[The Makers of Faker] Titans of Time: The Impossible Endurance of Faker and Deft

This article is part of The Makers of Faker. Click here to navigate and learn more about the series.

The 2022 League of Legends World Championship Finals didn't just raise the bar. It soared past it. That evening, narrative after narrative developed with wildfire intensity, crafting an epic tale of competition that may remain unmatched for years‌ to come. Sitting in the Chase Center's electric atmosphere, the event's magnitude was clear. Fans and industry veterans I spoke with shared a common feeling: they were witnessing history. 



Each moment, from the amazing display in the Opening Ceremony to fans catapulting from their seats during climactic plays, drummed with the significance of a landmark event. Many stories unfolded: DRX's journey as the ultimate underdog, T1's quest to reclaim their throne with a fourth Summoner’s Cup, and the post-COVID crowd's gleeful return to awkwardly dancing along to Danny McCarthy’s Silver Scrapes before Game 5.


Naturally, though, the spotlight was on Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu — the broadcast and fans couldn't get enough. They weren't merely competitors; they were masters of their craft, linked by a longstanding rivalry and high school history. Faker stood poised to reassert his dominance, while Deft eyed potentially his last grasp at the crown. The refrain is as old as competition itself, but it bears repeating: there had never been a matchup like it.


But amid the games, storylines, and cheers, I found myself awestruck that the match was really happening. Deft and Faker clashing in the 2022 Worlds Finals was not just only — it was staggering. I’ve watched both play since their 2013 debut: players have risen and faded, teams have formed and dissolved. Yet through it all, Faker and Deft have endured, carving out legacies as two of the greatest in the world’s biggest esport.



Much has been said about Faker and Deft. They stand among the elite, capturing fans with ease; each bearing the moniker of a farm animal, albeit for distinct reasons. Yet, it’s their shared endurance, with spirits that epitomize resilience, that sets them apart from everyone else. 


Passion Keeps Pulsing


The two have kept playing since their high school days when they first encountered the game  — a fun tidbit, though their early talents didn't kindle a friendship or rivalry. As Faker recalls, “There wasn't really anything to talk about with each other back then.”



Their professional careers began in tandem during the spring of 2013. The region’s competition structure meant their paths didn’t cross. However, both made splashes in their debuts: Faker impressing against a top-tier mid laner, and Deft holding his own against a premier AD carry. From those starts, their careers veered in distinct directions.


Faker’s ascent began from there, soon winning a championship in Korea and at Worlds 2013. His subsequent years were a relentless collection of trophies, dominating premier international events more than any other player. Amidst debates about the greatest of all time, Faker’s name became the focal point. His influence has propelled one of the world’s most elite esports organizations to new peaks, lifted the profiles of other legendary players, and even inspired a drone show in his likeness.



Deft's journey through the game’s landscape contrasts Faker's. While great, it has been a lot messier. His first tournament ended prematurely as his team bowed out in the group stage, and the elusive grasp of success defined much of his beginning career. Yet, Deft's resolve never wavered. In time, he achieved his greatness, taking major titles and earning acclaim as a top player. His path was far from direct, though, marked by a career in China's LPL, stints with several different teams, and a series of heartbreaks more than almost any player of his caliber. Whereas Faker got the World Championship monkey off of his back in his first season, Deft had its claws sunk into his shoulders for almost a decade. 


He emerged as one of League’s great heroes, but seemed forever a piece shy of completing his championship mosaic.



It needs no further explanation: both of them have been really, really good. But Faker and Deft's careers stand out not only in their game, but across the industry. They have incredible endurance. Where many players hang up their headsets before those in traditional sports are peaking, they have defied the odds, maintaining their reign among the elite for over ten years.


During Worlds, a resonant phrase surfaced in an article about Deft, frequently miscredited to him, though something he has stood by: “The important thing is to have an unbreakable heart.” This sentiment — endurance in the face of harsh defeats — epitomizes both Deft and Faker. Yet, their legacy transcends resilience. They show an undying passion for competition, unmatched in the game, and much of esports. They show heart, in a different sense. They’re belligerent to burnout — possessing fire that continues to flicker no matter how much hardship, failure, or success they experience.


As esports competition has evolved over a decade, plenty of other players have exhibited an unbreakable heart. But none of them have beat longer or stronger than the 2022 finalists.


The Hidden Bosses


The brevity of esports careers isn't up for debate: they are astonishingly short-lived. While there are exceptions, the industry norm is a career span akin to the time it takes to go from college freshman year to a master's degree.


