Second place. That’s where Team Liquid finished following the League Championship Series Mid-Season Showdown this spring and LCS Championship this summer.
Leading up to the LCS Championship final, Team Liquid looked unbeatable with a precise and killer early game centered around Barney “Alphari” Morris’ domination in the top lane. Just as quick as the team rose, though, it fell. 100 Thieves routed Team Liquid 3-0 in the LCS Championship final, devastating Team Liquid and dampening what was a dominant playoff run. Second place is the theme of Team Liquid’s 2021 season, but the League of Legends World Championship is indifferent to domestic success and makes the perfect stage to rise and make a difference.
When Team Liquid lost the Mid-Season Showdown final 2-3 against Cloud9, the team was frustrated. Team Liquid played the entire series without starting jungler Lucas “Santorin” Tao Kilmer Larsen -- who was sidelined by health issues -- and still managed to take the series to five games. Jonathan “Armao” Armao performed well in his stead and his teammates were proud of him, but that didn’t change the fact that Team Liquid was far from full strength.
Photo credit: Riot Games
“When you have a team that practices with you for two-and-a-half months straight and you try to slot in a new piece … it’s amazing how much synergy we had on such short notice ... so I’m still proud of how the team did,” former Team Liquid coach Joshua “Jatt” Leesman said in a postgame press conference.
Team Liquid took pride in their performances, but second place and missing the Mid-Season Invitational meant that the team had to buckle down for summer. Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in remarked that the team just had to “focus on Worlds” after their loss. It’s only natural. Nothing is more important than the world championship, but that doesn’t ease the sting of losing domestically to a rival like Cloud9.
Unfortunately for Team Liquid, the summer season didn’t do the team any favors. Alphari is the star of Team Liquid, but was quickly benched due to motivational issues, causing more issues for the team’s long-term development. Team Liquid struggled to keep up with Cloud9, TSM and 100 Thieves for most of the season, and it wasn’t pretty. Between bot laner Edward “Tactical” Ra slumping and the team dealing with internal drama, it felt as if Team Liquid were destined to fade into the background of the 2021 season.
Toward the end of the season, though, everything changed. Alphari settled back into the starting lineup after Thomas “Jenkins” Tran held down the role for a few weeks and the team was firing on full cylinders for the playoffs. As the fifth seed in the LCS Championship, Team Liquid first shocked Cloud9 with a dominant 3-1 series where Alphari took over the top lane with the aid of his team. Against first seed TSM, another easy 3-1 series win in the same fashion followed. The team was hot and the players were confident.
Photo credit: Riot Games
“I didn't expect anything particularly new from TSM,” Alphari said at the time. “I think they showed the same style and the same weaknesses all year long … and they were a little better in summer.”
Team Liquid committed to their new early game focused identity while the opposition refined year-long strategies, showcasing a level of decisiveness and aggression that most North American teams can only hope to match. More importantly, though, everyone was on the same page. Alphari and Santorin finally had the time to come together in the lineup with CoreJJ often supporting their side lane play in tandem. Team Liquid looked like a shoo-in to take the gold and represent North America as its No. 1 seed.
Once again for Team Liquid, though, it was anything but golden for the team. 100 Thieves easily limited Team Liquid in the early game and stifled Alphari’s carry potential in a swift 3-0 series. All the momentum leaned toward Team Liquid, but 100 Thieves stole it back and then some, devastating the team for a second time this year. 100 Thieves jungler Can “Closer” Celik was at the top of his game, and it was difficult for Team Liquid to ever properly match his pressure.
Santorin wore his heart on his sleeve as he talked to the media following the match, expressing his disappointment in the series.
“I didn't perform well today, and for me … I mean this kind of meant everything for me,” he said. “So I'm still looking forward to Worlds, but my performance today was not something that I want to show at Worlds obviously. So this is a learning step for me, for sure.”
The sentiment was felt throughout Team Liquid as the players hung their heads during the post-final press conference. Everything had come together for Team Liquid at the end of the season, only for the team to fall short in the end. Regardless of the result, though, Team Liquid found a beat that everyone could follow and that will be valuable going into the world championship against fellow Group D teams Gen.G, MAD Lions and LNG Esports.
North American teams often struggle at Worlds because they either fail to keep up individually or abandon the playstyle that got them there. Team Liquid’s approach was one-dimensional and eventually exploited by 100 Thieves, but their late season dedication to the craft of early game snowballing will almost certainly pay off. More importantly, the players are hungry to prove that they’re a first-place-caliber team worthy of international respect.
“I hope I can come back to Worlds and actually prove ourselves as players and as a team,” Santorin said. “Because quite frankly, I didn't show up [in the finals], and that's not something I can let myself down on.”
Team Liquid might have spent the year getting second place, but teams hardly ever level up without experiencing a bit of adversity. North America’s first seed at Worlds hasn’t advanced from the group stage since 2014, and while that may be pure coincidence, it’s hard to learn without taking a loss here and there. If Team Liquid proved anything this year, it’s that the team does not lack for tenacity.
The world championship group stage begins Oct. 11, and Team Liquid will be eager to finally get back into the action. Group D is far from the easiest one, but Team Liquid have key stylistic advantages against both MAD Lions and Gen.G in the early game. Team Liquid have the talent ,and if there’s any time for the roster to experience another meteoric rise -- it’s now.
Lead photo credit: Riot Games