Pressure still on for SKT after domestic dominance

Rand: Faker still the greatest of all time despite slump last year (4:46)

ESPN's Emily Rand and Phil Murphy dive into SK Telecom T1's win over Griffin and break down Faker's return to dominance. (4:46)

SK Telecom T1's post-match victory interview began like all South Korean League of Legends interviews should, with legendary esports caster Kim Dong-jun in a stunning suit, talking to players one by one. When he reached Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, he paused. The crowd inside Jamsil Sports Center in Seoul roared. Faker nodded politely while Caster Jun smiled.

Recognizing the moment, Caster Jun nodded, encouraging the crowd as it began to chant.

"Fa-ker! Fa-ker! Fa-ker!"

The camera panned to the spectators, who were waving handmade signs and neon signs. One Chinese fan's sign read: "Faker takes me around the world." Next to her, another fan wiped tears from his eyes.

Faker told Caster Jun that he was happy about Saturday's victory over Griffin in the League of Legends Champions Korea Spring Split finals, but that he also felt badly for his teammates from last year because they couldn't achieve the same results. After another cheer, he began to tear up onstage.

Sometimes it takes a moment like this to realize that Faker is still human. He has carried himself so well as the icon of South Korean esports for years, a beacon of their continued success and talent, that his humanity often falls away in favor of his talent on Summoner's Rift.

With the crowd behind him, his teammates beside him and Caster Jun, as always, guiding the conversation, Faker was legend, returning to his rightful place at the top. He was also a 22-year-old man who was deeply sorry that this moment couldn't have been shared with his prior teammates as well. In that moment, the weight of expectations was almost a physical burden that could be seen by a massive live audience, and an even larger viewership on stream.

He blinked through the tears, his smile peeking through and falling again. Faker closed his eyes briefly and bit his bottom lip, righting himself. With Caster Jun's guidance, he nodded, pushed his glasses up his nose and continued the interview.

The moment passed, but the pressure is still on as Faker and SKT look forward to the upcoming Mid-Season Invitational tournament.

A year and a half ago, after losing the 2017 League of Legends World Championship, Faker also cried. It became one of the most iconic moments in League of Legends esports history, frozen in time by a photograph. Once the best player in the world and still the best player to ever have played the game, Faker hunched over in his seat, covering his tearful expression.

Beside him, then-SKT teammate Bae "Bang" Jun-sik stood in the booth, looking out at the Beijing National Stadium stage as swirling confetti crowned a new world champion: Samsung Galaxy. Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan had similarly buried his head in his hands, leaning forward, facial expression hidden. At the end of the booth, top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon was already packing up his mouse and keyboard.

SKT and South Korea fell the next year, too. SKT, for the first time since 2014, failed to make it to the world championship stage, and all three South Korean representatives at the tournament failed to make it past the quarterfinals, all on home soil.

Separating SKT's glory from the success of South Korean League of Legends has always been difficult. You cannot study one in a vacuum without the other, and yet, the rise of narratives that attribute South Korea's international success solely to SKT are disingenuous and ignore years of impressive results from the region. In 2014, there were still subpar South Korean teams such as the KT Rolster Bullets blowing through IEM Katowice undefeated while struggling domestically.

In 2015, after a massive player exodus and complete restructuring of OGN's tournament into a then-eight-team league, the Tigers rose up as the best team that spring, even with perceived mediocre talent. Their success set the tone for South Korea over the next few years: The region would still be at the top, despite having to contend with China, North America, Europe and multiple minor regions for young players off of the solo queue ladder as well as established veterans.

South Korea would find a way to thrive, regardless of what other regions threw at it.

The Tigers' success alongside SKT and even Samsung Galaxy's 2017 world championship team all played a part in why South Korean League of Legends teams are still struggling to return the region to its former depth and strength. Years of having to contend with other regions for their own players have inevitably worn down the amount of good players available to South Korean teams. The young talent available in seasons past hasn't replaced the LCK veterans in a timely manner, and while this split saw the rise of recently promoted teams in DAMWON and Sandbox, those players still need more experience and improvement (although their success should be considered a fairly good sign).

Even if SKT wins MSI, there's little doubt that China's League of Legends Pro League still has the greatest pool of talent in the world. But a win, even if it doesn't mean much in the larger scale, will be worth plenty, and not just to SKT fans. The South Korean League of Legends community is pining for a return to its international glory, and the narrative of the revival of SKT is beneficial to the worldwide League ecosystem, too.

This is the pressure that Faker and SKT will carry into MSI. A domestic title did little to lift the weight off their shoulders -- but in the moment, for a star mid laner and his new teammates, it provided brief catharsis.

After Faker and the audience's collective tears, Caster Jun shifted the interview into a celebration of SKT as a whole. He noted that Bang, Huni, former SKT mid laner Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon and former SKT jungler Kang "Blank" Sun-gu were in the crowd, before turning toward the future.

"You made a promise or a pledge that you were going to win MSI, too," Caster Jun said. "What was the promise?"

"I'm going to win worlds," Faker said.