Panic and Parity: Are Team Liquid as bad as they think they are?

Based on the standings, Team Liquid are the worst team in the NA LCS. Their position seems dire, and the stats bear it out: Liquid sport the league’s worst GPR, GSPD, EGR, and dragon control, with just 49.2% lane efficiency to boot.

With four weeks left to play, team management is on the hunt for solutions. Recent moves and public statements exude an aura of desperation, which feels deeper, darker, and more dangerous than the persistent exasperation that has been Liquid’s hallmark for years. The sky, it seems, is falling, but Chicken Little should beware: an overreaction might only serve to tear the hole open wider.

The first signs of change came two weeks ago, when Liquid parted ways with team manager Nick “Swaguhsaurus” Phan after just a seven-month stay.

A change in leadership rarely comes in isolation: with a new manager in place, Liquid are apparently taking advantage of the IEM Katowice break to experiment with their roster. Solo queue behaviour has speculation running rampant, with the wildest theories claiming that Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin may even be moved to mid lane. Public statements from the team have neither confirmed nor denied the rumours, allowing them to grow unabated.

What set of circumstances could possibly prompt a team to consider this kind of mid-season upheaval? Is Team Liquid’s situation really that bad?

A dark and stormy night

There’s no question Team Liquid are having their worst regular season performance in recent memory. They have a variety of problems, as Mark Zimmerman has repeatedly explained on the Blame Game. Greyson “GoldenGlue” Gilmer has been a disappointment in the mid lane, to put it mildly, but there’s plenty of criticism to spread to his teammates. Piglet and Matthew “Matt” Elento have been throwing games during the laning phase: early-game deaths were an issue for the duo right off the bat. More than a month later Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin has made a good adjustment to his pathing to cover the bottom side of the map a bit more diligently, so Piglet’s and Matt’s deaths seem to be coming less often from open ganks and more often from simple 2v2 play. (If you’re trying to decide whether that represents an actual improvement for the team as a whole: no, it doesn’t.)

Reignover’s early pathing adjustments do show some level of self-awareness in recognizing one of the team’s biggest strategic issues, but that fix should have taken a week to implement, not a month. Meanwhile, Reignover has failed to improve at all on his use of meta-dominating melee assassins like Kha’zix and Rengar. It’s one thing to say that Reignover is naturally more comfortable on control junglers; it’s another to put in 15 games on Kha’zix and Rengar over five weeks and still find yourself leaping into fights at the wrong moments and throwing away deaths.

More than enough time has passed for Team Liquid’s extensive coaching staff to identify and address their core issues. For unknown reasons, it hasn’t been happening. Hence the change in manager; hence the direct intervention of CEO Steve “Liquid112” Arhancet; hence the panic.

As usual, though, panicking right now could do much more harm than good.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — and also relegation

Tenth place seems like a terrifying specter, but if Team Liquid want to find the right solutions to their problems, they need to ask themselves what they truly fear. Obviously the real threat is not a tenth-place finish, but relegation.

Before Team Liquid undertake drastic changes, they need to ask themselves how threatened they feel by eUnited, Big Gods Jackals, Tempo Storm, and Gold Coin United. If those teams frighten Liquid, then yes, they should look at every possible option to climb into eighth place or better and avoid the Promotion Tournament.

I’m not convinced the threat from below is that significant, but let’s assume Team Liquid disagrees with me. Or if we really want to raise the stakes, we could create an extra level of tension, perhaps imagining some set of impending consequences if Team Liquid fail to reach the playoffs. (For the coaching staff and the players, those consequences may be more than theoretical, so this isn’t really a stretch.) The question, then, becomes how much risk is appropriate to give the team a chance to climb towards their goals.

To elaborate: any change to a team’s roster will come with some risk of failure. Changing the roster means you’re hitting reset on some of the communication structures and strategic groundwork that had been laid to date. Even if the roster change comes with a skill upgrade that increases the ceiling of what the team might be able to accomplish, there’s a chance the team will be worse off in the short term while the players get used to the new arrangement.

