Making the right choices: The story of EliGE's rise to the top
Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski has been a key piece in Liquid's success since putting their stake in the ground at the top of the world rankings. Now, he and his team will try to keep pushing the boundaries of what they can achieve when the StarLadder Major resumes with the New Legends Stage.
EliGE has slowly but surely become a stalwart for Liquid since joining the organization in March 2015. Only Nick "nitr0" Cannella has donned the blue-and-white jersey longer than he has. Over the past four and a half years, the Carbondale native has risen from one of the country’s top prospects to a rising star, eventually landing the 12th and 15th places in the top 20 best players of the year rankings in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Now one of the star players in the current No.1 ranked team in the world, he has been going on a tear during the past three months, earning MVP awards at three of the last five events that Liquid won.
After joining the team at the age of 17 following several good online performances in North America with eLevate, EliGE saw a myriad of teammates come and go as Liquid struggled to find a winning combination. He was there when Aleksi "allu" Jalli tried out, he was part of the team that infamously choked during the MLG Columbus Major semi-finals with Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev and Spencer "Hiko" Martin, he saw the return of Keith "NAF" Markovic—the player whose spot on the roster he had taken—, learned some Portuguese with Epitacio "TACO" de Melo and Wilton "zews" Prado, and lost final after final to Astralis when the Danes were the most dominant team in the game before getting dethroned by Liquid.
Unlike some players who barrel into the top echelons of the game with world-beating talent and are immediately in the running to become the world’s next superstar, EliGE has been working his way to the top steadily, finding the best form of his life at 22 in a team that has taken conventional, structured Counter-Strike to the next level with a dynamic, fluid style. The American rifler’s career has been one marked by constant grinding since the very first day, with EliGE getting better and better by playing in the same positions over and over, slowly but surely perfecting his craft on a trial and error basis.
"In terms of CT sides, I haven’t had any major positional changes,” EliGE tells HLTV.org. "but it’s normally the way that I play them that has changed over the years—mainly from experience and meta changes. On T-sides, I was the entry-fragger for a long time and then I started being the guy trading off the entry-fragger. Recently, I have been playing a little bit of every role. I am still aggressive and go in with the pack, but also if I have the utility or have a play I do that as well. The game has changed from being role-based to needing to be a jack of all trades with some core specific strengths. We all have things we like to do more than others and we try to put ourselves in those situations, but other times some people are just in the right place with a certain nadeset to fulfill a certain type of role that needs to be done."
As explained by EliGE, Liquid’s growth and his own have gone hand in hand, with players adjusting to specific needs at different times but holding on to what makes everyone unique. For EliGE, it’s being an entry who can also trade, while for nitr0 it’s being a passive defensive AWPer and leading the team in-game, while somebody like Jake "Stewie2K" Yip can sometimes pick up the 'Big Green' to go make plays or serve as an all-around rifler. But what made Liquid change and adapt was having a stable base, something that EliGE is the prime example of. TACO, EliGE’s former teammate and roommate, explains that he was very surprised with the American’s dedication to the game. “If you think he’s where he is now just because God wanted him to become better, or because the team became better, the answer is no," the Brazilian tells HLTV.org. "He became better because he worked really hard for that and it was a long term process. I remember him recording every POV during practice, writing down the rounds in which he thought he had made a mistake, and rewatching the demo to write down what he could do better next time."
Just as EliGE worked his way to where he is, it had also been a long time coming, and the clues to his constant progression were all there, with the only question being how far he could go. He started to show himself as a world-class player in late 2016 and early 2017, posting steady numbers at prestigious events, including a 1.30 rating at the ELEAGUE Major Atlanta, proving he could keep making strides towards becoming a star at an international level. “I always knew EliGE was a good player, since back in my Games Academy days,” says TACO. "I remember watching some PGL online qualifier in which Liquid beat the old Luminosity. We were neighbors at the time and I remember having dinner with the Luminosity players and some were saying things like, 'there’s no way this guy is not cheating'. The first map we played in practice on my first day with Liquid was on Inferno and in the first pistol round he got four really fast headshots with the Glock. I was still at the SK house and I sent zews a message saying something like, ‘Jesus... I’ve only seen a couple of these in my CS career. This guy is good.’ I was already impressed on the first map I played with him.”
Another representative feature of EliGE is his willingness to always find an edge over his opponents. This personal trait is made obvious in his early adoption of new meta-changing weapons. “I think it does show that I am looking for any advantage that I can use to win,” says EliGE regarding his early adoption of the SG553. "A lot of players took a long time to swap to the AUG/Krieg when Valve made the first official update even though they were way better. I saw the statistics and just immediately told myself that I would suck or miss kills for a couple of months, but in the long run this was going to give me an advantage.” Adding to that, EliGE uses statistical probability to make the best possible decisions at all times. "When I am making plays or doing something aggressive, I make sure that I make the plays that have the highest probability of success. Even if they don’t always work, and knowing that sometimes they won’t work, most of the times they will and I will be able to win a round out of it or get a crucial opening pick."
