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Building from the lowest point: Team Liquid's shaky start to 2017

by theScore Staff Jan 31 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS 2017 / Riot Games

Greyson “Goldenglue” Gilmer bursts out of Team Liquid’s base as Katarina. He’s the first to spawn following a team ace at the hands of FlyQuest Esports. It’s too late. Team Liquid’s nexus falls.

While packing up their equipment, the players look surprised but not despondent, save for AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin. Years of professional play, a World Championship and he still takes each and every loss to heart. Today, that loss comes on Day 2 of the 2017 NA LCS Spring Split, another regular season series. It still seems personal. He looks down, averting his eyes from where the camera is positioned atop the monitor, wrapping up stray cords.

Moments later, a sheepish Samson “Lourlo” Jackson sits down outside of the Riot Games press room.

“I think the main thing is that it’s the first week,” he says. He wears a grin despite the loss and stares directly, confidently, while speaking. “We just need to figure out how to improve things and just figure out the things we messed up on because we had a lot of mistakes today. Even in scrims we’re making these mistakes — it’s just a matter of recognizing small leads and not jumping to push too far.”

A day earlier, Team Liquid coach David Lim alluded to similar errors despite a 2-0 sweep of Counter Logic Gaming in their season opener. “We have a good core where any lane can carry, but we need to have distinct plans as well for what we want to do and what we want to accomplish. Having an identity helps in winning games, especially at the highest level,” Lim said. “Right now, we can play almost a perfect game, win all three lanes, snowball, win the game in under 25, or we can lose the game in seven minutes.”

He laughs and shakes his head. “We’re really hit or miss right now.”

A week before the North American League Championship Series begins, analysts and pundits craft their power rankings. The region has undergone another, albeit familiar, transformation. The influx of money, traditional sports organizations’ investment and imported talent that first entered the scene in 2016 is now the standard for North America going into 2017. The only questions are of which players have landed on which teams, and how these rosters will come together off of the paper and on the Rift.

At the start of the 2016-17 offseason, Team Liquid is a team in flux. Their documentary “Breaking Point” releases on Nov. 2, confirming previously rumored internal turmoil between teammates and staff members. Weeks later at the 2016 NA Scouting Grounds event, recently-announced coach David Lim, Lourlo and jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett oversee a group of challenger players for a week.

This is the last time the top laner and jungler are on Team Liquid in an official capacity. On Nov. 23, Dardoch leaves the organization. He is announced as Immortals’ new jungler a little over a week later. A week after that, former Immortals jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin joins Team Liquid.

In construction, the new 2017 Team Liquid roster reflects “for us, cultivating domestic talent is imperative,” Co-owner Steve “LiQuiD112” Arhancet says when visiting the Scouting Grounds event. “We will continue to look for top-tier imports and continue to cultivate rookie talent.”

Piglet, Team Liquid’s first major import, rejoins the organization’s starting lineup while homegrown talents Lourlo and Matthew “Matt” Elento stay with the team and Goldenglue moves up from Team Liquid Academy. Developing talent has always been a strength of Team Liquid. Competing with that talent at the highest domestic level has been where the organization has faltered.

A chill settles in Santa Monica, CA after Day 1 of the 2017 NA LCS Spring. But inside the Team Liquid apartments, it’s warm. The team settles down to a night off, which means solo queue for some and continued study of their upcoming opponents for others. They’re chatty and friendly after the win, smiles punctuated by yawns after a long day and recent victory outing for Korean barbecue.

“We’ve been improving a lot,” Lourlo says of beating CLG. “In terms of how this new roster gets along, it’s really easy to focus on our mistakes as a whole. Overall, for this performance, we could have played better obviously but I’m happy with the result.”

The top laner will be under a microscope this split. North America’s latest import wave includes three well-known, experienced and decorated top laners — Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, Lee “Flame” Ho-jong, and Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok. They join Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong and Shin “Seraph” Woo-yeong who have each been in North America for some time. Half of the teams this spring have imported top laners, the other half, domestic talent. Lourlo is joined by An "Balls" Le, Derek "zig" Shao, Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaha, and Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell as native North American top laners. All of them are often found lacking when compared to their Korean counterparts.

“When people sleep on me or think I’m going to perform worse than expected, I just take it. It fuels me to improve and be better as a player and also as a teammate,” Lourlo says. “I think I give a lot to this team now and for the rest of the split I’m going to show that.”

No stranger to criticism, Lourlo was Team Liquid’s lightning rod in the 2016 NA LCS Spring split. While fellow rookies Matt and Dardoch flourished, Lourlo was heavily criticized for only playing two champions — Nautilus and Poppy — along with poor laning and ill-timed Teleports.

“I did struggle spring split,” he says. “I was fresh off of solo queue. I was only playing like three champions. I didn’t really understand how to adjust to competitive properly. It took me a long time to adjust.”

Lourlo cites 2016 Summer as the split where he began to notice his own improvement. Resources on the team shifted when Piglet was shuttled to Team Liquid Academy in the Challenger Series and Jovani “Fabbbyyyy” Guillen became the team’s starting AD carry. Lourlo was given two percent more of his team’s total resources and called upon to play a larger role in carrying the team. Since then, even with Piglet back in the bottom lane for 2017 Spring, Lourlo has traveled a road of slow but steady improvement. The current meta suits him well. He hopes to continue on this path as this new roster iteration develops.

