Team Liquid: The NA Hope
At MLG Major Championship: Columbus, Team Liquid shocked the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive community by progressing to the semi-finals, the furthest they had ever reached in a Valve sponsored Major tournament. At the major before, however, this North American side was not met with such fanfare. At DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca 2015, Team Liquid would bomb out in the group stage, without a single win to their name. In five months Team Liquid went from failing to win a single game in Cluj-Napoca to reaching the semi-finals of the most watched CS:GO tournament ever. I see their rise as results of bringing s1mple in to the team and having such a unique mind state at MLG Columbus.
Liquid attended the 2015 Cluj-Napoca Major with a lineup consisting of Nick “nitr0” Cannella, Eric “adreN” Hoag, Spencer “Hiko” Martin, Jonathan “EliGE”Jablonowski and Jacob “FugLy” Medina. While this lineup was often able to claim wins against other North American (NA) teams, Cluj only featured two other North American squads out of the 16 teams attending. After losing two consecutive games to Ninja in Pyjamas (NiP) and Virtus.pro (VP), Liquid finished bottom of their group and exited the tournament. Liquid performed admirably against VP by taking their Cobblestone game to overtime, ultimately losing however sending them to the loser’s matchup. A weak Counter-Terrorist side on Mirage, coupled with underwhelming performances from Hiko and EliGE against NiP, ultimately sent them out of the tournament, placing bottom of their group.
Although a group featuring Titan, VP and NiP could be seen as a “group of death”, Team Liquid, as they were at MLG Columbus, beat Fnatic who are a greater team than any in Liquid’s Cluj group. Coming from two losses in their group in Cluj to two wins in Columbus, a fact made more impressive with Team Liquid beating Fnatic and FaZe Clan, is a testament to how the much the team have improved these past few months.
When looking at what changed for Team Liquid in the five months between the Majors, one factor stands out: Aleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev . Liquid signing this skilled Ukrainian on January 2 received a lot of hype. On February 21 Liquid picked up another young star, Kenneth “koosta” Suen. While not being the world-class player that s1mple is, Suen was certainly an upgrade in terms of firepower over adreN. This put Liquid in a good position leading up to MLG Columbus, having a squad mixed full of young stars and veteran minds of Hiko and their coach, giving them both brain and brawn in competition. When looking directly at the changes between the Liquid roster at Cluj and the roster at Columbus, s1mple’s outperformance of FugLy is what leaps off the page. Looking at s1mple’s HLTV rating (a number that represents the player's’ performance in a game. This rating takes kills per round, rounds the player survived in and rounds where the player got multiple kills. It is an accurate indicator of a player’s contribution to a match, and the higher the number the more the player played a part in the team’s highlights.) In the past three months, s1mple sits at 1.19, a very impressive individual rating. While playing for Team Liquid, FugLy went six maps in a row without achieving a positive rating in December.
On top of having a higher rating than FugLy, s1mple also offered an alternative player to carry the AWP for Team Liquid. Due to the AWP having such a large impact on a game due to its frequent one-shot-kill capability, having an AWPer whose skill level is on par with the rest of the team is important. AdreN surprised the world with his AWPing at the MLG Major, but it came as a surprise due to him often being ineffective when using the sniper rifle. This is evident from adreN having a lower HLTV rating than s1mple, as they are both primarily AWPers, each of them having just under a third of their kills a result of the costly rifle. The effect of Liquid bringing in such a talented AWPer such as s1mple was that it gave the team a chance to play off their sniper, much like Natus Vincere do when GuardiaN is hitting shots. The benefits of having a world-class sniper are endless, and can shift the way a game can pan out if a team’s AWPer is doing well.
