Berlin or Bust: Time to Board the Team Liquid Bandwagon
#ForeverFourth? Try #ForeverFirst.
With a record of 5-1, including wins over both Cloud9 and Team Impulse, Team Liquid is sitting atop the North American LCS standings, tied with perennial fast starters Counter Logic Gaming (CLG). But unlike CLG, who no longer get the benefit of the doubt after repeated late-season fall-offs, Liquid deserves full value on the hype they're earning.
There are three big reasons to expect that Team Liquid will keep up their winning ways and most likely qualify for this year's World Championships: their versatility, their new mental strength, and their expanded coaching.
Every player on the Team Liquid roster is a versatile performer, able to effectively play a variety of styles.
- Quas has one of the biggest champion pools in the league: he can play carries, like Hecarim, tanks, like Maokai, and utility champions, like Lulu, all with skill.
- IWDominate is equally effective as an aggressive ganker or a hard-farming team fighter.
- FeniX plays assassins and hypercarries, and while he hasn't shown his play on control/utility champions yet this split, he put in plenty of games on Lulu and Lissandra during Spring.
- Piglet has played five different champions in six games (Corki, Tristana, Kalista, Vayne, and Sivir).
- Xpecial can engage, peel, and disengage as needed, bringing a wealth of competitive experience to help him play any role the team needs.
When their individual versatility is taken alongside their improving team synergy, Team Liquid has the ability to play almost any style of team composition.
We've already seen that versatility early in the Summer split, especially compared with Spring. Early in Spring, Liquid was mostly built around aggressive ganks on the Top lane to get Quas rolling. Because of that approach, their First Blood rate was the highest in the NA LCS for a long stretch. Quas and IWDominate showed impressive synergy, and proved that they could make that style work, though not without missteps along the way. As the split progressed, opponents started to find better ways to play around Liquid's Top-focused style, especially once Piglet arrived and Liquid had to start reconsidering their carry priorities. For a large part of the split, Liquid struggled to find a new identity. They eventually moved towards mid-game team fight compositions, with Sejuani and Nunu making frequent appearances, and found success by putting more priority on Piglet to carry. These adjustments allowed them to recover from their slump, sneak into the Spring playoffs, and fight their way to a third-place finish, the best in franchise history.
As Summer rolls on, Liquid is showing that not only can they play the mid-game team fight compositions, but they're also ready to pull out their former early-game play style. They're winning games early, as evidenced by their average +723 gold lead at 10 minutes (second best in NA). But they can also win in the mid to late game through Dragon control and macro play, like they did against Team Impulse in Week 3.
Liquid has won with comps built around diving the backline, scaling into the late game, heavy zone control, and massive AoE. Their ability to pull out any of these play styles in a given game makes them difficult to prepare for, an advantage that many of their opponents haven't demonstrated. We can look at what happened to SK Gaming in the Spring playoffs, or TSM at the Mid-Season Invitational, to see what happens when a team has limited strategic alternatives prepared. Team Liquid is working to avoid the "one play style" weakness, and is establishing itself up as arguably the most versatile, adaptable team in the NA LCS. That versatility will serve the team well once the best-of-fives roll around at playoff time.
Another key strength for Team Liquid this split is something that was an apparent weakness not long ago. During most of the Spring split, especially their initial games with Piglet in Weeks 2 to 4, Liquid struggled with team cohesion and confidence, causing their mental game and communication to suffer. Piglet's challenges adapting to the North American lifestyle were well documented, and that bled through into his relationships with his teammates, especially team captain IWDominate. Both Piglet and Dom can be emotional players, and they clearly weren't on the same page for most of the Spring split.
But those issues seem to be fading away. The team's cohesion already looked much better during their Spring playoff run, and with the mid-season break behind them, Team Liquid is looking even stronger as a unit. Liquid's players appear to have much more trust in each other. That trust allows them to have clearer communication and shot calling in game, and to confidently follow through on those calls.
Mental strength and trust are especially important when playing from behind, a circumstance IWDominate has said the team now feels much more comfortable in. Liquid's newfound cohesion is evident in the games they have played so far this split. Losing First Blood (which they've done in 4 of 6 games) doesn't seem to bother them. Misplays and missed opportunities don't get them down. They've showed the ability to come back from mid-game deficits. Even a loss to Gravity in Week 2 didn't set back their momentum: they followed that up with a 2-0 week over fairly strong competition.
Improved mental strength as a team is a very good sign for Team Liquid, given that it was one of their weaknesses in Spring. While their resilience hasn't been heavily tested yet in Summer, early signs suggest they'll be ready to bounce back when they reach their first big valley.
With a versatile set of players who have forged a new mental toughness, Team Liquid has two very important ingredients for success. But the hardest part of winning at the highest level is translating those ingredients into effective team play. Enter Team Liquid's third big positive: their coaching staff.
To outside eyes, Liquid's coaching seemed suboptimal for much of the Spring split. Head Coach Peter Zhang was in school and could only be with the team for a few days each week. Instead, Assistant Coach Mark Zimmerman oversaw most of the weekly preparation, working somewhat shorthanded.
It's not fair to pin the blame entirely on the coaching. Still, that arrangement surely contributed to the team's occasionally haphazard drafting and lack of clear team identity. Those issues were further exacerbated by Liquid's back and forth switches between Keith and Piglet at ADC. Even once Piglet permanently secured his spot on the roster around Week 7, it took a few more weeks of play and practice to adapt the team's strategies to best suit their new, Piglet-centered style. That adaptation involved not only changing the types of champions they were choosing, but figuring out how to make the players work together effectively in their adjusted roles. The coaches had a difficult task dealing with those challenges, especially given Peter's limited time commitment.
Now that school is over, Peter is available full time to help the team with their practice and preparation. This has clearly been helping the team prepare more effectively, establish a clearer team identity, and design stronger pick/ban strategies. Many of the strengths we've already looked at can be credited, at least in part, to the coaches.
Improved coaching doesn't end with Peter, though. Liquid recently hired another full-time analyst to complement their Head Coach and Assistant Coach, and they are also using Team Liquid Academy's Head Coach, Warlock, to provide additional scouting and analysis. Support staffs are continuing to grow around the LCS, and Liquid appears to be ahead of the curve.
Feel the Hype
Team Liquid's versatility, mental strength, and growing coaching staff are all contributing to their charge to the top of the standings. There's plenty of reason to believe Xpecial's prediction that the streak of TSM vs. C9 North American Finals is going to end, and that Liquid is the team to do it. And with their third-place Championship Points in hand from Spring, Team Liquid has multiple options open to book their plane ride to Europe to compete in the 2015 World Championships.
Quas is ready for the fans to board the hype train. He and his teammates, along with the growing support staff behind them, are welcoming the pressure of being top North American contenders with open arms.
If you aren't on the Team Liquid bandwagon yet, now is the time to put your faith in the boys in white and blue.