My favorite esports stories are battles between the greatest. Whether it’s Flash vs. Jaedong in Brood War, Cypher vs. rapha in Quake, SKT vs. KT in League of Legends, Astralis vs. Virtus.Pro in CS:GO, etc., these meetings represent the pinnacle of skill in their respective games. Usually the opponents are so closely matched, so accomplished, it becomes a culmination of two legacies fighting for supremacy over the world. Through their interactions you can see their individual styles shine and with their unique brands, declare to the world who they are. Through their battles, they can imprint their glory onto spectators for years and years afterwards.
Team Liquid’s upcoming match against eUnited is not such a battle. This is a match of desperation, of survival. There is no glory in being in the promotion tournament and there is no dignity in triumphing. But in its own way, the outcome is every bit as fateful and important as winning the North American League of Legends Championship Series. Perhaps even more so when you contemplate the consequences.
Right now, the stakes have never been higher. With rumors of LCS franchising always swirling, teams are desperate to keep their spots and finally make the returns on investment after spending so much time in the LCS. Although it was seemingly profitable before, there was always reticence on the part of sponsors and sports teams to commit because the threat of relegation scared them. That fear has become a reality for Team Liquid.
Like every split, it started off with a vague sense of hope and belief in getting fourth place. On paper, Liquid’s lineup looked like it would exceed those meager expectations. The organization spared no expense in getting the best possible imports to build a squad that could rival Team SoloMid and Cloud9. Liquid sunk a ton of money into acquiring star jungler Kim “Reignover” Ui-Jin from Immortals. Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin was still hailed as a solid AD Carry. Samson “Lourlo” Jackson entered the LCS riding a wave of praise from his performance at IEM Gyeonggi. Matt “Matt” Elento had some uneven performances last year, but there was still a lot of potential in him as a teenager. There were some doubts whether Greyson “Goldenglue” Gilmer could finally deliver that seemed to be ameliorated by the team’s overall quality and a potential Austin “Link” Shin sub-in. Liquid fans had once again convinced themselves that this was the season TL became a true top-tier force. So much talent couldn’t possibly disappoint. Even Steve Arhancet, the co-owner of Team Liquid, made some optimistic predictions before the start of the season.
The first week started off fine with the team going 1-1 before essentially falling off a cliff. All their individual prowess couldn’t compensate for the lack of synergy and general miscommunication. Problems arose everywhere in nearly every lane. The macro wasn’t nearly good enough to compensate. The team almost instantly became less than the sum of its parts.
By the end of the fifth week, desperation sunk in. Goldenglue was the first victim of the “fix-it” mentality, getting benched for his middling play. In exchange, Piglet moved to mid lane for Week 6, and rookie Jung “Youngbin” Young-bin started at AD Carry. Despite the initial hype, that didn’t work either. Youngbin was ineffectual (to no one’s surprise, considering his experience), but Piglet’s ability to play mid lane ended at his mechanics. He lacked all the other qualities that defined the best mids and was only able to pull out a few flashy plays. Liquid then brought Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng out of hiatus from TSM for the remainder of the split, hoping he could carry them out of the relegation zone. They then added Adrian “Adrian” Ma from Phoenix1, in a strange move that never seemed to clarify anything. Adrian was reportedly acquired for next split, not to replace Matt, but started in Week 8, then left the starting lineup again. The team also added a new coach, and yet, we’re still waiting to see any of it provide a much-needed catalyst.
Ex-Team Liquid player Alex “Xpecial” Chu said it best when describing the situation: “When I see TL, I see them just throwing darts at a wall, hoping one of them sticks.” Xpecial’s own history and experience with the team may have colored his view on what the problem was, but he was right on the money when he said that TL does not identify its problems correctly.
The best analogy to explain Liquid’s situation is to imagine a fire starts in the team house. We don’t know how, why, or when it started. All we know is that it is spreading so rapidly there’s no time to get water or wait for firefighters. When faced with this situation, Liquid’s first instinct is to smother the fire — with as much cash as possible. Now everything’s burning, the house is close to collapsing and Liquid just realized the entrances are closed. They must find a way out, and the only exit is the promotion tournament.
In its own way, TL’s disastrous split almost feels like fate. Franchising has always been a heated debate in League of Legends, as it is much more entertaining for fans to not have it, while teams want the guarantee of a spot in LCS. Riot appears at least open to the idea of discussing it next year and now, in perhaps one of the potential final splits to have relegation, one of the long-standing organizations faces the threat of elimination.
There is a palpable sense of desperation for Liquid. The constant shuffles, buyouts, transfers and hires shows that Liquid will do anything to try to stay in the LCS. This sense of desperation is even shown in Piglet, who has admitted that if he can’t win this year, he may very well retire.
“If I don’t win this season, it would be about four years of me not winning anything since my move,” he said. “Four years isn’t a short time at all, and honestly I’m still thinking about what I said right now, because I’m playing hard in scrims, and I’m teaching the players as much as I can. Unlike before, I’ve been more proactive in teaching my teammates and thinking what I can do to help my team. If I do that much and I still can’t win, I think it’ll be the same no matter what team I go to. I think it’s a 70-30, with my retiring being the 70.”
If you were to poll North American LCS fans, most would likely want to see Liquid stay in the league. But like the gladiator battles of old, they also want blood. They want the brutality of death, the fear of relegation to hang over the heads of teams like a Sword of Damocles. At the end of this week, they will have it, as Liquid reaches the boiling point. Liquid is coming to a critical part in their story where everything could potentially collapse around them. But there is hope after despair, dawn after dusk, life after death. This crucible could be the fire that forges them into something better and stronger. They just need to survive it.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games