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Flowing Uphill: Is Team Liquid finally good enough to reach an LCS Final?

by theScore Staff Jul 6 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot esports Flickr

Team Liquid has never reached an NA LCS Final, even going back to their days as “Team Curse,” always hovering on the fringes with constant third- and fourth-place finishes. With a 6-4 series record following Week 5 of the 2016 summer split, Liquid once again find themselves in that region of the standings, currently in a three-way tie for third.

The thing is, Team Liquid just came off a week where they beat both of the teams they’re tied with, defeating EnVyUs 2-0 and taking out Cloud9 2-1. That surge in strength is enough to prompt the question: is this the season where Team Liquid finally climbs into the finals?

Team Liquid are on a definite upswing, and there are reasons to believe that this could really be their season to break through, but they still need to prove that they’ve learned how to finish the race strong.

Reasons to Believe

Team Liquid fans are screaming at me: "No! Don’t raise our hopes; we don’t want to be let down!" But getting your hopes up is what being a fan is all about, so let’s do it. Here are some compelling reasons why Team Liquid are a legitimate finals threat this split.

Dardoch

One player can’t make a bad team good, but the right player can make a good team great. For Team Liquid, Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett is looking more and more like that type of player every week.

Dardoch took home Rookie of the Split honors in the spring, but there were signs that he still needed to mature emotionally and find a more even-keeled mindset, rather than succumbing to his own emotional momentum. Five weeks into the summer split — and after offseason issues that led to an internal two-week suspension for fighting with his coach and teammates — Dardoch has shown clear growth. His maturation can even be seen in his interviews: he continues to speak his mind openly and directly, but his comments are more self-critical, more matter-of-fact, without the childish “come at me, bro” attitude layered into his tone and expression.

Dardoch has used his shift in attitude to find a better approach to practice time, and his recent play has showed off his increasing mental strength. In the team’s series against Cloud9, the second game had to be remade due to a bug, even though Liquid was in very good position to win if it had been allowed to play out. Dardoch came through as the team’s emotional leader, making a visible effort to keep his teammates’ spirits high, ultimately leading to victory. The next day, while playing EnVyUs, Dardoch started the first game off with a shaky performance, but kept his head in the game well enough to later secure a crucial Elder Dragon steal. He then went on to earn Player of the Game in Game 2, his fifth such award already this season. Dardoch’s hunger to improve didn’t allow him to be satisfied with that Game 2 bounce-back, though: he criticized himself on Twitter after the series, and praised his teammates, the kind of thing you like to see from a leader.

Dardoch’s emotional leadership, his already-high level of individual play, and his strong self-motivation add up to very good things for Team Liquid, making him perhaps the single strongest argument in favor of Team Liquid as a top-tier team in the NA LCS.

The Piglet Problem, and the Rise of the Solo Laners

As stated earlier, one player can’t make a bad team good. Luckily, Dardoch has some strong teammates, and during Liquid's recent run of form, two of the most crucial have been the oft-criticized Kim “FeniX” Jae-hun and Samson “Lourlo” Jackson, the team’s mid and top laners.

Over the past year and a half, Team Liquid’s various members have played partly in the shadow of Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin. Piglet is a former world champion, a player with a big personality, a bigger ego, and a mountain of talent to back it up. Piglet is also, to put it bluntly, a resource hog, not in terms of in-game gold, but in his aggressive play style, which demands team compositions and game plans that give him a prominent role and enable him to be at his best.

Currently, Piglet is on hiatus from the starting roster, working with Team Liquid Academy in the mChallenger Series, apparently prompted by the need for a mental break to deal with stress and burn-out. Piglet’s stand-in, Jovani “Fabbbyyy” Guillen, has been ready and willing to take on a lower-economy role, playing mostly Ashe and Jhin and allowing Team Liquid to build more of their game plans around FeniX and Lourlo.

The state of the meta game has been a huge help in this area, and is a big reason why, according to Dardoch, “losing Piglet doesn’t hurt [Team Liquid] too badly.” Utility-oriented AD carries, like the ones Fabbbyyy has been playing, are currently in vogue, in partnership with damage-focused mid lane picks and carry-oriented, split-pushing top laners, which happen to be right in Lourlo’s comfort zone.

FeniX, especially, has been thriving in an environment where he can be the primary damage dealer, rather than sharing the spotlight with Piglet. His stats have shot up across the board.

Fenix’s Stats KDA  KP  CSD@10  CSPM  DPM
With Piglet  4.9  66.7%  +4.9  8.8  569
With Fabbbyyy  6.6  72.8% +6.6  9.3  691

Lourlo’s stats have also improved, and his own gains while playing alongside Fabbbyyy have been very much attributable to the shift in his champion pool. With Piglet, Lourlo played tanks like Maokai and Ekko in seven of ten games. With Fabbbyyy, Lourlo has gone all-in on split pushing champions, heavily favouring Trundle.

Lourlo’s Champions with Piglet  Lourlo’s Champions with Fabbbyyy
Maokai x4  Trundle x7
Ekko x2  Irelia x3
Irelia x2  Shen x3
Trundle x1  Fiora x1

FeniX and Lourlo are embracing the current meta game, and the pay-off has been impressive for Team Liquid. With Dardoch leading the way, the solo laners stepping up, and the bot lane duo of Fabbbyyy and Matthew “Matt” Elento providing a stable foundation in a secondary role, Team Liquid has a lot of good things going on.

