BUSAN, South Korea -- A week before the 2018 League of Legends World Championship group stage, Team Liquid's head coach, Jang "Cain" Nu-ri, had a single message to his team at their high-class suite fashioned into a makeshift practice room in the heart of Seoul.
Don't play scared.
Two weeks later in Busan -- after playing scared up until their final game of the tournament -- Team Liquid was eliminated from the championship.
For other teams traveling to South Korea for the biggest League of Legends tournament of the year, a six-week marathon to whittle down 24 teams to the world champion, it's an experience of a lifetime. In a city known for its nightlife and amazing food, players can fall down the rabbit's hole of having the time of their lives, juggling the weight of playing for a world championship alongside having fun.
Team Liquid, a mixture of veteran players from various regions, have all played at previous world championships. South Korea to Liquid -- especially for stalwart top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, who is from the country -- was just another location on a long list of places they have traveled.
After all their hard work and practice -- the team only leaving the hotel a few times in Seoul to eat dinner -- the end result was possibly the most frustrating outcome imaginable.
Instead of bombing out and proving their region was too weak to compete with the best the world has to offer, Team Liquid split their group stage right down the middle, winning three and losing three. Even the makeup of the games they won and lost were right down the middle. The NA champion defeated the group's easiest team, MAD Team from Taiwan, twice, and lost to one of the tournament's frontrunners KT Rolster from South Korea, in both games they played.
The one team they split against was the team they needed to beat twice, Edward Gaming of China, who avoided a late-night tiebreaker with Liquid by pulling off an upset against the then-undefeated KT, eliminating Team Liquid from the tournament before TL even played EDG for the second time.
In a bittersweet swan song, TL played far and away their best game of the event in the game following elimination, besting now-quarterfinalist EDG, which secured KT's spot as the No. 1 seed in their group.
For the first time all tournament, Liquid played with a bravado that was missing from their previous games. Through the first week, TL attempted to play a slow and steady game, and it just didn't work. The confidence Cain tried to instill didn't translate under the bright lights. It's not like TL embarrassed themselves -- possibly aside from the one-sided shellacking EDG handed them in their first meeting -- but it wasn't up to the quality expected from a domestic champion from a major region.
Even in the team's lone match win in the first half of the group stage, MAD Team, Team Liquid played as carefully as possible. Compared to teams like Invictus Gaming of China or Team Vitality of Europe who were throwing themselves across the finish line, TL crawled along at a snail's pace, favoring safety over speed. And while in the win over MAD -- a weaker team overall -- the style was acceptable, it was nothing but a speed bump for a team like KT Rolster, who were playing speed chess next to TL's slow-speed checkers. When one mistake happened for Liquid, it was all over. It occurred in the first game versus KT and even in the second, where all it took was one outplay from KT to tip the scales into an unwinnable position for Team Liquid.
"I was really stressed out. Everyone on the team was," Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng told reporter Travis Gafford following his team's elimination from the competition. "I contributed to a really stressful atmosphere because I demanded perfection from my team."
Striving for perfection was what ended Liquid's run at the world championship.
It wasn't skill, it wasn't the time of practice, and it surely wasn't that Team Liquid was off doing other things in South Korea when they should have been focusing on the tournament. The team didn't go out. One night at dinner, a few of the members staggered into a Korean BBQ place, ate for an hour while casually talking, and then exited one at a time, walking through the neon-lit streets of Seoul back to their hotel for more hours of diligent practice. If the action didn't result in the team getting closer to the quarterfinals and beyond, Team Liquid wasn't interested.
Watching Team Liquid play was like watching someone move through life while holding their breath. Every game for Liquid felt as if the team was playing not to lose, rather than competing for the win. As long as the team could hold its breath and make it to the mid game, then everything would be fine, even though all it would take was one mistake to bring everything crumbling down.
In a tournament that has been dictated by being proactive and setting the tempo, Liquid, until their final game, let the other teams in the group set the beat for them. Although it worked with MAD Team, it was never going to pay off with a team more talented their own in KT Rolster or a team accustomed to dirty and chaotic games like EDG.
So, when the team could finally breathe and the tournament was over for them with EDG's win over KT, Liquid played to their full potential. The same sequence happened back at the second-biggest tournament of the year, the Mid-Season Invitational, where TL dropped all of their early games before making a comeback in the second half of the group stage only to lose in a tiebreak with Europe's Fnatic. When the team plays loose, they're as dangerous as they come in League of Legends, capable of pulling off victories and upsets over any of the teams at major international competitions.
The joy the team played with against EDG was what they wanted to show from the beginning. Although the team was sloppier in places than some of their earlier games, getting caught out warding in parts of the jungle they shouldn't have been, the overall play and forward-thinking attitude was more than enough to make up for the missteps.
Perfection wasn't needed in victory.
But as soon as the Liquid everyone wanted to see appeared -- joyous, free-flowing, and unchained from the burden of carrying a region's expectations -- the chance to advance was gone. The players took a bow on the main stage with the South Korean crowd appreciating their efforts, and then they were gone, shuffling off the stage to end their tournament with little fanfare.
If they played Edward Gaming again and played like their last game in Busan, they could have won.
Maybe if they weren't scheduled to play KT Rolster at the start of both halves of the group stage, they could have had a better chance of advancing.
But maybe they wouldn't have played that free-flowing style at all if they weren't eliminated in the first.
Maybes, buts, and what-ifs. For the next year, these questions will be running through the minds of the players, management and anyone who discusses the franchise.
And the saddest thing of all?
We'll never know what could have actually have been.
All we'll know is what actually came to be.