BERLIN -- Amid a messy, public spat between former Griffin coach Kim "CvMax" Dae-ho and Griffin manager Cho Kyu-nam, five players from Griffin took the stage on Friday at the League of Legends World Championship for what could have been their elimination day. They had the first match in their group against North America's Cloud9. While Griffin had emerged victorious in their previous matchup, it was more thanks to C9 misplaying their composition than Griffin playing particularly well. Griffin hadn't looked dominating in any of their other Group A matches, either.
Simply put, this second matchup against C9 was a big game. Griffin didn't look anything close to indomitable in their previous group matches and were completely outmatched by first-place Group A team and tournament favorite, G2 Esports. The crowd was against them, booing at analyst desk picks of Griffin and starting loud chants for C9 in the opening moments of the game.
Griffin smashed C9 in 24 minutes. It was a statement victory for the Griffin players who not only put aside whatever was going on internally between Griffin management and their former coach, but overcame whatever nerves they had previously in important games. One G2 Esports victory over Hong Kong Attitude later and Griffin had qualified from Group A alongside G2 as worlds quarterfinalists.
Griffin hadn't done well in big games in the past. Disappointing performances in LoL Champions Korea finals had led to fans and analysts labeling Griffin as "chokers" in high-pressure situations. Griffin's single-game loss to the LoL Pro League's FunPlus Phoenix in the Rift Rivals final only added to this perception.
In folklore, a griffin is a particularly magical beast due to the animals it is made from: a lion and an eagle, kings of their respective domains. Griffin the team has played like their namesake. They are kings of the LCK's regular-season split, earning a spot in the three LCK finals since they were promoted for the 2018 summer split. Two of these three times, they've earned an automatic bid to the final due to placing first in the regular season.
Last year, when all three South Korean teams fell in Busan at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, the whispers among the South Korean faithful almost always included a version of, "If only Griffin were here. If Griffin were here, they would have made it to at least semifinals."
Griffin made a name for themselves with their five-as-one playstyle. Like the mythical griffin, they were a combination of powerful individuals: young players with exceptional solo queue talent who just needed to become one. Despite early-game trouble and passivity, Griffin would always seem to find a way to kill opponents in mid-to-late game teamfights with this five-as-one mentality. Yet their luck always seemed to run out in big games.
After taking KT Rolster to a fifth game in the best-of-five 2018 LCK summer final, Gen.G, the reigning world champions at the time, defeated Griffin in the 2018 regional gauntlet, stopping the team from representing South Korea at last year's world championship. This year, Griffin found themselves outmatched by a rampaging SK Telecom T1 in both the 2019 spring and summer LCK finals, but they still qualified for worlds. Their strong, first-place regular-season standings were enough to make it without having to play a qualifying match in the regional gauntlet.
"I just didn't know that it would take so long," Griffin bot laner Park "Viper" Do-hyeon told ESPN when they qualified. "It took a year. But I'm glad that I'm able to go to worlds in my second attempt."
Yet it hadn't been long at all. It had been less than a year.
With all their success, it's easy to forget how young Griffin are. They have one of the younger collective starting rosters at this worlds tournament. Top laner Choi "Sword" Sung-won is the oldest player at 22. Given their previous struggles in high-pressure matches and the offstage turmoil, Griffin's opening match on Friday was primed to be an upset victory for C9, but Griffin flipped the script.
"All of the teammates talk to one another, and we try to communicate on what is the best thing to do," Griffin support Son "Lehends" Si-woo said in describing how they were able to have such a different performance in the second round robin of the group stage.
Hours later, Griffin beat G2 twice to go 4-0 on the day and claim the first seed in Group A, and they did it in dominating fashion.
"When you play against one team for more than one time, you start seeing the color of that team," Lehends added. "We tried to determine what color G2 had and drafted to create situations relevant for the team."
What Griffin drafted against G2 was a series of compositions that made the most of global pressure: a style that is comfortable for Griffin while also being something that G2 has previously struggled with. These drafts included an old Lehends favorite, support Shen.
"I just played what I wanted for the global comp," Lehends said, laughing slightly. "Shen sucks. Viper really hates that champion because it has no skills to help with the laning phase. I actually don't think Shen is that good. I just like that champion. It's kind of fun, and it suits my playstyle."
When faced with possible elimination and an all-important match at the start of the day, Griffin managed to defy expectations and their own history to not only get out of their group but win it, placing themselves in a strong position going into the quarterfinals.
"Because I'm in the middle of it, I don't think much has changed," Lehends said when asked how Griffin were able to overcome their own history and others' perception of them as an emotionally volatile team. "Just more conversations with my teammates."