SK Gaming was the clear-cut best Counter-Strike team in the world for much of 2016. They won both Majors, DreamHack Austin and ESL Pro League Season 3 and boasted multiple top finishes in other high-level tournaments. They became known as gods on Train with their 17-game LAN winning streak; in an almost symbolic gesture, the streak was finally broken by Astralis at ELEAGUE Season 2 in December. That was the last trigger that finally provoked the team to shuffle its roster.
After dropping Lincoln “fnx” Lau, SK first added Ricardo “fox” Pacheco for the ELEAGUE Major in January, and afterward planned to use Joao “felps” Vasconcellos permanently. This was a marquee move as felps was the best player on Immortals and the best individual Brazilian player outside of the SK roster. Simultaneously, Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo went into a slump starting from ECS Season 2 and continuing throughout the first part of 2017. This combination of circumstances has created an identity crisis for SK that has defined SK’s narrative so far this year. How they solve it will define how the rest of the year goes.
In the previous lineup, the roles balanced out like this:
Marcelo “Coldzera” David (consistent superstar player/passive)
FalleN (star AWPer/map control/team player/aggressive and passive)
Fernando “Fer” Alvarenga (third star option/niche aggressive/scout/wildcard/space creator/aggressive team player)
Fnx (anchor/strong mid-late round player/passive)
Epitacio “TACO” de Melo (solo anchor/entry/space creator/passive)
The identity of the original lineup was built around Coldzera and FalleN. Coldzera was the consistent superstar, but what made him special was he almost always made the best move relative to all the information available to him. He didn’t have the crazy highlight reels of other superstars like shox, s1mple or NiKo despite having comparable mechanical skill. He never felt the need to take the risks that produce those types of stupendous sequences. Instead, he tied that in with great game sense, excellent communication, his own sensitivity to teamwork and an emphasis on efficiency. Thanks to these unique attributes, he was the best possible superstar for the type of system that SK was running.
FalleN was the second star and the best AWP player of 2016. On T-side, he was given priority to take map control and get picks for his team. If that worked, SK was remarkably effective at closing the round in +1 man scenarios, as the team excelled at great fundamental CS. On CT-side, FalleN had multiple approaches to impact the game. He was a very mobile sniper who held aggressive and passive angles in equal tandem. He was also great at getting multi-kills in short range combat, which made him incredibly hard to deal with when other teams tried to rush SK’s CT-side.
Fer was occasionally the third star of the team. As the third option, he could make up for the slack and take over the game whenever Coldzera or FalleN had an off game. He was the original star of the KeyD Stars lineup before Coldzera joined the team, but he changed his play style to facilitate the two main stars. Even then, he was able to find great impact. Fer used his aggression as a wild card threat on both sides of the game to surprise the enemy and constantly put them on guard.
Taco and Fnx were the anchors and team-oriented players. They both offered different aspects of team play that made them pillars of the team. First and foremost, their teammates could play off them as anchors of the site. TACO was great at staying alive, reacting to what his teammates were doing on the map and entry fragging on T-side. He understood that his job was to survive and feed information to his team, but he knew when he needed to fight back depending on what his teammates needed to know. His entry fragging worked regardless if he got the opening kill or not because his teammates capitalized on the amount of space he gave them. Fnx was a skilled versatile player who supported the others and specialized in mid-to-late round situations.
The overall philosophy of the team was that all five players had to understand the others’ roles and the limitations of said roles. This in turn granted them flexibility depending on the situation, map position, health or weaponry. This system emphasized space/map control, which made SK great on maps like Train, Mirage and Overpass; beyond those, they could play (and were at times good) on Dust 2 and Cobblestone. The style of the team accentuated Coldzera and FalleN’s strengths as the cornerstones, with backup from Fer in more despondent scenarios.
There are a lot of different details about how their team identity and individual players were able to have a wide map pool. If I had to summarize it within a few words it would be like so:
SK gained map control, either through FalleN’s AWP picks, aggressive pushes, TACO’s positioning, or utility use. Once they minimized the map control of the other team, they limited their conceivable options at that specific point in the game. Once they accomplished that, it was easier for Coldzera to make the right decisions to win the round/game. That’s a fairly simplistic way to look at it, as all the players contributed in nuanced and different ways, but it works as a conceptual skeleton.
