The first challengers for the Transatlantic Showdown are here: Team Liquid and ENCE. What does each of these top-tier rosters bring to the IEM Chicago 2019 mix? Read on for Duncan “Thorin” Shields’ breakdown of our first two invites!
What makes a great career? Trophies play a role, but clearly they are not everything. Legendary AWPer GuardiaN has never won a major, while former FNATIC player Devilwalk lifted the first hosted in CS:GO. Who is considered the greater player or the one with the greater career? Clearly, it's the Slovakian FaZe player. Still, the greatest players will be defined by their wins or losses on the grandest stages and thus Team Liquid's narrative quickly emerges as the would-be kings who have yet to be satisfyingly crowned.
From upsets to usurpers
Team Liquid are the best North American core to ever compete in CS:GO. Where in practically every year of CS:GO there was an NA line-up with the capability of upsetting the top European sides and causing excitement as a result of such a win, Team Liquid beats said elite European sides at seemingly every tournament they attend and those results are rarely ever considered upsets. This is a team who has not only defied expectations for a squad from their region, but redefined them entirely. Now, we look at Team Liquid and ask why they still haven't won more big international titles.
Hell, the question can even be legitimately posited as to why they have yet to win a major. Cloud9 won one at the beginning of 2018, yet that came seemingly out of the blue. For Team Liquid, it would be much less of a surprise to see them hoist the most important trophy in the scene and far less unlikely circumstances would need to align for said victory to take place. Such is the new paradigm Team Liquid has ushered North America's best into. One even sees the effect rubbing off on others, as NRG have already accomplished some very respectable international placings themselves, as good as past Cloud9 line-ups, and yet they too are now held to a higher standard, no longer simply "great for a North American team".
Team Liquid are not contending for the title of best from their region, a status they've had locked down for a year now, but rather they are going for the crown of best team in the entire world. A look at their line-up shows such ambitions are not naively optimistic.
Kings without the right crown
Team Liquid's previous line-ups, featuring TACO and steel instead of Stewie, were routinely reaching top four of big international tournaments, winning the vast majority of the semi-finals they played in and thus progressing into finals again and again. Despite such stellar form, they found success only in smaller finals or those with circumstances surrounding them which sapped a little luster from Liquid's victory.
Winning at cs_summit 2 in early 2018 announced Liquid as a new potential elite squad and came with series wins over SK and Cloud9, two of the world's top-ranked sides. Alas, the event did not feature much competition outside of those squads and was not held with a big stage set-up or crowd environment. The pressure placed upon any of the teams in attendance there cannot compare to stages like ESL One Cologne or Dreamhack Masters Malmo.
Similarly, a late win at the SuperNova Malta event had them taking down NRG in the final, but the lack of teams like Astralis, Na`Vi and FaZe meant this win would not rank alongside the big tournaments of the year. No, in those bigger events, Liquid were defined by their runners-up finishes.
In the majority of those finals, Liquid were facing off against Astralis, the dominant team whose era covered Liquid's rise to the top, and the Danes got the better on every occasion. While most teams lost to Astralis, Liquid not only had to face them most times in the finals, making it more difficult to win, but found themselves uniquely incapable of besting Astralis. Na`Vi, FaZe, North, NiP and MiBR all managed to take series wins over gla1ve and the gang, but it never happened for Liquid.
Had it been merely Astralis halting Liquid's path to trophies, then we could grante the North American powerhouse much more leeway, but their winning ways proved more elusive than that. In the final of ESL One New York and Blast Pro Series Miami, Liquid were favored to win and there was no Astralis on the other side of the stage. Nonetheless, Liquid were left watching someone else take that final step. As such, questions have understandably been asked regarding Liquid's mental frame in finals and their killer instinct under pressure.
Liquid's wins in 2019 have seen their resume again stacked, but not necessarily with the right wins. Winning iBUYPOWER Masters gave Liquid an offline title at an event featuring numerous world class sides; they even beat beat Astralis in a straight up Bo3 series in the final. Yet that tournament had enough difficulties in its execution and lacked the gravitas and meaningful qualities of a huge event on the circuit, so Liquid's credit for finally killing their white whale proved tempered.
Similarly, a win in Australia at IEM Sydney saw Liquid taking one of the most well-known titles in the calendar, but without most of the other elite teams in attendance or with full rosters. Again, victory came at last for Team Liquid, but found excuses riding along with it that could not be easily dismissed as idle chatter or nay-saying. All the same, they did finally win.
