Going into the spring playoffs of the North American League of Legends Championship Series, the most exciting team is not first place Immortals. Nor second place CLG, or even third place Cloud 9. It’s Team Liquid.
Coming off a dominating win against Cloud 9 in the final week of the regular season, Team Liquid should be seen as real contenders. The team has gone through some rough patches in the past. Last year, Team Liquid was the heavy favorite going into the North American Regional Qualifiers. But Cloud 9 made a miraculous run to beat Team Liquid in the finals in a long and grueling series.
The ensuing offseason was met with plenty of questions. The bot lane seemed to have been having troubles, and rumors of Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin returning to Korea stirred. Piglet stayed, but Alex “Xpecial” Chu stepped down. Then, in a surprising move, top laner Diego “Quas” Ruiz was kicked after a productive season (and later retired). Xpecial and Quas were replaced by Samson “Lourlo” Jackson and Andy “Smoothie” Ta, two Challenger players.
The new roster didn’t last long. After an 0-2 opening week, which included a loss against Renegades (a team that would lose its next 12 games after that), Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera announced his retirement. Smoothie was also benched, and two players from Team Liquid Academy, TL’s Challenger team, would get promoted: Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Matthew “Matt” Elento. It would become Team Liquid’s defining moment of the spring split.
Normally, expectations wouldn’t be that high for a team with a good amount of new players, but Team Liquid Academy is no ordinary Challenger team. The team ran through the Challenger Series open qualifier last year and had extreme success in scrims versus even the best LCS team.
In interviews during Week 9 of the LCS, Dardoch and Matt confirmed TLA’s successful scrims.
“Our results were very positive,” Matt said. “As a Challenger team, to get a very high win rate against LCS teams, (was good). We would get wins against Immortals, like right before the LCS started.”
Dardoch would even go into more detail: “I think we were maybe one or two loses overall against (Dignitas). It was probably like 18-2 overall against DIG. We had a pretty good record against CLG. Us and CLG, we had like four or five blocks together, and it was 3-0 from us sometimes, and sometimes we got slaughtered.
“We never scrimmed TSM or C9. It was just DIG, CLG and Immortals. We actually gave Immortals their first loss block. TLA did. When they came in, they were just so good together they smashed everyone. We were their first loss in a scrim block.”
There was too much promise for Team Liquid owner Steve “LiQuiD112” Arhancet to ignore. The plan was to give IWillDominate one more chance to play on stage, as he was known to always be a great player on stage. But IWillDominate and Arhancet knew there was a high chance he was going to retire. The decision, then, seemed easy when IWillDominate stepped down after a bad first game.
In a January appearance on Summoning Insight, Arhancet was asked to give his prediction for MVP of the spring split. He confidently answered Dardoch, even though Dardoch wasn’t yet an LCS starter. (Dardoch had to settle for the Outstanding Rookie award, which was announced Friday. But still.)
TLA seemed to be the first of its kind: A Challenger team designed as an amateur farm team to truly grow players into LCS talent. Renegades has started a European Challenger team, and Fnatic announced last month its plans for one. For now, though, Team Liquid is the only shining example.
“I think TLA was the one off, where it’s actually successful just because the players were so good,” Dardoch said. “But I don’t think there’s many NA players that could fit in that role where they could have the actual game knowledge or qualities of a leader or qualities of just a good player in general to match the LCS team in skill. It takes a while to build that up, but with TLA we just had really good individual players, and we meshed really well with personalities.”
It should be obvious that the Team Liquid staff puts a lot of importance on the resources for players to access. Team Liquid has a staff of more than 8 members, from position coaches, to a Sports Psychologist, Team Liquid’s staff is nothing to underestimate. They also take good care of the Challenger team as well, as the same structure is used for the Challenger team. When asked how the Challenger team prepared him for the LCS, Matt seemed very happy with the staff:
“When you’re a Challenger player and you have every resource as an LCS player, you’re definitely going to see a lot of growth as a player,” Matt said. “Yeah, I went from some Challenger solo queue player to one of the starting supports on an LCS team. So, yeah, it’s pretty good.”
The synergy between Matt and Dardoch has been evident — and vital — in the team’s rise. The teens have adapted quickly to the LCS, and Matt said he looks up to Dardoch, the youngest player in the LCS at 17.
“He just doesn’t take bullshit or anything,” Matt said. “I’m more laid back. It’s just my personality. I definitely just try to copy Dardoch. I’m just clinging to Dardoch and he’s scaring me [with his play].”
Dardoch said leadership comes naturally to him. Even though Team Liquid starts two LCS veterans Piglet and Kim “Fenix” Jae-hun, Dardoch said that him acquiring the leadership role just made sense for him. He’d rather his teammates concentrate on game play and being the hard carries, and he’d rather take on the responsibility to lead the team.
And yet, the whole idea of being revered by his teammates seemed uncomfortable for Dardoch.
“It feels good knowing my teammates look up to me, but I don’t think it’s necessarily justified,” he said. “I’m not a spitting image of success or anything. I’m just a kid playing video games.”
Both Matt and Dardoch seem to have a lot of confidence going into the playoffs, which is going to be necessary. Their first playoff match will be against fifth-place NRG, which beat Team Liquid in Week 8 and was open about its preference to play Team Liquid instead of Cloud 9 in its first playoff match.
“I don’t think Team Liquid is worse than C9 or that C9 is better than Liquid,” NRG’s Galen “Moon” Holgate said in Week 9. “But I just think that C9 just plays really well against us, so I’d rather play Team Liquid. Team Liquid is really good, though.”
The future seems bright for Team Liquid with this roster built around rookies. The spring playoffs will tell just how far along this experiment has advanced.
“We have a lot of confidence going into playoffs, just based on how our practice and our LCS games have gone lately,” Dardoch said. “It’s almost 100 percent in my team’s eyes, at least my eyes, that we’re gonna make it to Vegas, whether it’s for finals or the third/fourth place match, I’m pretty sure we’re gonna make it.”
Photos courtesy of Riot Games.