The League of Legends Worlds finals showed the heart and soul of esports

Faker and Deft at Worlds 2022
(Image credit: Riot)

On Saturday night, two esports heroes and their teams fought each other tooth and nail for over five million viewers in the League of Legends Worlds finals, backed by a plot better than any concocted by a team of scriptwriters. While there were no villains in Riot Games' massive esports spectacle, after battling the full distance of the five game set there were winners—and unfortunately, losers—as the fourth seed Korean underdogs DRX raised the Summoner’s Cup while second seed T1 looked on.

While the five games that T1 and DRX wrestled over the championship did generate a half dozen truly fantastic moments, the story behind their meeting outshines them. It's the kind of unbelievable plot no movie audience would buy. The star players from each team are the same age, started their pro League of Legends careers in February 2013, and even went to the same high school—Mapo High School in Seoul, South Korea. While the play of their teammates was the heart of the battle for Worlds 2022, the soul was all about the rivalry of T1’s Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and DRX’s Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu coming to a head in the grand finals. Let me take you on a short journey through the story of the two esports veterans. 

The Demon-King and the Hard Luck Hero 

Faker at Worlds 2022

(Image credit: Riot)

While Faker and Deft shared remarkably similar starting points, their careers went in markedly different directions, orbiting each other in the Korean league like a pair of meteors. 

With Faker being the core signing and mid laner of the brand new SK Telecom T1 K in early 2013, he went on to lead the Korean team to a shocking run throughout the year, including dual victories over KT Rolster Bullets to earn a spot at the Season 3 World Championships, where he would help SKT crush the opposition to cruise to a 3-0 Grand Finals victory over Chinese team Royal Club for his first of three titles as a World Champion in League of Legends. In a single year, Faker was plucked from the Korean solo queue and fought his way to the top of the mountain.

But for Deft, his first year was a struggle, joining newly formed MVP Blue as their bottom laner, MVP Blue failed to make it out of the group stage at several tournaments before being acquired by Samsung Blue and playing in the 2013-2014 Champions Winter tournament. This was the first time Deft and Faker would have a showdown, and it ended in an SKT 3-0 victory. Despite accolades and celebration of Deft as a regular candidate or runner up for most valuable player of the Korean league and several appearances at worlds—including a brutal loss in five games to eventual World Champion team Invictus Gaming in 2018 in the first round of knockouts—Deft had never made it to the Grand Finals once, where by 2016, Faker had already won it all in them three times. In fact, over the years, both Deft and Faker have been to the World Championships seven times apiece, but while Faker has been with SKT since his debut, Deft has moved around to do it with five different teams—Samsung Blue, Edward Gaming, KT Rolster, Hanwha Life Esports, and DragonX.

But by 2022, Deft and Faker had come to a different stage of their career, one where even Faker was being questioned and whispered about as past his prime by some. Despite Deft being on a competitive team at Worlds most years, the last time he even played in the semifinals was 2014, whereas Faker has never been eliminated before the semis. Most esports players are considered venerable at 26, where the average age of League of Legends pros is around 21 and most retire by 25

For Deft, who had never been able to fight his way into the ring for a title bout, the question seemed to be "when will you retire?" and not the "will he ever retire?" usually pointed at Faker. In fact in an interview with Invenglobal in May he even had that attitude himself, saying: “I feel that there isn’t much time left in my career, but there’s a big difference between ‘not much time’ and ‘no time’. I want to do my best so that I can show what the fans and I both want to see in my remaining time.” The spirit and competitive drive was still there, but Deft was acknowledging that in the world of esports—he was a mortal.

But for the resident immortal demon king, Faker, the retooled T1 team's lack of success was now his fault in the eyes of fans. Faker suffered substantial online harassment from a group of fans and was threatening to quit playing ranked due to players intentionally throwing games, more challenges in a difficult year. Looking at the upcoming Worlds 2022, Faker was facing the fact that he was on the outside looking in statistically for the first time on the biggest stage of League of Legends. Faker’s performance throughout the year in the LCK was outshone by a number of other players—like Gen.G mid-laner Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon—which was changing Faker’s role into more of the veteran leader of a squad of young players with potential, and not the hyper-carry of old.

