When Valve introduced skins and the Major system, no one could have imagined the impact and reverberations those moves eventually made throughout the Counter-Strike scene. The scene has since rapidly evolved as more tournaments, money, and organizations (competitive and otherwise) flood into the scene. This is paralleled within the competitive pool as the number of potential players who can go pro, regardless of origin or reputation, continues to grow. With the tumult and inconsistency following the rapid growth rate, this is one of the most exciting times to be a spectator of CS:GO.
Casters often joke about the scene being a simulation, a hierarchy of teams that conveniently falls apart whenever matches seem to be cut and dry. And the results get more fanciful and shocking month after month, year after year. In the nascent years of CS:GO, the international scene was dominated by the Swedish and the French. Teams like Ninjas in Pyjamas, VeryGames, LDLC, Fnatic, and EnVyUs were the unchallenged forces of the era. But that’s all changed.
Think about this for a moment: Gambit won the Major. A team composed of three Kazakhstani players, representing an organization with little presence in CS:GO history, won the biggest tournament of the year. And they did it in an era with the greatest concentration of top-tier competition ever seen. Super teams like SK Gaming, FaZe Clan, Astralis, and G2 Esports were supposed to bar their path. Below them, dangerous second-tier teams like North, Natus Vincere, Immortals, Fnatic, Cloud9 and Virtus.Pro would end their journey before they even reached the big boys. And yet among all of those teams, Gambit persevered, which included a solid win over previous Major winners Astralis. Losing Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko in the post-Major shuffle was supposed to end the team’s already unexpected success, but lo and behold, Gambit beat Astralis again at DreamHack Malmö on different maps than the first time.
Astralis shocked the Counter-Strike community by winning the ELEAGUE Major. The Danes were reputed as chokers, players who crumbled under pressure whenever they reached the semifinals of a huge tournament. When they won the Major, they overcame their debilitating weakness and defeated Virtus.Pro to vindicate their losses.
Two years before Astralis broke its semifinal curse, there was an event called MLG X-Games Aspen. There, Gabriel “FalleN’ Toledo led a group of Brazilian misfits to an appreciable showing. It was the first domino in a chain of events that ended with Brazilian Counter-Strike conquering the world. Four of the five players who went to that event eventually reached the grand finals of a Major. In Brazil’s rise to power, a once in a lifetime player rose up from the Brazilian scene. Marcelo “coldzera” David became one of the best players in the world and the superstar of the Luminosity/SK lineups that briefly replaced Fnatic as the kings of CS:GO.
Increased opportunities, an influx of tournaments, players’ own dedication, and Valve’s new tournament system was the mix that allowed that legendary lineup to form. But SK/LG wasn’t the only team that capitalized on the changing dynamics of the scene, and coldzera wasn’t the only superstar who emerged from that era.
Nikola “NiKo” Kovac and Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev are two superstars who could have spent their entire careers in obscurity. NiKo was a player from Bosnia, a country without enough talent, infrastructure or support to create a world class national squad. Luckily for him, CS:GO was flourishing and mousesports was willing to give the young phenom a shot. NiKo got his chance and joined the German organization, where his talents far outstripped expectations. He shocked the world with some of the hardest carry performances anyone had ever seen. But one man cannot win a trophy, and the rest of the team struggled to match his stratospheric form.
Although NiKo was clear a world-class talent, there was just no room for him in the traditional national teams. The bonus of having the same cultural background and language in CS was too great, so it looked inevitable NiKo would languish in mouz, doomed to a Sisyphean task. And if CS:GO had stayed at that level of investment, that likely would have been the case. Instead, we got Call of Duty orgs deciding to invest in the CS:GO scene, and FaZe bought the Kinguin/G2 lineup. Back then, the lineup was a bit of a joke. It had a lot of skill but no semblance of leadership or teamwork. Its gameplay was acceptable when coaches could still call in-game, but it completely fell apart once the Valve ruling silenced outside input.
