“I didn’t say anything, we all just believed we could make the comeback.” – Chris “ChrisJ” de Jong in a post-game interview at ESL New York
ESL One New York was a tournament to decide the second best team in the world. Astralis had stomped the competition at the FACEIT Major London and had crowned their era. Their brand of Counter-Strike has looked untouchable. So in this tournament, people looked to teams like FaZe, Na`Vi, and Liquid to see which among them would win the tournament and prove themselves to be the best best outside of Astralis. With Na`Vi and FaZe getting upset early, the path looked clear for Liquid to sweep the tournament as they made an easy run to the grand finals where they faced off against Mouz. This tournament was set to prove that Liquid could have won in a world without Astralis, but instead it became a crucible. The finals was a test of will between Mouz and Liquid. In this test of wills, this contest of convictions, Mouz were the victor.
For Mouz, it was a fight from start to finish. They had to fight against Fnatic and Gambit in series that went to all three games and were able to triumph 2-1. They then faced NRG in the semifinals where they were able to beat them in a 2-0, though NRG did have their chances. Over all, the tournament run didn’t look that special. Fnatic had a stand-in. Gambit were playing with a dead roster. NRG looked nervous in the semifinals.
So by the time that Mouz got to the finals, the expectations weren’t high. The individual players were strong: ChrisJ, Tomas “oskar” Stastny, Robin “ropz” Kool, Miikka “suNny” Kemppi, and Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski is a lineup that no one can overlook individually. Oskar was still one of the best AWPers in the world. ChrisJ was a phenomenally impactful player. Ropz and suNny are two of the biggest rising stars in the game today. Snax was once a superstar level player. They will always have a puncher’s chance against any team so long as their form is good on the day. However when going into the grand finals they looked overmatched.
Their opponent was Team Liquid. Liquid also have great individual players. Players like: Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken, Keith “NAF” Markovic, and Epitacio “TACO” de Melo. This is another incredibly stacked lineup as they have some of the most talented rifers ever assembled in NA on one team. On that level, Liquid and Mouz were of similar quality.
However in every other category Liquid is ahead. If we look to the map pool, Liquid have proved themselves to be one of the best teams on multiple maps including Cache, Mirage, Inferno, and Nuke. The only map they don’t play much is Train and even their Dust2 is still fairly strong. Whereas when you look to the Mouz side, they don’t have any maps they can claim to be world beaters on. They have a wide variety of maps they play. They seem to be good on both Nuke and Train, but beyond that they aren’t teams that are considered to be a top 5 team in the world on any of the maps.
Beyond the map pool, you look to the team play, structure, and results. Mouz have been struggling since they have incorporated Snax into the lineup and there have been rumors of another roster shuffle to fix their issues. On the other hand, Liquid has slowly become one of the best teams in the scene, arguably second behind only Astralis. Their structure, team play, and tactics are amongst the best in the world. These problems are displayed in their recents results. Mouz had two top fours at ELeague Premier 2018 and DreamHack Stockholm. They also bombed out of ESL One Cologne 2018 and most recently FACEIT Major London in the Legends stage.
As for Liquid, they also bombed ESL One Cologne, but after that they got 2nd at ELeague Premier 2018 and top four at FACEIT Major London. So going into the finals, Liquid were rightly hailed as the favorites and the team people expected to win. In terms of individual form, Liquid had five of the top seven rated players at the event. Everything looked to be going into Liquid’s favor to win the finals.
However the finals are a different beast. Once you get to the finals, intangibles can come into play. If there was one place where Mouz could find an advantage, it was in this realm. Counter-Strike players like to talk about confidence and how critical it can be to swing a game. In this finals, that idea bore fruit as the mental game became one of the critical factors of how Mouz were able to defeat Liquid.
Mentality is a complicated thing to discuss as there are too many factors swirling around. Individual form of the day, strategy, tactics, pressure, expectations, and experience are all things that can affect performance. It is the final factor that distinguishes a team or player from being one of the greatest to being an all-time great champion.
Think about upon the greatest lineups of the age. When Fnatic pulled the timeout on Virtus.Pro at the ESL Cologne Major in 2015 in the semifinals and pulled through to win the series and the tournament. When SK were forced to dig as deep as they could to stop the final hurrah of Virtus.Pro at EPICENTER in the finals. When Astralis called the dry rush against Virtus.Pro at ELeague Atlanta 2017 in the final moments of the third map to win the Major.
When you get to those final moments, that is when the pressure comes bearing down. Like a tidal wave that swallows you up. The fear becomes rampant as you realize how important the victory is to you. Every player who has reached that stage has put an ungodly amount of hours and sacrificed other aspects of their lives to reach that pinnacle. When you get to that moment, you realize that everything you have worked up to has come down to that one moment. That is when people get afraid.
