GWANGJU, South Korea -- In another timeline, perhaps this postmortem would talk about Invictus Gaming, one of the LoL Pro League's most iconic teams, who were a prototype for early Chinese League of Legends long before the LPL was established in 2013. How iG, the final Chinese team characterized by unlikely upsets, had been upset themselves by Europe's G2 Esports; the quintessential underdog of this world championship.
Yet this is not that timeline. This iG blazed through G2 in a quick 3-0 sweep at the League of Legends World Championship semifinals. With the muffled sounds of iG's English media press conference in the background, G2 Esports Head Coach Fabian "Grabbz" Lohmann and Head Analyst Christopher "Duffman" Duff reflected on G2's year domestically and internationally.
"We sort of ran out of superstar performances," Duffman said of the loss to iG. At the press conference, English media laughed at one of iG's responses. "It felt like it was one series too much. We just didn't perform."
Only in the third game did G2 look like they had a chance at taking a game, and were then quickly brushed aside by iG top laner Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok's Aatrox. In the previous two games, it was Jayce's stifling lane pressure and poke damage that ultimately tripped up G2, played by both TheShy and mid laner Song "Rookie" Eui-jin.
"We had some experience in the matchup in scrims and were like, 'This is fine, of course Jayce is pressure but we can split up,'" Grabbz said. "And then on stage we were like, 'No this is not fine. What's happening here?' Especially in Game 3, where we were ahead, the players had no energy anymore. Even against RNG we overperformed really hard."
A week prior in the quarterfinals, G2 dispatched Royal Never Give Up, and the current face of Chinese League of Legends, Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao in five games, shocking fans, analysts, and themselves.
"The way they were playing was incredibly disrespectful," Duffman said, laughing a bit. "The way they were playing, they clearly expected to just come in and steamroll."
With the lack of League of Legends international tournaments, perceived strength of matchups also tie into regional location, that region's prior performances, and the perceived strength of their individual players (also often skewed towards the strength of a region). G2 threw a wrench in these predictions when they beat RNG who had some of the perceived best players at the tournament. Disrespect from RNG aside, G2 proved that they had internationally relevant talent of their own.
"It was very easy for the west to always say, 'Oh, they're just better mechanically. There's nothing we can do. They're better,'" Grabbz said. "Even before this was not necessarily true, even then teams could match up mechanically, just not in how the game should be played. It just showed that every player could go toe-to-toe. There are still outliers but overall, there's no reason we should assume that other regions are straight-up better than us."
"In terms of teams just looking at Korea and trying to copy, that was almost part of the problem like towards the end of the split," Duffman said. "We weren't focusing on how to play for us, we were focusing on how to play generally good League of Legends, how you would expect a Korean team to do. That was part of what we moved away from past the Misfits series and what we kept doing this entire tournament. Just stop thinking of what's good in a vacuum and start thinking of what's good for us. What's the best way for us to win this game?"
G2's performances at this year's world championship were framed by upset victories and surprising individual performances, particularly from their solo laners, as G2 players took turns having standout games. One game, much-maligned bot laner Petter "Hjarnan" Freyschuss and his laning partner Kim "Wadid" Bae-in would have an amazing game. In the next, Luka "Perkz" Perković would make a small case contending for best mid laner in the tournament.
Yet what categorized G2 more than anything else was intelligent drafting around their solo laners, taking draft and in-game focus away from the bottom lane well before other teams realized this shift. It started, somewhat ironically, in scrims against iG.
"We had one week where we thought Kai'sa was really broken," Grabbz said. "We drafted Kai'sa and then even before the first group-stage game we were like, 'There are so many OPs in terms of Urgot, Aatrox, Akali, Irelia, why not just double-flex them? Why not just take two of them if you can?'"
"It was against iG actually, where we just started crazy flexing," Duffman said. Grabbz nodded in agreement. "The laneswapping, roleswapping, Luka going top and Wunder going mid. It just became apparent that bot lane wasn't as important in the draft. You could get good drafts where you have a fine bot lane but get the best matchups you can with OP champions. That really kicked it off."
G2 managed to get out of Group A with a bit of luck, the collapse of Taiwan's Flash Wolves, a timely victory from the Vietnamese squad of Phong Vũ Buffalo, and shaky performances from the Afreeca Freecs. It was here where G2's playstyle of focusing on their solo laners more than their bottom lane became apparent.
Before being drawn into Group A after a successful play-in run, G2 had scrimmed the Freecs with little success.
"We got slapped around by Afreeca super, super hard," Duffman said. "[Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon] would come bot every game and we would just die. Then we got onto stage, they tried the same thing and were waiting for us to int and we never did. That happened through the event, things that had gone wrong for us in the run up to it, we fixed onstage, magically," he laughed, shaking his head.
Play-ins, while providing necessary momentum for the team, also didn't go as smoothly as G2 would have liked. After dropping a game to Latin America North's Infinity Esports, G2 didn't look like a team that would be able to top both Flash Wolves and the Freecs. In the process of shifting their drafts and focus to their own solo-lane-focused playstyle, many criticized the team for their overreliance on top laner Martin "Wunder" Hansen to carry and split push.
"Split pushing is a team effort," Grabbz said. "He could do what he wanted because the team made him able to do so. On another team, he couldn't do that because Hjarnan knows how to play safe for mid lane. It's the same thing as someone saying, 'Ah, if Uzi doesn't carry then they lose.' Teams choose how they want to play."
Prior to their worlds appearance, many hadn't expected G2 to even qualify for international competition. Throughout the competitive year, G2 had slipped, losing their once-guaranteed hold on Europe's championship title. They were inconsistent, raw, and unfocused. It wasn't until mid-summer when they discovered funnel compositions -- despite practicing them rarely -- that the team looked better. Funnel compositions, Duffman said, gave the team a clear gameplan, covering up their inconsistent onstage performances with one definitive style.
"I think a big issue was that, in spring, we were still not really good at closing out games," Grabbz said of their spring inconsistencies. "The issue this year in Europe was again, I think every year there's this discussion, scrims are not like the stage. In scrims you get ahead, they throw themselves at you, you kill them, get Nashor, win the game. On stage that doesn't happen."
When Grabbz first joined the team in December, he was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to work with the team. For Duffman, who had previously worked with G2, it was like coming home.
"There was a quite a similar approach," Duffman said. "Joey [Youngbuck] had to take the same approach where he wasn't going to be competing with Mithy or Zven at the time trying to drive the discussion on what the team wanted to do. So it was kind of a similar situation where I was coming back into my old job essentially with a different face."
In the 2017-18 offseason, G2 was characterized by the loss of two players, Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and Alfonso "Mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez to North America's Team SoloMid. Little did they know that this was the very beginning of what would become G2's strongest international performance in the organization's history.