Hiko opens up on Liquid's team dynamic: 'It’s definitely not all fluffy, cuddly, everyone loves each other'

by Dennis Gonzales Mar 26 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Benjamin Cotton / DreamHack

Spencer "Hiko" Martin is the Lurker and in-game leader for Team Liquid. He's one of the most well-known and respected players in the CS:GO scene and is one of the few NA players to achieve a Top 4 finish at a Major.

With a few days to go until the MLG Major Championship in Columbus, Hiko took the time to speak with theScore esports — and he had a lot to say. This is Part 1 of his interview, where talks about how he came to be the team's in-game leader and Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev's place in the team. Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.

How have preparations for the Major been going?

They have been good, but also interesting. We tried using using James [James “GBJame^s" O’Connor] as an IGL for a little bit, and it didn’t work out as well as we hoped. We tried to use s1mple in-game leading a little bit, and again, didn’t work out as well as we hoped.

So we came to a decision that I would in-game lead. It’s the first time I ever have. I am trying to learn as we go; it’s a work in progress.

Why are you not letting Eric "adreN" Hoag continue to do the in-game leading?

This goes along with why practice has been interesting, because right now we have matches in ESL Pro League, and we’re actually practicing at home with koosta [Kenneth "koosta" Suen] and at the Major we have to use adreN.

Any work we do, any work I do, doesn’t really translate one-to-one for the Major because we’re using a stand-in. So there’s no point in having him in-game lead at the Major because I’m going to have to do it at all our tournaments afterwards anyways.

Eric "adreN" Hoag during FACEIT 2015 Stage 3 Finals at DreamHack Open Winter 2015 when he was still part of Team Liquid. Because the team qualified for the Major with the player, they are forced to use him at the Major itself.

You mentioned earlier that you tried James and s1mple as IGL, could you maybe go into a bit more detail about that?

So right after the qualifier, nitr0 [Nick "nitr0" Cannella] was really against in-game leading, he just didn’t want to do it. So we came home and s1mple said he wanted to try it. I think James had this exercise in his mind: we’ll just go through everybody in-game leading, just so everyone understands what it takes to be an in-game leader. That way, when it’s mid-round, they’re able to give input and they’re able to quasi-lead from their fragging position.

So we tried s1mple, but I think he got a little discouraged when we started to lose. We were playing a match against — I think it was OpTic, and we went up 13-2 or 12-3 on our CT side, and we went to T side and we lost a couple big rounds. s1mple’s mental state was really low, he got really discouraged and he kept calling the same strat over and over again.

I don’t think he was bad at it, I think he’s just very emotional, to the point where if we start losing he kind of suffers a bit from being able to take a step back and say, “OK, what do we really need to do?” His mindset is just, “Let’s rush them, we’re better than them, we beat them 12-3, let’s win.” That didn’t work very well.

James was next, and James has always claimed himself to be a very high level tactician in CS. He played in 1.5, 1.6. He was always the in-game leader of his team. But I think his problem right now is that he’s been out of the scene for so long.

He has problems sometimes in getting his point across in a timely manner, meaning he likes to go off on rants and he likes to take his time to talk about exactly what to do. So we ran into problems where he would just not be able to call fast enough, and we’d just be sitting there wondering what to do.

That being said, he definitely has the mind to be in-game leader. He just has to train and prepare himself to work in this meta and to get his point across in a more concise manner.

And then, yeah, it was me after that.

What about EliGE [Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski]? He did some in-game leading during the Major qualifier, is that correct?

Specifically against HellRaisers in the last map of the best-of-three [during the Major qualifier]. We were down big, it was like 13-6 or 13-7 and we kinda ran out of things to do and nitr0 didn’t really know what to call. We lost a couple big rounds. Everybody was mentally frustrated.

We took a pause, and afterwards everybody was getting loose, feeling better about playing, and everybody was stepping up and calling strats. EliGE stepped up and I think he was pretty good about calling things on the fly.

