Addition by Subtraction: Team Liquid’s Hopes for Smoothie

Photo courtesy of Riot Games

Team Liquid has never been shy of making a big splash, even back in their days as Curse. This is the team that recruited the Thresh Prince himself, Edward (aka Gosu Pepper), from Gambit Gaming, the team that brought in former world champion Piglet a year ago, the team that made a mid-season move for Xpecial, one of North America’s most celebrated veterans.

This year they’ve made only a single change, and a somewhat uninspiring one, replacing Xpecial with Smoothie, the former Support of Team Dragon Knights.

Despite the lack of fireworks, Team Liquid is hoping they’ve achieved addition by subtraction, improving their team by replacing a core veteran with an unheralded, just-relegated newcomer. On the surface, it’s a curious move, not exactly a home run acquisition. In a world where TSM is constructing a super-team of Western talent, where the brand new NRG Gaming has imported a world class talent like GBM, and where free agents like Impact, Altec, Rush, and Adrian are still unattached (at least publicly), is Smoothie really enough of an improvement to make Team Liquid a legitimate contender in 2016? Can this one marginal move solve the team’s big problems with drafting, strategic coordination, and late-game shot calling?

The answer to those questions is Mostly No, but with a generous spoonful of More Yes Than You Might Think.

Here’s why.

We can’t know for sure what factors Team Liquid considered in picking up Smoothie, but we can speculate at a handful of reasons. First, it was clear that something had to change for Team Liquid, after their failure to perform in the playoffs and regionals. Statements by Xpecial after leaving the team suggested that the team’s Korean AD Carry, Piglet, was unhappy with his partnership with Xpecial, so that pointed to an “easy out” for where to make that change. Team Liquid was probably looking for a replacement Support as soon as they knew they wouldn’t be attending the World Championships. Somehow their eyes landed on Smoothie. Team captain IWDominate seems to think very highly of him, and his voice was probably influential in the decision.

A young, relatively inexperienced talent will appeal to Team Liquid: Smoothie is someone the team can mold into the piece they need, not someone carrying years of competitive baggage and ingrained habits. He should benefit a lot from the veteran status of most of his new teammates.

But simple talent probably isn’t the main way Smoothie will contribute to Team Liquid in 2016. In fact, it’s debatable whether Smoothie is even a better mechanical player than Xpecial at this point (though Smoothie probably has a higher ceiling for growth than Xpecial does at this stage in their careers). Instead, Liquid is hoping to benefit from what Smoothie doesn’t bring to the table, which is Xpecial’s veteran voice.

Throughout 2015, it was clear that Team Liquid was suffering from having too many cooks in the kitchen. The players explained in interviews that there were too many voices making calls during games, with IWDominate, Xpecial, and Piglet all being very vocal and sometimes disagreeing on what the team should do next. That problem never seemed to go away, even if it somewhat improved over time. At the end of the season, Team Liquid’s late-game decision making was as haphazard as ever, and their inability to find the right coordinated moves ultimately cost them a trip to the World Championships.

By replacing Xpecial with a younger player, someone hand-picked by the team’s captain and primary shot caller, Team Liquid has streamlined its in-game decision-making and put their strategic calls squarely in IWDominate’s hands. There’s no guarantee that this addition by subtraction will actually solve their indecisiveness, but Liquid is hoping to benefit from the idea that it’s better to decisively follow a bad call than it is to indecisively follow a good one. If Smoothie’s junior status helps all five team members buy in more cohesively to IWDominate’s leadership, it should be an improvement on 2015’s “shot call by committee” approach.

There’s still the question of whether Smoothie’s play style will mesh well with the rest of the roster. Leaving aside the shot calling question, what will Smoothie individually bring to the team?

Smoothie is a solid, reliable, low-risk player. Even while playing for TDK, a team that became characterized by forward-moving aggression from its two Korean imports, Ninja and Emperor, Smoothie rarely made mistakes or put himself into dangerous positions. His death share of 22.6% was third-lowest among NA LCS Supports in the Summer regular season (almost identical with Xpecial’s 22.8%). This is a very good attribute for a Team Liquid Support, given the aggressive tendencies of the team’s three laners. Quas loves to play lane bullies, FeniX has never shied away from an all-in opportunity, and Piglet’s strongest qualities are his mechanical play and ability to outduel opponents. IWDominate can’t protect or enable the aggression of all three lanes at once, so a low-maintenance Support like Smoothie is just what the doctor ordered to keep Team Liquid’s risk/reward scale balanced.

The downside of Smoothie’s low-risk style is that he doesn’t often assert himself as a playmaker. His Kill Participation in the Summer regular season was just 71.8%, eighth of ten among starting Supports. When Ninja and Emperor finally arrived midway through the Summer split, Smoothie spent the first few games glued to Emperor’s side, almost never venturing out onto the map to gank the other lanes or invade the enemy jungle. As the split continued to play out, though, he gradually became more and more proactive, noticeably developing more synergy with his Jungler, Kez. He started to apply pressure to the other lanes and pair up with Kez for invasions to secure deep vision. Some of Smoothie’s increased freedom was enabled by Emperor’s own improvements, as the Korean ADC settled down and stopped throwing himself headlong into the enemy team. That balance is something Smoothie and Piglet will need to develop over the offseason to help them be effective as a duo.

But even though Smoothie started adding more options to his playbook, he still wasn’t fulfilling a primary engage role. He would almost always wait for Ninja or Kez to start a fight, and would apply his own crowd control as a follow up, or hold onto his spells so he could peel for Emperor. His contributions to team fights could often be described as “nothing ventured, nothing gained” (and, in fairness, nothing lost). When TDK won a team fight, it was rarely because of Smoothie, and when they lost a team fight, it was rarely his fault.

His champion pool wasn’t the issue: Smoothie made frequent use of Alistar and Nautilus, champions who are well suited to picking fights. Somehow Smoothie just never found the right timing, or the right communication, or perhaps the right level of confidence to pull the trigger on a big play.

Team Liquid will hope to develop Smoothie’s proactive side to give themselves as many strategic options as possible. If Smoothie doesn’t become the team fight initiator for Team Liquid, it’s not clear that anyone else can do the job. Quas hasn’t shown strong initiations from the Top lane. His Teleports and flanking play were decidedly lacklustre throughout 2015. Quas is much better used in a split pushing role, where he can duel in the side lanes and be the second or third man into the team fights. IWDominate can offer some engage from the Jungle position, but he’s actually been most successful in a reactive, counter-engaging role. IWD’s best champions in 2015, by win rate, were Ekko (2-0), Gragas (10-3), and Nunu (6-2), with a 7-4 record on Sejuani as well. Again, IWDominate contributes best when he can follow up on someone else’s plays. For Team Liquid to stay well rounded, Smoothie will need to pick up some of the team fight initiation responsibilities Xpecial was carrying. That could mean expanding his champion pool, perhaps adopting some of Xpecial’s favorite picks, like Annie.

If Smoothie can pair his controlled style with some newfound proactivity and playmaking, while helping to keep Team Liquid’s communication clear and unified, he’ll be a tremendous addition to the lineup. He’s got some growing to do, and his teammates will need to improve on their own performances as well, but there are reasons for optimism among Team Liquid fans.

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Tim “Magic” Sevenhuysen runs, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics, and writes for theScore esports.

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