If they think they have nothing to lose, a team at the bottom of the standings should feel free to take risks. Either the change works and they improve, or it doesn’t and they try something different in the offseason. However, Team Liquid do have something to lose: they need to weigh the potential gains from a mid-season roster change against the risk of making themselves more vulnerable to relegation or other consequences.

The final missing piece in weighing those risks and rewards is to identify the expected outcome of sticking with the current roster. How likely are Team Liquid to climb into eighth place or better if they stick to their guns with Goldenglue in mid lane and the Piglet/Matt duo?

To ask the question from another angle: are Team Liquid really as bad as they seem to think they are?

The problem of parity

Team Liquid may be tied for tenth, but tenth place in the NA LCS isn’t what it used to be. Parity has come to North America: the gap in strength between the best and worst teams in the league is far narrower than it was throughout 2016 or earlier.

Compare the spread in strength this split to what we were seeing five weeks into the past three splits:

Best and Worst Game Win Percentages Following Week 5

Position 2017 Spring 2016 Summer 2016 Spring 2015 Summer
1 68% 87% 100% 80%
2 65% 79% 70% 70%
9 35% 22% 30% 30%
10 24% 21% 10% 10%

Note that 2016 spring and 2015 summer were played in best-of-one format.

For what it’s worth, bear in mind that Team Liquid are in the ninth-place slot for spring 2017, with a 9-17 game record that looks far better than EnVyUs’s 5-16.

Consider the separation between Cloud9 and Team Liquid, who played to a 2-1 result in week four. Can you imagine summer 2016 Team SoloMid looking that vulnerable against Echo Fox or NRG Esports, or the spring 2016 Immortals stacking up that evenly against Procxin’s Team Impulse or KiWiKiD’s Dignitas?

The rosters of Team Liquid and EnVyUs in spring 2017 are incredibly different from those previous basement-dwellers. Every single North American team this split boasts star players and “upset” potential against the league leaders. We’ve known since the offseason that we’d be seeing this kind of parity; we just didn’t realize that even the weakest perceived rosters—like FlyQuest and Echo Fox—would be able to keep pace this well.

Before anyone jumps on this claim as evidence of pro-NA bias, I’m not necessarily claiming that North America has become a stronger region internationally. The point is that the distance between first and tenth is shorter than in the past, both because the “worst” teams are better than they once were and because the “best” teams have more distinct weaknesses than we’ve seen in the past.

Parity brings the potential for any team, even Team Liquid, to make a few key fixes and go on a winning streak. Liquid have taken single games in five of their eight series losses, including their series against Cloud9, TSM, and FlyQuest. In week six they’re up against the Immortals and Echo Fox; in week seven they face Cloud9 and EnVyUs. Trim away one early-game throw from each of Team Liquid’s matches, and a 3-1 record in these upcoming series certainly doesn’t seem out of reach.

There are many weaknesses in Team Liquid’s play, but there are also some strengths. Samson “Lourlo” Jackson has been better than expected (most of the time), an above-average top laner and the most consistent member of the team, even though the early-season “year of Lourlo” memes were obviously narrative-driven hyperbole. Reignover’s Graves has been pretty good, and his early pathing still shows his intelligence and ability to win head-to-head jungle matchups if his lanes can be at all self-sufficient. Piglet has had games where he shows what he’s capable of when he doesn’t give his opponent a head start with an early kill. On top of all that, the meta may finally be shifting away from its narrow focus on utility AD carries and melee assassin junglers, which has hampered Team Liquid so badly thus far.

Every non-playoff team in North America should recognize the opportunity they have to find success in the home stretch with a few well-placed adjustments. There is no team right now, whether Team Liquid, EnVyUs, Dignitas, or Echo Fox, that is incapable of earning a playoff spot.

Two weeks from now we may be telling a different story, and naturally the March 7 roster lock means time is short if Team Liquid are set on making a change, but this is not the right climate for Team Liquid to adopt a “go big or go home” mentality with ridiculous moves like switching Piglet into the mid lane. If “big” means a playoff spot, it’s not that far out of reach with the current roster, especially when weighed against the risk of blowing things up and going home in relegation.

Parity is creating one of the most exciting, dynamic regular seasons the NA LCS has ever seen, but it’s also distorting the reality of Team Liquid’s current position. In the famous words of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/lolesports

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