Putting together the puzzle: Team Liquid’s rocky return to the Worlds stage

The group stage is Liquid's first—and possibly only—chance at redemption at Worlds.

Photo by Oshin Tudayan/Riot Games via ESPAT

The last string that held Team Liquid together broke. The multi-time LCS champion team committed millions of dollars this past November, signing two high-profile free agents and renewing its mid laner to one of the biggest extensions in the league—and now, it looked all for naught. 

It had already been a rough June for Liquid. One of those stars, top laner Alphari, got benched amid behavioral issues early in the month, and the other, Santorin, played through debilitating migraines and needed time to recover. Yet there was one more unforeseen change that struck the team: Jatt—the commentator-turned-head coach who’d just celebrated his first anniversary with the team—resigned. Kold, the team’s assistant coach, would take over with a changing roster and Liquid’s chances at a world championship bid slimming by the day.

At this point in the season, the team was not the lineup that started 2021, nor was it the team that would end the year. Kold was entering uncharted territory, and there was only so much he could do to put together an ever-changing roster of talent—and with little preparation, at that. Liquid trudged through the remaining six weeks of the Summer Split with Kold at the helm and the weight of their losses on their shoulders. When playoffs came around, the team was finally pieced back together. Their confidence had been resparked, evident in their playoffs run. Liquid knocked down LCS behemoths left and right, advancing to the finals with ease. They had already secured a Worlds spot, and a trophy here would prove how far they came.

Then they crashed again, losing the title in a clean sweep by 100 Thieves. And they’ve been silent since.

This year has been nothing short of a wild ride for Liquid in professional League of Legends. Just when the team’s League squad thought they had secured a moment to shine, they abruptly entered a predicament that set the team back weeks, arguably even years. And this wasn’t just a one-time deal—it happened on multiple occasions in mere months. Though they may be gracing the Worlds stage once more, the road it took them to get to this point was rocky, and more obstacles are imminent.

A solid start and surprise jungle swap

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This year’s LCS format introduced a new way for players to adjust to the season through the Lock-In tournament. While the competition was designed to slowly introduce new and returning players to the stage, Liquid made it clear their drive from Worlds 2020 had not been diminished, racing through the tournament and winning it with new faces in Alphari and Santorin.

Game after game, Liquid’s new top laner and jungler showcased a synergy at a level the LCS had never seen before. Liquid became the team the LCS was fixated on once more, with Alphari and Santorin touted as the faces of the organization’s professional League team.

Yet, just as they began to shine, Liquid approached the unavoidable. At the 2021 Mid-Season Invitational, Santorin announced he would be playing sparingly due to health issues. It was only a matter of time before Santorin had to step out of professional play for the immediate future, bringing Armao into the main roster and forcing the rest of the squad to adjust to a new jungler with little main-stage experience.

The team remained afloat. There were big shoes to fill, but as the focus of Liquid shifted from getting the top side of the map ahead to keeping eyes on Tactical and CoreJJ in the bot lane, Liquid slowly began to adjust to a new, unseen strategy.

Summertime sadness

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Liquid failed to win the Spring Split, thus missing this year’s MSI. Between March and June, when the Summer Split would begin, the team remained on the sidelines while Cloud9 dominated all LCS-focused conversations. Yet Cloud9, too, struggled to keep their momentum afloat.

After only one game into the Summer Split, Liquid unexpectedly announced that Alphari would be taking personal time off from the team without any clear explanation as to why he was leaving. Santorin left once again during the third week of the Summer Split to focus on his health, leaving Armao as the starting jungler. Now both of Liquid’s newest stars were out, and their Academy team was forced to step up.

Fans quickly entered speculation mode. Alphari, who in mere months had cemented himself as one of the most dominant top laners in the LCS, didn’t seem to be the reason why Liquid lost their debut game of the split to TSM. But in a video posted to Twitter, Liquid’s head coach Jatt informed fans that Jenkins, Liquid’s Academy top laner, would be entering the fray in place of Alphari for the weekend. This switch ended up lasting for more than a month and forced the team to adjust to yet another new playstyle.

Then, just when it seemed Liquid had found their footing again, Jatt resigned. Liquid were down three of their most prominent faces, with little explanation given for two. Alphari’s weeks of cryptic tweets made it seem like there was animosity between the top laner and former head coach, and deleting them soon after posting only fueled the fire. To this day, fans remain uncertain as to what prompted these changes. 

Winter is coming

Photo via Riot Games

In Jatt’s place came Liquid’s strategic coach, Kold, who had joined the team from his years of EU experience last November. After years competing in the EU LCS, Kold took the helm of one of NA’s most celebrated teams with little time to prepare and only a few months of coaching experience under his belt.

“It was one of those situations where someone had to step up and take the leadership head-on, and after [Jatt] resigned, there was no one better to do it than me,” Kold told Dot Esports. “I’m a very competitive guy, and when I see a situation where someone needs to step up and take responsibility, then I will do so because it’s in the best interest of the team.”

Kold’s entrance as Liquid’s new coach was immediately met with doubt from fans, who had witnessed change after change plague the roster on what seemed to be a weekly basis. Yet instead of accruing more losses, Liquid began to jump back on par with where they were in the Spring, with Kold leading the team to a dominant victory in his coaching debut.