Only one player remains.


While the available data for esports pales in comparison to sports, the trend is still startling. Given its mental focus, one would expect an esports career to outlast something like football or boxing, where injuries are common and physical decline occurs sooner. But, the longevity of professional athletes in traditional sports more often outlasts that of esports players, with many retiring well into their mid-thirties or even forties.


The reasons for this gap have become clearer over time. 


To suggest that competitive gaming can lead to burnout is an understatement — it's more like tossing a marshmallow into the heart of a bonfire. The regimen for top players is grueling, often clocking in over 70 hours a week in their pursuit of excellence. The esports scene, with its marathon scrimmages, strategy huddles, and solo drills, has become synonymous with players tiring out. Yes, the amount of players voicing their battles with burnout and stress could turn this entire piece into a web of hyperlinks.



Practice for the best is a gauntlet. Both Deft and Faker have experienced one of the rougher sides of the space, at times revealing the health tolls of their routines. Faker has had a grueling 15-hour daily practice schedule (in recent years brought down to 12), while Deft has confessed to running game reviews even upon lying down in bed. Hours upon hours spent anchored to the same chair, eyes locked on the same glowing screens, thinking intensely about the same thing — such a grind doesn’t just wear on the wrists. It also can carve into one's social health and scramble the body clock, as night owl hours become the norm and natural sleep patterns become as unlikely as a stress-free playoff game. It’s a static lifestyle that can mess up the bigger picture of things.


[Editor’s note: There are other fantastic pieces about esports burnout issues and solutions that will not be addressed in this article. This piece’s purpose is purely to highlight two extraordinary people who have navigated this landscape.]


The pressure for them never eases up, either — like a firehose on full blast. The events are high-stakes, with razor-thin margins for error. Players wrestle with the constant anxiety that their spot is on the line, shadowed by younger prodigies waiting for their chance to shine. It's a cutthroat environment where raw talent often overshadows experience. Yet for someone like Faker, pressure morphs into inspiration—the drive isn’t merely to perform, but to embody the mystique his name carries.



Moreover, esports stars face the same perils those in sports do. Performance relies on keen hand-eye coordination and lightning-quick reflexes — attributes that reportedly can diminish after the mid-20s. And the demands for this precision mean injuries can be catastrophic. Both Deft and Faker have grappled with physical setbacks, almost certainly compounded by their grinding lifestyles — lifestyles that have hampered many legends’ careers.

A lot can go wrong.


In A League Of Their Own


Even among the most resilient competitors, Faker and Deft have navigated one of the most challenging roads. 


Their tenure in League is amazing, yet they are not the only ones who've defied the career’s short shelf-life — peers like Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang and Yuta "Yutapon" Sugiura stand with them. However, the impact and dominance the LCK veterans have had put them in a league of their own. Their decade-plus careers have been defined not by participation but by a reign of influence and achievement, setting an almost impossible to surpass standard. Their legacies are not just timelines, but eras that have reshaped the game.



Other all-time esports careers can stretch astonishingly long. Shane "rapha" Hendrixson has been synonymous with Quake since the early 2000s, Jang "Moon" Jae-ho is still a contender in Warcraft III as of 2024, and at 38, Justin Wong is still taking names in the fighting game community. All stand as some of the greatest gamers in history.


However, these stalwarts also reveal a critical nuance of longevity: the depth of the competitive pool. Take the fighting game community (FGC) — it's known for its smaller, close-knit circle. When asking Wong, he put it succinctly: “One reason why FGC competitors can stay so consistent, even regardless of age, is our player base is still pretty small. When you compare FGC to other esports games like League of Legends, there are so many more competitors trying to get to that Diamond rank or get scouted by an LCS team.” The dynamic is intensified by the near-crunch culture endemic to League—particularly in Korea—which can surpass even other extremely competitive environments. League, the largest esport ever, presents a more restless competition. Somehow, Deft and Faker have maintained form despite a constant pipeline of upstarts pouring down on them.



What about other mental competitions, though? What of  games awash with waves of aspiring champions, where constant practice is par for the course, yet many players still defy time and compete across decades? The enduring prowess of champions like Garry Kasparov in chess and Cho Hun-hyun in Go/Baduk presents a stark contrast to the world of League. 


