“Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the ‘me’ for the ‘we.’” – Phil Jackson
At ESL One New York, we bore witness to one of the great runs in recent North American Counter-Strike history. Team Liquid defeated Virtus.Pro, Astralis and SK Gaming in best-of-three series to reach the finals. Other NA teams have made deep runs before, but none inspired as much confidence as this run. Nowhere are we hearing accusations of aberration, or tragicomic acknowledgements of Liquid’s success (like the Cloud9 summer memes). It feels like we are entering a new age of NA CS:GO. We are entering the Liquid Democracy.
In the broad context of NA esports, a certain culture permeates the region, particularly the U.S., regardless of game. It is a culture that fetishes individualism, egotism and displays of skills. Players don’t learn to valorize themselves as much as absorb it via osmosis: the worship of celebrities to the incessant fawning of famous sports figures in interviews and profiles, they inculcate the drive to stand out and be recognized. Everyone wants to be the man, and everyone wants to be the star. In the same vein, American players often judge each other on raw skill rather than what else they can bring to the game. Griffin “shaGuar” Benger put it best when he famously said, “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 team play and strats.”
To neutralize the toxic attitude, it was assumed you needed a strong leader to keep everyone in check. Cloud9 briefly had one in 2015 when Sean Gares teamed up with his enforcer Ryan “fREAKAZOiD” Abadir. The latter’s ebullient, authoritative demeanor combined with the former’s calm, incisive judgment to create a real team. In Dota 2, Peter “ppd” Dager led one of the most successful teams in history through his tyrannical iron fist. Most League of Legends teams have sidestepped the problem by importing players from other regions and using coaches to try to corral everybody. The few that have retained domestic lineups have relied on strong shot-callers like Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black or Hai “Hai” Du lam.
From 2015-2016, Team Liquid’s CS:GO team was the poster child for all of the region’s ails. Liquid was a revolving door with some of the most skilled players in the region (and the world) leaving and entering their roster: Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Joshua “jdm64” Marzano, Jacob “Pimp” Winneche, Spencer “Hiko” Martin, Oleksandr “s1mple” Kstoyliev, Kenneth “koosta” Suen. Nearly every lineup was on paper the best in NA, but Liquid rarely fulfilled that promise except for a few deep finishes at Majors and last year’s ESL One New York.
The stories that spilled out to the public were wild and disconcerting. Apparently there was intense personal disputes over everything: roles, styles of Counter-Strike, practice regimes, even seating arrangements. It was a team that felt on the verge of implosion multiple times. When Liquid released an ad looking for a coach, Duncan “Thorin” Shields joked that it was the hardest salary to earn in the world.
Luckily for Liquid, it ended up with the best coach it could have hoped. Wilton “zews” Prado had ended his tenure as a pro player, and Liquid quickly snagged him. He commanded immense respect from everyone in the scene. He had coached the fabled Luminosity/SK roster to two Major titles while still being able to play at a decent level. Much like American sports, the coach was vital in bringing unity to the team, to get all the players on the same page.
The second important pickup was Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz. Initially the plan was to have stanislaw play the Sean Gares role. At the time, he was the in-game leader for OpTic, the best NA team coming off a win at ELEAGUE Season 2. With his help, Liquid should have quickly ascended the ranks.
It never happened. The tactics were fine but the roles, the imbalance in the roster, the interpersonal drama stubbornly persisted. As the failures mounted, some players lost hope altogether. In particular, Pimp’s patience frayed with the sacrifices he had made in the name of team unity. He had elected to take up the unglamorous spots so the other teammates could shine. He had been designated as the full support in all but name, losing all of his former roles. Yet it changed nothing and Pimp slowly became demoralized. Soon afterward, he requested to be put up for transfer.
That opened up the window for the final piece of the puzzle to come into place. Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken had been an up-and-coming player in the NA scene. He had shown strong results on Misfits and Team SoloMid and looked to be a potential new star for the region. Unlike Pimp, he not only played the positions Pimp disliked, but he wanted to. Twistzz proved himself to be a great player on the team, but Liquid struggled to match his output. In their time together from when Twistzz joined in April through the PGL Major, Liquid’s notable results included the semifinals of ESL Pro League Season 5 and a quarterfinal appearance at ESL One Cologne. Beyond that, Liquid dropped out in group stages and most shockingly lost to Flipsid3 Tactics at the Major qualifier.
