clootch unwraps 2016: Most improved teams
Welcome back to “clootch unwraps 2016,” a new series I will be contributing to in the build-up to Christmas and the New Year. I aim to release at least three of these articles a week, and each one will be recapping and highlighting a certain element of this past year in CS:GO. This could include what matches were the best, the most improved player and other storylines we’ve witnessed as we head into 2017. The second article will focus on this year’s most improved teams, from where they started at the beginning of 2016, to the level they’re playing at now.
Ah, Dignitas. The Danish puzzle has had a core who have seemed capable of making the leap to Tier 1 status for quite some time, but never quite consistently held a strong and elite level of play. This has turned around for them, as they are now considered one of the best teams in the world, even winning EPICENTER, a tournament which they were largely considered the second-weakest in attendance.
At the beginning of the year, Dignitas had two players in the lineup who have since been swapped out. The team said goodbye to Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjærbye and Jesper “tenzki” Mikalski, and brought in the talents of René “cajunb” Borg and Emil “Magiskb0y” Reif in their stead. The two players, who both joined the team around the middle of the year, have had what seems to be a huge say in the trajectory of Dignitas’ form. Since Magisk, who is the team’s most electric player, joined the squad in July, Dignitas have managed to finally find consistency.
September brought with it the first showings of Dignitas’ improvement, as the team reached the semifinals in two consecutive international tournaments: Dreamhack Open Bucharest and StarLadder Series 2 Finals. Placing in the higher portions of the tournament scoreboard was refreshing to see from Dignitas, who had so often been plagued with inconsistencies and unfulfilled potential. Their semifinals appearance at Starseries was particularly impressive for the Danes, as the event hosted top teams such as NiP and home team Na`Vi. Dignitas didn't win, but the significance of their showing at this event was strong. Magiskb0y had just arrived on the squad, and was already starting to create waves at an international level
Dignitas went from strength to strength after their strong September, taking their next large international event one step further than before. EPICENTER, held in October, was an event that featured the presence of Na`Vi, SK Gaming, Virtus.pro, NiP and G2, which naturally meant that many people, including myself, assumed the event was too stacked for Dignitas to win. Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen and his team beat all the odds at EPICENTER, stealing best-of-three offline victories against Na`Vi and Virtus.pro, making their EPICENTER campaign a very legitimate case that the team had matured and developed, and that the young squad was headed to the top. Their results have stagnated in the past tournaments of ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals and Dreamhack Winter, but there’s no denying the EPICENTER win marked a huge improvement for the Magic-enhanced team.
Virtus.pro are perhaps the team who have shown the most improvement over the past year and, remarkably, seemed to find their resurgence with no major roster changes. VP started the year still slumping from their lackluster end to 2015, when their usual winning ways reduced a little, and the Plow was considered out of action.
The Poles showed signs of rejuvenation in the summer of this year, picking up a momentum-changing win at ELEAGUE Season 1. Counter-Strike’s first televised tournament was the turning point for VP, as the veteran Poles who had wallowed outside of their normal Tier 1 home bounced back with ferocity after winning the event.
What ELEAGUE Season 1 meant for VP was that they still had some life in them, since questions had began cropping up around whether or not the wizened lineup had begun to lose their competitive edge. Nevertheless, Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas ignited the Virtus Plow once more and began to show more and more of the aggressive, in-your-face, Terrorist rounds that had been VP’s bread and butter on their attacking halves. There had been signs that VP were finding their dominance again in the form of their semifinal campaign at ESL One Cologne 2016. They then manifested this good form into a solid victory at ELEAGUE, which sparked the return of Virtus.pro.
Next on VP’s list of tournaments they would plow in the latter half of this year was Dreamhack Bucharest. Though it didn’t feature the best teams in the world, VP did pick up series wins against Cloud9 and Dignitas, which made it certain that the Polish giants were capable of repeating the kind of winning mentality we saw at ELEAGUE.
New York was the next place we got to see VP display their masterful level of CS. Impressively, VP beat SK Gaming in the semifinal of the tournament in a heated best-of-three, which included what I still believe is the best pistol round clutch we’ve seen in Global Offensive. From B site’s platform on Cobblestone, Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski set to work on the SK Gaming canvas, dancing around in an impossible situation to bring the round back to his team’s favour. Collecting four clean headshots and turning a 1v4 around to his favour didn't phase Snax, who calmly defused the bomb while his teammates sat there looking, rightfully, in absolute awe.
It’s this kind of play from Snax, and VP in general, that really sums up their improvement. The kind of clutch Snax pulled off speaks magnitudes to how well they play when they’re confident, though they didn’t win ESL One New York, nor EPICENTER that followed soon after, VP are one of the best teams in the world due to the fact they can beat absolutely anyone on their good days. They were a shadow of their current selves earlier in the year, and it’s thrilling to imagine what’s next for the legends that are VP.
The North American (NA) team have recently put up too many great results to say that they’re not one of the top teams in the world. At the beginning of the year, Cloud9 did not look like the NA team most likely reach the pinnacles of the professional scene. Team Liquid started off the year as the best in the NA region, having a remarkable run in the MLG Columbus Major, reaching the semifinal and being as close as they possibly could be to getting all the way to the final. Cloud9 are on my list of improved teams and not Liquid because this team showed a complete turn-around of their results, going from a NA team with little going for them in terms of challenging teams globally, to a team that won the fourth season of the ESL Pro League.
