Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How to Outperform a Super Team

Written by:
Kelsey Moser
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Escrito por:
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Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How to Outperform a Super Team

Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Written by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Edited by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Graphic design by:
Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How to Outperform a Super Team

Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Written by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Edited by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Graphic design by:

If you ask a lot of North American League of Legends fans, NA teams don't fix their problems; General Managers just change the roster to find brand new ones.

The discourse around Team Liquid, a team that spent most of Spring hovering between third and fifth, was no different. Fan, pundit, and opponent ire quickly zeroed in on the least experienced players: Sean “Yeon” Sung and Eian “APA” Stearns.

“When it comes to raw fire power from players like APA and Yeon, they just don’t have it,” FlyQuest top laner Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau said on Hotline League on March 26th, just a week before losing to Team Liquid in the Grand Final on March 31st.

Yet to the chagrin of pundits rattling off lists of prospective replacements for the mid and AD Carry, Team Liquid’s roster of Jeong "Impact" Eon-young, Eom "UmTi" Seong-hyeon, APA, Yeon, and Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in lifted the organization’s first LCS Championship trophy in almost five years. And best of all, Team Liquid didn’t win because of the overperformance of a star or someone dragging the rest of the team over the line. They improved as a team, rising as a giant swell to wash over the opposition.

The Most Boring Team in the League

“I remember,” commentator and former Team Liquid Head Coach Joshua “Jatt” Leesman recounted at the start of the LCS Grand Final, “in the first three weeks, many of us were calling [Team Liquid] the most boring team in the league. That’s not the case anymore.”

If you’ve paid attention to any commentary surrounding TL’s transformation between Spring Regular Season and Playoffs, the word that comes up most frequently is “aggression.” Analysts and spectators found regular season TL boring because they spent so little time in the game actually fighting against enemy champions, preferring to rotate around the map slowly and take uncontested objectives. In playoffs, they transformed almost instantly, dropping all pretext and dragging FlyQuest into an Upper Bracket slog now dubbed “the bloodiest series in Playoffs history.”

Statistically, Spring Regular Season TL had the lowest Combined Kills Per Minute (or kills secured by them or their opponents) of any team in the LCS at .64. In Playoffs, they averaged 1.01, the only team to average over one kill or death per minute of in game time. That’s almost double the amount of kills that happened in TL games between regular season and Playoffs.

Credit: LCS Broadcast

Based on mis-executed teamfights, many speculated Team Liquid made choices and rotations specifically to avoid skirmishes where they might lose out. If their carries could not mechanically outmaneuver their opponents, they should avoid fights as much as possible.

A great example comes from Team Liquid’s first Round Robin match against Cloud9. With Impact’s Udyr creating a great deal of pressure top and Yeon and CoreJJ playing a more skill-based matchup of Aphelios Lulu vs Lucian Nami, Team Liquid opted to use Cloud9 Philippe "VULCAN" Laflamme’s base timer at five minutes and 36 seconds to swap lane assignments between bot and top.

Yeon and CoreJJ went top for one wave, and Impact went bottom for one wave. Both bot lanes got a free wave of farm, but because TL remained ahead on the rotation, they secured the first dragon of the game without bloodshed.

UmTi had Lee Sin to Robert “Blaber” Huang’s Lillia with camps coming up on top side, APA based with enough gold to buy Lost Chapter and keep priority on mid lane, CoreJJ’s Lulu could have neutralized some threat from C9’s skirmish with Polymorph. With potential tempo and number’s advantage, TL could have tried to bait C9’s bot lane into a skirmish instead and gone for a more explosive advantage.

Decisions like these earned TL the “boring” descriptor even while commentators praised the team’s macro understanding. 

Crisp, bloodless rotations became a calling card of Team Liquid in the regular season. TL played the map more cohesively and impressively relative to Cloud9 who seemed to overwhelm opponents in laning phase and lose their way in the mid game.

Team Liquid often played for the first dragon of the game so they had the option of avoiding fights and delaying a potential soul fight. Team Liquid tied with NRG for highest percentage of first dragons taken at 64% in regular season, but were only tied for fifth for percentage of second dragons taken at 42%, and sixth for securing the third dragon of the game.

Some of this comes from falling behind in gold as the game went on, but since TL went back to first in dragon control for fourth drake spawn, that doesn’t tell the entire story. Prioritizing first dragon allowed Team Liquid to give second and third dragons if they could trade for a turret or grubs. They made trade plays for structures and avoided pivotal fights that could swing the game one way or the other. 

