INCHEON, South Korea -- At the League of Legends World Championship, the highly talented but equally raw western side was decimated. It wasn't close. The team's star player looked down at the monitor as the Nexus buckled, disintegrating into rubble, signaling their end to the tournament.
That was Fnatic in 2017, losing in four games to China's Royal Never Give Up in Guangzhou. Martin "Rekkles" Larsson lingered in his seat like a statue, only rising from his chair when prompted. The fans serenaded him with cheers, but it felt hollow. His team, made up of with two rookies in the starting roster, wasn't ready for this moment. He wasn't ready for this moment.
Fast forward a year to 2018, and North America's best chance ever to make the world final, Cloud9, is in the spot Rekkles worked tirelessly to forget. C9 was trounced in a three-game sweep to a revamped Fnatic roster. The core of the European side remained the same, but additions like youngster "sixth man" Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau and the evolution of last year's rookies propelled Fnatic into becoming the first western world finalist since 2011.
The 2017 Fnatic and 2018 C9 squads share more than just a gut punch ending to their worlds runs. Like C9 this year, Fnatic in 2017 was the third seed from their region. They had to win the regional gauntlet and go through the lengthy play-in stage to even make it to the main-event. There, both Fnatic and C9 struggled, 2018 C9 barely snatching a win in the first half of the group stage while Fnatic went an embarrassing 0-3.
And just as forgettable as their first three games were, each team's group stage finales will never be forgotten. Fnatic became the first worlds team in history to start 0-3 and make it out of groups, and C9 rattled off an upset win over tournament-favorite RNG to kickstart a wild run.
While Fnatic fell straight away in the quarters to the very same RNG in 2017, C9 went one stage further. The two-time NA LCS champions outmaneuvered their way through South Korea's Afreeca Freecs before meeting a swift end by the hands of Fnatic.
In the end, both the 2017 version of Fnatic and this year's Cloud9 faced the same conclusion: They weren't ready. To put it quite simply, they just weren't good enough. The magic, innovative picks, and sheer raw talent got them far, but it wasn't enough. As RNG did to them in Guangzhou, Fnatic showed the difference in overall strength between the two legendary western franchises.
In Gwangju, Fnatic, a year removed from its heartbreak, had a special message for Cloud9.
Sorry, becoming a world finalist isn't so easy.
This should not be seen as the end for C9. If they do, then this will be the farthest the team will ever get at the world championships.
When Fnatic fell last year at Worlds, the European stalwart didn't just pat itself on the back and enjoy a relaxing three-month vacation before the start of the new season. The team used its heartbreak to fuel its improvement. Instead of standing still, they used the offseason to sign the aforementioned Bwipo and get a new starting support in the form of Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov.
By worlds, Fnatic were no longer the plucky underdogs. They won back-to-back European domestic tities, made the semifinals at the Mid-Season Invitational (albeit getting bounced once more by Jian "Uzi" Zi-hao's crew), and even had enough time to embarrass NA during a lopsided Rift Rivals in Los Angeles.
Guess who weren't at Rift Rivals? C9. They were treading water at the bottom of the standings. Veteran players were getting benched. Stars were floundering. Even the team's moral compass and face of the franchise, Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, wasn't immune from the riding the pine. The team was a mess from the outside looking in; C9 were neither a young, exciting team nor a grizzled veteran one.
They were just a mess.
Eventually, Sneaky and Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen found their ways back into the starting five, and the team took a gamble on a kid fresh out of high school in Robert "Blaber" Huang. C9 responded to the green rookie's instinctual jungling, and the stagnant C9 twisted into a fledgling version of the free-flowing version we saw dismantle the Freecs at worlds.
This team overperformed, and by the time it faced Fnatic, a possible future version of themselves, matured from their 2017 exit, it was over. The gas ran out, and the better team won, with a quick blowout in the first game setting the tone for the rest of the night. Like the Guangzhou crowd, the Gwangju faithful did their best to spur on C9, but nothing happened. The gap between the two teams was just too large on the day.
To put things in perspective for C9, their possible MVP of the tournament, Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen didn't even play down the stretch in the regular domestic season. Blaber was given the keys, and it wasn't until his boom or bust playstyle started to bust too many times in a row for his coach Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu's liking that Svenskeren found himself back in the starting position.
This team almost lost to Detonation FocusMe twice in the play-in stage. They almost were eliminated by Gambit in the play-in knockout round. It was constant improvement every time they took the stage anew, fueled by the team's work ethic and coaching of Repeared, that turned the squad struggling with Gambit to becoming world semifinalists.
Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, one of the best top laners in the group stage, showed growing pains in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Blaber didn't see any game time following a disastrous group stage outing versus Gen.G Esports in the first half of the group stage. The team's final rookie, Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam would either resemble a world-class support or an anchor depending on the game.
While it would have been magical for C9 to become the first NA worlds finalist in the most unpredictable way possible, it wasn't time for this team. Licorice might very well end up as the west's best top laner in the long run, but he was no match for fellow Bwipo in the semifinals. Sneaky and Zeyzal aren't as strong as a bottom lane duo as they can be. Jensen can still reach a higher level. Svenskeren needs to play like he did at worlds over the course of an entire year.
When C9 was still trying to figure out how to even make the NA LCS playoffs, Fnatic was winning. They were getting stronger. They were perfecting their lineups, strategies, and plethora of styles. It didn't matter if Bwipo was in top lane or replacing Rekkles in the bottom lane -- Fnatic could beat you in numerous different fashions. They never had to rely solely on one player to carry or a surge of momentum to pull them through.
C9 should be proud. They are without a doubt the most successful NA team in worlds history. No one will ever forget the wins over Gen.G, RNG and Vitality or the sweep over Afreeca, eliminating the most dominant region in LoL from the event in their own country.
They shouldn't smile because of how far they came, though, but curse at how close they were to something even greater. The foundation for the future is set for C9 after a challenging year, and the fight to get back here to the semifinals is only going to be tougher next year.
But come 2019, if they've built on what they began on Busan, like Fnatic, they'll be ready.
Licorice will stand on the knockout round stage in whatever country Riot Games has chosen to hold the world championship in, and he'll look across from him at his opponent. An upstart top laner whose team fought their way through a tiebreaker will look back at the C9 top laner, grinning, happy to have made it this far in the tournament.
At that moment, Licorice will know it's time to erase the smile from the kid's face and end their dream once and for all. This version of C9 doesn't have time for this, for they have far more pressing matters waiting for them in the distance.