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League of Legends Team Liquid

The Sophomore Slump: Understanding Tactical’s Struggles

CoreJJ interview

It’s a real thing.

Back in 2019, members of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective reported that there is a trend athletes in the NFL experiencing a dip in their performance after their first year. In 2012, it was reported by the Education Advisory Board that 6 percent of students at state flagship campuses leave in their second year. This information has led to schools across the country try to implement programs to help sophomores avoid the “slump.” They’re still working on it.

The slump is a result of new expectations while young adults are still finding their footing. In college, students are expected to select their major, begin to think about their future careers, balance their social lives while maneuvering through a dynamic and competitive environment.

It is no different in professional sports. Rookies that come in hot are expected to keep up their high level of performance but with the added aspect that they are now “known.” There’s a lot more film on them and a lot more media attention.

Edward “Tactical” Ra is finding this out the hard way. After replacing Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng in 2020, Team Liquid looked to put the rookie in a position to succeed. Paired with arguably the best support in the west in Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, his raw mechanics shined in performances. Despite making questionable decisions, Team Liquid were simply able to brush it off.

This year, not so much.

Saving the Day

Doublelift was not well-liked at the end of his Team Liquid run. Wearing out his welcome, his individual performance along with his attitude during a time of turmoil with the team wasn’t a good look. But magically, things get resolved when one joins a fan-favorite franchise, despite the organization kicking an imported player just a split into his tenure.

Seriously, that was messed up, even if it worked out for all parties involved.

Team Liquid turned to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for A Hero” for guidance in their next pick-up. Tactical was mechanically strong, quick to pick-up the Team Liquid system and more importantly, he was new. Announced as the starter after performing well in his limited appearances, it was the perfect opportunity for Tactical. He had a new head coach that would look to gain an understanding of what is going on with the team and he was surrounded by top veterans and he was in a skill position.

Their 15-3 regular season performance was impressive. Having an incredibly conservative playstyle played into the strengths of their veterans while also hiding the potential weaknesses of their marksman. CoreJJ would deservingly be crowned “Most Valuable Player” for his performance. Tactical would win “Rookie of the Split” and be tagged as the future of the region. Team Liquid were just this incredible team that rarely had their style of play contested in the regular season. They were at deflecting pressure but not necessarily go aggressive. It’s why only CoreJJ would make the first team “All-Pro Team.”

Directional Change

Joshua “Jatt” Leesman spent most of the off-season discussing how the team would look to improve their pace of play. They’ve turned an average game time of 35.4 minutes into an average game time of 32.2 minutes — second quickest in the league. Pretty impressive.

But at what cost?

It’s not in the early game– they’re actually incredible in the early game. Their average gold lead at 15 minutes is 2096, they sit at the top of the standings in first turret percentage (89%), first three turrets percentage (78%), herald control rate (78%). They’re second in first dragon rate (67%) but once again top of the LCS in dragon control rate (64%). Tactical is marginally performing better in lane this split compared to his summer of 2020 performance — seeing an improvement in his gold difference (+7), experience difference (+1) and creep score difference at 15 minutes(+1.2).

It’s the mid to late game.

They are the only team in the LCS to average a gold lead at 15 minutes (374) in their losses this split. They’re the only team in the LCS to have not secured an elder dragon. Their dragon control rate plummets to 33%. They do not secure barons in their losses.

But they’ve also changed their allocation of resources.

This split, Tactical is averaging professional career lows in percentage of his team’s creeps post-15 minutes (28.5%) and percentage of the team’s economy (25.1%). As a result, there’s a dip in his damage output. Instead, gold has been moved towards the top of the map. Barney “Alphari”  Morris is making up 23.9% of the team’s economy this split — which doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the summer of 2020, Jeong “Impact” Eon-young made up 20.1%. It has paid off well for the team, as Alpahri is topping the team in damage numbers, but does limit that push for the next item for your marksman.

There’s the adaptation to the new team and then there’s the adaptation to the meta. Tactical’s most played champions last summer were Ashe (7W-4L), Ezreal (4W-2L) and Aphelios (4W-0L). This season, including the Lock-In tournament, he’s been playing Samira (4W-3L), Tristana (4W-2L) and Aphelios (4W-1L). He’s been in positions to be a lot more aggressive, more in your face. At times, it has worked out well but other times, he overextends as a Tristana and Doublelift flames him on his livestream.

Despite clear positioning mistakes, a lot of the “big” problems can be connected to the environment change. Alphari and Impact, while both being incredibly talented, play different games. Lucas “Santorin” Larsen is more active than Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen. CoreJJ continues to evolve his game as a support. These changes can impact someone still acclimating to the professional stage. And then the middle of the pack in North America has improved dramatically this season.  It has led to a lot of upsets and more volatility in match-ups. Team Liquid hasn’t been able to get away with their mistakes or mishaps.

And they’re still a 12-6 team in the LCS, 3rd overall and won the Lock-In tournament.

It’s Fixable

This should be the most important thing — that this slump is temporary.  While one part is the player, the other part is that there is something wrong with the system. Tactical is no longer having the same treatment as he had as a rookie. He’s still finding out what he can and cannot get away with — similar to how a quarterback learns what passes they can and cannot get away with.

It’s crazy how such a short period of time can change one’s perception of things.

He’s expected to act like a seasoned veteran when his one-year anniversary as the starter of Team Liquid will be in late April. Team Liquid hasn’t done the best job of helping with his transition given the expectations of the line-up. Then again, they might be expecting things to happen naturally. That if Tactical is “that dude,” he will figure it out.

The hope is that with time and patience, this will blow over. Tactical is still a great player. He’s had the luxury of playing with one of the best supports in the region and it’s helped as a crutch, but it doesn’t mean that he isn’t able to walk on his own. It’s on Team Liquid to improve their approach to talent development, understanding that development doesn’t just stop after one split.

This is really the first time Tactical has had to adapt on the professional stage and it comes with some growing pains. Playing for a top organization as a rookie in a skill position and not falling on your face is impressive enough. If he isn’t the type of player Team Liquid need right now, that’s understandable. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a bad player.

Give him time. Let him make mistakes and learn from them without fear.

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