As they entered the World Championship, European teams had attracted increased scrutiny from fans. After the region's top league rebranded to the League of Legends European Championship, EU teams have showcased an impressive level of play both domestically and internationally.
Not only did fans witness G2 Esports claim the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational crown, they cheered for them and Fnatic as they played two evenly matched five-game series within one week in the LEC playoffs. As such, expectations were high for the two teams going into the League of Legends World Championship group stage.
However, they and third seed Splyce surpassed expectations when they qualified to the world championship playoffs together. Indeed, much as the LCK has done, the LEC is fielding three teams in the quarterfinals -- its biggest collective achievement at this stage to date. Should they collectively equalize or surpass Europe's 2018 showing (two semifinalists, one finalist), 2019 would be cemented as Europe's best year ever in League of Legends since the emergence of South Korea and China as competitive regions.
It took all three of them considerable effort to get it done.
G2 Esports' cruise hits a Griffin snag
Of the European teams qualified to the quarterfinals, G2 Esports did so in typical G2 fashion for better and worse. When dealing with pressure during the first three games, G2 showed why they dominated the European region. When it was off, they showed a side that fans have grown accustomed to, one primarily played for laughs in hindsight.
Although G2 are known as a fun-loving crew, they are one of the most efficient teams during the drafting stage and execution in high-stakes situations. During their first five games, they displayed those qualities, alternating between brutal early-game compositions (against Cloud9) and team fighting compositions (against their first encounter with Griffin).
"We want to be a team that can play every style [and] be good all-around, kind of like SKT," Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski said. "We don't want to opt into aggressive comps every game, or copy, or opt into passive comps. It's just about which opponents we face, and what comp in particular is best against them."
Nevertheless, as pressure waned, with their qualification assured, their final two games brought a very G2-esque issue: cockiness. Indeed, they allowed Griffin to play comfort champions and destroy them in the early game in a way reminiscent of their losses to Phong Vu Buffalo at the Mid-Season Invitational and to Fnatic in the LEC summer semifinals.
Even then, G2 head into the quarterfinal as the most dangerous second seed to face. Although their opponent, Damwon, match well against G2 on paper in the solo lanes, a well-prepared G2 has usually hit the mark (after two losses at worst, give or take). To my chagrin, we will not be getting G2 vs. Invictus Gaming -- the matchup that could have occurred had G2 finished in first place.
Fnatic recover in the group of death
This isn't the first time that Fnatic have found themselves in a compromising situation with little signs that there might still be a pulse left. However, that never stopped them from recovering. In 2015, they finished first in their group at 4-2 after a 1-2 start. In 2017, their disastrous 0-3 start is only remembered within the context of their unlikely qualification with an overall 4-4 record shortly afterwards with wins over Gigabyte Marines and Immortals.
Add the 2019 World Championship to their list of dramatic recoveries, this time in the group of death.
To put their 2019 recovery into perspective, one has to understand how they qualified to worlds in the first place. Confidence and hyper-proactive early games were their main ingredients, and they nearly claimed Europe's first seed had they not made minute mistakes in the deciding game of the LEC summer finals.
Their lackluster play was extremely surprising, especially considering their lack of early-game proactivity, lack of initiatives as they feared losing in such a high-stakes group, and their quirky drafts. To make things worse, their fourth game against Clutch Gaming was possibly the worst game of the tournament, as their sloppy draft and messy execution left little hope for the team to return to their summer form.
"It was poor play, but all [of it] was excused for health issues and some nervousness," Joey "Youngbuck" Steltenpool said. "The RNG game was just... we had 1k gold down, but we had control of the map. But we didn't move around the map correctly and play for objectives: we were just farming the waves and waiting to slowly lose the game or for them to make mistakes.
"At the same time, we know we can do better," he added.
That they did so against SK Telecom T1 and Royal Never Give up, of all teams, made worlds all the sweeter for Fnatic and LEC fans.
From frustration and anger stemmed elation, then jubilation, as the European team climbed from 1-2 to 4-2. Their scorching early games, Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov's playmaking, and Gabriel "Bwipo" Rau's tightrope turnarounds in the top lane all returned.
And against a mid-jungle centric FunPlus Phoenix, the promise of a semifinal appearance may become reality, should Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen's map movements allow, and should Tim "Nemesis" Lipovsek nullify Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang's push-and-roam style as he did against Caps's laning.
Splyce, Europe's awkward third seed, pleads its case
Splyce were perhaps the unlikeliest team to qualify to the quarterfinals, especially considering the absence of the much more acclaimed Royal Never Give Up and the more eagerly awaited Team Liquid and Cloud9. Many pointed at Group B being the "easiest" as an excuse for their presence. However, their play indicated that they would have made it should they have been in Group D instead.
Granted, they slogged through the play-ins, losing once to DetonatioN FocusMe and laboring through a five-game series against a team that formerly played in Europe, Unicorns of Love. They also struggled against J Team and FunPlus Phoenix as their execution squandered their drafts' potential.
"Given that we aren't favorites at Worlds, if we draft poorly, we won't play our best," head coach Hadrien "Duke" Forestier said. "We have to be on top of the game in our draft and our gameplay."
However, Splyce have been a slow-ramping team in 2019, with a caveat: the quality of their play has only been one or two steps behind G2's, and on par with Fnatic on their best day. When Splyce finally adapted to their group stage opponents, and as they used comfort picks to execute their game plans, they nearly flipped Group B upside down. A 3-1 second week later, they qualified as Group B's second seed, not without exposing FunPlus Phoenix's flaws ahead of their game against Fnatic.
To many, Splyce have overachieved in their qualification. But against SK Telecom T1, it would take more than overachieving. Perhaps their coaching staff and scouting crew may glean nuggets of information and put dents that other teams can exploit. Or perhaps, they might fit into SK Telecom T1 better than people might think-as G2 did in 2018 against then-heavy favorites Royal Never Give Up.