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Photo: By Helena Kristiansson for ESL

From 2015-2019, NA CS:GO history has been dictated by two teams: Cloud9 and Liquid. They have been the alpha and omega of the NA Counter-Strike scene. Both set historical records for the scene. Cloud9 won the ELeague Boston Major in fantastic fashion. Liquid became the most accomplished NA team of all-time as they were the second best team of 2018 right behind Astralis. At the end of 2018, Epitacio “TACO” de Melo and Wilton “zews” Prado left Liquid to reunite with their old teammates in MIBR. This led to Liquid recruiting Jake “Stewie2K” Yip and Eric “adreN” Hoag. With those changes, Liquid has assembled the most stacked lineup in NA CS:GO history. It is a roster filled with NA All-Stars and now they look to end the hegemony of Astralis at IEM Katowice 2019.

The NA Chosen Ones

The current lineup of Liquid is: Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken, Keith “NAF” Markovic, and Stewie2K. Each player has had a period of time when they were designated as the NA hope or the best player in NA. The first among them to get that title was nitr0.

At the end of 2014, nitr0 joined the IBP. While he acquitted himself well, he was kicked from the team. Soon after he joined Denial Esports which eventually became Liquid. Together with EliGE, they became thee aggressive entry pack duo that lit up the servers. While the best NA players were like people like Spencer “Hiko” Martin or Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham, they only represented the present. Nitr0 looked to be the future. While nitr0 had incredible aim and explosiveness, his lack of consistency and flakiness with his roles stopped him from ascending to the highest levels of stardom in NA. He was someone who shifted his role early on multiple time as he tried different things like being a lurker or in-game leader. While that hurt him in those periods of time, those experience built the foundation for what role he’d player later on in Liquid.

In 2016, Stewie2K joined a dying Cloud9. After Sean Gares had left the team, the squad became a shell of itself as it failed to reach the same heights of summer 2015. In a desperate gambit, Cloud9 decided to gamble on Stewie2K. Stewie2K was most well known for PUG clips and pushing through smokes. The gamble paid off as Stewie2k became the totemic player for the team. He became the superstar player, the entry-fragger, and the in-game leader. He was also the first person to recognize the talents of Timothy “autimatic” Ta and recruited him to the team. From 2016-2018 the two of them became the core duo that defined the style of play that Cloud9 had. Stewie2k was bold, decisive, and aggressive. His style of play created large amounts of space that enabled autimatic to play at his best. During the middle period fo 2016, Stewie2K and autimatic made a name for themselves as the best NA players in the world. That title was to be superceded by EliGE from the latter end of 2016 to early 2017.

Liquid had two historic Major runs in 2016: Columbus and ESL One Cologne. They had made the semifinals and finals of both Majors. Both results happened when Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev played for the team. While s1mple was a prodigy, he had yet to learn how to be a good teammate. His aggressive personality clashed with the team and it all came to a head before and after the Cologne Major. In that moment, Liquid had to choose between s1mple or the team. While s1mple was already out, it was potentially possible to keep him in the team for longer. In the end, Liquid chose EliGE and from that moment on EliGE grew as a player.

EliGE had put on great performances at both Majors as the secondary star to s1mple, but after s1mple departed, he became the primary star of the team. From late 2016 through most of 2017, EliGE carried that weight. While Liquid struggled with roster shuffles and building up the systemic identity of the team, EliGE became a rock. His level of play was consistently stellar whether he was playing the aggressively or being the closer that the team needed. Among all of the various stars that have risen and fallen over the years, EliGE’s consistency has been unmatched.

The biggest NA hope that no one saw coming was NAF. NAF had his shot at the top with the OpTic lineup of late 2016. That was the squad that beat Astralis to win ELeague Season 2 and got to the finals at ECS Season 2 Finals. In that squad, NAF had a superstar performance on Overpass at the ELeague Season 2 Finals, but outside of that match he was never billed as the star player of the team. Eventually when OpTic broke up, he was the one left behind. Tarik ‘tarik’ Celik and Will “RUSH” Wierzba joined Cloud9. Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz joined Liquid. Nothing was explicitly said, but the message was clear. The other top teams in the region didn’t rate him as highly as his teammates.

NAF then joined Renegades in 2017. After playing on the team for awhile, he came to the realization that he had to take control of his own destiny. If he wanted to win titles, he couldn’t just be a part of the team, he had to become the star. He demanded that the team start to emphasize his strengths as a player. The gambit worked as NAF shocked the world with his transformation as he started putting up superstar numbers with ridiculous impact. His level of play was so ascendant that Liquid decided they’d rather have NAF than a a dedicated AWPer.

