5 lingering questions in the March tournament interim
At a time where the problem of “oversaturation” has justifiably become the primarily talking point of any apocalyptic industry prophet, we have somehow stumbled upon a month-long tournament absence. Check the calendar. IEM Katowice ended on March 5 and the next premier-level tournament won’t start for another two weeks. While the break may be justified given the hefty time commitments of the ESL Pro League and the proliferation of online qualifiers, it is hardly a welcome reprieve for any engaged enthusiast.
Since the conclusion of the ELEAGUE Major, the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitive scene has not at all been stale or lethargic or repetitive or uninteresting. What we have now may very well be the logical conclusion of the previous Uncertainty Era: the next great age of Counter-Strike. Instead of an unstable upper crust of teams followed by a myriad of middling contenders, the new composition of the scene has tantalizingly concentrated many of the best talents of the world amongst seven or eight standouts.
But with just two tournaments played since the post-major shuffle, several pressing questions simply cannot be answered until tournament play reconvenes in April.
1) Is this Astralis Era?
A perhaps undue idolatry has been attached to Luminosity/SK gaming’s reign over CS:GO in the middle part of 2016. SK was undoubtedly the best team in the world for a period of only four months. During this period, the Brazilian world-leaders only competed in seven premier-level tournaments if you include both DreamHack Austin, which only featured competitors from the Americas, and ELEAGUE Season 1, where they were disqualified after their group stage appearance.
Of the six tournaments they completed, SK won four: MLG Columbus, the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals, DreamHack Austin, and ESL One Cologne 2016. They also placed second versus a surging G2 at the ECS Season 1 Finals, but found a very disappointing group stage elimination at DreamHack Masters Malmö just a few days after their MLG Columbus win. While this six tournament run certainly compares unfavorably to Fnatic’s six for six start to their new lineup with Dennis "dennis" Edman, it looks very comparable to Astralis’ six premier-tournament record thus far with Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander. Since adding the new in-game leader, Astralis have placed top-four six times, made tournament finals four times, while ultimately winning three of those events including the ELEAGUE Major. Yet, nobody, or almost nobody, is calling for Astralis to be granted their era at the moment. Why?
Well, the first most obvious advantage SK has over Astralis is that SK won two consecutive Valve majors in comparison to Astralis’ singular major victory this past January. While fans tend to overweigh major wins, the prestige of the majors does set them apart from other competitions with similarly competitive fields. Even with SK’s poor Malmö result and the lackluster difficulty of DreamHack Austin, perhaps SK’s two major wins help their record barely eclipse Astralis’ more recent accomplishments SK also might have look more dominant comparatively as they lacked a clear rival for much of their run while Astralis have been very frequently considered alongside Virtus.pro.
From September to November 2016, VP was the consensus world leader, so when they were absent or eliminated early at events such as IEM Oakland, ELEAGUE Season 2, or the ECS Season 2 Finals, the results of Astralis at those events might be seen as less significant. Then, there was the contentious ELEAGUE finals which seems to be a huge sticking point for any Astralis skeptics. While Astralis obviously won the map, match, and tournament, the near-miraculous nature of the Danes’ comeback from a 13-7 deficit on Train convinced many that Virtus.pro “should” have won the event, which was a narrative that was only further accepted once Virtus.pro defeated Astralis in the DreamHack Las Vegas semifinals.
But moving beyond the SK-Astralis comparison, the rise of more several more dangerous rosters coming following the major might be single greatest factor preventing Astralis from taking the nominal throne. While there is certainly enough doubt in the air at the moment to deny Astralis their era, if they continue to be best team in the world at future blockbuster events events such as StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 3 and IEM Sydney 2017, the would-be kings can still be coronated soon.
2) Will this be the greatest, most competitive period of CS:GO yet?
It might commonly be assumed that the level play in CS:GO is on a continuous upward progression. The obvious counter to that argument should be the the diminished level of competition during the Uncertainty Era. Without consistent champions, NiP with Makelele were the first team to win a tournament with a stand-in, Cloud9 were the first North American team in a decade to win an event, and OpTic were the lowest ranked team to ever a take home a championship. The combination of Valve’s coaching changes, an oversaturated tournament schedule, the abdications of SK and Virtus Pro, and many other factors appeared to hinder the development of a robust overall scene. The weakness shown in this period of play, however, very much seems to have encouraged roster moves and reconstruction following the major, which has helped create many of the highly appealing rosters we see at the moment.
