The story of Fnatic and G2 Esports might as well be a fairy tale trope.
A kingdom, ruled by a benevolent lord, rarely disappoints in major wars (as Martin "Deficio" Lynge would say, Europe didn't send any teams to the 2014 World Championship). The leaders bring pride to their people until attacks from a nearby nation splinter their unity, and many depart for faraway lands.
Amid the chaos, a regent is installed. In the early days, he continuously fails to impress his subjects. Inexperienced, his kingdom loses ground and face within the international community, but trial and error eventually earns him respect, and he develops into a beloved ruler. As peace begins to return, the old Kings come out of hiding to challenge the legitimacy of the throne. The clash brings new divides, but only the final battle can settle the conflict.
"H2K is a formidable opponent, a really good challenger for us," G2 Esports team mascot and Hearthstone pro Jakub "Lothar" Szygulski said in Riot's Group Draft reaction video. "So we'd rather have them in the playoffs stage than the group stage. At the same time -- we just like playing against Fnatic."
History has set the stage for a monumental and historic European League of Legends Championship Series playoffs. Two teams more than deserving the title of king have risen to challenge the European throne.
"It's natural that this is going to be a really hype final," G2 mid laner Luka "PerkZ" Perković said. "I'm already calling it that; I'm already calling it a final."
The last best of three battle of the regular season for both teams will just be the first taste.
Fans newer to League of Legends might not appreciate Fnatic's history of dominance as much. Fnatic won the first World Championship, it made the final at IGN ProLeague 5 in 2012 and it advanced to the semifinal of Worlds in Season 3 and Season 5. The team won every European League Championship Series title from 2013 through 2015 except for its 2014 Summer Split final loss to Alliance. Fnatic's reign over European League of Legends justifies its massive fanbase.
With the splintering of Fnatic after the 2015 World Championship, three-fifths of the roster went to North American teams. Martin "Rekkles" Larssen was left to lead the organization. Since then, the high amount of pressure has taken its toll, and a string of poor results wore on Rekkles throughout 2016.
Fnatic's dip opened up the opportunity for one of the most exciting and top-heavy EU LCS Springs in history: 2016's three-way war with Team Vitality, G2 Esports, and H2K Gaming. G2 Esports with a star mid-jungle duo in the relatively unknown Kim "Trick" Gangyun and rookie Perkz, were often the most underestimated of the three.
Vitality failed to adapt in time for playoffs, H2K Gaming slipped up yet again in semifinals and G2 and Fnatic played in their first ever best-of-five semifinal clash, with G2 winning 3-1. After G2's victory in a more drawn out series, it bested Origen to represent Europe at their first Mid-Season Invitational.
"We just went luckily through EU LCS," Perkz said earlier this year. Many often decry the level of competition in Europe in 2016. In retrospect, it may feel like G2 managed to fluke its domestic wins in 2016 because no one remained to challenge them.
"EU didn't have old-school teams that went to Worlds," G2's support, Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez told me. "Veteran teams or teams that have been playing together for long have experienced playing good teams and seeing what really good teams do in the game."
Much of G2's run as Kings of Europe has borne less impressive fruit internationally. The 2-8 drop from Group Stage at 2016's MSI and the loss to all teams except Albus Nox Luna at the World Championship stung even more. Like any other ineffective governing body, G2's approval ratings dropped. The team became the villains, and European fans looked for a hero to dethrone G2 during its year-long run of domestic victories.
Rekkles continued to shoulder the pressure of leadership for Fnatic, which began 2017 with a new roster. With a mid-split jungle change and two rookies on the team, Fnatic focused on the only style it felt would work: one that relied on Rekkles' Blade of the Ruined King AD carry picks and carrying from side lane.
Fnatic shot up the standings abruptly in Spring of this year. It met G2 Esports once again in a 3-1 spring semifinal with an entirely new look. Fnatic fanned out in a 1-3-1 formation, looked for picks in side lanes and pivoted off a snowballed bottom lane. To many eyes, the underdogs put up more of a fight than Unicorns of Love. Perhaps Fnatic, and the return of the old king, was the change that EU fans had pined for.