One of the most blatant reasons for Cloud9’s change to an elite team is their roster changes that gambled on young talent. Jake “Stewie2k” Yip and Timothy “autimatic” Ta have become one of the more iconic duos in the scene this year, as their addition to the Cloud9 roster did wonders for the team's results and the two were imperative in Cloud9’s big international wins this year. In Cloud9’s most astonishing performance of perhaps the entire year so far, autimatic picked up 70 kills across their 2-1 win against SK Gaming in the finals of the ESL Pro League, in 79 rounds. His next closest teammate was the similarly volatile Stewie2k.
The team’s performance in the Pro League Season 4 Finals is a large change of pace when compared to how they performed at the MLG Columbus Major, where they lacked a certain autimatic weapon. Exiting their very tough group in last place, Cloud9 placed last in the only Major they attended this year. The other Major that was played, ESL One Cologne, was missed by Cloud9 as they failed to qualify through the Main Qualifer. Losses to Team EnVyUs, mousesports and G2 Esports were enough to prevent C9’s qualification, meaning they missed out on one of the most prestigious events of the year.
To go from not managing to qualify for the Cologne Major, while the likes of Gambit and OpTic Gaming did, to then being able to beat SK Gaming in a Grand Final to win the ESL Season 4 Finals, shows just how many giant steps Cloud9 have taken this year. The Americans are one of the most improved teams this year and deserve all the fruits of their labour, as they started off as one of the lesser teams from a nation often counted out of Counter-Strike.
Luminosity Gaming/SK Gaming
It seems weird to think of this team as being one of the most improved in 2016, as their grip on the Counter-Strike scene has seemed so strong for so long. The Brazilian team did start the year on the peak of an increase in form carried over from 2015, but they weren’t considered the behemoths that they are today. In the late stages of 2015, LG enacted a roster change that would bring in Lincoln “fnx” Lau and Epitacio “TACO” de Melo to complete the roster we know today that plays under the SK Gaming banner. With the arrival of the two players also came coach Wilton “zews” Prado, a prominent figure in LG’s improvement. It was with this squad that they would make history and take the world by storm.
The year started off well for the squad, who were playing under Luminosity Gaming at the time, as they managed to reach the semifinals of the Starseries Season 14 finals and the Grand Final of Dreamhack Leipzig, both tournaments of prestige and international quality. The team was showing promise, and had the possibility of becoming a side that could win huge international tournaments, boasting a highly skilled lineup in terms of firepower and a deadly duo in the tactical element of the game: Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo and zews. However, they weren’t there yet.
As March and IEM Katowice rolled along, LG were in fine online shape and thus came into the tournament in higher esteem than they had in previous international events. The Brazilians didn’t disappoint, either, as they swooped through the Swiss-format group stages with four wins and only one loss. Unlike in Leipzig, they would not be felled by Na`Vi this time. A ferociously played out 2-0 win for LG led them straight to the Grand Final, where Fnatic awaited. LG had the possibility to claim vengeance on the Swedes for beating them at Starseries. Though LG fought hard, they couldn’t beat the masters of Fnatic, and finished the tournament in second place. Though they didn’t win the final, LG came a step further than they did in Leipzig as they beat Na`Vi and narrowly lost to Fnatic in the Final.
Enter MLG Columbus, LG’s ultimate opportunity to claim the throne they had stalked for the past months and looked tantalisingly close to claiming. The community’s consensus choice of contenders for the title consisted of Na`Vi, Fnatic, LG and NiP. LG had a triumphant run in Columbus, beating NiP, Virtus.pro and Na`Vi to claim their first Major title and officially claim the title of world champions. In four months, LG evolved from a team hovering around the fringes of eliteness, to a Major-winning team and the best in the world.
Between MLG Columbus and ESL One Cologne, LG cemented their reign. Wins at Dreamhack Austin and, although it was only barely a win, ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals kept the image of LG winning fresh in the minds of fans. The next Major was looming by the time LG won the Pro League Season 3 Finals, and their time to prove that they were the best in the world once more had come.
ESL One Cologne was where any doubters of LG, who then played under SK Gaming, were silenced as the Brazilians claimed their second Major of the year. It was at this tournament that this squad peaked in form, as since Cologne they have not quite dominated the scene as much as they did before it. So, while we see them as still one of the greatest teams in the world, at the beginning of the year they were a team still considered as riding their wave of good form. They have come from a team coasting off of previous success, to being the only Major-winning team this year. Quite the improvement.
Honorable Mention - OpTic Gaming
OpTic have been putting up solid results at offline events throughout the year, but have not received as much focus for it as perhaps they should. The team recently beat G2 Esports in the Final of Northern Arena Montreal to win a tournament that also featured teams of EnVyUs’ and Heroic’s calibre. They qualified for MLG Columbus, too, through the open qualifier after winning the American Minor. Tarik “tarik” Celik’s role on a team that already featured strong players, like Oscar “mixwell” Cañellas, has helped the team go from "good in NA," to a side that can challenge the stronger levels of international competition. They haven’t won a whole load of prestigious events, but OpTic have steadily been improving as a team, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Who do you think has improved the most this year in CS? Let us know by commenting below or tweeting us @GAMURScom.
The author, Cam “clootch” Brierley, can be reached on Twitter @clootch_CS