Liquid have decided to keep their roster together after their top four finish at The International 8. Their lineup right now includes: Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen, Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi, Ivan “MinD_ContRoL” Ivanov, Maroun “GH” Merhej, and Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi. This lineup will go down as one of the all-time greatest lineups to have ever graced Dota2 history. They are now going into their third year together as a five man lineup and now they face a completely different challenge altogether. A majority of lineups generally peak within their first three to six months together before having to break apart and finding a different formation. For those that do, they rarely if ever get another peak of power. In the history of esports as far as I know, there have only been two exceptions to the rule. Wings in Dota2 and Virtus.Pro in CS:GO. Liquid look to be the third.
Liquid is already one of the biggest exceptions in the Dota2 world. Prior to their victory at TI7, there was a commonly held belief of the “TI Curse”. That whoever won TI was fated to become much weaker soon afterward. There are multiple reasons as to why this happens. Icefrog may lend a helping hand by nerfing whatever was strongest at the tournament. In other cases, people become complacent. As Lee “Heen” Seung Gon, the Coach of Liquid said in my interview with him,
“I think they imagined that life would just be happily ever after winning TI.”
After reaching the highest of highs, players can get complacent. This didn’t happen to Liquid and that is a testament to their willingness to be the absolute best. After TI7 ended, they have continued the trek of grinding out events and staying at the top. Even though they never won a Major until the very last moment, they were a team who continued to get consistently high results every event and this put them as one of the three best teams throughout the entire year.
As the new DPC begins, the goal for Liquid should still be the same. To become the best team in the world and potentially win the next TI. That is why the team could have potentially made a roster move. While no one has performed badly, the chances of the entire lineup peaking this deep into their history is abysmal. [A]lliance tried it back when Gustav “s4” Magnusson rejoined the lineup and it never worked. From the end of 2015 to the beginning of 2016, Fnatic in CS:GO reunited the Swedish lineup that won six events back-to-back during that time in 2017. Though the team reunited, they never reached that peak again.
There are multiple reasons as to why this is the case. When a team makes a roster shuffle, they get a honeymoon effect. One of the underrated aspects of that shuffle is that it forces the entire system and players to change in ways that no other competitor can initially predict, so it becomes harder to prepare for them. After the outset, the team continually improves and peaks within a three to nine month period. At that point however, they will have generally reached the highest potential for the roster. Perhaps they have exhausted all of the paths available or the wrong patch comes. Whatever the case, almost every team after that point drops off. Unless a patch comes in to save them, they rarely if ever come back to the top.
Liquid right now are about to head into their third year as a five man lineup. GH joined on Jauarary 2nd, 2017. They are already one of the longest standing lineups in Dota2 history and their year in 2017 is legendary as no other TI winning team has had that level of consistency after winning their TI. However, Liquid were only one of the best teams in the world during that time and never the best team in the world. That is the goal that is set to them and so we need to look at the two exceptions that broke the rule to see if there is anything that Liquid can do to make this five man roster the best in the world again. The first is Wings.
The Wings lineup is one of the most beloved and strange lineups to have ever graced the Dota2 scene. Three of the five players were well known tier two players in the Chinese Dota2 scene: Zhou “bLink” Yang, Zhang “Faith_bian” Ruida, and Zhang “y`” Yiping. They had played together before on Speed Gaming.cn all the way back to the beginning of 2014. All three eventually transferred over to the Wings organization where Chu “shadow” Zeyu and Lu “iceice” Peng joined them on August 28th, 2015.
People like to remember this team as having burst into the scene by knocking down the door and shocking everyone. The reality was far less appealing. These were a group of players who were stuck in the doldrums of Chinese Dota2. The only one who had a shot at the top was iceice who played on Big God. After that lineup Zhang “xiao8” Ning critiqued iceice by saying he didn’t have the mentality it needed to go pro. It took this team nearly eight months to do anything relevant at a high level event. Their first victory came at ESL One Manila 2016 where they won the event. It was a good victory, but not one of the premier tier one events that put them in conversation for the top.