Low expectations for this lineup worked to quell Team Liquid’s nerves for MLG Columbus. Due to the way in which Team Liquid had qualified for the MLG Major, by using adreN rather than koosta who was bound by roster lock-in rules from his previous team, Liquid were forced to compete in the Major tournament with adreN. Koosta had to adhere to the rules of the tournament, meaning even in the Main Qualifier where Liquid secured their way to the major, he was only allowed to play for Enemy, his former team. AdreN held his own at the MLG Main Qualifier, having a decent series against HellRaisers and even ending the best-of-three with a positive kill/death ratio. Even though adreN put in a good showing for himself at the MLG Qualifier, the majority of the community doubted Liquid’s ability to escape their group, with FaZe and Fnatic the favourites to advance to the quarter-finals. Community doubt seemed only to spur Team Liquid onto a legendary win over the giants of the pro scene, Fnatic, with adreN putting in a stellar performance against the Swedes in the group stages, dropping 30 frags and allowing Liquid to advance, having secured 1st place in Group B. I’m doubtful Liquid would have performed so well if they had felt pressured. Such success under a unique state of mind adds the worrying implication that Liquid may be unable to repeat their top level of play they showed at Columbus in the future. In this recent Major we saw what Team Liquid were capable of, and I link the pressure on them in other Majors to their poor results.
Liquid met another NA team in the quarter-finals, Counter Logic Gaming. The clash between two of NA’s hottest teams allows us to identify how and why Liquid excel where all other NA teams in recent tournaments have failed: making it out of the groups. Looking at individual stats across the best-of-three series, a god-like performance from s1mple can be seen as quite a buff to Team Liquid. Combining s1mple’s kills in both the Cache and Mirage games, he dropped 51 in as many rounds. When compared to the rest of the Liquid lineup, adreN was the next highest fragger on the team with 36 over the two maps played. CLG had no answer to the pure bombardment of fragging power that Liquid, and s1mple in particular, were throwing at them. To emphasize CLG’s inability to compete with such a dominant team, three of CLG’s players had 26 or fewer frags in the two maps, while Liquid’s lowest fragger was EliGE with 30. While CLG are a solid squad, they were outgunned when playing Liquid, herein lying the flaw in many NA teams. Excluding Liquid, no NA team can compete with the European giants such as Na`Vi and Fnatic in terms of fragging ability. If we are to see NA teams make this kind of a performance a normality, they will need to bring lineups with more firepower than they currently have. This could be done by bringing foreign talent to America like Liquid did or by searching for the hottest commodities in NA Counter Strike and bring them to the big teams, possibly enabling them to cement NA’s place with the big names of international competition.
While Liquid’s inspired run in Columbus was still fresh in the minds of many fans, the news that s1mple was no longer going to be playing for Team Liquid dropped. Not even 3 weeks since Team Liquid showed the world a revitalised North American side, that looked like a team capable of making it to many’s top five lists, they lose the player that enabled that success. The question that is on everyone’s mind is whether Liquid will still be able to challenge and beat teams like Fnatic with the absence of s1mple. Undoubtedly s1mple was the star player in the Columbus quarter-finals, and it’s unclear whether, without such a world-class player, Liquid would have made the top four of MLG Columbus.
How will Team Liquid fare without s1mple?
With koosta now filling the shoes of s1mple, both as a fifth member of the squad and as the primary AWPer on the team, it’s exciting to see what the 19 year old can bring to Liquid. The youngster was a revelation for Enemy, putting up huge performances for them consistently. In a 2-0 stomping of splyce koosta picked up 61 kills in 48 rounds, truly showing that he is one of NA’s rising stars. Whether or not he can repeat these results against tougher adversary is unclear, but he’s sure to add an exciting element to Team Liquid.
More team-changing news came on April 23, as the volatile Team Liquid announced that their coach, James “Jame^s” O’Connor, would not be staying with them. The reason for this was said to be through strife inside of the Team Liquid organization, and Jame^s said “...we couldn’t align our visions,” in a Twitter post referring to his departure. This is yet another big change that the players of Team Liquid will have to adapt to, as a Coach offers both strategical advice for the team and also acts like a father figure. I find it hard to see the absence of O’Connor to affect the results of Team Liquid too greatly, due to him being less of a strategical input than some other coaches in the pro scene. His departure seems to be closely linked with the timing of s1mple’s, which could be due to the young European not needing a mentor now that he has left the team.
Although losing s1mple is a heavy blow to Team Liquid’s chances of competing with the best out there, Liquid still boast a talented lineup and solid strats that were demonstrated at the Major. If Liquid and other NA teams can find some more world class aimers we can expect to see more semi-final worthy performances from them at future tournaments.