HANOI, Vietnam -- Near the stroke of midnight, Jake "Xmithie" Puchero could finally rest on his birthday. A long opening day at the Mid-Season Invitational main event in Vietnam filled with crazy brawls and even crazier long delays finally came to an end when Team Liquid continued their perfect run at the tournament, defeating the home country's Phong Vu Buffalo for the fourth time in less than a week.
Heading into Day 2, North America's three-peat champions stand as one of two remaining undefeated squads, the other being reigning world champions Invictus Gaming, whom Liquid will meet on the second day.
"I think the first mistakes we did against Phong Vu Buffalo was playing to their pace," Xmithie said. "They play really aggressive and they pretty much all rely on mechanics [more than] their macro, and I think that was our main problem. We fixed that and our champions were pretty much better than theirs, so it was easier."
When TL arrived in Vietnam to qualify through the play-in stage, ultimately sweeping Phong Vu Buffalo to make it to the main group stage, they were already pegged on the ladder. They were fourth. They were much better than the teams below them in the standings, like PVB or Taiwan's Flash Wolves, whom Liquid also downed on Day 1, but weren't strong enough in certain areas to be considered on the same level as the "big three" of the tournament: Invictus Gaming, Europe's G2 Esports and South Korea's SK Telecom T1.
The impressive opening-day victories will elicit a sigh of relief from the tortured North American fan base and fortify the team's self-confidence, but nothing will change until TL can knock off one of the three favorites to make a statement. Until then, the wins over the tournament hosts do nothing more than keep them in that fourth position, in limbo between the world-class teams and the pretenders.
"I think even before the games we were still pretty confident on beating any team at MSI based on our records of scrimming and [overall] playing well," Xmithie said. "Hopefully, we can convert [those things] onto the international stage."
Out of the trio of tournament favorites, the TL jungler focused on world champion Invictus Gaming as his team's toughest challenge. Traditionally, Liquid's style has been hard countered by iG's, with the early-game focus and laning phase prowess of the Chinese champions tailor-made to disrupt a team like Liquid. In the domestic playoffs and so far at MSI, TL have done their best to distance themselves from that former image, putting top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong on carries and flexing assassins in their solo lanes alongside mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen.
The team's ace, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, has even demoted himself to Sona duty on occasion, prioritizing the team's needs and champion composition potential over his own desire to be the primary scorer in the lineup.
"I think the greatest strength for this team internationally is just our mentality," Xmithie said. "Everyone has pretty much won something internationally -- except for [Doublelift], I guess -- but the mentality of everyone's during the games is so much different than any other team I've been on. There's pretty much no pressure on anyone in this team."
Invictus Gaming didn't come into last year's world championships as favorites, but they carved their way to the top by embracing the hyperaggressive, skirmishing style that came into favor during the monthlong tournament. By the end of the event, there was no doubt who the best team in the world was, and they capped off their historic run by sweeping Fnatic in Incheon, South Korea, to become the first Chinese club to hoist the Summoner's Cup.
At this year's Mid-Season Invitational, Invictus Gaming can no longer stay under the radar. Before, their breakneck pace and lack of patience once were seen as their kryptonite, but now, in a world where the laning phase is king, Invictus Gaming are happy to sit on the throne. On Day 2, it will be an entirely different challenge for iG. Whereas their Day 1 opponents were more similar to their own playstyle, PVB and G2 both feasting in the laning phase, they'll now go up against SKT and Team Liquid, two teams that are traditionally more methodical in their victories.
"To be honest, I think maybe [TL] can beat us because any team could really beat us," Invictus support Wang "Baolan" Liu-Yi said. "But, if they don't change their ways, I really don't see them over SKT or G2."
North America's Team Liquid will be the only other undefeated team aside from iG entering the second day of the main event. They dispatched Taiwan's Flash Wolves and bested the Buffalo. A win over Invictus Gaming could propel the NA hopefuls into believing they can contend for the championship alongside the best in Vietnam.
Baolan, though, isn't ready to dub TL a contender just yet. They beat two teams they were expected to beat, and on Day 2, they'll need to come out of the gate strong to match the world champions.
"Personally, I feel like they're a little flat when facing strong teams," Baolan said. "They don't really have a point on the map that can stand out and face the competition. It might just be my feeling, but I do think they show up a little bit flat-footed."
When it comes to veteran leadership to combat this, however, this Liquid team has it in spades. They're the oldest team by a country mile in the western region, and compared to the other teams in the competition with blossoming talent, Team Liquid know what they're getting with their star players. They've all experienced the biggest stages in the world and also experienced some of the greatest heartaches imaginable in esports, each of the five at one point or another blamed by the community at large for their team's ultimate failure.
Jensen's trophy case was bare until this most recent domestic season, where he finally lifted his first trophy. Doublelift has never made it out of a major international tournament group stage. CoreJJ was a failed AD carry before finding his true calling as a world-class support. Xmithie has played on numerous teams that have made it the world championships but has never made a deep run. Impact was a world champion on SKT T1 before being replaced and having to reinvent himself in North America, where he is now considered a resident.
"For me, personally, grand finals are my main goal," Xmithie said. "I've been there before at MSI, so hopefully I can do it again."
To make those grand finals, Team Liquid will need to pick up wins over the likes of iG and G2, their next two opponents. The matchup with G2 will be another chapter in the ongoing rivalry between the two major western regions of Europe and North America. And although it's only the second match day of a five-day double round-robin tournament, Xmithie and the rest of TL know the key to getting far in the tournament might come down to what they do on Saturday versus maybe the best team to ever come out of the European region.
"G2 is probably our biggest match of [this] group stage, cause whoever wins that probably is guaranteed semifinals," he said. "So we're going to be practicing a lot. Even after this, it's going to be [midnight] and we're the first game tomorrow but we're still probably going to practice and look up the [replays] of how we played today."