CS:GO

Stuchiu: What caused the Liquid Decline and how can they stop it?

by Stephen Chiu
DreamHack

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One of the hardest teams to analyze in the world today is Team Liquid. In the middle of 2019, they quickly rose up to become the preeminent team of CS:GO. Depending on who you asked, they either had an era or were one Major victory away from establishing one.

Since their loss to Astralis at the StarLadder Berlin Major, Astralis and EG have superseded Liquid in the standings. What’s confounding for Liquid is that there is no obvious flaw in their team. For Liquid, that is the question. To figure out why they slipped from the top. If they can pinpoint that, they can get back on track to being the best team in the world.

Trying to pinpoint the problem

One of the reasons why Liquid is so hard to fathom is because typical models of analysis can’t easily diagnose their problems. The most general model evaluates a team along the three pillars of Counter-Strike: skill, tactics, and teamplay.

In terms of skill there, there should be no issues at least theoretically. Liquid might be the most skilled lineup ever assembled. The lineup of: Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken, Keith “NAF” Markovic, and Jake “Stewie2K” Yip is a collection of NA stars. Outside of Nikola “NiKo” Kovac, nitr0 is probably the most skilled in-game leader in the game. EliGE has been a top three player in 2019. Both Twistzz and NAF are star players and both have had months where they were top 5 players in the world. Stewie2K is one of the most skilled entry-fraggers in the game and was once the star of Cloud9.

Dreamhack
Dreamhack

If you look at Liquid since their post-break though their form has dropped off. But that alone doesn’t account for the drop in results. EliGE is still a superstar player. Twistzz and NAF are both stars. Nitr0 isn’t having as many star games as a leader, but he was always surplus to requirements anyway. Stewie2K has been more inconsistent, but that comes with the playstyle and roles he inhabits. So while skill is a factor to consider, it’s not the primary one.

Tactics are harder to evaluate as you can either judge them in the platonic sense or relative to the players a team has on hand. For instance, people criticized NiKo for his Rambo-style leading when he was on Mouz as it wasn’t tactically sound. However when put into the context of the teammates he had, that style of play was Mouz’s best shot at taking games from better teams.

In a similar sense, Liquid’s tactics aren’t the best in the platonic sense. Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander’s tactical innovations have resurrected Astralis and changed the team’s entire map pool. When Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen was still a part of ENCE, I thought ENCE had better tactics than Liquid. However if you judge Liquid in the context of their players, Liquid is among the best in the world. They utilize a wide variety of styles and defaults that makes the most use out of their individual players. Their roleless style of play is perfect considering the amount of smart, versatile, and mechanically gifted players they have on their team.

Finally, we come to teamplay. While Liquid don’t have the teamplay of an ascendant Fnatic, they are still in the upper stratosphere of CS:GO teams. They make correct macro decisions, rotate, and play off of each other well. While they may not have the best 5v5 or 3v3 teamplay compared to Fnatic or Astralis, there are pockets of teamplay that can match the best in the world. EliGE and Stewie2K play off of each other as the best entry duo. EliGE and nitr0 are perfectly in sync in whatever situation you throw them into. So while the teamplay isn’t the absolute best, it isn’t a drag factor either.

While there are some concerns in each category, none of them seem like the genuine cause for Liquid’s downfall. As that’s the case, we have to look at intangible factors. For me, the biggest is Liquid’s style of play: roleless Counter-Strike.

Liquid’s Roleless Counter-Strike

When Liquid were in the midst of their summer run, I posited that Liquid were playing a roleless style. They had some general tendencies (EliGE is far more likely to play the aggressive dueler), but were far more willing to break those roles and swap around compared to any other team. Some Liquid players have confirmed this idea. In a HLTV article, EliGE described his role, “Recently, I have been playing a little bit of every role. I am still aggressive and go in with the pack, but also if I have the utility or have a play I do that as well. The game has changed from being role-based to needing to be a jack of all trades with some core specific strengths. We all have things we like to do more than others and we try to put ourselves in those situations, but other times some people are just in the right place with a certain nadeset to fulfill a certain type of role that needs to be done."

