LCS Champion and North American representative Team Liquid will be making its on-stage debut at the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational in the Play-In Knockout. Its opponent in the best of five series will be Phong Vũ Buffalo, VCS Champion and Vietnamese representative.
The winner will join SK Telecom T1, G2 Esports, and Invictus Gaming in the Main Stage. The loser will have a final chance to qualify for the MSI main stage by facing the loser of the other Play-In Knockout series between LMS champion and Taiwanese representative Flash Wolves and LCL Champion and Russian representative Vega Squadron.
The Road Traveled
Phong Vũ Buffalo were the most recent international representative from Vietnam, finishing last in Group A of the 2018 League of Legends World Championship. Phong Vũ Buffalo qualified for the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational after winning its second VCS championship in a row. PVB prevailed over EVOS Esports, last year's MSI representative from Vietnam, in a convincing 3-1 victory.
Phong Vũ Buffalo entered the 2019 MSI Play-In as the strongest team in Round 1. Despite being seeded into a stacked Group A, Top Laner Phạm "Zeros" Minh Lộc and Jungler Hoàng "Meliodas" Tiến Nhật came in as best in class in their respective roles.
However, the rest of the team stepped up above expectations. Support Nguyễn "Palette" Hải Trung played proactively to set up Bot Laner Đặng "BigKoro" Ngọc Tài, and Mid Laner Võ "Naul" Thành Luân showcased surprising consistency across a wide array of champions. Meliodas tore up the group stage, successfully ganking for all three lanes of PVB early game after early game.
Unfortunately for PVB, Zeros' over-aggression was exposed against the stiff competition of Group A. TCL Champion and Turkish representative 1907 Fenerbahçe in particular turned the tide against Zeros due to his aggressive tendencies. In the end, 1907 Fenerbahçe and Phong Vũ Buffalo ended the group tied in 1st at 4-2, but PVB prevailed in the Tie Breaker and sent 1907 Fenerbahçe home.
The Burden of Excellence
Team Liquid has not played a series since its April 13th victory in the 2019 LCS Spring Finals. After going down 0-2 to TSM, TL reverse swept its Spring Split nemesis in dramatic fashion, shocking the audience at St. Louis' Chaifetz Arena and punching its ticket to MSI.
Team Liquid may have won its third LCS split in a row, but the North American powerhouse is aware of the expectations. Team Liquid won both LCS splits in 2018, and then made significant upgrades to its roster in the form of Mid Laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen and Support Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-In.
TL may have had more trouble than expected in the final against TSM, but anything less than a third consecutive championship and an MSI 2019 qualification would have been a disappointment. CoreJJ was only a year removed from a 2017 World Championship with Samsung Galaxy. Jensen had just made Worlds Semifinals with Cloud9. CoreJJ was the Spring Split MVP.
Between its 5 members, TL now possesses over 30 years of competitive experience. Three of those members are multiple LCS title holders. Two of them are World Champions. Team Liquid's roster is without a doubt the most talented roster on-paper ever assembled in the LCS. Team Liquid Bot Laner and 6-time LCS Champion Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng made his perspective clear in the LCS Spring Championship press conference in St. Louis:
"Honestly, I don't even really want to be the guy with the most accomplishments, because then it feels like I've been in the scene for too long and kind of washed up...I think I can be proud of myself if we make it out of groups at MSI and place well internationally. I think then I can say I'm a solid player."
Team Liquid Top Laner Jeong "Impact" Eon-yeong has hope that the amount of experience that Team Liquid has amongst the players on its roster will be a boon to the NA champion. Still, he's aware of the enormous amount TL has to prove:
"That's why we should do well on the international stage. I'll go back to Korea early and practice soloqueue myself. I learned that setting a goal is so important. It makes me run more, do more, practice more.
In this year, I set a goal at MSI and Worlds. I'll show TL fans that TL is not a loser in the international stage anymore."
Team Liquid enter the match against Phong Vũ Buffalo as the favorites, but the LCS darling has been in the favored position in every one of its matchups this year. TL are familiar with the burden of excellence and the expectations that come with it, and will look to build upon its Group Stage exit at the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational.
Phong Vũ Buffalo have clear tools to succeed. Meliodas impressed in Round 1 of the Play-In with 74% Kill Participation. Zeros showed immense carry potential despite a relatively one-dimensional pattern of play. BigKoro had a fantastic group stage. Unfortunately, Team Liquid outclasses Phong Vu Buffalo in every role on an individual level. Zeros will have far less upside against the likes of Impact, who showed in the LCS Spring Finals that he had no issue playing carry Top Laners:
"I was used to playing tanks because tanks are easiest to make plays. It wasn't that I wasn't able to play carry champions. This year, I focused really hard on practicing carry champions, which is why I was really comfortable on stage today. I think there's still room for improvement, though."
Impact's right about there being room for improvement, but the Top Laner has made nearly a decade-long career out of resilience, even when being put off balance. Even if Zeros and Meliodas are able to stay a step ahead of Impact and TL Jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero in the early game, whether that will lead to anything transferrable against a team on the level of Team Liquid has yet to be seen.
In addition, BigKoro has great presence for PVB in late game teamfights, but it's unclear whether he will be able to make it there against Doublelift and CoreJJ's laning phase. BigKoro and Palette aren't the most lane dominant pair, and what has largely been a dependable strength for PVB could be a question mark depending on the matchup.
In a post-match interview with Rivington Bisland III following the Tie Breaker, Meliodas made it clear the team is not taking its situation lightly:
"For myself, as well as the whole Phong Vũ Buffalo team, we have not performed our best in this group stage of Play-In. We will need to try to be even better to beat Team Liquid, or any other opponent, to get our seed in the main group stage of MSI."
Meliodas stands as PVB's best chance through Team Liquid. The Vietnamese Jungler has consistently controlled the map throughout the MSI Play-In, getting his lanes going and staying a step ahead of the opposing jungler while showcasing a variety of playstyles and picks. Xmithie has struggled internationally in the past, and if Zeros can bring more Jekyll and less Hyde to the series, Phong Vu Buffalo might be able to snowball a favorable Top Side matchup.
Another potential factor in favor of Phong Vũ Buffalo is patch experience. PVB have been playing on this patch on stage for the past week. Team Liquid, as stated previously, has not played on stage since the LCS finals in St. Louis, MO. If PVB want to try and make it through to the MSI main stage on first attempt, it will need to hit TL hard and fast to take advantage of the fact that TL may need more time to become acclimated to the stage.
Regardless of PVB's chances, it is undeniable that Team Liquid comes into the match as the heavy favorite. The individual skill and experience of the players cannot be underestimated, and Phong Vũ Buffalo's strengths do not form an ideal match against a team like Team Liquid. Even if Xmithie is caught off-balance by Meliodas and stage jitters are afoot, it is difficult to imagine Phong Vũ Buffalo smashing more than one TL nexus in its first Knockout Stage.
Team Liquid may drop a game as it finds its footing for the first time on the international stage in 2019, but will dispatch Phong Vũ Buffalo 3-1 and qualify for the main stage of the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational.