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From charity streams to the top of the world: The evolution of SK Gaming

SK Gaming is the most dominant Counter-Strike team because of its consistent evolution.
SK Gaming has evolved from its conception as KaBuM and then Luminosity to become one of the best Counter-Strike teams in the world. Photo courtesy of MLG and ESL, illustration by Raphie Rosen.

The story of the SK Gaming, the Brazilian Counter-Strike powerhouse, has many starting points. For international awareness, it began at MLG X Games Aspen in January 2015. It was an incredibly important event for the region: few tournaments up to that point had a Brazilian qualifier, so it was one of the few chances for a Brazilian team to travel outside the country. In the finals of that qualifier, six players of note were in attendance:

Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo

Fernando “fer” Alvarenga

Marcelo “coldzera” David

Epitacio “TACO” Pessoa

Lincoln “fnx” Lau

Joao “felps” Vasconcellos

KaBuM.TD, with FalleN and fer, eliminated fnx’s team, familiarei$, in the semifinals. In the grand finals, KaBuM faced Dexterity, which had coldzera, TACO and felps. The end result was a convincing win for KaBuM, which moved on to play at the main event. That early battle could be considered one of the starting points of the Luminosity Gaming (now SK) legend.

Perhaps the beginning of the legend started in CS 1.6, when the first great Brazilian team mibr won the world championship at ESWC in 2006. That was the lineup that proved to the Brazilians and the world that they could compete with the best. It was there that fnx won his first Major.

Or perhaps it started with an innocuous meeting at WCG 2011, where an unknown coldzera had his picture taken with his FalleN, his personal hero. It was a chance meeting between two players who teamed up years later to conquer the world.

Whatever the case, the rise of the Brazilians is one of the legendary stories in CS:GO history. They started with nothing: no servers, no tournaments, no teams, and no salaries. They gave no excuses. When they had no leader, FalleN took on the role. When they needed an AWPer, FalleN took on the role. When left with no recourse, they started a community stream to get to the Major qualifiers. When they had no slot in North American ESL Pro League, they moved to the United States to get one. They seized whatever opportunities, no matter how infinitesimal the chance for success, and somehow created a miracle. But calling their ascension in the CS:GO world a marvel might be unintentionally insulting. It was accomplished through sacrifice, effort, skill and a little bit of luck.

When I look at the rise of the Brazilians as a whole from KaBuM.TD to SK Gaming, I believe that their guiding principle that has led them to such success has been their ability to learn, change and evolve regardless of difficulty. Each of the six players at different points in time were symbols of that change. That willingness to make difficult decisions when needed has been their hallmark back to the KaBuM.TD days, and it remains a cornerstone of their philosophy today.

FalleN is the leader of the operation. His tactical prowess made him a respected figurehead around the world. But as a leader and as a player he refuses to rest on his laurels. He sees every victory as a stepping stone to the next achievement, every loss as a lesson to be learned. His philosophy of the game has been ingrained into every teammate, and because of that osmosis, FalleN can focus more on his own individual play, comfortable knowing his players will know how to respond in any situation.

Fer was the initial star of the team. Like FalleN, he is someone who learns from his losses and is willing to change. When coldzera and FalleN became the star players, he took a back seat and was able to find a niche, aggressive role that still helped out his team. In the current era, fer is one of the stars of the team and his aggressive play style has shaped SK’s current identity. As a player and person, Fer is willing to do whatever it takes to win.

Coldzera is the superstar of the team. He is a generational talent, but like Fer and FalleN, he has assimilated the attitude of learning from losses. Recently we saw a rare underperformance from him at the ESL Pro League Finals. Two weeks later, he had already learned from his loss and become even stronger.

“I saw that a lot of my positions were off and I had bad plays in my bomb sites,” he told HLTV. “So I created more plays for myself and created more setups with my teammates on bomb sites. I also played more death match and put more hours into the game.”

Those three were the core of Luminosity from 2015 until SK signed the roster SK last year. For a while they were able to string together good international performances and reach the playoffs, but they had hit their ceiling. They wanted more. They needed more. So when they realized that something needed to change, they decided to make a dramatic roster change — six days before the FaceIt Stage 3 Finals in November 2015. They brought in TACO and fnx.

The prevailing wisdom was that a team needed time before a roster change could be adequately implemented, processed, and optimized. There was no point in doing it days before a tournament. But the decisiveness, even in the face of supposed common sense, was characteristic of the way this lineup has always dealt with roster changes. They are willing to give a lot of time to teammates to improve and learn. But if they couldn’t reach the level required, the team made the change regardless of outside circumstances. Fast, decisive action happens so they can change for the better in the future.