Igor Bezborodov/StarLadder
Igor Bezborodov/StarLadder

In a different interview with HLTV, Twistzz echoed the sentiment saying, “Our roles are really game-to-game. In a lot of our scrims lately I felt like I was supporting a lot, and in the match against eUnited I felt like I was entrying more than I used to. Things just happen depending on the situation you're in and I happened to be on a lot of entry situations this game. It is the way it is, but I'm usually in more supportive scenarios.”

Liquid’s roleless style was an amalgamation of the player’s strengths and experiences. Wilton “zews” Prado was the former coach of Liquid from the end of 2016 to the end of 2018. When he came into the team, he enforced a structure and consistency to the team. That structure and base solidified in the 2018 lineup with: nitr0, EliGE, Twistzz, NAF, and Epitacio “TACO” de Melo.

As for Stewie2k, he played a loose aggressive style in Cloud9 and then played in Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo’s structured style in SK/MIBR. During that time he also changed roles and gained more experience in diverse roles. That time under FalleN made Stewie2K the perfect fifth addition after TACO left Liquid. Stewie2K could fill many of TACO’s roles and could slot into the Liquid system.

So when the team combined into one, they created a synthesis of structure and individual play. They had smart defaults, executes, tactics, and fundamentals. They combined that with ridiculous levels of individual skill. It was some strange hybrid of Astralis and FaZe and for a time, no one could stop Liquid.

The TACO lineup had experimented with roles before as they often switched positions between their players. But they were never able to inject the loose aggressive freedom of a FaZe Clan until Stewie2K came into the team as he injected a level of swagger and star player’s confidence into the lineup. When he came into the team, he tried to figure out why the team consistently lost in finals and on said on Counter-Points that, “I asked the guys what they thought about the finals and getting second place again. How did it feel, why do you think we lost? They would go so deep into so many minor problems. I thought the only thing that was missing in the finals was intensity, fire, and a little bit of confidence. Those three things are what leads to success for me.”

Confidence is a hard to understand concept in Counter-Strike as it’s talked about in almost pseudo-religious tones. People argue to this day as to whether or not confidence is the key factors to becoming good or whether it was just a by product of a good player already.

For myself, I model confidence based on Jaroslaw “pasha” Jarzabkowski’s play. He was someone with enormous confidence throughout his career. Duncan “Thorin” Shields often joked that Pasha never met a peek he didn’t like. Pasha always took the fight regardless of his form at the time. If he was in great form, he was one of the best in the world. If he was in bad form, he became a liability. The confidence didn’t make him a great player, but it convinced him to take duels like he was a great player.

In essence, confidence doesn’t make you better, but it does give you the belief to take individual plays you otherwise wouldn’t have. In the case of Liquid, this was perfect as all of their players were capable of winning those individual plays. EliGE told HLTV that this newfound confidence was a difference maker, “The biggest difference would be confidence in my play. Every duel that I take I feel like I will win. Every play I make I think will work.”

This confidence cascaded through the team as it gave them a belief in themselves and their teammates. It also helped their game flow. NAF touched on this In a HLTV article, “Whoever has a really strong start in the group stage, that star will just ride the momentum wave for the rest of the tournament and the rest of us will follow and support as much as possible.”

Igor Bezborodov/StarLadder
Igor Bezborodov/StarLadder

While this roleless CS was brilliant to watch, it also came with the drawback of opacity. Once the system hit a snag, it was hard for Liquid to figure out what the exact problems were. In a normal structured system, you can figure out where the kinks are quickly as the game is more stratified. For instance, in a Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko system, you can easily figure out if a player isn’t good enough to play their specific role/position, if they are having problems taking control of a particular part of the map, or if there are problems in the execution of a particular tactic.

In the Liquid system, they may have general roles, but they often mix and match depending on the situation. They have good tactics, but the tactics aren’t the driving force of the team as much as the players. NAF noted earlier that they try to play off of a star player feeling it as they have the best sense of the game flow at a particular tournament. This is mirrored in a statement Stewie2k said about their coach Eric “adreN” Hoag, “He[adreN] is very general when it comes to timeouts. I think the reason he does that is because he trusts in our instincts. He’ll chime in when we’re completely lost. When we’re lost, we take a timeout. He says something and we take a second to think about it. It’s the right call, but very generalized. He does that so the players come up with the plan.”