Luckily for FaZe, it acquired Finn “Karrigan” Andersen and within days, he made FaZe a solid top 10 team. Once the squad reached that level, it started searching for a superstar of its own to compete with the world’s best teams. That is when NiKo was purchased and joined the team. Over the next four tournaments, FaZe reached the finals of each one with NiKo at the helm. The previous retirement house for dilapidated veterans proved international mix lineups could work, an idea that hadn’t be successfully pulled off since the days of NoA in CS 1.6. Soon organizations that could not field strong national lineups followed suit. Teams like Mouz and OpTic have embraced diverse rosters.
The other superstar to have benefitted from increased monetary investment and media exposure was s1mple. In 2015, s1mple was considered an incredible talent from Ukraine. He was also considered impossible to work with thanks to overweening arrogance and anger issues. If the money hadn’t been there, there is a high chance s1mple’s debut into the top tier of CS:GO would have been delayed by 1-2 years.
Instead, a chance meeting with Spencer “Hiko” Martin changed everything. Hiko was standing in for Flipsid3 at ESWC 2015, and the two became fast friends. The American prodigy was instrumental in getting s1mple to join Liquid, a move that might have otherwise folded under scrutiny. It proved the turning point in s1mple’s career as he transformed from enfant terrible to savior of the NA scene. He carried that team to the semifinals of the MLG Columbus Major and the finals of the ESL Cologne Major in 2016. In the process, s1mple destroyed the best CIS had to offer; Na’Vi was forced to consider the induction of s1mple into the lineup. He eventually replaced Zeus.
As I mentioned earlier, we are in an era of super teams. By the PGL Kraków Major, three clear teams rose above the rest (SK, FaZe and Astralis) with G2 right below them. Each of them had won a tournament between the two Majors and none of them had fallen as hard as Virtus.Pro. Prior to the Krakow Major, they were the clear four favorites for the event. But the butterfly effect from Hiko getting s1mple to join Liquid led to the most unexpected of results. After being booted from the most respected team in the CIS region, Zeus regained his bearings and led Gambit to win the Major.
But that was just an incredible miracle run, right? Gambit was the beneficiary of some fortunate bracket results, and with the loss of Zeus, most experts predicted Gambit would revert back to Tier 2 status. Soon the proper teams would reassert their hold, and it would begin at the next significant tournament. But the winds of change continued to blow at DreamHack Malmö. FaZe, Cloud9, and mouz have all made roster changes that aimed to improve themselves in the long term, but they have all suffered in the short term. The Swedish scene, once held up by the dynasties of NiP and Fnatic, has broken into a disjointed cluster of territories. NiP finally recruited young blood instead of clinging onto the past while Fnatic terminated its experiment to replicate the glories of the Dennis era. Zeus returned to Na’Vi with dreams of leading his former team back to glory.
But roster changes are not the only things that are shifting. SK and Astralis are tenuously clinging onto their positions as the best teams. Coldzera and fer haven’t had the same monstrous performances they had in the past and at Malmö, SK lost best-of-threes to North and G2. North finally defeated SK in a best-of-three to end a year long reign of dominance. G2, despite not changing rosters, adopted Mirage as a new map with Dan “apEX“ Madesclaire calling on it. At the same time, G2 has shown the ability to control its worst impulses. Malmö was notable for the French team’s avoidance of mindless force buying: instead we saw careful economy management to secure CT halves, something G2 had never shown. The remaining Gambit lineup recruited newcomer Bektiyar “fitch“ Bahytov and upset Astralis in a quarterfinal best-of-three.
The world operates in cycles. Mountains will rise, mountains will fall, the sun will rise, and the sun will set. Time marches on, and so too does the CS:GO scene. One critical roster shuffle, one player re-finding their form, one right call at the right place and right time can change the tides of history. We are in one of the fastest moving times in CS:GO’s history as an esport, and the second half of the season has begun. Those who lose today can win tomorrow. An important change in the roster could change the scene in a critical way. No one knows what the future will bring. We are in the midst of upheaval, the eye of the galaxy, the swirling vortex of the big bang. Stars rise and fall, the CS:GO world is changing, and there has never been a better time to pull up a chair and witness the calamitous shifts, changes, and art as players and teams scramble over each other to get that elusive title of the world’s best.
Cover photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack