When we first checked in on the 2019 iteration of Team Liquid's League of Legends team in the preseason, they were getting along well and having fun in the process. Support Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in was giving his new jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero posing tips for team photos. Mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen was receiving a home carbonation machine as a birthday present for all of his sparkling water needs.
Since then, Team Liquid's photographs appear onstream every week before a likely victory in the League of Legends Championship Series and Jensen has happily been making his own sparkling water.
"Even back then we were pretty good," Jensen said of Liquid's preseason. "But I think we're addressing our weaknesses more and more as the days go by and becoming a more stable team overall. We all clicked really well together from the get-go so it's just about perfecting our play at this point and figuring out meta picks."
At 11-1 Liquid is still on top of the LCS as expected. The initial honeymoon period following CoreJJ and Jensen's arrivals didn't come to an end as much it transitioned into something more valuable for the team: a collaborative effort for all five of Liquid's veteran players to share ideas as equals and push past any problems that may arise.
"It's different because when rookies come in they have a completely different mindset," Jensen said. "They kind of just do whatever they're told. But here we're all veterans. We have our own opinion. We want to do what we think is best for the team or us as players or as people in general. It's a lot easier for us to be happy with the things that we want or what we think is best for the team. Whereas in the past, the rookies won't say as much and they'll do whatever the org thinks is best. Here we're all veterans so we all have our own voice a lot more. Everyone is satisfied with what we're doing."
Jensen began his time in the then-North American League of Legends Championship Series surrounded by the original veteran core of Cloud9. As those players slowly left the team, Jensen became one of the veteran staples of Cloud9 along with bot laner Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi and, for a time, current Team Liquid (then-C9) top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong. Last year, Cloud9 adopted a strong seven-man roster setup where Jensen and presumed starting jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen rotated with mid laner Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer and rookie jungler Robert "Blaber" Huang.
Liquid is arguably a more pressure-filled environment than C9, if only because of the lofty expectations set by analysts, the community, and the team's domestic success last year. The only possible movement for TL domestically -- winners of both LCS splits last year -- is down and the team has two on-paper individual upgrades from last year's winning lineup in Jensen and CoreJJ.
Yet, since Jensen's arrival on Liquid, there's a sense that a certain weight has lifted from his shoulders, be it simply a change of environment, or the specific team environment of the team, which is a collaborative effort of experienced veteran players. Even when complacency inevitably snuck into the team, as it has with most top teams in the world thus far outside of LoL Champions Korea's Griffin, Liquid was quick to correct it through frank discussion about their individual and team goals.
"When we dropped the ball we stopped playing as much solo queue," Jensen admitted. "We maybe played a bit too lazy in practice. It's pretty easy to let go when you're winning everything and you get a bit too relaxed. We just had a talk as a team and said, 'This is not a joke. We have to keep winning even though we only lost one game.'"
Jensen continued: "We have really high expectations of ourselves as players and the team. That's just the expectation that comes with the team. We know that losing is not something we should do against these kinds of teams in NA."
Although Team Liquid has been winning consistently since a shaky Week 4, they didn't take many risks until this past week against Counter Logic Gaming. When Jayce was locked in for Impact in the top lane, it was met with a memetic social media response around the idea that Impact cannot play carry champions. It wasn't the cleanest victory, but Impact and Liquid proved that this was false with a 4-1 split-push setup that was unlike their typical playstyle. It also proved that Liquid is continuing to look ahead to what they can do better and improve upon as a team outside of a strong domestic scoreline.
"Even though it's not the style that we usually play we have to try everything and not just be one-dimensional as a team," Jensen said. "We're just trying out everything that's really strong right now and right now top lane is kind of volatile where there's some strong picks in top lane that you have to play towards. It's not really our normal style and it's something we could have done better but I'm glad that we were able to do something different and it worked out."