-- It was only two weeks ago that Team Liquid was the only winless team in the league. Veteran jungler Christian "IWillDominate" Rivera had retired from professional play, and the reigning regular season champions were in a transition period. Already having to deal with the suspension-then-retirement of star top lane Diego "Quas" Ruiz and then find his replacement -- Samson "Lourlo" Jackson, a rookie to the LCS -- Liquid appeared to be a team on the downturn. The young players they were bringing in to replace their veterans had shown great promise on their junior team, Team Liquid Academy, but the 0-3 start put them at a disadvantage that could have snowballed out of control with one or two more losses.
Since their back-to-back losses to the finalists from the last split, Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming, the young guns of Liquid have come alive to help the organization regain back its standing in the league. They've reeled off four wins in a row, with Saturday's victory against Dignitas being their best so far in this early stage of the season. The game only lasted a few seconds after the 30-minute mark, and Liquid only allowed one death during their 18-1 blowout of their longtime rivals in black and yellow.
At the center of Liquid's youth revolution has been the 17-year-old who took Dominate's starting job in the jungle, Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett. An amateur player that has bounced around various Challenger teams in the past year, Dardoch has finally found a home on Team Liquid. Following Dominate's after the end of Liquid's 0-2 opening weekend, the aggressive North American-bred talent took over versus TSM at the beginning of Week 2. His debut was nearly perfect, with Liquid controlling a majority of the match, but the wheels started to come off when his hasty dives on Elise started to work against him. After an overextension that allowed TSM to come back, Team Liquid faced their third loss in a row.
"I played traditional sports through middle school and early high school, but I got kinda bored of that," Dardoch told ESPN following Saturday's game. "So I started playing PC games with my brother."
Now five games into his professional career, Dardoch has been able to shake off some of those solo queue bad habits that plagued him in his first start. His games leading up to the Dignitas match went well, but his Saturday matinee dissection of his opponent is what will be seen as his true breakout performance as a professional. Dardoch went a staggering 10-0-6 on Nidalee, ending the game with a clean triple kill to put a stamp on his impressive performance.
"Everyone was pretty happy when [Matthew 'Matt' Elento and I] moved up," Dardoch said. "Most of our first games together were pretty bad, and we just see us improving [each day] in scrims, so everyone's pretty happy."
When talking about if he feels like he's the top jungler in North America, the confident rookie stated that while he believes he's one of the best in the region, he can't say for sure until he proves himself against the other top jungler talent in the league.
"I don't necessarily watch a jungle and copy their style, but I do copy on their signature champions. Like, I learned Nidalee from [Lee 'Rush' Yoon-jae], and I learned Lee Sin from SBENU's jungler [Sung 'Flawless' Yeon-jun]."
Dardoch studies the ROX Tigers more than any other team, the current leaders in Korea's league. The Tigers have gotten off to a spectacular start, not dropping any matches in their first four weeks and getting a small bit of revenge for the 2015 Summoner's Cup Finals, by beating SK Telecom T1 in a regular season match. Dardoch appreciates the Tigers' ability to know where the enemy is at all times while placing the least amount wards per minute in their region.
Does he believe the Tigers are the best team in the world?
"Yeah, they're the best team in the world for sure," he said.
At the age where most kids decide which university they want to go to or what career path they want to begin after high school, Dardoch is committed to making the pro-gamer life a reality. Instead of feeling nervous from the extra attention he's gotten over the past few weeks with his stellar play, he's happy that people are finally getting to see him at his best.
"It makes me more relieved than nervous that people finally know what I am," he said. "I'm going to be one the best players in NA in the next coming splits or years."
Sunday will be the biggest test in the jungler's fledgling career. He'll be able to face off against a player he'll need to beat if he wants the title of North America's strongest jungler in Immortals' Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin. The 7-0 Immortals continued their undefeated run against Counter Logic Gaming on Saturday, making Sunday's showdown between Immortals and Liquid a match between the two hottest teams right now. It will either be Immortals' undefeated season or Liquid's four-game winning streak that comes to an end.
"They're a really great team," Dardoch said. "I'm friends with a few of the players on the team, and I think it's going to be a fun game. Hopefully we win, but if not -- it's [not the end of the world]."