WUHAN, CHINA -- Everything was set up for the second miracle run of the tournament. Europe's Fnatic set the precedent as the first team to make it to the quarterfinal after starting 0-3 the first week. Now it was EDward Gaming's turn.
"If Fnatic can do it, then sure," was the line from LPL English casters Indiana "Froskurrin" Black and Zack "Rusty" Pye when I caught up with them while I picked up my coffee Friday at Wuhan Gymnasium.
No one agreed more than the Guangzhou crowd in attendance. Just as on the two days before, banners stretched the rungs of the venue in support of every member of EDward Gaming. Before I walked into the arena, the EDward Gaming fan club huddled for a photo to commemorate the day and immediately began chanting in support of their favorite team.
Of course, a quiet, seditious element sprinkled throughout the crowd. With no room to sit, I walked in and out of ground-floor seating and took up a position next to one of the largest SK Telecom T1 cheering sections.
"Faker is the best," a girl with an SKT LED sign said to me. "He doesn't disappoint anyone."
The words called back to Ming "Clearlove" Kai's declaration to Wuhan on the first day: He would not let his hometown down.
Naturally, Riot Games had set up the schedule for the story of both Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok and Clearlove to culminate in the final game of the day. If EDward Gaming could run through ahq e-Sports Club and Cloud9, the old 2015 Mid Season Invitational finals storyline in which EDG took a Game 5 win over SKT would swing back into relevance.
But ahq and Cloud9 still had the world to play for. As the last remaining representatives of the LMS and North American LCS, the only two major regions that still lacked representation in top eight, ahq and Cloud9 had entire populations of fans watching back home, waiting for the first games of the day.
That's exactly where the magic began.
Once situated in the press room, I sat in the second row behind two journalists from a Taiwanese outlet, Gamer.com.tw. As soon as ahq's Liu "westdoor" Shuwei hovered over Fizz, a known signature pick of the legendary mid laner, one of the journalists squealed and covered her mouth. When the pick locked in, both began chanting "Little fish, little fish," the Mandarin Chinese nickname for Fizz. The pick and ban ended with Faker's Kassadin, and the two ran out of the press room to watch with the fans in the crowd.
"Because it's easy for mid lane to get counterpicked on blue side," jungler Xue "Mountain" Zhaohong said at the end of the day, "we just decided to let Westdoor pick a champion he was confident on."
The confidence made the difference. Although Faker led in the matchup for most of the game, he couldn't get pressure. Mountain kept the enemy blue buff warded despite SKT having a stronger 2v2 duo because he could put wards down when Faker or SKT's bottom lane backed. Despite westdoor falling behind in CS, he still played aggressively mid and kept pressure.
Then Faker didn't react to Mountain showing on a ward when the Sejuani charged mid. Fizz got his first kill as a result. Then he happily gave up a wave mid to defend his jungler on an ill-fated invade for krugs against enemy top side pressure. Although the trade shouldn't have worked out in a 1-for-1, westdoor's kill onto Heo "Huni" Seunghoon gave Chen "Ziv" Yi's Shen a window to get a push in the lane and westdoor an opportunity to apply even more pressure mid. With double Teleport, SKT couldn't play aggressive in the bottom, and Lulu and Varus lost their power to Kog'Maw and Janna.
"It all went down around the mid lane," Mountain said. "Last week, we made mistakes early in the mid lane and lost control of side lanes against SKT."
SKT jungler Kang "Blank" Sungu, who had watched the game from back stage as a substitute, had a similar assessment. "The game is all about mid-jungle," he said. "Their mid-jungle got really ahead."
But the magic of this ahq composition really came through with the Shen. Domestically, ahq can succeed best when they can 1-3-1 and can control the side lanes that way. As Mountain said, the week before, because ahq couldn't contest SKT's side laning Twitch and Fizz later in the game with the mid lane Syndra falling behind, ahq lost map control.
Ahq couldn't pull off the same success without Shen. Shen combines well with assassins and side laning mids in westdoor's narrow champion pool, and it works well in the Ardent Censer and scaling AD carry meta to provide a threat for bottom lane in a losing matchup. Side lane control gave ahq the only win over SK Telecom T1 at Worlds, but more than that, it opened a door for hope.
If ahq could beat SKT, perhaps it could manage the same against Cloud9. EDward Gaming, having already played a close game against SKT, could manage its miracle run.
With a godlike bottom lane dive comp or Maokai, Jarvan IV, and Galio, EDward Gaming set up to fast-push turrets with Caitlyn the way Team WE had the day before. With Clearlove resolutely leading the charge with every engage -- even a dive against a red side Janna -- it became clear that the legendary jungler wasn't ready for this to be the only World Championship in which he didn't at least advance to quarterfinals.
A 25-minute win over ahq with the hallmark Jarvan IV, Twitch, and Lulu composition that characterized the day set LPL teams at a 7-1 record for Week 2, putting all the chips into place for EDward Gaming to play a tie-breaker to get out of its group.
While other groups made Janna first pick a necessity, teams in Group A closed the week by looking for opportunities to race against the powerful support pick.
"Lulu can have advantage early game and pressure the lane, depending on the AD carry," Cloud9 jungler Juan "Contractz" Arturo Garcia explained. "But I think [Andy "Smoothie" Ta] thinks Janna is just a lot better at team fights."
Cloud9 cemented the fate of ahq e-Sports by drafting a composition with three pushing lanes. By denying Lulu in ban phase, ahq's recourse was Karma, but it didn't work as well in the Jarvan IV engage combination, and Cloud9's Leblanc had a heavy amount of pressure to transfer in bottom lane dives. LMS ended a second World Championship in a row without a representative in the quarterfinal.
