The third title was for him. But the fourth was for his teammates. And for the 6,400,000 fans in Korea and around the world making the 2023 League of Legends Worlds Championship the most popular esports tournament of all time. On Sunday night, in Seoul, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok's teammates completed this esport’s greatest storyline, dropping only one game in an all-Chinese knockout stage and finally breaking the Korean Finals curse to lift the Summoner's Cup.
You can hardly describe this year as turbulent and uncertain for T1. After all, they went almost flawless in Spring before falling to Gen.G in the LCK Finals. They then went on to clinch an MSI top 3 finish. Later, they saved their summer split by earning the runners-up honors again. Yet, this is a Golden-Road-material roster we have here. One that we expect to win several titles a season; especially given how Gen.G ended up performing at the international level.
T1 actually spent the year surrounded by a lot of doubts cast on them by fans and observers alike, and probably themselves too. First, their winning streak wasn’t impressive enough. Next, the Chinese teams swept them at MSI. Then Faker got injured and had to step aside from his teammates. T1’s gameplay and win-loss record started plummeting to the point where their very qualification to Worlds – their Worlds – was questioned.
In the end, T1 secured an LCK playoffs spot with a neutral winrate. That’s where the magic happened. KT Rolster, as the highest seed, selected them in quarterfinals, aiming to put the final nail in the coffin during a Telecom War. All they did was hand the qualification to Worlds over to T1. Their Worlds.
Hype train from Busan
Even T1’s Worlds journey started with a very unconvincing victory over North America’s Team Liquid, only to be succeeded by another loss against Gen.G. They clearly were not fully healed when they wrapped up a 3-1 Swiss stage to reach the quarterfinals.
Heading to Busan’s Sajik Arena, T1’s overwhelming pressure management started to build up. They destroyed a very promising LNG in what was probably the cleanest League of Legends recital ever played. This was the moment T1 started to get their game right: every player stepped up to deploy limit-testing drafts with early-game win conditions that required perfect execution – which they did put up.
Straight away, T1 descended from heaven to crush JDG’s hopes of a Golden Road. In a super clutch fashion, they managed to only drop one game against the LPL Spring, MSI and LPL Summer champions. Mun “Oner” Hyeon-jun’s millisecond-perfect counter-engage and Faker's flash prediction will remain in many observers' memories for a sweet long time.
T1 could depart to Seoul with the right gauge of aggressivity and flexibility that defines them. They were driving the meta, and they knew it – they crafted it. They had fully turned their team-fighting game and their drafting skills up to become the best team in the world — again.
Let them Hanguk
Under the Gocheok Sky Dome, things were never really close and, if it was not for the different storylines at play, these Worlds Finals would have been pretty underwhelming. In the first match, there was certainly an interesting early game from Weibo Gaming’s Wei “Weiwei” Bo-Han, during which his Maokai managed to outplay T1’s pressure despite having no lane priorities. But everything quickly fell apart when an all-in on Lee “Gumayusi” Min-hyeong’s Kalista fell short and Ruy “Keria” Min-seok’s Renata Glasc ultimate turned the game into a stomp. Sure, other mid game decisions were to blame, like matching T1’s investment on Heralds instead of playing across the map, or spending an awful amount of time on that third drake’s midwave. However, what truly transpired was an already wide individual gap between players of the Chinese and Korean sides.
With WBG not playing as freely as against BLG and Gen.G and forcing unnecessary moves, it was easy to see how Game 2 would unfold at the end of this insanely T1-leaning draft. Another weak, late game oriented botlane, paired with an AD Ahri meant to dampen the Gwen-Nocturne side lane threat, couldn’t do anything against T1’s extremely clean and slow-paced early game. Weibo getting all neutral objectives surely was not enough. Another overhasty mid game from WBG later, Choi “Zeus” Woo-je monstrously gapped Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok on his way to the Finals MVP title.
At two games to nil, the need for a change of formula called Weibo. They too wanted their story to be told — the attractive underdog narrative: all the progress they had made since January, their lower-bracket run from China, their unlikely fantasy tale with caster and co-streamer Marc “Caedrel” Lamont... All of this would have been better remembered if they were to lift the trophy – or at least push on until some Silver Scrapes.
One could finally say they won a draft; they owned the range on every lane, they had a Bard to blast some plays, they had counterpicks. Although they didn’t have Zeus’s… and it showed, since he decided to select Aatrox, TheShy’s champion until then, to add to the humiliation. 25 minutes later, after Faker’s treat on Akali activated yet another stomp, T1 fell 30 seconds short of the fastest ever best-of-5 Worlds Finals. Who cares, though? They had broken the curse. 7 years later, after having been everything to this organization, from hypercarry to mentor to co-owner, Faker laid his hands on his (and T1’s) fourth Summoner’s Cup in front of his home crowd. An absolute record.
Seoul mates forever
T1 vs. Weibo Gaming was yet another expeditive Worlds Finals that, some would say, makes the case for a partial or full double elimination bracket; even though this was the first sweep since 2018-2019 – a time when European teams still managed to reach that level of competition. In any case, it certainly didn’t take anything away from T1’s legend.
Zeus, Oner, Faker, Gumayusi, and Keria will go down in history as one of, if not the best roster League of Legends esport has ever seen. Also, don’t let Faker’s exceptional durability fool you. (Plus, stop wishing for his retirement for the sake of a storyline, let us enjoy the greatest player of all time for as long as we possibly can.) This version of T1 is an extremely young team: the youngest at Worlds 2023, actually. They all might be riding for a while.
They stuck together after a traumatizing failure that would have decimated every other roster. They learned from their mistakes, doubled down on work ethics and mental preparation to come back ready together. Will they remain united after the biggest success of their lives – and the new challenges raised by the salary cap?
As London was announced as the 2024 Worlds Finals host city, one can only hope that the T1 roster we are set to see there will face as little transformation as possible.
Feature image credit: @LoLEsports