At ESL One Cologne 2016, a pause seemed to halt the semifinal match between Fnatic and Team Liquid. No one knew it was a pause at the time. At first, all fans saw was a regular round until Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski inexplicably shot two of his teammates in the back. The double team kill caused a huge roar of shock amid the casters and the crowd. It turned out later that one of their opponents’ PCs had gone haywire, and they had unofficially requested a timeout in chat. EliGE, undeterred, went on to open up the A site with three entry kills and secured the round. Liquid proceeded to defeat Fnatic before being convincingly destroyed by SK Gaming in the finals.
That moment of extreme confusion, fear, shock, and triumph — ultimately ending in crushing despair — has been the essence of the Team Liquid experience since 2015. Although the team kill became a moot point, it proved an astute metaphor for Team Liquid’s internal struggles that have plagued the team to this day. Infighting, coaching problems, roster problems, the Valve rule, seating arrangements — Liquid always seemed on the verge of breaking down. For years, the Liquid CS:GO squad was a perpetually fragile arrangement.
If that team kill was a metaphor for the struggles the team faced, then the following round, and Liquid’s run at that Major, stood as a testament to the pure potential that always resided in that team. No matter how critics lamented the poor coordination and ego wars within the rosters, they eagerly hoped those woes would subside so the team could harness the true strength of their players. Team Liquid excels at recognizing talent and has a no-holds-barred attitude toward spending money to acquire it. Its pickups during this period, from koosta to S1mple to Twistzz, were universally acknowledged as great moves in theory. “Winning is all that matters” was the guiding philosophy of both the players and the organization.
Playing Musical Chairs
In some ways that ethos was established by Spencer “Hiko” Martin, even though he left five months ago. During the prime of his career, Hiko had a choice to make. Either he could stay on Cloud9 — with little hope the team would prioritize winning over comfort — or bet it all on a potential superstar team that could potentially be a world class competitor. He chose the latter, and his entire career since then has been informed by that one decision. Hiko’s recruitment to Team Liquid came with his philosophical approach to the game. Every move the team made has been with the aim to be the best. Every subsequent roster change focused on the skill and ambition of the newcomers:
Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev had the talent to be among the best in the world. Besides his natural skill, he had the work ethic and ambition to constantly refine his individual skill. But he was one of the most insubordinate players in the scene, which led him to being kicked from multiple CIS teams. When Hiko gave him a chance to play in NA, s1mple took it and proved to the world he was one of the best players in CS:GO.
Kenneth “koosta” Suen was a rising talent among the field of NA players. He was recruited when Liquid needed an AWPer, but internal issues with teammates and inexperience with playing at a higher level eventually had koosta move to CLG, where he has recently risen to the level Liquid envisioned he could attain.
Luis “peacemaker” Tadeu was a successful coach of Tempo Storm and Immortals. But he wanted to prove he could replicate his system on an international squad. After joining Liquid, he served an integral role in getting the team to the Cologne Major finals. He eventually left after disputes with Liquid’s management.
Before he joined Liquid, Joshua “jdm64” Marzano was considered the best pure AWPer in North America. He was formerly the star player of CLG but decided to leave his team for greener pastures. He loved his former teammates but could no longer stand by idle and be satisfied with above average results, not when he could take the reins of his own future into his hands. Like Hiko, he chose an opportunity to become the best over a comfortable life with friends.
Jacob “Pimp” Winneche was recruited because he was a former star player on Copenhagen Wolves and Dignitas. More importantly, he had the burning desire to win. He was willing to drop his social life, friends and family if it meant he could be on a team with championship potential.
Wilton “zews” Prado was the coach of Luminosity/SK during its era of dominance. He quit being a coach because he wanted to try one last shot at being a player, but he was unable to get the Immortals players to follow his lead. He has since been recruited by Team Liquid. He now serves as the spiritual and emotional leader of the team as well as the tactical and strategic advisor.
Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz was the former leader of OpTic and led that team to become a top-tier threat in winning ELEAGUE Season 2. After the ELEAGUE Major, he left the team as he wanted to join an organization and team that was only focused on winning. For that reason, he joined Team Liquid.
Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken was a rising star in the NA scene and Misfits’ best player. He was a player who played all of the roles Liquid needed. Since joining Liquid, he has become the second star of the team.
The roster shuffles of Team Liquid are an actual epic in and of themselves. For two years, it has been a mad chase as Liquid struggled to find the right pieces to create a synergistic roster. After multiple failures and botched chances, it finally feels Team Liquid’s fortunes are looking up. This iteration seems stable, with no apparent internal problems and strong leadership in stanislaw and zews. There has been a dearth of troubling rumors regarding inflated egos, player-coach animosity, or too much coddling of the star talent. Liquid has finally walked out of the valley of the shadow of death; we are witnessing the formation of an NA all-star team forged through their crucible of struggles.
