The talk coming into Day 2 of IEM Katowice for the GE Tigers wasn't if they were going to win, but when.
The Tigers came into the tournament as the consensus favorites to win it all and were widely regarded as the best team in the world, and they knew it. Instead of wondering if World Elite or CJ Entus could knock them off, it seemed as if it was more about what type of special uniform they had prepared for the Grand Finals on Sunday.
World Elite knocked off CJ Entus in a Bo1 series to make it into the semifinals, but it seemingly didn't make a difference to the Tigers. WE looked much more in-tune with each other than their solo queue-like shenanigans from the day before, but the team was still thrown together right before the tournament started. The writing was on the wall before the game even started and the only real question was how badly the Tigers would stomp the last place team in LPL that was rearranged with subs mostly playing in solo queue.
The first game was classic GE. They picked a team that would spike in the mid-game with Smeb's Rumble and Pray's Corki, knowing that if they could keep it close through the first twenty minutes they'd be in a perfect position to exploit a thrown-together team. The game went on as planned, with World Elite getting off to an early lead due to Xiye bullying Kuro's LeBlanc. The map tilted over to WE for the laning phase and early-game as GE sloppily moved along the map and slogged through the motions.
Then, like they could've done at any time in the first twenty minutes, GE flipped the switch. A simple dance around the dragon pit turned into a perfectly won objective and team fight for GE, aceing World Elite and taking hold of the game in one fell swoop.
Just like that, the game was over and locked down. The Tigers put their foot down, Kuro was able to push back with his Ezreal after a slow start and the ending was a highlight reel of GE players killing helpless World Elite champions.
World Elite were down and out. The makeshift team did well in their first appearance together, upsetting Gambit Gaming and CJ Entus in back-to-back matches, but the skill and cohesion discrepancy was clear. Whenever GE wanted they could turn their switch from 0-to-100, find a timing to pinpoint WE's lack of experience together, and romp them. All that was left was for GE to add another skull to their growing collection of victims.
GE decided they would go into the finals with a bang. Kuro, the calming pillar that balanced everyone's aggression with his defense, locked in Yasuo. Not only had Yasuo not been a favored pick for months, but Kuro never played the champion in the regular season or preseason of Champions Korea. The composition centered around Yauso getting off his ultimate 'Final Breath' through Lee Sin's kicks and Nami's waves. It was popular in 2014, most notably with World Elite Spirit's old Samsung Blue team, but it wasn't 2014 anymore and things had changed.
The Tigers' hubris had some validity; if they were able to pull off this ancient composition with Kuro playing an offensive role on Yasuo, it would put another seed in the back of TSM's minds they would have to think about during the finals. Still, World Elite got a 3k-plus gold lead in Game 1, and were shown that the Tigers were the superior team when it came to two comparable compositions. Moving from their comfort zone to something new with only one win before the finals was a bold and unneeded risk to make when they were so close to their goal of making it to the finals undefeated.
Everything backfired in the second game for GE, most importantly the Yasuo pick. Kuro, while one of the best mid-laners in the world, is not in the same mold as a Dade or Faker. He plays a defensive style that allows Lee to put his attention into helping the aggressive Smeb and bottom lane duo get a strong start.
Placing Kuro on Yasuo meant that the usually passive and calm player on the Tigers was now thrust into a role where he had to be the aggressive carry who went head-first into team fights. There were times where he could have used 'Final Breath' to turn the tide of battle, but his indecision and fear to go in led to uncharacteristic mid-game team fighting from GE.
Game 2 was comparable to Samsung White's third game against Team SoloMid in last year's Worlds quarterfinals. Samsung were up 2-0 and took their foot off the gas pedal in the third game, taking an extremely late-game composition that lacked wave-clear. TSM jumped on the opportunity that White gave them, picked up early kills in the first few minutes and won a game that Samsung White could have continued their dominance on if not for a lazy pick/ban phase.
The biggest difference between GE and Samsung White? Samsung's team was chock full of proven winners. The team had been in multiple Korean finals, already played at Worlds, and held a two game buffer above TSM to allow themselves a game where they could try and style on the opposition. In comparison, GE has had an incredible regular season run, but only Pray has ever won a Champions Korea title and more than half the team haven't even reached a semifinal in Korea.
Samsung White, albeit extremely arrogant at times, built up enough credit and a reputation where they could slack off and get a pass. Everyone knew they might mess up, at times trying to be more stylish in victory than just getting the job done, but people knew they were a world-class team through former titles and accolades.
In comparison, the GE Tigers are still extremely green. They've mounted comebacks against teams through their 0-to-100-flicking-the-on-switch-approach, but what have they really accomplished? Smeb and Lee were relative nobodies before this season. Kuro was that guy who was solid but nothing spectacular. People thought Pray had retired or fallen off the face of the earth. Really, the only player that people thought as a world-class player heading into the season was GorillA.
Everyone else? Middle-of-the-pack with a chance of improving over time.
Game 3 saw the Tigers reverting back to comfort picks. It all seemed fine and dandy, but the sliver of hope had been given over to World Elite and they ran with their newly acquired momentum. Lee had possibly the worst game of his career, being dragged around the map and being played like an amateur against Spirit. Smeb was never able to get ahead early against WE's weak link Aluka due to being pressured extensively, and it was another game where Kuro looked shaky on an assassin, this time LeBlanc, instead of a more safe and laid back champion.
GE, who looked jovial and happy even when they were behind in games, were unraveled by World Elite in their final game of the tournament. The switch was broken no matter how many times they tried to take over the mid-game, and World Elite, captained by Spirit, made the GE Tigers look like a team that didn't deserve to be on the same map as them. Lee continually missed skill shots, the Tigers chased for kills that gave WE open chances to knock down turrets, and their incredible team fighting was broken down to half the team doing one thing and the other half wanting to do another.
Let's be clear: the GE Tigers are not a bad team. If WE and GE play 100 times, GE probably takes the series three out of every four times. Instead of playing an outdated composition that came off looking foolish and cocky, they would have stepped on WE's throat after a dominating Game 1 and cruised into the finals. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they didn't take Spirit seriously enough and last year's Worlds semifinalist took GE back to school for a lesson on playing a team game.
So where does this leave GE? This series will either fuel their fire and help the Tigers truly become a team that can win a world championship in November, or it will be the series that takes the heart and confidence away from the team and slowly pulls them apart.
A loss can be just as good as a win in terms of growing as a team depending on what you do after the defeat. If GE take this as the ultimate wake-up call and realize that they've yet to accomplish anything, it could be the added motivation that helps them take the rest of the Spring season seriously and dismantle everyone in their path. Or, it could be the opposite: GE see this loss as things to come, over-analyze what went wrong and their confidence is shot, leading them to a middling end to the season with a downfall in the summer.
Being an all-time great team is finding the middle ground between confidence and arrogance. Every great team in whatever sport you follow must have confidence and a feeling they can beat everyone. But you don't want to fall into being too confident and overlook opponents and games that can lead to your ultimate demise.
Tonight was a case of arrogance being the dagger in the Tigers' heart. The special uniforms they planned for the grand finals in front of 10,000 people will not be seen. Their talk of going undefeated throughout the entire tournament is done, and they will watch as World Elite and TSM do battle in one of the most anticipated LoL finals of all-time.
This could either be the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning for the GE Tigers — it's now up to them which road they take.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports, and he will be bringing in-depth coverage of the IEM LoL World Championships in Katowice. He still doesn't know what exactly just happened in Poland. You can follow him on Twitter.