Analyzing Liquid112 as a GM
There's no question that ever since becoming a Team Curse's manager in late Season 2, Liquid112 has been one of the most proactive and professional managers in all of esports. Liquid's role on his teams have generally varied, but he has usually been in charge of both finding sponsorships and managing player acquisitions. In this latter capacity, his role is akin to that of a general manager in traditional sports.
Curse (and now Liquid) have always been one of the most diligent organizations in e-sports when it comes to acquiring players, and for that Liquid deserves praise as a GM. Not only have legends such as Saintvicious, Voyboy, Edward, and Xpecial all spent time on the team, the various academy teams that Liquid managed had an uncanny knack for hosting rising talents such as Altec, Hauntzer, or Pobelter. In a recent article, Thorin called Liquid112 the best General Manager in Western LoL, placing a particular emphasis on his ability to acquire talent.
One of the most interesting claims in Thorin's article is that Liquid could hardly be blamed for his team's failures, as several of his Curse Gaming line-ups have disappointingly floundered under pressure in spite of strong preparation from their GM. But although this point rings true, Liquid's teams have consistently fallen apart due to two main factors - his players rarely boast inherent playstyle synergies, and while he as frequently acquired top-flight talent, those players are often accompanied by overrated veterans who have kept them from proper contention. It's easy to point fingers with the benefit of hindsight, and Liquid's teams have never been bottom-feeders and have in fact occasionally enjoyed title contention. It's difficult to say whether or not Liquid is the best manager in Western LoL. Liquid has consistently innovated and made aggressive moves to acquire star players. However, his teams have been consistently haunted by problems, seemingly of his own doing.
A focus on big names - with mixed results
One of Liquid's best attributes is his knack for acquiring star level talent, and the move which can be said began the modern-day Curse Gaming was when he acquired carry jungler Saintvicious in North America's "three-team trade" which sent Voyboy to CLG, Crumbzz to Dignitas, and Saintvicious to Curse. Prior to Saint's arrival, Curse was not a notable NA team by any means, and their spot in the top 4 was taken up by Epik Gamer, owned by Reginald's brother Dan Dihn. Saint's arrival legitimized Curse and gave them one of the region's signature players, a move for which Liquid rightfully deserves praise. Unfortunately, Saint's Curse team was never able to find success, in large part due to one of Liquid's main weakness as a manager - a tendency to hold on too long to "named" but overrated players, such as Westrice or Elementz. Both Westrice and Elementz had built up quite notable careers on other teams such as Epik Gamer and CLG, but were far past their primes by the time that Saint had joined the team. In addition to a very inexperienced Cop, whose clean-up style was rendered useless by the hard carry ADC meta of Season 2, these three players generally hindered the efforts of Saintvicious and mid laner Nyjacky to carry Curse to victory - many Season 2 fans have noted that Cop, Westrice, and Elementz were all significantly worse than players who could be found on some of NA's weaker teams, such as ZionSpartan, Nientonsoh, and Nhat Nguyen. It's impossible to say whether or not such players were actually available, and it's easy to criticize Liquid in hindsight. However, this established a trend which has followed Liquid112 through all of his Curse and Liquid line-ups - a tendency to acquire top-tier talent, but to surround them with sub-optimal supporting players.
His acquisition of Saintvicious in Season 2 is what propelled Curse to a top 4 spot in the NA LCS, a spot which they have never truly left, in large part due to Liquid's ability to find them even more star players. After Season 2, Liquid acquired well-known mid lane star Salce to alternate games with Westrice, before ultimately replacing both players with ex-CLG top laner Voyboy. Again, Liquid's diligence in hunting star-level talent would pay off for Curse. The Salce acquisition was actually a somewhat underrated move, as his acquisition of Voyboy would quickly overshadow it, but that too demonstrated Liquid's desire to hunt down big names - Salce was considered one of America's most skilled mechanical players. Due to a meta-shift away from the bot lane, which allowed Curse's weak duo of Cop and Elementz to focus on teamfights, Curse would become North America's best team for the majority of Season 3's Summer Split, falling near the end due to a combination of team conflicts and the return of a bot-centric metagame. Near the end of the split, Elementz would leave Curse, forcing the team to use top laner Rhux for their play-off run, to predictably poor results. After this peak, Curse/TL have consistently been in the region's top 4 teams, but have never truly been the indisputable frontrunner.
