutshell, is an ecosystem built around prodigies. The young eat the slightly less young, and those exceptional teenagers rise to the top of their profession to become the superstars of tomorrow. For every success story, there are hundreds of outright failures. These kids are told they are something special until the adults who sold them that line find a kid even younger and better to replace them.

No one would have batted an eye if Bdd quit. There would be the obligatory sadness of a promising player retiring following a sudden plummet, but by the time he returned to school, there would be a new toy to obsess over.

But Bdd didn’t quit. He reinvented himself, knowing his carry-centric play wouldn’t be enough to create a successful, long-lasting career. He started grinding and practicing on champions that could unlock the players around him. Gone were the Zed and viral clips. In their place were Taliyah and Galio, alongside other characters with global-assisting ultimates.

He climbed, and not too long after, Bdd was back in the LCK on an organization called Longzhu Gaming. A year removed from demotion and what could have been the end of his career as a pro-gamer, he was a champion in the LCK and the league MVP in the 2017 Summer Split. Summer’s finale saw his now-signature Taliyah defeat SKT T1 and Faker, the first time the latter had ever lost a domestic final, an omen on what was ahead in Beijing.

Since that night, Bdd has added another domestic title to his collection, a slew of finals and playoff bracket finishes at major international events. He switched from Longzhu to the KT Rolster roster and eventually wound up with his current franchise, Gen.G Esports and another two MVPs to his name.

On paper, Bdd should be right up there with Faker, ShowMaker and Chovy, praised as if he’s on the cusp of living up to the legend that was once too difficult to sustain. Except, he’s not. His consistently successful side, Gen.G, are often criticized for being too “boring.” Bdd’s ever-present playstyle lacks the charisma of his contemporaries.

In comparison to ShowMaker’s water and Chovy’s fire, Bdd is the earth — the proper, stalwart foundation upon which success thrives. Whereas ShowMaker feels like an equal partner to Canyon on DWG KIA, it’s different for Bdd. No matter how many MVPs he wins for his work, the eyes of the world are never fully drawn to him.

When he does well, it’s franchise player Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk at the forefront, playing to the team’s win condition. When he doesn’t, it’s because he’s not good enough. Not strong enough to stand up on his own against his rivals.

From the day he was relegated and watched as his original team turned to dust, he has always been a step behind. Bdd is doing everything he can to keep up and show he’s now the type of player who can prop up those hefty expectations which crushed him as a teenager: the hope of one day holding the Summoner’s Cup as its rightful owner.

Even then, the trophy firmly in his grasp, the odds are he will be in the back, the other champions receiving the brunt of the praise.

Bdd, per usual, simple and smiling, knowing he can bear it in the shadow of the limelight.

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