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Esports legend Faker seeks to lead Korean surge at Asian Games

Will Korean squad, led by world-renowned ‘Faker,’ bring home the country’s first esports gold?

Sept. 24, 2023 - 15:52 By Yoon Min-sik
Lee Sang-hyeok, also known as Faker (center) arrives at the Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport in Hangzhou, China to participate in the 19th Asian Games. (Yonhap)

Among the biggest names in the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou is South Korean Lee Sang-hyeok, better known by his gaming handle Faker and reputed to be one of the greatest esports players of all time.

The 27-year-old is part of the country’s delegation of 1,140 athletes and officials participating in the Asian Games that kicked off Saturday.

Led by Lee, South Korea has formed a national team of 15 players competing in four of seven categories of esports, which is making its debut as a medal event for the first time in Asian Games history.

Among the four is the multi-player battle arena game “League of Legends” (LoL), which Lee has been dominating for the better part of the past decade.

While the “Michael Jordan of esports” sparked louder cheers than any of his compatriots when they arrived Friday in the Chinese city, the South Korean squad has a shared goal of redeeming its less-than-satisfactory outing at the 2018 games, when esports was a demonstration event. At the Asian Games in Indonesia, Korea’s streak of No. 2 -- behind the perennial powerhouse China -- from 1998 to 2014 was snapped by Japan.

South Korea is provisionally shooting for at least two golds in esports, with hopes to challenge Japan for the place of the runner-up.

Overall, the country is aiming for 50 gold medals and to rank third in the total medal tally.

Lee’s LoL team is set to face off against Hong Kong and Kazakhstan Monday in the group matches, the winner of which will advance to the knockout rounds against Saudi Arabia two days after. Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, India and China earned direct berths to the quarterfinals thanks to their performance in the qualification tournament, which South Korea did not enter.

The team is one of the strongest contenders to become the first-ever LoL gold medalists at the Asian Games. However, first they will have to get past the formidable Chinese team.

South Korea’s national esports team will play for the medals in five of the seven disciplines, LoL, EA Sports FC Online (also known as FIFA Online 4), Peace Elite Asian Games Version (also known as PUBG Mobile) and Street Fighter V: Champion Edition.

Lee is among the male athletes of the South Korean squad that could get his mandatary military service exempted through the Asian Games. South Korean law states that all able-bodied men are to serve in the military for at least two years, but winners of an Asian Games gold medal or Olympic medals can be exempted of that duty.

Recently a controversy arose over whether or not to exclude Asian Games gold medalists from such benefits, but the system was maintained.

Kim Sun-woo poses for a photo after winning the silver medal at the women's individual modern pentathlon Sunday at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. (Yonhap)

The medal hunting for South Korea already begin Sunday, as Kim Sun-woo took home the country’s first medal by winning the silver in the women’s individual modern pentathlon event behind China’s Zhang Mingyu. The national women’s pentathlon team won the bronze medal in the team discipline, behind China and Japan.

The nation marched into the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium for Saturday’s opening ceremony with fencer Gu Bon-gil and swimmer Kim Seo-yeong as the flag-bearers, with Prime Minister Han Duck-soo representing the country from the stands.