Worlds 2022 had arrived for Faker and Deft, and Faker was stoically contemplating restoring T1 to a glory that it hadn’t brushed since 2017’s crushing 3-0 defeat by Samsung Galaxy in the grand finals, a defeat that saw a humbled Faker dethroned and overcome by tears. While Faker wanted to underline his reputation and bring a new generation of talent to the top, Deft was staring mortality and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune down. As usual, the climb for Deft would not be an easy one, as DRX was the Korean 4th seed, and could only qualify for Worlds by making it through the play-in stage: a ruthless round robin and knockout series of 12 hungry teams. But Deft set the stage for what was to come by helping DRX to a flawless 5-0 record in the play-in, guaranteeing them a spot in Worlds and a date with destiny for the two former schoolmates as both T1 and DRX fought their way to the grand finals.

At the nexus(es) of fate

Game 1 at the Worlds 2022 finals

(Image credit: Riot)

Game 1 (T1 0 - DRX 0)

After all the spectacle of the delayed opening ceremony (led by Lil Nas X, of all people), we get down to digital brass tacks with the first pick and ban phase—in which we see both T1 and DRX decide the tone for the series by choosing violence: not a single tank is picked by either team. This series is going to be two teams trying to make zero mistakes and amplify every mistake of the other.

T1 is put on their back foot early by a first blood kill on Faker in the mid-lane, but recover through a stolen dragon by Gumayusi and an ambush on DRX while they try to take herald in the top-side river. While DRX finishes the herald, they can’t claim the buff from it, which expires, and prevents DRX from getting the lane pressure they need to set them up for the second dragon—and T1 flexes their strategic muscles by securing it, then rotating to take the second herald as well to kill the first turret of the game in mid-lane.

The wheels start to fall off the wagon for DRX when the tug-of-war over vision around the third dragon leads to T1’s Zeus on Yone managing to pull four members of DRX down to bot-lane and distract them while the rest of T1 sneak the dragon under their noses. When they realize, DRX turn to start a fight, but Zeus collapses on them from below with the skirmish resulting in a Faker kill on Deft, and then another on DRX support BeryL. 

T1 ramps their advantage up into an uncontested Baron kill and cracks open DRX’s base, downing two inhibitors, and despite some heroics from DRX, this eventually leads to T1 claiming the ocean soul buff from their fourth dragon kill, and closing the game out with a final fight at the nexus. The totally calm look on Faker’s face as he pushes back from the computer after the victory screen betrays zero nervousness—or excitement.

Best plays of the game:

Game 2 at the Worlds 2022 finals

(Image credit: Riot)

Game 2 (T1 1 - DRX 0)

On the heels of a commanding win by T1, DRX shows no fear during picks and bans for game two, but plenty of healthy respect for Faker—banning away both Azir and Ryze from him. Faker responds by taking Viktor, while Deft uses the opening to take Varus, setting up a DRX Varus & Heimerdinger vs. T1 Ashe & Lux bot-lane matchup.

This game stays calm for much longer than the first one, with the first real test of either team being the first herald, which T1 starts with five members present, and DRX moves in on with all five of their own. Oner makes a clever play in smiting the herald early to transform his smite summoner into empowered smite, and along with excellent zoning by Viktor to keep DRX away, the herald is secured. Everything seems again to be going T1’s way with superior map movement leading to the first dragon, three fresh kills in the top-lane, and a deep gank on Deft behind his outer turret.

But the cracks start to show for T1 as they lose Zeus and Faker in a top-lane fight and DRX secure the second herald. From there, Faker teleports into a death under bottom turret, and DRX starts to take over the macro game, securing vision on the map, pushing down additional turrets, and putting themselves up three dragons to one and equalize the gold between both teams. As both teams dance around Baron, Faker gets a pick on DRX mid-laner Zeka and the two teams continue to skirmish on the knife's edge until T1 takes their second dragon, and disaster strikes. The fight after dragon sees T1 split apart and hunted down in a zero for five ace of T1, and a resulting Baron kill for DRX.

