Why League of Legends teams rely on last minute roster shakeups

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Team Liquid has raised eyebrows with their latest roster shakeup. The team has been built around World Champion Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, a player known for his incredible AD carry mechanics, and they intend to keep Piglet as the foundation of their team. There’s just one thing that’s changing... he’s going mid lane. Young-bin “Youngbin” Chung will be moving up to the AD carry role to take his place.

This change has a lot of people raising their eyebrows, and in order to understand it you have to understand two things: the first is that a sudden roster change has the chance to inspire the fabled ‘honeymoon period’. The second is that relegations are approaching, and every team is scrambling to get out of the crosshairs before they risk being sent to the depths of Challenger.
It’s no secret that Liquid has been struggling to gain traction this split, but is this risky swap enough to get them up in the standings?

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A lowered bar

The first thing to understand is that these roster swaps are often made to avoid relegations, not to rocket to the top of the team. There’s an old joke where two people are running from a bear, and the guy who’s just ahead of his poor comrade chuckles, because he doesn’t need to worry about outrunning the bear—he just needs to get ahead of the poor sucker behind him. This is essentially how teams start to think as relegations draw close. They just need to get ahead of whichever LCS team is just ahead of them and avoid the bracket. Then, when the clock has reset, they can rebuild (again).

This is a bandaid solution, but sometimes it's necessary to stop the bleeding before you haul a team into the emergency room for major surgery. We’ve seen similar switcharoos before, such as Hai taking Meteos’ place in the jungle on Cloud9 last year, or Xpeke’s continuous returns to Origen. When you’re drowning, success becomes very relative, and sometimes you stop dreaming about playoffs (let alone ranking above fourth place!) and start taking steps to ensure you remain in the LCS.

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The Piglet gambit

There’s just one troubling factor in this whole situation, and it's that we don’t know that Piglet can be a multirole wonder like Hai. In fact, Piglet has sometimes been criticized for being a hyperfocused ADC who struggles to adapt to new metas—how will he switch to a new lane altogether? While scrim results are apparently promising, we have yet to see if this switcheroo will pay off. The team is putting an incredible amount of faith in Piglet; even Youngbin seems to have been selected to make Piglet’s swap more comfortable. Youngbin is not an ADC star. In fact, he’s more well known as a mid lane player.

Team Liquid started the season off with not one but two mid lane talents: Link and Goldenglue. They’re now dismissing both of them and arranging the team to move Piglet into the mid lane. On a purely management, out of game level, this decision looks like everything is centered around the World champion, and that he’s Liquid's last Hail Mary. The question is will this attitude follow the players into in game comms and strategies? Will we see Reignover babysitting mid lane, or will he be allowed to take his own path and roam aggressively? Piglet is a player known to tilt when playing against ADCs he considered inferior to himself—will that carry over to his mid lane play? If so, will teams be able to focus on him and drag the entire Liquid strategy down with him? Unfortunately, scrim results can’t answer any of these questions, and so we’re forced to wait for the new Liquid’s LCS debut.

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Hopes for a honeymoon

We know why Liquid would take this risk: it’s a last, desperate bid to kick EnVyUs outside and climb out of that danger zone. There’s another benefit that they might be hoping to reap. When Hai took Meteos’s place and led Cloud9 out of a similar situation, he commented that roster swaps could lead to a ‘honeymoon effect’. When a team is full of tension, taking out an offender or two and replacing them with a new, fresh face resets those arguments. This isn’t to say that Liquid’s mid laners were at fault, just that a new atmosphere and new team is a way to hit the reset button on morale.

It’s harder to see how the roster swap will affect Liquid. This isn’t a situation where xPeke re-enters the fray and boosts morale with his very presence. Youngbin is a new member of the team, but a relatively untested one. Instead, everything falls on Piglet once again. If those positive scrim results pay off, and Piglet starts dunking on mid laners, hopefully the rest of the team (which contains some measurable talent) will lift their heads and follow his lead.

Many fans find themselves scratching their heads when Hail Mary trades like these ones are announced, but there’s usually a strange sort of logic to them. Liquid have been plagued by the ‘forever fourth’ meme for years now, and now a fourth place finish seems like a perfectly respectable goal for them to aim for, maybe even an over-ambitious one. For now, they need to escape relegation territory. If the organization finds itself in Challenger, they may lose the ability to find the formula they’ve been searching for all these years to finally become North American champions.

Liquid return to the LCS stage this weekend to face Immortals and Echo Fox. Pobelter and Froggen will be the first tests of Piglet in the mid lane. At this point, everything’s up in the air about whether this new strategy will be competitively viable for Liquid, but there’s only one thing that’s important at the moment: they don’t need to outrun the bear. They just need to outrun the other guy.