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Less than a year ago, Nabil “Nivera” Benrlitom was hitting crisp Desert Eagle one-shots against Tier 1 teams in Counter-Strike.
Nivera was the sixth man on a Team Vitality roster that had the potential to be the best in the world. A handful of months later and he plays professional VALORANT for Team Liquid, who have not lost a single series since Nivera replaced James “Kryptix” Affleck in September 2021.
Liquid swept through the Last Chance Qualifiers to net themselves a spot at Champions 2021, the highest forum of play the game has known since the beginning of the VALORANT Champions Tour. Moreover, they only dropped two maps. One to G2 Esports — hot off a strong Masters 3 Berlin performance — and one to Guild Esports in the best-of-five grand final.
Simply put, they were the best team at the tournament.
The most fitting dark horse at Champions
While their recent form is encouraging, the competition at Champions will be above anything this iteration of the roster has seen. Though Liquid are by no means the favorite to win Champions — that distinction belongs to the winners of Stage 3 Master Berlin, Gambit Esports — they’re certainly a contender. Maybe even a dark horse — a decidedly fitting moniker given Liquid’s logo.
“Liquid’s got a solid chance, as they’ve built themselves a strong foundation,” Vincent “Zescht” Talmon-Gros, a caster and analyst for the Europe, Middle East and Africa VCT, said. “Let’s just hope it’s not all honeymoon.”
With all the recent success, it’s hard not to think of the period since adding Nivera as a honeymoon. But for the core of Liquid, their past year of the VCT has been anything but. Lower bracket runs and early exits from tournaments came thick and fast for the team, who were considered favorites in many of the events they entered. At Stage 2 Masters Reykjavík, they were relegated to the lower bracket in a surprising loss to Version1 before getting knocked out by regional rivals, Fnatic. Then, at EMEA Stage 3 Challengers Playoffs, they were beat by Natus Vincere and the powerhouse Gambit Esports, ending their hopes at attending Stage 3 Masters Berlin.
These losses forged Liquid a team that knows adversity, and have been made stronger for it. Nivera was just the last piece of the puzzle, slotting into the Controller position that the team needed to fill.
“I took Kryptix’s role so it wasn’t as hard as it looked because everyone played a year and a half with each other,” Nivera said. “So they had really good chemistry.”
To say Liquid have chemistry is an understatement. In fact, two of the players have known each other for… their entire lives. Those two are, of course, Nivera and his brother Adil “ScreaM” Benrlitom. ScreaM is the reason that Nivera joined the team after departing from Vitality’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive roster. ScreaM is also the reason that Liquid are consistently rated as one of the most dangerous teams in VALORANT. The star Duelist is a known quantity, having competed in countless events in CS:GO before making the switch to VALORANT, a move his younger brother also made almost a year later.
“He is not an Operator type of guy,” Zescht said of ScreaM. “That is very notable. He’s not down for one-kill shots, he takes duels much more actively but in a smart manner. Besides that, he is insanely strong on consistent opening duel success.”
Liquid’s honeymoon ends at Champions
Team Liquid drew into Group B with Sentinels, KRÜ Esports and FURIA Esports. Only two of the four teams will make it to the playoffs of Champions. In this group, the boys from Liquid are expected to advance alongside Sentinels. But expectations — and KRÜ Esports — are a hell of an obstacle to get over. The Argentinian organization showed their mettle in Stage 3 Masters Berlin, where they made playoffs before getting knocked out by Gambit.
Then there’s FURIA, who won the South American LCQ to qualify. They’re an unknown on the international stage and a true underdog in the group, but upsets are always possible.
For Liquid’s fans, what should be encouraging is that the team was not complacent after winning LCQ. On Showstopper, Nivera spoke about improving his own gameplay. Despite making the jump from CS:GO with complete ease — a true VALORANT wunderkind — Nivera knew both he and his team still had kinks to iron out ahead of Champions.
“More preparation, more discipline, more strategy,” he said. “And we need more confidence. If every player is confident, we just are unstoppable.”
Winning Champions would cap off what has been a meteoric rise for Liquid. But to win it all, it’s almost unimaginable that they’ll get to the top without suffering their first defeat since Nivera joined. The team will have to take it on the chin, bounce back and show some of the resilience that’s been growing dusty lately as they claimed the heads of some of EMEA’s best teams.
Coby Zucker is Upcomer's resident CS:GO writer. He's also played League of Legends at the collegiate level and is a frequent visitor in TFT Challenger Elo. He's a firm believer that Toronto should be the next big esports hub city.