As far as full-time in-game leading, I don’t think he’s ever done it and talking to him over the past couple weeks, I don’t even think he wants to. But I think he is a person who is smart enough and, given enough experience and time, I think that he would actually be good at it. That kid is smart, he was like scholar of the year, 4.0 GPA. This guy is a smart little dude.

He just needs to work on it I guess.

He has confidence issues I think. In his mind he thinks he’s really inexperienced and we’ve had problems where somebody will call him out on a mistake and I think he gets a little embarrassed. I think he holds himself to a high standard. As I said, with just experience and giving him enough time to mold himself into a professional CS player, I think things will work out.

Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski during FACEIT 2015 Stage 3 Finals at DreamHack Open Winter 2015

He actually also played League of Legends, I don’t know if he ever went pro, but he was really high up there. And I know in StarCraft II he was a pro player, so he’s just a naturally talented, naturally smart person that picks up games really fast.

What about the idea of picking up a seventh member for just straight-up in-game calling?

It’s something we’re considering. Liquid and I have reached out to a couple people seeing if anyone is actually interested in doing that. No success so far. Unfortunately, at least in North America, there’s not a very big talent pool, not only in players, but also in-game leaders in general.

If you were to tell me to put a short list of the five best in-game leaders that are American or Canadian, I think that I could maybe name you one and that’s probably it. We entertained the idea of adreN actually coaching for us after the Major, because I think things went well with him and I think he gets along with everybody well enough. Unfortunately it seems like he is still in the mindset that he wants to be a player, so him coaching is not an option for us.

RELATED: adreN to tryout with Team SoloMid

Given all of that, do you feel you’ve been given a burden? Or do you feel like, “Hey guys, I’ll take this”?

Honestly, I think it’s a bit of both. In a perfect world, do I want to in-game lead? No, I don’t. I have to put in a lot more time outside of the game, more than I already am to learn about strategy, learn about tactics, how teams rotate, when to do something, and it’s a slow learning process. Worst-case scenario, if I do have to shotcall long-term, I think eventually I’ll be in a position where I don’t know if I’ll enjoy it, but I’ll at least accept it.

In the short time that you've been in-game leader, you’ve said it’s been interesting, but has it been positive?

It’s been positive and negative. Again, I’ve always been the person that has been a lurker. I’ll communicate what I hear, I’ll communicate what I think they’re doing, but I’ve never been the person to take the reigns of the team and be like, “go here, go there, you do this, you do that.”

It’s a different role for me in general, and I can tell that it takes away a little from my ability to focus on effectively lurking and getting my timings right, but I think that with this team the skill level is at a point where they don’t need me to play at my full 100 percent every game. I have faith in my teammates that, even if I don’t top frag or even if I’m not in those clutch rounds that I usually win, we should still be able to put ourselves into a winning situation.

In a lot of my old teams I was the win-condition. I’d be lurking, someone else would be in-game leading, you put me in a 1v1 or a 1v2 and my teammates and myself had pretty high confidence that I would win those rounds.

Now it’s more like I’m leading from the back, I’m kind of useless in the earlier rounds because I’m directing and trying to listen to what my teammates are communicating to me. Because of that, I’m either usually alive in a one versus whatever, or my teammates killed everybody and we already won the round.

I personally need to find a good equilibrium between being able to call and being able to play myself. As I said, it’s a work in progress, and I think things are looking better day by day.

Have you thought about giving the Lurker position to someone else?

Absolutely. The problem is the way my team works right now, we have more aggressive players than we have passive players. So someone like koosta, who we want to AWP both T and CT — you can’t really have an AWP lurk.

For someone like s1mple, who will most of the time win his 1v1, it’s more important to have him with the pack and have him entry, or third in, or fourth in, than try to hardcore lurk the other side of the map. Obviously there’s a language barrier there and there’s a lot of things that, as a lurker, you need to call and sometimes because of the language barrier he just doesn’t call.

Then it comes down to nitr0 and EliGE. When we had adreN last year, everyone was praising them for [their entries]. EliGE was the first guy in and nitr0 was the second guy in, so I want to keep those two doing as much of that as we can. The problem is our roles are a little bit messed up as it is right now.

