LOS ANGELES --- As all eyes in the world of Counter-Strike turn to the upcoming StarLadder Berlin Major next month, the odds-on favorite has become clear.
No, it's not Denmark's Astralis, the back-to-back major winners and arguably the best team to ever assemble inside the game.
In a reformatted furnishing showroom in the heart of Koreatown in Los Angeles, the hometown team, Team Liquid put their finishing touches on another victorious tournament at Blast Pro Series, defeating FaZe in a 2-0 sweep to take home another trophy. Throughout the two-day tournament, TL didn't drop a single map, taking every game in the round-robin group stage before blanking Cloud9 and FaZe to win the entire event.
"We just came to win, that's about it," said Jake "Stewie2k" Yip in the post-match interview. "We're on home soil and we wanted to make our fans proud."
Ever since Liquid failed to make its expected deep-run at the last major this past March in Katowice, all they've done is win. In a little over two months, the team completed the Intel Grand Slam, winning four-straight ESL or DreamHack organized tournaments to gain an extra $1 million. With that, they earned themselves a spot in the conversation as the undisputed best team in the world.
Team Liquid's emergence as the world's best has rewritten the history of what it means to be a North American Counter-Strike team. What Cloud9 began at the Boston major in 2018, Liquid has continued, working themselves from the middle of the pack to being neck-and-neck with Astralis before ultimately overtaking them in recent months.
North America loves a good underdog story, but make no mistake -- Team Liquid isn't one of them.
"It's an amazing feeling," said the team's in-game leader Nicholas "nitr0" Cannella on Liquid's rise to the top of the world rankings. "I feel like we're creating history with this lineup right now. It would be really cool if we could create the best CS:GO lineup of all-time, and it would be cool if it was [North] American because of the prestige aspect of it. NA [Counter-Strike] was a meme at one point, but I think we've proven some people wrong that we don't need a European star carry or a Brazilian star carry. I think our teamwork and chemistry are another level when compared to past iterations of our lineup."
TL's greatest strength, nitr0 said, is the team's flexibility. On any given day, a different player can step up and be the MVP, stepping into the role of the superstar carry. Where some of the other top teams in the world have more structured, linear lineups with designated supports, attackers and a primary ace in the carry position, Team Liquid, like their name suggests, is fluid.
Nitr0 also applauded Stewie's addition to the team helping him with the overall shot calling of the squad as well; the added voice and expertise of another player lets the team play an even more free-flowing style. Similar to Astralis when they are at their top form, Liquid can counter with a lineup from one-to-five as equally as impressive individually, a superstar team that has done the unthinkable -- actually perform better than how they looked on paper.
"North America, I feel like, they have the money, but they only cared about the money [alone] until recently where they started practicing properly and borrowing practice routines from Europe," said Renegades AWPer Sean "Gratisfaction"' Kaiwai. "They're now rivaling Europe as they should have ages ago."
The money has always been there for the North Americans, but with Team Liquid, Cloud9, NRG and other teams in the region, that cash is finally being put to good use. TL has a new Alienware practice facility in Los Angeles and the infrastructure for the entire region has evolved over the last few years. Big-name traditional sports owners are coming into the scene to infuse organizations with enough money to turn their once improbable dreams into reality.
Money alone can't turnaround a region, though. Nitr0 said that along with the added infrastructure, the amateur scene in North America has found a place to live and thrive with FaceIt's Pro League program, in which world-class players can play alongside and against some of the rising talents in the scene today. At Blast Pro Series Los Angeles, Cloud9 showcased one of its newest signees from that bubbling pool of amateur talent, teenager Tyson "TenZ" Ngo getting his first on-stage experience with his first pro team.
"My next biggest goal is to win the major and lift the trophy in front of everyone," said nitr0. "It's always been a goal of mine. I think this is the team that will do it finally for NA, aside from Cloud9."
Heading into Berlin, there is a slew of challengers that come to mind for nitr0 when asked about who the toughest challenge will be. Of course, ENCE, the Cinderella Finns who knocked Team Liquid out of the Katowice major are on the list, albeit having cooled off since their historic finals run at said major. France's Team Vitality also made nitr0's shortlist of teams to watch out for in Berlin, a team spearheaded by one of the brightest individual talents in the world in 18-year-old Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut. While more straightforward lineup-wise than TL, nitr0 applauded the entire team, not just ZywOo, impressed by the their overall coordination and understanding of how to play together.
The biggest team to watch out for, though? You know who it is. Astralis, the dynastic team that won the Intel Grand Slam before Team Liquid, is still the team that Liquid needs to watch out for when they head off to Berlin. Katowice was expected to end in a showdown between the giants of North America and Europe, but Liquid failed to live up to their end of the bargain. At the upcoming Berlin Major, it feels as if the roles have reversed between the two sides. Liquid is confident in a march towards the finals, whereas Astralis is the team with question marks surrounding the lineup, early exits from recent tournaments fueling the discussion if the Danish dynasty is truly over.
"I think Astralis will come back stronger after the break." said nitr0. "I think they're going to learn from their mistakes from the first-half of the year and they're going to be hungry to win. They're going to be chasing that No. 1 spot because they know how it feels [to be the best] and how you have to grind for it. They know how to do it, so if anyone, Astralis would be the [top] contender for us."
For the first three months of the year, it was Team Liquid who lagged behind the Danish superteam. Following the major, it has been Team Liquid that has started to create its own era in the history of Counter-Strike with Astralis trying to figure out its own issues. Maybe, finally, come the Berlin final, the world will get what it has wanted since Katowice -- a best-of-five between Astralis and Team Liquid, the world's best team.