Welcome to my 2018 NA LCS Spring Split Preview Series! I’ll be releasing my thoughts on each team during the 10 days before the season opener on Saturday, January 20th.
Now, the third contender: Team Liquid
Imagine for a moment that you owned an NA LCS franchise slot. Assuming that money was no object, and any player was available to be signed, how would you build a roster?
Would you focus on developing young players to succeed in the long term, and hire cheap veterans to mentor them? That’s the approach NBA owners like Kirk Lacob and Daryl Morey took for their new teams, using what has worked gangbusters for them in basketball and applying it to esports.
But there’s another way to build a roster: Buy the best available players on the market and hope they come together as a team. And when you’re Team Liquid owner Steve Arhanct, coming off the worst season in team history despite having more money than God, this method looks pretty enticing.
Some owners felt compelled to demonstrate their commitment to the scene by investing in youth development, placing young players at the forefront of their brand. Steve did not feel that same compulsion, buying a roster made entirely of veteran players that want to make noise right now at the highest levels of competitive play. Steve’s new team is without question the strongest roster on paper in the NA LCS, and a 180-degree shift from an organization that was relegated twice in Season 7.
Liquid’s rise from the basement to the penthouse of NA LCS was accelerated by the denial of Immortals’ franchise application, forcing Noah Whinston to sell the roster that has just made Worlds. Steve shrewdly bought the rights to five Immortals players: Jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero, mid laner Eugene “Pobelter” Park, support Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung, AD carry Cody “Cody Sun” Sun, and jungler Andy “AnDa” Hoang. While Steve sold AnDa and Cody Sun (to FlyQuest and 100 Thieves, respectively), he kept Olleh, Xmithie, and Pobelter on board to form the core of a revamped Liquid.
Considering what Immortals accomplished in Summer 2017, Steve’s instinct to create a better version of that team isn’t misguided. The jungle-mid combination of Xmithie and Pobelter has been solid since their 2015 Sumer Split championship and subsequent Worlds appearance together as members of Counter Logic Gaming. Both long time fixtures in the NA scene (Pobelter is old enough to have briefly played with Steve himself on Team Curse in 2011), Xmithie and Pobelter were fortunate to reunite at a time when the meta favored their skills. Gragas is Xmithie’s most played champion, so it wasn’t a surprise that when Gragas began dominating the meta, Xmithie rose with him. For Pobelter, a well-established Viktor player, the ubiquity of control mages in Season 7 created a platform for him to succeed, especially on Taliyah and Corki. Together, these two players bring a host of game knowledge and a world class jungle-mid synergy to Liquid in the hopes that they’ll get a chance to right the wrongs of Worlds 2017.
But as well as Xmithie and Pobelter played in Summer 2017, it was Olleh’s massive leap forward that ultimately raised Immortals’ ceiling. When you think of Olleh’s play over the summer, who do you see? Thresh. Bard. Alistar. Tahm Kench. All champions that have been reintroduced into the meta due to the nerfs to Ardent Censer. In 52 Summer Split games (including playoffs), Olleh spent 32 of them (62%) on those champions, a combined winrate of 75%. His playmaking and map awareness earned him MVP votes and a First-Team All-Pro NA LCS selection. If Olleh can put his invisible Worlds performance behind him and return to the form we saw last summer, Liquid will be in good hands.
Olleh isn’t the only First-Team All-Pro NA LCS player in the new Liquid bot lane. After being dumped by Team SoloMid in favor of some Europeans, AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng has migrated to Team Liquid with revenge on his mind. Given the way he’s been dragged through the mud after his subpar Summoner Spell usage at Worlds, it feels only natural. But there are few, if any, marksmen in North America that can claim to have the domestic success he’s had, or perform as well in teamfights. Doublelift’s inclusion in the side further reforms the 2015 CLG squad with Pobelter and Xmithie, creating international expectations based on past triumphs.
The odd man out of this nostalgia trip is top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, reportedly torn from Jack Etinne’s grasp to the tune of over $1 million dollars in salary. It’s quite the sum for a player that, for much of 2017, was considered the inferior option on his own team. Had Jeon “Ray” Ji-won struggles with depression not sidelined him for Summer 2017, would Impact have been given the chance to shine and secure this big money move? Good on Impact for getting paid, but that’s quite an investment in a player whose World Championship days might be behind him. But with Olleh creating the kind of cross-map havoc Impact thrives on, Steve’s betting that the SK Telecom T1 Impact is still around somewhere.
As constituted, Team Liquid are a world class team with legitimate international hopes. But as we all know, the games aren’t played on paper. Liquid will need to be more than the sum of their parts if they want to achieve greatness, or pose a real threat to the current Kings of North America. Head Coach Jang “Cain” Nu-ri in an unproven commodity, and his efforts will answer the open question as to how much of Immortals success was due to their oft-credited coach Kim “SSONG” Sang-so. But for his part, Steve has put his money where his mouth is, doing everything within his power to return Liquid’s brand to prominence. He’s made his roster decisions, now all that’s left is to play the game.
Team Liquid Academy Roster:
Top: Omran “Viper” Shoura
Jungle: Anthony “Hard” Barkhovtsev
Mid: Son “Mickey” Young-min
AD Carry: Quentin “Shoyru” Pereira
Support: Joseph “Joey” Haslemann
Coach: Timothy “Timkiro” Cho
Next, will the kings stay the kings…