With Astralis emerging the clear world-leader soon after picking up gla1ve and Virtus Pro coming back and attending more tournaments in the new year, the competitive scene finally seemed to have a set upper end following the major. SK also has be considered a top contender following the removal of Ricardo "fox" Pacheco for the former-Immortals star rifler, João "felps" Vasconcellos. Likewise, FaZe and North both made beneficial upgrades, adding Nikola "NiKo" Kovač and Philip "aizy" Aistrup respectively.
With Niko, who clearly looked like the best player in the world at various point in 2016, the new FaZe was able to make it to the finals of their first tournament together, IEM Katowice. On the other hand, while there were concerns that North with Aizy wouldn’t work out as the departing Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel had a very different style of play, North has looked respectable at both tournaments they’ve attended since the swap: they placed top-four at DreamHack Vegas and top-six at IEM Katowice.
In addition to those five, there are also the highly skilled, highly dangerous “super-teams” of Fnatic and G2, who have yet to show off their capabilities in full. There is also the very talented Na’Vi who have never lived up to expectations but have looked better lately and could find further success once they add a new coach to replace Sergey "starix" Ischuk. Additionally, upset threats in Gambit, Heroic, and even Immortals further fill this already very stacked scene. We obviously still need to see more before we can call all this generation of teams the greatest ever. But with these rosters, you have to expect expect that this era will exceed all previous peaks, especially if Fnatic and G2 can live up to their monstrous on-paper potential.
3) When will the “super-teams” finally show?
G2 might not be a “super-team” in the purest sense as they do not have the absolute five best players of their region. When you consider how the roles work out, however, the very-high overall level of skill, and the combination of the traditional two leading stars of the French scene in Richard "shox" Papillon and Kenny "kennyS" Schrub, it makes sense why the “super-team” label has firmly attached to this G2 squad.
At the same time, this never seen before combination of G2 neatly contrasts with the callback Fnatic squad created also in the aftermath of the ELEAGUE Major. Unlike G2, Fnatic probably hasn’t been called a “super-team” due to the firepower on the roster at the moment, it seems much to do with their past proficiency. When this five man-roster first came together following the departure of Markus "pronax" Wallsten and the addition of Dennis in November 2015, they won all six of their opening six premier-level tournaments. Adopting a playstyle that very heavily revolved around skill rather than tactics, Fnatic were briefly able to reassert themselves at the very top of the competitive scene, perhaps even restarting their Era, before injuries to Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer Gustafsson and the removal of Inferno noticeably slowing them down.
Nevertheless, despite the frenzy of fanfare surrounding both teams, we haven’t seen any encouraging signs coming out of either camp. G2 currently stands in 14th place in ESL’s online 14-team league with just one win in seven contests. Likewise, Fantic have been unimpressive in both of their two offline showing since the reformation, eliminated in the group stage of both DreamHack Masters Las Vegas and IEM Katowice. This noticeable gulf between expectations and accomplishments has been artificially extended by this tournament-less stretch of time, but we have no guarantees that both these teams will finally come to life at Starladder I-League StarSeries Season 3.
As pointed out in a previous article, past “super-teams” or skill-dense rosters have shown unexpected deficiencies after their formation. The new mixture of talent may displace one or more should-be stars from performing to their standard. The lack of a traditional in-game leader might muddle or oversimplify T-sides. The highly-skilled lineup may become increasingly reliant on their coach which could induce new issues if the coach is not up to par or just does not work well with the roster. Or internal strife could simple tear apart the team.
Both rosters have far too much firepower at their disposal to never succeed in some form or fashion. But as we move into this extremely competitive era, we should question when and for how long these two teams will live up to their purported prowesses.
4) What’s brewing in North America?
