CS:GO Weekly: 'Nitr0' leaves Counter-Strike a legend, on to VALORANT

Team Liquid winning ESL One Cologne 2019 was one the greatest accomplishments of Nick "nitr0" Cannella, left, during his Counter-Strike career. Helena Kristiansson / ESL

As Nick "nitr0" Cannella booted up his PC on July 3, he plopped down into his chair at his Louisiana home for the final day of his 2020 routine.

For the previous six months, since COVID-19 put the majority of the world into quarantine, the professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player's schedule had changed drastically. From 2019 to early 2020, nitr0 found himself on the road more than half the year -- whether that was in Team Liquid facilities in Los Angeles or Utrecht, Netherlands, or competing in Denmark, Germany, Sweden or another country. Now, every day was basically the same: practice, play, eat, sleep, repeat.

It was eating at him. Last year, Team Liquid was one of the best teams in the world, just the second team to win the Intel Grand Slam. The only other team to accomplish the feat was their rival Astralis. For a brief period of time, Liquid held the title of No. 1 -- it was "the best feeling in the world," according to nitr0 -- but now they didn't even get to face the best in the world. Liquid, a fully North American squad, became region-locked -- unable to play European teams -- as play moved online. Star-studded finals versus Na'Vi and Astralis became repetitive series versus Evil Geniuses, Gen.G and FURIA.

"I don't think it was mentally healthy to get in the same spot every day and just play against the same exact teams online," nitr0 said. "Literally the same teams you scrim against in matches back-to-back because there were so many tournaments, because all the T.O.s wanted to keep holding tournaments online because they gotta make money too somehow. It was oversaturation and us being mentally unhealthy. It was affecting our gameplay."

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So on that early July day, the day before Independence Day in the United States, nitr0 thought it could be the last of his routine for the past six months. Quarantine had gotten to him, and his and Liquid's performance online was far from the level the team was playing at a year earlier when they won ESL One Cologne, the most prestigious non-Major event on the Counter-Strike calendar. With a player break on the horizon, thinking about what was next weighed on his mind.

"I felt like I was slacking so bad individually," he said. "I was still helping the team out the best I could in other departments of the game. But at the end of the day, it just didn't feel right to me anymore."

As the player break progressed, nitr0 felt more confident about his next move: It was time to leave behind the team he helped build and lead to championship-level heights after more than half a decade. For the first time since early 2015, nitr0 would no longer be sporting Liquid's iconic blue and white. It was time to move on.

Nitr0's 5½-year tenure on Liquid is nearly unheard of in Counter-Strike. Few players get that opportunity. Players such as Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo, who has led several majority Brazilian squads from Luminosity Gaming to SK Gaming to MiBR, are a rarity. Known for its volatility, Counter-Strike often throws players to the side the moment they begin to slump. Not nitr0. Whenever his skill would come into question, he would quickly remind his bosses, his peers and Counter-Strike fans why he was Team Liquid's rock. Clutch after clutch, Desert Eagle after Desert Eagle, nitr0 continued to stay on top.

Within a week of announcing he was stepping down, he has become VALORANT's top free agent, as nitr0 confirmed to ESPN that VALORANT is his next destination. A rival to Counter-Strike, Riot Games' first-person shooter is the new hot game in esports. Many teams are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on rosters to enter the new game. Of all the Counter-Strike players who have announced their intentions to play the new tactical first-person shooter, nitr0 is the most prominent.

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For many CS:GO players making the jump, their best days in Counter-Strike are years behind them or they weren't able to achieve what many thought they could in Counter-Strike. For nitr0, however, it was less than a year ago that he was on the No. 1 team in the world.

Nitr0 knows what it's like to be the best in the world. But the question of whether he'll ever be fulfilled is uncertain. He says that to feel that way, he wants to consistently be the best in the world, not just for a brief period of time. So when his 2020 underperformance weighed on his mind throughout July, he said it became clear that competing to be the best in the world in a new game was appealing.

Nitr0 leaves Counter-Strike as a legend, an accomplishment he once dreamed of as a teenager in Louisiana watching matches of Counter-Strike 1.6 between Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg and Filip "NEO" Kubski.

"It's so incredible. I'm just some random kid from Louisiana and people just talk to you differently," nitr0 said. "They have so much respect for you, because they know how much you grinded for this. That's what everyone dreams of when they think of their dream job.

"I just remember watching the [f0rest and NEO play] and thinking, 'Damn, I really want to do this. This looks like it'd be so much fun.' I just know there's some kid out there that does the same with me, and that's a really good feeling."

Nitr0's first taste of success came in 2016, a year after he joined Liquid and shortly after the team added high-profile star Spencer "Hiko" Martin and Eastern European young gun Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev. With those two in tow, Liquid finished in the top four of back-to-back Counter-Strike Majors, in Columbus, Ohio, and Cologne, Germany.

"Once we did that, it was like, 'Wow, we can actually do something in the scene. We have a lot of potential,'" nitr0 said.

