ESL One New York was the second Tier 1 tournament in the post-break CS:GO season. DreamHack Malmö saw the rise of North and G2 Esports. Both made changes in the offseason, North with its roster and G2 with its play style, and have come out with world class rosters. Neither of them attended New York, which created an opportunity for the remaining elite teams to jostle for a spot on the totem pole. SK Gaming, Astralis, Natus Vincere, FaZe Clan, Cloud9 and Team Liquid all battled it out to prove who among them would take the title. SK and Astralis were initially pegged as the clear favorites but in the end, they were swept over by the rising tides. In their place, Liquid and FaZe revealed themselves to be elite teams with further room to grow.
Liquid had already been on the rise before ESL One New York. At ESG Mykonos, Liquid reached the grand finals by defeating SK in the semifinals. It was a great feat, but in the end TL lost the finals to mousesports. Although NA teams in the past have achieved similar results, what Liquid showed at Mykonos was no fluke. Its system seemed to have clicked into place after Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella assumed in-game leading duties. Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz became the second caller of the team, leading nitr0 to fully embrace the entry fragger role and reverting stanislaw to the lurking patterns that made him famous on OpTic. At the same time, the core trio of Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken, and Joshua “jdm64” Marzano were all consistent stars for them at ESG.
Doubts persisted for the lineup. Could it replicate success from event to event, achieving the consistency Liquid has never delivered? Although Liquid defeated SK at Mykonos, SK was commonly cited as playing below peak form. It would take more than one good showing to shake off the sad legacy that has defined Team Liquid in CS:GO. When players and fans are asked about the great chokers of CS:GO history, Liquid is always on the tip of the tongue. In the past, Liquid was infamous for relinquishing large leads and failing to close out games. Whether it was the lack of an effective system, poor composure, or limited experience, Liquid never possessed the “it” factor emblematic of the best teams. But at ESL One New York, we saw that reputation blown to pieces.
Liquid’s run started in Group B, a formidable group with FaZe, Astralis, and Virtus.Pro. Liquid’s first match was against Astralis and in that match, something amazing happened: Liquid lost and didn’t crumble. It sounds counter-intuitive, but dropping the first game forced Liquid into a gauntlet, the type of crucible that had soundly defeated previous iterations. By the end of it, Liquid had come out the other side a stronger team. First it defeated Virtus.Pro, historically NA killers and a team that defeated Liquid one week earlier. Here TL won the best-of-three series and rematched Astralis for the rubber match. It was an incredible series to witness. Astralis pushed Liquid to its limits and forced Liquid to show a completely new side, one with incredible fortitude and grit.
The consistent performance from the stars carried over, but more than that Liquid was tested as a team and under pressure. It passed with flying colors. Liquid continuously put itself in winning positions despite how many times Astralis desperately tried to force them out. It was a watershed moment, one where we watched the birth of an international powerhouse in front of our eyes.
Or maybe that was caving to daydreams. In the end, that was only the group stage. Astralis is one of the best teams in the world, but there is a marked difference between playing an elite team in the group stage and playing them in the playoffs in front of a massive crowd. Liquid got the chance to cement its upswing when it rematched against SK, the de-facto best team in the world. That was an important test as an elite team will often change something in response to losing. In this case, SK changed its pick-ban phase. SK decided to pick Overpass as the second map instead of Cobblestone.
On the first map, Liquid fought SK tooth and nail on Inferno. It showcased a jaw-dropping performance from jdm, who played one of the best games of his career. In addition to his superb AWPing, Twistzz also had a great game in regulation while EliGE closed out the game in overtime. On the other side of the server, Marcelo “coldzera” David went full on god mode. It took every ounce of power for Liquid to put him down, and then later the entire SK team when they started to get into the server. It was the classic SK performance we’ve come to expect: the team pulled heroics out of its ass to try to clutch out the game. But Liquid held firm and finished with a victory.
