By the end of the 2019 summer split, Team Liquid had amassed one of the most impressive collections of hardware in League of Legends Championship Series history, including four consecutive championships.
The outlook only got better in the offseason, with Team Liquid signing Fnatic's all-star jungler and world finalist Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen to replace Jake "Xmithie" Puchero. This year's spring split looked all but wrapped up for Team Liquid, with their main rival Cloud9 losing two veteran players (Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen and Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam) to the newly formed Evil Geniuses and their all-star AD carry Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi to retirement.
But the fifth consecutive championship never came. Team Liquid ended the spring split in ninth place, failing to make playoffs for the first time in more than two years. Of course, there were personnel issues that made life difficult for Team Liquid, like Broxah’s late arrival and Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng getting benched for Edward "Tactical" Ra. But Team Liquid fans and players agree, this season was a disappointment and a wake-up call.
So how did the best team in North America manage to fall so far after adding one of the best junglers in the world? The answer is a little more complicated than you might expect.
Enter Shernfire: The Beginning of the End for Team Liquid
Team Liquid announced the signing of Broxah during the third week of November, which gave them approximately nine weeks to get Broxah to the United States before the start of the season. After external complications, though, he wouldn’t receive a decision about his visa until early February.
That left Team Liquid without a solidified jungler and left them only two realistic options. The first was to bring up academy jungler Shern "Shernfire" Tai, who had his own series of problems with toxicity and in-game behavior that resulted in a two game suspension at the 2018 World Championship. The second was to transition their former mid laner and positional coach Eugene "Pobelter" Park into the jungle to fill the vacancy.
Although Pobelter had played with Team Liquid's LCS roster for longer in scrims and in matches onstage, the starting spot was ultimately given to Shernfire. When asked about the decision in an interview before the team’s first game of the split, coach Kang "Dodo" Jun-hyeok said that it was Shernfire's play in scrims that impressed him and the other coaches and earned him the starting spot.
Unfortunately for Liquid, Shernfire's play onstage was anything but impressive. In the six games Shernfire started, he was consistently behind in gold, experience, and CS at 15 minutes while playing champions like Lee Sin, who needed to snowball early to be effective. Team Liquid ended Week 3 in a three-way tie for seventh place with a 2-4 record.
To be fair, not all the blame can be put on Shernfire. One of those losses was to Cloud9, who would end the season with a 17-1 record. In fact, Team Liquid made Shernfire’s job even more difficult by picking him champions who were too reliant on early pressure or were off-theme with the rest of the team composition.
By contrast, in the two games Team Liquid won, Shernfire's Jarvan IV was paired with a composition that could follow up his initiation with Orianna, Ornn, and Aphelios.
The errors in the draft phase from Team Liquid put Shernfire in an awkward spot and put the team behind before the match even started.
Broxah's Back: The Recovery That Never Quite Happened
Broxah's visa was approved and he finally made his long-awaited LCS debut against Immortals in Week 4. In his first game in the LCS, Broxah was able to get the champion that helped establish his reputation as a top-tier jungler, Lee Sin. But, it would result in his first LCS loss and Team Liquid's third straight.
The game demonstrated the problem that would haunt Team Liquid throughout the rest of the split: poor drafting. In the draft against Immortals, Team Liquid opted to pick Lee Sin with their fourth pick on blue side into Xmithie's Sejuani with Trundle still available and an enemy team with an Ezreal, Gangplank, and later a Cassiopeia. Into a scaling enemy team composition and paired with a scaling team composition of his own, Broxah's Lee Sin became a non-factor before 20 minutes had elapsed. Leaving his team in what was effectively a 4-v-5 game.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Broxah, or any other player on Team Liquid, are bad. While there were certainly individual mistakes and problems with the items some of the players built, like Doublelift not flashing a max range Nautilus hook in a skirmish around Baron Nashor or Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen not building an Ornn upgradable item the entire game, Liquid lost the game in the draft.
It wouldn't be until Broxah played Sejuani against the worst team in the LCS, Counter Logic Gaming, that he'd pick up his first win in a 24-minute stomp. Broxah was more active in the early game than he had been on Lee Sin and had an incredible impact in the mid game with the lead his bot lane and top lane were able to get. Those leads, combined with a strong and easy to execute team composition, made Liquid look the championship team they were built to be.