That lineup was unique, not just for moving s1mple from Ukraine to Los Angeles in one of the most high-profile pickups in Counter-Strike, but also because despite their success, their team environment was notoriously toxic. Nitr0 said it's the worst he has ever experienced, with players giving up in practice and not wanting to play, but that winning despite that felt good, at least in the moment. Being able to be a top 10 team in the world -- an uncommon achievement for a North American team -- was icing on the cake.

When the team eventually parted with s1mple and Hiko, nitr0 and Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski, the two longest-standing members of the team, grew into the team's leaders. Together nitr0 and EliGE were a one-two punch; one would almost always perform well in any given match, but when they were both performing at their best, Liquid was hard to beat. They also shared a bond outside the team.

"Eventually, over time, me and John got the confidence to keep on building and building," nitr0 said. "We know that we could eventually do something big in this game."

At events, their energy rubbed off on other players, coaches and even staff on other teams. It was noticeable how motivated nitr0 and EliGE were to win, even at some of the lowest points in Liquid's history. Their success in the 2016 lineup made them hungry to succeed even more.

"I feel that Team Liquid was [nitr0's] home, and he, along with Jon, wanted to create something that they could call theirs," Wilton "zews" Prado, who coached against them on Luminosity and SK Gaming and for Liquid from the end of 2016 to the end of 2018, told ESPN. "Nick has always been one of the easy going people that just gets along with everyone. I can't think of anyone who has something bad to say about Nick, and that says a lot in itself."

Despite Liquid's roster continuing to turn over, finally, in 2018, it felt like they were hitting their stride. In a blockbuster move in late 2018, the team traded zews and Epitácio "TACO" de Melo to MiBR to reunite with FalleN, in return for Jake "Stewie2K" Yip, a former world champion with Cloud9 whose dreams to build a super team at MiBR didn't go as planned. The team brought back an old face too, with one of nitr0's former teammates, Eric "adreN" Hoag, joining as the team's head coach.

2019 began hot for Liquid, with a victory over Astralis in the first event of the year, at iBUYPOWER Masters in Los Angeles. The momentum continued, as Liquid faced Astralis in another final in Sao Paulo; then FaZe Clan in a final in Miami; Fnatic in Sydney; and then Vitality in Los Angeles once again. It was shaping up to be the summer of Liquid.

In June 2019 in Dallas, Liquid began a hot streak with a win over ENCE. After being up and down through the spring, finishing second, then first, then second, Liquid began rolling with seven consecutive titles. At Cologne, in front of tens of thousands of German fans, Liquid took down Vitality to win the IEM Grand Slam, a title only held before by Astralis.

"It was so much fun, going to tournaments and knowing you're the best team in the world," nitr0 said. "People look at you differently, not physically but as a metaphor, on the server. It was a really good feeling in the team, and we were just all vibing really good. It was really fun, just having that feeling, going to tournaments. Everything was just so good."

Poised to win the StarLadder Major in Berlin, Liquid hit a snag during a much-needed but inopportune player break last summer. The momentum fizzled out, and when they reached Berlin, they performed well in some instances but poorly in others. The major title that had evaded them for so long -- the one Stewie2K and his North American team Cloud9 had won -- was within reach. Yet it seemed so far. Liquid fell out of the Berlin tournament in the first round of the playoffs.

"I'm not sure what happened during the player break. I'm pretty sure we were all still grinding the game and stuff, but being away from that, in a team environment, kind of got to us, I'm assuming," nitr0 said. "I don't really know the answer to that, necessarily, but that's just my thoughts on it, I guess. It was just the timing. Bad timing and also just bad results and performance."

2019 didn't end nearly as well as it began. Liquid continued to be a contender, but a first-place finish in an offline event didn't go their way. Burned out, the team looked to recollect after a long Christmas break. They did, going to Intel Extreme Masters Katowice and a few other tournaments, but again, they couldn't find success. Then the coronavirus hit and nitr0 hit a slump.

"Whenever I gave up the [in-game leader] role, I felt like since I hadn't done that in a really long time, I felt like I could really pick up my game," he said. "I was really, really trying to do those kinds of things, and at the end of the day, it wasn't working out.

"I didn't know what was happening. I would be really up and down in the game, and I would have a really good match, and then I'd have a really bad match. I would get in my own head and stuff like that. I knew there was more pressure added to me since I stopped IGL'ing; it's obvious."

Ending his time with Liquid, nitr0 said, was a hard decision, but the opportunity to recoup and start anew seemed enticing, he explained. At first, nitr0 was still set on Counter-Strike as his future, but he didn't get as many great offers as he would've thought. Instead, VALORANT teams came calling.

"Right now, I'm just looking at all my options, and I just really want to pick what's best for me," he said. "That's kind of where I'm at right now. ... Switching to VALORANT would be a new goal for me. To be the best, I think there's definitely a lot of opportunity for me. VALORANT is a really cool game, there's a lot to learn and do still with the game, with all these tournaments and creating new storylines and stuff like that."