Team Liquid's win gives North America hope for League of Legends World Championship success

Team Liquid showed their veteran experience by overcoming a shaky early game to beat the young South Korean squad of Damwon Gaming on the opening day of the League of Legends World Championship group stage. Courtesy of Riot Games

BERLIN -- As North America's Team Liquid knocked down the nexus of South Korea's Damwon Gaming to open up their campaign at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship, an idea started to form in the minds of the commentators, viewers and the players sitting on the elevated stage at the Verti Music Hall in Berlin.

Maybe this year will be different for Team Liquid.

Announced in their team introduction as the back-to-back-to-back-to-back domestic champions of the North American region, this isn't the first time TL has had high expectations at an international tournament. In 2018, the team also faced a South Korean team on the opening day of the group stages, KT Rolster, and similarly found a good start derailed by a midgame dragon fight that went haywire.

Unlike against KT, though, this year's Team Liquid lineup, anchored by new starters Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen and former world champion Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in, shook off the nerves in the mid game to restabilize and take a convincing first win of the tournament.

"I had a feeling before the game that the Asian teams -- China and Korea -- were going to be super dominant [at worlds] again and that they would be really strong, so I thought it would be a super tough matchup," Jensen said in a postmatch interview with ESPN. "But I think we played pretty well."

Damwon not only was a tough opening-day challenge for TL but presented many contrasts.

Whereas TL is by far the oldest team at the world championship -- their starting-five combined age of 127 being 16 years older than the second-oldest team -- Damwon is one of the youngest teams, spearheaded by teenage rookies playing at their first major international event. Team Liquid is one of the richest clubs in the world, paying the premium to give North America its best chance at winning the Summoner's Cup. Damwon's head coach, Kim Jeong-soo, admitted in an interview with Inven Global that of all the offers he received in the offseason, Damwon's was the lowest salary-wise, but the team's potential was too great to pass up on.

Despite being the No. 1 seed in their four-team group this year, Team Liquid were considered underdogs going into the game with the youthful gunslingers of Damwon, the South Koreans impressing in the play-in stage with their raw talent and mechanical prowess. Bet365 had them as long shots to even make it out of the group, placing them behind both the inexperienced Damwon and Invictus Gaming of China, the reigning world champions but a team that TL decisively beat five months ago in the Mid-Season Invitational semifinals.

In regards to his team and region being overlooked heading into worlds, Jensen brushed it off, poking fun at all the pre-tournament lists and rankings. For TL, a starting five built from the ground up to win titles domestically and challenge for international crowns, nothing matters to them except results on Summoner's Rift.

No player on Liquid has personified the team's shift in culture over the past two years more than their top laner, Jeong "Impact" Eon-yeong. Once a world champion in his home country of South Korea as part of the dynastic T1, he has adjusted to playing in North America since moving to the region in 2015. While respected as a professional and a former worlds winner, he's often overlooked on TL, playing the role of damage sponge in the top lane so the rest of the team can thrive across the map.

Heading into worlds, the "old man" (24 is considered almost ancient in esports) of the top lane was perceived to be outmatched by two players who grew up watching him on T1 -- Invictus Gaming's reigning world champion Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok and Damwon's centerpiece Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon. The match against Damwon was akin to an old master sidestepping and outmaneuvering the young apprentice, with Nuguri's confidence and overall greed coming back to bite him against a player who has seen everything there is to see in the world of League of Legends.

"I [could] feel how experienced he was by the way he plays," Nuguri said to ESPN following the loss to Liquid. "The way he executed [in] the top lane was very robust."

To Jensen, the beauty of Impact's play is his selflessness. He never complains when he has to be put behind in a losing matchup. He does the dirty, unfun duties that make the game playable for the rest of his team. During the game with Damwon, he neutralized Nuguri all across the map, never letting him get too far ahead and always being there at the right time to shut him down. Impact's final stat line of two kills, two deaths and five assists doesn't look pretty on paper, but that's Impact -- he's like a shutdown cornerback in the NFL or a defensive specialist in basketball who never wins the individual awards but is the key piece that turns a good team into a great one.

Impact is one of the reasons Jensen left Cloud9 this past offseason after making it all the way to the semifinals of the 2018 world championship with C9. He believed that was as far as he could go with the players around him. There's only one step beyond the semifinals that a team can reach, and with players like Impact and the greatest League player in North American history, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, Jensen thinks this starting five can make that goal a reality.

"I just think [TL] has a lot more potential [than my former C9 team] individually," Jensen said. "And we have super selfless players, so it's really easy for me."