Building to New Heights: Steve's State of NA

November 30 2020

2017 was a huge year for Team Liquid. As an organization, we didn’t just dodge relegations twice, we also submitted our application to become a franchised partner in the LCS.

And honestly, League was only a part of what made that year huge.

The day we survived relegations, we were also hours apart from winning the biggest esports tournament in the world. I was at the LCS studio for relegations — but I was also watching The International from my phone. We were crawling back from the lower bracket to win the whole thing probably an hour and a half after we won relegations.

The amount of changes we had to make to win relegations — who we moved around, getting Cain, getting Doublelift! It was insanity! Relegations felt like the human race was in peril and we had to find a way — and so we found that way! And then to win the biggest esports event on top of that…

That moment was special. I was proud of not just the League team but the organization as a whole.

We’ve come so, so far since then, going from roughly five to six esports and 30 employees all the way to 17 games and some 160 people; going from not making Worlds and the 4th place curse to reaching the MSI finals; from two relegations in a row to back to back to back to back championships!

It’s insane to think about and so freaking awesome because everybody from the players, the coaches, the analysts, the support staff… We all worked hard to make winning a part of our identity.

So, weird as it is to say, in 2020 when we had our third 3-3 performance exit in the group stage, I didn’t feel disappointed. If I’m being completely honest, I felt disconnected. For the first time with League, it felt like I wasn’t present.

Don’t get me wrong, I was at home watching and screaming and feeling the anxiety like you guys. But it just wasn’t the same. I can point to COVID, I can point to the fact that I wasn’t there, I can point to the fact that we weren’t even in the office training and I didn’t spend much time with the guys.

But even when it came to the actual 3-3 result, I don’t think I was disappointed. I know that sounds lame, but we had had such a slow start and for the first time I wasn’t close to it. Every other year I had been there, I was there when the problems were happening, I was seeing the problems, I was doing something about it, I was helping, I was contributing.

This year, I wasn’t there with the team day in and day out, so I felt a lack of control and I lost a little hope along the way.

I was still there, taking calls with the coaching staff, helping them along the way but my role had changed. Now it was more I’m going into these meetings as a mentor, doing everything I can to make sure the coaches are trusting themselves. I could say the change was because of COVID but it was also because of the success we’ve had at Team Liquid.

There are more responsibilities than ever, to all of our stakeholders, to all the new hands at TL, and to everyone who’s still with us. There’s more responsibility than ever to ensure Team Liquid’s sustainability and growth and for me, that can’t just be League.

With those responsibilities comes a reallocation of time and focus. Knowing that, we brought in Josh [Jatt], we brought in more staff with more experience and more love for esports, setting up for all of this to operate on its own.

Even if it’s necessary at points, it is tough to step back from League. The LCS means a lot to me and it means a lot to TL too. Franchising was a huge moment for growth and identity for TL as an org and for me as a person. Up to that point, we had spent so much time struggling to find some point of sustainability for esports teams.

We felt like we were an agency. We were buying rights on behalf of players and trying to earn sponsorships in order to survive but we didn’t have anything that lived on past those relationships.

For the first time, we had an in perpetuity right to be part of a league, share in the benefit, and build something together with a developer. When that moment came to change our team, we decided to do it in what I think of now as the TL way: We were gonna go all the way in. Dig our heels into the ground, be tenacious, obsess over the details.

Our application ended up being 259 pages long, with its own mini-site. Once we got accepted, I learned that most teams did a real subpar job compared to us. We went way above expectation, not for Riot, but so that we had a strong plan going into franchising. The application reminded me that, as a fabric of TL, we execute well and we’re thoughtful, meticulous, and cerebral.

League of Legends is a huge part of Team Liquid’s DNA, so it’s not that League is less important, only that we’re building on the identity we’ve had all the way since the beginning by making the team more professional and autonomous.

There’s always been a consistent thread of professionalism: treat players well, provide the very best in terms of housing, facilities, training, analysts, software, coaching, sports psychology, cuisine, apartment living, transportation.

We’ll take everything out so that the players don’t have to worry about it and all they have to do is focus on learning and training. That infrastructure, we have consistently aimed for year after year after year.

It meant so much to me when Impact said, “I think [TL] is my favorite team of my career.” That’s a big statement! He was on a world championship team! Broxah, Peter, and a lot of players have had amazing things to say about Team Liquid as well and those endorsements mean a lot.

