Fnatic was facing a simple, yet important choice on Sept. 10: beat H2K Gaming in a best-of-five and secure a ticket in the World Championship, or watch the competition from the sidelines.
The team was rather decisive in securing its ticket with a 3-0 affair.
The final game hadn't even totally ended when Fnatic's veteran top laner, Paul "sOAZ" Boyer, stood up from his seat, arms raised, with the Nexus exploding shortly after. "I was just really happy, because I knew that if it was a week ago, we would have probably given up the second game for example," he said. "We wouldn't have played as good in the first and third games. I was really happy with the results that we had for practice, and we never really gave up anything."
On the other end of the Fnatic lineup sat Martin "Rekkles" Larsson. In contrast, the AD carry pondered longer, as if processing what had happened. His reaction may have been different than his top laner's, but the two players shared the same emotion: relief. After all, they had endured disappointing 2016 campaigns. Rekkles's Fnatic squad faltered in the regional qualifier for the World Championship, and sOAZ's Origen had to secure its spot in the LCS in the relegation tournament.
"With Origen, we had a super s--- season, and everything went to s--- as soon as [Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez] and [Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen] left," sOAZ said. "We just couldn't get back on track and play good. For Fnatic, it just went downhill. They started playing worse, and there's a lot of other things that happened."
The top laner's situation in Origen had a silver lining as, following his experience helping Augustas "Toaster" Ruplys in Origen, he was better prepared to help 2017 rookies Rasmus "Caps" Winther and Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen. "I think I'm doing a much better job now helping teammates, but I think it's due to how the team environment was in Origen," he said. "I'm in a much better state right now to be able to help out people and I know better how to do it better than before."
Fnatic's qualification for Worlds was not a foregone conclusion. In the 2017 spring split, the team promoted Broxah in place of the experienced Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider, and parted ways with head coach Nicolas "NicoThePico" Korsgaard.
On top of that, the players needed to navigate through a mid-jungle centric meta in the spring split, despite having two rookies in the positions. Still, Fnatic finished third, losing to spring split champion G2 Esports in the semifinals. Caps and Broxah had acquired valuable experience heading into the summer split.
"We were relying a lot on two rookies to do things on the map," sOAZ said. "It was pretty hard for us to help them enough. They pretty much have to learn through experience."
As such, the team was ready for the summer split, where the game required efforts from mid, jungle, and the bot lane. "Some teams playing carry top play and playing around top, but 99% of the teams in the world just played around bot eventually," sOAZ said. "Right now, if you have a winning bot lane match-up, you just win the game.
"I think top is just 'whatever.' You can just play whatever as long as you have a good bot lane match-up and your four-man [group] is playing correctly," he added. "Even if you have a really bad match-up, you're going to have pressure. It depends much about the four-mans."
The team's play during the season was ahead of the field in Europe, and it progressed past flaws it had spotlighted before its poor Rift Rivals showing. Moving away from strictly playing around bot lane, the team finished first in Group A in the EU LCS, securing its position in the semifinals. There, it would experience a final setback in an upset 3-1 defeat against Misfits. Had that loss not occurred, the players would have skipped working on mental fortitude, a matter that would have brought their undoing at Worlds.
"When we're losing games, we lost them pretty quickly and never tried to come back," sOAZ said. "As soon as we had bad early games, or something bad happened in the game against Misfits for example, we tend to sort of tilt and not find a way to come back out of the game. So, [we tried] to work on players and team attitude and try to fix that after Misfits."
But the team may still experience setbacks, despite its display in Europe.
"It's still sort of a new thing since we have two rookies, and it's their first time at Worlds," sOAZ said. "Obviously, we would really like to perform well at Worlds, but at the same time I acknowledge that we have two rookies, and even though we perform at the LCS and on tournaments and everything like this, Worlds is completely different. You spend so much time practicing - day and night, you're thinking about League. It's the same for LCS players, but not to this point, as in Worlds is very extreme. You think and play so much League, so it's very different, and you never know how it's going to be."