After this time, Liquid has consistently grabbed up big names for Curse, to mixed results, in large part because of his tendency to overrate some of those players. While his moves to grab supports Edward and Xpecial were clearly inspired, he also hired popular streamer (and unsuccessful professional player) Zekent in between them. Liquid's commitment to transitioning franchise legend Voyboy to the mid lane effectively removed Curse from title contention for the majority of Season 4 until Voy adjusted into the mid lane role just in time to lead Curse's (ultimately failed) dark horse bid for the World Championships. Although this year's Liquid squad featured some stand-out players in Piglet, Quas, and Dominate, they were held back by an overrated Fenix and a washed-up Xpecial. (In spite of Xpecial's heroic Alistar games in the gauntlet vs. C9, he overall had a very poor season.)
Hunting New Talent & Ensuring a line of succession
During this time, Liquid also began one of his other most prominent innovations - in addition to acquiring big name players, he was always on the lookout for rising stars. NA managers have always portrayed the region as lacking talent, but Liquid has never bought into that philosophy. Although Liquid's first rising talent, Rhux, never amounted into an LCS player in spite of his notable promise, Liquid's constant moves to scout new talent, either through sponsored 1v1 tournaments or his Curse Academy B team, one of the first of its kind. Although Liquid's efforts scouting out talent have had mixed results, his foresight is the best out of any Western GM.
Liquid has snatched up several of NA's most promising rising talents, such as Quas, before other teams could make a move on them. Although Quas was the only one to make it on to TL's A team, Liquid's B teams have featured many of the region's brightest talents, such as Pobelter and Altec (Season 3), DontMashMe and Sheep (Season 4) Hauntzer and LOD (Season 4 LoLPro). Liquid also intelligently picked up jungler IWillDominate after he was banned for toxicity. Dom has since been one of TL's most consistent and skilled players. Jacob Wolf of the DailyDot recently reported that IWillDominate has since reached out to Team Imagine's jungler Moon as an understudy, once again showing Curse/Liquid's tradition of finding talented replacements for outgoing players. Similarly, Liquid was one of the first managers to use regular season games as a try-out for new players. Earlier in this article, I criticized Liquid for picking up Zekent, but he quickly remedied this problem by bringing in native support BunnyFuFuu, today one of the better support players in the region. In this area, Liquid is unique and deserves praise.
An Overcommitment to Failing Team Systems
However, one of TL's biggest issues throughout their history has been an inability to discover a true team identity. While other teams in NA, such as TSM or CLG have consistently played around their star players, sometimes to a fault, Liquid112 has frequently made mistakes when building teams around his acquired star players. Earlier, I mentioned that Liquid112 has frequently held on to weak players for too long. This issue is a related but separate problem - it often seems like Liquid doesn't know what his newfound star players are good at, and so places them in positions where their skills can't shine.
One of TL's biggest issues throughout their history has been an inability to discover a team identity that makes sense. While other teams in NA, such as TSM or CLG have consistently played around their star players, sometimes to a fault, Liquid112 has frequently made mistakes when building teams around his acquired star players. Earlier, I mentioned that Liquid112 has frequently held on to weak players for too long. This issue is a related but separate problem - it often seems like Liquid doesn't know what his newfound star players are good at, and so places them in positions where their skills can't shine. On one level, this isn't Liquid's fault. One could say that his job is simply to find players, rather than to fit them together (which could typically be the job of a coach.) On the other hand, Liquid112 is not only responsible for hiring his team's coaches, but his rationale for putting players together has typically been flawed. At times, it seems like he lacks a key understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the players he puts together. Although several of Liquid's big acquisitions, such as Xpecial or Voyboy were properly supported, some of Liquid's other big name acqusitions have run into this notable issue. It is easy to criticize with the benefit of hindsight, but some of the problematic rationale could also have been seen at the time of the decision.
