The Thorin Treatment: 4 Reasons SK Became Dominant and 4 Why they Fell
SK Gaming are still one of the elite teams in Counter-Strike, but their era as the undisputed kings of the scene has now come to a close. The Brazilians, who won both majors in 2016, have still placed at worst top four at all three big international tournaments since their reign of dominance, but their days of existing at a near unbeatable status are consigned to the past. The components which had made them the best have one by one degraded and broken to see them just another good team battling to try and win a title, any title.
From dominance to decline
SK's dominance did not quite begin with their first big international tournament victory, when they took down the major at MLG Columbus, but that did hint at the possibility of such greatness. Winning the event with only a single map loss showed the Brazilians had overcome their tendency to fall apart in big games and play close series with the other elite teams. A group stage elimination at Dreamhack Malmö the following week immediately called into question whether Luminosity, as they were known at the time, were ready to truly reign and not simply be another team capable of taking down events.
Dominating the Americas at Dreamhack Austin was impressive on an international scale, but did show a basic strength in as much as FalleN and company were barely tested at the event. A much bigger test would come in the final of the ESL ProLeague S3 Finals, where G2 came out of nowhere to push them all the way to five maps before coldzera and company could take their second significant international trophy home. Now, the squad were clearly capable of longevity as a world class team and had the map pool and strengths to beat practically every team in the game.
G2 would finish at ECS what they had begun in the EPL final, not just pushing Luminosity but outright thrashing them and denying them the title. Nevertheless, SK came into the major at ESL One Cologne as the obvious favourite and this time completed another championship run with only a single map loss, again to Virtus.pro. Despite similarities to their first major win, this time around everything was operating at a higher level and the class of the squad could not truly be matched by any of the field.
SK were not only back-to-back major champions, a feat accomplished by only one other team in history - 2015's FNATIC, but looked unbeatable in practically all respects. Little did the world know that just as the SK era had been officially crowned, its downfall was set to begin to play out only a few months later.
At ESL One New York, almost three months after SK had been crowned in Cologne, SK made it to familiar territory, playing VP for a spot in the final, but were bested and forced to watch the final for the first time in five events. At EPICENTER, SK were trounced by VP in the group stage 2:0 in a Bo2 and then suffered another Bo3 loss to the Poles in the semi-final, once more missing out on a final.
At ESL ProLeague S4 Finals, the defending champions had no Virtus.pro or Na`Vi to worry about, but still some danger in the form of Dignitas, NiP and G2. After a solid group stage, losing only to Dignitas, they beat out NiP 2:1 in the semi-final to reach what appeared to be a lock playing against Cloud9 in the final. The SK of months prior would have been assured another title. Instead, the Brazilians barely scraped a win on overpass, their map, after a huge comeback and then were soundly schooled on the following two maps and saw C9 hoisting the trophy.
The four reasons SK became the most dominant team in Counter-Strike
1. Changing their permanent ban bolstered their map pool
Luminosity's permanent ban with the line-up known to the world today started out as dust2. The primary reason behind that can be seen in the team's first ever game with fnx and TACO in the team. They played FNATIC in the opener at the FACEIT Stage 3 Finals and were destroyed without winning a single round. They left it in the pool at the next event, the ESEA ESL ProLeague S2 Finals, the following month and were crushed 16:5 by Na`Vi on it. After that, the Brazilian side made it their permanent ban and would not play it again up until their decision to change their approach to vetoing.
After MLG Columbus had been won, the Brazilians were shockingly eliminated in the group stage of Dreamhack Malmö. In the winner's match of the group they had played mouz on cache, the second best for the German side, and been rolled over. In the deciding Bo3, a key loss to TyLoo on cache, in the opener, allowed the Chinese side to eventually pull fnx and the boys out prior to the play-offs. At that point, Luminosity were only 2:6 on cache, with their two wins being only a win over a lacklustre FaZe at Dreamhack Leipzig and that infamous over-time epic against Team Liquid in the semi-final at MLG Columbus.
The Brazilians acknowledged that cache was hurting rather than helping them and decided to swap dust2 for it as their permanent ban. The results were practically instantaneous. Up to and including ESL One Cologne, SK would go 5:3 on dust2, making even their sixth best map one which was surprisingly solid. With that in place, teams had no obvious places to go in the pick-ban to exploit the Brazilian side.
2. Establishing cbblestone as a very strong map
When Luminosity went to Dreamhack Malmo, it highlights how far from the dominant team they would become that despite their victory at the major they had only a 3:4 record on cbblestone. As their fifth best map in the pool, it, along with cache, gave opposing teams a solid plan of attack when determining what to play in a series. Even worse, practically every team in the game was willing to play cbblestone at this point in time, making it a frequently witnessed battleground for all of the top teams.
From Dreamhack Austin onwards, the same at which the team's new permanent ban was introduced, the team would go 6:1 up until ESL One Cologne. At the major, the map would play a central role in their victorious campaign, as they went 3:1 on it and only lost a close over-time game to Virtus.pro. From Austin through to the end of Cologne, SK were 9:2 on cbblestone, despite it occupying a spot as their fourth best map for most of that time.