Liquid quickly reestablished a momentum the team had long been known for, seemingly putting aside lingering controversies to regain focus of what mattered most: being the best team in NA. Though Kold made it clear he was here to fill Jatt’s shoes and further stretch the team’s potential, he acknowledged it was an “unexpected challenge to be thrown into this situation.” The next step was the LCS Championship, and the team looked prepared.

Then they lost 0-3 to 100 Thieves in the finals. The confidence that Liquid had expressed throughout the entirety of the LCS Championship up to this moment made it seem that one more best-of-five against 100T would simply be a repeat of the 3-2 Liquid had won just a few matches prior. The Liquid squad had shifted their dynamic from maintaining a lead to partaking in questionable trades, turret dives, and overextensions that, in each game, offered 100T clear room to do what Liquid couldn’t.

Much of the attention in this series shifted to Liquid’s mid lane, where they had long been able to capitalize the most out of any other lane. Jensen struggled against every champion that Abbedagge brought to the Rift, despite having access to comfort picks like Syndra and LeBlanc. As Jensen slowly fell behind in each game, so did most of the rest of his team, who clearly hoped the multi-time champion mid laner would be their saving grace.

The longest game in this three-game series went only to 30 minutes and 35 seconds. Liquid suffered uncharacteristic deficits across the map in each game, with only Alphari being a factor in the team’s possible survival. This was not the Liquid that had gone from the fifth seed to enter the LCS Championship to the first team to qualify for the finals, but there was no clear answer as to what went wrong.

Liquid were now left twiddling their thumbs, with the world wondering what had happened to the team that had just spent the last few weeks making up for constant roster shifts. Worlds was only a few weeks away.

“It’s kinda like a big heartbreak, in a sense. That you put so much into it,” Kold said. “No one remembers the second place, let’s be real. People remember the teams that lifted the trophy. It’s always gonna feel like shit losing in a final—I’ve been there myself, twice.”

Despite the loss, Kold and the team had to lift their heads and realize this was just the start of another big step for Liquid.

Are their Worlds chances still alive?

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Liquid’s downward spiral can’t be attributed to any single player, nor can it only be attributed to external circumstances. For months they’ve been forced to adjust to shifts in their roster, management, and even the general meta, leaving little room to create stable footing.

Liquid visited the World Championship on three separate occasions, where the organization performed relatively similarly despite various iterations of their roster. Each time, the squad took down some of the most dominant competition from the LCK and LPL, yet struggled to make it out of the group stage.

This year’s version of Liquid looks different, however. Between players and management, we have yet to see how this iteration of the team performs in international competition. Although the team still has their LCS Championship loss in the back of their minds, Kold believes there is more than enough reason to look forward to the possibilities in their immediate future.

“It’s about the productivity of the four weeks, and it’s very important within this time to have the mindset that we are here to grow,” Kold said. “We are here to learn, we are here to get the most out of every day so that the product you showcase starting group stage is the best possible product that you can achieve. Right now that’s our focus, and in a few weeks we will see if that product is good enough.”

What can we expect at Worlds this year?

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Throughout all of the turmoil this iteration of the Liquid roster has gone through, they’ve continued to fight until the bitter end. They may not have finished the season on the best terms, but Liquid has the potential to exceed expectations at Worlds.

Out of the three teams representing the LCS at Worlds, Liquid possesses the most well-rounded group of talent. While C9 and 100T as organizations also boast previous Worlds experience, it has been Liquid that have consistently stepped up on the international stage and acted as the most formidable competition from the LCS.

Liquid have a synergy that extends far from simply two laners knowing how the other ticks. The map-wide awareness that Alphari, Santorin, Jensen, Tactical, and CoreJJ possess has time and time again placed them on the favorable side of seemingly unfavorable situations. This year, Liquid showed that when they take control of a game, they almost always keep control—something other NA teams often struggle to do. 

Yet in the final weeks, there seems to have been a shift in who exactly Liquid relies on to carry their games. Rather than offer the variety depending on lane matchups, Jensen has become increasingly important in dragging his teammates out of sticky situations. Particularly in the LCS Championship, if Santorin and CoreJJ kept Jensen ahead, their win soon followed. When teams began to realize this emphasis on a Jensen carry, though, Liquid slipped.

Teams like RNG and FPX, like most of the other powerhouses from the East, are going to continue to be glaring issues for the Liquid roster when they return to Worlds this year. The understanding of the meta in these regions in particular differs drastically from what Liquid is used to in NA, making it difficult for them to read their opponents when they first enter the international setting. 

Luckily for Liquid, this might not apply too much this year. With Riot’s attempt to better diversify the Worlds meta, teams internationally are still discovering what strategies work, with the group stage being where the meta will truly be defined. A volatile meta may be exactly what Liquid needs to place this “king of the hill” playstyle behind them and look at rekindling that teamwide synergy they have long been known for.

Comfort picks have long worked for Liquid when it comes to shifting metas, particularly those in the mid and top lane where the carry potential is high. Picks such as Syndra and Orianna for Jensen or Gnar and Gangplank for Alphari have long brought Liquid success. But this meta offers a lot more variety in champion pools for these players, and it could be the shift Liquid needs to spice up their return to the international stage.

With the stacked talent headed to Worlds this year, Liquid are plagued by their performance in the LCS Championship finals. If they can’t find their footing when the group stage kicks off, they might be sent home before their Worlds journey can even begin.