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Nitr0, of ‘Valorant’ and ‘Counter-Strike’ fame, is ready to win again

(Washington Post illustration; Rich Lock/Team Liquid)
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On Saturday, Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella joined a highly exclusive club: professional “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” players who made the jump to “Valorant,” only to defect back to their former game.

Over the past half-decade or so, Cannella has been an integral member of two of the more famous and successful esports teams competing in tactical first-person shooters: Team Liquid and 100 Thieves. The hype around Liquid in 2019 is hard to overstate. As a member of that squad, Cannella participated in a veritable victory march of a season, culminating in the Intel Grand Slam, a series of wins that netted the team a $1,000,000 prize. Of the many athletes making the leap from “Counter-Strike” to the newer and shinier “Valorant” in 2020, Cannella was arguably the most decorated.

Cannella fared well in “Valorant,” too, taking home the trophy in the game’s first official North American tournament, First Strike, and adding a third-place finish at an international event in Berlin in September. But shortly after a disappointing run ended 100 Thieves’s chances at winning the year’s capstone event, rumors began to circulate: Cannella was planning to return to “Counter-Strike,” and join a Team Liquid squad that would closely resemble his 2019 team. For a few weeks, it was the worst kept secret in esports.

Team Liquid finally confirmed the news Saturday, sharing an official announcement of Cannella’s reintegration into the roster. The Washington Post spoke with the 26-year-old about the difficult final months of 100 Thieves’s “Valorant” squad, his hopes for the newest iteration of Team Liquid, and the birth of his son, Maverick, nearly one year ago.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Launcher: Walk me through the timeline of your decision to leave “Valorant” and go back to “Counter-Strike.” When did you first get the itch to go back?

Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella: The first time I really had the itch to go back would be during the last Major, [“Counter-Strike’s” championship event]. I think it was in November. Going back to “Counter-Strike” wasn’t really a long term plan or anything. It wasn’t a long term decision. I hadn’t been thinking about it for that long.

I don’t know if you remember, but I was still really interested in playing under a “Counter-Strike” team once I left Liquid [in 2020]. “Valorant” wasn’t my first option; it was still “Counter-Strike.” I still really like the game a lot. I still think it’s my passion. I’ve played it since I was really young, like, below the age of 10. The game has been a huge part of my life growing up. I’ll always love the game, and I thought that in the moment it was just the right decision to make.

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Tell me a bit more about that passion. What was it about “Counter-Strike” that made you want to go back? Was it the scene, the game itself, the community?

Cannella: I really enjoy the community. I have relationships with most of the professional players in the scene just because I’ve been around for like eight years now in the “Counter-Strike” scene. Going into “Valorant,” obviously there were some newer names, some newer kids, the new generation of gamers, so to speak. I guess the age group was a little bit younger. I’m 26. I feel like most of the people were around the age of, like 18 to 20, maybe even 21. So obviously there was a little bit of age gap. I didn’t really talk to too many people in the “Valorant” scene.

But in the “Counter-Strike” scene, I had a pretty good relationship with most of the pros. And obviously coming back to Liquid was a no-brainer, with having [Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski] and [Keith “NAF” Markovic] still there, two of my favorite teammates.

I’m glad you brought up age. Esports is often thought of as a young person’s game, and while I certainly wouldn’t call you old, you had a child just shy of a year ago. That’s a serious step in what’s thought of as adulthood. Has having a kid changed your outlook on your work?

Cannella: Yeah, I think having a kid has changed my personality a little bit. I feel like it made me more of a leader outside of the game, which I’ve heard from ex-teammates is the one department I kind of slacked in. So I’m hoping that having this last year and a half away from the guys [on Team Liquid], they’ll notice a difference in the way I lead the team. Before, I was kind of shy when it came to confrontation. Now I feel more mature. I’m not going to be scared to say stuff as long as it’s constructive — I’m not going to try to demean anyone.

That’s the biggest aspect that’s changed. It’s mostly out-of-game stuff. And obviously, appreciating time at home is also very important for me. Nowadays — once we had Maverick — we go to bed a lot earlier than we did on the degenerate schedule, where we would just go to sleep super late. Now we have a stricter schedule for the baby, because you don’t want to keep messing with the baby’s sleep schedule because he’ll just be cranky.

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Who started the conversation between you and Liquid about getting the band back together? Did you reach out to them, or they to you?

Cannella: Just talking to Jon [“EliGE” Jablonowski] sparked the conversation around coming back. It’s not like I had all these “Counter-Strike” offers and I chose Liquid. I didn’t have any other offers for “Counter-Strike.” Liquid was my only one. Obviously they still like me a lot, and they have faith in me.

The rumors of your departure from 100 Thieves were colored by the news of the team cutting your teammate, Joshua “steel” Nissan. How did the decision to cut him come to be, and what was your role?

Cannella: The decision to cut “steel” was not something that was in the works for a very long time. It just kind of happened. Whenever a team needs a change, everyone in the team gets that feeling. A lot of times what happens is there’s no motivation. You get on for practice and people aren’t really into it. They’re very tired. They’re not speaking during theory time, which is the time when you’re supposed to be, like strategizing and fixing your past mistakes, maybe reviewing scrims. On 100 Thieves, we didn’t have a very good relationship with “steel” inside the game. Specifically, him and our coach didn’t really get along. There was a super weird dynamic sometimes, and a lack of respect for each other. Eventually it got so tiring that we felt the need to make a change, and it just wound up being Josh.