In the current era, the team removed Fnx and ultimately replaced him with felps. Felps’ standout attribute is that he is a very skilled, hyper-aggressive player that makes a lot of heroic solo plays. This coincided with FalleN’s slumping form when fox came in. In response to that, or due to his natural instincts, Fer took up the slack and dominated the game in a completely different fashion. Instead of adhering to a slow controlling style that could suffocate the other team, Fer took bold aggressive action on his own initiative.
Going into their first tournament, the new roster of what each player filled was something like this:
Coldzera (consistent superstar player/passive)
Fer (hyper-aggressive superstar player/wild card)
Felps (aggressive star player/wild card/smoke)
Taco (anchor/entry/space creator/passive)
It felt like the team wasn’t sure if FalleN’s dip in form was permanent. When we look at the circumstances surrounding FalleN’s slump, there were too many possible factors to make a conclusive diagnosis. It could have just been his time, as players don’t stay in top form forever. It could be that he had sacked too many of his own responsibilities to fit fox into the team for the Major, and his timings were subsequently off when he took back the positions.
It’s highly likely the introduction of felps disrupted the overall structure of the team. Felps is a very different player than Fnx, and the way SK previously ran their system was based on all five players understanding how the others would move and react on a map-wide basis. Most likely it was a combination of all three, with the individual influences remaining unknown.
Whatever the reasons, the roster change introduced two unknown elements into the equation to solve. At the same time they didn’t have much time to practice and retool the system to incorporate felps. So at DreamHack Las Vegas, they played a much looser style out of necessity. SK let Fer and felps run completely wild, and it worked out very well. They got second place at the event, so they tenuously tried the loose style again.
At IEM Katowice, it didn’t go nearly as well as they discovered the downsides of such an aggressive approach. It was great when both players went off, but if they didn’t succeed, the team found themselves in a 3-v-5. Unlike before, if Fer went off alone and died, SK stood a chance by playing off their great teamwork. This wasn’t a realistic fallback in a 3-v-5. Additionally, felps’ daring pushes put Fer in awkward situations on CT side, where he reluctantly held passive spots so SK retained solid anchor spots. It worked fine for felps, who gained the autonomy to create his own plays, yet restrained Fer from doing what he was used to. They decided after Katowice to bring more structure into the team and try to restrain the disconnect between Fer and felps so that the team play aspects could stay intact.
At Starladder Kiev, SK looked to still be working out the kinks, but FalleN’s duties had been more set. He took more supportive AWP angles and let Fer and felps take up the aggressive map positions. This was a good starting response to FalleN’s slumping form, but the team still looked unsure if it wanted to build around the strengths of Fer or Coldzera. You could see this confusion of identity in the weakness in their map pool. Whereas before they had a few strong maps and multiple maps they were competitive on, they are only excellent on Mirage with this current team.
At the Summit, we saw more pieces of the puzzle come together. FalleN’s form seems to have risen much closer to his previous level, especially when compared to his terrible performances from the last five LANs prior to this one. At the same time, SK seems to be moving more toward building the team identity around Coldzera and Fer. Additionally, even though FalleN has been playing at a good level, he hasn’t shown the aggressive initiative that made him famous. It appears he cedes aggressive plays to either Fer or felps whenever the team needs a player to do something drastic. These are all good signs pointing towards a more cohesive team identity.
The team seems to be establishing its map pool around Cobblestone, Cache and Train to supplement Mirage; Inferno seems playable for the team against teams with a weak grasp of the T-side strategies. This makes intuitive sense. SK had initial success on Train, though it didn’t seem that impressive at the Summit. Cobblestone and Cache emphasize the strengths of the dual aggressive natures of Fer and felps. On CT-side, they try to keep the Taco/Coldzera teamwork intact whenever they can. We often see this dynamic work well on Mirage and Cobblestone. On Train, they still leave Taco to solo the inner B site to allow more flexible setups. When they can’t, they split the two players apart on different sites, letting both sites have a passive team-oriented rifler. This gives the more aggressive elements on the team a bit more space to work with as they can fall back. We frequently see this pattern on Inferno and Cache.
The Brazilian super team is slowly starting to take shape. Their victory at the Summit was a crucial stepping stone to reestablishing last year’s dominance. IEM Sydney next month will be the true test as SK will have to overcome Astralis and FaZe Clan instead of Tier 2 teams. If SK can fix the remaining flaws, they will have a shot to make their mark on the most competitive era of CS:GO.