But as Kasparov once articulated, in a comment regarding his game’s lasting appeal, the "strategic purity of chess (or go, etc.) is timeless for a reason." These games, unaltered by patches or meta shifts, offer a stable playing field where strategy deepens rather than changes, allowing mastery to mature with time — a luxury not afforded in League. As pointed about by rapha, even games like Quake have patches only every few months. “Sometimes people hit a wall once a certain meta shifts,” he explained. “It's really hard for a lot of people to get outside their comfort zone and their playstyle, and to really develop and become a more well-rounded player that can continue to stay relevant. To see two players that have lasted for so long [Faker and Deft] is because they've done everything they can to be as well-rounded as possible.


On the war ground, Deft and Faker find themselves in a constant arms race against time. Every few weeks, a new patch rolls out, shaking the game’s foundations. They’re like wild cards, each with the potential to undermine a player's hard-won expertise. It's adapt swiftly, or accept irrelevance. The game that Deft and Faker play today is a chameleon — familiar in spirit, but in practice, has undergone a major color shift since their early days. 



Take a side-by-side look at Faker’s debut and one of his latest matches in 2024. We’re talking major shifts in the game’s DNA: a swell in the roster of champions (112 to 168), revamped items, fresh objectives, new mechanics, not to mention a visual overhaul. And that's before even looking at the evolving meta strategies and philosophic shifts in gameplay.


The ability to adjust from one meta to another is challenging, requiring not just raw skill but also strategic flexibility. For players like Deft and Faker to not only adapt but also consistently dominate in such a fluid environment is a remarkable feat. 



The game presents its own set of advantages; for instance, Faker has noted the lower mechanical demands than those of a game like StarCraft or Quake. Plus, the scale of interest in League of Legends affords its players more resources than those in other games. Nevertheless, it also poses a unique set of challenges that almost no one else has overcome.


While a few others have also stood the test of time, the career lengths of Deft and Faker are exceedingly exceptional.


Tough Losses


Though it's already well-trodden territory in this series, we can't overlook the resilience Deft and Faker have shown in the face of soul-crushing defeats. Elite players like them carry the weight of big expectations — a burden that has toppled many of their peers, who’ve either lost their edge or retired in the wake of crushing losses. Yet, despite the pressure, neither Deft nor Faker has succumbed. 



And it’s not that they’re unfeeling robots, either. They've bared their emotions, revealing just how much the game means to them.


“There was always this melancholy around him, and you could feel the frustration of him not winning,” Laure "Bulii" Valée said about Deft. “This is something he carried through his interviews. You know how much of a perfectionist he is, and what he showcases during interviews and every feature documentary is truly what he is backstage. When you interact with him, there was always this sense of him being disappointed in himself. I haven't had the chance to talk to him since he won the World Championship, but from the interactions we had and everything over the years, you could feel he was carrying the weight of the disappointment of his career. What's sad about him is that even though he was recognized as one of the best players, he didn't recognize his longevity in the league and the ecosystem, because he didn't achieve that one accomplishment he was looking for.” 


[Editor’s Note: The interview took place in late-2023.]



Deft, often more visibly than others, has worn his commitment on his sleeve, at times after harsh losses. He's candid about the self-doubt that shadows such disappointments — a strong reminder of his relatable vulnerability. As for Faker, his emotional investment is unmistakable. Beyond the iconic image of his 2017 Worlds Final tears, there's powerful footage of him through the years metabolizing his losses. 


Yet, it's their long careers that have allowed both Deft and Faker to sculpt stoicism and leadership from the raw stone of defeat. With later setbacks, extremely heartbreaking ones, they've shown tremendous resilience.


Deft's transformation has been one of increasing fortitude. Where before he sometimes fell under pressure, the Deft of Worlds 2022 stepped forward with incredible poise. This was no ordinary run; it was a gauntlet that tested the limits of endurance and mental resilience, one that he went on not just miraculously, but with an understated, steely grace.


When EDward Gaming’s inhibitor famously came back online in the quarterfinals, only to bring a gut-wrenching loss, Deft didn’t rage against fate. Instead, he focused on the elements within his control and helped win the series. And as Lee "Gumayusi" Min-hyeong performed that jaw-dropping Baron Steal in the finals, Deft admitted his internal foundations were rocked — yet, he didn't crumble. He chose instead to model steadiness for his teammates, embracing the mantle of a veteran who anchors rather than flounders. "I only knew about myself back then," he said shortly before that moment. "I was playing a single-player game back then, not a team game. I think I am now qualified to be the player at the finals in a team game called League of Legends."