NAF then joined Liquid in 2018 and for the first few months of play, NAF wasn’t just the best NA player in those months, he was a top five player in the world. His level of impact was out of this world. He had an uncanny sense to know when to pull out the craziest plays and use his skill to mow down the enemies when they least expected it. Even when that godlike form cooled down, NAF was still among the top ten or twenty players in the world.

The final member of Liquid is also the biggest hope NA has ever found. Twistzz is the youngest member of a squad at the age of 19. Despite that youth, he is already an experienced pro. He played with Sean Gares TSM and Misfits from 2016-2017. In 2017 he then joined Liquid as one of the most hyped prospects of the NA scene. He has slowly grown since then as he has tried out multiple roles from entry to lurker to AWPer. When NAF fell off from his godlike form in 2018, Twistzz rose up. His level of play put him squarely within the bracket of the top five players in the game as his incredible mechanics, explosive ability, and overall versatility made him a force to be reckoned with.

Among all of the events I’ve watched in 2018, the one that showed Twistzz’s highest potential was ESL One New York. In that tournament, Twistzz was a living god. Someone who clearly outshined the rest of the field with his prowess and despite Liquid losing the finals, Twistzz was awarded the MVP for his individual efforts. While he isn’t consistent enough to reach those heights on a regular basis, among all of the NA players that have come through the scene, he is the only one that I can say with confidence can be the best player in the world. Someone that can compete with likes of Marcelo ‘coldzera’ David, s1mple, or Nikola “NiKo” Kovac.

The Best NA Line-up in History

One of the reasons the current Liquid roster is hyped is because of what they accomplished with their lineup in 2018. The lineup consisted of: EliGE, nitr0, Twistzz, NAF, TACO, and zews as coach.

It was a lineup that broke the old paradigm of NA Counter-Strike. Legendary CS 1.6 player Griffin “shaGuar” Benger once said to Duncan “Thorin” Shields in a Reflections video that,

“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.”

While the roster on paper was one of the most stacked lineups in NA CS:GO history, it’s base was built on teamplay and tactics. The Liquid squad was one of the most structured teams in the world in 2018. The team had consistently hammered out a style of play that was standard, formulaic, and based on the fundamentals of Counter-Strike. They focused on things like teamplay, tactics, and communication. They always adhered to the fundamentals of their play. They created and called solid tactics. They made good rotations and always tried to play smart CS.

In terms of roles, it was also one of the most balanced in history. Nitr0 became the AWPer and in-game leader that enabled his other players. EliGE, NAF, and Twistzz were the big playmakers on the team and were versatile enough that they could often switch roles or positions to change up the timings or feel of the tactics they did. TACO was the support or fill player. He filled out the roles and played whatever was needed for the team and at times took a prominent role (like the T-side of Overpass).

The balance of individual skill, roles combined with the structure and teamplay created a core of play that led Liquid to becoming the most accomplished teams in NA CS:GO history. While they don’t have any massive trophies, they have the most consistent placings of any NA lineup in history. By the time 2018 ended, they were the second best team in the world.

In the Shadow of Astralis

While the Liquid roster of 2018 was the best NA line-up in history, it will be remembered as the team that stood behind Astralis. People often say that history is written by the victors. When looking at the history of CS:GO, the greatest winners of all time are NiP, Fnatic, LG/SK, and Astralis.

Each of those teams had all-time great rivals that they had to continually beat to stake their claims as the greatest ever. NiP had VeryGames, Fnatic had LDLC/EnVyUs and later on TSM. LG/SK had Na`Vi. If each era is written by the victors, then the words of that history was written from the broken dreams of their rivals.

For Liquid, nothing was more frustrating for them than losing to Astralis. They could consistently beat every other team in the world: MIBR, Mouz, Na`Vi, or FaZe. However when it came to Astralis, they always fell short. At ESL Proleague Season 7 Finals, they lost 1-3. The first game was a blowout, but the following two were extremely close with a 14-16 loss on Nuke and a 16-14 win on Mirage. Astralis then closed out the series in Inferno.

While that was only the first grand finals meeting between the two, the pattern continued through every subsequent meeting. Liquid could play some close game, could even win a map in the series, but in the end Astralis was too strong to stop. In the subsequent finals at ECS Season 5 and ELeague Premier 2018, Liquid lost both times 0-2. At the FACEIT Major, Liquid looked to turn things around. In the legends stage of that Major, Liquid pulled the upset with a 19-15 overtime victory over Astralis. NAF was able to push Liquid over the edge in overtime when he demanded the AWP and started to make decisive wildcard plays to win the map. As NAF described it in his HLTV interview,

“…when we got into overtime I was so pissed off, I was really tilted. So I’m just “F*** this, I’m going to buy an AWP.” I bought the AWP out of pure frustration, it wasn’t like I thought it was the solution. And honestly, it ended up working in our favor because I got a lot of picks. “

Liquid were ecstatic and that made them believe that they would be the ones to finally stop the Astralis reign. Instead Astralis seemed to become even stronger as they were smashed in the semifinals 2-0. Liquid and Astralis met in two more international finals that year at IEM Chicago and ESL Proleague Season 8 where Astralis once again came out on top.

