Road to TI6: Team Liquid

Team Liquid after their victory against Evil Geniuses in the Shanghai Major lower bracket final at the Mercedez Benz Arena in Shanghai, China. Tim Franco for ESPN

Second place has been a curse for Team Liquid. Other squads might look at the consistent top-four placements that Liquid has achieved as goals to aspire to, but for Liquid it's always been disappointing coming in just shy of the top prize.

This team's first and most recent major LAN victory in 2016 was at Epicenter this past May. That hard-won 3-2 victory against Newbee is a high point the five members of Liquid would like to achieve again, this time at The International, Dota 2's biggest tournament. How are the players handling this challenge?

"For now, we are slowly shaping ourselves to the form we were at Epicenter, which was our strongest point," said four-role player Jesse "JerAx" Vainikka.

Back to boot camp

Team Liquid isn't a new name in esports, but this fresh-faced lineup is new to the banner. Picked up wholesale by the organization last October, the former 5Jungz squad has been further reinforced by the know-how and tools available to an established brand. This includes knowledgeable support staff and intensive boot camps.

JerAx points to coaches William "Blitz" Lee and Lee "Heen" Seung Gon, as well as team manager Mohamed Morad, saying the team is "lucky to have [them]" and that they help by bringing up key points for improvement. That support, according to now-former coach Blitz, has been a catalyst for the team's success.

"The team has all the skill in the world," Blitz said. "Having a good support staff just allows them to fully utilize their potential."

Of course, Liquid is no stranger to large tournaments. This lineup has played in almost every major and premier in 2016, and always performed at a high level. The pre-TI boot camp is different, though, and Liquid is going at it with much more determination.

"Before, [for] previous tournaments, we felt like the boot camps were extremely useful for the team, but lasted only for a week, which we found too short," JerAx said. "Before TI, we are going to stay together for a straight month, with some days off here and there."

This level of preparation is crucial for The International. Eighteen of the top teams in the world will be competing for a massive prize pool. Money and status ride on the line, and every team will be focusing, preparing for any and all opponents that might stand between them and the cup. It's a lot to manage, but Blitz says the focus is on the team, and not outside factors.

"At boot camps we work primarily on improving ourselves and less about reading our opponents," Blitz said. "Things like working on communication and chemistry are the most important factors to us."

Writing a new playbook

The plays of Team Liquid are fast, coordinated and sometimes appear effortless. The cohesion of this team is something to behold, and it's a factor that has pushed it ahead of many other teams in the pack.

If you're looking for a standout player, it might be JerAx. Most well-known for his Earth Spirit play, JerAx was adept at playing the rolling roamer, making aggressive plays in the mid and side lanes, and securing space for his carries.

According to JerAx, though, his role has changed a lot since the days of first-pick Earth Spirit.

"That used to be the old days of Liquid, when we played extremely aggressive," he said. "Right now [Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi] is playing the roamer, and I'm sticking to the safelane with [Lasse "MATUMBAMAN" Urpalainen]."

That switch-up might seem odd, given JerAx's skill at executing roaming ganks. The four-role player seems used to adapting to new mindsets though, as it's something he says he's had to do against discerning opponents. "I used to switch things up a lot when I went into new games, when people figured out what I'm doing," he said.

His lane companion, MATUMBAMAN, also has a wide pool of heroes. In just The Summit 5 alone, the most recent tournament the team attended, Matu played eight different cores across 13 matches. Morphling, Huskar, Drow Ranger, Timbersaw, Storm Spirit and Anti-Mage all comprise a highly varied pool, and it doesn't even include what might be his best-known pick, Lycan.

MATUMBAMAN told me that when looking for new picks, he looks to places some might see as odd. "Whenever I develop new heroes, it's a combination of pub games and other pro game replays I have watched," he said. "Obviously I might [mess] up, but that's life."

Switching roles, getting new pick ideas from pub matches, and staying in the same house together for an entire month might grate on a lesser team's nerves, but for Team Liquid, the squad's bond trumps all of those concerns. These five have been together a long time; there's a level of trust and a shared commitment to the goal that keeps them going.

"We are definitely friends with each other," JerAx said. "And I think it plays a huge part when we stay together for multiple weeks at boot camps and tournaments."

Team Liquid has seen the highs and lows. It has put in the prep time. On the precipice of TI6, MATUMBAMAN summed up his goal for Seattle: "Leave the venue knowing that I and my team did everything we could to produce the best performance."