In the 2017-18 North American League of Legends Championship Series offseason, Team Liquid took center stage, claiming the spotlight ahead of even perennial powerhouse Team SoloMid. Starting with jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero and mid laner Eugene "Pobelter" Park, the team assembled a well-known, talented lineup around star AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng.
The last puzzle piece for TL was top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, who had spent the past year and a half building his own NA legacy with Cloud9, rising to prominent and memetic status during C9's 2016 gauntlet run and the phrase "top die." Following the loss of Impact and jungler Juan "Contractz" Arturo Garcia, the latter of whom made a strong rookie debut in 2017, the community declared that C9 had "lost the offseason." Their concerns were exacerbated when C9 picked up former eUnited top laner Eric "Licorice" Ritchie to replace the veteran Impact.
Licorice immediately impressed in 2018 NA LCS Spring as C9 adapted to ensure that he was set up for success. Previously, Impact was often left alone, usually on tank champions, trusted to survive and be useful in mid-to-late game teamfights when it was time to group. With Licorice, then-support Andy "Smoothie" Ta frequently rotated top side, supporting his lane with vision and pressure. After receiving early support, Licorice easily snowballed his own advantages, taking over in teamfights on the likes of Gangplank, Kled, and Camille. Despite C9's early playoff exit courtesy of TL, Licorice established himself as a formidable up-and-coming top laner and won the Rookie of the Split award.
Well before Smoothie was traded mid-summer split to Echo Fox, Licorice had already evolved into a more well-rounded player whose onstage champion choices had also developed into a more team-oriented pool. Tanks, according to Licorice, are actually more difficult to transition into as a new pro player than carries, where there's more of a one-to-one translation between the solo carry style found on the ladder and sometimes in the challenger or academy series.
"As I learn more about the game tanks are just... I think they're hard when you're new," Licorice said. "Whereas a carry champion if you're good at them you just go kill someone. It's a pretty simple concept. But on tanks there's a lot you have to do."
He also attributed the shift in his role to how teams approach playoffs with more team-oriented.
"It always seems like the closer you get to playoffs, the more top laners in particular are just like, 'Yeah I can just play a tank. Maybe I'll lose some CS but we can just fight them.' So it seems like it always shifts by the end of summer split going into Worlds it's just that top laners are just like, 'I guess I could just play tanks here.' And it's so much easier."
This has allowed Licorice to have a slightly larger role in C9's communication system, which in turn has given C9 a stable top lane presence throughout the summer split.
"I think I have a pretty big voice in the mid-to-late game and then in the early game I'm just kind of in my lane. I think it works pretty well," Licorice said. "It always felt to me that top laners should be a pretty big voice in the mid-to-late game since you're always the moving piece. Sometimes I'll ask if we want to fight here, or the team will be yelling, 'We want to fight!' It's really just a team call."
C9 came under fire from the community again for early-split roster swaps at the beginning of 2018 NA LCS Summer. Star bot laner Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, star mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen, and Smoothie sat on the bench for C9's first four games while the organization's academy mid laner Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer and bot laner Yuri "Keith" Jew started in their stead. These substitutions slowly evolved into a seven-man roster with two mid/jungle duos: Svenskeren with Goldenglue, and rookie Robert "Blaber" Huang with Jensen.
Licorice's consistent play from the top lane gave the team a necessary pivot point. While the rest of the roster changed around him, Licorice supported the team with strong tank performances on Mundo, Shen and Ornn.
"There's been one player there through it all so uh..." Licorice said. He laughed and immediately returned focus to the entire team. "No, I mean, we just have seven really strong players right now that we're using really well so losing early kind of forced us to look at all of our mistakes and figure out exactly what we were missing. We learned a lot as a team."
C9 has historically been successful in raising rookie talent and Licorice isn't even the latest iteration of this, with Blaber and Zeyzal finishing first and second, respectively, in Rookie of the Split voting this summer. Licorice credited Reapered for his own smooth transition on to the LCS stage. In a situation where players could have grown resentful of the constant substitutions, Licorice said that Reapered has kept them focused on winning above all else.
"He likes to flame his players a lot," Licorice said, laughing. "But you can tell he really, really cares about all of us and about winning. I think he's by far the best coach I've ever had. Everyone just really wants to win and Reapered makes sure that we're all on the same page, that we're just here to win as much as possible."
Now, C9 will face TL, and former top-laner Impact, again in the playoffs, yet the focus has shifted away from the top lane and more towards the two teams' differing approaches to the game. TL has a veteran lineup with some of the best native NA talent in the LCS, where C9 has a seven-man rotating roster that can reset and shift focus depending on who starts without losing coordination. Licorice's quiet, consistent success is but one example of C9's approach.