America is a country for the young. It is a fledgling nation compared to the hallowed realms and empires of history, only boasting a few hundred years under its belt. It is somewhat fitting that NA’s representatives at the upcoming ESL One New York Counter-Strike event will almost be entirely composed of the new generation of stars. For Cloud9, there’s Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham, Jake “Stewie2k” Yip, Timothy “autimatic” ta, Will “RUSH” Wierzba, and Tarik “tarik” Celik. For Team Liquid, the roster is Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Joshua “jdm64” Marzano, Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz, and Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken. Among the players, the only member from the first generation of NA CS:GO stars is Skadoodle. Everyone else has risen up to the upper echelon within the last two years.
Looking back at the scene before 2015, it is shocking how much the pool of NA talent has changed. The old excuse why the NA scene couldn’t compete with EU was that it was bereft of young talent. In reality, the insular hierarchy that developed within NA denied up-and-comers the opportunity to prove themselves. Only after money started to flood the NA scene and high buyouts became a reality did young players get their chances in top teams.
Stewie is emblematic of the generational shift. At the end of 2015, Cloud9 was a disaster. In-game leader Sean Gares had left after the team cooled off from the summer. Cloud9 was left with Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert to try to make things right, but timing left C9 in the lurch as all the prospective free agents had already signed. In a final gamble, Cloud9 decided to pin its hopes on Stewie, a player most famous for his FPL antics. It ended up being the single most important pickup Cloud9 made in the last two years. Stewie’s hunger for competition was tempered by the awe and respect he had for his teammates, players he had seen play in the best competitions worldwide. Gares had left, but the remaining core players were still responsible for Cloud9’s incredible summer run.
As time progressed, it was clear the team needed help. It needed an aggressive star player to provide consistency, and Stewie delivered. When the team needed a leader, he recommended Alec “Slemmy” White before eventually taking on the role himself. When they needed more firepower, he recommended autimatic, who at that point was largely invisible. Besides a stint on Team SoloMid, he had no breakout performances, and no one within the local scene was convinced he would amount to more. Yet Stewie saw something in his friend and persuaded all parties to buy into his belief. Together, the Stewie/autimatic pairing became the strongest tag team in NA and remains the primary reason Cloud9 can claim to be the most consistent team within the region.
In under a year, Stewie had gone from a FPL player to the icon of Cloud9. He was the team’s star player, leader, and the one making the moves to improve the roster. Cloud9 was now his team, whether he realized it or not, and the direction of the team was his to lead.
Elsewhere, Team Liquid sought to establish itself as a real international contender. The squad originally formed in 2015 after Liquid bought out Denial’s squad. Damian “daps” Steele led the roster; the star of the team was Nitr0, someone who had shown real potential when he briefly stood in for IBuyPower. The organization soon recruited EliGE, who would take over as the centerpiece of the roster. EliGE and nitr0 became the core of Liquid, the only two remaining players left from that period. In the meantime, Daps left the roster and went on to lead the proto-version of OpTic.
Liquid’s roster morphed once again when it recruited Spencer “Hiko” Martin. His mantra of “doing whatever it took to win” became part of the team’s DNA as it engaged in some of the most dramatic roster shuffles in CS:GO history. Liquid went out of its way to hire the best talent NA had to offer, raiding the most notable up-and-coming teams.
One such team was Counter Logic Gaming, an underdog team built around star players tarik and jdm. Both were strong talents: tarik was a star rifler while jdm was arguably the best AWPer in NA during his peak in CLG. Eventually, both realized there was a hard limit as to how much CLG could achieve. Both decided to move on from the squad, with Jdm64 joining Liquid while tarik transferred to OpTic. It was a surprising move as the buyouts were incredibly high, but both teams needed a roster move to get better results. Liquid needed an AWPer since Kenneth “koosta” Suen didn’t mesh with the team atmosphere or play style, and OpTic needed more skill to move beyond its designation of being only the third best team in NA. OpTic’s plan was to add tarik in place of stanislaw so the team could get to the next step.
It never worked out that smooth. Internal roster issues immediately destroyed team cohesion as daps was ousted as in-game leader and stanislaw was put re-added to the roster. It took a few months, but the move turned out to work wonderfully. Stanislaw displayed a hidden propensity for leadership and under his guidance, RUSH became one of the best entry fraggers in the entire world. This culminated in one of the greatest NA CS:GO achievements ever when OpTic won ELEAGUE Season 2. But the happiness was short-lived as the lineup eventually broke apart.
Stanislaw left first to join Liquid as the in-game leader. He had disagreements with OpTic’s management and decided to join an organization more amenable to his requests. On Liquid’s part, it was an incredible windfall. Stanislaw had proven his merits as a great leader and Liquid hoped he could usher in an era when Liquid could reliably capitalize on its talent. Despite the optimism, Liquid still struggled to find any consistency. It wasn’t until making two key hires that the team stabilized. The first was getting Wilton “zews” Prado to coach the team. He was able to quash the personality conflicts within the team alongside bringing his strong mentality and impressive CS:GO knowledge. The second was picking up the relatively unproven Twistzz. A former teammate of autimatic during their stint together under TSM, Twistzz was the type of player Liquid desired: highly skilled, committed to the greater good of the team, and willing to take on the roles no one else wanted.
With that move, the final five was set. Even though there were rumblings of some internal issues in the most recent offseason, Liquid has never looked as stable as it does now. The roster changes culminated in a runner-up finish at ESG Tour, which included a best-of-three upset of SK Gaming in the semifinals.
Tarik and RUSH lingered on OpTic in hopes of finding a suitable replacement for stanislaw. After multiple false hopes, both jumped ship to find a better team. Simultaneously, Stewie finally pulled the trigger and decided to shake up C9’s roster. After an year of trying to make the squad work, Cloud9 was only treading water. They had some good results, but it was clear they couldn’t reach the next level of competition. In response they benched n0thing, while Michael “shroud” Grzesiek became inactive. That created the perfect opening for tarik and RUSH to join the organization.
Both squads have proven NA has incredible talent that can compete with the best in the world, but the prospect of being NA teams might still relegate them to eternal mediocrity. As Griffin “shaGuar” Benger, former CS: 1.6 veteran put it in 2004: “I think it will always be America’s curse to rely so heavily on raw individual skill rather than combining that with other aspects of the game that are as important such as teamplay and strats.”
Thirteen years later, NA teams still appear to be disproportionately dependent on one or two strengths. Liquid and C9 still have leadership issues despite them being scrutinized for years. At ESG Tour, nitr0 called instead of stanislaw. Nitr0 has taken up the leadership role before, but every time he did he relinquished it after one or two events. It remains to be seen how long or how seriously nitr0 will take the role. As for Cloud9, Stewie has been the leader for the team since he started. Autimatic briefly took his place but that hurt autimatic’s performance so grievously Stewie had to return. He has given the reigns to tarik, who genuinely wants to take over the IGL role.
Regardless of my misgivings, ESL One New York is the LAN that will demonstrate the shift in the NA landscape. The new generation of players has taken over and will show us the future of the scene. They may surpass all expectations and generate the respect and admiration that have eluded the NA scene for so long. Or they may confirm NA continues to be overshadowed by a miasma of perpetual failure and inadequacy.
Cover photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack