INCHEON, South Korea -- At the Incheon Munhak Stadium with golden confetti raining from the sky, Fnatic watched their opponents become League of Legends world champions.
Unlike years past in the finals, Fnatic weren't slumped in their chairs or collapsed over their desks, tears flowing onto the wood. All of the members were standing, dazed, looks of confusion mixed with frustration on their faces. Team leader Martin "Rekkles" Larsson stared into the cold, November night, the smoke and confetti clouding his vision, the images of the 3-0 sweep versus China's Invictus Gaming probably still rushing his mind.
Coming into the final, the 2018 League of Legends Worlds Final was expected to be as close as it could get. The two teams already played in the group stages, and all three games were exciting, tense, back-and-forth battles, with Europe's Fnatic actually coming out ahead with two victories to only one defeat.
What occurred was the exact opposite. It was the quickest worlds final in history, the overall combined game time of the three games barely cracking over 85 minutes. None of the games went over 33 minutes, and the longest of the bunch, game two, was extended through casual misplays from China's representative. iG was playing with their food on the largest stage in the sport. The team's superstar top laner, Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok, treated a majority of the series like it was a casual match with friends, diving turrets for the fun of it.
It was quick and it was painful. The western fans who hoped to see the first non-Asian team ever lift the Summoner's Cup were left as dumbfounded as the players. Every piece of information throughout the tournament pointed towards Fnatic not only being capable of winning the world title, but being the favorites to win it all. They'd already dispatched of iG in their last two games.
At media day the team sat in a line looking up at the press inside LoL Park in Seoul. There were no smiles or laughter about making it to the final. Fnatic weren't a Cinderella story that defied expectations. They were the back-to-back European champions, the best western team of all-time in League of Legends, and ready to win the world championship.
"I'm just here to win," said Rekkles at media day, unwavering in his one and only goal.
The pain of the loss comes from the consequences of actually believing. Unlike other world championships where a western team making it far was a moral victory regardless of where they were eliminated in the bracket stage, Fnatic truly believed they could win. The fans, outnumbered in Incheon, wrapped in European flags and the orange of Fnatic, still believed even when they fell down 0-2 in the series that Fnatic could come back. The team earned the trust of the fans throughout the year with their performances, and that's why when iG put the nail in the coffin, it hurt more than if they had lost to C9 in the semifinals or even failed to make it out of groups.
Fnatic brought legitimate hope to a part of the world that has only looked at the tournament through a lense of imagination since South Korea's entrance into the scene in 2012. Western fans weren't dreaming of a team winning the finals. The dream was a semifinal. Maybe, if every star in the galaxy aligned, they could make the final before getting destroyed in the final by an SK Telecom T1 or Royal Never Give Up.
For the first time since 2012, Fnatic was good enough to not only make the final but win it. The South Korean empire had fallen and the tournament-favorite Royal Never Give Up got upset in the quarterfinals. Everything lined up perfectly for Fnatic to be the heroes in Incheon, and instead, it all fell apart in a matter of minutes. A bad laning phase in game one snowballed into more and more mistakes until the series was over in a flash, a week's anticipation of triumph resulting in a series that felt shorter than the opening ceremony which came before it.
Leaving South Korea, Fnatic have a lot to be proud about. They steamrolled Cloud9 in the semifinals. They won their group over Invictus Gaming. They fought back in a quarterfinal series where they weren't at their best against another Chinese foe, Edward Gaming. Two domestic European titles. Rift Rivals. Mid-Season Invitational semifinalists. Individual awards. The list goes on and on. They can hold their head high, even with the final defeat, as the greatest western team of all-time.
And yet, that is why, when they board the plane and get back home, waiting for the weeks to go by until the preseason for 2019 begins, it will hurt more than any loss that came before it. Sometimes a blank expression and a frozen, upright state can show far more anguish than falling out of a chair in a burst of uncontrolled emotion.
It hurts because Fnatic could have won it all.
This was a team that didn't want moral victories. They didn't want to be qualified as the best western team in history.
They wanted to be the best team in history, period, and no individual accolade or moral victory will be ever enough to mask that pain.