The best example of this was Eo “soO” Yoon Su, one of the all time greatest Starcraft 2 players, most well known for losing six GSL finals and a Blizzcon finals. In an interview with DailyEsports, he talked about his experience,
“Once I reached the Blizzcon Finals, the difference in prize and prestige was huge between Champion and Runner-up. Furthermore it was a match-up I was confident in, ZvZ. I started having hopes of becoming Champion. I had no idea whether it was because I was expecting to win, but my hands became less nimble.”
How each team dealt with that pressure became the tipping point for the finals. This hit a fever pitch as the series went into game four. At that point, Liquid were up 2-1 in the series and the games had played out exactly as you’d expect. Mouz were playing well individually, but Liquid were a better team. On top of that Twistzz was by far the best player on the server, so even though Liquid had let things slip a little bit on cache, they easily closed out Nuke and Inferno.
It was the fourth game that was the killer. Dust2 was the moment where the mentality and conviction of the Mouz players took over the series. It was the map that flipped the momentum. On that map, Liquid had a 11-4 half on their T-side. So when it came to their CT-side, they only needed five more rounds. They even won the pistol and follow up round getting them to 13-4. Liquid were only three rounds away from the Championship.
Mouz could have capitulated at that point. No one would have blamed them. Instead they continued to play with the same will and conviction that had defined them throughout the series. On the flipside of that equation, Liquid were in the exact same position as soO was in his Blizzcon finals when he believed he could win the entire thing. They knew they had it in the palm of their hands. While the CT-side of Dust2 can be hard, they had won the pistol and follow-up round. They had the economy and as many rounds as they needed to grind down Mouz.
That game, that moment, was a test of character. At that moment, the fate of the game was decided by the mental strength of the players in the server. On one side, Mouz played decisive Counter-Strike. While they had tactics and a structure, each player was allowed the individual leeway to make their own play if they saw it. So when the T-side started, players like ChrisJ and suNny came alive as each of them made gutsy plays to try to win the game.
On the other side of the equation, Liquid were trying to not lose the game. Liquid were trying to play by the numbers CS, so each time Mouz were able to get an entry kill and take the site, they refused to gamble on a retake and decided to save. They were afraid of throwing away their victory and waiting for a moment that never came.
They looked afraid to do the risky retakes and instead waited for the perfect opportunity to try to take the match. However that opportunity never came and as each round went by, as the rounds stacked up against Liquid, I could not help but recall the words of Fan Hui, European Go Champion, who once said, “You’re afraid that victory will escape you. When you’re afraid, victory will always escape you.”
Watching Liquid throughout that entire second half and Mirage was much like that. The fire that had been inside of them receded as they looked reticent to make the game winning plays that they needed to take the game. Well almost all of them. TACO in particular stood out in the final moments in Liquid’s dying efforts as he won an incredible 1v2 in Dust2 to get them their 14th round and was their best player on Mirage as he did not fall under the pressure.
However he alone was not enough and on the other side of that server, the Mouz players played with conviction. One example of this was in the 29th round, the score was 14-14. Whoever won this was guaranteed overtime. In this round, Liquid had the advantage 4v2, but Snax and suNny were able to break open the A-site and force a postplant scenario. In that 3v2, Liquid came up ramp and long. Without even a moment of hesitation, suNny went for the hero play as he tried to flank the two players coming from B and while the move didn’t work it perfectly exemplified the types of plays that Mouz were willing to make. Another one was from ChrisJ in overtime when he dropped to CT-spawn from cat with an AWP to get the opening pick in a 5v5 situation.
This only carried onto Mirage where ChrisJ and suNny tried to find duels and break open Liquid on their T-side and never letting up the pressure. The best example of the contrast was the 23rd round on Mirage. Where Liquid refused to do unfavorable post plants in the fourth game and while each within the context of each round was the “right” move, it also meant that they refused to try to take the game and make it theirs. In this round, Liquid had attacked the A-site and were already in good position. In this moment, the Mouz players refused to let them set up and all of them immediately challenged. Where Liquid had backed off, Mouz attacked and ChrisJ got an unbelievable ace to close the round.
That is the conviction I’m talking about. For me, that moment is representative of the difference between Mouz and Liquid. It is the reason why Mouz won this final and Liquid were unable to. Liquid had everything going in their favor. They are a better team, they were all in good form, and Twistzz as playing at a MVP level. However they lacked confidence, they lacked conviction. That was the difference and that is why Mouz now stand as the Champions of ESL One New York.