The Worlds 2022 finals may be the peak of League of Legends

Nicholas James • November 16, 2022 11:57 pm

League of Legends’ World Championship has been running for 11 years, and it may have reached its pinnacle with the 2022 Worlds grand finals.

DRX’s upset victory against titan T1 has already cemented itself as one of the greatest best-of-five series ever played, but the tournament that led up to it will stand the test of time as the best that League of Legends will ever get. Looking back at 12 years of League of Legends, and forwards to an uncertain future, what does it mean to crown this tournament as a paragon of the esport?

The impossible climb to the peak of LoL esports

DRX was never meant to make the final, and by most estimations, it was destined to bomb out in the quarterfinals against defending world champion EDward Gaming. DRX was, in the eyes of most watching, the worst qualifying Korean team, who were destined to fall to actual championship prospects like T1, EDG, or GEN.G. Another in the lineage of KT Rolster, brought to the largest stage to be put down by teams that actually stood a chance to take home the Summoner’s Cup. Chum to be fed to the sharks circling towards the finals stage, a stepping stone for the eventual champion.

This was the prevailing outlook on DRX because it was the time-honored story of fourth seeds and LCK representatives starting in Play-Ins. Good enough to make it to the Group Stage, better than LEC, LCS, and minor region teams, expected to make the Knockout stage, but never good enough to win. Never, until this year.

What DRX accomplished was ruled practically impossible because every previous team with the same opportunity failed to walk the perilous path from Play-Ins to the finals. It was unprecedented, practically unthinkable, hence not a single person in the League of Legends community correctly guessed the course of the tournament in their Pick ‘Ems. Every single person who made every correct prediction ahead of the semifinals guessed that Korean top seed GEN.G would win the tournament.

DRX had failed to win a single game all year against GEN.G and T1 heading into Worlds, they had demonstrated to be a step behind their peers. Every piece of history and relevant evidence pointed to DRX being down and out, and yet here we stand.

From humble origins to a clash of titans

Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s storylines heading into the Worlds 2022 grand finals are the best examples that League of Legends esports has of the truth being stranger than fiction. High school classmates from Mapo High School in Seoul, South Korea, Deft says he first heard of Faker when rumors circulated that a highly ranked player was somewhere in the halls of the school. “I really wanted to become better than that student and become the best player at the school”, said Deft.

The two left school to pursue competitive League of Legends, with their first encounter on stage being the first time Faker ever played LeBlanc professionally, a champion that became a symbol of his unmatched prowess. Deft scraped the heights of Worlds semifinals with Samsung Blue as Faker rapidly ascended to the greatest player of all time. When the great Korean talent exodus of 2015 happened, Deft looked to China and the LPL for his future while Faker stayed to dominate on the only team he’d ever known. One chasing the ephemeral conditions for greatness for years, the other distinguishing himself as a generational talent synonymous with the game.

It’s David against Goliath with an ending to match.

Measuring an esport’s lifespan by the stories it tells

League of Legends is in its 12th year as an international esport. That’s a level of longevity that few games ever achieve, much less sustain for an ever-increasing audience. It’s been a wildly successful game and esport, but it’s a fair question to ask if this decade-old game can sustain itself for another 12 years. The pragmatic answer, looking at the gaming space around it, is no. While it’s possible, any game staying at the front of its field without a brand new form and making it all the way to the 24-year mark is a monumental task.

Whether that’s a new iteration of the game brought forward by Riot Games, or simply falling into obscurity, the League of Legends of today likely is at, or past, the halfway point in its lifespan. This isn’t a pessimistic prognosis either. League of Legends has become the single most popular esport in the world and continues to stand strong, but another decade could simply be too far for the current game to go without serious change.

This is an integral part of what makes Worlds 2022 so special. It is the culmination of storylines that have taken an entire decade to develop, time the game might not have left. Deft’s journey from high schooler to seasoned veteran, founding figure, and globally-known superstar, all to face his classmate in the most-viewed League of Legends live match of all time is only possible thanks to a MOBA that raised two Mapo High School students to international superstardom while still growing for all those years alongside them.

