If the first events of 2018 are any indication of where Team Liquid is heading, then the future certainly looks bright for the North American organization. Liquid has been a mainstay in the North American region over the last few years in CS:GO. Throughout their tenure in the scene, Team Liquid at times has accomplished great things including reaching the semifinals of the MLG Columbus Major in 2016 as well as the finals of the ESL One Cologne Major later that year. However, outside of a few marquee results, Liquid has typically struggled to cash in on the great potential they have often possessed. Over the years the team certainly hasn’t shied away from making tough decisions and experimenting with bringing in new talent, but it hasn’t really panned out past a flash in the pan result here and there. But this time around things seem different. In their debut with their current lineup in 2018, the team has shown more promise than ever before. It appears they now have the tools necessary to truly deliver on the international stage, and this time around it looks as though they will be capable of doing so on a regular basis.
The path to the current lineup for Team Liquid begins in late 2017. Following the player break after the PGL Krakow Major in 2017, it appeared Liquid had hit a new level. There was plenty of hype surrounding the team throughout the year thanks to the signing of the young flashy talent that is Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken and the addition of Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz, an in-game leader who had built up quite the reputation thanks to his success with OpTic Gaming in the latter parts of 2016. Despite the roster looking incredible on paper, the results never really materialized outside of a top four finish at the EPL Season 5 Finals. However, that all came to a change following their failed attempt to qualify for the Major in Krakow. The team made some adjustments with Nick “nitr0” Cannela taking over leadership responsibilities and Twistzz being used more actively on terrorist sides. These tweaks led to the team becoming much sharper in the server as they placed second at both ESG Tour Mykonos and ESL One New York 2017. Team Liquid appeared to be transforming into a true international contender, but unfortunately, this success was short lived.
The situation began deteriorating for the North Americans just after the Americas Minor for ELEAGUE Boston. Stanislaw had already been relieved of in-game leading duties after the player break and thus focused solely on lurking and support roles. Unfortunately, his numbers took a huge dip starting at ESL One New York and it seemed as though inner team turmoil began to take root. The response to Liquid’s woes was to sever ties with stanislaw due to disagreements on the direction of the team. In his place, Lucas “steel” Lopes was brought in to be a supportive player that could help nitr0 lead the team in not just tactics but also morale.
Unfortunately, due to eligibility rules, Team Liquid found themselves alternating between using steel and their coach Wilton “zews” Prado as their fifth for the last events of the year, causing them to plunge back into mediocrity. At the very least, they were able to make the top sixteen at ELEAGUE Boston in January, allowing them access to the next Valve Major without the need to play in the Minor system. All in all, Liquid had managed to navigate through tumultuous times and was finally ready to take the next steps towards getting back to the top with steel now available to be a permanent fifth for the team. Despite this newfound stability, the organization felt they needed another change in order to begin that process. On February 5th, 2018, Team Liquid announced they had signed Keith “NAF” Markovic to replace Josh “jdm64” Marzano. At that moment, they had made a decision that would drastically change the dynamic of their team going forward. NAF’s addition would also take the skill ceiling of Team Liquid to new heights
Even in the earliest days of CS:GO, NAF had often caught attention in North America due to being one of the youngest players to ever compete in ESEA Invite in the region. He quickly displayed potential in his aim and at times was able to make flashy plays and post big numbers in online matches. However, for the first few years of the game, NAF lacked for consistency and struggled to perform on the offline stage. This began to change in 2016 as NAF matured as a player under OpTic Gaming. By the end of that year, NAF had begun to truly establish himself amongst elite players and it all culminated at ELEAGUE Season 2, helping his team secure one of only three big titles the region currently holds. While OpTic began to unravel heading into 2017 with the departure of stanislaw, NAF maintained good individual form throughout the year, waiting for an opportunity at something more.
NAF would join Renegades later in the year and helped the team grow in the lead up to ELEAGUE Boston. Included in his run with Renegades were winning the Asian Minor and the Starladder i-League Shanghai Invitational. They also took second at iBUYPOWER Masters 2017 which consisted of besting OpTic and going toe to toe with the eventual champions Cloud9. Along the way, NAF broke away from being a lurker as he had been known in the past and instead became more active in taking map control and trading into bomb sites. This improved versatility along with stellar stats increased NAF’s value substantially. Over the course of his time with Renegades, NAF posted an HLTV rating of 1.2 or better in five of his seven offline events and typically racked up incredible frag counts. The Canadian had more than proven he was a true star talent and was too great of a prospect for Liquid to pass on.
The addition of NAF has brought several changes to the team. The biggest of all is the loss of a primary AWPer with a versatile hybrid talent taking its place. Often times Team Liquid found themselves limited on options due to the fact jdm64 was often seen as a handicap without an AWP in his hands. This meant they lacked the ability to implement effective five rifle setups and had to manage their money and tactics accordingly. This has all changed by bringing NAF on board. Not only has NAF elevated the overall talent Team Liquid houses, but he has also opened up more options for the team’s shot calling. Often times NAF finds himself used as a lurker as he had been tasked with in the past. Being a more active force on the map seemed to serve as a catalyst for NAF’s monstrous form on Renegades, but switching back to peripheral roles hasn’t slowed him down at all on Team Liquid. NAF clearly has been their top performer so far this year and one of the best performers in the world in the early portion of 2018. Not only that, NAF can still be used more actively in certain situations which we have already seen on certain maps and tactics.
