Written by: Richard Lewis
Many people tell me Counter-Strike punditry is easy, and that at any given point, identifying the best players and teams is glaringly obvious. Fans offer theories about who should join what teams as if they are absolutes, and that if you can’t see what they do, then you must not know anything. They peddle this fallacy even as we move through an era where the team that invariably rises to become the best couldn’t have been seen coming. Remember, even the legendary NiP era started as most people asked questions about whether their veteran 1.6 players would be able to hack it in this new game.
Team Liquid has done more to assemble a winning team than anyone else in recent memory, achieving incredible things of late. The team made the final of a major and put North American Counter-Strike back on a map, earning a new label “here be dragons” for their continent. Yet the path to these achievements has been punctuated with disappointments and failures, a lot of them completely logic-defying. As a case study in how making the “right” moves can be impossible to qualify, Team Liquid’s story is fascinating proof that there is a lot more to a successful team than assembling a talented roster.
No one ever doubted the talents of Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostylev. What people questioned was whether or not he would ever be able to be marketable as a professional. Known for being argumentative with teammates, his past hardly made him a desirable prospect. Banned from one league for cheating, recorded making Nazi gestures towards German viewers, as well as incidents claiming that he scammed his own fans out of skins. This checkered past reads like the stuff of nightmares for any organization that, as most do, is thinking “sponsors” first. However, even if we care not to admit it, we all know there comes a point where someone’s talents dictate that the rules don’t apply to them, and that there are chances beyond that fabled “second” as well as supposed “final” one. Kostylev is one of the best players in world Counter-Strike and as long as that holds true, there will be people willing to forgive the follies of youth.
Team Liquid recruited him in January of this year, and it caused the splash you imagined it would. Kostylev being re-introduced to the CS talent pool in any region was big news. Him joining an American team was like releasing a shark into an aquarium. Most pundits accepted that this move made Team Liquid the strongest team in the region before even a match was played. It was a game-changer, while the aftermath was far from what was expected.
The team lost their opening game with their new foreign import to Complexity in the ESL Pro League, and then followed that up with a narrow 16-14 victory over the same team, in which Kostylev delivered his first “carry” performance for the team. Then, they failed to qualify for IEM Katowice with a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the second best team in Brazil, Tempo Storm, now Immortals. As Hollywood scripts go, this was more Coen Brothers than Joe Eszterhas.
Continuing to underwhelm, team management theorized that the poor showings were due to the supposed dead weight of their on/off in-game leader Eric “adreN” Hoag. Hoag already had AWP-ing responsibilities taken from him after a poor run of individual form. Naturally, it was the new kid who took over these duties, a primary rifler who was so talented he was better with the AWP than many specialists at that position. Now, the narrative had shifted somewhat. Team Liquid, who had been the best team in the US before a bullet was fired, were now only one roster move away from completing their jigsaw puzzle. I remember this moment well, speaking on the roster moves in real time back then.
At the same time, a young player called Kenneth “koosta” Suen had been stringing together amazing performances for his team Enemy.gg. He carried the team, looking incredibly out of place alongside his teammates, as many declared him the best young player in the NA region. Known for his flashy AWP shots, despite what the narrative has become, he was decent with a rifle as well. Koosta often rallied his team when they were behind economically. It was a time when North America didn’t really have a stand out AWP player, something they had always been known for. I went out on a limb and said he was the best AWPer in the US, which didn’t seem to be much of a stretch with so little competition.
So when Team Liquid came calling in February, the move made complete sense on paper. The popular perception was that this move put them over the top, making them capable of even competing with the better teams in Europe. Once again, the aftermath was far from what was expected. Instability with the roster created issues and we saw Team Liquid’s supposed starting line-up infrequently.
There was also internal friction as to who would be the primary sniper on the team. The word on the street was that Kostylev wasn’t going to give up that role as he had little confidence in his new teammate. Suen not only joins a new team, but also has to sacrifice the role he specialized in over the course of his short career. If this seemed unreasonable, add this fact to the mix: Suen’s performances as the AWP were dreadful. He limped through games looking lost and confused, as the aim he was so famous for disappeared. He didn’t even look frustrated when he played, just depressed.
What Liquid couldn’t have known was that Suen was being micro-managed by his coach, Steve "Ryu" Rattacasa the entire time. During games, Rattascasa would advise Suen on where to stand, what angles to hold, and when to push. Suen delivered the performances with confidence, feeding off the coach’s positive feedback. Without this calming voice, the young player found matches difficult. Liquid’s coach, the veteran James O’Connor, didn’t have the time to focus on Suen to the same degree. He spent his time trying to ensure their new Ukrainian import wasn’t causing internal friction by arguing with his teammates or getting frustrated during games. This, coupled with the fact that Hoag was seen as more of a “leader” than their coach, caused the team to slowly unravel before it even had a chance to get going.
Fortunately, the Columbus major brought their vision into focus. With Suen and his problems out of the picture, along with a huge prize pool to focus on, the bickering stopped. The team delivered some of the best results in their current form. Even Hoag, who had taken far more flak for poor performances, delivered some standout performances. Team Liquid got to the semi-final, then experienced heartbreak against Luminosity. The American crowd accepted Kostylev, and he embraced his new role as a star player. Everything was looking up and the Team Liquid experiment finally looked like a success.
Returning from their Columbus heroics, there was little time to enjoy the moment before problems flared up again. Arguments were now amplified due to newly inflated egos on all sides. Sprinkle in the homesickness from a very big fish out of water, and the team once again came unstitched. The man they called “Simple” made life anything but, while his talent spearheaded them to their greatest moment. Now he was gone, and perhaps it was Suen’s time to shine.
Once again, the aftermath was far from what was expected. By the time Team Liquid arrived at ELeague, they looked anything like heroes and failed to win a single game. That wretched display surprised me more than anything else that happened over the course of the season. An ambitious, talented and improving team, management seemingly made the right roster moves to ensure they could compete. Yet each time, they fell short. Team Liquid showed us Counter-Strike is not a sport for the faint of heart, and being the best is more art than science.