Standing upon the EPICENTER stage in October, the Danish squad couldn’t help but feel elated. Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen, Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke, Ruben “RUBINO” Villarroel, René “cajunb” Borg and Emil “Magisk” Reif had proven to the world that they had arrived.
Magsik and k0nfig had MVP-level performances at the event. RUBINO established himself as one of the best support players in the world; cajunb won his championship after being removed from Astralis for Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjærbye. MSL had finally snatched the trophy of a top international event before anyone poached one of his superstars. The win was supposed to be the beginning, a premonition of what could be.
Future success never came. In the months following EPICENTER, that Dignitas lineup never reproduced the same results. A similar story is currently unfolding after the team, now known as North, replaced RUBINO with Philip “aizy” Aistrup following the ELEAGUE Major. Top 4 at DreamHack Las Vegas, top 6 at IEM Katowice and top 8 at Starladder Kiev all seem like reasonable results considering teams like Fnatic, Natus Vincere, SK Gaming and Astralis all attended them, too. But looking closer, only one of North’s losses came at the hands of a super team (SK Gaming). The other two were against Immortals and HellRaisers. Both are strong teams, but neither is considered a serious contender for a title. Both were clear underdogs going into the matches.
Looking at North’s results from a distance, it doesn’t make sense. Magisk is a talented player with some of the best spray control in the world. k0nfig is an insanely aggressive player with the balls to go for an overtime knife kill in the elimination match of a Major. Combined, the two of them have the skill to match any duo in the world. Cajunb has proven himself to be a strong AWPer and given the team stability as the second voice. RUBINO was one of the best role players in the world; his replacement, aizy, isn’t as good at support, but his incredible skill should compensate for any hangups. MSL is one of the best leaders in the world and all his teams excel on T-side.
If the players are individually fine, then is it the map pool? The only map they don’t play is Train. They play the rest of the pool at a good level. This means they always have a chance to win on every map against almost every team. They beat Astralis on Inferno, FaZe Clan on Cache and both Virtus.Pro and Na’Vi on Cobble. They’ve proven they can beat the best teams on a wide array of maps.
Perhaps mentality is the issue? I’ve watched all their series and can’t point to anything that particularly sticks out. There is inconsistency concerning who the star player is on any given map, as it can switch between any of four players. But this shuffling of priority is quite common among top teams and doesn’t translate to a straight up flaw. So far, there is no easily recognizable mental weakness in North’s play. The old Astralis clearly had issues in the semifinals of large events. Each time they got there, the story was much the same as they’d rack up a bunch of rounds and then go passive toward the end of the map. Another famous example is Liquid. Whenever Liquid got to 14, they’d tilt off the face of the earth as if they were going through PTSD from Coldzera ruining their lives. Compared to those two, there is no particular trigger when it comes to North.
Perhaps the best way to look at it is by parsing through all the mitigating circumstances. When the old roster was on Dignitas with RUBINO, they had a harrowing travel schedule:
Oct. 17-23: EPICENTER in Moscow, Russia
Oct. 26-30: ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals in Sao Paolo, Brazil
Nov. 18-19: ELEAGUE Season 2 group stage in Atlanta, Georgia
Nov. 24-26: DreamHack Winter in Jönköping, Sweden.
Nov. 30-Dec. 2: ELEAGUE Season 2 Finals in Atlanta, Georgia
Dec. 9-11: ECS Season 2 Finals in Anaheim, Calif.
Dec. 15-18: ELEAGUE Major offline qualifier in Atlanta, Georgia.
In nine weeks, the players went to seven LAN events in four countries against top-tier opposition. They had no time to practice new approaches to the game, no time to devise counters to what their opponents were cooking up. If they had managed even one first place finish, it would have been part of a miracle gauntlet. At the time, I gave them a pass.
Even some of the losses were understandable. SK showed incredible grit and determination when it outplayed Dignitas at ELEAGUE Season 2 and ECS. North came incredibly close to eliminating Virtus.Pro in January’s ELEAGUE Major, a team that went on to almost win the entire thing. At DreamHack Vegas, Fernando “Fer” Alvarenga and Marcelo “Coldzera” David were gods as SK again dispatched of North. Sometimes that happens. At IEM Katowice, Henrique “HEN1” Teles was having one of his great tournament performances. At Starladder Kiev, everyone on HellRaisers stepped up their game.
