The Thorin Treatment: SK Gaming will Repeat as Major Champions
Just over two months ago, at MLG Columbus, SK Gaming became the first non-European team to win a CS:GO major and I think they will repeat that feat this week, at ESL One Cologne. Only one five man line-up in history has won more than one major - pronax and olofmeister's FNATIC of 2015 - and only one other core has taken down multiple majors - the LDLC/EnVyUs of Happy and NBK. The former Luminosity Gaming men of SK Gaming have the consistent form, the star players and the map pool to join such illustrious company.
Prior to MLG Columbus, the last CS:GO major, Luminosity Gaming, as SK Gaming were then known, had never won an international tournament. They'd finished in the top four of their first five international offline competitions together, reaching the finals of three of those four, but had never taken the ultimate step up the podium to first place. That crucial first taste of glory came at the biggest tournament in history, as they produced an incredible run to the first ever $500,000 first place CS:GO major, the eighth total major in the game's history.
That run saw them eliminating former champions Virtus.pro, edging out the red hot Team Liquid, denying Na`Vi the major that seemed to destined to be theirs and becoming the first team from outside of the European region to ever hoist the major trophy. Truly, it was a performance for the ages and one which proved to be more than a momentary period of victory for the Brazilians, as they soon established themselves as the best team in CS:GO.
Birthing a dynasty
Despite failing at Dreamhack Malmö, shockingly eliminated by upstart Chinese squad TyLoo, FalleN's men won Dreamhack Austin, putting in place the Americas, and the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals, taking down the best international talent. With Na`Vi lacking titles, FNATIC lacking olofmeister and NiP having only their Malmö miracle, none could legitimately put themselves besides Luminosity and claim to be equals.
The "Luminosity era" could not quite be put into place, as G2 completed the upset mission they had embarked upon at the EPL finals, taking down Luminosity in the ECS Season 1 Finals, denying Coldzera and company four titles in five events from Columbus on. Now, with the next major here, it is only fitting that if SK are to establish this as their era, to enter the annals of history with the "NiP era" (Autumn 2012 to Autumn 2013) and the "FNATIC era" (Autumn 2014 to Summer 2015), then they must likely take a second major, in succession at that.
Only three five man line-ups (NiP, FNATIC and Na`Vi) and four cores (NiP, FNATIC, Na`Vi and LDLC/EnVyUs) have made more than one major finals and only two of each managed to secure multiple major titles. The task which faces SK Gaming is the most difficult in Counter-Strike, but they have much on their side and many reasons to believe they are set to repeat as major champions.
Luminosity had been excellent up to Columbus, but consistently placing top four and reaching finals are still different degrees of accomplishment to actually winning international titles, as the frustration surrounding Na`Vi's repeated second places will attest to. From Columbus onwards, Luminosity have won a total of three titles, with only one being capable of being down-played for being a tournament of the Americas. MLG Columbus was the biggest tournament in history and ESL Pro League S3 Finals was a big interantional competition.
Their loss in Malmö was brutal, for a world number one level team, but losing at ECS S1 Finals still saw them reaching the final, making that three international finals in four events from Colmbus on. That's the kind of incredible consistency that top five teams of all-time achieve. The loss in Malmö also sparked a change to their banning approach which has made the team even stronger, as will be addressed soon enough.
The team's increased level of performance since Columbus can been seen in the number of maps won to lost. From FACEIT Stage 3 Finals, when the line-up was completed, through to before MLG Columbus began, but ignoring the Brazilian only MAX5 - so as not to water down the numbers, Luminosity went 27:20 (57.45%) in maps played offline.
From Columbus onwards, but ignoring Dreamhack Austin - again, to not unduly water down the stastistics from an international context, Luminosity went a staggering 33:12 (73.33%). Even if one removes their ELEAGUE group play, where they faced only NA level opposition, they are still at a much improved and remarkable 23:11 (67.65%). This is a team in the midst of greatness.
Greater map pool strength and depth
Looking across their map pool, the win-rates are reflected there across the pool. Prior to Columbus, Luminosity had a winning record on only four maps offline. Of their four good maps, only two exceeded a 70% win-rate, the realm of the god-like teams on a specific map. Again ignoring Dreamhack Austin and ELEAGUE, from MLG Columbus on the Brazilians have a winning on four maps still, but all four are over 70%. Putting those two largely American tournaments back into the mix boosts FalleN and company to a winning record on five maps and with three of them at over 80%.