Comparing Faker's responses to the Worlds loss in 2017 and again in 2022 reveals a change as well. In the latter instance, despite the strong weight of defeat and a pensive gaze, there's a steadiness to his posture. His gestures — combing a hand through his hair, the deliberate intertwining of his fingers — show a quiet, resilient determination. Call that reading too much into things, but asking him to compare the two losses echos the sentiment, "I felt sad and regretful after the loss in 2017. It was the same last year [2022], but I was able to think more about how I could move forward after the loss." True to his word, he went onward the next season, clinching victories and winning Worlds again with unchanged zeal.


Undeniably, heartbreak is etched into the careers of Faker and Deft. Yet, they've not been worn down by their trials; instead, they've been tempered by them.


Ever Onward


Considering everything, why the hell would anyone choose to play for so long? As players endure competition, the allure for a legendary player to exit has only swelled, both in options and appeal. This phenomenon isn't confined to a single game or discipline; it's widespread. And while streaming, like any job, has its own set of challenges, it often promises a less stressful existence – with reduced pressure, more flexible hours, and frequently, a heftier paycheck.



Discussions on early retirements, particularly among Korean players, repeatedly circle back to distraction and motivation. Discussing this point, former player and coach Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu reflected, “When prospects become star players, they are revealed to temptations lurking here and there. The salary, the parties, countless DMs from female fans, etc. When they try out those things, they’re also fun. The point is about how well they can endure those temptations and keep their passion for the game, or at least keep the balance to maintain their performance.”



Faker and Deft swim in a sea of distractions, with schools of temptations befitting gaming royalty. Their legacy is cemented, their places in history secure. Retirement could be a golden parachute, a flick of the switch away from a lifetime of cash piles, new experiences, and leisure.


Yet, here they stand—still in the fray.


When speaking with LCK caster Max "Atlus" Anderson on why Deft and Faker have held on the longest, he was confident in his answer, “It's motivation. Some players can withstand this level of grind for an extended period, while others can't. Most people can't,” Atlus stated. “It's astounding how Faker does it. He's an absolute machine. He possesses an unwavering will to succeed and has won Worlds three times. How does he maintain motivation for the fourth title? It's a mystery. Deft is similar. Even though he achieved his goal, it's not like something ShowMaker has mentioned before: ‘Now that I've accomplished this, how do I find the inspiration to do it again when I've reached the pinnacle?’ Deft draws motivation from knowing he belongs here and his sheer love for the game and competition. Finding the drive to engage in solo queue every day is something they've mastered. To do it for over 10 years is incredible. Being at the top level for such a duration is truly remarkable.”



Throughout his career, Faker has offered various reasons for his enduring commitment to the game. Now, his motivation is distilled into a simpler pursuit. “The biggest motivator in my recent days comes from self-improvement,” Faker stated in 2023. “I have a huge need for self-improvement. That’s why, on the surface level, winning championships is my goal as a pro gamer, but if you go deeper, my priority is to work really hard at the tasks I’m given.” He reiterated his feelings a year later, stating that “it’s really fun to compete with the best players around the world. I think it’s meaningful to keep improving among those players, and that’s why I was able to stay passionate.”


Deft is much the same. Admittedly, for some time his main ambition for playing was to finally lift the Summoner’s Cup, even going as far as to say that he wanted to win Worlds in order to retire — to quit the game without any regrets, and inspire those that are older and injured to keep going. 



Well, he got his wish—a miracle Worlds run, a swan song that seemed scripted for his career finale. He found peace, glory, and a sweet $100,000 bonus to boot. And what happened? Less than a month post-victory, Deft declared his appetite for more in-game escapades, opting to stay in the competitive scene. His explanation in a post-victory interview paralleled Faker's: a deep adoration for the game and its competition. “The most important thing, is it's still very fun when I am playing LoL. I can't win every game I play. But the process of winning, losing, and getting back at the teams I lost to is what makes it so fun.” 


From all the esports legends I spoke with on this point, an enduring love for the game stood out, and the privilege to be the best in the world at something. 


In esports, Deft and Faker’s journeys epitomize the professional quest — navigating the rigorous marathon of training, the mental resilience to shine when all eyes are watching, and the inner struggle to keep the flame of ambition alight even at success's pinnacle. As the esports landscape changes, the sagas of Deft and Faker cast long shadows for both present and future gamers, showing that greatness lies in continuing fights as much as in seizing crowns.


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