It's been topsy-turvy for the last squad to take home the honors of best regular-season team. The issues of 2015 have transitioned into this year, as the talented Team Liquid (6-7) has found itself up early in games but unable to close the door against opponents. Often the squad has been able to carve out an advantage in the early game or gone into the climactic moments of a set on a knife-edge, yet over-extensions and miscommunication have left the team with more losses than wins.
"At the start [of the season] I wasn't where I wanted to be," said TL's top laner, Samson "Lourlo" Jackson, when questioned about a rocky first split in the NA LCS as a rookie. "So I've been putting in way more work -- like doing anything I can to become a better player. I still definitely have a lot of weaknesses, but I'm still going to keep trying and try to be the best player I can."
Liquid has seen itself become a younger unit from the experienced group that grabbed first place in the regular season last year. Lourlo was the beginning of that rookie movement, and he's been joined by two Liquid Academy members, Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett and Matthew "Matt" Elento, to create a mechanically talented -- yet green -- Liquid starting five. The three rookies are all either 18 years old or younger, making the new TL one of the youngest squads in either LCS.
Fortunately for Lourlo, coming into the professional scene with players his same age has made the transition less strenuous.
"Being friends, we're there for each other," he said of Dardoch, his partner in the jungle. Dardoch has made waves in his first season as a 17-year-old jungler, routinely being the star in Liquid's victories as its free-flowing and highly aggressive frontman. "Overall, we're just good friends, and [it helps] having him on the team."
Newcomers to the scene generally have a player or two they've watched in the amateur scene that inspire them as they come up to the pros. It's no different for TL's starting top laner, as he is a fan of one of the best currently playing in Korea.
"I really look up to [Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho] because he started out his career [with difficulties], and he's worked really, really hard to become where he is now," Lourlo said. "It's really inspiring that he showed that hard work can pay off."
Lourlo is also a fan of Smeb's current team, the ROX Tigers, which currently sits in first place in the LCK with an undefeated match record. When I asked which player he would like to play with out of anyone in the world, he answered the team's jungler, Yoon "Peanut" Wang-ho, due to his synergy with Smeb and his similarities with TL's offensive jungler.
"Peanut reminds me of Dardoch," he said. "He's like the Korean Dardoch. I just want to see how he [would] fit on the team, like what he does and how he communicates."
In a dogfight for one of the last playoff spots in the NA LCS, Team Liquid is battling with two competitors in Echo Fox (5-8) and NRG Esports (7-6) during the final weeks. Although Echo Fox has won out four out of its last five, Lourlo thinks the team with an up-and-down split -- like Liquid -- is the tougher challenge.
"I really respect NRG because they have Jung 'Impact' Eon-yeong," he said. "I looked up to him for a bit in the NA scene [due to] being regarded as one of the best tops in NA. I really look up to NRG because they have Impact, so I'm a little biased, but I think overall NRG is a better team."
But who does Lourlo think is the best top laner in the world?
To no surprise, he selected the player that he looks up to the most -- ROX's prideful and hard-working ace, Smeb.
"His champion pool is really good, and whatever champion he plays he performs well on it," he said. "You can see in the LCK that he pulls so many bans with Fiora -- then he just plays something like Nautilus and does super well for his team. Players like that just really impress me."
If Lourlo wants a chance at possibly meeting Smeb, Peanut and the rest of the ROX Tigers at the Mid-Season Invitational, he'll need to turn around this bumpy ride. His team will head out on the Rift once again on Sunday to see if it can get back to .500, going one-on-one with a squad it barely lost to in the first half of the season, Team SoloMid (8-5).