Reasons to Doubt

But enough with the joy ride.

It isn’t difficult to find reasons to doubt Team Liquid’s legitimacy, if you’re so inclined. Each argument for Team Liquid's strength carries within it the seeds of its own counterpoint.

Youthful Leadership

It’s said in sports that some players, or some teams, simply “know how to win.” There’s a certain undefinable something that produces victory, call it a mixture of confidence, experience, mental fortitude, competitive drive, or, if you’re feeling facetious, plot armour. Somehow, Team SoloMid is always in the NA LCS Finals, even if they’ve had a surprisingly weak regular season and have to dramatically shift their play style going into the playoffs. Somehow, Cloud9 always makes it to the World Championships, even if they have to undertake a miracle run through the Regional Qualifiers, featuring dramatic back-to-back reverse sweeps, to get there.

It’s one thing for Dardoch and his teammates to bounce back from adversity during a regular season best-of-three series. It is another thing entirely to do it in the playoffs. And while Team Liquid came very close to conquering Counter Logic Gaming in the spring Semifinals, they ultimately failed to take that last step. It doesn’t get any easier the next time around. Sure, Team Liquid have more experience now, but they also carry more baggage, more potential to second-guess themselves if they once again land in a Game 5 situation where a single wrong move could send them home.

Team Liquid does not yet “know how to win.” None of the players — aside from Piglet — have experienced what it’s like to reach the top, to be the best. They haven’t proven that they can summon up the necessary magic to push themselves over the finish line when it really counts. That’s not to say that they can’t or won’t show up in the playoffs, but until they take the next step and reach a Final, they will, and should, always be doubted.

Meta Shift

Less abstractly, Team Liquid may be susceptible to losing their newfound team identity if — or rather, when — the meta shifts away from supportive AD carries and split pushing top laners. If the balance changes that take place between now and the playoffs are minimal, this won’t be a significant problem, but the game can change quickly, whether because of patch changes, or through adaptations and reactions made within a patch.

The main point of focus for this problem is Fabbbyyy. Since joining the main team, Fabbbyyy has played all but one game on secondary caries, including Ashe, Jhin, and Sivir. His one primary carry game came on Lucian and was against the bottom-dwelling Phoenix1, and while Team Liquid won that game, Fabbbyyy only had 69 percent kill participation and dealt a mere 272 damage per minute, while farming only 7.0 CS per minute.

DPM  DMG%  CSPM  CS Share Post-15 Minutes
Fabbbyyy  349  18.1%  7.0  21.5%
NA ADC Average  480  24.6%  8.2  28.2%
Fabbbyyy’s rank among NA ADCs with 6+ games  11  11  11  11

Overall, Fabbbyyy’s damage and farming numbers are by far the lowest among starting AD carries in the NA LCS, and it can’t all be blamed on his champion pool. Other players who pick up Ashe, Jhin, or Sivir still deal much more damage than Fabbbyyy, and secure more farm.

If Fabbbyyy can’t keep up with global standards in farm and damage when playing supportive champions, the natural question is what he’ll look like on more resource-intensive picks. Fabbbyyy has played the carry role with TL Academy, but he hasn’t yet proven himself at the LCS level. It’s unfair to expect him to match Piglet’s level of play as a primary carry, but he needs to at least show that he can hold his own.

Of course, it’s not just about Fabbbyyy’s ability to carry; it’s also a question of whether Lourlo and FeniX can go back to playing secondary roles and still produce effective performances. Team Liquid looked shaky with Piglet early on this split, and Piglet is a pure primary carry, with the aggressive laning and team fighting prowess to reward that team play style. If Team Liquid didn’t perform well as a team with Piglet in the lineup, there’s reason to suspect that they could struggle to execute that style with a weaker mechanical AD carry like Fabbbyyy.

However, mechanics aren’t the only variable in this discussion: team cohesiveness and clarity of communication also play a role. It’s possible that Team Liquid could actually look better with Fabbbyyy carrying, if the communication and cohesiveness upgrades outweigh the loss of Piglet’s talent. Ultimately, we can only speculate about that trade-off until we actually see it play out on the Rift.

The Tests Ahead

Over the next four weeks, and going into the playoffs, Team Liquid will be tested. Dardoch will need to prove his newfound emotional maturity over a longer period of time, and in the face of stiffer challenges. FeniX and Lourlo will need to display consistency as they come under more attack by opponents who have a better expectation of Team Liquid’s strategies. The coaching staff will continue to face the choice of sticking with Fabbbyyy or calling Piglet back up, and will need to work through the implications of either decision.

The Immortals lie on the road ahead. Team SoloMid lies on the road ahead. And when the playoffs come, when the games really begin, Team Liquid will need to stare down not only those top-tier opponents, but also their own inner demons, the ones that remind them of their franchise’s long history of thirds and fourths, of coming one step away from the international stage, of failing to convert regular season success into the kind of crunch-time victory that actually counts.

Can Team Liquid reach the NA LCS Finals? Yes, they can, though it might take some bracket magic to make it happen. But before Team Liquid can reach that goal, they’ll need to withstand a whole host of threats, and prove that unlike previous iterations of the team, this roster actually knows how to win.

Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.

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