The brief rise and rapid fall of the three top North American Counter-Strike teams

It was like we were piloting the Titanic. We needed to get to the new world, but there were three captains. I’d take a shift for 8 hours, go to sleep and someone else took the helm. We took so many directions that we had no clue which way was to land.” – Finn “karrigan” Andersen

By the end of 2015, North American Counter-Strike felt like a wasteland. The summer of Cloud9 had long since ended. Liquid had strong pieces on paper but could never get over the hump to become the best team in the region. OpTic Gaming hadn’t dipped its toe into the competitive scene. But partway through 2016, all three rosters saw a sharp increase in performance. For the briefest of moments, skeptics and fans wondered if North American CS was no longer a byword for hilarious incompetence. It was, however, just a passing dream. Once more, the scene is in a disastrous state where their top representatives seem to have no direction or motivation to reach the next level.

First is Cloud9, which had problems at the end of 2015 that resulted in the departure of in-game leader Sean “sgares” Gares. The organization looked to recruit players, and many of those plans fell through. Most of the players Cloud9 potentially wanted were locked up in contracts — Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund said himself a plane cancellation was all that stopped him from joining the team. That forced C9 to go to its last resort as they gave Jake “Stewie2k” Yip a chance. The former Splyce member went on to become one of the most valuable pickups for the year. He transitioned into Cloud9’s superstar, then its leader and the catalyst who brought in Timothy autimatic Ta.

For all of the (rightful) praise he receives, Stewie has one great flaw. Despite being the in-game leader and the unofficial face of the team, he has not effectively wielded that power to make Cloud9 a better team. Most of his leadership decisions have been about enabling his own game as a fragger and indirectly making the team better through personal example. We know he has a strong competitive will. He wants to be a champion. But will he take the unpleasant, necessary steps? If his older teammates are unwilling to bring direction and focus, Stewie must take charge — or at least that was what I believed. It came out recently that autimatic has now been given full in-game leading responsibilities, so while Stewie2k may still be the spiritual leader of the team, autimatic will take up the tactics. If we use the Titanic analogy, Cloud9 has been stalled for months in the middle of the ocean and now appears to be moving toward a direction.

The second roster to look at is OpTic. This team slowly rose to fame after acquiring the former roster of Conquest and was the best North American team at different points throughout 2016. Originally OpTic reached the top of the class because both Cloud9 and Liquid had fallen. The lineup at the time was led by Damian “daps” Steele, and while he wasn’t an elite leader, he was solid enough to give OpTic the edge. He provided good tactics, a solid structure and was able to solidify OpTic as one of the best in the region.

The team decided it needed more firepower to improve and added Tarik tarik Celik to be a star player. Looking at the roles on paper, the best way to balance the team would have been to remove Keith “NAF” Markovic. Will “RUSH” Wierzba was a great entry fragger and critical for the tactics they ran. Daps was the leader. Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz was the best support player in North America at the time and Oscar “mixwell” Cañellas was the star AWPer.

Instead, OpTic kicked stanislaw to put in tarik. That didn’t last long as internal conflicts eventually got daps removed, and stanislaw re-added as in-game leader. It was a strange move at the time, but it bore fruit. Near the end of 2016, stanislaw was able to lead the team to victory at ELEAGUE Season 2 and second place at ECS Season 2.

Despite the fledging success, the roster itself always seemed unstable. They weren’t able to practice properly heading into the ELEAGUE Major, and there were rumors Mixwell thought about leaving. Stanislaw himself had issues with the team that were never made public but might have taken seed when he was first kicked off the roster months prior. Whatever the case, after the Major ended Stanislaw left.

Without its in-game leader, OpTic sunk like the Titanic. This was briefly a world class team: it isn’t farfetched to say that heading into the ELEAGUE Major, OpTic was top five in the world. But once stanislaw left, the results and skill plummeted. Months later, OpTic finds itself in a strange quandary. The team has seen how drastically different results have been without an IGL but has yet to replace his spot with any of the potential leaders in North America. Part of it is understandable as the only other leaders with any similar pedigree are Sean Gares and daps. Gares doesn’t seem interested in playing for a top team and daps likely harbors some resentment for the team that so readily kicked him in August, especially as he has already sunk significant time into building NRG. OpTic refused to go to other lesser-known leaders such as Kory “SEMPHIS” Friesen, Pujan “FNS” Mehta or Eric “adreN” Hoag, so they are still missing a permanent fifth. The one positive is that OpTic still has plenty of skill. The team just needs a fifth who can come in and right the ship.