Liquid’s current era
The current era of Team Liquid can be traced back to the end of the 2016 Cologne Major. Despite the amazing run to the finals, the tension within the team threatened to boil over. Drama — from people having hurt feelings to screaming matches with the coach — was ubiquitous, with Hiko having to reluctantly mediate conflicts because no one else wanted to address them. Eventually management was given an ultimatum: either they kept s1mple or they kept EliGE. At the time, s1mple wanted to go home, but he had shown a world class performance at Cologne, and it seemed insane to forsake such a talent right after Liquid’s best showing in CS:GO history. But EliGE was having none of it. He was tired of dealing with s1mple as a teammate, so he gave management a hard choice. Either they could build around EliGE, who had no homesickness and was perhaps the best NA player, or they could take their chances with s1mple. If it was the latter, EliGE was gone.
In that moment the players decided to bet their stakes on EliGE. In that moment, the future of Team Liquid had been decided.
After s1mple had departed, the lineup going forward was:
Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella
With five skilled players and peacemaker at the helm, it seemed Liquid was ready to take on the world. Then the Valve rule came into place, kicking peacemaker out of the role of in-game leader. That was one of the key factors that disrupted Liquid’s initial plans, though in retrospect it was likely the team would have eventually broken up anyway. Despite the kick, the roster still possessed considerable potential. We saw it in their semifinal run at ESL One New York, where they defeated G2 and Fnatic and lost a close series to Natus Vincere. There was something there, all of the players knew it and despite the problems, whatever lay dormant was worth fighting for.
But they could never get it together. The internal problems that plagued Liquid beforehand had persisted, and they were too much to bear. Hiko lost his motivation and could no longer find it in him to practice in his off hours. Players and peacemaker constantly clashed with each other. Eventually peacemaker left after a dispute with management and zews came in to take over the role. He was a better fit as he was much better at conflict resolution, especially in a team with the turbulent personalities Liquid had.
The in-game leader problem didn’t go away, either. It swapped between Hiko and nitr0, neither of whom ever dedicated themselves to the craft. Eventually that was solved again as Liquid recruited stanislaw as in-game leader. Hiko was put on the chopping block as his lack of motivation, coupled with his recent form, made him the target of his own philosophy. If victory was the endpoint, any who lost motivation had to be cut.
The improvements didn’t go over well with everyone. Pimp was left dissatisfied as he was forced into the position 6 role, the role where you get no dedicated spots and your sole job is to help facilitate teammates while you take the hard spots. After a frustrating nine months, Pimp finally hung it up and went inactive. Liquid quickly found a new fifth in Twistzz, a rising star in the NA scene and someone who wanted to play those hardscrabble roles.
Liquid’s results in the first two outings weren’t any reason to write home. Liquid was top 6 (of eight) at the CS Summit and was knocked out of groups at DreamHack Austin. At the ESL Pro League Season 5 Finals, Liquid started to show real progress as a team: they made it out of groups and defeated EnVyUs to reach to the semifinals, where they lost to North. In their latest outing at the ECS Season 3 Finals, they were eliminated in the groups again, but Liquid showed remarkable growth despite placing lower than ESL Pro League. They defeated Fnatic in a best-of-three and had a very close series against Astralis, ultimately losing 2-1.
It wasn’t just the results that were trending up. It seemed like the team was finally starting to gel. Zews seems to have been able to quell the internal conflicts and solved the incessant personality problems that have plagued the team since its inception. Stanislaw has brought tactical acumen as well as noticeable impact as an aggressive lurker. Beyond that, stanislaw and zews have created structure within the team on which the players can thrive. JDM has capitalized on the change in philosophy as the team now plays around his AWP, helping him set up for kills. Twistzz has been seamlessly integrated into the team as a player who takes up the hard roles, but also puts out a consistent amount of fragging power. Interestingly Twistzz has become the second star of the team and as a personality seems to work well with the team. Because of that, there is less pressure on nitr0 to perform. He has been moved to an entry role, which maximizes his aggressive impact and aim. Although he is no longer a consistent force within the team, nitr0’s good performances can put Liquid over the top.
The awe-inspiring player on the team is EliGE. He has been NA’s best player in the last year in terms of impact, consistency and skill against the best international teams. All of Liquid’s best performances against the best competition rely on EliGE performing at his best. Time after time EliGE is the one who is creates plays, gets kills and gives Liquid chances to either win or play competitively. His performance at ECS Season 3 finals was incredible, and he is the key to Liquid’s opportunity to becoming a championship contending team.
There is nothing holding this team back from first becoming the best in NA, then becoming a legitimate challenger on the international stage. Liquid has the coach, leader, players, and a superstar. But can they get all of them working simultaneously? After all, Liquid has always had great rosters on paper. With those internal issues and divisions seemingly put to rest, we seem to have entered a period where Liquid has finally reached its final form. But that was just one strong performance. They’ve had single good events before that never translated into more. So the question for the Liquid fan is: Do you dare to believe?
Cover photo by Helena Kristiansson/ESL, eslgaming.com