All of these reasons are valid, but they all point to one thing: North lacks an X-factor. Every other super team has a superpower on which it can rely when shit gets tough. Fnatic is still able to win bullshit rounds off of the players’ supernatural team play and game sense. The current G2 needs only one of Richard “shox” Papillon or Kenny “KennyS” Schrub to carry the game. FaZe has a NiKo. Virtus.Pro can turn on the Virtus.Plow without any warning. Na’Vi has found a possible formula to get both Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev and Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs to be on point in the same game. Astralis has had multiple performances where the MVP could go to four of its five players. Kjaerbye stepped up at ELEAGUE Major, Peter “dupreeh” Rothmann and Andreas “xyp9x” Højsleth were the true stars at IEM Katowice, and Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz dominated Starladder Kiev. If none of Astralis’ players is performing at a high level, they can still fall back upon a system to grind out rounds.
What exactly does North have? In its current state, North has been unable to have two of its star players hit form at the same time. An MSL-led team should have the tactics, and they’ve deployed them successfully on multiple maps; there’s no hint they are inferior to other teams in this respect. Yet they haven’t been able to get Magisk and k0nfig rolling simultaneously — or aizy and cajunb — for a sustainable stretch of time. This is the situation in which Na’Vi found itself prior to changing coaches.
Perhaps it is a mentality issue, just not an obvious one. Maybe the stars are a bit too raw and unrefined to play at the highest level. Notably the oldest player on North is cajunb at 27. Everyone else, including, MSL, is much younger. For the young stars, their game may not be sufficiently rounded out to the point where they can find multiple paths to victory.
Perhaps it is a system issue. North has loads of talent, but the whole isn’t as strong as it should be. Maybe the removal of RUBINO caused a loss of supportive play that aizy couldn’t fill. Perhaps it’s an issue of being spoiled by too much wealth. This is the first time MSL has had the necessary pieces to form a championship team; in the past, he had operated under the assumption he was making gourmet meals out of leftovers. There is no easy answer to why the team is underwhelming because there is no obvious problem.
North is a team that has championship potential. They already proved it, but have not been able to show that level of form since the initial breakthrough. On a recent Counter-Points episode, Jason “moses” O’Toole pointed out that the players are too one-dimensional. The superstars are too young and don’t have the necessary experience compared to the people they are playing against. So when something doesn’t work, they don’t have a secondary plan. When they aren’t on fire, they don’t know how to step back and facilitate a different player on the team. In the same podcast, Chad “SPUNJ” Burchill said that North might need to build for the future. It’s a solid idea as there is clearly something not working for the team right now. They are underwhelming considering how many strengths they have individually and as a unit.
The problem is that when you build for the future, you must be able to take the lumps today. Changing your play style or system almost always leads to short-term losses as players adapt and learn the new paradigm. G2 weathered the storm after it formed and initially went 1-7 in ESL Pro League; now they are one of the best teams in the world. Virtus.Pro does this annually as they are forced to remix their pieces to make the five-man unit work. The difference is that the majority of those players are veterans. They’ve been doing this forever and have a steady mentality in the face of restructuring. North is a young team, especially the superstars. Magisk, k0nfig, and aizy are all under 21 years old and never had to readjust after such promises of success. We don’t know if they are ready to deal with this sort of breakdown and regrowth period.
This is why IEM Sydney will be so important as a benchmark. This event won’t be as stacked as DreamHack Vegas, IEM Katowice or Starladder Kiev; only three of the super teams will be attending. This is North’s best chance to prove that they aren’t the least among the super teams. In an event stacked with all of the top contenders, North might have to fight through three of them to win a trophy. Here they will only have to play two of them in a best-of series.
If North can’t win here, then they must face the unabashed conclusion that something must change. Whether it be how they practice or a roster swap, this is North’s last chance.