While Team Liquid impressed by using champions like Udyr and Tristana to rotate around the map and take structures instead of fighting, these map movements didn’t consistently translate to gold leads large enough to carry fights. TL could not escape the allegations that, when teamfights rolled around, they found themselves in losing positions through mechanical misplays.

They played like a team, but it wasn’t netting them enough victories.

Contrary to this narrative, when Team Liquid were ahead at 15 minutes in the regular season, they won the game without exception. While Team Liquid averaged a -240 gold differential at 15 minutes in their 14 regular season matches, they had a 100% win rate in games where they did have a gold lead at 15 minutes. TL didn’t throw advantages in mis-executed fights, they just didn’t reliably secure advantages.

The New Blueprint

Most have heard the legends of 2023 Scrim Team Liquid. 2023 Scrim Team Liquid did not lose bot lane. If Team Liquid needed early game snowballs and leads, unlocking the potential of their massively punishing duo of Yeon and CoreJJ seemed like a way forward.

For their opening match of 2024, Team Liquid drafted a Jhin Ashe bottom lane, and though that game did not end in a victory, it left hints for where the team’s identity would head. In Playoffs, champion pick priority swung. 

Yes, patch changes contributed to changes in draft. But a focus on bot lane and a change in mid lane champion priority coupled with an Azir global ban made TL’s much criticized mid and bot carries the keys to turning the tides of their season.

As you can see, two of APA’s top three most played champions swung from Azir and Tristana to Taliyah and Ahri. Taliyah first started seeing play as an answer to Azir creating opportunities in side lanes and more skirmishes around the map while the mage champion focused on laning and scaling. After Azir’s global ban, she remained oppressive. With minion dematerializer, Ahri also uses level 6 timings to make side lane plays in a similar fashion, and her kit provides a lot of raw power and utility for early dragon fights.

In the bottom lane, Yeon’s most played champion became Varus when he didn’t play the pick at all in regular season. Varus provided the lane pressure and push needed for junglers to play around bot lane. 

In Playoffs, Team Liquid started using timers from jungle and mid lane to pressure bottom lane, which let the strong laning skills of Yeon and CoreJJ to properly shine. Yeon went from an average of 2 gold differential at 15 minutes in playoffs to 399 with Team Liquid’s shift in pick priorities and jungle focus. In Playoffs, Team Liquid only lost Game 2 when FlyQuest selected Kalista and Nautilus, and FlyQuest jungler Kacper "Inspired" Słoma put more pressure on bottom lane 2v2s.

Even in Game 1 when Yeon and CoreJJ played the scaling duo of Smolder and Tahm Kench, APA and UmTi still hovered bottom side frequently and played for dragon stacking and for Yeon and CoreJJ to get a lead in the 2v2. APA leaned bot when he looked for recalls to scare opponents from contesting the wave, and UmTi picked Volibear and used repeated opportunities to look for bot dives.

Team Liquid then used these advantages to continue to play for dragons and stack them more purposefully. In Playoffs, Team Liquid had the highest dragon control, not just on first dragon, but on second and third as well. If you watch the games, Team Liquid did not rotate away from dragons to trade for grubs or a top play. Instead, they used mid control and bot push to play for very fast fights with numbers advantages.

APA used Taliyah ult or lane priority to give Team Liquid a numbers advantage in skirmishes and guarantee a winning fight. Even with APA playing Aurelion Sol, Team Liquid waited for moments where Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen had to base and for APA to have opportunities to join the fight faster.

The crucial difference here came from the thought process of TL. They played like a team confident in their bottom lane’s ability to pressure and punish through 2v2 and used jungle and mid push to make fights around bottom lane more likely. That way, Yeon and CoreJJ didn’t just rely on isolated 2v2 prowess, but constantly had windows where the enemy bottom lane had to play scared and could not trade back because of mid lane and jungle.

Of course, no opponents will allow a mid and jungle to control bottom side without a trade. In many instances in LCS Playoffs, with TL choosing more bot side focused drafts, opponents attempted to secure a lead in top lane. Bwipo chose a signature Gangplank into Twisted Fate and Olaf against K’Sante. Even with less jungle proximity than he received in regular season, Impact still absorbed pressure in disadvantageous matchups.

Part of that strategy in draft came from still prioritizing counterpick top in many instances. Blue side won’t always have counterpick for top lane, but Impact still had counterpick in 75% of playoff games, and when he had an advantage in lane, he, too, would look for flank angles with Teleport to create numbers advantages and early leads. In some cases, he gave up farm for a Teleport at a dragon fight that would guarantee a lead for his bottom lane.

Throughout his career, Impact boasts an impressive reputation for absorbing a great deal of top lane gank pressure from opponents. Having a top laner like Impact made Team Liquid’s shift to focusing on bottom side skirmishes entirely possible. 

All of these factors contributed to Team Liquid having a much more aggressive early game. While the broadcast rightly identified TL’s increased aggression with Combined Kills Per Minute, the fact that much of that came in the early game begs highlighting. TL’s overall CKPM between Playoffs and Regular Season increased by 57.41% of the original number. TL’s CKPM in the first 14 minutes of the game went from .36 to .62: increasing by a factor of 71.95% of the original number, making their early games significantly more aggressive.

Playoffs Team Liquid still used base timers and tempo advantages to stay ahead on the map, but instead, they used map play to create more opportunities to fight. When they could rotate away from a dragon for a free set of grubs or turret gold, they instead chose to allocate Teleports and global ultimates to skirmish. Dragons became a means to engage in more skirmishes rather than an objective to secure for the sake of it, highlighting a complete transformation in how the team approached the game.

Maintaining the Lead

Of course, Team Liquid did not keep a perfect 100% win rate with a gold lead at 15 minutes; it dropped to 90.9% in Playoffs. More volatility necessarily creates a higher risk-reward game state. But it overall increased TL’s win rate because they came into mid game with a comfortable gold buffer.

Contrary to expectation, TL didn’t then use their lead to take every fight available throughout the rest of the game. Instead, they maintained the same approach to the map they used in the early game. TL picked compositions featuring the likes of Taliyah and Twisted Fate to constantly redirect their opponents via pressure across the map and require them to opt into fights where Team Liquid had numbers or terrain advantage. Leads meant TL won side lanes, and winning side lanes meant rotating to dragons first to get picks and secure neutral objectives.

Fundamentally, Playoffs Team Liquid still didn’t often opt into fights they could lose. Even numbered fights where they don’t have terrain control almost never happen in Team Liquid games, and if they do, they can often lose.

But maintaining these map rotations and taking fights with numbers fits comfortably into APA’s and Yeon’s strengths. With Yeon and CoreJJ unlocking some of their laning potential from scrims, they allow CoreJJ to roam the map more quickly. Shifting from side waves to look for ganks and picks fits firmly with APA’s original style of play on old school Aurelion Sol.

Arguably, having clear strengths and weaknesses made it easier for Team Liquid to find a way forward. Throughout the history of competition, contenders tend to specialize like this. Rather than having no flaws at all, most successful teams have a mix of advantages and disadvantages. 

In retrospect, Team Liquid’s players fit together perfectly. What goes better with an aggressive jungler with a knack for invading than a bot lane that focuses more on laning than team fighting? Impact has spent his career comfortable in the 1v2 against opponent junglers and top laners, so of course he has done best on teams that play around his AD carry. APA’s years of playing the likes of Aurelion Sol, Kled, Taliyah, and Ziggs always made it easier to create lopsided skirmishes rather than even 5v5s.

Winning the 2024 Summer Final certainly vindicated the less experienced members of Team Liquid. They spent most of the split bearing the ire of fans and doing their best to block out the names pundits rattled off as their potential replacements. Both Yeon and APA addressed the strides they made and the effort it took to improve following their win, acknowledging the teammates who helped them.

“At the start,” Yeon said upon receiving the Spring trophy, “I was really not that great. I was definitely misplaying a lot... I would definitely say Core helped me every time. I'm really appreciative of Core and Spawn as well and Team Liquid for believing in me.”

But in many ways, all of Team Liquid overcame their flaws and found a way to play as the best team in North America – not the best group of five players. TL’s players all had to find ways to make their strengths cover for each other’s flaws and balance a playstyle that unquestionably suits them, but also took months to concoct. 

Constant roster changes have conditioned the North American LoL fan to believe that players don’t improve, and teams don’t develop new strategies. When Team Liquid fans called for roster overhauls in early Spring, one could not blame them. While TL’s transformation and the reasoning behind it seems obvious to us now, it had to start with ripples of map rotations and constant re-evaluation of priorities in late night conversations and heated arguments.

When asked to summarize Team Liquid’s triumph as they lifted the trophy for the first time in four years, Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen on the LCS broadcast said it simply.

“Teamwork gets the job done.”

In a Spring split where Cloud9, one of the most exciting star-studded rosters in LCS history, fell unceremoniously and without a clear identity, those words almost sound like magic.

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