2018 changed things. Europe was no longer the plucky underdog, the region that could give China and Korea a run for their money if the stars aligned. In 2018, Fnatic reached the World Championship grand final against Invictus Gaming, and Europe became serious contenders.
“I was confident that we were gonna win Worlds,” says Fnatic’s Gabriel ‘Bwipo’ Rau. “I had the trust in my team-mates to make it happen, so for me it was a matter of making them believe that if we play our game we’re going to win. Worlds is not something everyone gets to go to. It was a privilege to go, and I wanted to try and win because I might never go again. So, I was just telling myself ‘I think we can win Worlds,’ and I got pretty close to making my team believe we could win it. Even the day before the final we were all confident. Then actual finals happened, and the dream ended right there.”
Fnatic also had the entire region believing up until that final day of the championship. They had gone on a run through groups and the knockout stage only dropping a couple of games to strong opponents.
Fnatic were in Group D, the group containing Fnatic, Invictus Gaming, 100 Thieves, and G-Rex. Bwipo calls it “the Group of Death because us and iG were in it. No other team was ever getting out of that group.” And indeed, both of them went 5-1, trading losses with each other. Fnatic even came out on top in the tiebreaker.
“That was a huge deal,” says Bwipo. “Not only do you get the easier side of the bracket, we dodged a few bullets in KT and RNG. Not being in the same bracket as the ‘Fnatic Killer’ was a huge deal for us.”
Meanwhile, G2 Esports and Vitality, the two other European teams were having a trickier time. Vitality were in the group containing tournament favourites RNG and reigning world champions Gen.G. Vitality defeated both of them against the odds, but when it came to the North Americans Cloud9, it appeared they had met their bogey team. They went out of Worlds at the group stage, but with their heads held high.
The group stage wasn’t the start of Worlds for G2. They had come through the Play-In stage, which is seen as a blessing and a curse.
“In a way we were happy we had to go through Play-Ins. In hindsight it improved us a lot."
“In a way we were happy we had to go through Play-Ins,” says Martin ‘Wunder’ Hansen. “In hindsight it improved us a lot. We could quickly identify that some things we thought would work didn’t, and some things we didn’t think would work did. If we had to start out at Worlds in the group stage it would’ve been way harder. We probably wouldn’t have made it out of groups.”
G2 went 3-3 in a group containing Afreeca Freecs, Flash Wolves, and Phong Vu Buffalo, and ended up having to win a tiebreaker against FW to go through. It was an up and down week, but they got the results they needed.
“I remember us having a lot of iffy drafts,” says Wunder. “Every time we went on stage I either had a really good feeling and we won, or I had a really bad feeling and we lost.”
When it came to the tiebreaker against FW, G2 were surprised they could get former ADC Peter ‘Hjarnan’ Freyschuss’ pocket pick Heimerdinger.
“From the draft it felt like was a free win, at least from how our scrims were going and the champs we had, we felt really comfortable. It was just another game for us, no one had any nerves. We knew they were kinda weak against what we were playing. They were mostly winning around bot lane with Kai’Sa. It might have been different if we’d played against Afreeca who had stronger solo laners.”
Two European teams made it through to the knockout stages, but both had strong opponents in the quarterfinals. Fnatic came up against Edward Gaming, and things were looking bad after they lost the first game.
At that time, with Paul ‘sOAZ’ Boyer still on the team, if Bwipo lost a game, he would be subbed out for the next one in the series. However, that first game against EDG was lost from the get-go, as a late invade scuppered any plans Fnatic had and the game fell apart from there. They decided to keep Bwipo in, and were rewarded with some solid games, and Fnatic won three in a row to progress to the semis.
“That series was a lot closer than people give it credit for,” Bwipo says. “They threw almost every game we played. When you look at Worlds 2018, my memory was it didn’t matter if we fell behind, we were gonna take a fight and we were gonna win it. I didn’t play spectacularly, but I was just a meat shield for that series. I was just eating damage and baiting cooldowns. I remember they all jumped on me in the river and we won a fight from that and the game snowballed.”
On the other side of the bracket, G2 had an even tougher opponent. Everyone expected RNG, led by Jian ‘Uzi’ Zi-Hao, to go far in the tournament. In the end, RNG crashed out in the quarterfinals to G2, in one of the most entertaining series at Worlds.
“We were on the back foot because we lost the first game, then we bounced back, then lost again,” Wunder remembers. “RNG’s whole theme is play Shen top and roaming or tank mid laners and let Uzi carry, and he did play very well that series. Some games he really took over.
“But the Worlds 2018 meta in general, there was Akali, Irelia, Aatrox, Urgot, so many overpowered solo lane champs it was hard for him to carry against everything we could play. Probably in a different meta they would’ve 3-0’d us.”
G2 fought back, and in the decisive game five, it was Luka ‘Perkz’ Perković who carried the game, going 11/0/4 on LeBlanc and dragging G2 into the semifinals. Unfortunately, they would come up against Invictus Gaming.
“IG were for sure the best team at Worlds,” says Wunder. “They played the same way we did, but they were better than us. It could’ve been closer than it was. They had really good drafts and we were not prepared and we didn’t adapt very well. Game three was the only real game we could take something away from. We were like 2k ahead and really threw.”
In the end, it was a 3-0 loss for G2, and the hopes of Europe rested on the shoulders of Fnatic, who were up against Cloud9.
“The C9 series was where you could see when we won early game,” Bwipo recalls. “Every other game at Worlds we were behind and coming back because we were good at skirmishing. Once we got ahead it was basically unplayable for the enemy team.”
It was a one-sided series, with Martin ‘Rekkles’ Larsson only dying twice total during the three games. Mads ‘Broxah’ Brock-Pedersen also played well from the jungle, and the way Fnatic dominated made European fans very excited for the final. Unfortunately, that was where the dream for Bwipo, and the rest of the region, ended.
“There are more eyes on us now, and more people believing in us. We have a lot more fans to disappoint if we lose."
“We had a bad day,” says Bwipo, remembering the quick 3-0 loss to iG in the finals. “We didn’t follow our prep, we all played poorly, our drafts were off. There was a bunch of reasons why the performance wasn’t there at the very end.
“But, we did make it to the end,” he continues. “It showed we could all stand at the top. I proved to the world, and to myself, that I can be here. It was something I always told myself back home six years ago when I was interested in being the best. I looked at these pro players like Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok, and thought ‘I don’t know if I can do that,’ and that’s what made it exciting. That’s why I wanted to be at the top, players like them, who excelled, went far beyond. I wanted to be a player like that.”
The grand final may have been the end of Fnatic’s run, but it was only the start for Europe. This year, G2 are looking most likely to be carrying the hopes of an entire continent on their shoulders.
“There are more eyes on us now, and more people believing in us,” says Wunder. “We have a lot more fans to disappoint if we lose. This Worlds is hopefully going to be good. We won MSI, right? I want to win the entire thing of course, and it should be possible. For sure, this is the best chance Europe has had so far.”