When SK Telecom T1 faces off with Griffin in the League Champions Korea finals stage on Saturday night, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok will be looking at a younger version of himself. The three-time world champion has done everything one can do in the game of League of Legends, but this year is all about redemption, a goal stemming from a catastrophic 2018 which saw him not make a final of any kind for the first time in his career. His mid lane opponent, 18-year-old Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon, and his unmistakable crooked, impish grin will be looking for the first major championship of his career.
Faker knows Chovy's story because he lived it. He was found online by SK Telecom T1, the most famous esports organization in South Korea, and molded into the game's face.
Chovy began as an online player that knew nothing other than playing inside his lane. He didn't know a lot of champions and had no way to play around the map. Griffin's head coach Kim "cvMax" Dae-ho scouted out Chovy and took him under his wing. After one year of professional play, Chovy has already made two LCK finals and just picked up his first league MVP award, supposedly establishing him as the player to beat in South Korea.
If it was only so easy. Unlike Faker, whose rise to fame played out as one would expect from a generational talent, Chovy didn't win his first final. Throughout the lineage of South Korea's great mid laners, each won the first domestic final they competed in. It all began with Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong winning the first-ever South Korean title on MiG Blaze, and that was followed by Bae "dade" Eo-jin sweeping Ambition a little over a year later in his first chance for a trophy. This story of Faker facing a prodigal mid lane talent isn't even new, as Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong faced off with Faker in his first LCK final almost two years ago and upended the legend. Chovy, however, who faced off with KT Rolster in last year's summer LCK final, failed in his attempt to become champion, losing in the final map of a best-of-five series.
Even Chovy's MVP accomplishment isn't without its critics. Although he became the first player in the game's history to amass a KDA of over 100 in league play during the first few weeks of the spring split, the second half of his run wasn't nearly as clean. While the spindly teenager still ended the season at the top of most positive stats at his position, his MVP campaign would end in controversy.
On the final day of the regular season, Chovy and Griffin played the last-place Jin Air Green Wings. In South Korea, the MVP award is handed out to the player who receives the most "Player of the Game" awards at the end of the regular season. At the start of the series with Jin Air, Chovy was tied in the standings with King-Zone DragonX ace Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu. After not getting the award in his team's game one victory, he finally broke the deadlock in the second and last game of his regular season, snatching away co-MVP honors from Deft.
Sounds great, right? Only one problem.
Chovy didn't even register a kill in his team's win. In fact, he probably wasn't the third or even fourth most worthy player on his team to get the nod. The result was so ridiculous that even on-air English broadcaster Nick "LS" De Cesare howled at the result, calling for a robbery. Chovy's MVP victory caused so much scrutiny that Riot Games Korea, the producers of the LCK, came out not too long after the match to announce they were looking into changing the way the MVP award was awarded in the league.
None of this was Chovy's fault, who admitted in interviews following that he didn't even care much about the award -- his teammates were the ones who were more focused on him getting it. Still, the damage has been done, and what should have been a symbol for his ascent to superstardom has become a meme to the western community, "CHOVY MVP!" spammed in jest on Twitch anytime a player in the LCK does anything of note. His otherworldly numbers have even been accredited to his jungler Lee "Tarzan" Seung-yong, who is largely seen as Griffin's most valuable player and the brains behind the team's success.
This final shouldn't be as important as it is for Chovy. He's 18 and signed a three-year deal with Griffin before the season began along with the rest of the starting lineup. His career has just begun, and if he loses to the best player to ever download the game's client, it shouldn't be seen as anything but a small setback. And yet, this final feels like a coming-of-age moment for Chovy. A win and a strong performance would drown out all the controversy over his MVP. A loss, and what? A season that began so beautifully ending with a disappointing end to the regular season, a disputed MVP award which only is criticized more with a loss, and an 0-2 record in LCK finals, creating the question if Griffin and Chovy are clutch enough to win when it matters the most.
Faker doesn't care about Chovy's issues.
Before this season started, the only thing he cared about at the All-Stars event in Las Vegas was winning back everything he lost in 2018. He dubbed the new SKT T1 "a team of aces" and the fans in South Korea began calling the current iteration of SKT a "dream team". A team made up of elite South Korean players in every position, SKT went out in the summer and opened their wallets to buy the best team money could buy to put around their "Ace of Aces" in Faker.
SKT making the finals is no accomplishment for Faker or his teammates. From the day they saw the talent sitting around the team house, they knew their ceiling should be nothing short of a world championship. Last year, Faker was plagued by uncharacteristic mistakes, which performed by any other player would have brought on cries of "washed up" and "over the hill". Not Faker, though. He was given the benefit of the doubt, and with the new SKT, he's returned close to his former powers, himself even admitting he only believes to be at "70% to 80%" of his peak performance.
In Faker's last LCK final, as previously mentioned, he was defeated by Bdd, a player that looked up to Faker while breaking into the pros. A loss to Chovy and Faker's story writes another chapter where the greatest of all-time is used as a stepping stone to the international stage and bigger things. At his peak, cute narratives and storylines were nothing more to Faker than fuel to work harder and crush them. Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho walked into the 2016 world championship as the lead figure alongside Faker, the intro of the tournament showing him proclaim that he wanted to "seize" the title of best player in the world from Faker.
That story ended with Smeb losing to Faker in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden and the Unkillable Demon King going on to lift his third world title.
At the final, the storyline is already set. Faker and a youngster looking to make a name for himself. SKT wanting to redeem themselves and reclaim its place as South Korea's premier franchise and Griffin looking to do the very same.
Careers are made from defeating Faker in a final, and Chovy hopes to add that to his growing legacy.
Unfortunately for Chovy and Griffin, Faker made his career squashing hope.