Samson “Lourlo” Jackson wasn’t supposed to be here. He’s the starting top laner for one of the most popular teams in the LCS, a team famed for its intense focus on producing results combined with its failure to produce any of note. But he signed up as the understudy for Diego “Quas” Ruiz, a player often lauded as one of the best at the position in America. When Quas retired unexpectedly before the season began for personal reasons, Lourlo was thrust into the spotlight.
It’s no surprise that the 17-year-old top laner struggled early, a rookie player replacing one of the league’s most dynamic top laners. But it’s a transitional year for Team Liquid. The team shed some of its veteran chaff in the wake of Quas’ departure to bring in a hungry young core. It promoted two more rookies, making it even tougher to mitigate the mistakes of a player still learning the ropes. But after a shaky season, with them at one point sitting 5-7 and outside the playoffs, they’re in prime position to make the big dance.
In just two more years, he’ll have been playing League of Legends for half his life.
This weekend they beat one of the top teams in the league, Counter Logic Gaming, thanks in large part to Lourlo’s contributions. On Sunday they fell to NRG eSports in what should have been an easier game and one that could have clinched them a playoff spot. But them’s the breaks when you’re playing with three rookies.
Still, it’s clear the team, and Lourlo himself, have progressed. Lourlo may still be seen as the weakest link on the team, someone Liquid’s foes believe they can exploit, but he’s now holding his own after being thrown to the wolves.
“It was really difficult,” Lourlo remembers. Like most solo queue players, he heavily favored carry champions like Riven, Irelia, and Ryze before playing competitive. But coming into the LCS, with less than a year of amateur play under his belt, Team Liquid needed him to play tanks to back up their two talented Korean carries, Kim “Fenix” Jae-hun and Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, as well as their emerging superstar jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett.
“Transitioning to competitive completely and having to fit the role of a tank player, supportive player, on the team was hard for me to adjust in the first coming weeks,” he said. “After those weeks I’ve adjusted well and I think that’s why we’re succeeding as well.”
At the time he made that comment, Team Liquid was on a three-game win streak after beating Counter Logic Gaming in a match where Lourlo had a huge impact on Nautilus. More than any team this season, CLG favors their top lane carry, and they gave Darshan Upadhyaya a pocket pick Yasuo to challenge Lourlo’s tank play. Lourlo felt like Nautilus has a huge advantage against the samurai once he gets his Sunfire Cape, and it showed in the match as Darshan was never able to get his footing, even after Lourlo gave up first blood. Lourlo at one point annihilated his counterpart near the dragon pit with a great solo play.
“It was definitely I think a cocky pick. Maybe more so a comfort pick than a cocky pick,” Lourlo said. “They probably had decent results in scrims, but I don’t know who they played against. It wasn’t me, heh.”
Now the team is 3-1 over the past two weeks, including big wins over playoff contenders Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming. Not bad for a group of rookies.
“It feels really good because finally our team is actually clicking as a whole,” Lourlo said. “The beginning of the split we were really shaky. Especially myself; I was not happy with my performance. As the split went on I put way more work in and tried to be a really good fit for the team. Overall it’s been really really good.”
Of course, there’s always room for improvement. On Sunday, NRG targeted Lourlo’s champion pool, banning out Poppy and picking away Nautilius. Team Liquid put Lourlo on Lulu, and it certainly wasn’t the best game of his season. But that’s life in the LCS, especially as a rookie. You need to learn to roll with the punches.
When veterans talk about how they became a pro gamer, it’s often because they “fell” into it. They liked a game, played it a lot, were good, and it just sort of happened. Lourlo is part of the new generation of rookies, the ones who grew up dreaming of becoming a star. He got started in League of Legends when the game hit beta in 2009. He was 11 years old. When the LCS began, he was just starting high school. And he realized that’s where he wanted to be.
“Ever since LCS got blown up and became something you can actually live off of, I definitely wanted to pursue it as best as I could,” he said. “After there was a pro scene and competitive outlook on it, I definitely wanted to adapt to it and try to get into it myself.”
He played on a couple teams once he started getting closer to LCS age. In 2014, his Storm team, featuring LCS veteran Zach “Mancloud” Hoschar, opted to forgo the Expansion Tournament and compete in Challenger because Lourlo was not yet of age. When the team failed to qualify, falling to Team Dragon Knights, Lourlo joined up with Counter Logic Gaming Black.
That was enough for him to get noticed by Team Liquid, and when Quas stepped down, it was time for Lourlo to step in and live that pro gaming dream.