Prior to MLG Columbus, Luminosity were monsters on three maps: train, overpass and mirage. On train they were undefeated; on overpass only FNATIC had scored a win against them, in a game seemingly more about mental fortitude than talent on the map, being as it still has not become one of the Swedish sides best; and on mirage they sat at a 60% win-rate, with half of their losses being to top mirage teams. inferno was still in the map pool and a decent enough map, at a 58% win-rate, but from there on it was down-hill. cache was 50%, cbblestone was 33.33% and the twice they had played dust2 had seen them beaten in both instances, admittedly by very strong dust2 teams (FNATIC and Na`Vi).
From Columbus on, Luminosity have established god-like status on four maps: with mirage, train and overpass now being joined by cbblestone. On mirage they are undefeated; on train they had suffered only a single loss; overpass has seen two losses but a sick 77.78% win-rate and the newest addition to LG's scary map pool, cbble, boasts an 80% win-rate. Adding in the Dreamhack Austin and ELEAGUE results only boosts the ridiculous win-rates and strength of the map pool for FalleN's boys.
Interestingly, the Brazilians loss to TyLoo at Dreamhack Malmö seemed to be the catalyst for Luminosity to elevate their map pool, as they switched their permanent ban from dust2 to cache. cache had been a middling map for them, with their losses admittedly coming to the best cache teams of the era (NiP and FACEIT). Losing to TyLoo on it spurred FalleN to remove it and have them play dust2 more.
The South Americans had never really given the classic map a fair shake, put off by having lost 0:16 on it in their first ever official game with their new line-up, which had been together only a matter of days, and then venturing it against Na`Vi, who were monsters of it at the time. As we have since discovered, Luminosity can certainly play dust2, arguably to a better level than they were able to cache. Two of their offline losses came against Astralis and G2, teams known to be strong on that map.
The arrival of nuke to the map pool has seen few teams embracing it and playing, so Luminosity gained no real advantage in that respect, only playing it themselves in ELEAGUE, but the significance of the map's inclusion has been that it replaced inferno. Luminosity were solid on inferno, but as their fourth map it was often the grounds upon which they lost key maps in series play, having won seven of 12 instances. With inferno gone and nuke still on the outside of most's map pools, LG's pool depth and strength has increased, as enemies have less places to flee to avoid the Brazilians' strong maps.
No true rivals
In normal series play, who can stand against SK? The only opponents thus-far found have been G2, thanks in large part to the French side having mirage as a permanent ban and liking to play train, cbble and overpass. Even so, the data for G2's overpass is still limited, despite coldzera's men having lost to shox's there twice, and cbble is very much weaker for G2 than say cache or dust2. That Luminosity automatically ban cache, one of G2's best, also helps even up the proceedings.
For now, G2 have the best match-up against the Brazilians in CS:GO, but that relies upon ScreaM and the gang being able to reach series play against them. Against other teams, such as Na`Vi or Virtus.pro, it still remains to be seen how G2 will fare. Essentially, the field may take care of G2 for SK and even if it doesn't, the hot streak of the French side has not been established as a consistent level.
Na`Vi are suitably equipped to beat Luminosity in their map pool, being as they are very strong on train, overpass, cbble and mirage. The problem lies in the fact that the Brazilians boast better win-rates on all four maps. On dust2 both teams display similar levels of competence and both are famous, at least now, for banning cache. In many ways, SK are a better version of Na`Vi and their map pool. In terms of head-to-head, FalleN and company used to lose to Na`Vi, but beat them at Columbus in the final. Stylistically, they share similarities in their map control style, but Na`Vi have dipped from being the near unstoppable T side juggernauts they once were.
FNATIC are the obvious question mark for SK, but one cannot rely upon the strength of the Swedes' form three months ago. In the here and now, this is a team still climbing back into contention. SK's cache ban takes out one of the best maps for FNATIC and their mirage and overpass look unlikely to stand up to the Brazilians'. FNATIC bans train and plays dust2, but that is not enough to ignore that a three map series between the two would likely be contested on overpass, cbblestone and mirage. The result of such a series would more than likely be a 2:1 win for SK, taking overpass and mirage. The FNATIC of old could have stolen away opponents' map picks, but we have only seen glimpses of that Swedish terror.