Liquid’s rise and fall is even more convoluted than OpTic’s. The quick summary is Liquid twice built a potential championship contending team. The first was around Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, but s1mple didn’t want to stay in NA. The second time, Liquid had one of the strongest lineups on paper: Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Josh “jdm64” Marzano, Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jacob “Pimp” Winneche and Spencer “Hiko” Martin, with Luis “peacemaker” Tadeu as coach.

EliGE had incredible performances at both Majors. S1mple was the superstar of the team, but EliGE had shown he could play at a world class performance as the second star. Jdm64 was the best AWPer in North America; Nitr0 had fallen off a bit, but had been the best player in NA in 2015. Pimp was a skilled player who took up the roles to support the others, and Hiko was a role player with a flair for winning clutch situations. Peacemaker was poised to lead the team as the coach and had already shown results with the team at the Major.

Then the hand of God we know as Valve limited peacemaker to only speaking during timeouts. Even with that handicap, Liquid had an incredible first outing at ESL One New Yorkin October. TL was stopped in the semifinals by Natus Vincere, which had s1mple playing at a superstar level. Even though Liquid didn’t reach the finals, its potential seemed to be incredibly high.

All that projected promise amounted to nothing in the end. Hiko, nitr0 and jdm64 all had slumps in form. Hiko seemingly sacrificed too much of his individual play to facilitate his teammates. That was only further exacerbated when he tried to dedicate himself to the IGL role; peacemaker left amid a disagreement with management. Nitr0 never played at the star level he could allegedly reach, but there is no clear reason why the dip in form occurred in the first place. Meanwhile, jdm was completely lost in the lineup. With Counter Logic Gaming, he had the entire team built around him, whereas in Liquid he was too meek to demand the necessary resources and attention. When we look at the various iterations of Liquid’s roster, the only AWPer to ever have success was s1mple: he was obstinate and talented enough to get the entire team to revolve around him. Jdm64 didn’t have that personality, so he was lost in the shuffle.

The only pieces that worked as planned were EliGE and Pimp. EliGE took on the role of star player and he continued to deliver at international LANs. Pimp elected to be a role player so he could only have so much impact on the game. Despite that, he did his job adequately and helped the team as much as he could.

In an attempt to remedy the problem, Liquid added Wilton “zews” Prado as a coach to bring structure to the team. After the ELEAGUE Major, Liquid recruited stanislaw into the lineup as the new IGL and removed Hiko in the process. Before that group could even get settled, though, Liquid tried to add RUSH and mixwell from OpTic, likely to replace Pimp and jdm64. The idea was sound. RUSH is a world class entry fragger and mixwell has been the best AWP in NA for quite some time.

The deal fell through, but damage had been done. Liquid’s sensible attempt to beef up its squad had accidentally set it back: Pimp decided to leave the team and find new offers elsewhere. It left Liquid in the lurch once again as it tried to find a fifth. This time, Liquid managed to acquire Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken. Touted as a possible future star player, he might be the secondary star Liquid needs after EliGE. The question is if he can succeed where others have failed and if stanislaw and zews can somehow make this a coherent team. Essentially the same question we have always had for Liquid.

When we look at the top three North American CS:GO teams, the situation looks grim. Cloud9 is stalled, OpTic has sunk and Liquid is lost. Looking around the scene, it feels the NA scene is farther from land than it has been in a long time. Each of the teams has incredible pieces. Stewie2k and Autimatic are a great duo. RUSH is one of the best entry fraggers. EliGE is a superstar player, and stanislaw has proven he can lead a team against international competition. But none of the teams has the right combination of players. Although each of the teams wants to reach the new world, they are stranded at sea. Each of them is stuck dealing with problems that stops them from going forward. The region might look lost now, but the teams have the pieces to make it across. Each is striving to find a way forward, with Cloud9 having autimatic call, OpTic looking for the fifth and Liquid bringing on Twistzz. The question is who can get the right pieces, and have strong enough leadership, to get them to the new world?

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