They had a chance. Everyone knew they had a chance.
"We had a tough group," G2 Esports coach Joe "YoungBuck" Steltenpool said after his team's final game in the 2017 season, "but we felt like we could beat both Samsung and [Royal Never Give Up] based on our experience at [the Mid-Season Invitational]. We felt like we weren't that far behind [SK Telecom T1] -- well, we were far behind, but not as far behind as we thought."
The relatively even level between G2 Esports, Samsung Galaxy and Royal Never Give Up made Group C one of the most exciting in the League of Legends World Championship. If one of the LCK teams should fail to get out of Groups in first, it would be Samsung. Despite RNG's status as No. 2 seed, both G2 and RNG seemed to have the strongest promise of a deep World Championship run from Europe and China, respectively.
With the semifinals looming, though, it's Samsung and RNG who have made it onward. G2, despite looking like the strongest Western team going into Worlds, exited in the group stage.
In the middle of the second week, I interviewed Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez just after G2's first win of the tournament. He started chatting nervously about stage jitters before he even sat down in the chair across from me, relieved to have won the second game he played at Worlds, even if it was just to 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports.
"I'm always nervous for the first 10 minutes of the first game," mithy said, "and then I just chill."
My interview with mithy at this year's Worlds had the feeling of moving a bookmark after reading through the next chapter of a novel. When I asked him about G2's Alistar and Ivern Ardent Censer support work-around from its game against Samsung, mithy immediately launched into an explanation that covered aspect of where the game went wrong from his perspective.
"They had vision on him ever since the first six minutes of the game," he began. "We lost game because they had vision or knew where Ivern would be or was."
When the time ended, I gave a simple good luck, and he moved on. It felt like the first of many times I'd interview a member of his team during this year's Worlds. Chats about the evolution of G2's idea of the meta would evolve, and with it, the redemption story of the previous year. I had advanced through the story, but it was nowhere near its end.
But the next time I interviewed a member of G2 at the event was under very different circumstances -- after the final game the existing roster of Ki "Expect" Dae-han, Kim "Trick" Gang-yun, Luka "Perkz" Perković, Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen, and mithy may ever play together.
YoungBuck sat in a plastic chair in the interview room, staring just past my face as if he couldn't focus on me -- shifting his eyes away from the screen that showed the countdown before the match between Samsung Galaxy and Royal Never Give Up, the last game to be played in Group C. G2 Esports had just won its final game against 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports, but this final win was a token win; G2 had already fallen out of the running for the 2017 World Championship.
"All through the bootcamp," YoungBuck said, "we were playing non-Censer champions every single game for a very large proportion of our games. Other teams started first-picking Lulu and getting away with it, so our team had to hit the brakes and actually read the meta."
There's no right answer in a loser interview. The very nature of a reporter asking you to explain why means finding a balance between what sounds like an excuse and self-condemnation. But this line was familiar. It wasn't the first time G2 had misread the meta at an international event.
"Last year was we always played through bot lane and mid lane winning and top lane playing tanks," YoungBuck said when I reminded him of G2's similar slipup at the 2016 World Championship. "In the bootcamp, we completely changed that and we were only playing Elise-Jayce, Elise-Renekton, really strong top lane two-v-two. In scrims, it would work. ... In the first game against CLG, we played this style. We got the lead in top lane. He was 2-0 or something, and the team didn't forfeit [like they would in a scrim], and we had to play it out. Then we realized we're actually missing macro."
For a team like G2 that always sits at the top of the standing domestically, "getting away with it in scrims" probably isn't uncommon. If a team leads its region, it's easy to sometimes misunderstand the optimal composition. In the EU LCS, poor side wave control and sloppy Baron setups might allow G2 to play a variety of picks that aren't always the best. Its ability to get a handle on optimal play on the first try isn't always exercised.
"Maybe we don't always realize what works in scrims doesn't always work on stage," YoungBuck admitted. "A really good example right now is that a lot of people are picking Ezreal in scrims, but no one has the balls to pick it on stage because they know the games will be slower and more controlled."
G2's major flaw came from poor ability to gauge the opponent the first time it played against it. Even without a drastic patch change, the meta remains in flux, and all teams will have a different approach. G2 is a team that adapts well after facing something once, but in single-game matchups, getting it right on the first try is crucial.
