How nitr0 Helped Team Liquid Rise To Stardom

16:30, 29 Jul 2020

After more than five years of competing in the active lineup of Team Liquid, Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella has announced his departure from the squad.

The North American Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) player joined Liquid in January 2015, where he initially played alongside Eric “adreN” Hoag, Damian “daps” Steele, Jacob “FugLy” Medina and Keith “NAF” Markovic. The team went on to have limited success in the international esports scene and underwent several line-up changes before settling on the core roster that now represents the Liquid brand.

Players have come and gone, but until now, nitr0 had remained a firm part of the lineup. He had followed the team through ups and downs and functioned as their in-game-leader for the majority of his tenure. But for the better half of a year, their results haven’t looked too great. His departure from Liquid comes at a time where the organisation feels the need to restructure the roster and transform the players back into a championship-winning squad.

A SHAKY START FOR TEAM LIQUID

Only in recent years have North American teams begun to commit to the strategical aspect of CS:GO. When Team Liquid entered the space in 2015, teams mostly relied on heavy fraggers carrying them through the matches. Team EnVyUs, in particular, knew how to do that well.

At that time, Liquid were no different. They boasted a few really strong aimers, like Jonathan “ELiGE” Jablonowsky, but weren’t exactly tactically sound. While nitr0 already called the shots back then, he was also their entry-fragger. This duality of roles presented a huge challenge to him and he wasn’t really able to fulfil both of those duties to his best abilities.

Unfortunately for them, strategy has become a major part of the CS:GO metagame ever since 2016. Back then, teams like EnVyUs started falling in the rankings, while the tacticians of Astralis and Natus Vincere are now the ones winning trophies. Nowadays, teams in the higher tiers can’t survive without a thoroughly thought-out game plan.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the match between Liquid and the Ninjas in Pyjamas at the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals in 2016. The North Americans steamrolled NiP on their CT side, bringing their score to 13-2 at half time. Winning the pistol round as well, they had the Swedes with their backs against the wall. Normally, a team with this much of a lead would have closed the game right there. However, Team Liquid were unable to do so. They lost round after round and before long, they found themselves in overtime. There, they eventually lost and conceded a match that should have been won an hour ago already.

Once NiP had taken their momentum, they had essentially broken them. In such a scenario, nitr0 should have been able to spot weaknesses in their opponents’ defence and call strategies which would give them at least a chance of winning the last round required. Liquid were being countered, but they didn’t understand how. As their top performers increasingly found themselves playing against a wall, they couldn’t figure out how to react and how to adapt. The Ninjas had exposed them for what they were, a puggy team of star players with shallow foundations at best.

nitr0's Team Liquid
Image via ESL

HOW S1MPLE BROUGHT LIQUID TO THE FRONTLINES

In 2016, as Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev was brought on board, Liquid had breakthrough performances at both the MLG and ESL One Cologne Majors. In Columbus, they narrowly lost to Luminosity (the eventual Major winners) in two overtime games. At ESL One Cologne, they made it all the way to the Grand Finals, where they lost to the same Brazilian roster.

Both of those incredible runs were enabled by s1mple, who rose to become the best CS:GO player afterwards. Their success was largely the effort of this one single player and not down to Liquid improving with regards their in-game leading capabilities. In an interview with HLTV at the MLG Columbus Qualifier, Spencer “Hiko” Martin stated that “even ELiGE started calling” at some point.

Following s1mple’s departure from Team Liquid, they once again retreated into the shadows of American CS:GO scene. However, the team decided that a leadership upgrade was necessary and secured a top IGL talent in Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz. He remained a part of the roster for most of 2017, but once again, results were lacking. Eventually, he was let go in favour of Lucas “steel” Lopes, who had already proven himself as the leader of Immortals. Still, the performance of the team didn't improve. At the ELEAGUE Major: Boston 2018, Liquid made a weak exit on 11th/12th place following a loss to Vega Squadron. This team was certainly not cut out to be a championship-winning squad just yet.

In April, Team Liquid added Epitacio “TACO” de Melo and waved their IGL, steel, goodbye. When TACO joined the Liquid roster, the team immediately experienced made a gigantic leap forward. At their second offline event together, they rushed to second place, beating mousesports and Natus Vincere in the process. Only Astralis managed to fend them off in a tense Grand Finals, which would establish a year-long rivalry between the two teams. Liquid continued on with their upwards trajectory throughout 2018, always falling short in the Grand Finals. Still, they had transformed into a Top Five team within months. What had changed?

SECOND TIME’S THE CHARM

With the departure of their last IGL, nitr0 decided to take up the leading reins once again. In an interview with HLTV, he explained why his in-game leading had been an issue in previous iterations of the roster: “In the past, we didn't have as much firepower on the team, and whenever I'm in-game leading, it's hard for me to frag, obviously it still happens today, but now we have better fraggers on the team, we don't need my firepower.”

However, with Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken, NAF and ELiGE on the team, Liquid weren’t as dependent anymore on him pulling huge numbers: “I think what separates me from past in-game leaders on this team is the ability to micromanage everyone, which affects my gameplay, which is why I struggle whenever I in-game lead. But I think that's what the team needed, especially during mid-rounds, it helps the groove of the team in the mid and late rounds.”

Liquid continued to dominate the entire international scene, with the notable exception of Astralis. Towards the end of 2019, they traded TACO for Jake “Stewie2k” Yip with MIBR. At iBUYPOWER Masters in January of 2019, they finally overcame the Danes. While the event was certainly not the most prestigious, they had managed to beat their Grand Finals curse. That didn’t help them, however, when they were upset by ENCE at the next Major installation.

nitr0's Team Liquid
Image via ESL

At IEM Sydney, they eventually got their high-profile trophy. Astralis weren’t in attendance, but virtually every other top team was. This kickstarted an epic victory run, as Liquid ploughed through several tournaments, culminating in the ESL One Cologne 2019 trophy. Simultaneously, they had won the Intel Grand Slam Season 2 in record time.

2019 was really their year and every player in the lineup contributed to solidifying them as the top team alongside Astralis. But their success was also enabled by nitr0, who had finally found his footing as a leader. It is difficult to quantify the significance of his contributions because calling the shots doesn’t reflect at all on the scoreboard or in the ratings. However, as Liquid have beaten even the most tactically seasoned teams time and time again, it is safe to say that the presence of nitr0 has had an enormous impact on the Liquid roster.

But now that he’s gone, what remains?

GOING THE FAZE ROUTE

The new addition to Team Liquid, Michael "⁠Grim⁠" Wince, has posted incredible numbers in recent months. He is certainly one of NA’s most promising young talents and joins the ranks of one of the most stacked CS:GO lineups of all time. But is he really the right choice for the roster?

Many teams have gone the route that Liquid are on now. FaZe Clan, already boasting incredible players, once replaced their veteran in-game leader, Finn “karrigan” Andersen, with another explosive mad-fragger. However, their results deteriorated. Even with such a star-studded lineup, they still can’t consistently win trophies to this day. Strategy and tactics matter in CS:GO. It may be wise to pick up an individually weaker IGL who enables the rest of the team to really perform - even if that means signing one less star player.

Stewie2k is arguably the next in line when it comes to calling the shots. At Cloud9, he actually held that position for quite some time or at least was asked to contribute mid-round. But is he really cut out of the same material as nitr0? Or are Liquid aiming to become just another star-team without a solid foundation?
 

Images via Starladder | ESL

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