SK Gaming’s dominant victory at ESL One Cologne, losing only a single map along the way and crushing the final comprehensively, seemed to cement what looked to be an unbeatable new Counter-Strike dynasty. Even Virtus.pro’s victory at ELEAGUE S1 which followed carried an asterisk of SK having been disqualified from the competition on the basis of changing organisations.
Over the six big international competitions that have come and gone since ELEAGUE S1, five different winners have been crowned and none of them were SK. Here are eight reasons we’ve entered “the parity era,” where every team is beatable and many teams can win titles.
The last six big international competitions and their champions
Sept. – StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 2 (NiP)
Sept. – Dreamhack Bucharest (VP)
Oct. – ESL One New York (Na`Vi)
Oct. – EPICENTER (Dig)
Oct. – ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals (C9)
Nov. – IEM XI Oakland (NiP)
1. Valve’s coaching rule change
When SK Gaming won ESL One Cologne the top end of the scene was littered with coaches and a number of them either fed information to teams during matches or were literally the one calling the tactics to be used and guiding their team through how to execute them.
Team Liquid made the final of the major with peacemaker as their in-game leader (IGL); Na`Vi had established a world class run of finals and top finishes over 2016 with starix as one of the best IGLs in the game; FNATIC had gone between vuggo and flusha as IGL; SK Gaming used zews to complement the talents of FalleN’s, the game’s consensus best IGL; NiP had won their first big event in years thanks to THREAT taking over as IGL. kassad helped mouz to their first ever top four finish in a $250k or more prize pool tournament.
Valve’s coaching change has seen a number of other large tournaments implementing a similar set of limitations on how often a coach can speak to his team, placing more emphasis on time-outs and out-right removing the concept of a coach who is also playing the IGL role. The most obvious example of a team hit by this change has been Na`Vi, who presumed that removing their ex-IGL Zeus would not be an issue since their current IGL was starix and he was one of the best in the world at that role.
Looking at Na`Vi now and before the coaching change reveals two teams who share almost no similarities in strength on the Terrorist side or ability to execute. starix had Na`Vi as one of the scariest T side teams in the world, to the extent that no team could feel safe after a large T side on cbble or train, as Na`Vi were capable and apt to run up double digits on the offensive side of those maps. Na`Vi’s style involved slow set-ups, gradually taking map control and creating space for GuardiaN to get picks with his AWP. The new Na`Vi still goes slow, but none of the tactical finesse, reading of the game or powerful execution is on display.
Without coaches who can have constant input or IGL, the scene has reverted back to the model of 2015, with players taking the IGL role and teams no longer able to remove cerebral players who do not offer much in terms of fragging. With this premium placed back upon leadership from inside the server, it is perhaps no wonder that MSL’s Dignitas has risen up and taken a top spot in the scene finally. FaZe bringing in karrigan has already seen them begin to turn around their fortunes.
2. The player break reset everyone
Following ELEAGUE S1 there was an agreed upon player break with no competitions. From the 11th of July to the 1st of September there were no international competitions of any note and August simply saw online play starting up again. Even a few weeks off playing can drastically affect the individual form of a player, so even moreso it will impact how an entire team plays. Lack of top level practice during that time also prevents teams from maintaining their level of play and routine.
The player break also, merely due to extending the time since the last big events, prevented SK Gaming from capitalising on their dominance and winning more tournaments in a period where they seemed to have all the answers and teams who might have beaten them, such as G2 or FNATIC, were often unable to meet them deep in tournaments.
3. SK’s troublesome triple takes its toll
SK Gaming had the world at their feet when they hoisted the ESL One Cologne trophy. Before they would appear at another offline competition they would have suffered from three difficult set of circumstances. First of all they announced that fer, one of their best aggressive players, would need to take time off to have surgery on his ear, due to dimished hearing. As a result, not only would the player break and lack of tournaments see SK sat on the side-lines waiting for another chance to play offline CS:GO, but they would choose to avoid tournaments until ESL One New York, which took place at the end of September, around 11 weeks after their Cologne win.
Finally, zews, their coach, departured from the team to go and pursue his dream of becoming a professional player, joining up with Immortals as their IGL. For a team as good as SK this was seen as a minor road-bump they could overcome, not least since they had the best IGL in CS:GO in FalleN. After seeing them place top four at all four big tournaments since zews’s departure but each time fall short in narrow fashion, one begins to wonder just how much impact zews might have had on their success. Even the odd suggestion or idea at the right time can be enough to change the course of a map or gain a couple of extra rounds for a team.
What’s clear is that the three circumstances all piled together have played their part in SK’s fall from being the dominant team and masters of their own era. Perhaps they would have fallen regardless, but a look at their results before and after those difficulties seems to suggest a correlation.
4. Virtus.pro take over
That narrative of the ELEAGUE S1 playoffs having an asterisk next to it due to SK’s absence seemed reasonable enough at the time, not only were they the best team in the world but Virtus.pro had won the competition in an unreal streak of form which had seen them fail to drop a map over the entire playoffs and stomp even elite level teams. It was easy enough to imagine they had hit a hot streak of form and that Virtus.pro would not leave Atlanta. When they failed to get out of the group stage at StarSeries S2 that seemed to be a conclusion proven.
