When I ask the group why Faker is regarded as the best player in the world, MonteCristo, who goes by Monte, jumps in: “How would you grade a professional athlete? Like, what makes LeBron great?”
I rattle off a few words: athleticism, skill, decision-making.
“It’s the same. It’s exactly the same,” Susie says.
The League equivalent of athleticism is called mechanics, which refers to a player’s ability to use his mouse and keyboard to make swift movements, like dodging shots. In this respect, Monte says, Faker is peerless. He points me to a video of what is widely seen as the greatest play in League history, clipped from a 2013 game between SK Telecom and the KT Bullets. Faker is dueling another player, Ryu, and they’re both playing the same champion, a ninja named Zed. After a brief skirmish, Faker’s Zed appears about to die, so he darts away. Then, just when Ryu thinks he has the fight sewn up, Faker unleashes a startling set of moves, cutting down his opponent in a blinding flash. The audience goes nuts. “He used six different abilities in the span of two seconds,” Monte says.
Even more impressive, DoA adds, is the breadth of Faker’s champion pool, which makes it easier for him to adapt to new patches to the game — the “meta,” in eSports parlance. Because Riot upgrades League every few weeks, players live in perpetual fear of having their favorite champions’ skills diminished. Imagine if the NFL suddenly announced next year that rushing touchdowns were worth only five points, or if MLB expanded the strike zone for left-handed pitchers. Although the constantly changing meta keeps the game fresh, it can be agonizing for professionals. Some players never recover from an ill-timed patch.
That’s one of the reasons the average eSports career is so short. Professional players typically retire before their mid-20s; like figure skaters, they peak long before then. Older gamers must battle slowing reflexes and fatigue, as well as injuries to their necks and wrists. “As a male teenager, it’s easy to play video games for 16 hours,” Monte says.
Because many Korean players skip college, their career options after retiring are limited. “A lot of pro gamers don’t come from wealthy backgrounds,” Susie says. “A good number of them are doing this because they’re supporting their families.” Increasingly, she says, players realize they have limited time to capitalize on their skills, which is driving some of them to leave the country. Although most professional gamers in Korea earn five-digit salaries and a few elite players make over $100,000 (Monte says Faker probably makes more than twice that; SK Telecom declined to comment on his salary), Chinese teams boast massive war chests. One squad, Invictus Gaming, is owned by the son of Wang Jianlin, the richest man in mainland China. This winter, Invictus added four Korean players to its roster.
Pro players also make money by streaming, allowing fans to watch them practice while advertisements pop up. One retired player in China, Wei “Caomei” Han-Dong, has said he makes more than $800,000 a year streaming. Korean teams have begun to stream a little, but in general, “they think it’s inefficient,” says Lee “CloudTemplar” Hyun-woo, a retired-gamer-turned-caster. “In Korea, to make money you have to put up results.” Demand is out there, though. This February, a minor scandal flared up when a Twitch user started streaming Faker’s practice games without permission.