Looking through all of those matches, a few things stand out. Liquid’s style of play was structured and smart Counter-Strike. While they had brilliant players, it was tied together through the understanding of their roles, the tactics, and setups they ran. This structured style of play ran directly into Astralis’ style of play and was picked apart by Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz in nearly every encounter.

The other thing that stood out was Liquid’s inability to play to their best form in the finals. Each of the players has had some level of underperformance in those finals. The big let down wasn’t the finals against Astralis, but rather the finals against Mouz at ESL One New York. Liquid were the superior team, but folded under the pressure at that event and lost that series 2-3.

In the midst of that struggle, TACO did an interview with HLTV talking about that particular problem. “When it comes to that moment that we are close to winning the tournament, we just shut down. I don’t know how to explain it, if I knew how to explain it I would just fix it “

While TACO was a decorated champion, he couldn’t translate what he knew into something the other Liquid members could absorb and take onboard. While those losses were heavy, Liquid were committed to keeping the roster together. However both zews and TACO wished to reunite with their ex-teammates in MIBR. With no other choice, Liquid needed to find a replacement and they decided on two members: Stewie2K and adreN.

Stewie2K and the Missing Element

Stewie2K’s career is informed by his personality and that personality is most exemplified in the way he plays. Stewie2K is most famous for pushing the smoke. This is considered a puggy or bad trait among top CS pros as it often feels like the player is leaving their success to dumb luck.

That isn’t the case with Stewie2k. The first person to notice this was Autimatic. In an interview  with Thorin, Autimatic talked about how he realized that Stewie2k wasn’t doing it at random. That there was a clear method to his madness.

That aggression, boldness, and willingness to take his destiny into his own hands has defined Stewie2K’s career both inside and outside the game. This is someone who took the reins of Cloud9 within months of joining it. He went from a rookie to the star player, to in-game leader, and eventually the chief decision maker for the roster. This all culminated in the ELeague Boston Major victory where Cloud9 became the first team in NA history to win the Major.

While that Cloud9’s victory at the Major was remarkable, it was also the extent of Stewie2k’s style as a player and leader. It was good enough to win the most prestigious event of the year, but it wasn’t enough to create a consistent team that could battle for dynasties. That is why he left Cloud9 to join MIBR as players like Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo and Coldzera had proven that they could build a team that could contend for dynastic greatness.

That move didn’t work out, but the decision to make the move is one that has been consistent with the rest of his career. To push forward through the smoke, to try and seize the biggest chance he has to win.

That is the element of his personality and the element of his play that Liquid likely need. In all of Liquid’s losses, they were too static. Their single victory came in a bo1 at the Major on Inferno. In that game, NAF pulled out a wildcard move that pushed them over the edge to take the game from Astralis. That was the missing piece of the puzzle they needed and that is a quality that Stewie2K has in spades.

It is fitting in a way when comparing the careers of Stewie2K and Liquid. Stewie2K had peaks of form that could win him the major, but lacked the consistency. Liquid had the outstanding consistency, but lacked that final “it” factor to push them into becoming number one. Together, they could become even greater as their strengths can now complement each other.

Striving to End the Hegemony

Both Liquid and Astralis have made it to the Champions Stage of IEM Katowice 2019. Both teams went 3-0 and are now on opposite sides of the bracket. For Liquid, the stage has been set. They currently have the most stacked lineup in NA CS:GO history. If you’re looking at raw individual skill, they may be the best in history. In terms of structure and teamplay, they boast some of the absolute best in the world. They currently have everything they need to win this Major.

While the quarter finals and semifinals are important, they are stepping stones towards their real goal. Liquid is here to win the Major and to do it, they will have to beat Astralis. While they’ve done it once at IBP Masters, at the end of the day it was a small LAN with multiple issues. This is the real deal, there will be no excuses.

Astralis has been the team that has tormented the core of this team for the past year. The previous TACO lineup played against Astralis 12 times. They lost 11 of those encounters including five international finals and the semifinals at the Major. For Liquid, this is the perfect opportunity to get their revenge. To flip the script, to come out of the shadows of Astralis, to end the Astralis hegemony, and win the Major.

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