Another two months in and Wings continued to lose in events. They did good in online qualifiers, but when they got to the event, they bombed out. The most famous example being at The Manila Major 2016 where they got eliminated in last place. If this was any other team in the modern esports world, they would have split. Their style of play was too erratic and variable at the time. They seemingly tried everything and anything. While in theory it made sense, in actual practice no top Dota2 team had ever achieved that so no one had bothered. In spite of that, Wings struggled through. It’s hard to say why that was the case. Perhaps the potential of what they saw in their online games was too much or maybe the bigger orgs and teams didn’t come knocking so they had no better options.
Whatever the case, they broke through nearly eleven months after the lineup had formed to become the best in the world. Their style of play was more open than anyone had ever seen or conceived of in Dota2 history. If there was any team in history who could be considered Icefrog’s fantasy team, I suspect Wings was it. This team could play anything and everything. They had every tool available to them in the game. Not just every hero, but every draft, every item build, just raw Dota2 knowledge at the tips of their fingers.
It was a revelation and they peaked at just the right time as they went to The International 6 and took the entire tournament. Soon after that victory, they never looked the same again. Part of it was likely because of the organizational issues they were having as a team, but it’s also likely that their rise to the peak was based on their intuitions and knowledge rather than any kind of structured theory. So when their read on the game was lost, so were they.
When we look at Wings and Liquid however, there isn’t a lot of lessons that Liquid can draw from here. While people can break down why Wings played and drafter the way they did, no one has ever been able to figure out how they got to the point that they did. Even years later, some of the greatest Dota2 minds in the world cannot fathom the mechanisms behind that approach. In that sense, what Wings did is an aberration that likely cannot be duplicated. So what about the other exception, Virtus.Pro?
For those who don’t know, Virtus.Pro was esports longest standing lineup ever. The lineup consisting of: Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas, Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski, Jaroslaw “Pasha” Jarzabkowski, Pawel “byali” Bielinski, and Filip “NEO” Kubski played together for four years. Their ride together was one of the most exciting stories in all of CS:GO. They were the originators of the term The Virtus.Plow as their T-sides and aggression were so explosive that they could just run over opponents.
The team also had a certain volatility about them. This is a team that continually rose, fell, and rose again. Year after year after year. They won ESL Katowice 2014 and were one of the best teams in the world. They then fell into a slump before becoming one of the best teams in the world again in the latter half of 2015. They then fell again to only rise up again and become one of the world’s best teams from the end of 2016-2017.
So how did they do it? If I had to point out a reason, I personally believe that it was the combination of their disharmony and professionalism. They like many other teams had multiple problems inside and outside the game. However they were professional enough to not only deal with it, but to grow because of those problems. Each time Virtus.Pro fell down, one of three things happened, sometimes all three. They changed the in-game leader, they changed the roles that the players were playing, and the rising form of the players changed. The leadership constantly switched between TaZ and NEO. Pasha, byali, and Snax often came into form at different times along with TaZ and NEO as roleplayers. Their constant rejigging of the system gave them a new life and new approach that forced other teams to relearn and study Virtus.Pro again.
If there is any team that Liquid can learn from right now, it was the old Virtus.Pro. While the games are completely different, the theory is the same. Though there are less factors to mess with as KuroKy should always be the in-game leader for Liquid. In addition to that, Liquid have generally had a more open style of play, similar to Wings though they generally prefer to play around Miracle-. For Liquid, it will come down to their ability to continually improve as individual players and together constantly evolve their own understanding of the game.
For Liquid, the journey has already begun. In the first Major cycle, they dropped out unceremoniously out of the qualifiers, but they took that time to recharge and take a break. They have since returned and look to prove that they are still one of the best in the world. They are already showing that they are still evolving, still learning, and still growing. At the recent Chongqing qualifier games against [A]lliance, GH pulled out a support Magnus and MATUMBAMAN a core Dazzle. If Liquid can continually parlay their incredible versatility into an effective system for every meta, Liquid could do the historically impossible. Something that only Virtus.Pro from CS:GO and Wings have done before. To return to the top as championship contenders far past the average due date of other teams.
Two years into their lineup, Liquid have already pulled off miraculous feats. They won TI7. They then broke the TI curse and were one of the best teams for the entirety of the next year. Now it is time to see if they can pull off a third miracle. To see if they can be the third team to break esports history and force themselves back to the top as the best team in the world years after their five man lineup has formed.