Liquid Rivalries: League of Legends

August 15 2020

The Yankees. The Lakers. The Patriots. The Red Wings. FC Barcelona. These are all legacy teams.

At this point, they’re known for being known. Even people with next to no knowledge about the game have heard these names. And if you do know the game, you probably love some of these teams for elevating it and also hate them for dominating it.

Any fan from the Curse days can probably remember how frustrating it was to be a step behind TSM so often. Then, when TSM was finally slipping up, it was how it felt to be a step behind Cloud9. When a team becomes dominant for long enough, they form an era. There’s a pocket of time where they become the benchmark for the region and how well you play them is how far your team can go.

For four straight splits, we were that team for the LCS. We managed the LCS’s only fourpeat, the longest winning run in NA’s history. But we aren’t the only team to have made history in the LCS.

TSM has more top four finishes and more trophies than any other team in the League. Cloud 9 has only won the three LCS trophies but they’ve never missed Worlds and they’re regularly NA’s last hope abroad. TSM, Cloud9, CLG, and Team Liquid - these four teams have all won so much that they’ve become the benchmark for NA at different points in time.

TSM, Cloud9, and Team Liquid have stayed competitively close to the top for long enough that they’ve been NA’s gold standards for years in a row. To understand this fully, TSM, Cloud 9, and Team Liquid (including the Curse days) have had more top four finishes than any other team.

Combined, they have 23 top 4 finishes in the LCS playoffs between them.

TSM has 13 while Cloud 9 and Team Liquid (and Curse) have 10. The next highest team, Counter Logic Gaming, has five. If you combine every team that’s ever been in the LCS, they have 25 top four finishes between them.

TSM, Cloud 9, and Team Liquid. These three teams are NA’s biggest. They are the region’s legacy for at least a few years to come. But the next few splits will matter all the more.

If one of these teams can win the next few splits, they become more than a legacy team. They become THE legacy team.

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The Difficulty of Legacy

Becoming the legacy team in any region is one of the biggest feats in competition. Of the major regions, only SK Telecom and Flash Wolves have managed it. In Europe, Fnatic and G2 are neck and neck. In the LPL, a new king comes to the throne every year.

To even have the opportunity at legacy, a team needs to win a lot and win consistently. To become the main legacy team, they need to hold that legacy. The team needs to have insanely durable relevance. They cannot fall out of contention for decades at a time - as the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Detroit Pistons have done.

In the world of competition, League is a new kid on the block. We can’t measure in decades because we’ve barely had one. Instead, we see in terms of splits and seasons, which is all the more punishing. Fall into the bottom for a few splits, like CLG in 2018, and it’s not about growing the legacy, it’s about retrieving it again.

As a League team, we lost our legacy in 2017. We faced relegations twice. We became better known for our Breaking Points than our team. At that point, a 4th place finish would’ve been a blessing, not a curse.

In 2018, we rebounded harder than almost any team in League history and won 4 splits in a row. Internationally, we played under expectation at one MSI and two Worlds but we scored one of the biggest upsets NA had ever seen by beating knocking iG out of MSI. To get that legacy, we had to make history.

If we so much as fall out of playoffs in the next split, we lose hold of it.

This is the difficulty of legacy, especially in a young esport. There isn’t much room for failure and there’s a big need for even bigger successes.

For TSM, Cloud 9, and Team Liquid, this is all the more true for this split.

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High Stakes Summer

For five years straight, Cloud9 has always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. Cloud 9 made finals seven times since the Summer split of 2014. They’ve won just once, just this last split.

The caveat is, they dominated. Cloud 9 took only two losses in all off Spring 2020 - one in the regular season and one in playoffs. 26 wins. 2 losses. It’s the best whole-split performance in LCS history but it comes at the worst time. Just when C9 looked better than they ever had, they couldn’t show it at MSI.

COVID-19 canceled the event and raised a big question: Is C9 really that great, or is NA really that bad? They’re not mutually exclusive but logically, it takes good competition to breed a good team and without an international tournament it’s hard to know how C9 really stacks up.

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Coming into Summer, C9 stands taller than TSM and TL. It puts them closer to legacy than either team but their heights - and the context of how they got there - means they could fall a long way. Even landing second or third this summer devalues so much of this spring.

COVID, Team Liquid’s collapse, one of NA’s worst season as a league, it goes to make a dominant season less impressive - but only if C9 can’t keep that domination up. If they run the whole thing back, no one could say a word.

At the beginning of 2018, a League fan with the tag of Poro Satan called into a popular League of Legends podcast and predicted TSM wouldn’t make finals the entire year. At the time, this was an insane prediction as the team acquired Zven and Mithy, frequently called the best bot lane in the west. It was insane but correct.

TSM was a stone’s throw away from mediocrity in 2018. That year, they didn’t make it to the Finals. In the last two splits, they didn’t get past fourth. In the last two years, they haven’t made it to Worlds or MSI. They’ve had notable strong performances and very close calls but they aren’t the team they used to be.