A heroic tempo swing by Faker and T1 lead to a third dragon kill, picks, a mid-lane push, and ocean dragon soul set the game up for a twist at a final Baron—DRX wipes T1 out in a fractured team fight, and rushes the nexus down under

Best plays of the game:

Game 3 at the Worlds 2022 finals

(Image credit: Riot)

Game 3 (T1 1 - DRX 1)

The third game is also the first violation of the gentleman’s agreement against tanks, with both Gragas and Ornn in the top-lane being the front line for T1 and DRX. Faker returns to Azir. 

Early and mid-game are fairly even, with dragons splitting at one apiece, and T1 securing a slight gold lead. The bloodbath begins with Faker and Zeka both dying, but T1 gets the worst of the fight afterwards when Gumayusi flashes forward to try to secure a kill, but DRX turns the fight.

From there the mid-game becomes a back and forth, with the gold totals staying even despite the kill advantage going to DRX, and they seem to have Faker’s number—dropping him to a 1-3-1 stat line in the game. But DRX makes a risky play, starting a Baron that T1 is alive in time to respond to, and after lurking around the slowly dying objective like a pack of sharks, they pounce, and T1’s jungler Oner manages to dash in to steal it with a smite.

DRX looks shaky afterwards, with top-laner Kingen and Deft both dying during the resulting push, but they manage to stop T1 from getting dragon soul and pick up a kill on Oner. DRX makes the choice to rush Baron with T1’s jungler dead, but Gumayusi on Varus and the rest of the T1 crew trade kills in the pit before a Varus arrow steals the second Baron of the game away from the underdogs—and the second steal of the game proves to be too much for them, as T1 closes the game out in the immediate push.

Best plays of the game:

Game 4 at the Worlds 2022 finals

(Image credit: Riot)

Game 4 (T1 2 - DRX 1)

With DRX on the ropes, they target problem picks on Faker and Zeus, banning away Ryze, Viktor, and Yone using the opening to steal away Azir and Varus as well. Pushing Faker outside his most successful picks so far, and with Ashe and Varus gone from Gumayusi’s champion pool, Faker picks the assassin Akali—a flashy and exciting pick—and the bottom lane falls as Kalista and the surprise Soraka for Keria to support with. But the most interesting pick turned out to be DRX’s jungler Pyosik bringing out the beefy (barky?) tree himself: Maokai.

The bot-lane is the focus early for T1, with a 2v2 fight and a successful jungle gank resulting in two deaths on Deft and an early dragon—but mid-lane was getting away from Faker, and soon Zeus would be struggling too. With Zeka’s Azir winning the ranged vs melee matchup and keeping Faker’s Akali behind on farm and firmly in the lane, her ability to roam and start to get the kills she needed to snowball was nonexistent. In the top-lane, repeated pressure from DRX’s jungler—and a failed 3v2 by T1’s Oner on Sejuani—showed just how much havoc Kingen could unleash on Aatrox.

Worse than that, the pressure on the bottom half of the map didn’t pay off, with the second dragon and a pair of kills going to DRX as they pulled closer to even in gold. The strategic mastery that T1 had displayed seemed to falter over the course of the game, with DRX not only poised to take the last herald, but positioned for a team fight that they would win with a pair of kills, and a mounting gold lead. Faker seemed frustrated and more than a bit out of position on Akali, chasing Zeka down half the lane before dying to three other members of DRX, and then just minutes later being caught and killed by Kingen and Pyosik during a Baron attempt.

Though the four deaths did stop the Baron attempt for the moment, DRX simply reset, and waited for their side lanes to push to start the objective again—baiting out both T1 teleports, then walking away, presumably pulling down their sunglasses like steely-eyed missile men. Resetting once again, DRX secured the Baron and then walked their advantage down mid and bot to a smooth and relentless victory.

Best plays of the game:

Game 5 at the Worlds 2022 finals

(Image credit: Riot)

Game 5 (T1 2 - DRX 2)

Somehow, it was always fated to make it to this point between Faker and Deft, T1 and DRX, with the intense series boiled down to a single titanic game. 

With nothing left to hide, and everything left to lose, T1 and DRX both went off the board with their strategies. DRX left Caitlyn off their bans, instead banning her usual partner Lux, and leaving one of the most contested carries for the bottom lane open. Seeming to suspect some kind of ploy by DRX, T1 instead picked Karma, trying to ensure they had the lane-pushing power they wanted, but giving up Azir and the unbanned Caitlyn to DRX, and seeing their top-laner Kingen back on his dominant Aatrox pick opposed by T1’s Zeus on Gwen.