One thing you notice when talking to rookies these days compared to two, three years ago is that they realize this has to be their job, their career, their plan, and not, say, a fun vacation before returning to college. Players like Lourlo and his peers are devoted to the pro gaming life and are doing what it takes to make sure they stay in it. He believes having the right work ethic is what will make this crop of rookies successful.
“I learned how to actually deal with the pressure instead of getting engulfed by the pressure.”
“I think it’s true in a way because when people say there is no NA talent, it’s because people in NA don’t put in as much work as people in Korea or other regions,” he said. “Players like myself and all the rookies on Team Liquid, we’ve put in so much work and it’s actually showing.”
There’s a difference between putting time into the game and doing it with a focus on improving. And past amateur hopefuls weren’t even putting in the time.
Lourlo is a visual learner, and loves watching tape. “I watch tons of vods of Korean games,” he said. “I’m a really big RoX fan. I look up to Smeb and stuff.”
When he was struggling earlier in the season, buckling down on reviewing video to help him buff up on the macro aspect of the game as well as the intricacies of playing tanks.
“I just buckled down everything and focused on League,” he said. “I didn’t care about anything. I actually only thought about League. I woke up, played League, watched like four VoDs per hour, in between queues, analyzing, getting the best out of every situation and hour I could get.”
For some, that kind of razor sharp focus might overload them. But that’s the benefit of being a young rookie—you don’t need the same time to recharge as an older veteran. Lourlo isn’t worried about burning out, because he sees himself improving every day, and that’s enough to fuel his competitive drive.
It also helps that he’s got a couple partners in crime with him on Team Liquid.
The rookie life
No team features as many rookie starters as Team Liquid this season. The organization, famously devoted to building the most extensive infrastructure to support their players in the Western scene, chose to run with a 10-man roster this season, putting five players in position to challenge the starters for playing time all season long. But what ended up happening was that their rookies were quickly thrown into the lineup as their B team outpaced the results of the starting squad.
Lourlo, Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett, and Matt Elento certainly have loads of talent. Dardoch may be the most mechanically gifted competitive jungler the region has ever produced. But they’re still rookies, and it’s never easy to adjust to competing in the LCS.
For most players, one of the first challenges is learning to play on stage. After years competing from your bedroom, office, or team house, moving into a hostile environment with flashing lights and thousands of screaming fans is never easy. It was “overwhelming” at first, Lourlo said, but he’s adjusted over the course of the season.
“I learned how to actually deal with the pressure instead of getting engulfed by the pressure,” he says.
That may be easier because he did it with his fellow first-timers at his side, a pair of peers with which to share their rookie tribulations. But one person among them doesn’t need the help.
“It’s definitely nice that there’s two other players going through it with me, but Dardoch, he’s not like, a normal rookie,” Lourlo said. “He’s just like, I don’t know, there’s something about him. Nothing phases him. It’s pretty interesting.”
In some ways, that may be a more helpful example. The team respects the veteran world champion Piglet, and his knowledge is invaluable in learning the ropes, but when someone like Dardoch makes it look easy, players like Lourlo have to follow.
Of course, even Dardoch, the leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year award this season, makes his share of rookie mistakes. But the team is constantly fixing them, and they’re quickly becoming a cohesive unit.
Lourlo credits some of that to sports psychology trainer Weldon Green, who worked with the team two weeks ago, before their recent 3-1 run in the LCS.
That’s life in the LCS, especially as a rookie. You need to learn to roll with the punches.
“He just got us like, in the right mindset for improving,” Lourlo explained. “Everyone respected him a lot so it was easy to start improving in a way that was effective.” Lourlo couldn’t quite explain exactly what that means, but he said that Green helped get the team on the same page, with the same goals, not only in the broad sense for the season but for what they’re trying to accomplish every week, every day, and every hour together.
For a squad like Team Liquid, that’s going to be key. With three rookies on the roster, there’s still plenty of room for improvement heading into the playoffs, assuming Team Liquid makes it, and beyond. The team needs one win against Dignitas or Cloud9 or an Echo Fox loss to secure a playoff spot. If they continue playing like they have the past two weeks, they’ll make it.
Lourlo turns 18 in two weeks. “I’ll be an adult,” he laughs, frowning when I mention it’ll still be three more years before he can enjoy Vegas, even if his team makes it there this season. In just two more years, he’ll have been playing League of Legends for half his life. But his pro gaming career has only just begun.
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr (All rights reserved, used with permission)
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