Why esports' biggest star turned down a $10 million salary to become part-owner of his own team


Faker League of Legends

  • Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok has led T1 Entertainment & Sports to three “League of Legends” World Championship victories since 2013.
  • Now, a new contract has made Faker a part-owner of the esports team.
  • Prior to his new contract with T1, Faker said he turned down a $10 million salary offer from a Chinese team, and from a North American franchise that offered what he said was a blank check. The average “League of Legends” player in North America earns about $300,000 per year.
  • Faker’s new contract runs through 2022, but he’ll continue to be an esports icon long after his playing days are over.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the world of esports, no star shines brighter than Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as Faker. He’s commonly called “The Unkillable Demon King.” ESPN frequently refers to him as the “Michael Jordan” of esports. His first Twitch stream set a platform record. And he’s earned millions dominating the professional “League of Legends” circuit as a member of South Korea’s T1 Entertainment & Sports. A new contract has now made him a part-owner of the team.

In North America, “League of Legends” players command an average salary of more than $300,000, but Faker’s previous deal reportedly paid him $2.5 million per year, plus additional prize money won during competition. When that contract expired in November 2019, fans speculated whether Faker would leave South Korea to seek more money from a team in China or North America.

In an interview earlier this year the 23-year-old esports phenom said he had declined a $10 million salary offer from a Chinese “LoL” team and that he turned down a North American franchise that offered him a contract with a blank check.

Faker told the South Korean show Radio Star that he preferred to stay in his own country and continue playing for T1’s dedicated fans. T1 built its team around Faker when he was just 16 years old and he’s led the team to three world championships since 2013.

“I am excited to continue playing for T1 and am thankful for all the fans around the world who have supported me all these years,” Faker said in a statement announcing his new contract “I am honored to become a part owner of T1 and look forward to working with the leadership team beyond my playing career. I love this team and am proud to help mold the future of this organization.”

Travis Gafford, a “League of Legends” analyst and esports expert, said T1 offered Faker an ownership stake to retain him as the face of the franchise. South Korea Telecom and Comcast Spectator recently partnered to restructure the team as T1 Entertainment & Sports in October 2019, with the goal of expanding the team’s presence in North America.

“Faker is without a doubt, the biggest star in the biggest esport. Due to the instability of esports, we haven’t seen many ‘franchise players’ — but Faker’s history with T1 for the better part of the last decade has made him inseparable from their brand,” Gafford told Business Insider. “It’s unsurprising that the organization constructed a deal that ensures he will stay linked to them even into his retirement.”

Gafford compared Faker’s new contract to an October 2019 deal that made another “LoL” player, Soren “Bjergsen” Berg. Bjergsen is a part owner of Team SoloMid, a North American franchise competing in the League Championship Series. He joined TSM in 2013 and is now the team’s longest tenured player.

“Until teams reach the revenue necessary to provide the most iconic players with salaries comparable to mainstream sports athletes, we may continue to see organizations provide equity packages to long standing competitors,”

While other popular gamers like Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg and Tyler “Ninja” Blevins have made millions entertaining fans on video platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and Mixer, Faker’s fame is born from his skills as a player. At 23, he’s already one of the oldest competitors in professional “League of Legends,” and his new player contract runs through 2022.

Faker will be 26 years old when the contract ends, and even if he’s not capable of competing at the highest level, he still has a bright future as a broadcaster, coach, and overall gaming icon.

“T1 is thrilled to have Faker on its roster for the next three seasons,” T1 CEO Joe Marsh said. “Since T1’s inception, Faker has been the cornerstone of our team’s success and his undying passion for this organization will continue to drive us forward now that he is a part owner of T1 Entertainment & Sports.”

Marsh said, “Even after Faker’s retirement — whenever that may be — he will begin the next chapter of his legacy in a leadership role with T1, helping to mold the next generation of elite esports athletes.”

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