Lourlo isn’t the only Team Liquid member under scrutiny this split. The organization’s signing of Goldenglue as their starting mid laner raised eyebrows in the offseason, as did Team Liquid’s later pickup of previously retired mid laner Austin “Link” Shin.

“I think it was maybe passable,” Goldenglue says of his Cassiopeia and Orianna games against CLG. “One of the big mindset changes I had to have—” He pauses for a moment. “When I was previously playing, my goal was that I just wanted to play in NA LCS. I wanted to play every season and just improve that way. But if you just play to be the best in NA, you’re never going to beat the people who are trying to be the best in the world, and that’s my competition. So many imports and so many great players.”

With stronger competition and a supportive staff, Link's return to competitive play on Team Liquid also serves as a motivator for Goldenglue. He has played in all of Team Liquid's LCS matches in the first two weeks, but Link is always an option for the organization. The two split time in scrim practice.

"It makes me have to practice a lot harder, or get more out of the practice that I do have," Goldenglue says. "I get less practice than all the other mid laners in the LCS, so I have to make more out of it."

Mounted on the wall above Goldenglue’s bed is a whiteboard with the names of all other NA mid laners listed. It asks a question — "Are you better than" — before the names.

“Being the starter for a big org is completely new to me. It’s like a fake rookie season.” He laughs. “This is the first time I feel like I’ve had a good, fair shot. There’s not really any room for excuses this time. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t succeed."

These words could easily be applied not only to Goldenglue but his new team. There’s no reason why Team Liquid shouldn’t succeed. It’s easy to see how the individual pieces could come together, making a strong and cohesive unit. It’s also easy to see their struggles. The team is now 1-3 after their first two weeks, suffering disappointing losses to Team SoloMid and Phoenix1.

“To be honest, the way I see it, it might be fair for public perception to not see our roster as strong in comparison,” Piglet says. “But I think we’re a really strong team and this is the best roster Team Liquid has ever built.”

This sentiment is echoed by his teammates, who all agree that the team atmosphere is at an all-time high, allowing Team Liquid to learn from their mistakes as a unit.

“This is my favorite roster to be a part of so far,” Matt says. “I think the environment helps a lot, I’m not used to this ... not terrible environment. I also think that last year, I did a lot of talking, like getting information out there. Nowadays I’m focusing on giving information directly to other people so I’m directly conversing with them. It’s actually a big difference. It’s one thing to know what you’re supposed to say but it’s another to make sure that other people are hearing you and you’re coordinating with other people.”

As losses mount, Team Liquid’s newly-found, good practice environment will be put to the test. Reignover has struggled thus far without his top lane partner in crime, Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, who is now dazzling LoL Champions Korea audiences on SK Telecom T1.

“The biggest difference is that it’s heavily towards tank meta top,” Reignover says. “Sam is pretty happy playing tanks and he’s good in the tank matchup too. Recently we require more DPS from jungle so I’m trying to match that. It’s different. When I played with Huni, we needed more tankiness from the team so I was a really good tank. Now I have to be a really good damage source too, so it’s a different situation and we’re working on it.”

Reignover previously admitted in 2016 spring that becoming a DPS carry in teamfights required a shift not only in pathing but teamfight positioning. Now in 2017, he finds himself again faced with a meta with which he’s not fully comfortable.

“As the meta has shifted towards bot side, I’m more used to playing through top side with a carry top,” Reignover says. “I’m not 100 percent used to this. Piglet and Matt are a really good botlane and they’re helping me learn. The meta is not in my favor, I think, but I’m still confident. It’s just about improving the issues and mistakes we’re making.”

A common thread between all of the Team Liquid members following their win over CLG is that they’re happy about the result — a 2-0 sweep — but are looking down the road towards improvement. There’s no humility, only a dogged expectation of incremental improvement.

“We are improving fast,” Reignover says. “And that makes me happy. It makes me see how our team could go high.”

“A lot of other teams I think will do really well early on and then kind of stagnate,” Matt says. “Maybe their environment becomes not very good, maybe they don’t have good staff. I think here at Liquid we do have solid structure and solid results. Every week we start, we’re at our lowest point. But that lowest point will always be higher than last week’s lowest point.”

Their 2-0 loss to Phoenix1 in Week 2 is a decidedly low point from which to begin planning for Team EnVyUs and Echo Fox in Week 3. Many of Team Liquid’s seams showed in those games as the map collapsed back and Phoenix1 pressed inevitably forward.

Phoenix1 AD carry Noh "Arrow" Dong-hyeon gleefully pantomimes shooting an arrow as they pack up their equipment. Across the stage, the members of Team Liquid look a bit more affected by the loss than they did against FlyQuest in Week 1. Again, Piglet slowly wraps up his keyboard.

After their first win, Team Liquid's individual members all say that they're happy with the result, but not satisfied with their play. Now, after three consecutive losses, they'll need to find solace in small improvements when starting from their lowest point.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.

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