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Since last spring, Team Liquid is 18-2 in the LCS Playoffs. Despite regular seasons that looked shaky or middling at times, they’ve managed to gallop past all would-be challengers when the pressure has been highest. Leading the way for them is Doublelift, who has won every single split he’s started in dating back to Summer 2016. They opened this split to the tune of a 14-1 record before faltering down the stretch, but recovered in the Semifinal to look exactly like what you’d expect from the two-time reigning champion. All of this paints the picture of a titan. And yet when I think of what it means to be a “winner” in the LCS — when I think about which team feels like they’re at the top, it is always, without fail, TSM. Here’s 10 thoughts going into this week’s final between the two teams that have combined to win the last five LCS titles.
1. The case for Liquid
The title here sounds like a PowerPoint deck trying to convince gamers that water is actually good for you (it is). One of my rules in any competition is that if the defending champion can return to the title match, then they are de facto the favorite to win it again. I realize things change in terms of rosters and whatnot, but to me there is the champion and then there are the challengers, and Liquid is a two-time reigning champion that also happened to add Jensen (1st Team All-Pro) and CoreJJ (Worlds champion) to their roster in the offseason. I don’t know if people just forgot how insane that is. I actually tuned into Jensen’s stream a couple nights ago and thought, “I guess he has more time to stream now that C9 is out.” I watched for like 10 minutes before remembering he was on Team Liquid now. Of course I’ve also talked to people recently who are convinced TSM is the favorite and that anything short of TSM victory here would be a huge upset! How in the world do you figure that! TL is, again, 18-2 in the Playoffs since Doublelift joined the roster. Over six sets, they haven’t even lost enough games to lose one set. TSM fans of all people should know that Playoffs are just different. They watched their team make it to the Finals 10 straight times no matter what happened in the regular season. This split TL was the #1 team in the regular season, and they just destroyed the #4 team — until Doublelift actually loses again, peg TL as the favorite. The horse is going for the triple crown.
2. The case for TSM
Honestly I could just put “TSM” here like three times and have nothing else and someone out there would still read it and be like, “Yes.” This matchup kind of reminds me of when Golden State would play against Cleveland in the NBA Finals all those years in a row — both teams were stacked, yes, but you’d say GSW were always the more stacked team, whereas Cleveland had the best player on the court in LeBron. In this particular case, Bjergsen feels kind of like LeBron. In reverse sweeping Cloud9, Bjergsen managed to die literally not even once in their three victories. You don’t even need to put that into perspective. He just actually played out of his mind. I could load onto the Summoner’s Rift and AFK in the fountain for the entire game and probably still wind up dying somehow. Much of the hoopla this week will be around who the greatest player of all time in NA is — is it Bjergsen? Doublelift? Hai? Who can say. (Someone is going to take that last bit too seriously). But if I am a TSM fan, then I am throwing all my stock into Bjergsen. Their playoff run hasn’t been as hot as how they ended the regular season, but it’s been enough to get them to St. Louis — their 11th Finals appearance — and for all the Playoff success TL has had over the last year, they haven’t actually had to play TSM yet.
3. Jensen’s lonely quest for victory
The player under the most pressure this week is Jensen, and I don’t think it’s even close. He left Cloud9, a team that molded itself to play around him for four years, to join the team that knocked him out of the LCS Playoffs both times last year. And unlike his teammates, he’s never won a single thing in his career. No individual hardware. No team accolades. He’s just been close over and over again. There have been big wins, sure, but the sense of finishing and realizing there are no more games left to play — the feeling of going out “on top” has eluded him. And none of this is really meant as a knock against him either — I think he’s proven that he belongs in the same conversation as Bjergsen when it comes to individual skill at least. The intangibles like clutchness or whatever are kind of difficult to actually measure, and at least making it to Semifinals at Worlds is a terrific accomplishment. But I’m guessing the first win moment — where you’re able to stay on stage and let the confetti decorate you — would mean more to him than he can really understand. Until you actually win something, there is only the idea of winning. It’s not until you actually win that you understand not just what it feels like, but what it takes to get there. And Jensen stands, for the fourth time in his career, just three wins away from getting there.
