Back in September 2013, the biggest match between North America and Europe in League of Legends took place in Los Angeles. It was the quarterfinals of the third League of Legends World Championship, pitting the leaders of NA, upstart new organization Cloud9, and champions of EU, Fnatic -- a storied organization from the days of Counter-Strike and StarCraft II, among others. This was before the era of South Korean dominance at worlds, which would eventually begin at the same event with SK Telecom T1 winning its first Summoner's Cup.
In the quarterfinal match, Fnatic derailed C9's hopes of winning a world title in their home country, taking a 2-1 series win. C9, who had dominated the NA LCS in their inaugural season, lost their air of invincibility, and that was the last time the public-at-large believed a North American team had any chance to lift the Summoner's Cup. Fnatic would go on to fall in the semifinal to China's Royal Club, only to make it back to the final four of the world championship two years later, once again getting eliminated by an Asian team -- this time in the form of a South Korea upstart organization, the KOO Tigers.
Five years since the biggest North America vs. European match in the game's history, the torch will be passed to a new matchup, this time in the semifinals between those same two teams.
Well, kind of.
C9 and Fnatic, fated to continue their rivalry, will meet in the unlikest of circumstances, with one of the pair confirmed to become the first Western world finalist since the inaugural professional season of League of Legends in 2011, which didn't even include teams from either China or South Korea. Without question, this is the biggest match NA and EU have ever played against each other since the game was created.
In a recent research done by Forbes, Cloud9 came in as the most valuable esports franchise in the world ($310 million), while Fnatic, in sixth ($120 million), was the top European franchise. These are the two powerhouses of their regions on the international stage. Even beyond League of Legends, C9 and Fnatic have built winning cultures in various games over the years, and this is the culmination for both, each wanting to etch their names into the League of Legends history book.
In a year when South Korean teams imploded and tournament-favorite Royal Never Give Up of China fell in the quarterfinals, this is not only the best chance Europe (with G2 Esports also on the other side of the bracket) and North America have had for the Summoner's Cup in years -- this might be their best chance for a long time. With the China region only getting stronger as franchising continues, and South Korean teams refocusing following the most embarrassing year in League, both teams know this could be the best chance they ever have to win it all, and neither will go quietly into the Gwangju night.
Welcome to the Super Bowl of Western League of Legends.
"Joining Cloud9, I definitely didn't expect us to become this strong. I think a lot of people [thought] we lost the offseason or whatever, but looking at the roster, I know for a fact I can be super good. I know Jensen is an absolute beast. Sneaky is always consistent. Eric [Licorice] is a rookie who is improving super fast. It's fair for them to [criticize], but I'm just happy to prove them wrong. " -- Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen
During the first week of the world championship in the play-ins, C9 were probably a 2 out of 10 when it came to how well they played. The team was sloppy. Mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen was sick. They almost lost to one of the weakest teams, Japan's Detonation FocusMe, twice, and almost fell in the play-in knockout stage, where the team needed to go all five games to dispatch Gambit Esports.
When they got drawn into Group B, it felt like the tournament was over for C9. They were in a group with reigning world champion Gen. G Esports of South Korea and reigning Mid-Season Invitational champion RNG of China. Game over. C9 could barely beat Gambit, and now they had to play two teams who could meet each other in the final.
After the first half of the group stage, I would give C9 a 5 out of 10. The team was OK. Nothing great. Nothing too bad. They got absolutely rocked by RNG to the surprise of no one, sneaked out a comeback win over Team Vitality from Europe, and then played a somewhat decent game against the struggling Gen.G, which spiraled out of control following an ill-fated aggressive play in the mid lane, resulting in a swift defeat for C9.
At the end of the group stages, C9 were suddenly playing at an 8 out of 10 level. The team's hesitation and poor laning phase outside of the top lane seemed to vanish without a trace, and the wins started to fall into place, first with Gen.G, then an upset over RNG, and finally a quarterfinals-clincher against Vitality. Although they lost a No. 1-seed tiebreaker with RNG that was C9-favored until an immaculate teamfight from the MSI champions, it was the most impressive day by any NA team in worlds history. They played like a world class team and were awarded for it.