If you asked the average fan about TSM’s recent history, you’d hear more about their drama than their playstyle or performance. The black and white uniform doesn’t carry the same dread it used to. It doesn’t carry the screaming fans or the star players or the threat of NA’s best.

But now, TSM has the chance to get all of that back. 2018 went downhill with Doublelift and Biofrost’s exit and both are returning for 2020. It’s a potential redemption story not just for the team but the players. Bjergsen, the once uncontested best mid laner in NA, has a chance to climb back to the top. And Doublelift has the chance to write off the worst split in his career as a fluke. The team itself has a chance to prove that the drama is fleeting and the immense pressure of the TSM brand isn’t the morale-killer that it seems to be.

Of all the teams, we have the most to prove and to lose. If we fall from playoffs again, we repeat 2017 and our 4 split run becomes a bygone era. We become another team carried and then brought low by the best ADC in NA. Our legacy becomes less defined by the team and the organizations and more by the burning star in bot lane.

The steep fall makes the potential climb even more rewarding. Winning the split would cement Team Liquid as the best in the current era of NA. It would prove the strength of the team without two huge North American talents - Doublelift and Xmithie. And it would pave the way for the potential rise of two huge homegrown heroes: Tactical and Jatt.

For NA’s three legacy teams, this is a very high stakes summer. Each team has a lot to prove and a lot to lose and each team does it at the expense of the other. There can only be a lot of bests over time, but there can be only one best of all time.

The Rivalry with Three Sides

To make it clear, the LCS has other threats. Flyquest outperformed two of three legacy teams and Golden Guardians looked very strong as well. Obviously, you can’t discount Golden Guardians after a fresh 3-0 over TSM. However, these teams lack the history to be our rivals, or the rivals of C9 and TSM, in as deep a way. They can begin their quest towards legacy but they can’t claim it just yet.

Even with new guards coming up in NA, the rivalry is more three-sided than ever. Most of the old teams that troubled us as far as the Curse days have disappeared or fallen off. The LMQ that locked us out of worlds is gone. The CLG that double-teleported and nearly tilted our team off the face of the LCS was the clear worst team last and this split too. Similarly, the Clutch Gaming that had TSM’s number now has a new name, new org, and new team.

Since the start of 2018, Cloud 9, TSM, and Team Liquid all take turns denying each other. We’ve denied TSM in one final and C9 in two more. TSM and C9 have both denied each other in a semifinal each. In this last split, Cloud 9 might have sealed the fate of our split and roster by defeating us in our very last regular season game.

It’s a rivalry born from necessity. These three teams make the top four so often that one almost always eliminates another. The necessity and the legacy makes every match rife for a grudge.

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Doublelift sought to brutalize TSM for replacing him when he joined us. In TSM’s hot split, Reginald brought the heat on the franchise with a huge $100,000 bet between owners. Meanwhile, the twitter antics between C9 and us go on non-stop.

This rivalry has history as well as legacy. TSM, C9, TL, each team has had the time to rotate players and each team has swapped stars from the other. Each team has won and lost trades with each other. Each team has won and lost massive matches to one another. Each team defines themselves on their performance and interactions with each other and each team can only reach the highest views by climbing over the other.

This has become especially true stylistically, where each of the big three now have their own distinct carries and gameplans. We work through vision, make plays through CoreJJ and Jensen, and excel through a clean late game. Our mid game is notably poor but usually the team finds a way. However, some holes are too deep to climb out of and our players have a bad habit of putting themselves in worse situations.

Cloud 9 runs everything through their new superstar jungler and the mid laner that supports him perfectly. Their early game is sharp and they’ve run over every LCS team this split. But the meta has turned against them recently and unlike Team Liquid or TSM, they haven’t shown they can counterpunch. It’s a hard KO or bust.

TSM relies on Bjergsen to crack open the map. Given a lead, either Broken Blade or Doublelift can tear a game open - and Bjergsen is maybe the best player in NA when it comes to finding his team a lead. Given a deficit, both players can fall apart. If a team can stifle Bjergsen and counter his roams - as PowerOfEvil so often does - then TSM flounders. Treatz and Spica aren’t veterans who know how to crack open a map, Broken Blade’s engages have often been suicidal, and Doublelift is still ultimately in the most team-reliant role.

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With their absolutely rough loss to Golden Guardians, they’re easily in the worst position of the big 3 legacy teams. However, it’s worth remembering that this is still a TSM with Doublelift and in Bjergsen. If there’s any team that can bounce back and mount the LCS’s first ever massive Losers Bracket run, then it’s TSM. They may just need to, unless they want to be in the same breath as CLG instead of C9.

To be NA’s legacy, these teams need to counter and outperform each other. The three rivalry that results is one of the best in esports. It’s one that generates the most intense best of fives, the wildest trades, and the deepest storylines in the LCS. It’s one which carries heavy competition but also heavy camaraderie. One where players from each team have deep bonds with one another, where people in each organization have helped each other out, and where all three teams have the same, driving goal of putting NA on the map.

But only one team gets to be the region’s legacy. And their argument needs to start right here, right now.

Writer // Austin Ryan

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