Team Liquid is amongst Europe’s most prestigious esports organizations, and so understandably ever since the company announced its Valorant roster last year there’s been a huge weight of expectation that it should be achieving the very esports highest accolades.
Initially, there was every reason to believe that they had the capability to do so, powered by talent like Adil ‘ScreaM’ Benrlitom, who had himself joined a very successful squad of players formerly known as Fish123 to form Team Liquid Valorant. When Riot Games’ Valorant Champions Tour (VCT) kicked off this year, Liquid was rightly billed as one of the favorites to win the entire thing.
But the team struggled to make good on that promise. The brand, the budget, the coaching staff, and star power all looked terrific on paper, but the results just weren’t.
Indeed, the 2021 VCT season started terribly. Masters 1 and the Challengers series that fed into were a total write-off; Liquid failed to get past open qualifiers and looked nowhere near one of the region’s best teams. Months later, Masters 2 marked a turning point as the organization signed former CS:GO talent Elias “Jamppi” Olkkonen and ended up winning the EMEA Challenger Finals (the combined EU, CIS, and Turkish regional tournament) to qualify for Valorant’s first-ever LAN tournament, held in Reykjavík, Iceland.
There, they finished fourth, a result that was decent enough but hardly a triumph — Liquid lost out to an underpowered Version 1 team along the way, and they ended up being beaten by European rivals Fnatic in the lower bracket finals. Their only victories were against teams from regions that aren’t considered to be competitive with Europe.
So, even despite having shown glimpses of quality throughout the year up until that point, Liquid’s performances hadn’t done much to silence its naysayers and critics.
The general consensus was that its team couldn’t cut the mustard when the pressure was really on and that it was missing some key elements holding it back from its potential: A proper in-game-leader, for one, while some pointed (unfairly, in my opinion) to its sentinel player, James ‘Kryptix’ Affleck as an underperformer. Others criticized some of them strange Agent compositions and strategies that coach Connor “Sliggy” Blomfield had been championing throughout the year, too.
Whatever the reason, and regardless of whether any of those criticisms were valid, Team Liquid was certainly inconsistent and hardly convincing in its ability to earn a spot at Riot’s major end-of-year tournament, Champions, which is the competition that every Valorant team in the world has been fighting for a place at throughout 2021.
If you’re familiar with the VCT format, you’ll know that, in addition to sizeable prize pools, each of the three Masters tournaments in 2021 awarded competing teams ‘circuit points.’
The two teams from each of Valorant’s major regions with the most circuit points accrued over the course of the year qualified for Champions. Liquid, with its fourth place at Iceland, was sitting at the very top of Europe ahead of the final Masters tournament, Masters 3 Berlin, even despite not having competed at Masters 1. Yet, its qualification still rested on at least making it to Berlin (which would see them earn a minimum of 175 circuit points). That meant scoring a top 3 at the EMEA Finals.
Unfortunately for Liquid, the team fell short, losing 1-2 in heart-breaking fashion to Gambit, the team who eventually went on to not only win the EMEA Finals but the whole of Masters 3. And with that result, Liquid plummeted to fourth spot overall on EMEA circuit points and out of contention for Champions — at least via circuit points. It was hard to take for Liquid’s Dom ‘soulcas’ Sulcas:
i gave it my heart worked so hard for this, watched so many vods to learn about my agents i worked so hard to improve my aim i even injured my damn wrist cause of it thats why this loss hurts. I want it all and will give it my all even more. I appreciate all you kind souls ily 💜
— Liquid soulcas 🦋 (@soulcas_) August 19, 2021
Indeed, Liquid had one final roll of the dice to get to Champions. Last week and into the weekend, each major Valorant region ran its ‘Last Chance Qualifier’ tournament, which offered just a single prize — one spot at Champions for the winner. Liquid was up against the best of the rest in the region, which due to the way circuit points had panned out across the year meant that it featured a group of extremely strong teams. G2 Esports, Super Massive Blaze, and Guild were amongst some of the high-profile European teams in the tournament.
To make the challenge even harder for Liquid, one of its players, the aforementioned Kryptix, had only weeks earlier announced that he was taking a break from playing Valorant professionally. In stepped none other than Nabil “Nivera” Benrlitom, ScreaM’s younger brother and a former CS:GO player for Team Vitality.
The new addition was met with excitement from Liquid fans –Nivera was a CS:GO major-winner with Team Vitality, after all–, but he was completely untested in professional Valorant. How would he cope with being thrown into the most high-pressured and consequential tournament in Liquid’s history so far?
The answer was with incredible composure, consummate professionalism, and some insane plays. Put simply, Nivera is a beast. His performances throughout the Last Chance Qualifier were an absolute joy to watch; in particular, kicking off the very first round of his professional Valorant career with a pistol-round ace against One Breath Gaming.
Nivera continued his fine form throughout the tournament, but even more importantly it seemed as though Liquid’s synergy as a team has finally started to gel. Sure, there were shaky moments that suggested things still aren’t perfect, but overall they looked brilliant in brushing aside One Breath Gaming and Guild before running into tournament favorites G2 Esports, the team who had only recently played very well at Masters 3 Berlin.
G2 put up a good fight, but Liquid looked a step ahead, both in terms of individual and team performance, winning the series 2-1. Even on Bind, which they ended up losing, it seemed as though rounds were being dropped due to unlucky circumstances, rather than being outplayed.
In the end, Liquid rematched Guild in the grand final, a team who they had earlier beat convincingly but who had found a run of good form to string together a lower bracket run that saw them beat Super Massive Blaze and G2 Esports.
The series got off to a terrible start for Liquid, being battered 5-13 on Haven after losing the defensive half 1-11. Guild looked on fire, and Twitch chat, Reddit, and other forums across the Valorant community were already full of Liquid doubters suggesting the team was once again about to choke.
But then Liquid did what every great team does — they rallied and fought back like lions, securing a second map victory on Ascent before beating Guild on Split and then seeing out the series in dominant fashion over on Breeze. It was actually somewhat comfortable in the end once Liquid got going, but the excitement nonetheless plain to see on the faces of the players as the final round was secured to end the series and book a spot to Champions.
“This victory is just amazing,” Nivera said in an interview after the game. “I’m probably gonna cry in my bed. It’s so crazy. This is my first tournament. First tournament, first win. It’s crazy.”
What a story for a team that has been under so much pressure all year to perform. Just when everything was on the line, Liquid came good, and they now have a chance to prove themselves the world’s best team as Champions looms in December. Whether they’ll manage to carry this momentum into that tournament remains to be seen, but I think the story already deserves to be applauded as one of those magical moments to remind us all why spectating esports is such a joy.
Feature image credit: Team Liquid