Following Cloud9's quarterfinal, the team one-upped themselves once again, sweeping the Afreeca Freecs 3-0. Outside of a shaky Game 2 and a few missteps on the game-winning map, there was little to criticize from C9. They played at a 9-out-of-10 level, a month after looking dead in the water versus a Gambit Team that would have probably struggled to pick up a single game in the group stages.
The entire tournament has been a Hyperbolic Time Chamber-like experience for C9. The team resembles nothing like the version that played Team Liquid for the NA LCS title and got swept in Oakland two months ago. Every time C9 has returned to the stage in South Korea, they've been better.
Two weeks ago, I would have said C9 had little to no chance against Fnatic. Even before the Afreeca series, I thought while C9 had a chance to beat the South Korean squad, coming up short versus Fnatic in the semifinals would have been a satisfying end to C9's tournament. After winning 3-0 against the South Korean team and in a final four with Fnatic, G2, and China's Invictus Gaming, why can't C9 win worlds?
Cloud9, peaking at just the right time, just might be able to do the unthinkable.
"I feel like the game is going to be 35 minutes and there is going to be a late-game teamfight. I can see Sneaky making mistakes and dying. I just don't see Rekkles doing that." -- Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau
Stop grouping Fnatic alongside C9 and G2 Esports. This is not a Cinderella run. This is not a series of upsets or an evolution of a team growing over a month's time in South Korea. When Fnatic touched down in South Korea, they knew they had what it took to win it all. Although the rest of the favorites have fallen around them, Fnatic have persevered, transitioning their rumored scrimmage dominance onto the stage where they have looked nearly unstoppable since the second half of the group stage.
It only took a single loss to Invictus Gaming to wake up Fnatic. Since watching their Nexus pop, they have only dropped one other game throughout the entire tournament, the opening game in the quarterfinal with Edward Gaming, taking three straight following the lone defeat. Fnatic not only got revenge on iG for the first-half loss, but they took back-to-back games against the still-contending team, knocking out the mechanically talented Chinese squad in a No. 1-seed tiebreaker that resembled a boxing match more than a League of Legends game.
Although Fnatic could have probably tried to out-macro Invictus, they played to the Chinese team's strength and beat them at their own game. In a five-on-five brawl, Fnatic was superior in both games, and that sort of in-your-face, confident play has only extended to the best-of-five stage, where top lane "sixth man" Bwipo has taken up the responsibilities of becoming the team's lightning rod on his various champions.
Standing next to C9, Fnatic should be heavily favored. They won two European domestic splits this year. C9 placed 10th in NA before clawing their way up the standings and making it to the North American regional. Europe is a stronger region than North America overall. At Rift Rivals, it wasn't even close, as the European teams made their NA counterparts look light years behind the meta en route to an easy victory.
To call Fnatic some fly-by-night Cinderella story would be a disservice to the team they have built over the last two years. In comparison, C9 are much more like last year's Fnatic, where the team was a mix of rookies and veterans. Fnatic fell in the quarterfinals of last year's worlds to a better RNG squad. After a year of playing together, upgrading at a few positions and watching their ace, Rasmus "Caps" Winther, grow from rambunctious rookie to world-class mid laner and European MVP, this Fnatic team is ready to become a world champion.
Caps is one of the best mid laners in the world. Veteran Martin "Rekkles" Larsson was too young to play in the first C9 vs. Fnatic worlds match in 2013, but has worked himself ever since that day to make his way to the Summoner's Cup, and this will be the best chance of his career. Paul "sOAZ" Boyer played in the first worlds final back in 2011 and is looking to return after losing in his last two semifinals. Fnatic's other young gun, Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen, might be the leading candidate for tournament MVP at this point, even over the likes of Rekkles and Caps.
Everything has aligned perfectly for Fnatic. 2017 was not their year. 2019 is not their year. 2020 won't be their year. This year in South Korea -- as the rest of the favorites have fallen and the road to the Summoner's Cup has never been clearer -- is their year. They've already beaten G2 repeatedly in Europe and have shown the difference in skill. Invictus, the other possible finalist, have already played to their strengths against Fnatic and lost. Cloud9, bright-eyed with three rookies on their roster of six, still feels like a work in progress.
The scouting, team building and everything put into the team has been for this moment, and anything other than a Summoner's Cup victory would be a failure.
This is the year of Fnatic.