The FaceIt tournament was a watershed moment for FalleN and the team. With so little time to prepare, the team went for a loose style of leadership. It resulted in the team’s highest-ever placing as it reached the grand finals. FalleN had already been one of the best in-game leaders in the world, but after that, he realized he could take his own game, his own leadership, to another level. The evolution of that lineup would have been deterred without the speed with which it made the roster change. Fnx and TACO themselves became symbolic of the continued evolution in the team.

Fnx as a player seemed to be undergoing a transformation himself at the time. He had spent months playing in Games Academy and had become a good teammate. His entrance into the Luminosity lineup was symbolic of renewed vigor, reminiscent of his time on mibr all those years ago. As a player, he was willing to do whatever it took to win and because of his great experience and game sense, he fit into the Luminosity system like a glove.

In game he is the easiest player to play with,” FalleN said. “He just knows everything he needs to do, almost every time.”

While fnx symbolized the glory of days past, TACO represented the new generation. He is perhaps most emblematic of FalleN’s approach to Counter-Strike. Among all the players who have come under FalleN’s tutelage, TACO seems to have gotten the most out of it. He has become one of the most versatile role players in the game and is always willing to play the hard roles, facilitate his teammates and create space. The reason he was chosen wasn’t because of any inherent potential, but attitude.

“We needed someone to be our entry-killer and TACO had the right mindset for that position,” FalleN said. “Also, he is very dedicated and seemed the correct guy to pick up.”

The team continued to incrementally evolve. The players were able to get over the hump of getting wins in finals. They were able to overcome Natus Vincere — a brief stumbling block — and they created their own era by winning back-to-back Majors at MLG COlumbus and ESL One Cologne in 2016. Even then, they never stopped learning, never stopped changing. After the MLG Major, they tried to incorporate Cache into their map pool but failed. Instead, they were able to build upon Cobblestone and eventually Dust 2.

But that constant development halted after their Cologne victory. Something imperceptible had changed in the team. They were still getting top finishes, but their maps slowly stagnated, their T-sides became less inspired, and they were no longer selecting new maps or giving out new looks to their defaults. It all came to a head at ELEAGUE Season 2 when they played Astralis in the semifinals. Astralis defeated SK on Train, a map where SK was considered unbeatable. It was clear something had to change, and again SK made a decisive move.

Fnx had symbolized change and regrowth, a return to the glory days. In his Valve profile, the video ends with the line “He is no longer a player you have to play with, but a player you want to play with.” At some point that was likely true, but no longer. The age-old habits that led to his removal from previous lineups had resurfaced. He had lost his motivation and his will to change. He had to be removed.

It was a bold move as SK had better chances of going farther in the Major with fnx rather than going in with a stand-in, someone who wouldn’t be around after the Major. The team did it anyway. With Ricardo “fox” Pacheco, they were able to create a strong tactical team in a short period of time that reached the semifinals of the ELEAGUE Major. Afterwards, SK finally added its permanent new fifth in felps.

Felps, like coldzera and TACO, was part of the new generation of talented Brazilian players. He was a hyper-aggressive star in a team already packed to the gills with talent. Initially, SK tried to play to his strengths with a looser style of calling. It was largely successful at DreamHack Las Vegas, where SK took second place.

They tried it again at IEM Katowice but fell out of the group stages. Although the skill was there, the loose style was too inconsistent to work against the level of competition SK was supposed to measure up against. Once again, the team knew it needed to change something in its approach. SK decided to orient its tactics around the aggressive gameplay of fer and felps, but with some constraints on what positions they would take and hold. While felps slowly absorbed the overarching notions of FalleN’s teamplay, fer was given more freedom to take aggressive risks. That allowed FalleN to increase his output on the AWP and break out of his disconcerting slump. Simultaneously, the more structured play style helped coldzera become the superstar of the team as his mid-round decisions were reemphasized. The eventual approach that emerged from this stretch of tinkering was a hybrid of old and new, tactical and loose. This made a dramatic change in the map pool. Overpass and Train faded away into the background as Mirage, Cobble and Cache took center stage.

Even since the beginning, this Brazilian lineup has continued to evolve. It makes the correct roster changes whenever the current squad runs its course; it alters its style of play according to what players possess and whatever meta is most robust at the moment. This is SK’s defining feature and this progress is what has made this team grow stronger from year to year, lineup to lineup.

Cover photo courtesy of MLG and ESL, illustration by Raphie Rosen

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