Maybe I can forsee a future where we have EliGE and s1mple entry-ing and maybe nitr0 lurking, or nitr0 and s1mple entry-ing and EliGE lurking, but I think right now we’ll keep it how we have it and just try to force it to work.

Let’s go back a bit and talk about s1mple. How has he been adjusting since moving to America?

So, this 18-year-old Ukrainian guy moves to the U.S. — I believe it was his first time ever being to the U.S. He gets off a plane and is put in a house with a bunch of people he doesn’t know that don’t even play Counter-Strike, they’re League of Legends players. Some of them are Asian, some of them are European, some of them are American, so it’s just a big question mark in the house.

I know for him individually, I think he’s kind of lonely at home. He did leave his parents, his girlfriend, his family all behind in Ukraine, and he doesn’t have any friends at the house. So his life is pretty much just wake up, stream, practice, stream, sleep, day after day.

I understand why he feels that he's putting in more time than anyone else, because he kinda lives, breathes, sleeps CS. There have been issues for the past couple months of him feeling like people aren’t putting in as much effort as he is, and I think realistically it’s kinda true.

Everyone else is at home, people have girlfriends, people have friends, people have family, so no one’s able to put in the 13-18 hours that he’s able to put in. He kind of holds everyone at ... I don’t want to say an unfair standard, but in a way it kind of is. Everybody else has their other distractions at home.

I’ll say generally things have been improving, I know when he first moved here and we had adreN, personality clashes were really bad. I don’t think he respected adreN as much as he should have, having adreN as our in-game leader and being our shotcaller, and we were forced to make a roster change because of it.

Personality-wise, he is very critical of everybody on the team, going back to what I was saying before about holding everyone to a higher standard. He’s very critical and very direct, where if you make a bad play, it is your fault, you have to fix it, you should be deathmatching more and should be watching demos more.

Everybody makes mistakes, even s1imple, but to have that constant thought in the back of your mind, it's a hard environment to handle. The other kids on my team, they’re all young. I just turned 26, EliGE I think is 18, s1mple is 18, I think koosta is 19 or 20 and nitr0 is 20. So there’s a lot of young emotions, young tension, that just flies around.

Between James and I, we have to take a step back and be like, “you guys are being kids, stop it.” It’s definitely not all fluffy, cuddly, everyone loves each other, everyone is getting along super well. It’s just like the in-game leading thing, it’s a work in progress.

People have to get used to each other, people have to accept each other, people have to understand that some people have off days, some people don’t play with their 100 percent everyday and that’s just how life is.

Your friendship with s1mple goes back as far as ESWC 2015 Montreal, when you stood in for FlipSid3 Gaming, s1mple’s team at the time. How have you been getting along with him?

I think we get along really well, I think one of the biggest things about it too is that I am technically more experienced than him. I’ve been on more teams, I’ve been to more tournaments, I think I’ve even placed higher than he has.

FlipSid3 Tactics with Spencer "Hiko" Martin standing in during ESWC 2015

So there’s a certain level of respect that he has for me that he doesn't necessarily have for the younger guys, who have never really been at too many tournaments and haven’t really accomplished anything. We get along, but he also respects me as a player and I think that’s important.

I think one of our biggest goals with him moving forward with the team is to have that same level of respect for everybody else. As far as him and I go, sure we get along very well, we talk a lot. I hope that if he has any problems he could always talk to me and I’ll always talk to him.

Also, I can take his harsh attitude, because I am naturally just a very laid back, chill person. Whether it’s s1mple raging or anybody raging, I’ve seen it before, I know how to handle it. I don’t really get super offended if somebody says, “Hey, you made a bad play.”

So yeah, we got along at ESWC. We were friends back then, we've kept in touch since then and I think he joined Liquid because I asked him to. He had faith in the team; he had faith in me. So yeah, we’re pretty close.

Dennis "Tarmanydyn" Gonzales is a news editor for theScore esports who enjoys whiskey, Dungeon & Dragons and first-picking Timbersaw Windranger Abaddon Slardar Clinkz Medusa Oracle a P90. You can follow him on Twitter.