"It's stage jitters together with, 'How we can play against a specific team before and their style and how their laners like to play and their jungler,'" mithy had said the week before.
Despite evident frustration, there was no recourse for YoungBuck to downplay G2's flaw. He didn't even necessarily acknowledge a last-minute preparation change as a reason for the loss -- just as a fact of the day.
"You know the Worlds meta kind of changes," Fnatic's Jesse "Jesiz" Le had said after Fnatic's miracle run. "Even though it's the same patch for a long time, the meta kind of changes."
Throughout Week 2, stronger lane matchups started to matter more. Teams began racing the scaling Janna, and Samsung went for a composition that could pressure G2's bottom lane off its turret early on, allowing it to chip at and secure the first turret of the game easily. The scaling strategies of Week 1 weren't as straightforward.
But no matter the explanation, where it wrong felt irrelevant on the final day of play for Group C.
G2 Esports, YoungBuck acknowledged, may not stay together. It wasn't just the end of G2 Esports at Worlds, but the abrupt conclusion of the story of this iteration of the team as a whole. The 2017 World Championship was supposed to be the redemption arc of the most dominant team in the EU LCS that won four domestic splits in a row. G2 should have capitalized on the promise left by its MSI run to the final against SKT this year.
Instead, Worlds was a reminder of what held G2 back the year before.
"I don't know how you approach a team like that after losing the biggest event you've been working for for a year and a half," YoungBuck said. He clenched his lips.
But that's exactly why, even when one acknowledges this flaw of G2, it shouldn't be what defines the memory of the team. In the final game of the event, Perkz finally got to play Yasuo. The composition in question even complimented the pick well with several knockups and an ability to hold mid with Varus and disengage with Janna while Yasuo split-pushed. Yasuo even countered Taliyah in laning phase.
Then, despite a dip and falling behind in the match, G2 managed a comeback. It closed the game in a manner reminiscent of the resilient team Europe's dominant squad had become in 2017.
"I'm super proud that we had a lot of fun in the last game because I think we're a team that has always had very little problems as a team," YoungBuck said, smiling for the first time in the interview. "We always laugh. We always have fun and have a really great time."
Ultimately, that's how YoungBuck wanted fans to remember G2, and that's what made the potential goodbye so bitter. G2 was a tight group that worked toward the same goal and managed to relieve stress with jokes. It relied on an internal network to keep the gravity of its ambitions from crushing it.
And, as ambitious as G2 was, it managed to hit the highs it promised in so many ways. G2 had enough understanding of the game to abuse Royal Never Give Up's greed to reset bottom wave after a gank that left its opponents in low health. The team could then use the pressure it gained from RNG's mistake to close and never give up tempo. Though G2 ended the day with regrets, it began it by giving the group leader its only loss of the tournament so far.
"I think I've learned a lot about the strategy behind the game from mithy and Zven," YoungBuck said, "which I'm really grateful for. I've had the two best minds in the West playing for me, so they've been able to teach me a lot and talk to me a lot about the game. I have a better view of how I want to coach after the last two years and how I want to use my experience in the next team."
And in some ways, G2's run didn't end in Group Stage. Misfits coach Hussain Moosvi refused to let G2's contribution to his own team's success go unacknowledged.
"I don't think people realize how much work [G2 Esports] does for growth within Europe for every team," Moosvi said. "Even during the bootcamp, they constantly helped us in terms of 'OK, this is how Worlds is like, this is how we prep for it, this is how the venue, food, etc., etc.' They really go out of their way to take care of their fellow teams because they understand that, if we grow, they grow as well."
G2 was the best Western team at the 2017 World Championship despite a glaring flaw in best-of-ones and a failure to identify subtle meta changes. With Team SoloMid failing to even play to its own compositions and other Western teams often relying on crutch formulas, G2 displayed considerably more depth. Whatever its players learned and gained from the experience, the way most of them work through problems from the very beginning of the match in their heads, will stick with them and lead them to greatness in other settings.
"I'm sure," YoungBuck said, "in best-of-fives, we're the best non-Korean team."
With Royal exiting the group in first and G2 never having the opportunity to follow up on this claim, it's hard to share YoungBuck's conviction. But the unexpected end of this G2 roster's story doesn't have to mean the end of its legacy. Every member of the roster has hinted at dazzling heights.
They more than have a chance of making it.