But things changed at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational. G2 Esports, after a clumsy group stage, bested Team WE convincingly in the semifinal and stole a game from SK Telecom T1 in the Grand Final. G2 finally had its moment of relief, and the villains became heroes in their own right -- but it didn't take them long to fall from grace once again.
Though Fnatic lost its Spring semifinal against G2, it continued into the Summer Split with a similar Rekkles-centric formula. Rekkles drew back from the team, and Fnatic remained fixed on one method of play, unmoving, yet initially successful. The squad broke through G2 Esports in their first clash of the new split during a time when the reigning Kings of Europe said they were still figuring things out.
But after its loss to Fnatic, G2 continued to plummet. The once-great kings were finally stumbling domestically. Though some argued Europe's level of competition had merely risen, G2's greatest competitors, Fnatic and Unicorns of Love, played within extremely narrow parameters. It was a cause for concern.
"I'm worried, yeah," mithy told me during Rift Rivals. "I was fine, honestly, before this week. But I think maybe the stress of this tournament and the fact that I want to show that I'm performing well put me on the edge. Now I'm worried, honestly. I really feel like - it doesn't feel well anymore, you know? I think we need to speed up the process if there's any process at all."
G2 wasn't the only one. Despite its dominant domestic run, Fnatic came into Rift Rivals aware of uncovered gaps in its own play.
"We played TSM in scrims," Fnatic top laner Paul "sOAZ" Boyer told me, "and it was really difficult because our style is like if somehow they don't get picked on the side lane, then usually either we will get out-scaled or something like this because they will have like late game AD carry, and we will have a Blade AD carry."
A lot of the criticisms came down to Rekkles. If he didn't succeed, Fnatic failed.
"A lot of pressure and responsibility has been on my shoulders," Rekkles said in a recent Life of Legends, "and that kind of resulted in me taking individual drawbacks from the team because I really felt like I needed my space."
Finding success meant taking the weight off for both teams. G2 Esports, Perkz said, began taking scrims "a bit not-so-serious" and stopped "dooming the game" with a hint of poor play. Fnatic gave Rekkles breathing room, looked for more ways to open the map and realized the team had grown enough for them to actually play a more standard game.
Fnatic initially set itself back because it could only play the game one way, but using the crutch of the side lane Blade of the Ruined King AD carry formula eventually gave the team something more valuable. When the team switched styles, mid lane became a more stable holding point. Broxah began to play a wider pool of junglers aside from Elise. Fnatic had worked so hard on its communication and teamplay to make that one style work that it was able to put those tools to use with many brands of play now.
"It's a bit harder to predict us because we play kind of standard now," Fnatic jungler Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen said after the team's Week 9 win against Team ROCCAT, "and it's a bit hard to counter this style. I think that the other style gave us so much teamplay because we had to play so well together to simply make it work, and that is so helpful now."
Meanwhile, G2 Esports simply found its way back. Both teams still have gaps in their play. Fnatic, for example, lost control of bottom of the map and only snuck back into the game after ROCCAT failed to guard against a match in a lane swap. Even after that, Fnatic gave up bot pressure in mid-game for Baron wards they didn't defend but won the match simply because it was better at teamfighting.
For G2 Esports, the little things still rise up. It tends to by default send its bottom lane two-on-two to the top side in lane assignments, even when it doesn't suit G2's composition or the enemy's. The problem gets even worse when they group predictably in the top or bottom of the map. G2 bested Misfits simply by pulling Baron repeatedly and abusing the other team's tendency to relinquish side lane control.
With losses at the hands of Team ROCCAT for G2 Esports and Ninjas in Pyjamas for Fnatic, the final best-of-three between these two teams on Saturday doesn't have implications for playoffs seeding. It does, however, mean regaining pride. Poor play in the final week of regular season from both of Europe's kings doesn't bode well for the looming World Championship.
It's up to both monarchies to prove they can serve the region well in international competition.