The success didn't last. They'd finish out the rest of the season with a 4-6 record, beating two eventual playoff teams, 100 Thieves and Team SoloMid, while dropping one game to the eventual last place team, Counter Logic Gaming. They ended the season in ninth place, a dismal finish for a team projected to contend for a fifth consecutive championship.
The Team Liquid 2020 Spring Split Roster was Built to Fail
Why was this Team Liquid roster unable to do what arguably a much worse roster was able to two years ago?
The most prominent issue for Team Liquid was their unwillingness to draft team compositions centered around their strong bot lane and late game team-fighting prowess. In their losses to Dignitas and 100 Thieves with Shernfire, Team Liquid opted to draft Lee Sin with either Sejuani or Gragas, both stronger late game junglers, available.
Once Broxah was added to the mix, Team Liquid's draft woes got slightly better. When Team Liquid picked strong late game junglers, like Sejuani and Gtagas, they had a perfect 4-0 record. But far too often, Liquid opted into picking early game junglers with team compositions that prefer to scale into the late game. In their loss to Counter Logic Gaming, Team Liquid paired Lee Sin with Ornn, Viktor, and Miss Fortune, three champions that generally prefer to wait until three items before starting a team fight.
This consistent failure to draft cohesive team compositions may point to an issue Doublelift recently exposed within Team Liquid: the lack of a single definitive voice to unify the team. On his stream, Doublelift claimed that the team had moved from a singular shot-caller to a more consensus-based approach saying, "I definitely want to be the main shot caller again, but I'm not allowed... we are moving forward with a different strategy."
As Doublelift further explained, "If you don't know what the plan is, you're never going to make a proactive play when an opportunity comes up, that's why we play so passively... Our team is just not on the same page." That lack of communication could explain a lot of the in-game mistakes from the team and the general hesitation around any major objective.
What can Team Liquid do to Turn Things Around Before it's too Late?
The problems facing Team Liquid are not unique and assuming they work proactively to fix their communication and drafting, they should be able to recover in time for the summer split.
Fixing the communication problem is as simple as reinstituting one main shot caller, whoever the team decides that is. It could be any of the players on Team Liquid, but a unified voice is necessary for Team Liquid to return to its previous glory. Of course, there are always going to be differences when a new player enters the mix, especially when that new player is the jungler. It also didn't help that Broxah's visa got delayed. While that may excuse some of the timidity surrounding the team's play during the spring split, there are serious underlying issues that need to be addressed.
Broxah was a mid lane focused jungler during his time with Fnatic, who thrived off of the play from their all-star mid laner Rasmus "Caps" Borregaard. Fnatic was often willing to leave their AD carry, Martin "Rekkles" Larsson, alone in bot lane to fend for himself in order to let their support roam and get their mid laner ahead. In Team Liquid, the dynamic is exactly the opposite. Team Liquid relies on strong play from their bot and top lane to get ahead early and Jensen is not nearly as aggressive in the early game as Caps, or even other LCS mid laners.
Something has to give. Either Broxah has to adapt to a bot lane focused playstyle or Jensen and the rest of Team Liquid have to adapt to a mid lane focused draft and strategy. Finding a way to remedy that fundamental difference in how each player sees the game is crucial to fixing the issues Team Liquid has before the start of the summer split.
Team Liquid should also keep Doublelift and CoreJJ. The bot lane for Team Liquid was hardly the issue with the team's lack of success. Even though there were certainly times where both Doublelift and CoreJJ could have played better, they still showed their capability as duo. Doublelift averaged the highest CS per minute average of any player in the LCS at 10.1 and third highest gold per minute average at 433. Getting rid of arguably one of the best domestic AD carries would only serve to throw the team further into chaos rather than unite them.
For now, Team Liquid should not be looking to make any major roster moves before the start of the summer split. The solution to their problems lies in uniting their overall view of the game and letting that effect the way they draft and play out each game going forward. Of course, any issues with player motivation or health should be adequately addressed. But a large scale shake-up is only going to make the process of adapting and communicating properly that much more difficult.
The road ahead is going to be difficult for Team Liquid, there's no doubt about it. But with time, effort, and sacrifice, Team Liquid can return to their previous form and become a dominant force in the LCS. Their star-studded roster and collective experience won't go to waste unless there's an unwillingness to change. For Team Liquid, now is the time to adapt or die. There's no championship streak at risk and nothing left to lose. Either make the changes needed to succeed or prepare to watch those who do from home.