4. Zven’s quiet maturation
At one point in 2017, if you’d said Zven was the best overall player in the West, you’d have found a lot of people who’d have agreed with you (especially across the pond). Now we enter a Final — between just two teams — where he might just barely sneak in as the 5th best player. I don’t know if I’d call it a fall from grace necessarily, but since coming to NA he not only missed Worlds last year but watched his long-time lane partner mithy get roasted by the community and then return to Europe. I am reminded of an action flick where the main character’s best friend or love interest dies, so he lights a cigarette and says something dramatic like “I’ll see you soon, partner.” Then he’s blown up after transmitting the schematics of the Death Star. Something like that. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that Zven could very well be the best player in this series, and to anyone that’s followed his career for a while, that would not be a surprise. In the three wins over C9, Zven only died twice to sport a 24.5 KDA — it wasn’t just the Bjergsen show. A card pitting him against Doublelift is one that pits two legends against each other, and Zven has the chance to become the first player ever to win both an EU and an NA Championship.
5. Tale of two junglers
Akaadian has played in nine playoff games. Xmithie has played in 76 playoff games and 61 international games. If experience matters at a stage like this (it does), then Xmithie, who has more games played than any other jungler in the LCS by a healthy margin, is an old man compared to the baby that is Akaadian. Xmithie plays the best supportive style of jungle in the LCS in that he’s very good at making sure you don’t get crushed by the enemy laner or jungler. This is a style that’s more effective when you have laners that can win naturally on their own and less effective when you need to be the proactive player. But in TSM’s two victories over TL this split, Akaadian was absolutely the more effective player, and he was able to strike before Xmithie could answer. It’s been repeated by multiple people, including Doublelift, that TSM’s style counters TL. Basically I think that means TSM is good at breaking through the more defensive TL line. If you think about it like a game of tennis, TL is the one returning and waiting for TSM to make an unforced error, whereas TSM is trying to hit the ball to a spot TL can’t get to. In both of the games they’ve played, that spot has been top lane, and it’s been Bjergsen outroaming Jensen to make a critical early play in a side lane. If TL is going to win this, then Xmithie is going to need to defend Impact better, and Jensen is going to need to contain Bjergsen more. And if TSM is to win, then they need to continue applying the pressure — being baited into a “safe” style or a slower tempo would be the end of them.
6. Playoff Impact
Sandbag regular season so people forget you’re a monster come Playoffs? That’s Impact’s music! Actually his regular season was pretty good, but it seems like he just has a hidden switch that he turns on when elimination is on the line. Going into Playoffs, I thought this potential matchup would be an interesting change of pace for Broken Blade (especially after facing a carry player like Licorice), but then Impact went ahead and played three carries against FLY. So now… who can really say what will happen. I wanted to see how TSM’s young talent would do against a player that’s known for being able to absorb all the punches thrown his way, but maybe Impact is looking to throw the first punch now? In the regular season, we saw Impact fall prey to early ganks from Akaadian in both of their matches, which opened a hole on the map that made it very difficult for TL to recover from. I expect a lot of attention to be placed on this matchup Saturday — be it through ganks or just an extra emphasis from the junglers on vision. And while the stage is a little more prominent, this will be Broken Blade’s second consecutive trip to a Split Final — his team lost in the TCL Finals last summer, so I’m sure he’ll do everything he can to avoid another last second exit before an international event. In terms of LCS, though, this is another matchup between young and old. Liquid will theoretically lean on steadiness from their top and jungle duo, while TSM will let their youngsters off the leash. But who knows, maybe Impact is sick of your shit and is going to continue locking carries.
