Has the Door Closed on Dardoch?

*original title rejected by editor –  TL Dardoch 2: Electric Boogaloo* 

Reports of Counter Logic Gaming Jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett joining Team Liquid yesterday left the North American League of Legends scene reeling.  While not having the best individual split of his career,  Dardoch has served effectively as the activator for Counter Logic Gaming.  Top Laner Darshan Upadhyaya has enjoyed a resurgence since Dardoch joined the squad, and CLG is sitting just one game out of first place.  While the substitutions of Omar “Omargod” Amin after losses with Dardoch may have raised an eyebrow or two, Dardoch’s sudden migration to Team Liquid was one of the most unexpected roster moves in NA LCS history.

[Photo courtesy of Riot Games]

The Story So Far

When CLG traded Jake “Xmithie” Puchero to Immortals for Dardoch, the Jungler swap marked the end of an era.  Up until that point, CLG had stuck with the same roster for three full splits, including an unforgettable run at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational.  They were branded as the “friendship” team, hitting peaks that were far more than the sum of their parts and valuing chemistry over individual ability.

However, the cracks were widening in CLG’s plot armor: since their Grand Finals appearance against SK Telecom T1 at MSI 2016, CLG finished 4th place in the 2016 NA LCS Summer Split, did the same in the playoffs, and failed to leave groups at the 2016 World Championship.

After another fourth place finish in the 2017 NA LCS Spring Split, they were reverse swept by a struggling FlyQuest in the Quarterfinals. It was the worst playoff performance for CLG’s Golden Five, and changes were made.  Dardoch was the hard carry jungler the team needed; someone who was more aggressive than the crafty Xmithie, who could steer the early game with authority before handing the reigns to Captain Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black to bring CLG the rest of the way.

When Dardoch came to CLG, the move was generally well-received.   CLG were never going to be a contender with the Xmithie lineup again, and Dardoch was the shot in the arm they needed at the potential risk of behavioral issues.  However, in context of  Dardoch’s alleged behavior problems, Team Liquid haven’t exactly brought it all together in the post-Dardoch era.  It was easy to look at the mess and say, “See? Their team environment was abysmal and he was a young star player with a lot of pressure on him. It was the org’s fault.  He was just frustrated.”

Which is why it made sense for Immortals to take a chance on Dardoch as well.  When they won a game, it was almost entirely because of him.  Despite an 8-10 record for Immortals in the Spring Split, Dardoch amassed 12 Player of the Game awards.    For better or worse, Immortals was playing League of Dardoch, and it worked about half the time.

So, once Dardoch lasted one split in a 3 year contract with Immortals – at the time a 7th place team with little to no hopes for a Worlds berth –  it was easy to look at that and say “Well, he was the only player on that team doing anything! Of course he’s frustrated. Immortals can’t put a team together for their star Jungler to succeed with!”

Dardoch’s true test came in the form of…

[Photo courtesy of Riot Games]

Counter Logic Gaming

 

It had to be CLG.  In the off-season following the Season 5 World Championship, CLG cut their best player due to behavior despite him coming off of an MVP caliber summer. The community figured that CLG, or at least Aphromoo, would not tolerate any type of truly dysfunctional behavior.  This was Dardoch’s true test: a team deserving of his skills with a track record of success at the highest level.

CLG cited culture clash in their announcement, mentioning that Dardoch was “unwilling to adhere to the set of standards expected of every member of the team.”  They even admitted that the move to a six-man roster with Omargod was done in an effort to show Dardoch what a team of five players on the same page could accomplish.

Given CLG’s long-standing emphasis on team chemistry, it makes sense that they would prefer Omargod to Dardoch going forward.  CLG has an established core — outside of the Jungle position, their four players have played hundreds of games together.  It makes sense that the front office would much rather go with someone they feel good about as a teammate and try to maximize them as a player than continue to try to integrate tumultuous talent.

This isn’t to apologize for Omargod, either.  He has only played four games with CLG, but has shown he knows how to coordinate with Aphromoo and set up plays around the map.  It’s short-sighted at this point to call him a definitive downgrade.  He needs more time before he becomes a known commodity.  Dardoch served as a catalyst to get CLG going, but his stat line for the season wasn’t eye-popping.   CLG would rather bet on their own man and try to win with a united team of 5 at risk of an individual downgrade being their undoing than allow a rift in their team synergy snowball into a Breaking Point sequel.

With Omargod, CLG may lose a playoff series they may have won with a different Jungler.  With Dardoch, they could lose everything.  That’s almost certainly the conclusion the front office came to, and given their experience with negative PR and volatile personalities in the past, it makes sense they’d be so quick to cut ties with Dardoch once things went south.

If one can assume this is CLG’s take on the situation, their choices make sense.  Even if you disagree with them, they fall right in line with the organization’s core values and culture.

Which brings us to…

Team Liquid

This is the part no one saw coming.  Dardoch off of CLG? Maybe.  Dardoch back to Team Liquid? Unthinkable.

Dardoch has not kept his feelings about Team Liquid to himself — this is from earlier this month— and Team Liquid already has two Junglers in hefty off-season acquisition Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin and mid-season pickup of Rami “Inori” Charagh.  When Team Liquid signed former ROX Tigers Mid Laner Sun “Mickey” Yong-min earlier this week, it was safe to assume that they would either play Greyson “GoldenGlue” Gilmer in the mid lane with Reignover jungling, or Inori in the jungle with Mickey in the mid lane.  Assuming AD Carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin will continue to start all games, this would let Team Liquid see which starting five works best for them without exceeding the import limitations on their roster.

Then they signed Dardoch.

