Professional Esport players at a tournament. They talk to each other via microphones. Photo: iStock
Professional eSport players at a tournament. Photo: iStock

When basketball star LeBron James became a free agent earlier this year, the sports media went into meltdown predicting where he would go before he eventually signed for the LA Lakers in July.

Faker is not exactly in the same bracket as “King James” in terms of worldwide fame or earnings, but the biggest name in Esports saw his contract end on November 18 and his next move is a major topic of conversation.

Esports, the competitive playing of video games, is an industry that is predicted to be worth US$1.5 billion by 2020. As it grows, so does the number of people employed in it.

The most high-profile are those professionals who play various games full-time and compete in tournaments that are held around the world almost every weekend.

These tournaments are watched by millions online and by thousands in stadiums and arenas. Many of these players, who practice for hours every day when they are not competing, are signed up by teams which often belong to existing sports teams and corporations.

Such owners are often looking for a path to reach those elusive younger generations who rarely watch television in a traditional way. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is in a similar boat and facing declining interest among younger sections of the population in its tournaments.

As such, the prospect of Esports featuring in the 2024 Olympic Games is not a ridiculous one – and they appeared as a demo event in the 2018 Asian Games – although the IOC frowns upon games that include on-screen violence.

That would rule out most of the popular ones, though the FIFA football series would be fine. There are first-person shooting games such as Counter-Strike that involve teams of players. There are also Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games with League of Legends (LoL) especially popular.

This is a fast-paced game set in a fantasy battle arena with five players from each team, and shot from a bird’s eye view which makes it more attractive for viewers to follow all the action.

It is especially popular in South Korea, a country that is to Esports what the United States is to basketball. The Land of the Morning Calm has long had the fast internet to support multiplayer online games, television channels devoted to showing competitions and thousands of cheap PC rooms that allow groups of kids to go there and play games together.

Before long, professional players were becoming famous. And Korea is home to Faker, the biggest star in League of Legends, three-time world champion and six-time Korean title-winner. Lee Sang-hyok, a 22-year-old from the western side of Seoul, also known as “The Unkillable Demon King”, is so popular that earlier this month, the bespectacled one appeared on a popular Korean television variety show along with stars of K-Pop girl group Red Velvet.

Nobody knows how much Faker, who first came to prominence as a teenager in 2013 with a surprise and spectacular kill of the well-respected Kang ‘Ambition’ Chan-yong, earns but rumors in Seoul put the annual figure at around $3 million from his team owned by SK, a Korean telecommunication giant, and tournament winnings.

In the countdown to November 18, the day when Faker’s contract came to an end, the internet went into overdrive, speculating where he would go. The prospect of the star swapping the red of SKT for those of a rival such as Team Liquid or head to join a Chinese rival, was thrilling, for some anyway.

“It would have been really exciting to see him land a couple of different opportunities,” said Mark Horner of League of Legends site League on Lock said.

For many of the player’s fans it would have been unimaginable to see him change teams and that is what came to pass.

The official announcement was made on November 19 on social media by SK Telecom’s T1 team to its 530,000-plus twitter followers.

“Hello, this is SKT T1,” the statement read. “We are announcing the news that probably all of you have been waiting for from SKT T1. Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok who is the best player of all time of the LoL league since his first debut in 2013, as Lee ‘effort’ Sangho and Han ‘Leo’ Kyeore all have renewed their contract. T1 LOL team will do the best effort to become the best Esports team again.”

These are the only three players kept on from the previous 10-team roster that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Championships. Horner was not surprised that the Korean was staying where he was, where he has always been, with SK.

“But right now, SKT is the home for Faker, he is trying to bring the team back from the ashes,” Horner said. “They didn’t mess around here, this was an hour into the free agency period … don’t worry, no panic buttons needed.”

If fans were panicking, then Faker was not. “The Unkillable Demon King” does not do panic and is going to be sporting red for the foreseeable future. Watch out for him, and his new team-mates in 2019.