Against the rest of the field, SK see considerable map pool advantages. NiP has their beloved cache banned away and then is left having to pick which of cbblestone and train to play, their next two strongest maps, knowing SK are better on both. The Brazilians are free to pick mirage, knowing they have a huge advantage there. Thus, a 2:0 sweep would be the obvious outcome of the Ninjas and the reigning major champions.
Virtus.pro are stuck in a similar position to Na`Vi, sharing maps like mirage, overpass and train. On the upside for VP, they are fantastically good on mirage, but overpass and train would still be running into the buzzsaw that is Luminosity's strengths. Throw into the mix that VP haven't won a big Bo3 series for most of the year, with the exception of that mysterious win over Na`Vi at the Starladder Invitational, which seems a little less impressive when you consider the Na`Vi finals curse. They also beat the CIS side in an exhibition series, which by its very nature is not real competition.
The right stuff
Personnel-wise, SK have seen improvements in their run of success from Columbus on. Starting at the head of the beast, FalleN has maintained his excellent status as both the best IGL in the game and ascended to becoming the best AWPer, admittedly due to GuardiaN's injury setting him back into a lower level of form. A key statistical note for FalleN is that the mastermind has lowered his deaths slightly, while remaining the same reliably top tier fragger.
From the brains to the brawn, Coldzera remains the monster super-star name at the heart of SK's fire-power. Prior to Columbus, he had been a top 10 player battling to break into the top five, but lacking those truly stratospheric event campaigns that the greats deliver. That all changed at the major, as he was the clear MVP of the tournament and played at a level we had never seen before. With the exception of their recent runners-up finish at ECS S1, Coldzera has been a golden god in practically all other tournaments, achieving a world class level of power fragging across the board. That he has now successfully made himself a hybrid AWPer to boot, beyond just the occasional CT side position on certain maps, only makes him more dangerous and effective. Even if, like your humble author, you don't consider him the best player in the world, he is clearly top two or three and NiKo's impisonment in mouz makes Cold one of the only ones, along with shox, with a chance to take the crown in Cologne.
fnx has put together more big tournament performances from Columbus on and one begins to see why SK are such a difficult team to beat. fer and TACO have been less impressive, with TACO failing to live up to the improvement seen back at IEM Katowice and returning to a poor fragging output. With that said, he has integrated into the system of SK much better than during his previous period of lower statistics, successfully fueling their entry play and even border-line lurking on some maps, with overpass coming to mind.
SK are not one of the most skilled teams in the world across the board, at least while the Na`Vi's, Astralis' and FNATIC's of the world still live, but they do have a deep wealth of skilled players, a fantastic set of roles filled and a trio (Coldzera, FalleN and fnx) which can go against anyone right now.
Style makes the man
The final component of SK's strength coming into ESL One Cologne lies in their style of play and system. Prior to this line-up, it was noticeable that FalleN seemed to have trained his men to play out power play scenarios (with numbers advantages in rounds) far more efficiently than practically anyone else. With a more skilled set of tools at his disposable, FalleN's team have retained such a key core strength, meaning they are highly adept at closing out rounds after gaining the initial advantage.
Consider that their map control style of play as Terrorists essentially puts them in position to gain that initial man advantage by design and one begins to see how SK have been so dominant and consistently strong over the last two and a half months. Add in that on the CT side SK have shown themselves to be a very effective team at rotating to the correct sites. FalleN's AWPing style is particularly crucial for this, as he moves between the sites based on his own reads and attempts early peeks to gain information and get that initial kill.
Let's do it again, baby
When Luminosity won the previous major, their level was clearly elevated and they gained crucial map wins on the likes of cache and cbblestone, neither being among their best, but it was easy to bring up a key bonus they had gained: the injuries suffered by olofm and GuardiaN. Both had been the two stand-out individual players in the world and the key stars for their teams. olof's injury saw his FNATIC unable to even reach the semi-finals and GuardiaN later revealed to having played the final with a sensitivity of around four times higher than he was known to prior to being injured.
This time around, there are no such excuses. Both of those stars have returned to their teams and apparently overcome their injuries. SK need not worry about any asterisks this time around, should they win the title again. SK are the favourites in terms of form, individual role strength, map pool, strength against the overall field and stylistic meta-game strengths. SK Gaming will repeat as major champions and this will be remembered as the "SK era".
Photo credit: MLG, Dreamhack