MADRID -- Autumn was a season of youth and discovery for South Korea's Damwon Gaming, and it came to a bittersweet end Sunday as they fell to reigning Mid-Season Invitational and European champions G2 Esports in the quarterfinals of the League of Legends World Championship.
With a starting lineup comprised of four rookies and an organization that last year at this time was just promoted from the minor leagues, the 2019 iteration of the world championship was never supposed to be Damwon's tournament. This was the year of G2 or the year of SKT, and Damwon, a newcomer on the international stage, hopped off their plane in Europe for the play-in stage just hoping to get as far as they could and bring back pride to a South Korean region that faltered at home in last year's worlds.
Those expectations rapidly changed, however, once the blue-chip talent on Damwon began playing on Western Europe's online server. Damwon players shot up the leaderboards and overtook the top spots from the strongest players on the continent. As more teams landed in Berlin, the setting for the play-in and group-stage rounds, the whispers and rumors of Damwon's dominance in scrimmages began to bounce around at the world championship.
G2 even admitted as much: Following their quarterfinal victory over Damwon, G2 jungler Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski said his team had taken only a handful of wins over the South Korean squad over a series of practice games.
So what happened in between Damwon's reign of terror in the practice room and their disappointing loss to G2 Esports at the Palacio Vistalegre?
What anyone would expect from a group of young players just finding their stride: hesitation due to a lack of experience.
During practice games, there was no pressure on Damwon to actually win. If an opposing team left up an opening, Damwon wouldn't dither instead stomping on their foe and attacking without fear. That didn't happen in their quarterfinal. When there were small opportunities to possibly barrel forward and take over the match, the South Korean squad erred on the safe side, playing not to lose rather than playing to win.
The South Koreans' nerves meant G2 could simply outmatch the younger and less experienced Damwon. The final game of the series from the Europeans was a master class on how to hinder and destroy a composition betting on getting to the late game.
"I think they're pretty good in scrims, and on stage also not bad," said G2 bot laner Luka "Perkz" Perković. "I think on stage, they take far less risks than they do in scrims, and that also makes their playstyle easier to play against. ... They're far less scary on stage than in scrims."
To play without presumptions is freeing; playing with the weight of praise and expectations can be suffocating. Damwon entered the year wanting to make their domestic playoffs and maybe contend in their debut campaign with some exciting rookies on the roster, and here they were, a month into their European journey, two wins away in a tied 1-1 series from eliminating the MSI champions and making the world semifinals.
At that crucial point in their worlds journey, G2 players seemed at ease despite the pressure.
During their games throughout the tournament, the players can sometimes be seen laughing and joking around as they run around the map, but being able to relax in those moments is a skill, just like laning. Perkz has grown up in the G2 franchise since he was 16 years old, eventually becoming the captain and creating the team in his image alongside owner and founder Carlos "Ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago.
No matter if G2 won or lost, they'd step off the stage as friends having played a video game together.
Damwon are not able to play so freely yet.
They don't have a captain like Perkz, and while their identity is taking shape, their core trio of top laner Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon (20), jungler Kim "Canyon" Geon-bu (18) and mid laner Heo "ShowMaker" Su (19) haven't hit their primes as players yet. Once one of them -- or, as Damwon hope, all three -- hits their stride as a professional players, that's when those blowouts and beatings Damwon handed out in scrimmages against the best teams in the world will transfer to what happens under the stage lights.
Maybe no player from Damwon will take more from this worlds than Nuguri. Before the tournament kicked off, he was considered by many, including myself, as the young talent to watch for in terms of having a breakout performance. He was brash, technically skilled and had a style that would frustrate opponents and his head coach alike, never wanting to play it safe and always pushing the issue.
In Europe, he was outshined by his two teenage teammates, Canyon and Showmaker. Nuguri's slapdash tendencies came back to bite him against better competition. Although his pure talent was enough to keep him above the teams he faced in play-ins, he stumbled more than once during the group stages before having his overaggressive plays punished repeatedly by G2, a team that knows a thing or two about playing offensively.
This wasn't Nuguri's tournament, just like it wasn't Damwon's. This will be remembered as possibly the year Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok wins his fourth Summoner's Cup or the man nicknamed "super carry," Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang, leads his hodgepodge team to a world title. Maybe G2 will and Perkz will claim their title on home soil, or maybe Invictus Gaming will once again take the trophy back.
But next year, in China, learning along with the rest of his teammates from their month in Berlin and Madrid -- that could be Nuguri's world championship. It could, if they stick together and tweak their weak points, be Damwon's tournament.
"So coming here to Europe -- actually even before coming here, on our journey to be able to qualify for worlds, I learned a lot," Nuguri said Sunday. "Not just in-game, but outside of the game. I learned how to get along with my teammates and the right posture to have."
As the leaves change colors and fall, so will Damwon, returning back to South Korea. In the winter, they will hibernate and attempt to apply what they learned in Europe. Then, as the next calendar year begins and domestic play stars up with MSI on the horizon, Damwon's hope will spring enteral anew.