At ESL One New York 2018, Mouz played Liquid in the finals of the tournament. Liquid had everything in their hands, but were unable to close it out. They have the players, they have the team, and they have the system to be Champions. However there is still one step left, the one inside the mind. The step from runner-up to a champion, from being a great player to being a winner. How to gain that Championship mentality and deal with the pressure. It is the hardest question to ask as the answer is specific to each individual. While there are no easy answers, there have been answers throughout competitive history that other players have put forwards as to how they got over the hump. These are the different answers that some of the other greats have had when dealing with the pressure.
The most obvious example could be Astralis. This was a team that has often been compared to Liquid as their predecessors. Both teams had a familiar history at the beginning. Each side had a core of young talented players that couldn’t quite get over the hump when it came to the big pressure matches. The Copenhagen Wolves/Dignitas lineups of 2013/2014 and the Liquid lineup now. Astralis were the first to have a strong structure. They have a coach and have used a sports psychologist in the past, bot things that Liquid are doing now. Both teams have even come to the same conclusion of skipping events in order to become better as a team tactically.
Astralis are now the best team in the world, so how did Astralis eventually overcome those issues? One of the solutions that they’ve found in the modern era is to be so dominant that the issue never comes up. The chances of a team getting the series close in a finals is incredibly rare. As this level of dominance isn’t’ something you can replicate as it is characteristic of the fact that this is the Astralis Era so no one can touch them.
I think a more relevant lineup to look at is last year’s Astralis during the transition period from when Finn “karrigan” Andersen left the team and when Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander joined the team. The original TSM/Astralis lineup with karrigan as leader were branded as chokers. However that slowly disappears after gla1ve joined the lineup. After gla1ve joined, they won multiple tournaments, won the Major, nearly created an era, and even after their downfall continued to be among the best teams of the period. So how did the inclusion of gla1ve change the overall structure of the team when it came to dealing with pressure?
Gla1ve offers a different solution to the pressure problem compared to other all-time great lineups. When you think of Fnatic, NiP, or LG/SK, those were teams where the individuals usually stepped up and became greater in the high pressure moments. In this Astralis team, players could do this, but it was always because they had an actual plan. Instead of thinking about the problem as individuals, they thought about it more as a team. Specifically, they let gla1ve make the plan and followed through on the execution, confident in the fact that he is one of the greatest in-game leaders the CS:GO scene has ever had. So regardless of what is happening in game, the team has complete confidence in his ability to solve the puzzle, which allowed them to fight on mostly even footing against the likes of Virtus.Pro, FaZe, and SK in 2017.
Another thing to note is the gla1ve’s style of play which bleeds into his leadership. Gla1ve is completely willing to use himself as a wild-card aggressive entry fragger on both the CT-side and T-side of any map in high pressure situations. This is characteristic of in-game leaders in CS:GO as sometimes the momentum and pace of a particular game or round is too slow, so the in-game leader will do a seemingly suicidal move if only to prod/force the troops to follow them. In gla1ve’s case, he’s one of the most skilled in-game leaders in the game, so when he does this move, he often gets huge impact rounds that fills his team with confidence. This style of playing is reflected in his willingness to call tactics based on hard reads even in the biggest stake matches such as his dry hit against Virtus.Pro in the ELeague Atlanta Major Finals.
While it’s impossible to replicate gla1ve’s ability as a tactician, I think his style of play and tendency to call are both things that need to be considered. While both Astralis lineups are some of the best to ever play logical Counter-Strike, they have shown signs of betting it all on hard decisive calls. Calls that could potentially go disastrous and lose them the game.
The willingness to make that call or the willingness to make that impact play mirrors what Daigo Umehara once said in his book The Will to Keep Winning, “Only those who feel comfortable toying with defeat figure out how to pull off wins.”