Since StarSeries, Virtus.pro has won a solid event at Dreamhack Bucharest; made the final of ESL One New York and narrowly lost it to Na`Vi; and reached the final of EPICENTER and lost there in three maps to an inspired Dignitas. Virtus.pro still look, from the eye test and the level of performance needed to beat them, like the best team in Counter-Strike.
That alone might not have contributed to so many teams winning, but it manifest in the match-up between the Poles and SK Gaming shifting firmly into VP’s favour. VP have won two big Bo3 series over SK Gaming, both times in semi-finals, and beaten them 2:0 in a Bo2. Those victories have meant SK could not reach the finals of those events and in each instance has seen VP then beaten by Na`Vi and Dignitas, teams which SK may well have been capable of defeating.
Virtus.pro are the final bosses of CS:GO right now and victory at a big event featuring them seems to inevitably run through them.
5. Na`Vi’s s1mple solution
Na`Vi’s roster move has given them arguably the best player in the world in s1mple, possessed of an unbelievable peak level of skill and capable of hitting that peak with regularity, they are not the old tactical machine but now a team who live and die by their massive amounts of raw skill and aiming talent. When that talent has been manifest in the server the team have been capable of winning events (ESL One New York) and going deep (EPICENTER).
That reliance on individual skill has been a double-edged sword seeing Na`Vi outright killed by such an approach, though, as evidenced at ELEAGUE S2 and in the IEM XI Oakland group stage. Had the team consistently been able to deliver an elite level performance then progression from both group stages would have been a reasonable expectation, yet in both instances they were spectators by the time the playoffs had been set.
Na`Vi are still capable of winning big events, but even when they do not they are the ultimate spoiler for a group stage or one of the other contenders. Nobody, including Na`Vi, knows when two of their stars will hit that peak form and take over a game or series. That creates uncertainty not only for Na`Vi, but everyone else.
6. Virtus.pro’s absence from ESL Pro League S4 Finals and IEM XI Oakland
EPL S4 Finals required qualification through online play and Virtus.pro were unable to accomplish that feat. IEM XI Oakland had TaZ and company invited but they declined their invitation last minute, citing a need for a break. While the teams at those events can only be expected to beat those teams put in front of them, it did remove some of the prestige of victory at those competitions to not have Virtus.pro, then the number one team in the world, sat at home during the proceedings.
C9 and NiP took home the trophies, but have yet to be tested against Virtus.pro in a Bo3 series and prevail. The most consistent team of the period has been SK Gaming and they have been on the end of a string of losses at the Poles’ hands. The top spot may have now fallen from VP, due to their inactivity, but they remain a key opponent who every team fears to play right now. Taking out the best team in the game from a field will automatically make an era of parity more feasible.
Beyond just VP, there have been a number of tournaments which lacked top teams. The elite teams of the last few months have been Na`Vi, Virtus.pro, SK Gaming and Dignitas. The only event to feature all four was EPICENTER. ESL One New York had three of the four and no other event has managed to gather more than two in attendance.
7. The rise of Team Dignitas
Just as Na`Vi’s rise allowed the team to beat out the mighty Virtus.pro on the back of super-star level talent who had come through the door, so the arrival of Team Dignitas as a world class side again ensured Virtus.pro were denied a title, beating them in the EPICENTER final. There is legitimately a world in which VP would have taken three straight titles from Dreamhack to ESL NY to EPICENTER. That would destroy any illusions of the parity of this era, being as they did not attend any of the events following those, which would thus have earned those tournaments a firm and dreaded asterisk.
Team Dignitas did not beat out VP solely on the basis of inspired individual play, as in the case of Na`Vi, but by delivering consistency in all respects. With one of the best performing trios in the game (Magiskb0Y, k0nfig and cajunb); some of the best tactics; and a powerful, deep and shifting map pool, Dignitas has answers for every team right now. Even in defeat their impact shaped the results of EPL S4. Their victory over NiP prevented a three-way tie between SK, C9 and NiP. Shake that bracket up, perhaps with NiP second and C9 third, and C9 runs into SK in the semi-final and NiP likely goes to the final.
8. nuke is embraced
One of the most underwhelming aspects of ESL One Cologne was when teams attempted to gamble on nuke as a wild-card pick. Practically no team, outside of a much less dangerous Dignitas, was using the map heavily in their rotation and most teams either banned it outright or simply ignored it. When it was picked in Cologne it rarely worked out in the favour of the team doing the pick, with the notable exception of Team Liquid’s gambit against Na`Vi in the quarter-final which helped shift the series.
We now live in a world where many teams are playing nuke on a regular basis, either by choice or as a result of prioritising other maps as their permanent ban. Teams like SK, Na`Vi, G2 and nV are hardly teams known to be fans of the map, yet they are seen playing it in a number of tournaments. The map has become a primary component of the pick-ban approach of Virtus.pro, Team Dignitas and NiP and it is perhaps no coincidence those teams have enjoyed a lot of success, collectively, during this era.
As long as it is remains in the map pool, nuke has very much been activated now and is here to stay. Teams must either play it, ban it or have some kind of answer for its being picked. As much could not be said back during the SK era.
Photo credit: EPICENTER, Dreamhack, ESL