For Team Liquid’s Counter-Strike roster, the one constant this year has been flux.
Liquid has played an advanced version of musical chairs with the roster, struggling to find a starting five that didn’t just have the potential to be the best in the region, but also the potential to challenge the best in the world.
Eventually, after multiple changes, Liquid landed on this roster for MLG Columbus:
Eric “adreN” Hoag
Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev
Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella
Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski
Spencer “Hiko” Martin
Liquid managed a top four finish at MLG Columbus with that roster. In EliGE’s words, “It was a fluke.” AdreN was bought in last minute — after being kicked — to be a stand-in. Hiko did the in-game leading even though he had zero prior knowledge. The situation with s1mple deteriorated faster than anyone expected. Liquid had remarkably little time to prepare and every analyst worth his salt predicted nothing good to come from that lineup for that event.
But two positives allowed this miracle run to happen. First, in raw firepower, they were at the time the best lineup to ever be formed in North America. Nitr0 was still in great form and had been the best NA player for a few months. EliGE was another highly-skilled NA player who had helped unlocked nitr0 to reach that form, and the two of them had great explosive entries onto sites. Hiko was once the best NA player and filled out the team as he took the lurk and passive roles. He was also famous for being one of the great clutch players, giving extra confidence to the other players on the team to go crazy. Finally, s1mple had shown the potential to be the best player in the world but had been relegated to lower-tier teams because his personality was too impossible for other teams to work with.
The second factor was a lack of information. No one knew anything about Liquid’s play style or map pool. Liquid lucked out in getting to play its best maps and won them against better teams (the biggest being against Fnatic). This iteration eventually lost to Luminosity in one of the most famous semifinals of Major history where Liquid lost 15 match points across two maps.
The second iteration involving s1mple went to Esports Championship Series and ESL Cologne Major. That lineup had:
Joshua “jdm64” Marzano
Luis “Peacemaker” Tadeu (coach)
This was another temporary lineup, as Liquid had also signed Jacob “Pimp” Winneche to replace s1mple, but due to Valve rules he wasn’t allowed to play at the Major. So the team instead decided to go back to s1mple for one last run.
This roster will go down as one of the big “What ifs” in CS:GO history. If you exclude all of the problems outside of the game, it looked to be a world class roster in every way. Liquid improved on the previous s1mple iteration with even more firepower in the form of jdm64, who was the star AWP player for Counter Logic Gaming and at one point the best NA player. The roster was void of the choking issues that continued to be a problem after the disastrous fall to Luminosity at MLG Columbus. The tactics and map pool were figured out as Peacemaker took the reigns of in-game leading.
On paper, this roster looked like it could be fire. At the ESL Cologne Major, it was more than that. Liquid destroyed everyone except for Virtus.pro and SK Gaming. VP, after that event, went on to win ELEAGUE Season 1 and be crowned as the second best team in the world, while SK beat Liquid and continued its reign as the world’s No. 1 team.
So now we move on to the latest iteration of the Liquid Roster that debuted on LAN at ESL New York:
This roster had two problems off the bat. First, Valve instituted a new role that coaches could not talk except for four pauses and halftime throughout the match. It hurt Liquid’s potential because Peacemaker was hired specifically for that role. Instead, the team must now decide between the five players in the server who is to lead.
None of those players has experience at in-game leading, and none of them seems to want to do it. Nitr0, EliGE and jdm64 shouldn’t, as they are the star players and should focus on the game. Hiko doesn’t like it, and English is Pimp’s second language. At ESL New York, they let nitr0 do it, but after trying it out quickly dropped it as he passed it off to Hiko. This will likely continue to be a problem, and this team will likely need to use its pauses more tactically than a majority of other teams out there.
Second, though Pimp is a good-to-great player, s1mple was one of a kind. S1mple was in contention for the best player at ESL Cologne and in terms of sheer impact and explosiveness he can bring into a game, the only players that can match him today are Richard “shox” Papillon and Nikola “NiKo” Kovač.
Liquid realized it. The entire dynamic of the team had to change as the stars of the team had to make up for what was lost.
“With s1mple, the team was about setting s1mple up, making sure he was happy, making sure he had the gun he wanted, and making sure everything was going his way,” Hiko told ESPN. “Now it’s more about nitr0, EliGE and jdm64, me and Pimp supporting them. The team looks different; it feels different, and we’re just trying to adapt to it.”
Although these players have not yet reached that level of firepower, they certainly can. EliGE put on a career-best performance at ESL New York, was the clear star of the team and made up for a lot of the slack. The problem came with nitr0 and EliGE. nitr0’s problem is directly connected with the new coaching rule, as it forced him to split his attention between playing and calling. Jdm64’s problem is that he hasn’t been nearly as great on this roster as he was on the CLG roster, so there is something not quite gelling between him and the rest of the team to enable him to perform at those same levels. It’s fine for him to be inconsistent, but he’s an important piece as they need all three firing if Liquid wants to beat the likes of Natus Vincere, VP and SK.
This is mitigated a bit by the role players Pimp and Hiko, who both also bring firepower to the team. Both have taken up the roles the other three don’t want to help fill, and both have proven their skill in those roles. Pimp especially was impressive at consistently doing damage, getting his kills and winning some critical rounds that helped swing games in Liquid’s favor.
The final question remaining is where does the ESL New York result lie on the performance scale of Team Liquid? Were they playing out of their minds? Was this an average performance or below average? It’s difficult to judge and can go either way. Hiko taking up leading duties frees nitr0 to be a star player. They can still get more out of jdm64, especially if he hits the level of consistency he had on CLG. It can also spiral downward. Teams will slowly figure them out and there isn’t a guarantee in the form of their players. In addition, their lack of a top-level in-game leader might hurt Liquid against tactical teams.
While I’m hesitant to call them the best NA team based on one event, on paper they have the fewest weaknesses and the most potential upsides of any team in the region, and their continued evolution in a world without s1mple is intriguing to watch.
Cover photo by Patrick Strack/ESL, eslgaming.com