We all had really good relations outside of the game. We never argued outside the game. Any time there were arguments, it was always about in-game theoretical stuff. Maybe some ego stuff here and there, but that’s normal within a team, usually. We just felt like we weren’t progressing as a team because there was a lack of respect, and also the in-game relationships weren’t that good. That’s kind of like the foundation of a team; you’ve got to have that inner respect for each other. Otherwise, you’re going to just feel like you’re taking one step forward, two steps backward. Which honestly is how it felt for the last six months of that team. It felt like there wasn’t too much motivation, for whatever reason. And ultimately, it led to “steel” getting cut and then me picking up the in-game leader role.

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A lot of people put “Valorant” and “Counter-Strike” in opposition to each other. I’m curious if you see your defection from one game to the other — and then back — as part of that narrative.

Cannella: At the time that I decided to swap to “Valorant” I was, quote unquote, the biggest name that swapped, or most achieved from “Counter-Strike” at least, not considering other games like “Overwatch.” At the end of the day, me going to “Valorant” was a pretty good story line for that community. But now, deciding to go back to “Counter-Strike,” it’s even more interesting for people because they’re like, “Oh, is he going to be bad? Is he going to be washed up?” For me, that’s pretty exciting — knowing that people are even thinking about it, that they’re going to be watching me to see how I’m performing, to see how the scene is doing. It’s not too often that you see a person swap games and be pretty good at both.

The person that comes to mind is actually Michael Jordan, when he swapped to baseball for like a year and then he came back to basketball and was like, “I’m back!” I’m not saying I’m Michael Jordan by any means, but I think it’s really cool that he went to a sport, he didn’t do too well at it but he was still decent, and then he came back to the GOAT sport for him. That’s like his zone, you know? And I feel like that’s kind of how it is for me. I did pretty good in “Valorant.” I won a trophy — a domestic trophy, for what it’s worth. But at the time, North America was the best scene on paper, though obviously there had been no LANs. I just think it’s cool to have this narrative around me right now.

You don’t stream as often as some of your peers. You don’t maintain quite as much of a social presence. A lot of pros are expected to create content as a side hustle. But that tends to require an upbeat, up-tempo personality, and that doesn’t entirely seem like the person you are. Do you see content creation as a big part of your future?

Cannella: If I’m streaming, I’m not studying the game, or progressing toward getting trophies. I like to study the game more than stream. I’m trying to talk to my teammates, have those out-of-game relationship talks, and just use my time in other places.

I do like streaming sometimes. If I have free time, I’ll just turn on the stream for fun and talk to chat and have a good time. But me personally, I’m not that outgoing of a guy, and I don’t like being on camera too much when I stream. It’s kind of a personal thing.

I like to give back to the community by streaming. It makes me feel good knowing that I could brighten someone’s day by just turning on my stream and playing a video game. That’s already my job. I wish I could do it more. I wish I had the motivation and time to do it more. But unfortunately, sometimes that’s what it boils down to: I just don’t have enough time, especially at home where I’m trying to spend time with my family a little bit more.

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I can picture a newspaper story about your return to “Counter-Strike,” and the headline reads: “North America’s hero is running into the burning building to save ‘Counter-Strike.’ Is it too late?” There’s a lot of conversation these days around whether North American Counter-Strike is doomed. What’s your take?

Cannella: I think North American “Counter-Strike” is in a pretty good spot right now. I think it’s in a way better spot than it’s been in the past two years. There’s a lot of new rosters coming about. I kind of feel like it’s 2014, 2015, again. In that time, there were a lot more organizations involved. There was a lot more talent involved. I’m starting to see that again.

Before, it was hard to find good scrims in North America, whereas if you went to Europe you’d have super good scrims. You could scrim in Europe from 11 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. Whereas in North America, if you needed to practice, you could practice from maybe 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Now I think it’s a lot better. Teams are practicing more. There’s more talent. There’s more cohesion between the teams. It’s in a way better spot than it’s been in the last two years.

What do you hope to achieve with the Liquid squad you’re coming back to?

Cannella: I hope to obviously achieve some trophies. I want to feel accomplished by this time next year, and to feel like we did better than their previous year. I want to feel like we, as a team, are progressing and doing something every day to better the team — just doing something to make sure that we’re feeling progress, instead of feeling like we’re looking to make a change, like we’re looking to have some kind of out, or we’re looking to take a break. That’s the number one thing that I want. And so far, it’s been really good. I think we’re going to have super good relationships within the team. We have a lot of good personalities. We have really hard workers and obviously we have a lot of talent.

The moment I stepped away from Liquid feels completely different from now. When I left — it was July or June of 2020 — I was feeling really burned out. I was like, “Man, the team really needs a change. Who is it going to be? Is it going to be me?” Covid had just started and it was super stressful. I had just found out my wife was pregnant. But I feel like I’m in a good spot right now, mentally, and super motivated.

Do you have a sense of what Liquid is going to look like next season? How do you conceptualize the play-style of this Liquid squad?

Cannella: It’s actually something that I’m trying to brainstorm right now, because the current meta in “Counter-Strike” is a bit different from when I left. So I’ve been studying the game a lot to get a feel for how I want to call. I’ve been talking to my teammates a lot about what they want, and how they think the game is played currently. These conversations go a long way for me, considering I’ve been away for a while. It’s a work in progress, for sure.