SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Surrounded by spotlights and a green-screen backdrop for preseason photoshoots at the LCS Arena just outside of Los Angeles last week, Jake "Xmithie" Puchero could not keep a straight face. A smile cracked through his serious stare into the camera. The League of Legends jungler for Team Liquid uncrossed his arms and shifted his feet, shaking his head with a laugh. Just to the left of the bright studio lights, teammate and recent arrival to Liquid, Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in, was scanning his phone.
"You should do it like this," CoreJJ said, pulling up an image of Sailor Moon's Usagi Tsukino in her signature pose. CoreJJ crossed his arms in a perfect recreation, his phone still in hand.
"I can't do it," Xmithie said, still smiling. In front of him, Riot Games photographer Colin Young-Wolff, trying not to laugh, gestured to a pile of props that included plush poros and a large Tibbers teddy bear.
Xmithie settled for a simple smile and a relaxed stance while CoreJJ continued to browse his phone for pose inspiration. In the hallway outside, Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen, Liquid's other offseason acquisition to the main lineup was chatting about his recent birthday and love of sparkling water with team manager Michael Artress.
"Guess what I got you for your birthday?" Artress asked.
"No? No way!"
Jensen bounced a bit on his heels, before leaning against the wall and beaming as Artress told him that a home carbonation machine was on its way to Jensen's door. The mid laner would now be able to make all the sparkling water he wanted. He later admitted that he used to have trouble drinking the recommended amount of water until he discovered sparkling water. This precipitated a surprisingly lengthy discussion on sparkling water, the ubiquitous LaCroix brand, and various fruit flavor combinations with Liquid bot laner Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and Liquid Academy jungler Michael "MikeYeung" Yeung.
"It's been really great actually," Jensen later said of his new team, joining Team Liquid after holding down the mid lane for Cloud9. "The new team is super good. Everything about it is better, right now at least."
As he and his teammates made their way through Riot Games' features day, taking photographs for the broadcast assets while being shuffled in and out of video or sit-down interviews, a smile rarely left his face. This new Liquid team has a more relaxed quality about it.
The Team Liquid of last year, with Eugene "Pobelter" Park in the mid lane and support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung, had a strong, indomitable air about it. The team was serious and professional. A bit like Team SoloMid in late 2016 and most of 2017, last year's Liquid had dominion over the North American League of Legends Championship Series and an acknowledged distance that set it apart. This coincided with the grand opening of Liquid's Alienware Training Facility with an organizational commitment to moving away from a gaming house setup and more toward a professional work environment. The team's domestic results showed the benefits of this system. Come summer, no other North American team could really touch Team Liquid. Even when Liquid dropped a game, its comeback and ascension to the top of the LCS seemed inevitable.
Now with Jensen and CoreJJ, Liquid has more international experience on the team, yet its atmosphere is a lot looser out of game.
"The experience of playing with this team is really nice," Doublelift said. "It's five extremely individually-talented players, also accomplished players. I feel like, even though I might be the face of the team, I might be the least qualified, since everyone else has gone much further internationally. We have two world champions. Jake went to second place at MSI and Jensen is always a really clutch player at worlds so it's different. It's a really different team than any team I've been on before."
Previously, Jensen's only experience in North America was on C9, which brought him onto the team in 2015 after the face of C9, Hai "Hai" Du Lam, retired before returning to the lineup as a jungler. Jensen's time on C9 was successful, but he admittedly has felt a lot of pressure through the years. Now on a team of veteran players only, that weight has lifted.
"I'm not saying that Liquid is relaxed, but it's just a better environment for me to be in," Jensen said. "Everyone just wants to win but everyone understands that sometimes people make mistakes and I think the approach we have to fixing those mistakes is a lot healthier."
This sentiment was echoed by Doublelift, who reiterated that his own internal pressures have affected past performances, but that he had an attitude change beginning with last year's Liquid lineup.
"For me, being relaxed is really important," Doublelift said. "After my first failure, it started compounding and I started getting into my own head. I wasn't playing my game. This last year I just focused on clearing my mind and playing like I was playing against a [lesser player]. That worked out pretty well."
Team Liquid was the best team in North America last year by a significant margin, yet faltered on the two largest international stages, and even fell to a struggling Splyce at the Rift Rivals North America vs. Europe tournament. By adding CoreJJ and Jensen to the lineup, this is something that Liquid aims to change in 2019.
"I was going to say that if there's ever a time that I'm going to win NA LCS it's going to be this time," Jensen said. "But I think my goal in a sense is bigger than NA LCS. My goal is much bigger than that. I want to win an international tournament."
Doublelift was a bit more reserved.
"Well I'm just hoping I get carried," Doublelift said with a laugh. "The goal is to do well in NA. That's a short-term goal for sure. You can't do well at MSI unless you make it here.
"We're not looking to come out of the gate saying, 'We're going to do well at worlds' when we haven't even made it yet because that's a bit," he pauses for a moment. "Extremely cocky. And I'm extremely humble."