Where so many times previously Liquid had beaten other contenders only to lose in the final, this time around the story ended more pleasantly for NAF and company. Winning over anyone in the final was a big moment for Liquid. Past finals would likely have seen the side shot with insecurity after giving up a potentially deciding fourth map, triggering memories of their infamous ESL One New York loss on the same map at the same point, but this Liquid was all business as they comprehensively closed out the final map of the final.
Yet Liquid still seeks that glorious moment of winning a big international trophy with most of their peers in attendance to witness a legitimate coronation of the team who would usurp Astralis' era and take the top spot from them. They have the parts to be that new team of the age. Arguably the most skilled and versatile line-up in the game is bolstered by both young and a hunger to win. Their map pool looks to be one of the widest in the scene and their consistently strong victories over top European sides shows that Liquid remain as potent and ready for greatness as any side out there.
At IEM Chicago, Liquid will look to repeat their Sydney feat and right the wrongs of that ESL One New York final last year.
Where Team Liquid are the established would-be-kings, who have yet to take the final step and assume their throne, ENCE are the fresh challengers who have emerged from the mists of tier two obscurity to legitimately claim tenure among the world's best sides for 2019. Had ENCE's performance thus far merely been their epic and unexpected run to the final of IEM Katowice, the major, then surely they could be considered a fun but impractical potential champion.
Staking their claim
Instead, ENCE have shown an overall level of performance which suggests they will have other chances to lift big trophies this year. At Blast Pro Series Sao Paulo, allu and his allies were a few rounds from playing the final and a rematch against Astralis. At StarSeries, the Finns were a favorite for the title, but lost out to an inspired Na`Vi in the quarter-finals, with only superlative individual out-plays from s1mple and electronic denying sergej and the boys a third straight top-four finish in a row. Blast Pro Series Madrid saw them conquer a breakthrough tournament win at the expense of none other than Astralis.
Along with their runs, ENCE have claimed a number of impressive scalps to show themselves worthy of their new found status as a top team. Bo3 series wins over teams like Liquid, Na`Vi and FaZe show ENCE are capable of beating most of the big names in global Counter-Strike. The Finns may not match up well against Astralis (though Madrid may yet prove to be more than an outlier result), but few do and their ability to find edges over some of the most talented sides in the game speaks well to ENCE's potential to remain world class going into the future.
This is not a line-up to be overlooked or messed with. In-game leader (IGL) Aleksib is arguably the revelation of 2019, beyond even young phenom sergej. Where sergej has brought a star level performance which has been key to establishing the necessary firepower for ENCE to even be capable of battling the top teams, players like allu and suNny have shown us a similar level of performance from a Finnish player previously.
No, what has been most stellar in ENCE has been the emergence of the IGL the Finnish scene has needed the whole time in CS:GO. An IGL capable of both playing the proper disciplined tactical style that can elevate his squad beyond their mere fragging levels and with a respectable individual game of his own to contribute to their fire-power.
ENCE are not just a team with some spicy players and a bit of upset potential. On a map like train, ENCE are probably the best team in Counter-Strike. Elsewhere in the map pool, they find many opportunities to match-up well with the rest of the world's best sides and many of their performances thus far suggest their relative strength and expectations on the other maps will only improve as the months come. ENCE wins playing within the high-level meta of the best teams, not in spite of it. That's a significant difference from most new sides entering the top 10 for the first time.
All the puzzle pieces
Perhaps most astounding of all when it comes to ENCE as a squad has been the lack of fat to be trimmed or obvious positions to upgrade. Six months ago many would have snap-called a potential trade of almost anyone from the squad for mouz star suNny, but players like sergej, allu and Aerial have all arguably out-performed him since then. Outside of those names, you have Aleksib, who is the IGL, and xseveN, whose strong supportive play not only seems to bind the team together but whose inspired individual elevation of playing level at the major was a significant contributing factor in the team making their run all the way to the final.
Perhaps it is a trick of the first few months among the top teams or lack of spotlight on the team in the past, but ENCE look like a complete team in terms of their roles and the balance between them. As such, an ENCE win looks correct and many of their losses have come as a result of the kind of extreme individual performances that it's difficult to lay much blame at the feet of the Finns. Clearly, this is a new era of Finnish Counter-Strike, harkening back to the glory days of teams like 69N-28E, who were among the best teams in CS 1.6 from 2006-2008.
In a scene of teams with sub-optimal line-ups, thanks to buy-outs and the increased cost of doing business, having elite tier team-play is not just a strength for ENCE but one which many of their peers lack to the same degree. ENCE don't have the most intimidating weapons of the top teams, but they do have some of the most cohesive play of any of their peer group. That's enough to give them hope of becoming champions, but more still remains to prove they can reach the winners' circle.