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Mind over matter: The steps that turned Astralis from chokers into one of the world’s best Counter-Strike teams

Astralis is one of the best CS:GO teams in the world.
Astralis has flipped its perception as chokers to become one of the best Counter-Strike teams in the world. Photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE, illustration by Raphie Rosen.

In the current Counter-Strike era, Astralis is among the top three teams in the world. The results speak for themselves:

First: ELEAGUE Major, IEM World Championship

Second: StarLadder Kiev

Top 4: DreamHack Las Vegas, IEM Sydney, ECS Season 3 Finals

This is an incredible resume that places Astralis firmly in the upper echelon. What makes this even more remarkable is that in terms of raw skill and firepower, Astralis is plausibly outmatched by other superteams in the field such as G2 Esports, SK Gaming, Natus Vincere and FaZe Clan. So what is it about the Danes that stands above the other top teams? How have they remained so consistent and dominant in one of the most competitive eras of CS:GO?

Astralis owes a partial debt to the makeup of the team. Those other lineups have the edge in raw skill, but Astralis still matches up well against them on any given day. Astralis makes up for the deficit in other essential, less ostentatious factors: teamplay, structure, tactics, balance and map pool. Astralis keeps an unwavering focus on strong fundamental gameplay, and each player excels within the roles designated for them. That has translated into an incredibly deep map pool and a huge assortment of tactics in the playbook.

This foundation was laid by one of the world’s greatest in-game leaders, Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander. He has few equals among international competition, and his aggressive plays (on both sides of the map) often change the momentum of a game in Astralis’ favor. He and Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjaerbye team up to take care of map control and when they enter a site, the two of them can leave a trail of bodies behind. Kjaerbye himself is an incredible discovery, a secondary star with a complete skillset and unrivaled composure under pressure. Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz is the subdued superstar of the team. Quietly he functions as the engine, taking over key points of the map with his mobile AWP and finding impact kills round after round to ensure victory.

Less flashy members are just as essential to Astralis’ success. Peter “dupreeh” Rothmann has undergone a transformation from the previous lineup. He has taken up many of the more difficult roles to give space to the other players, and the change reinvigorated his own game as the third star of the team. The final player is Andreas “Xyp9x” Hojsleth, the most overqualified support player in the world. His job is to facilitate the other players, anchor, survive, and be a system player. Yet Xyp9x has the skill to take on fragging roles and can give MVP performances from that position. In particular, his ability to win clutch 1-v-X situations has made him one of the most feared players in the world.

But if you were to ask me to point out one factor above all others as the catalyst that changed Astralis’ fortunes, it was the change in the players’ mental game. To understand what I mean, we must go back in time.

Before they were Astralis, before they had changed in-game leaders, the core of this team was part of one of the all-time great lineups of CS:GO. From December 2014 to May 2016, the best Danish team in the world consisted of dev1ce, dupreeh, xyp9x, Rene “cajunb” Borg and Finn “karrigan” Andersen. After a year under the Dignitas banner, they later signed with TSM until they left in controversy. Together this lineup recorded a long list of accomplishments:

First: PGL CCS, Faceit Stage 1 Finals, Fragbite S4, Faceit Stage 2 Finals, Counter Pit, PGL Finals Season 1

Second: Copenhagen 2015, IEM Gamescom 2015, ESL ESEA PL Invitational, DreamHack London, IEM San Jose 2015, Counterpit 2016

Third: MLG X Games, SLTV Starseries XII

Top 4: ESL Cologne Major 2015, Faceit Stage 3 Finals, Fragbite Season 5, ESL PL Season 2, DreamHack Leipzig 2016, IEM WC 2016, MLG Columbus Major 2016

Top 8: ESL Katowice Major 2015, ESL PL 2015, APM 2015, DreamHack Cluj-Napoca Major

That record is staggering upon reflection, more so when you contemplate the adversaries during that period. The team’s existence lined up neatly with the two eras of Fnatic’s hegemony, the end of LDLC and the existence of the championship-caliber EnVyUs, the slow climb of Luminosity Gaming, and the intermittent peaks of NiP, Na’Vi, and Virtus.Pro. Fnatic ended up as the kings of the era, but TSM was one of the few teams that matched up well with the Swedish legends.

As expected, that particular iteration had many strengths. Karrigan was a great leader backed by a strong T-side, a wide map pool, two star players in dev1ce and dupreeh, and reliable flex players in cajunb and xyp9x. As evidenced above, they never suffered from huge drops in motivation or performance; they were perpetual threats to every opponent. But they were never in the running as the best team of that period. Even with all of the — justified — praise, Dignitas/TSM was never able to win an event with a prize pool more than $250,000.

The squad specifically achieved meme-worthy status thanks to its inability to close out advantages in crucial games. The players were widely mocked and mourned as definitive chokers. At the highest stakes tournaments, in the highest pressure situations, this team failed time and time again. The tactics and teamwork were never to blame. It was mental fragility.

Brood War pros used to talk about this facet of competitive play all the time as the distinguishing trait between finalists and champions. One of the most famous examples is Park “July” Sung Joon, who was one of the all time great Zerg players, Golden Mouse winner, and proud carrier of the nickname Tushin (God of War). On the night after July won his third OSL, he credited a stronger mentality, not skill, as the reason he overcame his opponent.  In the series July had overwhelmed Doh “BeSt” Jae Wook with two aggressive all-ins, one of which was the famous drone drill that pierced the heavens. By the time the third game had started, his opponent’s confidence had been shattered, and July won convincingly.

