Liquid, Longzhu and the problems with 10-person rosters

In esports, every team searches for a way to get ahead: A prospective rookie, a hidden strategy, the latest expansion to infrastructure. The hunt for innovation is never ending, but some ideas are better left shredded on the cutting room floor.

Ten-person rosters in League of Legends is one of them.

Two teams, Liquid in North America and Longzhu in Korea, announced they would utilize 10-man rosters during spring. Longzhu would stick to this program and languish with a seventh place finish in League Champions Korea, despite possessing some of the best talent from the prior year. Liquid, on the other hand, abandoned it after one week, stuck to a single roster comprised of three rookies, and finished fourth in League Championship Series. The dichotomy could not be greater.

Let me clarify — this is not to evaluate the teams to determine which between them is better. What I am saying is that one of them performed better in its domestic league than the other. And to be fair to Longzhu, its seventh place finish is not as bad as it appears. Longzhu was in the playoff picture until the end of the split and was only two games behind fifth place and a postseason berth, though its hopes were obviously higher.

In hindsight, the advantages of such a philosophy are hard to see, but at the time Steve “Liquid122” Arhancet seemed optimistic in a statement announcing Liquid’s 10-person team.“I’m of the opinion a 10-man roster will optimize performance for all ten players. Their improvement is mainly tied to how well they understand the game, from patch to patch . The collaboration between players, facilitated by our coaching staff should create an environment where players learn more quickly.”

His idea was to give Liquid faster adaptation to the metagame by having more minds at work. It’s difficult to evaluate how successful this might have been because Liquid deviated from this strategy. Longzhu’s inability to innovate like KT Rolster seems to disprove this notion, but there could have been other factors in Longzhu’s demise.

It’s clear that letting go of the ten-person roster idea allowed Liquid to establish identity, which Longzhu never managed to do. Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett neutralized the enemy carries in the early game. Samson “Lourlo” Jackson served as a frontline. Matthew “Matt” Elento created picks. Kim “FeniX” Jae-hun contributed to poking the enemy down. Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin was the lane bully that snowballed to dominate team fights: the core of Liquid’s late game.

Longzhu, on the other hand, put on a poorly-managed masquerade ball. Several variations of the starting roster bore little impact to how the team functioned. It could look just as good in one set as it would bad the next. Sometimes, it seemed like players were trying to impersonate each other: Hey, is that Lee “Flame” Ho-jong deep freezing on Ryze and building a 100 CS lead? Nope, that’s Koo “Expession” Bon-taek.

Fundamental issues in communication, like following up on engages, persisted throughout the split. The incessant lineup tweaks seemed like a desperate tactic of the coaching staff. Whether it was to circumvent mental issues, motivate the players with internal competition, or throw the opponent off, the experiment failed. Players who could have developed into star talent — Lee “Crash” Dong-woo, for example — did not reach that point, either through a lack of experience on the server, or anything that might have plagued Longzhu behind the scenes.

“We had a lot of issues internally,” Kang Dong-hoon, head coach of Longzhu, said in an interview with Inven (translated here). “We had no choice but to continue changing our lineups, and I think we didn’t have enough time, either.” When pressed further about his feelings on the team’s performance, he added “In a way, our players were extremely overrated or exaggerated to a degree. We have only a few players who actually experienced winning a championship.”

With little insight, it’s difficult to extrapolate Dong-hoon’s thought process. Inferring that players like Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong and Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun are “overrated” after they were standout players in their positions on their former teams is odd. What kind of issues forces a coach to just swap players? Is the support staff incompetent, or understandably lost with a never-before-used system?

Regardless, Dong-hoon asserts the spring was a learning system for himself and the players. He reflected that trying so many combinations of players, “was not a good decision. However, there were certain things we gained from those changes. I don’t think there will be major changes to our lineup for some time.”

While Longzhu attempted to pioneer, Liquid returned to the basics. It focused on a five-person roster and groomed its talent under coach Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-sub’s leadership.

“There was a really big skill disparity between the five starters and the five subs, so the 10-man roster dissolved,” Dardoch told Slingshot during the final of the NA LCS in Las Vegas. “Our goal is first. I know we deserve first…but I know there’s no real point in saying what should’ve been or could’ve been. It’s already behind us, and we’re going to take the fourth place finish. We’re probably going to keep the same roster and move on to trying to get to worlds.”

Dardoch’s response reminds of a reality in esports: not every player is created equal. Some players will always be better than others, and some can improve more than others. A team’s best interest is to acquire the best possible talent and develop it as far as it can go.

Liquid’s scouting had the right mix of insight and luck — of the three rookies it fielded, two of them were strong at their position, and the other was serviceable. Dardoch in particular demonstrated his immediate talent, fortitude, and fresh personality in his debut split. Ponder what might of been had Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera not retired, and jungling duties were split between the two. Dardoch’s growth would have been inhibited by the lack of experience, and Liquid’s performance might have been worse without its Rookie of the Split.

Longzhu’s Crash draws a parallel with Dardoch. His individual skill was remarkable for a rookie in the LCK. The mechanics he displayed were immaculate, though his inexperience held his decision making back — the infamous triple kill to feed with a poor invade on the enemy red buff encapsulated Crash as a player this season. But what if he didn’t split jungle duties with Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, or had a coach solely dedicated to making him perform at his best? Perhaps he could’ve become the best jungler in LCK. We’ll never know for sure, thanks to Longzhu’s insistence on making a ten-person roster work.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Freelance writer for Slingshot, Liquid Legends, and DraftKings.

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