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Fnatic: An empire on the verge of ruins

Fnatic has two chances left to prove its CS:GO empire should remain intact
Five months after reuniting, Fnatic's CS:GO lineup is at a crossroads. Photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack.

The Fnatic empire has been one of the most impactful organizations in the history of CS:GO.

From 2014-2015, it conquered the world under the Markus “pronax” Wallsten-led lineup that earned accolades as the greatest lineup of all time. The second iteration, with pronax replaced by Dennis “dennis” Edman, continued its reign of dominance from the end of 2015 to early 2016 as it won six premier tournaments in a row. During its heyday, there was no team more hated — or respected — by peers and fans alike.

In the end, ambition combined with a falloff in results broke the core apart. The team earned multiple top 4 placings at the end of its run in early 2016: ESL Pro League Season 3, ECS Season 1, and the ESL One Cologne Major. Perhaps the good placings would have sated lesser teams, but for Fnatic it only added fire to an already volatile situation. Victory brought the squad together and without that, things started to fall apart, with Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer and dennis on one side and Jesper “JW” Wecksell and Robin “flusha” Ronnquist on the other, with Freddy “KRiMZ” Johansson in between the two camps. A prolonged stay in Atlanta for ELEAGUE Season 1 saw the team go out in one last burst of glory, making it to the finals of and losing to Virtus.Pro.  Afterward, the team was torn apart into two. Both sides of the equation became much less than what they were together. Time and the dearth of results convinced them to reassemble, and the second iteration reunited after the ELEAGUE Major in January.

It should have been a triumphant comeback. Olofmeister had long since recovered from his injuries. The internal issues that led to Fnatic’s implosion were addressed, as their time apart convinced them that the separation was a foolish mistake. KRiMZ and JW had been in terrible form before and after the breakup, but eventually they rediscovered their grooves; in JW’s case, he was playing his best in years. Flusha had taken up the leadership role again in lieu of dennis. He knew it would be a personal hit to his own game, but it would free up Dennis be a star again.

But the world had changed. Fnatic was no longer the most skilled lineup in the world and didn’t hold a monopoly on ways to out-skill everyone on the server. Post-Major, the scene had reshuffled to a point in which multiple superteams battle for the top. Some of them — particularly North and Natus Vincere — have turned out to be duds, and in the case of Virtus.Pro, the decline came as fast as the rise, and who knows when or if the Poles will come back. But the others have risen close to their theoretical potential or surpassed it. Astralis, FaZe Clan, SK Gaming and G2 Esports are the four forerunners of the era and even in the Tier 2 sits dangerous teams like Gambit, HellRaisers, Immortals and Team Liquid. The world became a dangerous place, and Fnatic lacked two key aspects that made the former world champions what they were.

First, olofmeister was no longer the ascendant superstar who had no rival. In the past, olofmeister was right to believe that no one in the world was his better, but it’s not early 2016 anymore. Although olofmeister has slowly reclaimed his form after the surgery, he is nowhere close to being the undisputed best — at least not yet. The second was the awe-inspiring teamwork that fueled the first juggernaut. In the modern era of CS:GO, no team can really compare to the incredible instinctual teamplay the Swedes had in 3-v-3s or 2-v-2s. They were infamous for being fluid like water, always able to shapeshift in response to new information and situations. Hypothetically the latter could be fixed given enough time, so we waited and watched as the Fnatic roster forged its way back to the top.

Success did not come quickly. Fnatic dropped out in the group stages of its first two LANs after re-forming. In its third appearance, Fnatic made the playoffs of StarLadder Kiev where it faced an old foe in Na`Vi, a team that had never been able to beat Fnatic before. Where the Fnatic lineup had stayed the same, Na`Vi’s had changed. It had recruited the prodigy Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, and while Na`Vi as a team was a mess, Kiev was one of the few tournaments where the inherent skill of the team was evident. S1mple once again destroyed Fnatic as he had the prior times they met in 2016. It was a sign of things to come — and a sign things had radically changed.

Fnatic’s next LAN came at the ESL Pro League, and it drew the group of death. Again, Fnatic faced with an old nemesis. EnVyUs was once one of Fnatic’s most skilled foes, one Fnatic had beaten multiple times in the past in order to win championships. But the current iteration of EnVyUs was a shade of its former self. Despite that, Cédric “RpK” Guipouy’s form on that weekend was too much, and thanks to his performance, EnVyUs forced tiebreakers. Fnatic had beaten EnVyUs in the regular game but was unable to win the tiebreaker to advance from the group.

At its fifth LAN, Fnatic faced a third previous nemesis. This time it was SK. Much like the other two teams, SK had changed as well. But SK’s roster moves had paid off. In the finals of DreamHack Summer, the two teams squared off against each other, but SK came out ahead in a convincing 2-1 win. At ECS Season 3 Finals, Fnatic lost to Cloud 9 in a best-of-one and then lost to Liquid in the best-of-three elimination match.

In total Fnatic has been to six LANs since the reunion. The Swedes have lost in the group stages three times, reached the quarterfinals once and reached the finals at DreamHack Summer. This is not the juggernaut we had hoped it would be, but it wasn’t an empire in ruins either. Each of the losses showed that the Fnatic members still had appreciable skill in the lineup. As a team, the players seemed serious about returning to a championship level. They started to add executes, defaults and slower plays into the playbook. They changed roles and tried to find new ways to approach the game.

But there are still two crucial factors missing from this Fnatic lineup. For whatever reason, the team still can’t nail down how it wants to navigate the map pool. They’ve tested out a little bit of everything, even briefly returning to Nuke, but no intelligible strategy has surfaced so far. They have been trying to establish Inferno as their home map, but have yet to master it. Even flusha has expressed complete confusion as to where the team goes:

The second, more surprising factor is the lack of composure and clutch from the roster. Fnatic was a team that had both in spades ever since the pronax days. As time progressed, they seem to have bled away that advantage. Although the team doesn’t choke, it does tilt.

That is not terribly surprising in retrospect. As a team, Fnatic was stacked with instinctual players, each able to make their own plays off of their own confidence. When they were denied, they didn’t fold from the pressure, but rallied against it. This is a strong mindset to have, but without the composure and calm that someone like pronax brought to the team, it could turn inward and tilt them into oblivion. The infamous Fnatic pause at the Cologne Major had the team call pause and say almost nothing for the entire duration. No speech, no call for change, only the calm to remind them that they were the greatest, that they only needed to calm down. That has since disappeared from the lineup.

Fnatic is now on the verge of either return or collapse. There is still something in their games, the way they play, that makes you believe the old potential is waiting to be untapped. At the same time, the constant disappointments must be taking a toll on the team. Time itself might destroy this team before it can ever reach the place where it once resided. With so many early eliminations, how patient will this team be to cultivate whatever potential remains? Especially with rumors of a Swedish-Danish shuffle happening right below them?

We are now at a critical time in Fnatic’s development. As a team, Fnatic has been reunited for five months. It has two tournaments left to prove they can worth retaining as a squad: ESL Cologne and the Krakow Major. These are the two opportunities to see if Atlantis can be raised from the depths, to see the glory of Camelot in its prime, Rome at its peak. If not, we will see Atlantis drowned, Camelot cast aside and Rome succumb to the barbarian horde. Can Fnatic make the old Empire rise again, or will it be cast aside like the ages of old?

Cover photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack

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