For the old Dignitas/TSM lineup, they were the ones who crumbled. For them, it was never an outright throw, but each time they got near the precipice, they froze. Each time that team got close to the finish line, something snapped. It was like watching an incredibly skilled climber get near the top of the peak to only look down and be paralyzed by acrophobia. The sense of vertigo takes hold and all of a sudden the climber is too afraid to move up or move down. In the case of Astralis, the players went passive, huddled into their corners and lost initiative. When the enemy came before them, each player looked down and toward the man next to him. That man in turn looked at the man next to him, each hoping someone else on the team came up with a big play that would be enough to get them over the line. It never happened.

The team brought on a sports psychologist, Mia Spellberg, late last year to help in that respect. While helpful, it didn’t solve the core issues of the team and eventually the team went for a roster change. Kjaerbye was the hottest prospect in the Danish CS:GO scene and had proven his star level on his time at Dignitas. He flourished under Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen’s leadership to the point fellow players called him the young dev1ce. What made him truly incredible was his impenetrable calm. Kjaerbye seemed to feel no pressure. He showed incredible strength under pressure in many games, particularly his series against EnVyUs at DreamHack Malmö 2016.

Getting Kjaerbye into the roster was a great move but other problems had popped up within the team. Declining results had created a rift in leadership where there was no clear direction. As Karrigan put it:

“It was like we were piloting the Titanic,” he said. “We needed to get to the new world, but there were three captains. I’d take a shift for 8 hours, go to sleep and someone else took the helm. We took so many directions that we had no clue which way was to land.”

The three captains of the ship so to speak were Karrigan, dev1ce and coach Danny “zonic” Sorensen. With no clear direction, there was no way to address the problem as every proposed solution was a half measure. Despite this awful period for the team, dev1ce’s performance was a beacon of hope in the rocky sea. He showed incredible games and as a player, it seemed like he had made an important fundamental shift in his approach to the game. In earlier years, dev1ce had shied away from taking up the mantle of star player. He always complimented the team and said he was just another player. Now, dev1ce took on the responsibility of being Astralis’ star player.

The final piece of the puzzle was someone who had returned from semi-obscurity. During the early days of CS:GO, gla1ve was praised as one of the best leaders. All his former teammates had nothing but exuberant praise for him. Jacob “Pimp” Winneche considered him the best leader he had ever seen and Denmark’s lost treasure. Prior to karrigan joining the roster, gla1ve’s name was one of the potential names bandied about players as a possible pickup. But back then, g1aive was not ready to fully commit to Counter-Strike as his profession of choice. It was much smaller at that point with less tournaments, salaries and prize money. There wasn’t enough incentive for him to risk his early 20s on an uncertain future. He took a break, but at some point he came to realize that he wanted to play again: this time he would go all in until he got all the way to the top.

His renaissance came under Nicolai “HUNDEN” Petersen on Copenhagen Wolves. Gla1ve was able to recapture his feel for the game, then moved on to Heroic where he became one of the better players on the team. Years later, the potential pickup that Astralis considered joined the team in reality. Gla1ve transformed the team, locking everything into place as he changed up the roles and structure of the team. Once yanked to and fro in different directions, Astralis found its unifying voice and vision.

It culminated in Astralis’ rapid rise at the end of 2016. In the group’s first outing, it took top four at IEM Oakland; the next tournament resulted in second place at ELEAGUE Season 2. The third time was the charm as Astralis won ECS Season 2 Finals. By the time the ELEAGUE Major rolled around, public opinion had done a 180. Analysts and community figures no longer doubted the Danes’ ability to complete tournament runs. They were the widespread favorite to win it

From that final onward, we have seen big plays from each player across different events. Gla1ve called a forcebuy on T-side to blindside Virtus.Pro on the final map of the ELEAGUE Major. Kjaerbye earned the MVP award of the Major for carrying his team to victory. Xyp9x has been hailed as the best support player in the world, and his insane amount of clutches at IEM Katowice won him the MVP. In parallel, dupreeh had a huge performance in the IEM finals and was the primary reason Astralis beat FaZe. Dev1ce has played up to outside billing and gave a heroic performance in the StarLadder Kiev finals despite the team ultimately losing.

What a difference a year makes. In 2016, Astralis was still infamous as a mentally weak team, incapable of surviving the crippling pressure of the playoffs. The age of choking is an important part of this team’s legacy. It shows that regardless of skill or teamwork or tactics, psychological resilience is a necessity if any team wishes to be the best. Astralis has faced its demons and through the strength of the structure, the teammates and themselves, they have overcome.

Now when these players reach the precipice and look down, they do not freeze. They do not falter. They stare straight ahead and take the next step, the one after that, and so on. This is their proof of Astralis’ greatness. In the face of their own mental weakness, they overcame and became the best in the world. In the face of the most competitive field in CS:GO history, they stand among the best, proof that any mental obstacle can be overcome no matter how high.

Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE, illustration by Raphie Rosen


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