It's Worlds or nothing this split for Team Liquid. Since its days as Curse, the organization has found exceedingly cruel ways to get close to the World Championships but scrape behind the cut by inches. After barely missing the club's first North American League Championship finals last season with a 2-3 loss to eventual champions Counter Logic Gaming, the rookie-charged squad fell in straight maps to Immortals in the third-place match. Currently in the familiar place of fourth in the circuit standings, head coach Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-sub isn't wavering after a disappointing 0-2 start to the season.
"The bootcamp [in Korea] was very up and down," Locodoco told ESPN.com following the team's loss to Team SoloMid on Sunday. "A lot of internal issues, actually."
The talk of internal issues within the Liquid club should not surprise anyone following the suspension of star jungler Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett. The Rookie of the Split winner last split, the 18-year-old American was an integral part in Liquid's successful season with three rookies on the starting roster. A week before the season kicked off, however, it was announced by the organization that the boisterous jungler would be suspended temporarily for "insubordination" against the team.
"I don't think it's a surprise to anyone Dardoch has always had a huge voice on the team." Locodoco said. "He's very outspoken, and there were times where his voice got too big. There were also times he acted out of line. Last split, a lot of players acted out of line -- not just Dardoch -- and we didn't take that drastic of a measure on how we reprimanded some of the behavior."
For all the team's prosperity last season, there were also times of anguish. It was a split of passing the torch between the old generation of Liquid and the new. With the rookie trio of Dardoch, Samson "Lourlo" Jackson in top lane, and Matt "Matt" Elento in support, the team's youthful and brash attitude turned what looked like a lost season at the beginning of the split into one that nearly ended in a NA LCS final. Along with the confidence and new blood can also cause growing pains and some conflict, which Liquid is attempting to iron out now in its sophomore split with the trio of talented newcomers.
"We wanted to set new standards on what kind of behavior is acceptable, and what kind of behavior is unacceptable," Locodoco continued. "Dardoch had some insubordinate behavior, and we decided to suspend him. We gave him the option to go to other teams, and he tried out for other teams. In the end, it was actually Dardoch who took the first step forward in getting back to playing and getting back to keeping the team mood really well. It was at a point where we weren't going to work with Dardoch, but because Dardoch put in so much work and so much effort -- and he really showed how mature he could be and he took the suspension really, really well -- we ended up with a better Dardoch than we originally started with."
"It's Worlds or nothing this split for Team Liquid."
In sports, traditional and esports, the balance between confidence and outright arrogance is needed. Some of the greatest basketball players of our time have been loud, confident in their play, and had issues with teams in their first few seasons. The likes of Kobe Bryant became great because of his work ethic and attitude. Instead of merely beating him down and stripping away the alpha personality he had since he was a teenager, the Los Angeles Lakers coaching staff, especially Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, nurtured Bryant into a five-time world champion and one of the best shooting guards we'll ever see.
Dardoch has the potential to be one of the best League of Legends players to ever come out of the United States. He's mechanically talented and even showed last split he could be a large voice on a team with a former world champion, Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin. To get to that status, though, he's going to need to keep that same alpha, confident personality and work well with his coach Locodoco. If the two can find themselves on the same page and working in tandem, Team Liquid's aspirations of going to Worlds this year can become a reality.
"In terms of insubordination, a lot of it came with arguing with me," Locodoco explained. "Some of the behavior was unacceptable, and also, how some of it was handled was really bad. How it was handled was bad from my side, so I'll take equal fault in it. There were a lot of bumps, and me and Dardoch squared out a lot of differences and we're in a really good place. Now, I'm really excited to work with our starting five roster going into the next few weeks."
"Can you confirm that Dardoch is not going to be transferred -- he's not going to a new team?" I asked.
"Dardoch will finish 2016 with TL," he answered back.
"Not Team Liquid Academy, but TL the main roster?"
"Barring unforeseen circumstances, Dardoch will finish this split with the TL LCS roster."
Dardoch re-entered the Team Liquid starting five against TSM in the second set of the series on his signature Lee Sin, though it wasn't enough to tip the tides against the only team in the league that hasn't dropped a map thus far.
"So there was a point where Dardoch didn't want to work with the team and not improve his behavior," Locodoco said. "A lot of people in the org thought it was going to be really hard for him to change, but he actually took the first step on changing. He came up to me. He came up to Steve [Arhancet, team co-owner] and talked about how much he wanted to put in the effort, how he wanted to play on the team again, and how he wanted to actively change his behavior. It made a lot of people on the team think about their actions also, and how we want to change, too."
Locodoco continued explaining how the team didn't truly have a problem with Dardoch's personality, per se, but in heated moments it could become too much. Since the suspension, he's actively been trying to find the right balance with his emotions, and the team has responded by welcoming him back into the team's starting five. Sometimes, we forget about the ages of the competitors in esports. We see players as young as 16 move up the ranks in the amateur scene, and Dardoch was only 17 years old when he first started playing professionally. In pressured situations surrounded by colleagues in a stressful environment, there will be issues. How the person recovers from those problems and issues as a young adult is what separates the all-time great athletes like Kobe Bryant with the washouts who couldn't compromise or mature.
"Dardoch has a killer instinct and really shows up on game day," Locodoco concluded on the differences between Dardoch and his replacement for the first three games, Galen "Moon" Holgate, formerly of NRG Esports. Back when they were amateurs together, Moon routinely outshined Dardoch and was expected to be the big star of the two promising junglers, but Dardoch's natural instinct to take over games is what has separated him from his jungle teammate. "[They're] a lot more similar in skill in scrims, but on game day, Dardoch has the tendency to show up."
While Locodoco talked highly of Moon as a player and a potential starting prospect, the element that has hurt Dardoch is also what makes him great. From the streets of basketball to the pitch in soccer, the ability to turn it on at a moment's notice and show no fear in the face of any opponent is how superstars are born. Dardoch in previous interviews has given credit to other junglers when it's deserved, but he isn't afraid to face them. He relishes in the opportunity to prove what comes out of his mouth.
"Support us, hate us, we're going to put our best foot forward. To the fans who always support us, we're not going to get fourth this year. We're going to make Worlds. We're going to Worlds, whatever the f--- it takes."