What could Team Liquid possibly be thinking?  The “Breaking Point” collapse was that of a top team.  This team is not a top team.  If Dardoch’s behavior was an issue on a good Team Liquid team, how is he going to be tamed in this vortex of disappointment and community vitriol?

Cain.

The answer has to be Team Liquid’s new Head Coach Jang “Cain” Nu-ri.  The differences in Korean coaching and North American coaching has been a hot subject in the NA LCS, with Korean coaches often leading with a far more authoritative style. It’s worth noting that Dardoch has never had a Korean coach, and that has to be the only thing that Team Liquid is banking on.

However, Cain has been coaching Team Liquid for almost the entire summer.  Even if Cain were to be able to tame Dardoch, Team Liquid’s problems run far deeper than any individual player. Reignover was signed to a two-year contract because he was the best Jungler in North America. Piglet was brought back in the off-season because his burnout seemed team environment related; he looked like one of the best AD Carries in the world in 2016 Spring when the team was surging.

Neither of them have looked anywhere near the top of their role all year.

Team Liquid could always assemble something similar to their 2016 spring lineup with their current parts though.  It’d look something like this:

Sampson “Lourlo” Jackson – Top

Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett – Jungle

Sun “Mickey” Yong-min – Mid

Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin – ADC

Matt “Matt” Elento – Support

That would be the exact same roster TL had in spring of 2016 with Mickey in place of Kim “Fenix” Jae-hun in the mid lane.   Maybe, with Cain at the helm, this team could have the pieces to be a contender once again.

Realistically, that’s probably not going to happen. Lourlo looks outmatched by a majority of the NA LCS Top Laners, Mickey is a shadow of his former self (and has been historically inconsistent to boot), and whatever synergy Piglet and Matt had fell down a well and died when no one heard its cries for help. Putting Dardoch in the jungle is not going to singlehandedly fix this team.

At this point, it’s hard to fault TL for trying, but the results being anything but the same as the rest of their zany experiments this year would be a surprise.

[Photo Courtesy of Yahoo]

Looking Forward

Dardoch’s behavioral problems loomed over anything said about him in the off-season, but Team Liquid’s infamous “Breaking Point” documentary showed that while Dardoch acted inappropriately, he certainly wasn’t the only party to blame.  One could understand the frustration of a star player – especially one so young –  in a complete and total collapse of a top team.  While he may not have his expressed his feelings well, Dardoch didn’t come out of Breaking Point looking like THE bad guy, just one of many people who contributed to a toxic environment.

Further, it’s hard to ignore that Immortals have become the best western team since replacing Dardoch.  Xmithie is having a career split and the team is firing on all cylinders. Lee “Flame” Ho-Jong has looked otherworldly since the arrival of Head Coach Kim “SSONG” Sang-soo.  Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung and Cody “Cody Sun” Sun are the best bot lane in North America after struggling to find synergy throughout the first half of spring.  Whether it was bad chemistry with Dardoch or just a slump, Mid Laner Eugene “Pobelter” Park is back to his old self as well.  With a far more comprehensive understanding of macro play than any of their competitors, this might be the best Immortals team yet.  That can’t all be blamed on Dardoch.

But it sure looks ugly when Team Liquid, Immortals, and Counter Logic Gaming all have cited the same problems with Dardoch when removing him from their respective rosters.  Let’s imagine Dardoch’s stay on Team Liquid won’t extend past this split, where does he have left to go?

CLG and Immortals are off the table for obvious reasons.  Phoenix1, Cloud 9, Echo Fox, and FlyQuest already have young talented junglers.  Dardoch would be a marginal upgrade for a few of these teams, maybe, but there’s not a big enough skill gap between any of these teams’ current Junglers and Dardoch to justify signing someone who has proven to be a liability.  Dignitas moving Lee “Shrimp” Byeong-hoon to the starting Jungler position has been a revelation for both player team.  Team EnVyUS is enjoying their greatest LCS split in the history of their organization and have the all-NALCS Spring 2017 Jungler in Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo. The only team that even REMOTELY makes sense for Dardoch is…

No, not yet at least.  However, it would be an interesting Season 8 team if Doublelift retires and TSM substitute Rasmus “MrRalleZ” Skinneholm becomes the starting AD Carry for TSM. Doublelift’s behavior problems seemed to evaporate once he joined TSM, and…

Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen has struggled, but he still has high ceilings and tends to show up big on the international stage, historically.  The whole point of this exercise is to illustrate that Dardoch has potentially exhausted the best opportunities of his career through his unwillingness to grow as a teammate, and that it’s time to stop making excuses for him.  TL had infrastructural issues? Fine.  Immortals was struggling with synergy and identity? Sure.  But Dardoch’s recent parting with CLG shows that no matter what type of environment he is given, he will inevitably be defeated by his toughest opponent: himself.

Dardoch needs to accept that he’s entering an absolute wasteland of team morale on Team Liquid.  If he can accept that he and he alone is responsible for dropping from a second place team to a seventh place one, he can turn heads in a positive way by bringing a fresh, open-minded perspective to a team who so desperately needs it.  Doing so would certainly maximize his playtime, allowing himself the opportunity to grow as a teammate and put on a good showing for a future team’s interest.  Maybe he will grow, and Team Liquid will recognize that growth and use their check book properly this time to build a solid team around an older, more mature Dardoch.

For now, however, the door has closed on Dardoch, and he has no one to blame but himself. The talent that made so many teams willing to give him chance after chance is still there, and the value of being a North American resident is higher than ever.

If Dardoch the teammate can rise to the level of Dardoch the player, then the sky is the limit.  And then, he won’t have to worry about the door.  He’ll shoot right through the ceiling.