If there’s any game that could potentially make it to that mark, it’s League of Legends. However, the betting man’s assumption is that whatever form Summoner’s Rift takes 12 years from now, it will be radically different. And in whatever time League of Legends has left, in this form or another, it’s incredibly unlikely that we will ever see a twist of fate as long in the making as DRX’s miracle run and Deft’s face-off with the Unkillable Demon King.

The moments that define a sport

When legendary esports like Starcraft, Counter-Strike 1.6, and similar retire, there are moments that become an immutable part of that game’s legacy. While some of these are jaw-dropping mechanical plays or high-level knowledge paying off to the extreme, the ones that are enshrined in the sport are the human moments around the game. The exhilaration of victory and the wrenching agony of defeat hand-in-hand.

The T1 vs DRX series has plenty of in-game moments that could adorn the walls of a hall of fame, from Lee “Gumayusi” Min-hyeong’s impossible Baron steal to Hwang “Kingen” Seong-hoon’s series-winning lurk behind the Dragon pit wall for 40 seconds. The back-and-forth of the series comes down to a white-knuckle objective fight and a failed back-door attempt, and the Unkillable Demon King is slain by the underdog hero. This is what will be remembered when League of Legends finally ends its time at the center of the gaming world. A story of triumph against all odds for DRX, and the gutting heartbreak of a series for T1 that was a single game from theirs.

The way that elite players commit their lives to League of Legends is clearly visible. On one side, the impossible heroes, ascendant dragonslayers who, despite their name, have faced the greatest opponent in the annals of the game’s history and arrived on the other side triumphant. On DRX’s half of the stage, we see the jubilation and ecstasy of victory. Teammates rush to embrace one another as the Chase Center erupts in a wall of deafening noise. It is Deft’s decade of struggle finally paying off, Cho “BeryL” Geon-hee’s second world championship, and the crowning achievement of all League of Legends with breakout performances for fresh talents like Kingen, Kim “Zeka” Geon-woo, and Hong “Pyosik” Chang-hyeon. These are the greatest heights a player can hope to reach, and DRX’s celebration in that moment bears all the heartfelt gravity that only the unbridled joy of vindication before the eyes of some five million fans can generate.

Opposite them, the T1 roster grapples with the single most stinging defeat that the esport can offer, the gutting knowledge that they were a single game from a championship. The last time that League of Legends fans saw Faker lose a series on the Worlds finals stage, it was the famous photo of him, head in hands, crying at his desk, that is remembered. This time, six years of growth from that moment, Faker’s first-captured reaction is to look to his left and right, checking in on his younger teammates. At this moment, the Unkillable Demon King’s expression is not one of defeat. It’s one of concern for his teammates to whom the wound of this loss is alien.

It’s when Faker sees support Ryu “Keria” Min-seok thrown back in his chair, hands clasped to his eyes in anguish that the stoic expression breaks and Faker lets out a sigh and cups his face. Six years have come and gone and Faker is no longer the unblemished champion experiencing his only grand finals loss, he’s T1’s veteran mind and its leader. His first action isn’t to mourn for himself, but to see how his teammates have been affected by the loss. The most palpable of these reactions is in Keria, who breaks down hugging his once-teammates of Deft and Pyosik and sinks into his chair sobbing.

These moments, the unbelievable highs and the crushing lows, weave in tandem to show everything that is at stake in elite competition. A full decade of play went into seeding the stories that made up the Worlds 2022 finals, time that League of Legends simply may not have remaining in its lifespan to tell such a story again. But even if League of Legends has passed the halfway point, Worlds 2022 is a miraculous story of triumph against all odds that will be one of the key pillars of League of Legends’ mythos when it does finally close the book on esports.

The sport will be defined by its human moments of agony and ecstasy when it finally retires, and Worlds 2022 showcased the stories of those moments better than any tournament before it. With the future impossible to know, Worlds 2022 is the crown jewel in League of Legends’ competitive history and will likely remain as such until the end.

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