OpTic fell to the wayside following the departure of Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz. This has again reminded the public of the overall weakness of the North American scene. With Spencer "Hiko" Martin in the lineup instead, OpTic was eliminated in two straight tournament group stages in decisive fashion, looking nothing like the team that stood near Astralis at the top of the world in December. Cloud9, who similarly found a spike in results in early Autumn, have been a competitive non-factor for even longer. Since winning ESL Pro League Season 4, C9 have been eliminated in the group stage of all six premier-level event they’ve attended. Liquid theoretically look better with the de facto number one North American in-game leader, Stanislaw, now in their team. But they have yet to attend a LAN and did not qualify for the upcoming StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 3 event in early April.
With no top North American team performing recently or looking like a clear international contender in this competitive era, heavy criticism has understandably been levied at the region in full. Even if Liquid do prove to be fairly competitive in the coming weeks, the stagnation of Cloud9 and the deterioration of OpTic combined with this fresh onslaught of critic and community pressure will surely have some effect soon. Last week. it reported by Dekay that Liquid were in deep negotiations with OpTic to move over both Oscar "mixwell" Cañellas and Will "RUSH" Wierzba in an apparent effort to integrate more components of Stanislaw’s previous success story into Liquid. Earlier this month, Dekay also reported that both Cloud9 and OpTic were looking to make roster moves. The Liquid acquisition has apparently fallen through and neither OpTic nor Cloud9 have made any pickups yet. But with Hiko and Jacob "Pimp" Winneche leaving OpTic and Liquid respectively, a minor shuffle North American is now inevitable.
Even more lingering European free agents have officially left the market with the announcement of the new Dignitas lineup, so it looks increasingly likely that these North American standouts will have to recruit from within their region or from teams who compete in their region. While the leading three teams of the scene might scavenge through all other North Americans teams to bolster their rosters, Misfits seem like an obvious destination for inquires as they have three different young, supposed stars-to-be on their team: Hunter “Sick” Mims, Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken, and Skyler "Relyks" Weaver. At the same time, with Ricky "Rickeh" Mulholland moving over to CLG, you also have to consider whether other Australian or Oceanic talents will be willing integrate within other North American teams. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the weakness of this current mix will inevitably lead to a new brew in the coming weeks.
5) How will SK re-adjust moving forwards?
If SK were launching their new lineup with Felps in any other competitive environment, you’d have to expect that their new roster would allow them to still be elite team in the global field. Despite earlier fears that Felps might not fit into Gabriel "FalleN" ToledoN’s system, the former Immortals star has had great output thus far alongside the team’s original highly aggressive riffler, Fernando "fer" Alvarenga. With Marcelo "coldzera" David also still having strong performances alongside these two, SK should have all the firepower they need to continue to be a very strong team—even if FalleN has recently looked especially weak. Because this era might be the most stacked ever, however, the way SK’s fresh face has altered the team’s overall play style might cause issues moving forwards.
As explored in a previous article, instead of relying more on their formerly world-leading AWP duo in FalleN and Coldzera to find early picks, the pushes and fast attacks of Felps and Fer have seemingly become the focus of SK’s play. While this change in style perhaps could have still been effective if Felps and Fer performed well enough as the team’s new stars, it seems that SK themselves were uncomfortable with the switch following their group stage elimination at IEM Katowice.
In interviews with Yahoo Esports, Fer, Coldeza, and Epitácio "TACO" de Melo were all asked about the addition of Felps and the resulting change to their playstyle. Fer said that “this tournament showed us that this isn't the best option for the team.” Coldzera shared a similar opinion. “It’s not our style” he said. “It’s really hard when you have two players playing just aggressive all the time.” TACO even presented the team’s solution: “We can’t have two really aggressive players, so some maps Fer will have to adapt, some maps Felps will have to adapt.” This change, he added, was decided in a team meeting following the end of their tournament life.
Ideally with one player in either Fer or Felps playing more passive, SK can more or less move back to their default system of play established and polished during their 2016 run with Lincoln "fnx" Lau. But changing their style again only invites further questions. With the emphasis moving back more towards Coldzera and FalleN, will SK’s in-game leader be able break out of his slump or will the added duties only exacerbate his recent inefficacy. When forced to play more passively on certain maps, can Fer or Felps continue to have significant impact on the server? Alternatively, will playing passively half the time rust or dampen either player’s speciality when they are put in the driver’s seat? And most broadly, will this further reshuffling have a positive enough effect to allow SK to remain contenders in this extremely competitive environment moving forwards?