We are building on that world class professionalism, and the next step is for the infrastructure to be so strong that it can not only stand on its own but build on its own.

I think infrastructure and execution is the path forward for the entire region, too. I know NA has had difficulty getting results at Worlds year after year after year, especially given how much money we put into the game.

But in some way, I am at least proud that we’re putting up 3-3 results and challenging other regions.

In NA, you get a hundred people to build a successful team out of. In the LPL, you get a million. That’s the multiplier! That’s our handicap. You’ve got a lot more options in another region. So the fact that we’re able to be as competitive in Groups, that speaks to how our infrastructure is good, but not good enough to get what we really want.

If we can really leverage the infrastructure that a handful of teams in the LCS have built, then I think we’ve got a real shot at a World championship.

For us, leveraging that infrastructure means creating longer-term contracts and relationships. We feel like being able to build with an organization that has so many support tools means that a player will just get better over time. It’s not like when we sign a player we get what they’re willing to give us.

We believe that we can help that player will get even better — and even better the next year.

When a player is really great and we know that they fit our team, we’re gonna opt for longer contracts. That’s why, even if I was more disconnected in the season, I was just as plugged in during the offseason. For the entire offseason the league staff and I meet three to four times a week in workshops, helping the team decide what we want.

When the team decides, the task is on me. Go get it done, Steve! I make calls, recruit, persuade, and then also budget and forecast and communicate with the board. I’m doing all of that while talking with different teams and owners while driving updates with the rest of the group.

It’s a lot of work for everyone and when I see our roster it’s clear it paid off. I mean holy moly, right?

Alphari: First and foremost, he was statistically the best top laner in the LEC. Second, his attitude and his maturity is so strong. He’s got a lot of self discipline, he loves League, he’s a perfectionist, and his work ethic is insane! He asked us if he could train in the EU Alienware Training Facility and he travelled out there not for a weekend — no, he stayed there for about three weeks!

Santorin: He’s incredibly consistent. In order to be one of the best in your respective role, you can’t just have amazing moments some of the time or even most of the time. You have to have amazing moments nearly all the time! You have to be consistently incredible and I think Santorin has proven over a long period of time that he isn’t only consistent but he can adapt to any meta and that he’s a great teammate.

Jensen: He’s incredibly talented, has held up against every mid laner in the world, and has a pretty diverse mix of playstyles. That’s probably one of the best things about Jensen. Most mid laners have their genre of play, right? It’s hard to play assassins at the highest level and then also play Orianna — it’s a different frame of thinking. We get a lot of great diversity and champion pool from Jensen, which makes it hard to play against us.

Tactical: I just hope he stays fearless. That’s been his x-factor, from my perspective. Sometimes fearlessness can die off once you have social pressure and you have more experience and you think through things too much. I hope that he’s able to keep that fire. Because he’s definitive in how he feels and what he does and it shows when he flashes forward to carry a game.

CoreJJ: A fucking beast. Has been a beast. Is more of a beast. He surprises us with MVP — this guy is just insane and he’s on a high. He just got married, he’s gone all-in, he’s putting on show matches and in-houses. He is engaged! You don’t run into that everyday, players that just wake up everyday and say, “What can I do?”

Since 2017, we’ve put the work in to not only build world class rosters like these, but to help the players and the region build to new heights.

It is really tough to move forward, to change from Impact and Cain, who stood with us for years and brought us so much success. And Broxah, who was such a leader and positive voice on the team. But at the same time, I think there’s a lot to be excited about in the LCS this year.

NA has some very competitive teams this year. Cloud9 with Perkz, TSM with SwordArt, Flyquest with Josedeodo. At least on paper, NA is looking strong.

Given the handicaps, the four years of 3-3, all the Group stage disappointment, it can be hard to be hopeful, but there’s plenty of chapters left in this book. NA can still have a run. That is still very much possible. We can’t lose sight of that just because of the stigma we’ve created for ourselves. We can’t succumb to that being our destiny.

We gotta change it.

For all the fans who stick with us while we change that destiny, I love each and every one of you and I’m sorry that I’m giving you all these heart attacks and close calls! I’m obviously biased but I look around at other communities and I think it’s hard to describe, but we have a truly special community.

I love our TL Fans and I hope I can give all of you something to cherish — whether it’s quality teams, content, memories, gear, or community.

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