Prior to its kickoff, I tagged EPICENTER as the tournament of champions. Five championship teams were set to attend the tournament. All of them were roughly equal in skill level and stood a fair chance to beating three out of the other four. But among five champions, one will always stand out as the weakest of the lot. In that case, you had to point toward Team Liquid as the runt of the litter. Liquid’s three championship victories came off of weaker LANs with lesser competition compared to the strongest LANs in the circuit.
In contrast, the other champions were OG, Virtus.Pro, Evil Geniuses and Invictus Gaming. OG won two Major championships with the lineup. VP was the runner-up of the Kiev Major and had won Summit 6 in dominant fashion. EG took Manila Masters with the resurgence of Syed Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan; iG came off first place at the Dota 2 Asian Championship. EPICENTER looked to be one of the most difficult tournaments of 2017, but the harder the challenge the greater the glory. In this case, Liquid achieved the greatest glory of all.
Liquid’s run through EPICENTER paralleled its own struggles as a team. Liquid barely scraped through the group stage with a 2-2 record and had to depend on Secret defeating OG to get them through. Similarly, Liquid had to revamp the roster after TI6 as Adrian “FATA-” Trinks stepped down and Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka went to OG. Liquid was able to acquire Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi, one of the best mid players in the world, and Bulba the MMR Assassin was recruited to fill in the support role.
That period was a disaster. Kanishka “BuLba” Sosale was an intelligent player, but his execution was lacking and inconsistent; as the 4 position support, he frequently failed to have any meaningful impact on games outside of defensive picks. Eventually, TL acquired Maroun “GH” Merhej, a rising MMR star most known for his IO and KotL play. GH filled the role of the playmaking 4, one of the most critical roles in modern Dota. His debut came at DreamLeague Season 6 where Liquid won in triumphant fashion over the likes of Alliance and Escape Gaming. It was a display of GH’s skill and showed some promise. The potential looked even stronger after Liquid won Starladder i-league Season 3. Yet again, it was difficult to gauge where this improved version ranked among the best teams in the world. Liquid only dealt with VG.J, a debilitated Wings and TNC, while never facing OG or Secret.
Those tournaments showed Liquid’s burgeoning strengths, but the Kiev Major exposed some weaknesses. The inherent skill was still there, but the teamwork, synergy and strategy needed work, and Liquid went out in the quarterfinals. A month later, Liquid turned it around at Starladder i-League Invitational 2. Although there were some good teams attending, skepticism lingered over whether Liquid could match the championship contenders from last year.
Those questions plagued Liquid in the group stages of EPICENTER. Liquid beat Na’Vi and OG but was decisively run over by Secret and LFY. The drafts and mid game movement seemed underwhelming against the less predictable opponents, and fans were legitimately worried over Liquid’s chances in the playoffs. Liquid’s entire group stage seemed like a search for the right synergy and the ideal drafts that could fully enable the players.
By the time the playoffs started, Liquid found its winning combinations. In a blisteringly fast best-of-three series, Liquid went head to head with Virtus.Pro. After getting squashed in the safe lane in Game 1, Liquid turned the tables with an Earthshaker/KotL off lane. After adjusting for the early game, Liquid crushed VP in Games 2 and 3 to advance. In the semifinals, Liquid rematched LFY, which had triumphed in groups. This time proved Liquid’s mid game movement and decision making was superior.
From match to match, series to series, Liquid strengthened as the tournament progressed. It was all coming together. Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen played tanky frontline carries and was the battering ram of the team. Ivan “MinD_ContRoL” Borislavov was the team fight-oriented off laner. Miracle- was the versatile superstar mid player who could win in the early game, mid game or late game depending on what Liquid drafted for him. GH’s hero pool had expanded, allowing for more strategic diversity; in addition, he added Earthshaker to his pool of godlike heroes that could take over an entire game. It was all combined together under Kuro “Kuroky” Salehi Takhasomi’s leadership and strategic vision. Kuroky’s primary responsibility was to draft, create vision on the map and play a solid game to support his teammates. Despite the lack of farm, he had huge impact on games when he played the likes of Nyx or Tusk.
This ascendant Liquid team then faced off against the hottest team in the world. Evil Geniuses had dominated the Manila Masters and did the same in its run to the finals of EPICENTER, going 6-0 in best-of-three matches and dropping only one game to Planet Odd. It was Liquid’s final test. Liquid wanted to prove it could beat the best teams in the highest pressure situations in one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
Liquid passed with flying colors and seemed to reach an even higher level in the finals. Liquid smashed EG in a convincing 3-1 series, and though EG was able to draft its signature heroes throughout the series, it was unable to stop the tide that was the Liquid tsunami.
One year ago, Team Liquid was one of the best teams going into TI6 but plummeted afterward and struggled to find its way back. But once again, Liquid was able to grind its way back under Kuroky’s guidance. One year later, they are the champions of EPICENTER once again, and no one can doubt they deserve to be named among the best of the best.