Twistzz: "I’m super motivated to get back; I really believe I can still be a top-five player"
The Canadian talent discusses Liquid's internal issues in 2020 and what he wants from his next team as he prepares to return to action.
Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken was ducking behind the box in the B closet on Dust2 when he found himself alone against four MIBR players, the bomb ticking. It was an elimination match at the ESL Pro League Season 9 Finals, in Montpellier, and the Brazilians were desperate to stop the bleeding after losing Mirage and falling behind 10-8 on the map. Twistzz had less than a 4% chance of winning that round, according to Skybox Technologies’ round prediction algorithm (currently seen in BLAST Premier tournaments). "There should be no way," commentator Anders Blume said before stopping abruptly in mid-sentence.
You know how the rest of the round played out.
Twistzz chuckles as I show him his reaction to that round. "Sit the f--k down," he shouted at the Brazilian players.
The Canadian was on top of the world at the time, Liquid sitting at No.1 in the rankings. The ESL Pro League Finals would be the second in a streak of four events that the North Americans would win in 2019 en route to clinching the $1 million prize from Intel Grand Slam Season 2 in just 63 days (Astralis, by comparison, had required 232 days to complete the first Intel Grand Slam).
But such moments were hard to come by in 2020. Liquid won just one tournament all year — ESL Pro League Season 11 North America — as they often struggled against teams like FURIA and Evil Geniuses at home, while during their time in Europe, the best that they could do was reach one final. When the camera focused on him, Twistzz looked surprisingly detached at times, like he had lost his cockiness and swagger. As he confirmed his departure from the team after the IEM Global Challenge, relief was apparent in his words.
"When I think about how my energy was throughout the year, I think it comes down to the team environment," he tells HLTV.org. "There were still times when I was very hyped, like numerous matches against EG and our close matches against FURIA. Even at our bootcamp [in Europe], I was showing a lot of energy against teams like Astralis.
"I guess my confidence really took a toll throughout the year, especially in-game. There were rumors in July that I was almost replaced. That was true. That hurt my confidence a little bit, considering I felt like all the team needed was like a break. And the fact that changes were trying to be made behind player's backs. That was something that bothered me a lot."
Twistzz had already shown some signs of decline during the second half of 2019, when he had averaged a 1.07 LAN rating (down from 1.18 in the first eight months of the year). He later admitted, in the interview for his HLTV Top 20 article, that, during the final months of 2019, he "didn’t know how to feel good again in-game" and that every position or opportunity felt like "an impossible task". That trend continued in 2020, when he struggled against top-five and top-10 opponents (0.99 and 1.02 ratings). He ended the year with a 1.06 rating and failed to make the HLTV Top 20 after two consecutive appearances.
"I feel like I was not utilized as well as I could have been, especially throughout 2020," he explains. "It just led to a lot of downfalls. And there was this unhappy feeling in the team. Once certain people lose trust in one another, that also hurts confidence, or you lack respect from a person that you need it from. That also hurts confidence. I think that a lot of things went against me in 2020. I know I didn't put up the numbers that I was used to, but I still felt like I was trying to do my best."
Twistzz adds that it became even harder to shake the feeling of isolation when Nick "nitr0" Cannella, his closest friend in the squad and a teammate for more than three years, left the team in the summer before eventually moving to VALORANT.
"The reason it affected me so much was that he was the person I was the closest to on the team," he explains. "I would always talk to him outside of the game, we would play games together. He was like an older brother to me. And when he left, it kind of felt like I had no one in the team. I always felt like I could go to Nick. We’d talk about problems and we’d help each other out. And that was gone, unfortunately, after the first player break."
With nitr0 out of the picture, the captaincy was given to Jake "Stewie2K" Yip, who shared the AWPing duties with Keith "NAF" Markovic. Meanwhile, Michael "Grim" Wince was brought in as the final piece of the team, while coach Eric "adreN" Hoag was replaced by Jason "moses" O'Toole. This would have perhaps been the perfect time for the team to test things out and find the right balance, but Twistzz claims that making him comfortable in the game was never a priority for the team. His suggestions, he adds, were often dismissed.
"Making me more utilized was never a goal that people had in mind," he says. "I think that happened when moses joined the team. He really wanted to get me more involved in everything, and I felt like I was putting up better numbers, at least I was playing better in practice. But unfortunately, certain relationships in the team didn’t get solved just by him joining. A coach can only do so much. I think he did everything he could given what was happening in terms of Stewie being the in-game leader and me feeling unutilized.
"There was a period when I actually wanted to be the primary AWPer of the team since my confidence rifling was down, I felt like I could fill the role well and have a constant presence with the AWP. Unfortunately, this idea was shut down numerous times, even though the people that were AWPing wanted to entry or have a bigger impact rifling. It was pretty disappointing considering we weren't doing that well in North America and it would have been the best time to try something new. AWPing isn't something new to me."
