MADRID -- The thousands in attendance at the Palacio Vistalegre serenaded Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok as he was introduced at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals. Fans rose from their seats to welcome one of the best video game players of all time to their home country of Spain.
Down on the floor seating level, past the cosplayers, rowdy fans and the mob of media in the press pit under the lip of the stage trying to get the best angle of Faker possible, sat an older gentleman, someone you usually wouldn't expect to find at a video game tournament. Under his jacket, the man is wearing a white T-shirt with a cartoon version of Faker on it, gaming headphones on the caricature's head and a sly smile on his face.
To the people singing Faker's name in the Palacio, the South Korean professional gamer has many names: "The Unkillable Demon King," "The Michael Jordan of Video Games" and even simply, "God."
But the man in the back of the crowd, clapping along with the rest of the fans, knows the 23-year-old gaming deity as someone else -- his son.
Lee Kyung-jun remembers the day his son approached him about becoming a professional video game player. It was over the dinner table when Faker, a teenager at the time, told his father out of the blue that his desire was to go pro. "My mind went blank," Kyung-jun told ESPN in an interview. But Faker assured his father that this was something he really wanted to do, and felt good about pursuing it as a career.
Kyung-jun struck a compromise with his son. After seeing how serious he was about his proposal, he asked Faker to give him one month to make a decision.
After mulling over the positives and negatives, he gave way to his son's dreams, backing him in his quest to find what makes him happy.
"I thought, even though there are a lot of other factors playing into it, if I don't let him do what he wants to do, there might be regret," Kyung-jun said. "I might get blamed for it later [if I stopped him]. So [I] went back to Faker after a month and [asked], 'Do you still want to do it?' Faker said yes. ... I [told] him don't lose, work hard."
Since offering those words of encouragement to his son, Faker hasn't done much losing and has continually worked as hard as ever in his seventh year of playing professional League of Legends. In his first year as a pro, he won a domestic championship in his home country of South Korea on famed pro gaming team SK Telecom T1 before embarking to Los Angeles where he won the world championship as a 17-year-old rookie. Over the course of his career, Faker has won three world titles, eight domestic titles and almost every individual accolade possible, including being a multitime domestic league MVP and worlds final MVP.
The moment in Faker's career that sticks with Kyung-jun the most, though, isn't any of those triumphs. It's back in China, at the 2017 League of Legends World Championship. In the semifinals, Faker and SKT fell behind 1-2 in a best-of-five series to the home crowd favorites, Royal Never Give Up of China, with the sold-out crowd in Shanghai doing everything they could to will their team to the final. Faker's will was greater than the crowd's, however, and he found a way to get his team over the line.
But that just didn't happen against Samsung Galaxy in the final. At Beijing National Stadium -- known as the Bird's Nest -- Faker felt caged throughout the entire series. Samsung kept finding ways to neutralize SKT's ace and force the rest of the team to beat them. During the third and final game of the series, down 0-2, as it appeared Faker would once again spark a comeback like his father had seen him do so many times before, he was caught out and deleted from the map, propelling Samsung to the 3-0 sweep victory. As the opposing team rushed onto centerstage to bask in the confetti and celebratory concert, Faker folded into himself, denied what would have been a three-peat of world titles.
"I've seen him have a few difficult matches, but it's the first time I saw him cry," Kyung-jun said.
The regret from that night still lingers inside Faker. After the loss to Samsung, SKT went into a semi-rebuild for the 2018 season, and for the first time in his career, Faker wasn't winning a majority of his matches. The team failed to make a single final that year and was plagued with roster movement. Faker even found himself on the bench at one point during the tail end of the year when the team was trying every way possible to keep the ship from sinking. He eventually found himself back in the starting lineup as world championship qualification began, but there were no miracles to be had nor smiles to be worn, as SKT failed to make the biggest tournament of the year, which was coincidentally being held in South Korea.
"We didn't get to go to the world championship last year," Faker said to ESPN in Berlin before his 2019 tournament began. "And during that time, I learned how to deal with critics as well as with what people are saying externally, and I've learned how to do things better."
For Faker, this year's world championship really isn't about adding another piece of metal in his already overflowing trophy case. It's not even about revenge, as the Samsung Galaxy team that beat him has splintered since then. In Faker's eyes, he's already defied the critics who thought his career was on the downturn after the loss in 2017 and a disastrous 2018, leading his newly-formed SKT starting roster to back-to-back domestic titles.
No, his journey to Europe, where he won a world title in 2015, is about facing himself. Faker has mentioned in interviews over the course of the year that he's not where he was during his peak, saying he's only "70% to 80%" of the level he used to be at. Asked where he thought he was in terms of chasing his old self during the group stages, where SKT topped what was thought of as the most difficult group in tournament history, Faker believed he was at the same level he was a few months ago.
He's chasing the ghost of his past self, and no matter if he wins his fourth title, unless he feels like he's caught that ghost, Faker will remain unfulfilled.
It's days before the group stages begin at the 2019 world championship, and Faker is at the LEC Studio operated by Riot Games on the outskirts of Berlin. Today, there are no official games to be played. Instead, Faker is completing the other side of his job when not playing the game -- media requests. Before the tournament begins for the top teams in the world, having bypassed the play-in qualifiers, they have to be interviewed for promotional packages and other content produced by Riot Games to build the ongoing hype for the tournament.
