The American qualifiers for The International 4, the biggest esports tournament on the planet, are a big deal, if the prize pot rapidly approaching $5 million has anything to say about it. But that didn’t stop favorite Team Liquid from taking a match off at the end of the qualifying round, plunging the tournament into a tense tie breaker and leaving controversy in its wake.
Instead of playing their normal roles for their final group stage game against Peruvian team Union Gaming, the Team Liquid players swapped positions and picked some unconventional heroes.
The heavily favored Liquid dropped the match after blowing an early lead, making some “clowny moves and cocky plays,” as Liquid captain Sam “BuLba” Sosale would later put it.
Liquid played the game “relaxed” as they realized nothing was on the line for them after two days and nine “stressful ass” games.
The problem is, everything was on the line for their opponents and two other qualifier hopefuls.
Union Gaming’s win moved them to 6-4, placing them into a three-way tie for two positions in the bracket stage. Team eHug and Sneaky Nyx Assassins, who believed they were already through, were forced into a three-way tiebreaker set. That’s hard to stomach after, as Sosales put it, ten “stressful ass” games.
The Peruvians had momentum on their side and took advantage of their newfound tournament life. Team eHug fell in the tiebreaker and was eliminated.
The eHug players were none too happy about playing extra matches late in the night, and said so on Reddit before their eventual elimination. They would later backtrack and apologize for the outbursts, stating that it’s “completely reasonable” for Team Liquid to take a match off and hide their strategies, a right they’ve earned as the “superior team.”
Liquid had little incentive to put forth their best foot. Taking that game off had the benefit of hiding strategies from the opponents they face today, North American Rejects, in a match that could very well decide which team will compete in Seattle for the $5 million TI4 prize.
As an added bonus, it allows them to scout their potential bracket stage opponents, who were forced to use their best strategies in a tiebreaker with everything on the line.
Many fans commended Liquid for taking a competitive advantage, though if Sosales is to be believed, it sounds like they were more just taking a break. But other fans were frustrated by the conduct, and vented their anger publicly.
“I feel so sorry for eHug. Liquid continues to disappoint me,” wrote HereTame. “Liquid should’ve played their game in earnest instead of ruining the integrity of the tournament.”
It’s an age-old argument in professional sports. Do teams need to try their best to win every game, when fans are paying for that product? Or is the championship all that matters?
It’s one the NBA struggles with every season, when teams who qualified for the playoffs rest their stars for the games that really matter. At least, matter to them. ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith believes teams have an “obligation” to the fans and the league to play their stars, the players fans are paying to see. And while the NBA-to-esports analogy isn’t perfect, it fits fairly well in this instance.
Team Liquid is supported by sponsors, and they probably have certain expectations for how they are represented to fans. Those fans have certain expectations for the product of a Team Liquid match. They want to see Sosales’ Dark Seer or Bat Rider, not the random support Shadow Demon they got last night.
But those factors barely enter the equation for the competitor. Their goal is to win the championship, not every single encounter along the way. Just like the San Antonio Spurs, resting Tim Duncan to ensure his health for the playoffs, Liquid had to be ready for their huge match tomorrow.
“We didn’t want to pick [heroes] that we’d maybe run tomorrow or Thursday,” said Liquid’s Sosale. “Why would we just put material out there for the other teams to look at? Every single draft matters.”
Every single draft matters. And the best way for Liquid to utilize their final one on Tuesday was to take it easy. With five million big ones ultimately on the line, who can blame them?