Twistzz enjoyed some days off in October — when it was announced that Liquid would skip the first stage of BLAST Premier Fall Series — to move to a new home but also to take what he described as "a mental break". It was around that time that he had his first talk with the organisation about the issues in the team and his growing feeling of discontent and frustration.
"The conclusion I came up with would be to see how the bootcamp [in Europe] went, see how the team operated, if it was like a healthy and positive environment, if it was a good thing to move forward with them," he says. "But the bootcamp actually ended up being pretty bad in terms of our usual atmosphere. It was pretty underwhelming. And that was pretty much what made me make the final decision."
Liquid posted middling results during the final stretch of the season. The team couldn't get past the BLAST Premier Fall Showdown and went out of DreamHack Masters Winter without a single victory. Against all expectations, they managed to reach the final of the IEM Global Challenge, which they lost to old foes Astralis.
Liquid’s Vlog from the European bootcamp shows to some extent the disconnect between Twistzz and the rest of the team. In the video, it was noticeable how he kept to himself and only rarely took part in social activities or had interactions with his teammates outside of the game. Did he feel like the odd one out in the team?
"That actually is like how I felt quite a bit throughout the year, even when we were winning," he says. "It leaves quite a bit of emptiness, not feeling like you’re really a part of the team. I think it could have stemmed from my stomach issues. I had a very specific diet I had to follow and I couldn’t eat at the restaurants my team was eating at. They would eat fast food and stuff like that, and I couldn’t eat with them.
"It kind of led to me not being with the team. They would have other hobbies that I wasn’t interested in or didn’t want to partake in. And that wasn’t my group, I guess. It doesn’t help when you’re trying to be with the team and you want to eat with them, especially after a match. There was a situation at the Berlin Major, after a close series against mousesports. It was a very happy win for us. And I instantly had to go be on my own because they all went to a fast food restaurant. It’s a pretty sad feeling."
Reaching one last final with the team, in the IEM Global Challenge, "felt like a good ending" to his story with Liquid. "I kind of put everything past me and just wanted to play a good final," Twistzz says of his last match, against Astralis, in which he put up a team-high 1.02 rating.
It is hard for him not to linger on what went wrong or what could have been done differently — "if people had used the player break in July as a way to relax, wind down and rethink about the online season, maybe that 2019 Grand Slam team would still be here; maybe bootcamping in North America would have actually made the difference for the team" —, but as he closes the book on a long and successful spell with Liquid, he also wants to find the positives. Like those moments when the team felt invincible.
"There are a lot of great memories," he says. "Like when we were on a tear, we were just talking about, 'Who’s lifting the trophy next?'. It was always a funny conversation. I remember when we were lifting trophies every weekend, there was just so much positivity. We were never scared of any team.
"We lost to North in a group stage, and we didn’t even think about it. 'Oh nice, another lower bracket run. Here we go'. And that was kind of our mentality, even when we declined the invitation to ESL One Cologne 2019 due to the hectic schedule. And then we had to qualify for it. We were facing elimination from the qualifier against forZe. And it’s crazy to believe that we won that event."
These days, Twistzz can be seen streaming FPL games on his Twitch channel. He wants to make sure that he’ll be in tip-top shape when the time is right. "As much as FPL may not be the greatest place to improve, it’s definitely a way to make sure your aim is still the best it can be," he says. "I feel like I’ve been performing, I’m pretty good in FPL. So I’m super motivated to get back." He sees his future in Europe, where all the biggest competitions will be held in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, even if some sense of normalcy returns this year. "I think I’ll be competing in Europe for the next three years or so. There’s only so much you can do in North America right now. I don’t have any plans to rejoin an NA team."
Twistzz does not put a timetable on his return to action, but it should happen sooner rather than later. He is coy when asked about the reports linking him with FaZe, but the international team, who have also been credited with an interest in Finn "karrigan" Andersen, seem to tick all the right boxes.
"My goal is definitely to have a good in-game leader, that’s like a priority," he says, before praising FaZe’s core trio. "broky transitioned to AWPing in 2020, I think he has shown himself as a top AWPer. I’ve always thought that coldzera is really, really good. Maybe 2020 was a bit bumpy for him individually, but I think he definitely stood out in the first half of the year. I think rain just needs a more stable team environment to shine again."
Twistzz will be hopeful that a deal can be worked out in time for the BLAST Premier Spring Groups: As fate would have it, FaZe’s first match in the tournament will be against none other than Liquid. Not that Twistzz needs any extra motivation, though. He’s already eager to get back playing and return to his glory days. To prove that he can still be the player that we saw in 2018 and 2019, the one who pulled off impossible clutches and taunted opponents afterwards.
"I really believe that I can still be a top-five player, for sure," he says. "That is, as long as I’m given the freedom to do whatever I need to perform, then I think that’s there. Because that’s what I was able to do in 2018. When I wanted to pick up the AWP, I could do it. I had a lot of freedom and I think that’s something that needs to be given to me, for me to perform again."