The Astralis experience can be summed up in one word: again.
Again, they failed to get past the semifinals of a Major. Again, they almost beat one of the best teams in the world before losing the series. Again, they get to 14. Again, they lose the map. Again, you believe they can win. Again, you see them fall just short.
Again, again, again.
Astralis is maddening because they have all of the parts. A team can be broken down into three general areas: Skill, Teamwork, Tactics. As a team they had all three covered and in 2015 won multiple tournaments against the best teams in the world. When they didn’t win, they still placed second, third or fourth. If you looked outside the games and looked purely at results, you would come to the conclusion that this was a great team.
And Astralis is a great team, but once you look at the games, you can’t help but feel they could do even better. That there was some mental issue that was holding the players back that kept them from a great team to the best team. They could be more; perhaps they should be more.
In the first four months of 2016, that level of consistency was still there, even if it didn’t results in any wins. Astralis was top four at DreamHack Leipzig, third at Global Esports Cup, top four at IEM Katowice, second at CounterPit and top four at the MLG Columbus Major.
Had those results continues, perhaps they wouldn’t have switched the rosters. Instead, they collapsed — seemingly out of nowhere — in getting eliminated in the group stages of DreamHack Malmo and ESL Pro League Season 3. It was a stunning development for a team that had almost never dropped out of a group stage.
Something needed to change, not only for a return to top form but to get Astralis over that hump to become the team the players thought they should be. It started May 19 when Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjærbye replaced René “cajunb” Borg. Kjaerbye had been the star player on Dignitas who had elevated his play in those early months of 2016.
The most remarkable thing about him was he played fine under pressure. In an elimination match against EnVyUs at DreamHack Malmo, he put up an incredible performance despite the rest of the team faltering. In addition to that, he was 18, so he had time to improve his game. The plan was simple: Add Kjaerbye, give him the same roles he had on Dignitas and then run over the competition.
But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. In the next six months, Astralis only had two notable results: A top four at DreamHack Summer and top eight at the Major (with two stand-ins). In the rest of the tournaments, the results were as bad as they had ever been.
Looking at the games, it wasn’t a total disaster. Astralis played teams close and there was just enough potential that it felt like any week the team would click and everything would be great again. It never happened. As months passed, the team and its leader came to a head. Astralis no longer followed Finn “Karrigan” Andersen’s lead. The results were disastrous, as his leading style was much more diplomatic in convincing them what to do, and the split was irreparable.
After being benched, Karrigan moved to FaZe while Astralis got Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander to be its new leader. Gla1ve had been part of their top eight finish at the Major and had been an integral player in the rise of the Danish team Heroic. On top of that, he had in-game leading experience from his early days of CS:GO, so he was the pickup for Astralis.
With only a few weeks to practice, he got up to speed and led the team to win its ELEAGUE group and a top four finish at IEM Oakland. Astralis was back. Again they faced a strong team — this time SK Gaming in the IEM Oakland semifinals — and again they lost in close fashion. For many, it looked to be the same pattern asserting itself.
But if you looked at the SK vs Astralis game, it wasn’t a typical Astralis choke. Dev1ce himself had little impact, but the team as a whole was doing well. Even when they lost the lead against SK, it should have been expected as SK is the most dominant force in the world on Train and Astralis got more T rounds against them than SK’s last four opponents combined.
There is real hope for this team. This is no longer the Astralis we knew. They always had all of the pieces to be a strong team. Now they seem functional enough as a unit to perform. This is also the perfect moment for Astralis to rise, as a crucible has already been prepared for them.
At the ELEAGUE playoffs, which begin Wednesday, they are in the upper bracket where SK plays Dignitas and Astralis plays Ninjas in Pyjamas. Two problems have plagued Astralis, and now they have a chance to confront them both. There is NiP, which continually has ruined their chances to make deeper runs in tournaments. And then there are their personal issues of choking in important matches. They are now set to test themselves against NiP. They are now placed on the harder side of the bracket against the best teams in the world. They are playing in one of the most prestigious and important tournaments out there.
And again, I believe they can do it. The team looked incredible in their IEM Oakland debut. Kjaerbye was brought in not only because he was a star player but also because he didn’t seem to falter under pressure. Against SK in that semifinal, he performed to a high level. Astralis again has convinced me to believe that they are a team that could be more, a team that should be more. And again I wonder if I’ve fallen into the same trap as before. And again I think this time it will be different.
Cover photo by Helena Kristiansson/ESL, eslgaming.com