On the second map, SK’s pick-ban philosophy bore fruit as it destroyed Liquid. There’s really nothing notable to report other that the Brazilians outplayed their opponents on every conceivable level. The series came down to a rematch on Cobblestone. The first half was intense as SK and Liquid continuously exchanged rounds, eventually ending in Liquid’s favor by a slim margin (8-7). Once Liquid got rifles on the T-side, it ran up an incredible T-half, but once again SK’s clutch factor came to the fore. For EliGE and nitr0, this must have seemed like déjà vu, a memory of the crushing comebacks SK pulled off against them at MLG Columbus last April. But neither of them lost their nerve, and neither did their teammates. They fought back and in the end, Liquid held its advantage and took the series.
With best-of-three victories over two of the best teams in the world, Liquid reached the finals of ESL One New York. The other side of the bracket included no climatic nailbiters. Instead it was pure brutality as FaZe destroyed everything in its path.
Watching FaZe gave me flashbacks to early 2016 Fnatic, but the only commonality was Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer. Everyone else was different. He was part of an international mix team alongside Havard “rain” Nygaard, Finn “karrigan” Andersen, Nikola “NiKo” Kovac, and Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs. When this roster formed after the player break, there were many questions to be answered. At first glance the sheer accumulation of talent was unbelievable. It was as if someone was playing a fantasy draft and just picked all of their favorite stars onto one team. But in an actual fantasy draft, you wouldn’t even be able to make a team like this. You’d break the salary cap or someone else would have picked them already.
Despite the pure firepower on paper, everyone was suspicious concerning player priority and roles. How the hell was karrigan going to make all of this work? There were no clear supports on FaZe except for karrigan. With so much doubt accompanying them, FaZe quickly came under criticism when it flopped at DreamHack Malmö. FaZe won its ELEAGUE group fairly easily, but did so against weaker opposition in Renegades and Na’Vi.
In New York, karrigan once again proved his worth as an in-game leader. He nimbly figured out how to get everyone into comfortable, effective roles: the end result had all four stars fragging out of control, each supremely confident in their own ability and in the team’s ability to win regardless of their individual performance. FaZe ran a scorched-earth policy leading up to the finals, leaving no one alive in the wake. Not a single team was able to scrimp more than six rounds; in four games, FaZe dropped only 18 rounds. Although it is still early to assess FaZe’s long-term prospects, this team has already created an incredibly dangerous formula as it dispatched Virtus.Pro, Astralis, and Cloud9 in easy succession.
The finals were a honest surprise. Liquid and FaZe have been tagged for their potential before, yet they finally had converted that potential into reality. Liquid had right right pieces, but never got the right configuration until now. FaZe somehow retained its firepower without any single player losing individual impact. Even karrigan as the designated support found ways to contribute throughout the tournament.
FaZe’s brutal run through the tournament continued in the finals as it destroyed Liquid 3-0. Anytime Liquid held a hope, NiKo came into the round and crushed it outright. It was a complete conquest by FaZe in its first championship with the new roster. Liquid was brutalized as its inexperience showed on stage. This was the team’s first final in front of a live crowd, and the team succumbed under the pressure. EliGE stood up as the single star who tried to keep Liquid afloat as long as possible, but this isn’t a single star team. The team as a whole crumbled under the pressure and couldn’t find its game in the series. Despite the brutal loss, Liquid still has a lot of room to grow as a lineup and should still be considered an elite team with championship contender status.
ESL One New York was an incredible event. Going into it, the favorites seemed to be either SK or Astralis as both had been fighting for the top spot throughout most of the year. In the end, neither came out the victor. Rather, two teams that had fulfilled the potential they had on paper slugged it out for supremacy. Liquid always had incredible players, but only now has the team finally realized it and shown the world what it can do. FaZe went through a roster shuffle that resulted in four star players and has — against traditional logic — made it work. But the reality is even more incredible than the potential we thought we could see. Liquid looks to be the best NA CS:GO roster in history; FaZe looks to be the most skilled lineup we’ve seen in CS:GO since Fnatic early 2016. At ESL One New York, we saw the rise of two new championship level teams, Liquid and FaZe. The CS:GO world has suddenly became a lot more competitive.
Cover photo by Helena Kristiansson/ESL, eslgaming.com