For fans of Team Liquid’s League of Legends team, it was an exciting offseason before the 2017 season. The team was purchased by a heavy-duty investment group including multiple NBA owners and Magic Johnson, and promised to be a big spender in a North American esports landscape rapidly escalating in star and spending power.
The first move TL made seemed to deliver on that promise, signing former Immortals jungler (and NA LCS MVP) Yeu-jin “Reignover” Kim, the most sought-after free agent in the region. Bringing back long-time AD Carry Gwang-jin “Piglet” Chae raised some eyebrows after his inconsistent performance the previous year, but the star power of Reignover and a former world champion could not be ignored.
Keeping rising stars Samson “Lourlo” Jackson in the top lane and Matt Elento at support seemed like no-brainers, too — both improved over the course of the 2016 season and Lourlo in particular impressed during the offseason at IEM Gyeonggi.
That left only the mid lane to be filled, with no import slots left. North America has been notoriously bereft of homegrown mid laners (in the 2016 Summer Split, Immortals’ Eugene “Pobelter” Park was the only starter at the position who wasn’t an import), but there are still some talented players at the position. When Team Liquid announced it would promote former Team Liquid Academy mid laner Greyson “Goldenglue” Gilmer to its LCS roster as the new starter, a lot of the excitement around the signings of Reignover and Piglet turned into confusion or frustration.
Formerly seen in the LCS with Team Dignitas, Team Coast, Team 8 and Echo Fox, Goldenglue had never impressed on the LCS stage, even if his solo queue exploits had brought him to No. 1 on the North American ladder. The more optimistic of Team Liquid fans relied on the fact that he had most recently played with the organization’s academy team, meaning the team would be much more familiar with his level of play currently.
Well, five weeks into the season, and Team Liquid sits in dead last at 2-8. Goldenglue ranks eighth among NA mid laners with a 2.4 KDA, is tied for last in kill participation (60.7%) and ranks dead last in most laning statistics (gold difference at 10 and creep score difference at 10).
With Goldenglue struggling and an AD Carry meta that favors utility engagers over Piglet’s preferred hard carry champions, Team Liquid has decided to go for something completely different. Piglet will be moving to mid lane for the first time, and former substitute mid laner Young-bin Jung will take over at AD Carry.
That’s right -- rather than sign a new mid laner to replace Goldenglue, Team Liquid moved its AD Carry to mid lane and its substitute mid laner to AD Carry. There would seem to be much simpler solutions available (Youngbin mid and Piglet ADC, for one), but Piglet wants to carry, dang it, and putting him in the mid lane gives him a better opportunity to do so.
But with this move comes major risk. Team Liquid received the aforementioned major investment from NBA money, and what they’ve done with it has not been encouraging. The team promised to spend big with its new cashflow, but repeatedly bringing in players from the Challenger Series to an already-struggling lineup does not seem like the most straightforward path to improvement -- especially with relegation possibly on the line.
Moving a star player to an unfamiliar position could backfire in many major ways, and invites even more criticism if things go wrong. Such a move could leave Team Liquid even more unfamiliar with rotations it is already struggling with, as well as force it to completely change its strategy in picks and bans. Such a move also takes Piglet from a more comfortable 2 vs. 2 bottom lane and places him in a much more dangerous 1 vs. 1 situation in the middle of the map, where he can potentially be exposed by some of the better mid laners in the league, all of whom have played the position for significantly longer than he has (this week, he’ll face IMT’s Pobelter and Echo Fox’s Henrik “Froggen” Hansen).
But who knows — maybe it works! Maybe Piglet takes advantage of a mid lane meta that favors marksmen like Corki and marksmen-like champions like Jayce and carries Team Liquid out of the relegation spots and into the playoff picture. Maybe Youngbin is the answer TL needs to bring together this team with so many promising pieces and so many frustrating losses. But if it doesn’t work, things could get a lot worse — and there are plenty of hungry Challenger Series teams waiting for TL to slip up.