7. MVP frontrunner
You know those games where your bot lane is like 10-0 by eight minutes and the enemy team has started typing in all chat to get you to take their side in whatever internal feud they’re dealing with? You wonder, “What the hell happened down there?” and then your support finally roams to help your lane out and he’s Thresh and he doesn’t miss the Targon’s proc on the cannon minion and he lands everything and drops you a ward on the way out and does your taxes and actually he’s CoreJJ. There is a lot of buzz for CoreJJ to win the MVP, which is a statement that would have gotten you reported just a few years ago when he was struggling on Dignitas. It’s the latest in his career redemption arc, which includes a side story trek to Korea where he won Worlds (you may have heard of it), and all that’s left now is to capture the elusive LCS crown. His counterpart, Smoothie, has been one of the top supports in NA for years, and his reputation for being a vocal shotcaller will be critical if TSM hopes to match the pressure CoreJJ exerts on the map (especially if he gets a pick like Tahm Kench). I don’t think it’s a lopsided matchup by any means, so I’m excited to see how Smoothie will fare against the MVP-candidate. It’s a good chance for him to gauge just how good he is compared to a guy who’s been all the way to the top.
And you thought the GOATs meta would be over. Think again! In this matchup alone, you could legitimately say that four positions will feature NA’s greatest of all time in their role: Impact, Xmithie, Bjergsen, and Doublelift, and then in support you got CoreJJ (who might be the best individual player to ever field this role in NA, but he doesn’t have the longevity in the region to be declared the best). I don’t know how to further explain the ridiculous level of talent that will be on display in St. Louis. We really can’t go wrong with either of these teams representing us at MSI, and this is probably as hyped as I’ve been for an NA Final since maybe Summer 2015 when CLG and TSM slammed into each other, which was coincidentally the last time Bjergsen and Doublelift played against each other in a Best-of-5. Which leads us to the next thought…
9. Who is the NA GOAT?
Does this question even matter in the grand scheme of things and does it have an actual definitive answer? Nope. Is that going to stop us from talking about it now and next week and honestly forever? Absolutely not. Go around the Riot office this week and ask anyone for their take on this question and they will give you a different answer depending on what they had for breakfast or what the weather is like or how their most recent Solo Queue game went. I could write one answer or the other here and get flamed equally hard from both sides of the aisle. But let me offer my totally unbiased perspective as a mid lane main and say that the most important position in the game is mid lane and therefore Bjergsen, the best player in the best role, is the NA GOAT. I think both have been equally dominant over their counterparts for a similar length of time in the region, and both have managed to adjust and readjust their play throughout their career to match the pace and demands of their teammates. But when I think about which player has more consistently wowed me with their ability to put a team on their back, it’s been Bjergsen — if only slightly. The difference between the two is so small you wouldn’t even be able to thread a needle[ssly large rod] through it. And this season in particular, you’ll note that Liquid is, on paper, the more stacked team, which means Bjergsen has had to shoulder a heavier load. A win here would be the third completely different roster he’s won with, which should put to rest any sort of doubt over whether or not he makes his teammates better.
10. Final prediction
So if you’re at this point in the article and you expect me to say something smart (bless your soul) so that you can then turn to your friends and explain why you think one team has an edge, then let me tell you I am predicting entirely based on my gut feelings. Which is to say, of course, it is science and you are in the right place. I’ve seen the LCS since its inception, which means I’ve watched a lot of TSM Finals, which means I’ve watched them win a lot. But outside of the first couple of Finals against C9, they haven’t really been the underdog. Even here you will find plenty of people that peg them as the favorite, but, again, per my rules you can’t be the reigning champion and not be the favorite. It’s just not dignified! And honestly, TSM is arguably outmatched in every position but mid (where it’s still super close), so I do actually think they’re the underdog here, and despite my desire to root for the underdog, that means I think TL is the favorite and thus should win. The critical difference in the series against C9 for me was that Bjergsen and Zven just were better than Nisqy and Sneaky. It wasn’t a huge margin per se but in the deciding games, those two were essentially unkillable, which means they did not make missteps. Jensen and Doublelift maintained the two highest KDAs — by a large margin — for their roles this Split, so that means this difference will not exist this time around and will likely need to come elsewhere. It is hard for me to bank on Broken Blade and Akaadian being the edge this series for TSM, especially because it’s on a stage this big, but that’s pretty much what will need to happen. Which means I think TL will get a shot at international redemption come MSI.