The lasting image from the 2017 League of Legends World Championship final from the Bird's Nest in Beijing was the game's all-time greatest, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, doubled over in his seat. His teammates stood next to him, staring out the window of their playing booth. Confetti fell from the air. For the first time in three years, it was not SK Telecom T1 who got the honor of raising the Summoner's Cup.
Minutes following the final, Lolesports, the official esports Twitter for Riot Games, posted the clip of Faker hunched over in his chair. A flood of responses rushed in, with a majority of the top comments including some variation of "why?" or "delete this." Most people seemed to think the video of Faker crying was something that shouldn't be shown to the world. The best player in the world had just lost -- why not give him privacy and spotlight the winners on the main stage, Samsung Galaxy? While the camera lingered on Faker for a few moments before cutting to Samsung, it was too late. The shot left some of the community with a bad taste in their mouths.
It was the first time Faker felt the cold sting of defeat on the world stage. "The Unkillable Demon King" was killable, and the mystique of the perfect video game player -- the one who almost single-handedly dragged his team to glory -- was ripped away. All we were left with was an image of what lies beneath the man of a thousand nicknames and trophies. At 21 years old, Faker is still a kid in many ways, a kid who has put his entire being and soul into the game he loves. No one puts more pressure on himself to perform than Faker; and in a decisive 0-3 loss to Samsung, a team he defeated in 2016 for a world title, he let himself and everyone who trusted him down.
As someone who has grown up watching traditional sports and then esports in the mid-2000s, I became a fan of the characters on my screen. I loved to see my favorite players or teams do well, but I realized every story has two sides to it. You have the winner, basked in the glow of victory. And then you have the loser, looking defeated off in the corner. Over the years, you see these players form their own narratives. They grow together, they break apart -- and if you're lucky, you see them reach the ultimate goal: a championship title, the trophy in hand. Those moments of heartbreak and loss put things into perspective. Without those moments, the image of winning and having overcome the many obstacles to get to the championship would not nearly be as sweet.
When players like Faker and Martin "Rekkles" Larsson show emotion on the stage after a tough defeat, we shouldn't feel the need to protect their reactions. There is nothing wrong with tears or emotion. These players put their entire lives into a game as a profession. When you're giving it everything you have to reach the title of world's best, a loss that ends your entire year of hard work can break you. Every preseason scrimmage, every practice, every domestic game, every dinner out with your teammates, and all of it comes to an end because you weren't good enough that one day. It doesn't matter if Faker has won three world titles already -- he knows the world expects the best. To him, no matter if it's the fourth or 40th Summoner's Cup, it's just as important.
There's a line that shouldn't be crossed, sure. (The camera crew shouldn't, for example, stalk Faker backstage and film him as he calls his family.) But for a minute or so after the game ends, sitting in the booth, and getting the team's raw reaction? To me, that's what makes sports, and especially esports, great.
What separates esports from its competitors is the closeness the fans feel to the players. Players stream. Players interact with fans on Twitter. Fans feel like they know the players, and with that, they want to see their stories unfold. Losing hurts. Losing in front of more than 45,000 people in a world title game when your nickname is "god" hurts even more.
This isn't the end of Faker's story. When 2018 arrives, he will be back in front of a computer screen, ready to reclaim what he lost. The image of his loss at the Bird's Nest will be all the more important if he returns to the world stage next year.
Sometimes I get caught up in the legend in front of the man. The nicknames. The accolades. What I'll take away from the 2017 World Championship final is that past it all, Faker has always been a human, doing his best to live up to the legend that myself and others have thrust upon him.