Team Liquid is practically synonymous with StarCraft in the English-speaking world. Their website has become the Rick's Cafe to StarCraft's Casablanca: the chief hang-out of an entire subculture, where famous pros chat alongside Bronze League newbies. Team Liquid always enjoys "home team" status in the Western StarCraft community.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
If Team Liquid is the place StarCraft fans call home, then the eSports pros who wear their jersey are the family that lives there. They are a reflection of many the community's ideals: they tend to be positive and supportive of one another, and focus more on self-improvement more than pure results.
Team CEO Victor "Nazgul" Goossens has cultivated this mindset over years of careful recruitment: he's very choosy about who gets brought into the Team Liquid family. Liquid doesn't recruit new members very often, and those who join the team tend to stay there.
But even though Song "HerO" Hyeon Deok and Yun "TaeJa" Young Seo have ably carried the team's banner, their longstanding European squad was down to a handful of players -- whittled down by retirements and departures over the past couple years. That all changed last week, however, when Team Liquid inaugurated a new era by acquiring Grzegorz "MaNa" Komincz and Patrick "Bunny" Brix as the newest members of their StarCraft 2 squad.
With a Protoss and a Terran player added to augment their trio of Zerg veterans, Team Liquid has received a much-needed shot in the arm for their European squad. It's perfect timing, too, because WCS is getting more competitive as it raises the level of European StarCraft.
Not that Team Liquid focuses just on wins and losses. Player Manager Robin Nymann admitted that the team’s vetting process tends to focus on certain intangibles.
"It can be hard to put words on exactly what we're looking for," he said. "When we're scouting for players and discussing them, a lot actually comes down to that feeling. It is not only people on the outside who describes Liquid as a family, we do that ourselves too. Your skill, potential, how marketable you are and all that jazz definitely matters a great deal too, but sometimes we just don't feel it. It's like when you meet people in real life, you just get that sense that you could be good friends or this could be a girlfriend, and then you pursue it. We've had that feeling with MaNa for a few years; he just fits Liquid really well in all ways."
Bunny was a slightly more unusual case for Team Liquid, Nymann said. He's tended to fly below the radar of most fans and players, and a lot of the pressure to bring him aboard came from other Team Liquid players.
"A lot of people didn't really notice Bunny before he won his WCS RO32 Premiere League game, and that in itself makes people wonder what did we actually see in him. While Bunny is an introverted person who hasn't marketed himself a whole lot before…[but] we believe he has everything it takes to be the best. He's a hard worker with a great mentality who is not afraid to share his thoughts and improve together with a group. For quite a while our players have been astounded by his skill on the ladder and thought him to be the best or second best foreign Terran."
Bunny knows that his joining Liquid caught a lot of people off guard, but the move wouldn't have been such a surprise if they'd known how cautiously the matter was handled.
"I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw a comment on TL saying, 'They only brought him in because he beat NaNiwa!' When we had been talking already in the middle of 2013! Basically Victor had heard of me from the players on the team, that I was good in practice and mannered, so he contacted me and we talked for some time. Not only about business-related stuff but also about my personal life, etc. So it was definitely a very long [process]."
Mind Your Manners
"Mannered" is a magic word among Team Liquid staff and players. It comes up in almost every conversation. It's what makes the team work.
"If Victor looks at a player, he doesn't just look at his skill level. It's whether he'll fit in socially as well. And I don't think we have any big drama queens because that's not the kind of image or the kind of people we want on the team," said Dario "TLO" Wünsch. "It's very stressful to have people that constantly complain and shit-talk other people. None of us has any interest in getting in big fights or drama or stuff like that."
TLO is one of the senior members of the Team Liquid StarCraft squad, having been with the organization since the beta. This weekend he's competing in the WCS EU round of 32, hoping to join Bunny in the round of 16. He also pointed out something odd about Team Liquid. Despite the way Goossens tries to make sure each player will be a good fit for Team Liquid, there is no "type" that Liquid players end up fitting.
"If you look at the players, it's almost like we don't have that much in common. If you look a bit closer, what you notice is everybody is his own personality. Everybody has different hobbies and interests, and even a different approach to the game," TLO said. "And that's very healthy for us because you don't have people who take sides, where suddenly you split into sections and fight."
Instead, Liquid players are all comrades in a common struggle: trying to master StarCraft 2. They need to be there for each other because they will, inevitably, have bad days, weeks, months, and even years. At times they'll all lash out, want to walk away, or just completely lose their interest in the game. That's when they need to be there for one another.
"We have a very healthy kind of place where people can just vent," TLO said. "Everybody vents there. If you have a bad week or a longer bad time, you're just constantly complaining. But we all understand because SC2 is one of the most frustrating games out there. So we have moments, where we feel [bad] about the game. But then we try to understand each other. When someone is having a good time, he's also being pretty expressive and it's easier for other people to become motivated if someone is playing well. It inspires people."
A New Era
Historically, Liquid's Korean players have borne the weight of the team's expectations. While the European members of the team work together and talk all the time, HerO and TaeJa tend to be focused on training by themselves in Korea and winning championships. TLO admitted that both the European and Korean sides of the team could work a bit harder to get more practice together.
But WCS has changed things for Liquid, and has given the European players more opportunities and more motivation. With players like Jang "MC" Min Chul now regularly laddering in Europe, it's become easier for them to get quality practice sessions against world-class talent.
For Bunny, WCS has been nothing short of life-changing.
"WCS had a very big influence on my career. Back when nobody knew who I was, I was able to qualify for Premier, even beating duckdeok [Kim Kyeong Deok] who would eventually go on to win WCS Europe. I think the fact that it was online also helped me a lot. Apart from Danish tournaments, I wasn’t used to playing in high-pressure situations, WCS helped build me up as a player who could not only win in practice, but in tournaments also."
With TLO making a semifinals appearance at IEM Sao Paulo, and Bunny having finally broken through to the round of 16, Liquid's European players sound optimistic and excited for 2014. But their hopes and expectations are more personal, as they play to surpass themselves. TLO wants to get into the top 16 on the WCS standings (he's currently 12th, and finished 26th last year).
For Bunny, he's still trying to win a reputation as one of the best Terrans outside of Korea.
"I can look into beating the all the Koreans afterwards," he said with a laugh. "I would say the round of 16 is already a good result for me… It would be great if I could have the fans convinced by autumn, but I guess we’ll see how things go. In the past I always set my expectations way too high, and then ended up getting nervous or really sad because I couldn’t reach them. So I try to stay humble, for the sake of myself and my play."
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