"What struggles do you think have made things more difficult for ahq and the LMS at Worlds this year?" I asked.
"That question is too awkward," Mountain said. "I'd rather not answer it."
A lot of whispers circle the LMS and LoL's borderline fifth major region in the coming year.
Success for both Flash Wolves and ahq in 2015 at the World Championship and then Flash Wolves advancing to the semifinal at MSI two years in a row have elevated the level of expectation fans have for the LMS region every year, but fundamentals such as wave control have stagnated.
With Riot Games removing LMS access to South Korean solo queue in the coming year, Flash Wolves Head Coach Chou "Steak" Luhsi, told me earlier this week that he expects LMS to fall even further behind.
But despite leaving Wuhan with only three wins between them, Flash Wolves proved pivotal in determining the outcome of its groups and dropped favorites to get out. Flash Wolves' take down of Team SoloMid cost it a quarterfinals trip. When ahq beat EDward Gaming but not Cloud9 in Week 1, it paved the way for the third seed from North America to advance.
Most importantly, however, LCK teams dropped only three games in total during Group Stage. Samsung Galaxy lost two matches to Royal Never Give Up. SK Telecom T1 dropped to only one team: ahq. And that one game ramped up the importance of strong lanes.
Ahq's draft influenced SKT's approach against Cloud9. Getting Jayce and Fizz ahead made it prohibitive for Cloud9 to match SKT in side lanes later. That meant that, should EDward Gaming win its final match, it would have to play only a tie-breaker against Cloud9, not SKT.
"SKT is never to be underestimated, you know?" Contractz said. "They're definitely a good Korean team. They always know how to play from behind and just get ahead in wins."
Of course, EDward Gaming's composition was brilliant for attacking SKT. A snowballed Leblanc and Tristana would prevent Twitch from side-laning later, so EDG could almost always ensure top side control, even if Trundle managed to push into Maokai. Trundle and Sejuani didn't have the potential to force a fight if Gragas and Maokai played the fight correctly. All EDward Gaming had to do was get Lee "Scout" Yechan ahead to create pressure, and SKT would lose Baron control, even in the late game.
But in a crucial moment, with too many mistakes already made, the youngest member of EDward Gaming, Hu "iBoy" Xianzhao, saw an opening. His Rocket Jump into three member of SK Telecom T1 would have worked if he could have gotten the first kill, but he misjudged his damage. He didn't get the reset.
I sat backstage in the interview room with iBoy and Cloud9 Head Coach Bok "Reapered" Hangyu during the quarterfinal draw after the game. iBoy had agreed to an interview with me, but he wouldn't budge until the first playoffs-round matchups were known.
Dwarfed by his uniform, iBoy stared up at the screen at Royal Never Give Up's Shi "Ming" Senming and Team WE's Yoon "Zero" Kyungsup. The other two LPL teams would represent China in Guangzhou. His wouldn't.
Still, I caught a glimpse of a smile Cloud9 ended up pitted against Team WE. I didn't get a chance to ask him how he thought WE would do before Reapered asked one of the Riot translators which side of the bracket Cloud9 would play on: the LongZhu or the SKT side.
"Both sides are hard," he said when the Rioter asked him which side he preferred. "Obviously, we aren't the best team here."
When I had interviewed Contractz earlier, he had agreed with Reapered's sentiment. He felt disappointed in Cloud9's performance so far. But, of course, he and the rest of Cloud9 believe that, with improvement, they can win.
His own disappointment, obviously, didn't match iBoy's. When I sat down with the youngest player in Group A -- who just became old enough to compete with the team, though he has been practicing with them for a while -- he paused, just as he had on the broadcast, to give a thoughtful answer to each question.
"Last year, the atmosphere of the team was really bad after Week 1," iBoy said. "This year, it wasn't as bad. We were more optimistic, so I'm proud of that. But as for me personally, I don't think there was anything this Worlds to be proud of."
If EDward Gaming leave Wuhan shattered with nothing to feel proud of, they can't have watched their own games. Ahq have often credited its close relationship with EDG with part of its improvements. The Jarvan IV, Lulu and Twitch combination debuted by EDG became pivotal to the day. iBoy turned heads enough to get an interview with Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere, an honor Lee "Wolf" Jaewan allegedly had to ask for repeatedly of multiple years to receive. Edward Gaming as a team turned around and came back into Week 2 as much more than the defeated husk it usually turns up looking like in previous second weeks of the World Championship.
Most importantly, in front of his fans from Guangzhou, Clearlove7 played like he was the best jungler in the world. He'll likely remember the 2017 World Championship as the worst international tournament of his career, with a final score of 2-4 and an exit from Group Stage, but Clearlove7 and the rest of Edward Gaming can certainly find things to be proud of.
As Edward Gaming bowed gracefully to fans exiting the stadium, Cloud9 geared up for the quarterfinals in Guangzhou. North America's last hope will meet a fellow Play-In team in the quarterfinal, Team WE. Cloud9 have failed to advance to the World Championship quarterfinal in only one year since it joined the NA LCS, and the dream of a North American semifinal appearance remains a possibility.
When Cloud9 lost the first game of the day to EDward Gaming, none of its players had flashbacks to the days before when Immortals imploded and Team SoloMid dropped in a tie-breaker. What's more, it adapted its draft to match the trend of the day by adopting pushing lanes without missing a stride.
"After the game," Contractz said, "we just went onto the next one. We just took each game game-by-game because we didn't want to go home so soon."
If North America has a rock, it's Cloud9. There's no better team to represent NA in its final hour.