Meet eSports phenom Lee Sang-hyeok - The Ronaldo of gaming

Korean Lee Sang-hyeok, aka 'Faker', is a 24-year-old multi-millionaire and global star who makes his money playing League of Legends - a video game enjoyed even in the highest level of the USA government.

7 min By Andrew Binner
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His gaming alias may be 'Faker', but when it comes to eSports - or competitive online video games - Lee Sang-hyeok is the real deal.

The 24-year-old Korean is arguably the greatest player of the world's most popular competitive online video game League of Legends (or LoL for short).

Lee is one of only two players to have won the LoL World Championship three times, and has amassed well over $1 million U.S. in prize money since turning professional in 2013.

Combine that with the revenue from his various endorsement deals, merchandising fees, and his annual salary falls just shy of $5 million per year, more than the average of an English Premier League footballer.

His continued excellence has attracted comparisons with sport stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, although he actually has links to the other famous footballing Ronaldo who led Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002.

Accordingly, Lee has a legion of fans around the world with over half a million followers on Instagram and 300,000 on Twitter, while 1.7 million YouTube channel subscribers provide him with another lucrative source of income.

Danish LoL player Søren Bjerg - aka Bjergsen - hasn’t experienced the same in-game success as Lee but certainly wins the day on Twitter with a massive 1.3 million followers.

The retirement age for gamers tends to be a few years earlier than their football counterparts at around 27, but that statistic does not bother Lee too much.

“I want to keep on until I’m 27, or even older,” Lee told the Korea Herald.

“And I am confident that I can continue to do so until that age, or even beyond that point.”

Whatever happens, it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that Lee shouldn't struggle to pay his electricity bills.

What is League of Legends?

With approximately 115 million active players playing LoL in the world today, this online video game is the behemoth of the eSports world.

The game is free to play (although players can purchase in-game items), and the aim is to win battles against other teams from all over the world.

The 2019 World Championship finals in Europe were watched by 100 million unique viewers compared with 98.2 million tuning in to watch the 2019 NFL Super Bowl.

But if you thought eSports enthusiasts were restricted to the younger generations and non-traditionalists, think again.

This July, United States House of Representatives member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted to her 7.5 million followers that she had achieved a new LoL ranking of Silver 3 during the COVID-19 quarantine.

While establishments of old (and still a few today) have typically rejected the values behind playing video games, the tide certainly seems to be turning.

So embedded are eSports into the new social fabric of the United States these days that LoL’s American developer Riot Games sponsors gaming tournaments for college teams, offering scholarship money to the conference playoff qualifiers.

But while gaming investment is certainly growing in the United States, its true power base is in Asia.

Kim’s home city of Seoul is known by some as the Hollywood of professional gaming because, while large parts of the Western world continue to shun video games, they are part of mainstream culture in the Korean capital.

Lee would struggle to walk down the street in Seoul without stopping for fan selfies who would likely be rushing out from one of the many online gaming cafes.

Accredited eSports academies run across Korea, while the governmental Korea eSports Association was created in 2000 to oversee proceedings and run large events in sold-out stadiums.

Lee’s upbringing

Lee is a popular figure not only for his unique ability, but also for his "mature and humble" persona.

With 10-12 hours a day of practice and utter dedication to his craft, the usual distractions of a 24-year-old - especially a wealthy one - are not of interest.

“I’ve always been more interested in playing games, rather than going out to play. I like sleeping more than meeting with friends. And I think such traits made me more fit for a life as a professional gamer,” Lee continued.

"I think pro gamers, like celebrities, are essentially public figures exposed to the masses. And the fact that I’m not the type to create unnecessary gossip is another advantage I have." - 'Faker' Lee Sang-hyeok on his dedication to eSports

Faker’s fame in Korea

In 2017, a Korean television station made a documentary called Ronaldo X Faker: The Phenom, which compares the lives of Lee and former Brazilian football superstar Ronaldo, aka 'El Fenomeno'.

While these two individuals would appear to have very little in common at first glance, it quickly becomes apparent that they do, with both using their talents to escape from modest surroundings in their childhood.

Brazil striker Ronaldo Nazario celebrates scoring a goal at the 2002 World Cup
Brazil striker Ronaldo Nazario celebrates scoring a goal at the 2002 World Cup

Lee said, "A football player who has consistently played the sport as a child is said to be more successful than someone who started soccer later in life. By the same logic, I think a person who has been trying to be a better gamer from an early age is more likely to succeed, though it isn’t the only factor involved.”

Both quickly became 'obsessed' with their respective favourite pastimes.

They were then scouted by professional teams, experienced the roller-coaster ride of emotions that comes with inconsistent form and a global fan base, won world titles and became the undisputed kings of their sport.

Through the documentary, the duo fittingly met at a major mid-season invitational tournament, where the Brazilian awarded the champions' medals to Lee’s SKT team.

League of Legends at the Olympics?

As yet, there are no plans to include eSports as medal events at the Olympic Games.

The International Olympic Committee held an eSports summit in 2017 in order to develop conversation between the two worlds, and explore ways in which they could potentially work together.

At the session, IOC President Thomas Bach told Reuters, "Whether they could one day be considered for the Olympic programme the answer is yes. It depends when this day is coming.

Bach also responded to suggestions that the values behind violent video games conflict with those of the Olympic Movement, saying, “We do not want to have anything to do with killer games or games promoting discrimination. We compete for the leisure time of the young generation. If we move on the platforms this young generation is moving we can also use this platform to promote our values.”

If this were the sticking point, it has been suggested that games simulating real sports, such as basketball’s NBA 2K and FIFA football, or perhaps games involving virtual reality and physical movement might be a better fit for the Olympics.

The lack of a global sanctioning body for eSports means their inclusion at a Games would be difficult to coordinate at present.

However, eSports have featured at IOC-sanctioned events.

LoL was one of six video games chosen as demonstration sports at the 2018 Asian Games, while eSports medals were awarded for the first time at a major multi-sports competition at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

Lee said, "At the Asian Games, I felt a more diverse demographic of viewers were watching us. We definitely felt more pressure going into the matches.

“But from all the newfound attention, I felt that more and more people were coming to accept and be interested in eSports.”

LoL team KT Rolster were selected to carry the Olympic Torch for a section of its journey through Seoul ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, showing once again Korea's affinity for its eSports stars.

It was suggested that eSports would push for inclusion at the Tokyo Olympic Games, given the country’s reputation as a major player in the video game industry.

But eSports in Japan do not have quite as much popularity as their Korean and Chinese neighbours due to anti-gambling laws that prevent paid professional gaming tournaments.

That said, there are likely to be a number of demonstration events in the lead up to the Tokyo Games in 2021, and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

After that, who knows?

Could we even see Faker v Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at Los Angeles 2028?

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