Faker is in one of the practice rooms in the back of the studio, waiting for his turn to be called upon to sit under the television lights and talk about the upcoming matches. On the couch next to him sits the current book he is reading, "Silent Spring," written by Rachel Carson in 1962 about the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment. While other top pros in esports spend their time out at parties or use their newfound large salaries to buy the cars of their dreams, Faker loves to read and lose himself in the words.
Where some of his peers feel enclosed and want to escape while practicing at home all day and needing fresh air, he is the opposite, wanting to return to the quiet and warmth of home whenever he is outside in social situations.
Faker's favorite subject to read and learn about is science. Although he didn't know much about the environment when first picking up "Silent Spring," the longer he's read on, the more interested he's become in the subject, disclosing that he might want to study it after he's finished with the book.
As he continues to wait to be called to do his series of interviews, Faker pops into a quick game of League of Legends, picking the mechanically intensive jungle champion Lee Sin to warm up his hands. Not too long after he begins playing, though, someone from the Riot Games team peeks his head into the room, ready to whisk Faker off to complete his media obligations.
The only problem?
Now Faker doesn't want to leave his game.
Instead, he asks if they can take his teammate Park "Teddy" Jin-seong to do his interviews first, eyes still focused on the casual practice ongoing in front of him.
After taking a few moments to process Faker's request, the staff obliged, leaving him to finish his game and to find Teddy.
When it comes to focus, it's hard to name a player with better discipline than Faker. After failing to make the first world championship of his career in 2014, also in South Korea, he said in an interview that it pained him to even watch the games. So he threw himself into practice, feeling the need to keep pace and return back to where he felt he belonged. He won back-to-back world titles in 2015 and 2016.
"Just like you see him now, he was also like this when he was younger," Kyung-jun said. "From the time he was at kindergarten, primary school, to middle school. The teachers told me that he's very quiet but also very focused. That when they make the kids do things, others won't be able to catch up, but Faker would be two, three steps ahead already. He was the calm, studious kid."
Kyung-jun was never swept up in the StarCraft: Brood War phenomenon that launched esports in South Korea during the early 2000s, but he did play video games, most notably the FIFA series. Kyung-jun and Faker would play together, with the father often picking the best teams in the game, like Real Madrid or Barcelona while Faker would opt for a challenge, choosing whichever team caught his fancy.
Nowadays, Faker's name carries the same weight as those soccer players he played as against his father growing up. Most recently, Faker and his SKT teammates starred in a South Korean commercial alongside the current top soccer player in South Korea, Son Heung-min, who plays for Tottenham Hotspur in England.
"It was a big honor for me," Faker said when asked about being in a commercial with the soccer star. "Overall, I think it's a very good experience for me to be on those various advertisements. For me to make those appearances, it gives [the general public] a better look at what esports is, so I try to be very proactive about being in those commercials."
Since winning that first world title when he was 17, Faker has become an ambassador for esports worldwide through the growing popularity of League of Legends. When he streamed for the first time on Twitch in early 2017, he broke the record for peak viewership for a single streamer, with over 245,000 people tuning in to watch him play casual games online while chatting with his audience.
In becoming an icon of esports, he's missed out on some of the comforts of being a kid, namely birthdays. Faker celebrated his 18th birthday in Paris, France for an All-Stars event. The next year he was in the United States for the second-biggest event of the League of Legends season, the Mid-Season Invitational. 2016? Shanghai, China. 2017? Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where after Faker won the MSI tournament, and one excitable fan launched himself over the barricade to join in the celebration alongside Faker.
Yet, wherever he is on his birthday, one constant remains the same: The crowd, packed to the brim to watch SKT play, sing "Happy Birthday".
"I've seen them all, all the things he's done overseas," Kwon Oyun, Faker's grandmother, told South Korean cable television channel OGN in an interview. "I am so proud of him. Even if I don't get to celebrate his birthday with him, my grandson is doing something not everyone can do."
Beyond the commercials, championships and personal accolades, what Kyung-jun wants fans to know about his son is how "righteous" of a person he is. What people see when they watch Faker -- a focused, diligent and kind young man -- that's who he truly is, and who he was far before his face was on billboards and millions around the world tuned in to watch him play video games.
"I've seen [my father] once but I didn't have time to go out and do any activities yet," Faker said on his father traveling to Madrid along with other family members to watch him play in the knockout stage. "For him to come and support me at the venue, it gives [me] a lot of energy and it's really good."
Being an icon can be lonely, but so can being the parent of said icon. Kyung-jun's favorite memories of his son's former teammates are the close bonds he made with the parents of the others players. While their sons would travel across the world, they had each other to confide in, knowing how it feels to be a parent of a professional video game player. But, as the seasons went along, those players and those relationships began to drift, with Faker being the only constant from previous SKT teams. When the team failed to make the world championship in 2014, the team's nucleus shuffled, and Faker stayed on as the core. Again, following 2018's embarrassment of a season, the roster was torn down. Faker was alone once more, needing to connect and create new relationships with his incoming teammates.
If Faker can defeat Europe's G2 Esports in the semifinal and advance onward to his fifth world final on Nov. 10 in Paris, his father wants him to know he won't be alone.
Regardless of whether or not Faker can find what he's been desperately searching for to make himself feel like he's returned to his peak condition, Kyung-jun will be there among the masses, watching his son continue down his righteous path, spreading esports across the world as only he can.
"If he wins, I'll be happy for him," Kyung-jun said. "And if he loses, I'm sad with him."