If I had to distinguish the Astralis of 2017 to the Liquid of 2018 mentally, that is the difference. That iteration of Astralis played a structured style, but weren’t afraid to make risky calls or plays when they felt it was right in the big pressure moments. They didn’t always make it across the finish line, but they put themself in a place where they could have. In this aspect, I think the team could learn something from this. Whether that is Wilton “zews” Prado calling a time out and calling for a decisive tactic based on a read he has or Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella making a decisive play as a caller or player. While nitr0 may not have gla1ve’s experience as a caller, he is even more skilled when it comes to his individual skill so he can make those impact plays to try to drive morale back up when his team is down.
Now let’s look to other games and competitive disciplines for that answers others have found. In Street Fighter, Daigo Umehara is celebrated as a legend. One of the reasons he believes he is successful is because he has let go of the concept of losing. He no longer plays to get tournament victories, he plays for self improvement. As he explains in his book The Will to Keep Winning,
“If you dwell too much on wins, your scope narrows and you stop having good ideas. It gives you tunnel vision; you’ll convince yourself that what you’re doing is the only way forward, restricting your options. Being overly fixated on winning leads to nothing but sticking to conventional ways.”
While it is good advice in theory, it is hard to execute in practice. Any competitive player who has done the job understands how much work and effort is involved. The idea of fundamentally changing your attitude from a result oriented perspective to a process oriented perspective and putting that into practice in finals doesn’t seem plausible.
However there is something to it. As I’ve pointed out before, the willingness to do unconventional things in finals is an aspect that does define many of the greatest winners. Both gla1ve and Daigo have done it in their respective games. One of the best examples to come from Brood War is Park “July” Sung Joon’s EVER2008 OSL where he pulled off an improvised drone drill to all-in his opponent and mentally break the other player.
It was an awe inspiring performance considering how far out of his prime July was. One of the all time great players, Song “Stork” Byun Goo was watching that finals and commented afterward how it had changed his perspective. He was forced to ask himself How a man so far past his prime could win an OSL. The answer he came to was that it was a mental game and that was Stork’s greatest weakness. While Stork did eventually win an OSL title, it’s hard to know if he ever got over this mental weakness as he had to play two other famous perpetual runner-up players, Heo “JangBi” Yeong Moo and Jung “Fantasy” Myung Hoon.
In a similar vein then, if we believe that it is a mentality thing, then there is another possible solution. In an interview at USC, Kobe Bryant explained how he got his team mentally prepared to play in the finals of the NBA,
“If practice is more intense and harder than a game 7 will be, then game 7 will be easy…but if it’s not that’s when teams start folding and capitulating.”
While that sounds great in theory, the problem is that Kobe’s mentality and approach were extreme. Given what we know of the personalities on Liquid, it could destroy them rather than make them ascend to the next level. While they need someone with that killer mindset, it cannot be forced upon them. Someone has to adopt it.
In the end, there are no easy solutions for Liquid. In all competitive games, this is the hardest wall to break. The mental ceiling between what makes you second place and what makes you a winner. In Starcraft 2, Eo “soO” Yoon Su could have been the undisputed greatest of all time player to have ever touched the game. Instead he has lost six GSL Finals and a Blizzcon finals. In his entire career, he has only one tournament victory to his name, but he can be counted among the greatest players to have ever touched the game.
As he has lost so many, he has no advice to give. After losing his fourth GSL finals, he said this in his post-game interview,
“It’s pretty hard for me to be here on the finals stage again. I just don’t know how to win in the finals. All I can do is keep trying.”
Among all of the advice given, this is probably the best. The reason soO is an all-time great player is because he didn’t stop trying despite how devastating the losses were. He has created one of the greatest careers anyone has in the history of SC2 despite not winning. If he had broken to the other side and won the right finals, I’d call him the greatest to have ever done it.
For Liquid right now, this is the best answer moving forward. Regardless of whatever else they may try, they must not give up. The Danish core refused to give up and now they rule the world. While Liquid are stuck being known as chokers, they do not have to be like this forever. They can change themselves, they can improve, and the first step to make sure that happens is to keep trying.