HANOI, Vietnam -- As I watched the Flash Wolves hand North America's Team Liquid their fourth straight loss at the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational in the Vietnam National Convention Center, I experienced numerous emotions.
First was frustration. I've covered the North American League of Legends scene extensively for ESPN the past four years. I've seen supposed great teams jet off to international events to only return empty-handed. Team Liquid, having won the past three domestic titles and upgrading their starting roster from last year, weren't intended to be one of those teams. They were supposed to be different.
After frustration, I felt respect for the opposing team, Flash Wolves. The Wolves are in the LMS (Taiwan/Macau/Hong Kong), a region that has become somewhat of a feeder system to the behemoth that is China. The Wolves' total salary doesn't even match the lowest-paid player on Team Liquid. Even with the odds against them and a degraded roster from last year after their two star players left for China, Flash Wolves still had what it took to beat Team Liquid for a tie in the group stage at two wins and four losses apiece.
Anger, frustration, respect, sadness and many other emotions ran through my body, but one that didn't was bewilderment. I wasn't surprised.
Before 2019 Team Liquid, we had 2018 Liquid, and before that, 2017 Team SoloMid, and before that, 2016 Immortals, and on and on it goes. North America's League of Legends history is littered with "great" teams only to see them fail in the moments that matter the most.
Since landing in Vietnam, the whispers in the interview room from opposing players and pundits have all been the same: Team Liquid are good, that's for sure, but they're not great. While I waited for an interview with a player from Invictus Gaming, I overheard another player discussing Team Liquid's star-studded bottom lane of Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and former world champion Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in. The player stammered for a second before answering.
The translator, speaking loud enough for the entire press room to hear, said, "They're good ... for North America."
Through the first three days of the double round-robin group stage, those words have rung true on all accounts.
In North America, Jake "Xmithie" Puchero is the most consistent jungler to ever play in the region, as the main contributor to his team's success season after season. He's been to numerous international tournaments and even made a final in 2016 at MSI when Counter Logic Gaming shocked the world by taking games off everyone in the tournament. This year, though, where the meta has shifted to a faster pace suited for more aggressive, carry-style junglers, Xmithie has come up short, the least effective of any starting jungler of the six teams left in the tournament.
Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen is an incredible player in North America and made it to a world semifinal last year on Cloud9, the only NA franchise to constantly defy expectations on the international stage. But so far at MSI, it's been a slog. He picked Akali against Sylas in one matchup and got completely outclassed, and then in the very next match picked Sylas against an Akali, for the same result to happen in reverse.
"Personally, I feel like they're a little flat when facing strong teams," Invictus Gaming's Wang "Baolin" Liu-Yi said about Team Liquid, even after the NA champion began MSI with a 2-0 record. "They don't really have a point on the map that can stand out and face the competition. It might just be my feeling, but I do think they show up a little bit flat-footed."
Those words rang true. TL opened up the tournament with wins over the Flash Wolves and Vietnam's Phong Vu Buffalo, the two teams they were expected to beat. The next day, though, they were dragged back down to reality, losing to iG and G2 Esports in quick succession. Not to be outdone, SK Telecom T1 got their hands on TL next, and that led to the loss versus Flash Wolves, putting TL in a hole.
The seemingly simple task of making the MSI knockout rounds might be slipping away by the second.
It's not solely Liquid losing to the Flash Wolves, but it's how they did it that worries me. The team looked aimless for a majority of the game, even though they started off with Xmithie getting the first kill with Lee Sin. They picked a team composition that wanted to dominate in lanes in lieu of better late-game teamfighting, which is how they normally play. They made unforced errors and began fights they had no business taking, trying to play the reckless style of Invictus Gaming without the synergy and talent to pull it off.
For the past two days, Liquid have been sparse with interviews with the press. I received one of the few they've allowed, CoreJJ standing in front of me trying to explain what has gone wrong, visibly unhappy. No one on the team is happy. They're fighting against the reputation of mediocrity when it comes to North American League of Legends, and they want to change that. Yet, currently, all they're doing is strengthening that argument.
"I think their problem is that they don't really have that great players except for their [botton] lane, I think," said G2's Mihael "Mikyx" Mehle. "I think their topside [of the map] is kinda lacking whenever I see them. They're always kinda playing the same champs and they're usually just playing towards [bottom] lane. And if the bot lane can't carry, sucks for them."
On Day 3, Doublelift and CoreJJ were nowhere to be found in Liquid's two losses, the strongest pair in North America and on Team Liquid having the worst day as a duo since they formed at the beginning of the year. Now, deadlocked with Flash Wolves and only one game ahead of the Buffalo, they only have two more days and four games to change their fate.
I want to say I still believe. I want to write that even though things have gone wrong, that the experience, talent, and potential of Team Liquid, a team built from a truck full of gold coins and a goal to win a world championship, is enough to get them at least to Taipei where they'll most likely get swept out of the tournament by Invictus Gaming.
I can't, though.
The opposing players haven't shown respect. Their play hasn't garnered them any respect. The fans in Vietnam, a majority rooting for the hometown Buffalo or the famed SKT, don't expect anything from them. With two days remaining, blind faith won't cut it anymore.
If Team Liquid want to quell the narrative of North American mediocrity and gain the respect of the teams in the tournament, including the ones they're expected to beat, they'll have to earn it one game at a time.