BERLIN -- After a day of scrims and preparation, G2 Esports head coach Fabian "GrabbZ" Lohmann and head analyst Christopher "Duffman" Duff sat down in their hotel lobby. They looked tired but upbeat. With three days to go before the group stage of the League of Legends World Championship, G2 remained among if not the favorites to win the tournament.
Various tables in the lobby were filled with Chinese and South Korean media. A few team staff members from North American and Chinese organizations sat a few tables away, chatting over ambient live piano music. I asked GrabbZ and Duffman what they thought of G2's prominent position throughout the year and how they felt when other teams said they wanted to be more like G2. They both laughed.
"You don't," GrabbZ said.
"No," Duffman said simultaneously.
Whether they like it or not, G2 have been the League of Legends standard-bearer in 2019. Since their appearance at last year's world championship, G2's style has been one of presumed off-meta picks and flexible drafting, particularly between the top and mid lanes. This only increased when former Fnatic mid laner Rasmus "Caps" Winther joined the team in the 2018-19 offseason and G2's starting mid laner, Luka "Perkz" Perković, moved to the bottom lane. Since then, G2 have won every tournament they've participated in: two League of Legends European Championship titles, Rift Rivals and, most importantly, the Mid-Season Invitational. As teams have struggled to find their places in a more open metagame, G2 have thrived in the openness.
"Basically, it's just the five of them playing to essentially whatever is the best for them in that situation. Whatever's the best for them in their lane or their game, they will be doing that," Duffman said. "Then it comes to the point where someone has to make the call on how to progress the game, and everyone has to follow it."
"A good comparison would be football [soccer] -- the 'fluid playstyle' -- so there isn't actually one approach to take to set up things correctly. It's more that everyone puts in what's good for them, and of course, if this overlaps, then we just make the call," GrabbZ said. "And if not, then somebody has to see something and just call for it, and the rest trust him. That's why we're not defined by champs, by meta, by anything really, because our players play the game, and they all understand how the game functions on a basic level."
"Most of the time," GrabbZ added as Duffman agreed.
"They always know," GrabbZ said. "They just don't always care about it."
This cavalier attitude is a double-edged sword at times, but it usually leads to resounding success for G2.
In 2018, G2 qualified for the world championship as Europe's third seed. They looked a bit shaky throughout the play-in stage, with a reliance on top laner Martin "Wunder" Hansen to carry them through their mid-game mistakes and a Heimerdinger pick for then-bot laner Petter "Hjarnan" Freyschuss. G2 upset tournament favorites Royal Never Give Up in the quarterfinals, and the team's strong focus on solo laners became the meta of the event. This carried into 2019 with the arrival of Caps and a variety of flexing not only in draft but also in the game itself. Although it's not a set metagame, this style (in the loosest sense of the term) became G2's hallmark while spreading throughout competitive League of Legends as a whole.
"I think it's about teams wanting to push boundaries," GrabbZ said. "We always talk about meta, but every meta is self-imposed. You think of a certain way as the best, and then you play it like that, having the willingness and the open-mindedness to say, 'Hey, this is what we think is good, but let's try something else and see if it works.'"
He used the example of Syndra, a champion so strong that teams began flexing it into the bottom lane. Once they saw success with that, it inspired teams to try similar mages or other previously unheard of bot-lane picks.
"Just be willing to explore things, which I think people lacked a lot," GrabbZ said. "I think it's kind of bad for us now because at MSI, we could surprise people a lot with Pyke top or Syndra bot. Now people will probably have encountered most things already. I think that's the biggest difference that G2 made this year."
"We played ourselves," Duffman said with a laugh.
"We just scrimmed a team, and they played a certain champion," GrabbZ said. "We thought it was going one role, but they flexed it another way, and it's like, 'Wow, this is how it feels. This is really awkward now.'"
Accompanying the spread of G2's perceived playstyle have come mounting expectations for the team's upcoming worlds performance.
"It's kind of bizarre that the fans are so hyped for us they don't even believe that we could struggle," GrabbZ said.
"We didn't really have any expectations last year," Duffman said. "Now we're expected to win it all. It's kind of our fault as well."
G2's trajectory mirrors that of the favorites they eliminated in the quarterfinals last year. In 2018, RNG won both LoL Pro League finals and MSI, contributed to an LPL victory at Rift Rivals and had four of the five starting players on a winning Team China at the Asian Games. RNG won everything in League of Legends that could possibly be won by a team until G2 beat them at worlds.
"If the year stops now, we would say that this is the best year that G2 ever had," Grabbz said. "But let's say we have two bad group stage games or a bad draw in quarterfinals and we lose there, the whole year feels lost. If we don't at least make it into finals, it's a lost year -- or at least it will feel that way."
"It's not even just the expectations from the outside but the expectations on ourselves," Duffman said. "We are the ones pushing this narrative as well. We want to be the best, we want to see ourselves as the best. It's a lot of pressure to maintain that and then also to see it come back on us from everyone else as well."