So when the system stops outputting results, it’s hard to figure out where exactly to fix the problem.

Fixing the Problem

Liquid have already recognized that there is a problem and have set about trying to fix it. One of the biggest flaws they recognized was their loss of fundamentals. He told HLTV, “We got rusty in our fundamentals, when we got to the bootcamp before the Major we wanted to work on what we already had and not create too many new things.”

Another potential problem was variation. Liquid had spent the entire middle of 2019 smashing teams in massive tournament formats, so it was inevitable that teams eventually started to figure out their playbook. Twistzz pointed this out as another potential problem to HLTV, “We're working on creating new tactics, we can't go back and touch on our old ones. We can't just say ‘we just need to re-run it, re-practice it, and it's going to work,’ because teams studied us and what we used to do.”

A third potential problem is the skill. I’ve pointed out earlier that Liquid had a drop compared to their mid-2019 form. The only player at the same level currently is EliGE. This drop in skill has two after-effects. First is that they start losing game flow. NAF said earlier that they tried to ride the momentum of the player who had a good group stage. In a team where all five players are going off, the chances of that happening is high. In a team where 2-3 players can consistently go off at that level, the probability is lower. The other potential problem is confidence.

As the team starts to get worse results, it’s natural to lose confidence. Perhaps the best example of this is Stewie2K. Stewie2K has become the confidence-man of the group. He can instill confidence in the other players to make individual plays that they might be too tentative to take otherwise. However, it's hard for a player to be the confidence-man when he is having a bad game. In Stewie2k’s case he’s had a drop in form and his roles are naturally inconsistent to begin with as a small-site anchor and entry-fragger.

Through Liquid’s interviews and games, we’ve seen a cornered a few problems. A loss of fundamentals, some loss of skill, a need to increase tactical diversity, and loss of confidence. For me these are symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem. The root is that Liquid still haven’t figured out what the best process is to enable their roleless Counter-Strike.

Igor Bezborodov/StarLadder
Igor Bezborodov/StarLadder

Each style of Counter-Strike requires a different environment to make it strive. The best example of this is the Astralis-FaZe dynamic of 2017. Astralis were the most tactical team in the world, so it made sense that they needed to take events off to rebuild their playbook. It also gave them time to observe and counter tactics they saw from tournaments they didn’t attend. The FaZe clan were a firepower based team tied together by Finn “Karrigan” Andersen’s leadership. For FaZe, they needed to travel from event to event to keep their players sharp and in tune with the highest competition of Counter-Strike.

Liquid is a synthesis of both styles. At their base they need a fundamentally sound tactical structure and a wide variety of ideas. Their strength though comes from their individual players supercharging their tactics. Looked at from that perspective, it’s not surprising that Liquid’s summer run had them go to 5 events in two months and win them all. During that period, they were plugged into the matrix of CS. Their players had the strongest feel for the game relative to anyone else in the scene. In contrast, the break made them lose that extra edge.

On the other hand, going from event to event can easily burn someone out and make them lose their edge even faster. We saw this with Liquid when they went from ESL New York to DreamHack Malmo. Since then, they’ve only attended a single BLAST event.

The Question and the Answer

Throughout this article, I’ve talked broken down the Liquid question, why did they fall off? There is no obvious answer for the squad as while there are a stack of small problems: loss of form, tactics, confidence, or fundamentals, when examined in isolation, each of the separate factors aren’t enough to explain Liquid’s drop off.

This makes it all the harder to find an answer, however I believe one must exist. Their potential is too great, we already saw what they could do in mid-2019. In raw firepower, they are arguably the best lineup ever assembled. Their roleless style has given them a level of diversity and flexibility that is nearly unmatched. In turn, it’s allowed them to create a synthesis of the structured Astralis style and the individualistic FaZe style.

The only real solution then is time and information. This Liquid lineup needs time to figure out what the problems are and they need information to do it. This is why the coming month will be important as they will be attending a flurry of tournaments to cap off the year: ECS Season 8 Finals, EPL Season 10 Finals, and the BLAST Finals. These will be critical trials for Liquid to figure out what has gone wrong and what they can do to fix it.