A fond look back at Liquid's Grand Slam run
With the player break in full swing, and with the fates of North America's top squads like Liquid and Complexity yet to be decided for the upcoming season, now is a perfect time to reminisce about one of the most accomplished lineups North America has fielded. That team would of course be the Liquid of 2019, who dominated the first half of the year to secure the $1,000,000 prize of the Intel Grand Slam.
One of the most notable things about Liquid's run, aside from the record time in which it was completed, was how the peak form that Liquid displayed came and went just like that. Liquid went from being perpetually in the shadow of Astralis throughout 2018 to dominating the scene for the first half of 2019. And then with the Grand Slam secured, Liquid's phenomenal form vanished at the tip of a hat, leaving the squad to dream of what could have been had they been able to keep close to that fantastic form.
Heading into 2019, Liquid were on the hunt for some first-place finishes. You might think that's a bit redundant, considering just about every team is looking to win the trophy of the events they compete in. But for Liquid, 2018 was a particularly frustrating year, with the team racking up more second-place medals than they could keep track of. Liquid placed fairly well throughout 2018, but unfortunately for the American side, this coincided with the peak of the Astralis lineup, one of the most formidable squads in the history of Counter-Strike.
So began one of the most one-sided rivalries to date in Counter-Strike. Although Liquid was able to manage consistent deep runs in events, the squad was continually thrashed by Astralis whenever the two would meet, with Liquid falling to Astralis in the finals of ESL Pro League Season 7, ECS Season 5, ELEAGUE Premier, IEM Chicago, and ESL Pro League Season 8, to name a few of their ill-fated encounters.
The perpetual curse of second place lit a fire in the belly of Liquid as the team marched into 2019, with the squad bolstered at the beginning of the year by the addition of Jake "Stewie2K" Yip from MIBR. That move immediately netted results for Liquid, who made a statement in the new year by taking down Astralis in the grand finals of the iBUYPOWER Masters, the first time Liquid had bested Astralis in a BO3 since ESL One New York 2017. Liquid had finally broken free of the stranglehold that Astralis had them in, and the sky was now the limit for the American side.
Liquid were on top of the world after finally besting their longtime rivals, and heading into the IEM Katowice Major, the squad had the wind in their sails. Unfortunately, this good fortune did not last long as, despite a dominant group stage performance at the Major, Liquid found themselves ousted in the quarterfinals by the underdogs of ENCE. The lesson here for Liquid was that while the squad was able to finally beat Astralis, the team still had plenty of work to do if they wished to contend for top titles.
Back-to-back second-place finishes at BLAST Pro Series events in March and April, which included a loss to Astralis in one of the finals, left some fans concerned that maybe Liquid had not truly broken free of their inability to win titles and that perhaps the iBUYPOWER Masters victory was a fluke result of the squad's honeymoon phase with Stewie2K. The upcoming IEM Sydney in May offered a valuable litmus test for Liquid; Astralis would not be attending the event down under, while the fourth-ranked side FaZe were utilizing two stand-ins, making Liquid, not just a contender, but rather the outright favorites to win the tournament.
Thankfully for North American fans, Liquid passed the test of IEM Sydney with flying colors, dominating their opponents in the group stage and semifinal before toppling fnatic in a tightly contested BO5 final to secure the team's first-ever Big Event victory. The squad's star trio of Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken, Keith "NAF" Markovic, and Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski put up phenomenal numbers in the Australian event, with Twistzz leading the way with a 1.25 rating while NAF and EliGE each followed closely behind with 1.23 ratings.
Liquid's next big outing would be later that May on home soil, as the squad was invited to DreamHack Masters Dallas. The competition here was fiercer than IEM Sydney, with both Vitality and ENCE securing invites to the event, but with Astralis once again not in attendance Liquid found themselves to be the favorites for yet another significant tournament.
Yet again, Liquid came out on top, albeit this time with a little bit more resistance as FaZe and ENCE kept things close. While things looked fantastic for Liquid, questions of whether they would be able to best Astralis still lingered, and fans would not have to wait long for them to be answered.
