The Swedish CS:GO empire, once as impervious and storied as the Catholic Church in its heyday, collapsed this year. Its two greatest bastions lay crippled by apathy and confusion. Ninjas in Pyjamas, formerly the greatest team in the world, continued to stick with the same four players over time, eventually sliding into a state of semi-irrelevance. Fnatic reunited in February, hoping to recapture its old form again, but it never reached the same levels as in early 2016. Both were once powerhouses that set the standard for excellent Counter-Strike. As has become all too apparent, their time has passed. Both teams finally bit the bullet and underwent a reformation, bringing new talent into their teams to revitalize their lineups.
Even though these two teams ultimately came to those conclusions while staring at the same dead end, the underlying tenets that led them there couldn’t be more different. NiP believed (and might still believe) its core is sufficient to weather all the challenges that come with change. Prior to Fredrik “REZ” Sterner joining the roster, the roster had made it a habit to only exchange the fifth when time demanded; in most cases the newcomer inevitably took over AWP duties. This stringent ritual made the term “honeymoon period” sound quaint. The new team roared to life in the first few weeks, only to fade as opponents discerned that the new version of NiP was simply the old one with a fresh coat of paint. Despite the looming disappointment that came with every switch, both team and management believed NiP could still get back to the top by sticking together.
On the other hand, Fnatic was a different beast. At the end of ELEAGUE Season 1, Fnatic still ranked among the best teams in the world. Although it was clear the team had exhausted the ineffable magic that powered its streak of six consecutive tournament wins, the Swedish juggernaut easily claimed a spot among the top five teams in the world. For most organizations, such standing would be satisfactory. But Fnatic was built on the notion of victory above all else: “just below the best” was an uninspiring slogan after nearly two years of celebrations and trophy hoarding. That created a boiling point, exacerbated by a prolonged stay in Atlanta, and ended in the Swedish schism of 2016. Fnatic and Godsent believed they could accomplish more without the castoffs, and contrary to hopes, both became much worse apart than they were together. Humbled by their time apart, the former members of Fnatic reunited. Out of all the reasons to return to the status quo, pragmatism reigned supreme. Camaraderie remained weak, and the concerns about infighting went unaddressed, but all of them shared the desire to win.
In the end, neither NiP nor Fnatic ever returned to great form. NiP’s failures continued to mount. When NiP lost to Vega Squadron at the ELEAGUE Major qualifiers in January, many believed that was the nadir. They were wrong. NiP discovered new depths in which to sink, culminating in its now infamous run in the online qualifier for the EU Minor in the most recent Major cycle. Losing to iGame, Red Reserve and Space Soldiers with horrendous play and equally baffling map choices, NiP went from bitter disappointment to laughingstock. It finally forced NiP’s hand, as the team recruited two new players. First was William “draken” Sundin as the primary AWP. Later the team benched Adam “friberg” Friberg and signed REZ in his place.
Meanwhile, Fnatic’s results were better than the placings indicated. Fnatic lost multiple times in the group stages of big tournaments but always put up a fight. If Fnatic had received better draws in the Swiss system, the team arguably could have made deeper runs. Still, Fnatic was assembled to get results: the only two good results after the reunion were second place at DreamHack Summer and a quarterfinal appearance at the PGL Krakow Major. For a team driven to win above all else, this wasn’t nearly enough. The experiment had failed and it was time to change. Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer moved on from Fnatic and Dennis “dennis” Edman was traded to Godsent. In their place came two young talents in Maikil “Golden” Selim and Jonas “Lekr0” Olofsson.
Both roster shuffles were a clear indication that the top Swedish teams had realized their limits. The old ways could work no longer. They needed a new look and new players to stay relevant in the current era of CS:GO. NiP’s move to get REZ and draken has resulted in NiP’s best results of the year: A quarterfinal finish at ESL One Cologne, a semifinal exit at DreamHack Malmö, and winning DreamHack Valencia. Patrik “f0rest” Lindberg and Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund have returned with sharpened form, and the change seems to have done them good. On the other hand, Fnatic has had much less time to build its roster as the trades happened during the player break.
Change has come to the Swedish shores, but the fundamental philosophies of the teams underlying those changes have not. This might be a new wave of Swedish talent coming to the top of their scene, but the principles that have driven both teams is still etched into their DNA. At the beginning of 2016, NiP stuck with the philosophy that it could still make the old ways work with the same core players. The team removed Friberg, but that core philosophy remains intact: the team still plays around f0rest and GeT_RiGhT as the stars, and Richard “Xizt” Landstrom is still the in-game leader. NiP still depends on Cache and Nuke as the cornerstones of its map pool. Getting Draken and REZ were good moves, but neither addition has fundamentally changed the team. Draken gives the team much more aggressive looks with his AWP. REZ has given NiP much needed firepower, but he is being given the hard roles to help the team. This isn’t an all-new NiP but rather a remix of the old NiP.
Fnatic’s core philosophy never manifested in a play style or a player. It was about winning above all else. Throughout Fnatic’s runs, different players became the titular “stars” based on convenience and arrangement of responsibilities, whether it was Freddy “KRiMZ” Johansson, Jesper “JW” Wecksell or olofmeister. Fnatic broke apart in 2016 because the players believed it was the most sensible road to victory, and they reunited under that same belief. Now that the grand experiment failed, they have decided to return to the drawing board with a new approach. Fnatic added Golden as in-game leader to change the style of the team; it also recruited Lekr0 as a potential new star around whom to build. We saw what this team could achieve at the ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier as the tactical system came into play. Although three of the players remain the same, the entire dynamic of the team seems to have subtly shifted.
As we go into the second season of 2017, the Swedish reformation has begun taking its first few halting steps. The young players are making their way up the ranks, but the core philosophies of each Swedish team has remained intact. NiP still thinks its style can work with better parts, while Fnatic’s belief in doing anything to win has led to handing Golden the keys to the car. We will see whether these convictions will usher in a new age of Swedish Counter-Strike.