During the offseason, rumors swirled around that Liquid would break up. EliGE looked around to see what his options were — or so it was interpreted. It was a tense few days as the roster season came to a close, but in the end he decided to entrust his fate with the squad.
That was the pivotal turning point for the team. EliGE was the star, but he was also one of the primary reasons why the team had so many problems. If things went badly in the middle of the game, he shut down. He didn’t speak, and you couldn’t get him back into the game. He had the typical arrogance and entitlement of someone preternaturally talented and intelligent enough to understand how he could leverage it. But his decision to look at other options before deciding Liquid was his best shot was a critical moment. It was at that point EliGE made the conscious decision to go all-in on this roster.
Zews joining as coach, Twistzz becoming the secondary star, and EliGE committing to the team were the three dominoes that kickstarted the new age of Liquid. Zews tried his best to help on both the tactical and emotional side of the team, even going so far as to try to get them to live in a team house. That way he could forge the bonds needed and get the players to buy into the dream.
EliGE has been open to the criticism of his failings as a teammate and continues to work on those problems. He has forced himself to play at his best, regardless of opponent, which is why he boasts the best record against the best teams in the world out of all NA players. Once he decided to stay with Liquid, his efforts redoubled as he has now gotten involved in helping the team prepare for matches.
Twistzz is an incredibly young player at the age of 17, but he has already bought into the team. This is the best team on which he’s ever played, and when Liquid lost to Flipsid3 at the Krakow Major qualifiers, he broke down into tears, despite performing well throughout the LAN.
Jdm, like Twistzz, was a player who immediately bought into the dream. Unlike Twistzz, jdm suffered a long slump as he lost the feeling for his game. Liquid had turned out to be a completely different team from Counter Logic Gaming, lacking the setups and priority he was granted on his old team. He was allowed freedom, but a star AWPer needs freedom and support from his teammates, and Liquid was not willing to give him the latter at that time. But his failings have never demotivated him as he has worked even harder in response. He studied demos of himself and his opponents; there are stories of him going to the SK house to try to get some advice from Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo. He has since returned to being an impactful part of Liquid as zews and stanislaw created a structure in which he could flourish.
Stanislaw has gone back to being the secondary caller of the team and the primary lurker. The lurk position was his signature role when he led OpTic to the ELEAGUE victory. Although his aim wasn’t up to par, the positioning and flanks he creates are masterful, and once he gets back into his groove, he can become a great presence in the server. As a former in-game leader, stanislaw is the second set of eyes who knows exactly what information to feed to the IGL. The two together can work in tandem where stanislaw alone was not enough.
Finally, we come to the most surprising revelation of Liquid’s resurgence. Nitr0 taking up the mantle of in-game leader itself is a familiar sight. He’s done it time and time again and always, without fail, immediately stopped after a few LANs. This time he seems serious about accepting the role for good and in his own words: “So I decided to just start in-game leading. I’ve done it in the past, and it was kind of successful. In the past, we didn’t have as much firepower on the team, and whenever I’m in-game leading, it’s hard for me to frag, obviously it still happens today, but now we have better fraggers on the team. We don’t need my firepower.”
Nitr0 could never find a sufficient role on his teams. He believed he had to be one of the stars of the team and he believed that the best way to do that was to be the lurker. His history throughout Counter-Strike has been warring with his in-game leaders and coaches on what his role should be. In other roles he became timid, unwilling to take initiative: in a “Reflections” podcast with Thorin, former Liquid coach James “GBJames” O’Connor said nitr0 needed to be prodded to take action as the entry fragger or he’d fall back.
Now nitr0 no longer needs to be prodded into action. He has taken responsibility for his own role. With Twistzz, EliGE, jdm64 and stanislaw, he has complete faith that Liquid no longer needs him to be a fragging force. He has willingly taken up the mantle of entry fragger and IGL to facilitate the other players on the team.
Every player on Liquid now has a role that fits. Every player has now bought into the system, bought into the dream that Liquid can be an international powerhouse. Despite having loads of skill this is not a “skill-based” lineup. It is not run by a dictator who forces the players into a specific style of Counter-Strike. This is a democracy, where each player has surrendered a part of their ego to the collective so that they can achieve greater things together. We are seeing the rise of a new era of NA CS, we are seeing the rise of the Liquid democracy. Liquid has elevated themselves from great players whose sum was less than its parts, to a great team whose total is greater than the sum. Though they lost at ESL New York, it feels inevitable that this roster will one day lift a trophy of their own.
As FalleN once said, “Good players decide matches. Teams well assembled take trophies.”