MADRID -- It was like a scene out of a movie.
Inside the Palacio Vistalegre, a jam-packed crowd waited for the start of what was believed to be the biggest semifinal in League of Legends World Championship history. It was the winningest franchise in the game's nine-year history, three-time world titleholders SK Telecom T1 of South Korea, against the hometown favorites, Europe's champions, G2 Esports.
G2, playing on home soil, were on the verge of writing a legend comparable to SKT's three world championships. The Mid-Season Invitational champions were two series victories away from becoming the first team in League of Legends to win every major competition they competed in during the calendar year.
As the teams and players were introduced, the live Spanish commentators riled the crowd into a frenzy. Before fans could sit down and catch their breath for the match on deck, a red-and-yellow flash sprinted across the floor-level sitting area, and a group thrusting their arms wildly into the air beckoned the onlookers to rise again and cheer even louder.
The leader of the ground-level hype men was none other than G2's founder and owner, Carlos "Ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago, in the Spanish-colored version of his team's uniform. He was accompanied by one of the country's largest YouTubers and gaming personalities in Rubén "El Rubius" Doblas Gundersen. Palacio Vistalegre erupted, and G2 started off what would become one of the biggest days in the franchise's history.
Although G2 Esports would fall behind early and often in several of their games against the South Korean champion, they never wilted under the heat of the crowd or the pressure put on them by SKT, advancing to the grand final on Nov. 10 by a score line of 3-1 in one of the best world championship matches in recent memory. The fans, having quieted only for small spurts throughout the day, sang G2 off the stage on their way to France, some even waiting for more than an hour after the match to cheer as the team bus exited the venue.
"I'm used to people chanting my name," Ocelote joked following his team's victory. "I think I'm still hated. It just so happens G2 has more fans than Fnatic and Origen, so the ratio of hatred vs. love has changed."
Where there is joy in sport, there also has to be sadness, and that was the case for SKT. After failing to G2 in the MSI semifinals in May, the South Koreans wanted to get redemption for their close defeat and get their country back to the world final following a 2018 campaign where all teams from the historically dominant country failed to make it out of the first round of the knockout stage.
It's not as if SKT didn't have chances to change their fate. For a majority of the series, SKT were the ones who were in the driver's seat when it came to gold, and the team often had an on-paper advantage. STK eked out advantages in the early game and controlled the objectives needed to put themselves in a position to win.
In those situations of perceived control, though, SKT faltered time and time again over the course of the four-game series, with G2's stronger map awareness, teamwork and just general mechanical talent making up for lackluster beginnings to games.
In what appeared to be a secured win for SKT in Game 4 that would have sent the series into a decisive fifth map, the same issues that plagued the team all day continued to fester. Unforced errors and bizarre individual outplay attempts resulted in their worlds run coming to an abrupt end.
"G2, even when they were behind, were able to overcome this gap," SKT support Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong said. "Meanwhile, when we are behind, we continued to make more mistakes. This difference led us to defeat."
SKT have never been a perfect team, but when they've had their hiccups, they've always relied on mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok to be the prevailing force, the heart of the team, and pull them through. In 2013, during Faker and SKT's first world championship, the South Koreans fell behind 1-2 in the semifinals to fellow South Korean squad NaJin Black Sword. SKT fought back from the deficit and won.
Three years later in New York City, back in the semifinals, Faker had to once more pull a rabbit out of his hat with help from longtime jungle partner Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong to claw back from a 1-2 hole to defeat the ROX Tigers, also from South Korea.
And the next year -- you guessed it -- Faker and SKT, in their worst shape ever at a world championship, were on the edge of defeat against China's Royal Never Give Up in Shanghai. The feverish crowd was ready to blow the top off of the arena when SKT were put down once and for all. Faker didn't let that happen, however, and though SKT would lose in the final, they at least kept their streak of always making a final when qualified for worlds.
Against G2, to put it quite frankly, the man nicknamed "The Unkillable Demon King" was mortal. He was ordinary. He made mechanical mistakes and was even shown distraught at one point in the wake of a mishap, his hands shaking with his team's tournament life on the line.
Faker got a large lead in the fourth game on an assassin, Qiyana, and that should have been that. Instead, he stumbled, finding himself behind enemy lines too many times and getting caught out in the pivotal moment that led G2 to their first worlds final.
In mere seconds, the mystique of the greatest League of Legends player of all time was stripped away. Like he always has, Faker will regain that prestige over time with more domestic titles and international accomplishments, but for now, if only for a single night in Madrid, G2 ripped apart the aura that makes Lee Sang-hyeok a gaming superstar.
The match itself worldwide was a smash hit. Per Esports Charts, which tracks viewership across streaming websites, Sunday's semifinal became the most-watched esports match in history, with 3.9 million people tuning it at the stream's peak during Game 4 of the series. This doesn't even include global TV nor viewership numbers in China, which would add millions more to the overall count.
In comparison, Epic Games' Fortnite World Cup peaked at 2.3 million while last year's worlds final, Fnatic vs. Invictus Gaming, came in at 2 million.
Though it wasn't the final, this series could be remembered as one.
The match didn't pan out to be what some people hoped would be the best series in League of Legends history, but with the viewership numbers, the atmosphere and the pendulum swing for four-straight games, it'll definitely be one of the most memorable.
G2's starting top laner Wunder agrees. The final against FunPlus Phoenix just doesn't have as much magic built into it.
"Today was the real final," he said. "[In Paris], our wrath will be swift."