HANOI, Vietnam -- After an opening day filled with success and optimism looking toward the rest of the Mid-Season Invitational, Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in wanted to be anywhere else in the world but doing interview questions following a day that saw his Team Liquid squad drop back-to-back games. The 2-0 record they earned on the first day of the double round-robin group stage had quickly been leveled, and with it the North American region's reputation for underachieving returned in full form. They were good but not great, and not good enough to win international championships.
No one knows that better than CoreJJ, who in his home country of South Korea made it to back-to-back world championship finals, winning it all in 2017 as part of the Samsung Galaxy organization.
"I think today all the matches were winnable, but we made some obvious mistakes," CoreJJ said. "So as long as we fix those mistakes, we definitely can beat [G2 Esports and Invictus Gaming]."
In what Liquid's jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero called possibly the most important game of the entire group stage, TL fell in the first match of Day 2 against Europe's champions. And although TL fought back after having another rough early game, which has plagued them even throughout their one-sided victories, the individual talent in the solo lanes was too much to handle for the North Americans come the do-or-die moments of the matchup. It was another case in which all Team Liquid could take from it was a useless moral victory, another example of being competitive versus a world-class team and only needing to fix one or two tiny mistakes to take the game.
It didn't get any better in the second match versus the undisputed best team in the world, reigning world champions iG. It played out as one would expect, with TL falling behind massively in the early game against the Chinese team's laning-phase prowess before stabilizing through a mix of their own smart play and the champs playing with reckless abandon.
Though, yet again, the ending was the same. Even a superstar performance from the team's ace, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, was not enough when the pure talent of Invictus outweighed anything the NA representatives could throw at them in the closing moments. Liquid had opportunities to draw closer or maybe even put themselves in a position to win, but each time a mechanical outplay or a small misstep would occur, negating all progress.
"I think G2 is a very [fearless] team," CoreJJ said. "They're not frightened by anything, so they play very confidently. So if we just manage to push them a little bit [in-game], we'll [transform] that confidence into arrogance."
"Fearlessness" and "decisiveness" are two words that have been thrown around again and again when talking about the two teams that beat Team Liquid on Day 2. Instead of cautiously walking toward the edge of a cliff, they always leap into the unknown, confident their legs will carry them to safety. With Liquid, though, they are playing with more confidence in the early game, the follies against G2 and iG reinforce the gap between North America's best and the world's best.
A pat on the back and a compliment of "nice effort" for challenging the world champions used to be enough for some players from North America at an international tournament. CoreJJ, a world champion in his own right, feels like his team hasn't come anywhere near where he expects them to be. He's not happy with a pat on the back, and he's visibly frustrated with how the games went almost halfway through the group stage.
When asked how he would rate his team's performance through the first two days from 0 to 100, he struggled for an answer, finally saying "30."
"We [haven't done] anything yet. That's why we aren't even up to half," he said about why he gave his team such a low score even though they had decisively beaten the two teams needed to make it into the knockout rounds.
On Day 3, CoreJJ will meet an old rival, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, the player he defeated to win his first and only world title. Going into the match, both Liquid and SK Telecom T1 are looking for answers -- Liquid still trying to better themselves in the early parts of the game, and SKT reeling from a 16-minute beatdown from Invictus Gaming to send them to 2-2 like Liquid. Both teams have beaten Phong Vu Buffalo and Flash Wolves while losing to the two top teams in the competition. The winners might start to realize what they need to catch up to China and Europe's kings.
"[Faker] might have forgotten or think [the League of Legends World Championship loss] is the past," CoreJJ said. "But if [he loses] tomorrow, [he'll] want revenge."