T1 came out swinging with an aggressive jungle invade against Pyosik’s Hecarim, running him off his blue buff to start the game, and then with their own jungler Oner with a textbook gank on Zeka using their vision advantage to give him no chance to react for first blood and then a first dragon. But T1’s Zeus became the victim of a rare solo kill, feeding gold into the monstrously dangerous Aatrox that Kingen had used to such great effect in previous games for DRX, and they took advantage, decisively winning a teamfight when T1 challenged their early herald.

But T1 was anything but quiet—with Oner successfully counter ganking mid-lane and bottom over the next few minutes, evening the kills, pulling T1 slightly ahead in gold and looking like they were ready to shove DRX around to try to fight back into control of the game. But the resurgence wouldn’t hold long, as Kingen’s Aatrox proved an unstoppable juggernaut in a forced fight in the mid-lane, with DRX knocking off four members of T1 over the extended battle.

With so many down, DRX turned their eyes towards the Baron. But it had been such an extended fight—and such a slow-to-die early Baron at just 20 minutes—that T1’s bot-lane carry Gumayusi was able to respawn and make it to the river on Varus before the Baron was dead. And with Zeus standing by watching, no vision of the Baron, and all of DRX alive in the pit, Gumayusi fired off an arrow straight to the heart of Deft and DRX’s championship dreams, stealing the Baron and walking away alive.

As the crowd erupted, T1 made plans, and they used the pushing power of the buff to drag the game out and successfully eke out a slight lead by toppling DRX’s bot-lane inhibitor. Over the course of two more skirmishes, DRX’s Kingen and BeryL died, but a fight over dragon saw inconclusive trades, with deaths on both sides. T1 managed to secure a second Baron as the game dragged out past the 30 minute mark, but couldn’t make headway, losing the mountain dragon soul to DRX.

Just like Worlds 2022 eventually boiled down to a single game, so too would the final game be reduced to a single fight on the edge of the cliff. DRX contested T1’s attempt at killing the elder dragon, turning the attempt into a back and forth that saw Faker and Zeus run out of the fight and teleport to the open inhibitor in the bot-lane in a desperate attempt to backdoor. In a matter of seconds, they had crushed one of the two nexus turrets, but Kingen’s Aatrox was ready with his own teleport for a goal-line stand, rising to the occasion to kill Faker and then Zeka.

With T1 in shambles and the elder dragon in their pocket, DRX marched through T1’s base, and less than a minute later Deft and his teammates were a ball of frenetic energy as they celebrated together.

Best plays of the game:

As the storm recedes

Deft holds the trophy at Worlds 2022

(Image credit: Riot)

Over the course of their journey, DRX had crushed expectations, banished the demons in Deft's past, and broken barriers as the first team to come from the play-in stage to make it to the grand finals. Now Deft stood on top of the world, able to say that he had reached as high as his one-time classmate ever had, and he did it on his own terms, in the most difficult climb to the top a League of Legends team ever managed.

It might not be three world championships, or winning one his first year as a pro, but for Deft, he has to know that he has something now that Faker doesn’t. With DRX as World Champions, he has his own collection of achievements and firsts to call his own.

And for the rest of us—including Faker—there is at least some solace in the fact that Mapo High School, at 403 Hwagok-ro in the Gangseo-gu ward of Seoul, now has more World Championships than all of North America managed wins at Worlds this year. 

When you don’t have the big things in life, cling to the small things and enjoy the show—Riot Games puts on a great one, and there's always next year.

Philip Palmer

Phil is a contributor for PC Gamer, formerly of TechRadar Gaming. With four years of experience writing freelance for several publications, he's covered every genre imaginable. For 15 years he's done technical writing and IT documentation, and more recently traditional gaming content. He has a passion for the appeal of diversity, and the way different genres can be sandboxes for creativity and emergent storytelling. With thousands of hours in League of Legends, Overwatch, Minecraft, and countless survival, strategy, and RPG entries, he still finds time for offline hobbies in tabletop RPGs, wargaming, miniatures painting, and hockey.