So far the debut of the new Team Liquid lineup for 2018 has been eye-opening. Over the course of February the team played three events and placed at least top four at each tournament, including winning the brand’s first international title in CS:GO at cs_summit 2. Across their offline appearances, the team scored best of three series victories over SK and NiP twice each. Liquid also found meaningful wins over mousesports, Heroic, Renegades, Virtus.Pro, and Gambit. They have also managed map wins over Astralis. Perhaps most importantly, they have dethroned Cloud9 as the best performing team from the North American region, including defeating their rivals head to head at IEM Katowice as well as in the grand finals of cs_summit 2.
Throughout their debut run, Team Liquid has developed a promising map pool. Considering the field, the team has gained some advantages by showing great play on maps such as inferno, cobblestone, and overpass. They also have looked competitive on mirage in certain series though they also have had key losses on the map which led to their event eliminations. Train is a similar story where they have had mixed results. For nuke and cache, the sample sizes seem too small to make any real conclusions, though it is worth noting cache is currently their main ban. It’s certainly not a bad look for a team that has had little time to focus on practicing thus far.
Individual performances have also been serving the team well to begin the year. First and foremost, NAF’s numbers have been nothing short of stunning. Across the three events, NAF has played with Team Liquid he has had an HLTV rating of 1.2 or better for the event overall with at least a +33 K/D difference. He has rarely had a bad series or map and seems to be thriving. NAF has been a consistent performer since at least late 2016 and has only trended upwards since which is great news for his new team.
The pairing of Twistzz and Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski has also continued to be a driving force for the team. Outside of a couple of off series, the young talents on Team Liquid have delivered consistently. Their ability to keep up their form alongside what NAF has brought to the table contributes greatly to the level of play their team has demonstrated so far this year. For nitr0, the end of last year and the first couple of events of 2018 have been great. His level of play improved greatly at ELEAGUE Boston and he was able to maintain this rhythm at cs_summit 2 and the StarSeries i-League Season 4 Finals. This certainly helped Liquid find deep runs at both events. However, it is important to point out that IEM Katowice did not go so well for the in-game leader and that is something to look out for going forward. To wrap up roster talk, steel isn’t one to normally leap off the page fragging wise, but he was never meant to. Steel could almost be considered the glue of the team that brings a great attitude and a willingness to do whatever is needed. He has often picked up spots former players have left behind on the team and has taken up support duties to facilitate the play of the team’s stars.
The impact of NAF’s acquisition on the team’s strategy has been substantial and a huge key to Liquid’s initial success this year. For starters, Team Liquid has been able to utilize five rifle setups on a much broader basis than ever before. This has been particularly noticeable on their terrorist side on inferno. Often times the team has worked their defaults and executes without an AWP present and has found a lot of success on the map throughout their run of events so far in 2018. Mirage is a similar story on the attack where again they mix between slower map control and rapid site splits incorporating full rifle buys on a more regular basis compared to previous lineups. Their CT sides also have more options with rifle aggression or passivity depending on what is called for. When an AWP is desired, nitr0 is often the player taking it into his hands, but players like Twistzz and NAF may also put it to good use depending on the map and spots they are assigned to. The point is the AWP is no longer a requirement, sure it may be useful at times but it is no longer an anchor they are tied to.
As of now, Team Liquid has not had much time to practice; however, already they have displayed solid cohesion and team play. They often make sure they are setup to play off of one another and not let a frag against them go unanswered. They have shown the capability to play varied styles including fast paced, up tempo maneuvers that are quite dangerous due to the amount of skilled riflers the team has at their disposal. This allows them to play a solid swarm and trade style if they so choose, reminiscent to the strengths the OpTic of 2016 held and one of the big tools Cloud9 used effectively at the ELEAGUE Major. At times they have also brought out some crafty executes and counters to their opponents tendencies, though for now most of their play has been less complex and more focused on defaults and team play. They also continue to show discipline in most scenarios under nitr0’s stricter form of leadership.
All in all, Team Liquid has looked sharp during their 2018 debut. Having finally stabilized their roster after turbulent conditions towards the end of 2017, the team can focus on building themselves back into a true international contender and hopefully this time with some staying power. Despite a lack of preparation, the team has already found great results and solid poise on several maps. Thanks to a new team dynamic, namely an ability to play five rifle setups with hybrids that can AWP when needed, Liquid has increased their options economically and tactically. They have also grown their source of reliable fragging power. While it is true their opponents haven’t had the ability to scout them yet, it is also worth noting Team Liquid has had time to really develop much of a playbook. Over time their defaults should become sharper as they perfect their routines, and Zews has proven in the past several times that he can innovate and design elaborate executes. With that in mind, with more preparation this lineup can diversify their approach to the game which will allow them to adapt to the meta and counter opponents as needed.
Whether or not the results can keep coming is certainly up for debate. There are plenty of elite teams out there with proven track records and talent which will make traveling the road to elite status an arduous task. However, Team Liquid now has the tools and flexibility to not just be another “good lineup on paper” but instead leap off the page towards something truly noteworthy.
Photo Credit: StarLadder