A New Counter-Strike Challenger Emerges

Written by: Richard Lewis
Twitter: @RLewisReports

Team Dignitas was the surprise winner of the Epicenter Moscow tournament this weekend, beating fnatic, Na’Vi and Virtus Pro en route to their first $250,000 title. In doing so, they have proven themselves to be genuine contenders for every tournament remaining this year, and squarely in the frame for the major in January. I’d be a lot more excited about this prospect if I hadn't dismissed them in last week's column when I had to pick the team I thought would win Eleague, but we’ll get to all that in a moment.

       We have entered into an incredibly diverse time for Counter-Strike. Since June, the last six notable tournaments have been won by six different teams. There are factors to take into consideration for this, such as not every team attending them, the current landscape of over-saturation, and a punishing travel regime that is genuinely starting to see even seasoned veterans complain about fatigue.  Those factors aside, it tells us what we already know; the dominant force that was SK Gaming is in decline, and the other top tier teams have all made the necessary improvements to win titles.

       For me, the sudden rise to the top by Team Dignitas is more than a surprise. All the reasons that people are citing for their success were all in place while they were failing to deliver. Back in June, they didn’t look like anything special as they labored through the Eleague group stage, eventually being knocked out by FaZe and only recording wins over TSM. July brought the major at ESL Cologne that saw them knocked out by Danish rivals Astralis in the group stage. Then august came along, and they had to suffer the indignity of failing to win a medium-sized Danish LAN event, losing in the final to Team Heroic. Our viewers remember September when they barely made it to the offline portion of Eleague’s second season, dropping a map to Tengri from Kazakhstan and a sloppy 16-14, 16-14 win over Gambit Gaming.

       In a bizarre twist, it was around this time a few of my respected colleagues, most notably Duncan “Thorin” Shields and Janko “Ynk” Paunovic, started telling me that Team Dignitas were poised to be the next big thing. I was told they were “dark horses” and other such babble, which made no sense to me as there was nothing to suggest it was more true now than it was at the time the roster was assembled. The argument then was that the team had two of the most explosive young talents in the game, a great in-game leader, a former star and a reliable foot soldier. In reality, we saw an in-game leader who was woeful when it came to making a contribution to the scoreboard, a former star struggling to find his form along with his place within the team, and a reliable foot soldier who was never meant to pick up the slack these failings left. The two amazing young talents seemed moot when placed in that broader context.

       Now, understand that when I dismissed Dignitas out of hand and laughed in the face of my fellow pundits, it wasn’t because I couldn’t see the arguments for their potential success. Of course, here was a team that really should have been leaving footprints on podiums, but something wasn’t clicking. I think most would be at a loss to explain what that was. Many fans stated they didn’t believe the Danes could be contenders with Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen at the helm, citing his poor statistics as a reason to kick him. Indeed, he may well have been out of this team had Valve not reiterated their vision on not having coaches play an active role as coordinators during a game. This certainly increased Lauridsen’s stock substantially, given he comes with both a playbook and the capability to read opponents as a game develops. Others stated that the transfer of René "cajunb" Borg was a bust, his performances being a continuation of the “feast or famine” style that typified the end of his time with Astralis.

       While some people, myself included, focused on what was going wrong, the steady development of their two young stars went unnoticed. Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke was starting to add a more sophisticated layer of understanding to his incredible aim. His clutch play was becoming something you could bank on, a sure thing in 1v1 situations as evidenced by having only lost 4 of the last twenty instances. The improvement has really been about balancing discipline with aggression, and his progress over the course of this year has seen him rise among the elite players in the world.

       What many of us couldn’t have foreseen was that Emil "Magiskb0Y" Reif, a player who had spent his earlier career languishing in some fairly poor teams, would actually overtake his teammate and suddenly be up there comfortably as a top five player in the world. Since joining, his consistency has been unbelievable and he has hardly skipped a beat when it comes to posting big numbers. In Russia, during the last six maps he played against two teams both in the frame for number one in the world right now, Virtus Pro and Na’Vi, he hit twenty or more kills. He should have had the MVP award, but I doubt he’ll care too much, given most accept that to be the case.

       While these two players are grabbing the headlines, the real story here is that everyone on Team Dignitas has finally clicked into position after months of mediocrity. If that sounds like no big deal, go talk to some Astralis fans who have been waiting for their supremely-talented Danish line-up to bring home a big trophy. Somehow, it never happened, despite being together for a much longer period. That just goes to show that the art of fine-tuning is perhaps the most undervalued team-building skill of all.

       I’ll also throw in some credit for an old friend, their coach Casper “Ruggah” Due, someone who won’t have a particularly lengthy entry when the Counter-Strike history books are written, but someone who was a solid in-game leader of decent Danish rosters for some time. He’s not really placed himself in the limelight, but in an age where it’s vitally important to streamline player’s practice regimen, having an experienced head around to assist with the day-to-day is always a valuable asset.

       We’re still waiting to see which team will step up and fill the void inevitably left by SK Gaming, I’m not discounting an SK Gaming shake-up that might see them return to the top. I’m still not sold on it being Team Dignitas until I see them make winning become habitual, but I’m certainly more inclined to believe than I was a week ago.