The illusion of the steep advantage: G2 Esports and Team WE

G2 Esports rally to close the 2017 MSI semifinal (lolesports)
G2 Esports rally to close the 2017 MSI semifinal (lolesports)

“Since we played against G2 before and are 2-0 over them,” Team WE’s Su “xiye” Hanwei said in the semifinal teaser, “I think when we play against them, we might mentally have an advantage over them.”

For years, hubris has been a death sentence in the EU LCS and LPL rivalry. Long dominated by China, EU LCS teams began to take a turn at the 2015 World Championship. Since then, the head-to-head competition has been much closer. Royal Never Give Up far and away outperformed G2 Esports at last year’s MSI, but only split even with Splyce in the World Championship Group Stage. H2K-Gaming trumped EDward Gaming 2-1.

At the close of last year’s MSI, Royal Never Give Up lost to SK Telecom T1 in the semifinal. Many argued that, in reality, they were the second best team at the tournament. No one can make that argument about the LPL team this time around.

Prior to MSI, I referred to G2 Esports and Team WE as incredibly similar teams, a perspective I maintained up until the semifinal. It would come down to the 2v2 mid and jungle matchup. Both teams might default to scaling compositions and Baron fights when cornered, but map pressure from mid lane and an ability to snowball bottom dictated success or failure.

Following the Group Stage, this seemed like a more difficult comparison to make. With the second highest gold lead at 15 minutes of any team at the tournament, Team WE seemed like a laning phase oriented team, and G2 could only sneak wins by holding on for dear life until the 40 minute mark.

Just as G2 had the tendency to play the wrong invade, to lose sight of when to roam with mid or whether a Teleport advantage would prevent a fast kill, so did WE. When G2 limped across the finish line of the Group Stage, however, they doubled down. G2 chose stronger jungle picks and went for champions like Olaf and Kha’Zix that could get through the front line and punish WE’s more diving, all-in oriented teamfighting. Meanwhile, Team WE remained the same. There’s nothing we saw in the semifinal from Team WE that was new.

The tendency for winning teams to stop and catch their breath has allowed those behind to catch up. It’s also something SK Telecom T1, the best team in the world, never seems to do.

When SKT win a World Championship, they change their roster. If they fall behind early, they pick up more aggressive players like Heo “Huni” Seunghoon and Han “Peanut” Wangho.

Rather than play as if relieved or complacent, winning only seems to spur SKT on more.

In Flash Wolves’ Group Stage victory over SKT, the Taiwanese side focused on controlling mid lane and top lane, preventing Huni from giving up resources to help Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok get ahead. If Bae “Bang” Junsik got a few kills, it didn’t matter as long as Flash Wolves could use their mid lane advantage to maintain control of the river.

Zero holds his head after the loss (lolesports)
Zero holds his head after the loss (lolesports)

SKT’s first draft in the bracket stage had a scaling protect-the-AD-carry composition. Any kill or lead for Bang would matter much more than it had in previous games. Flash Wolves wouldn’t be able to use the same strategy, but their draft of Nautilus and LeBlanc set them up to do so anyway. It didn’t pay off.

That wasn’t SKT’s only trick. They had banned Leblanc throughout the MSI Group Stage, but against Flash Wolves, they let it slip through. Each time, they had an answer. SKT’s first place in Group Stage didn’t make them complacent.

Of course, SKT finding ways to change, even when losses don’t demand it, can’t be the only reason for their success. With the ups-and-downs of the LPL and EU LCS rivalry, players on both sides have looked to past international or Group Stage successes as a reason to consider their region strong. Yet, they have shown that not changing, even if the situation doesn’t demand it, can lead to failure.

Based on domestic performances, Team WE and G2 Esports were well matched. Prior to the event, I even gave the edge to G2 as it appeared that, at times, WE didn’t understand that they needed pushing lanes for Xiang “Condi” Renjie to invade.

At MSI’s Group Stage, however, WE demonstrated a better grasp of 1-3-1 and how to execute side lane push. In many instances today, that still shone through. When the time came to set up for Baron in Game 1, WE almost always had side lanes shoving into G2’s side of the map. But when they didn’t use it, when xiye didn’t move to side lane to try to push to turret with Lucian mid to pressure for vision control, WE imploded.

They constantly tried to 5v5 against G2’s better AOE comp. They didn’t use Gragas ultimate to reset the fight properly after the Malzahar engage and follow-up from Taric’s ultimate. Ke “957” Changyu’s over-eagerness made it appear, at times, as if he were trying to lose.

To explain losses, critics pointed to WE’s draft. 957 shouldn’t have played Rumble. WE didn’t draft an actual composition, just power or comfort picks. Yet, windows, albeit small, existed for WE’s success. In Game 3, they drafted a primarily AD composition, but managed to knock down turrets before G2 stacked armor, and let Kog’Maw take out the rest of the game.

Team WE faltered the most on execution. G2 deepened their repertoire and opened their options. They let the mid and jungle duo control the map, capitalizing on WE’s mistakes with more reactive edges. Luka “Perkz” Perković’s improvements, a year in the making, punched a pathway to the enemy Nexus.

Although Team WE may have been favored to win the second semifinal, and although they played like the better team in every regard in Group Stage, it should have always been close. WE seemed to anticipate a much larger mental advantage than it was possible for them to have had.

It’s been 740 days since an LPL team won a best-of-five at an international Riot event. Europe’s G2 earned their spot in the MSI final. If any team wants the confidence that SKT can claim, the ability to dominate and appear so far above the rest of the competition, they can only obtain it through years of climbing on top and continuing to evolve.

G2's bot lane applaud after a victory (lolesports)
G2’s bot lane applaud after a victory (lolesports)

Today, the better team won, and they won by evolving. With the nature of shame and competition, the next time G2 and WE face off, the better team may not still be G2. For a while, exempting clashes against the pinnacle of LCK, it’s just going to be close.

You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.