BUSAN, South Korea -- The Afreeca Freecs had a job to do: Make it out of Group A.
But after starting the group stage of the League of Legends World Championship 1-2, the team appeared in the middle of an internal collapse.
"I feel despair," Afreeca mid laner Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng when asked about his team's poor start amidst high expectations.
Then, on the last day of the round-robin phase of groups Monday night, Afreeca found their momentum, went 3-0 and secured the top seed out of Group A, joining G2 Esports into the bracket stage of worlds. But it took a while to get there.
Before worlds began, Afreeca was cited as a potential dark horse to take it all. They had interesting vision shifts, a strong skirmishing style and were known for preparing for their opponents above all else.
Instead, the Afreeca of the first few days was a team that didn't prepare for G2 Esports' bot laner Petter "Hjarnan" Freyschuss' Heimerdinger, picked compositions with no discernible focal point or win condition, and had no coherent vision coordination. In short, Afreeca showed none of their in-season strengths when it seemingly mattered most.
On the precipice of a mental collapse, predictions for the second round robin shifted. Many expected Afreeca to drop out of groups, and reigning world champions Gen.G, who were placed in Group B and also struggling, to find their footing. At least Gen.G had a playstyle.
Come the first day of single-group play, this was immediately proven false. Gen.G collapsed, their playstyle exploited through mid laner Lee "Crown" Min-ho's small champion pool and lack of mid pressure.
After the now-former world champions dropped out of worlds, the atmosphere shifted again. No one was safe. Afreeca too could easily fall out of groups, making it the first time two South Korean teams had ever failed to make it past the worlds group stage in competitive League of Legends history. With Taiwan's Flash Wolves looking to secure their first quarterfinals berth since 2015 -- even in the absence of former star jungler Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan, a hungry G2 Esports, and the dangerous Vietnamese squad of Phong Vũ Buffalo.
Flash Wolves looked all but assured to exit the group, despite a Day 4 loss to G2 where they picked a single-damage threat composition, much like the ones that RNG would later lose with a day later in Group B. From this point on, the Flash Wolves never regained the same confidence or finesse that they had in the first few days of the tournament. Nearly all of Group A's games were filled with long, drawn-out skirmishes with both sides racking up kills, especially in Flash Wolves' match against Phong Vũ Buffalo which ended with 49 kills between the two teams.
After a tiebreaker with G2 where they left up Heimerdinger, picking Mordekaiser into it, the Flash Wolves' time at worlds was over. This is a large disappointment for Taiwan, especially after the Flash Wolves' strong performance at the Mid-Season Invitational and continued dominance over their home region.
Instead, Afreeca and G2 emerged victorious.
This is a significant win for G2, a team that has failed to get out of groups at all international events they've previously attended, either due to their own internal team issues, or the strength of their group. G2 has a different look this year as well with a more top-side focused style around Martin "Wunder" Hansen.
The shield of invincibility for South Korean teams at international events is long gone -- chipped away by Royal Never Give Up's success at the Mid-Season Invitational, Rift Rivals, and the Asian Games, along with Gen.G's recent defeat. Still, Afreeca banded together when they needed to the most, casting doubts aside by playing solo queue to regain their confidence.
They didn't win because it was inevitable, or because they were a South Korean team. They won more in the manner of a scrappy underdog, fighting for survival despite entering the tournament as anything but.
The Afreeca that showed up on Monday was still not the same team that looked so strong in LoL Champions Korea -- due to overconfidence and a lack of preparation, holes in South Korean teams' playstyles, or possibly a combination of the two.
They have a long way to go if they want to live up to pre-tournament expectations.