NEW YORK -- It's a Sunday morning in Brooklyn, NY and as cars zoom through Atlantic Avenue outside, there's as much if not more commotion inside Barclays Center. At ESL One New York, Counter-Strike fans are preparing for an unexpected semifinal showdown between Commonwealth of Independent States team Natus Vincere (Na`Vi) and North American squad Team Liquid. American flags wave in the crowd as Liquid jerseys are plentiful around the arena -- the last remaining North American team inspires more fanfare than any other squad among the 8,500 spectators in attendance.
Liquid hasn't had stellar results recently, save for a second place finish at ESL One Cologne in July, and star Spencer "HiKo" Martin says he's just happy that they made it out of the Swiss groups and into the semifinals of the event.
"Semifinals were our goal. If we made semifinals we would be happy," HiKo tells ESPN. "If we made it out of groups, it would be a good thing for us. Things went our way, things didn't go our way. Things were stacked against us; [at] every possible chance we had to [play] a worse team or better schedule, we never had the chance. We had to play Fnatic twice. I'm happy we made it out of groups."
Liquid has struggled to find their footing over the past few months since picking up Jacob "Pimp" Winneche in place of former star AWPer Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, who moved on to Na`Vi. Since the change, Liquid has been off its stride and has floundered repeatedly online, most recently failing to qualify for ELeague Season 2.
HiKo says that integrating Pimp has been a challenge and that no longer playing with s1mple has drastically changed their playstyle.
"With s1mple, the team was about setting s1mple up, making sure he was happy, making sure he had the gun he wanted, and making sure everything was going his way," he explains. "Now it's more about [Nicholas 'nitr0' Cannella], [Jonathan 'EliGE' Jablonowski] and [Josh 'jdm64' Marzano, with] me and Pimp supporting them. The team looks different, it feels different, and we're just trying to adapt to it."
He also says that unlike its peers OpTic Gaming and Cloud9, Liquid didn't practice during the month of downtime after ELeague Season 1 ended in July. During that break, Pimp was moving to the United States from his home in Denmark, which also affected the team's ability to practice.
"Not only with us losing s1mple but also with taking a month and a half off, when Pimp was in the transition from moving from Denmark to the US, we all just took time off, had a vacation, and coming back not everyone was really into it, everyone was rusty, no one had really practiced hard during that break," he says. "[We're] not using that as an excuse, [it's] just taking a little bit of time for us to gather our thoughts and gather our momentum and keep pushing it and moving forward."
But despite the obstacles, HiKo seems happy with their team. In April 2015, HiKo had expressed his interest in building a super team with rumored ties to AWPer Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham, who is now on Cloud9. Although that effort didn't work out, he was the architect for the addition of s1mple, Pimp and AWPer jdm64 to Liquid.
"I would say [this is what I wanted in a 'super team']," HiKo reflected. "What my team looks like moving forward can always change, but for right now, I think I'm happy with where we're headed, with how our preparations went. We have to be doing something right [since we were the last] American team left in this tournament. We're consistently making it out of groups, making deep runs at these European events or American events with primarily European teams. There's nothing sad about it, I'm happy with it and we will keep moving forward."
Now, with the Avengers assembled, HiKo and team will need to get their act together if they want to perform at a high level at the recently announced ELeague major in Atlanta in January. They have "Legends" status from their second place finish at ESL One Cologne, the previous major, meaning they will not have to go through a qualifier to get a spot and a high seed at the ELeague major.
"I think we'll be in a pretty good spot [for the ELeague major in January]," he says hopefully. "I'm expecting big things at least. I'm always expecting to make it out of groups. It's unfortunate that we didn't qualify for the [regular] ELeague [tournament] and it's not looking very good for the ESL Pro League in Brazil, but again, we're just looking to the future. We're using what we're learning at this event, our map pool and personality stuff, using it as a learning experience and refine ourselves moving forward."
As we interview, HiKo's family -- his mother, father, and sister -- listen and watch anxiously. It's their first esports event, and HiKo's mother tells me it won't be their last. Both his mom and dad say they weren't initially supportive of their son's video game hobby, but they're proud of the career he's built for himself over time.
"Obviously, we were not happy," his mother says. "There was lots of yelling and screaming, 'Get off the computer, do your homework, go out and play outside.' But that's what every mother says and that's what every kid on the computer says -- 'Ok, no problem.' We were wrong and he did what he had to do and we're proud of him, so it worked out well. It's a strange world with this whole gaming thing, as far as I'm concerned. But he's done well and we're very proud of him."
His father echoes the sentiment and his sister, who says she played video games with HiKo as children, says she didn't quite understand Counter-Strike but is also proud.
"I think it just speaks volumes to where Spencer's at," his dad says. "He's a player [who's] got a lot of talent. This was his own idea. He put it in motion and nobody helped him, except for maybe a little advice here or there. But it's his baby. It's great."
His mother interjects and says that they'll most likely go to another event, maybe even the ELeague major in January.
But like many Counter-Strike players, HiKo, 26, is older than the average esports athlete. While many haven't thought of their careers post-competing, HiKo has created a brand around himself through themed clothing, livestreaming and interacting with fans and companies. He says when it's time to hang up the mouse, he has no intention to leave esports.
"There's no doubting that I'm definitely on the older end of the scale," he explains. "I don't have any illusions that I'll eventually be phased out and I'll have to retire. Long-term in my life, I can see myself being involved in esports and involved in this whole community. Sure I love the competition, sure I love the aspect of being a professional player, but I've kind of seen this whole community grow from the ground up. I feel like I've been in enough situations, I've been involved in enough disputes [in] just all aspects of this community that I feel like I'll be an asset in one way or another."