3. Unbelievable consistency over their core maps (train, overpass and mirage)
SK's three best maps and thus the core of their effective pool were train, overpass and mirage. From the formation of this line-up they had excelled on these maps and once their permanent ban and cbblestone were put in place, their dominant consistency on them allowed them to not just compete with the world's best teams, but repeatedly defeat them and outplace them. From FACEIT Stage 3 Finals through to end of ESL One Cologne, SK were able to accomplish better than 75% win-rates over all three maps, which shows how effective they were at their core maps.
train 17:1 (94.44%)
overpass 12:3 (80.00%)
mirage 16:5 (76.19%)
This degree of strength on those three maps allowed SK to switch their primary pick depending on the weakness of the opponent, as they often did; force out bans from opponents who feared one of those three due to not playing it well themselves; and to ensure no opponent had an advantage against them in the map pool over a full series.
4. Their system created their stars
SK Gaming had already turned heads back as Keyd Stars in 2015, thanks to their disciplined style of play making them noticablely effective in any situation in which they gained a numbers advantage. When they added more talent to the line-up, solidifed their map pool and gained the confidence of becoming champions, the system was running at a peak level. This system elevated a top 10 player like coldzera into arguably the best player in the world, with epic runs of individual performance at the two majors. FalleN became not just the best AWPer in CS:GO, but the most effective, using the weapon to creative early picks on CT side and scout for information. fnx's arrival saw a new level of clutch play added into the equation for the Brazilian team.
The four reasons their empire fell
1. Inability to answer the nuclear option
While SK were the best team in CS:GO, the only team attempting to pick and routinely play nuke was Dignitas, who were floundering as a team on the brink of the top 10 but far from deep runs in big tournaments. In the post-ESL One Cologne world, SK have seen the rise of nuke as a more accepted map in the pool and teams even specialising on it. Most significant of those teams has been Virtus.pro, who have beaten SK Gaming in the last three series the two teams have played and with nuke securing the Poles a win in two of those instances.
Back at the major, it had been a dangerous and ultimately costly gamble for kuben's boys to take nuke as their map pick in the semi-final, with it ending up being the only map which was not close and seeing the Poles thrashed soundly. At ESL One New York and EPICENTER, nuke played heavily to the favour of VP and helped them to secure both series. SK are 3:3 offline on nuke and all three of their wins came prior to ESL One York. As such, their wins were against teams without much experience playing the map themselves and SK were able to win simply by virtue of solid CT play and good team-play.
SK's three losses have all been to top nuke sides, Virtus.pro and NiP, but have signalled an obvious weak spot in the SK map pool, which had previously been so scary, due to the Brazilians sticking by their cache ban and thus leaving nuke available.
2. Virtus.pro's map pool coup
Virtus.pro were always a team who matched up well against SK, thanks to a shared map pool and a gritty never-say-die mentality. Despite that, close matches still always went in the favour of FalleN and friends. From ESL One New York that showed itself to no longer be the case and thanks in large part due to map pool strengths shifting over to the side of the Poles. Up until the end of ESL One Cologne, SK could expect to be favourites to win on train, overpass, mirage, nuke and possibly even cbble. With the two teams banning cache and dust2, that left SK primed to take series off VP, despite gritty play from NEO and the gang.
From ESL One New York onwards, SK have seen themselves losing on overpass, mirage, nuke and cbble to TaZ and his team. Only train has remained a strong point against VP, as it has against practically every team in the field. With nuke going heavily towards the side of VP, close games on overpass, mirage and cbble mean SK now find themselves on the losing end of series.
3. A crumbling core
While SK's cbblestone has fallen somewhat, it has not been a monumental drop, with a 5:3 (62.50%) record from New York onwards still very respectable for the map which made up their fourth best in the pool. No, the problem for SK has been the drop off of mirage from their core of three, which had previously collectively made them so dangerous to all of the teams in the field. train has remained a stronghold of the Brazilians, with a 5:0 record showing that they remain deadly there. overpass has seen a couple of shaky over-time games, but remains very strong at 5:1. mirage, though, as not just dropped in dominance for SK but effectively fallen over the edge of a cliff entirely, at a disasterous 1:4 from New York onwards. Their one win on it came in over-time against Virtus.pro at ESL One New York.
4. Stars sliding
While the SK system remains strong enough to consistently get them deep in tournaments, the individual components of that system no longer appear as strong. coldzera's performance at ESL One New York was far from the superlative level we had come to expect of him and made him look like a merely above average player. He has since returned to strong form, but his team lagging across the board has kept his numbers from being elevated to their major levels.
FalleN remains one of the most dangerous AWPers in the world and a master IGL, but failed to deliver on an individual basis at EPICENTER, with a painfully low level of fragging. Most disturbing of all slumps in SK has been that of fnx's play. The wily veteran was one of the best at efficiently closing out rounds, but has seen a number of highly suspect maps of play and is no longer the consistent force that helped compliment the stars of coldzera and FalleN to take home trophies.
There are too many factors at play to be fixed or reversed over-night for the once dominant Brazilian side. While their era will fondly be remembered for how incredibily well-rounded, well-equipped and consistent they were, the cracks have begun to appear and many a top team lies waiting to exploit them. That might mean just the odd map here or there, but those have already added up to zero titles over the last three events for SK and they look set to struggle to become champions again. It is fitting that a number of the factors which saw them rise to the pinnacle of CS:GO were also noticeable in the trends which saw them fall from the throne.
Photo credit: Dreamhack, redbull, MLG, EPICENTER