As Max Melit described it in his article "The Team Liquid Cowboys: EliGE and Twistzz", EliGE knows how to play the rhythm of an execute, showing that he is situationally aware and holds on to his philosophy of minimizing mistakes and making decisions with the highest probability of a positive outcome, changing from the aggressive entry-fragger to a positionally sound player when called for. NAF concurs with that assessment, saying: "EliGE has a solid judgment when making aggressive plays and getting those key entry-frags. I believe he is the best aggressive or entry type of player that I have played with in my whole career. He has played the same role for almost five years so he has definitely experienced a lot more than any other North American player out there in his specific role."
EliGE’s grind didn’t happen in a vacuum, and much of his current success is shared with his team. Full of star-potential and firepower, Liquid have been built around the ability to rely on any player being able to go off at any moment. “Whoever has a really strong start in the group stage, that star will just ride the momentum wave for the rest of the tournament and the rest of us will follow and support as much as possible,” says NAF regarding having three players who have all won multiple MVP medals during their time on the team. While the mix of roles, styles and positions — and the ability to move away from them all them when necessary — has been key to create a game-changing team, EliGE notes that with TACO and zews, and then further with Eric "adreN" Hoag and Stewie2K, the most important component has been to have a comfortable team atmosphere outside of the server, which explains how these five players are finding a way to work towards a common goal, something that is also spectacular given the squad youth — 21.9 years on average.
“When we lost at the Katowice Major to ENCE, in between the games and after the game, we had a really good attitude and we just talked about the loss, what happened and what we needed to fix, and that was really it," EliGE recounts. "There weren’t added emotions with someone going in at somebody else. It was just what it was and after that, I was completely convinced that this was a different Liquid and we were going to be able to succeed. Having a good environment and being able to talk openly about mistakes with each other has been the absolute main factor for our success this year."
EliGE’s personal growth outside of the server has also been a contributing factor. TACO admits to having reservations due to hearsay before joining the team, but they were quickly dispelled once they started playing together. "I had always heard from the community that he was toxic, a bad teammate and all, he recalls. "It could have been true, I was not there before, but I know he also worked so much to improve in this sense, and he 100% did. I never had any problem with Jon in this sense. Of course, every person and team has problems, but he was never toxic or a bad teammate while I was there. At first, I thought it was because I was coming from a multi-champion team and the best team in the world at the time and he respected me, but no, that was not it." EliGE agrees that he has worked on himself, saying that he has become “a lot more outgoing and talkative than before.
"I am a lot better mentally, I can keep myself in the game at all points and stay positive when things aren’t going well," the 22-year-old adds. "Being able to keep yourself mentally in check at all times really helps even for your individual game because it keeps the good team vibes going and I think you can perform more consistently when you are feeling good mentally. There are a lot of trickle-down effects that come from having a good mentality, which helps the team and yourself.”
One of the key talking points of 2018 was Liquid constantly losing to Astralis in important series and the effect that the constant beatdowns had on morale, something that could hurt not only the unit but also the players individually. Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken’s photograph holding the MVP medal looking completely miserable after losing the ESL One New York grand final to mousesports became a visual representation of the team’s struggle. Regarding the ways EliGE could improve from his experience playing with him last year, TACO says that he always thought the American “needed some winning experience to give him the confidence he needed, and now he has got it." This sentiment is echoed by EliGE himself, who says: "The biggest difference would be confidence in my play. Every duel that I take I feel like I will win. Every play I make I think will work. The change in team atmosphere has also made a really big difference. A lot of Liquid lineups had a lot of outside noise that can affect confidence and how you play the game, which is why chemistry in a team is underrated. This Liquid team builds people up and puts them in their strengths and that is why we have so many talented players who can all take an MVP at any tournament. Anyone can make a play that wins the round or match, and those vibes rub off on everyone in a really positive way."
2019 has been the most notable year of EliGE's career so far, and he is looking in fine position to end up higher than ever on the top 20 best players of the year ranking. With the exception of BLAST Pro Series Miami, he has ended all of his events with a 1+ rating, and he is currently ranked first for ADR (86.2) at Big Events, ahead of the best player of 2018, s1mple. He is also on track to have his highest rating in a calendar year, both online and on LAN, and is the highest-rated North American player, followed by his teammate Twistzz. Out of all players worldwide, he is the fourth best-performing player at Big Events, with a 1.22 rating. His overall Impact Rating has also gone up 0.12 since the end of last year, from 1.19 to 1.31, and he is riding high into the Major, which comes after his best-ever showing at a Big Event as he put in a 1.41 rating at IEM Chicago.
Despite taking the No.1 place in the rankings and being the fastest team to win an Intel Grand Slam with four back-to-back victories at eligible tournaments in 63 days, Liquid still have a thorn in their side — one that stuck a little bit deeper after a disappointing quarter-final loss to IEM Katowice’s breakout team ENCE — which they will try to remove in Berlin as they will go up against the world’s top sides. In his best personal form and with Liquid firing on all cylinders, EliGE could just go on to fulfill what he set out to do as a 17-year-old when he stated in an interview after signing for the organization he has now been with for five years: that ultimately, his goal is to win a Major.