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SK Gaming’s win at IEM Sydney burst open the “superteam” era of CSGO

SK Gaming IEM Sydney
SK Gaming won IEM Sydney to open up the era of superteams in CSGO

IEM Sydney initially expected to be the third stage of Astralis and FaZe Clan’s struggle for international supremacy. Astralis won IEM Katowice, FaZe won Starladder Kiev, and both teams appeared to be equals in terms of skill and tactics.

Players on both sides felt IEM Sydney would be the rubber match. After Astralis lost 2-1 in the semifinals, Lukas “Gla1ve” Rossander said his team no longer deserved to be No. 1 in the world; after defeating Astralis, Fabien “kioshima” Fiey said FaZe would be the best team in the world if it won the finals. But there is a reason we call this the era of superteams: all eight of them have potential to win championships. SK cashed in on that potential by soundly defeating FaZe 3-1 in the grand finals.

The road wasn’t as inevitable as SK made it look in its run to the trophy. But in its own way, the long journey was just a reflection of the spirit and fortitude that saw the Brazilians rise from obscurity to a world power since 2014. From their humble beginnings as Kabum to their world class position as SK Gaming, two attributes have remained constant: their hunger and eagerness to learn.

There is an unending desire for more, a thirst for victory that can never be satiated.

Each time SK reached a new level of success, the lineup never rested on its laurels. When the players were in obscurity, they explored every avenue in order to find a way onto the international stage. When they got there, they proved their philosophy of Counter-Strike worked and become recognized as a Tier 2 team. That was the highest achievement for a Brazilian organization in CS:GO, yet they weren’t satisfied. Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo tinkered and experimented, always with the aim of becoming a better team. When they started to get second places in finals, they strove for first. When they won their first tournament, they set their sights on reaching the summit. When they became the best in the world, their ambition didn’t end there. SK’s next goal was to build a legacy that rings out in the history of CS:GO.

That hunger was channeled by an ability and desire to learn. SK’s players were like a Japanese swordsmith who constantly folds and refolds the metal to burn out impurities and refine the steel. They constantly corrected their mistakes, improved their setups and addressed the philosophy of the game. When they hit the limits of their current lineup, they made the necessary changes to go further. They did this time and time again. Such focus and commitment to improvement made them a near unstoppable machine.

When the team hit a standstill late last year, something had to change — and finally did after ELEAGUE Season 2. In the semifinals, SK played Astralis on Train in the deciding map of the series. It was an epic game that became a symbolic changing of eras. It was SK’s last stronghold, the map where it had a 17-game winning streak on LAN. SK pulled out everything it could, but Astralis took the win.

After that finals, Lincoln “fnx” Lau was removed — lack of commitment cited as the reason — with Joao “felps” Vasconcellos the eventual replacement. As felps couldn’t join for the Major according to Valve’s rules, SK had Ricardo “fox” Pacheco stand in for the interim. It was a bold move as they were still a strong team and the best timing seemed to be after the Major. But it spoke to the hunger for more. SK had run the lineup to its natural conclusion. It was time to move on and upgrade.

The move to bring in felps was a bold change. He was an aggressive player with incredible skill, the superstar of Immortals, and highly individualistic in his decision-making. But on SK he was just one star among many. Additionally, two factors completely changed the dynamic of the team. First, FalleN hit the worst form of his career since entering the world stage. This was especially worrying as he had been the best AWPer of 2016 and played a critical role in their team’s success. At the same time, Fernando “Fer” Alvarenga emerged as a superstar level player at the ELEAGUE Major and DreamHack Las Vegas. The only two pieces that remained the same were Marcelo “Coldzera” David and Epitaco “TACO” de Melo. Coldzera was still one of the best players in the world. TACO was still the best team player on the roster and could play any role depending on the situation at hand.

Even though SK changed only one player, the dynamics of the team were much different. At DreamHack Vegas, the team didn’t have time to do any practice, so it attempted a loose play style with Fer and Felps allowed as much space as possible. They were able to ride the firepower to the finals. They tried to copy that approach at IEM Katowice but failed to make it out of the group stages. While the explosiveness was incredible when it worked, it wasn’t consistent.

The team then went to work and tried to find a new identity that could emphasize its newfound strengths. The efforts started to come together at the CS Summit, where Coldzera and Fer were the primary star players. Felps was slightly reigned in as he learned how to combine his characteristic aggressive style with the position-based system. Over time, the move stabilized FalleN’s AWPing. While he isn’t close to his superstar level form in 2016, he no longer has to be. He only needs to hit the easier shots and come through in impact rounds.

This new identity has come with a completely different map pool. At the end of the previous SK lineup with fnx, the team’s best maps were Train and Overpass. Now they have shifted to Mirage, Cobblestone and Cache. Inferno, Train and Overpass are their middling maps and Nuke is their perma-ban.

At IEM Sydney, SK tested its new form against some of the best teams in the world. SK beat North and Astralis in the group stages to secure the top seed, stomped OpTic in the semifinals and overcame FaZe convincingly to take home the trophy. For SK, this is all the players wanted. During their prime in 2016, Luminosity/SK was always annoyed by the bad luck that struck their opponents. Their two main rivals during early 2016 were Natus Vincere and Fnatic. Both teams had their superstar players suffer injuries just as SK reached its peak. SK replaced them as the most dominant team in the world, but it came with an asterisk. They wanted to prove their supremacy without doubt by beating those teams at their peaks.

No such excuses exist today. This is the era of super teams. The best teams formed before and after the ELEAGUE Major. The best players have risen up and the scene is bigger than it has ever been. This is what SK’s players have always wanted, an era in which they can prove they are the best — against the best — without any caveats. With SK’s victory at IEM Sydney, it become the fourth superteam to win a tournament in this era. Now SK starts its run to prove it can be the champion of champions in the most competitive era of CS:GO.

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