The first instance of this came in Season 2, when Liquid acquired Westrice to play alongside Saintvicious. Back in the Season 2 meta, top lane was a very snowbally position, and aggressive top laners like Voyboy or Westrice needed to have strong jungle pressure in order to succeed with their aggressive style. Westrice in particular (then known for his Akali) was not a tank player - his other strong champions at the time included Darius and Vladimir. On the other hand, Saint had played alongside Hotshot for the majority of his career. When Hotshot was on form, he could simply dominate his opponents in 1v1 matchups without assistance on champions like Nidalee or Jax. After his decline, Hotshot stayed safe on picks like Cho'Gath or Malphite. Westrice and Saintvicious's playstyles inherently clashed - fans looking back later said that the team was more successful with Pobelter top because of his increased independence.
Later on, when Liquid added Edward to his team, he cited Cop's similarity to Genja as part of why the move would work. This may have simply been a statement made in part due to the high spirits after acquiring such a high caliber support, but if this analysis was serious, it overlooked a major aspect of Genja's play. Genja was always an extremely dominant lane player, to the point where he would simply spam the slot-inefficient Doran's Blade to net an early game advantage. On the other hand, Cop's own laning was extremely passive, leading to some unfortunate moments between the two mismatched players. In addition, the defensive wave-clear style of Nyjacky was a poor fit with Edward's own roaming style. On Gambit, Edward was able to find several early kills for Alex Ich as Genja farmed 1v2 by himself. Liquid did a good job of finding Curse an aggressive and skilled playmaker in Edward, but in the two roles most important to his success, he gave him counterintuitive players.
Finally, this current Curse lineup has suffered from a heavy lack of self-awareness. On this lineup, a big part of the issue could simply be a poor coaching job by Peter, but seeing as Liquid hired the coach and provided the players, he should share some of the blame. Quas is known as a skilled carry player with a wide champion pool and a strong knack for split pushing. Some of Curse's best wins have come off the back of Quas split-pushes, such as their 3-0 upset against CLG in the Summer of Season 4, when Quas spammed Nidalee on his innovative Frozen Mallet + Bloodthirster build. However, Liquid frequently gives Quas supportive champions during the play-offs, which played a large role in the team's failings against C9/LMQ. It's not that Quas can't play supportive picks, but the team clearly doesn't play as well when he is on them. Similarly, Piglet was well-known as a split-pusher and duelist on SKT. Although Piglet had some great teamfight moments, they almost always came off the back of cleaning up after Faker. Neither Piglet nor Quas (on tanks) were particularly strong teamfighters, but TL kept forcing teamfights all season long. One particular issue came from the player TL decided to place in the mid lane to accompany them. On Summoning Insight, Xpecial eplained that Liquid wanted a lane dominant player, assuming that Piglet could simply carry the teamfights. Fenix has been a strong laner, but his teamfighting on champions other than Azir has been mediocre. If Piglet was a teamfight dominant ADC, this strategy would have worked, but this mis-identification of Piglet's strong skills led to a fundamental flaw in this version of Team Liquid.
At the end of the day, it's important to remember that it's easy to criticize roster moves with the benefit of hindsight. Liquid has clearly been a good manager. Nobody is more active when it comes to hunting down talent. In addition, no other Western manager has had his foresight and preparation when it comes to scouting out new talent. However, Liquid's teams have also been plagued by consistent problems. His teams rarely fit together and frequently have washed-up or overrated named players dragging down the stars he's acquired. Overall, Liquid is one of the better managers in the West, but it'll hard for his team to take the next step as long as these problems exist.