The finals of ESL Pro League Season 9 in June would be the first event that Astralis and Liquid played together since BLAST Pro Series São Paulo in March. Liquid started their run with a shocking opening loss to North, but the American side maintained their composure in the lower bracket, as they triumphed over TYLOO, HellRaisers, and MIBR to snatch a spot in the quarterfinals.
What arguably should have been a grand final match was now happening in the quarterfinals, as Liquid and Astralis squared off for the first time in almost three months. Liquid bested their Danish foes after recovering from a map deficit, and the Americans carried that momentum through the rest of the playoffs, shutting out mousesports and G2 to claim their third Big Event title in the year, putting them within arm's reach of the Intel Grand Slam and firmly securing their place as the team to beat.
Just weeks after their victory at the ESL Pro League Season 9 Finals, Liquid found themselves back in action at ESL One Cologne, an all-important event for the team who were now only a single win from cashing in on the $1,000,000 Grand Slam prize. The Korean side of MVP PK nearly halted Liquid's momentum in their opening match, but the American side overcame their opponents to keep themselves in the upper bracket. Liquid went on to move past NAVI, and subsequently their countrymen in NRG to snatch a direct placement in the semifinals of the prestigious German event.
Liquid's semifinal foe was a familiar one, as they tussled with NAVI once again, this time with much greater ease than in the group stage. Although a grand final against Astralis was possible thanks to the bracket seeding, a strong performance from superstar Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut in the semifinals denied the Danes the chance to contend with their rivals in the grand final, as Liquid matched off against Vitality for their shot at the Intel Grand Slam.
While ZywOo certainly impressed at IEM Cologne 2019, enough to secure himself the MVP award for that event, he was unable to singlehandedly put a stop to the behemoth that was this Liquid. Vitality snagged a map off the North Americans in the BO5 grand final, but NAF, Twistzz, and EliGE powered Liquid to victory in Cologne, simultaneously completing the second season of the Intel Grand Slam with four consecutive tournament wins.
With the Grand Slam now secured, Liquid had their eyes set on a new prize; North America's second Major. Unfortunately for Liquid, they would have to wait some time for their next chance, as the Starladder Major Berlin was not scheduled until late August, following the month-long summer player break. Liquid rounded out the first half of their 2019 season with two more tournament wins on home soil, coming out on top in both the BLAST Pro Series Los Angeles and IEM Chicago.
Over a month after IEM Chicago, it was now finally time for Liquid to claim what was rightfully theirs in Berlin. While I wish I could say that they came into the Major as triumphant as they had been throughout the rest of the year, and dominantly claimed NA's second Major, that is unfortunately far from what occurred. It very quickly became apparent in the Legends Stage that this was not the Liquid of the spring and summer, as the team suffered losses at the hands of both NRG and AVANGAR, putting Liquid at risk of not even making playoffs. The Americans recovered with wins over North and mousesports, but their poor seeding landed them a quarterfinal match against Astralis.
It is only fitting that the team that firmly put an end to Liquid's fantastical run was Astralis. In the end, Liquid crumbled in their quarterfinal matchup, unable to contest the Danes' surprise pick of Vertigo before being narrowly taken down on their own pick of Overpass. This loss not only drew Liquid's Major run to a close but also marked the end of one of the best collections of showings from a North American team in the history of Counter-Strike.
That marks the end of Liquid's monumental run of 2019. While it certainly was heartbreaking that the squad was unable to keep up the momentum into the Major, when one takes a step back to assess the accomplishments of the team in the first half of 2019, it's truly astonishing what Liquid was able to do in such short order with Stewie2K.
Since then, Liquid nor any other North American squad have not come close to replicating the form displayed during this period, but Liquid's Grand Slam story provides both something to aspire to, as well as hope for the future of North America. In 2018, it seemed that Liquid would never be able to move past Astralis to claim significant titles, but 2019 offered the squad new beginnings that allowed the team to progress further than they had ever gotten before. If there is anything to glean from Liquid's run, it's that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, even if it means hard times in the short term.