Written by: Richard Lewis
It’s been a long and wild year for Counter-Strike with high points and low points a plenty. In keeping with the industry tradition to bombard the first few weeks of January with lists and awards, ELEAGUE shall be no different. Here are my following picks of the best and worst in Counter-Strike for 2016.
Team of The Year: SK Gaming
When it comes to awards, fans often seem to forget that a year is twelve months long. Players who are given end-of-year distinctions for imperious form between January and August might often be told they aren’t a deserving recipient, due to a slump in the last eight weeks. Even though they are currently not the number one team in the world right now – that is very much wide open and will most likely be settled at the upcoming ELEAGUE Major – it would be a strange argument if you were to try and justify this accolade going to anyone other than SK Gaming.
It might be easy to forget that for the first quarter of the year it was fnatic that took all the big trophies, rattling off wins at the Starladder 14 Finals, ESL Barcelona and IEM Katowice. The SK Gaming team, then under the Luminosity banner, was still very much in the mix, achieving a semi-final finish at Starladder and runners-up at Katowice after not attending Barcelona. This preamble to the major in Columbus saw many discount the Brazilian team as true contenders, with fnatic, Na’Vi and even Astralis capturing the pundits’ eyes ahead of them. Their run to the final saw an epic story unfold at each stage. They slew the giants of Virtus Pro in the quarter-finals, coming back from a map down. They broke the hearts of Team Liquid, who were buoyed by incredible home support and the talent of Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, with two overtime wins after huge comebacks. The final saw another overtime win against Na’Vi, who then wilted under the pressure, hampered by the fact their star player Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács had an elbow injury. The second map blowout was a huge statement that the Brazilian team had finally made it to the top of the mountain.
Wins followed at DreamHack Austin, ESL’s Pro League Season 3 Finals, and they were runners-up at the inaugural season of ECS. Too huge a commodity for Luminosity to hold on to, the team was courted by SK Gaming, who received a huge injection of capital from the ESForce group, and made the move to one of esport’s oldest brands. It wasn’t without controversy though, as threats of litigation and a disqualification under ELEAGUE’s rules dominated the headlines more than the move itself. It wasn’t the best start to life under a new organization, but it didn’t take long for their Counter-Strike to be the talking point again.
The next major was ESL One Cologne and history was to repeat itself in more ways than one. Again, they had to come back from a map down to beat Virtus Pro in the semi-finals. They again had to beat Team Liquid, this time in the final, and this time comprehensively. They became the only other team besides the all-conquering 2015 fnatic team to achieve back-to-back majors.
From that point on, there haven’t been many trophies in the cabinet, but they have always been close to them. Over the course of 2016, they were in the top four at fourteen international tournaments, which is all the more remarkable given they only attended fifteen. While the year certainly ended on a few sour notes, most notably losing to Cloud9 on home soil, as well as the poorly-handled removal of Lincoln "fnx" Lau, leaving them having to use a stand-in for the major in Atlanta – there’s no doubt that they were the team that defined 2016, always in the headlines and always in contention.
Most Improved Team of The Year: OpTic Gaming
This one is a no-brainer for me. The North American team, formerly of forgotten organization Conquest, was met with a lot of derision when huge brand OpTic Gaming picked them up. It felt to many like an underwhelming and desperate move to get involved with Counter-Strike by any means necessary, even if it was to recruit a team of players overshadowed by a significant number of names in the US. While things got off to a promising start in January with qualification to ELEAGUE’s opening season, from there it was tough for the green wall to love their players.
Sure, they did take the Americas Minor in Columbus beating out a steadily-improving Tempo Storm in a close fought final, but by the time ELEAGUE came rolling around, they weren’t looking like they could compete with top-tier teams from the rest of the world. Losing to G2 and NiP twice at ELEAGUE, the team failed to make the cut for the last chance qualifier, ending with an unspectacular 13th-16th placement. They made it to Cologne thanks to a fairly easy run with wins over Fluffy Gangsters, Flipside and Hellraisers. There, they would bomb out in the groups losing again to NiP and Flipside, who took their revenge after being placed with the Americans.
This led to the team deciding another roster move was necessary, and in came Tarik "tarik" Celik. To some, he was little more than a glorified streamer, another North American player who had failed to live up to his potential in competitive play. To others, he was an unpolished gem with star potential that had been squandered by CLG. Whatever your personal assessment, it seemed that he was the missing piece in a jigsaw few cared to see completed.
Despite only a 5th-6th finish, the improvement was there for all to see at ESL One New York. Starting with a workman like defeat against SK Gaming and a 16-3 crushing at the hands of fnatic, the new-look team bounced back to comfortably beat G2 Esports and Astralis. Had one or two crucial moments gone their way, they could have had a better placement after a narrow loss to Virtus Pro. Showing that results were now in their grasp, they continued to improve in form at the ESL Pro League Season 4 finals, destroying Team Liquid and Immortals 16-2 and 16-4 respectively, before receiving similar treatment at the hands of EnvyUs and Cloud9.
If becoming another one of Counter-Strike’s wild cards wasn’t achievement enough, the upward trajectory continued with a win at Northern Arena Montreal, beating Heroic and G2 Esports in the knockout stages to seal their first trophy. Not content with that, they achieved one of the biggest tournament upsets of all time, becoming ELEAGUE’s season 2 champion, beating mousesports, FaZe and Astralis along the way. A week later, they were runners-up at ECS Season 2, showing that it was no fluke and were now genuine contenders on the world stage. They ended the year qualifying for the tenth major and head into that competition as genuine dark-horses. Few teams who have struggled will ever experience a turn-around like this.
Failure To Launch: EchoFox
The arrival of Rick Fox onto the scene was a sign of the times for the future of esports. Celebrities and sportspersons, of which Fox is both, are starting to put their money and time into this pursuit, and it’s not likely to stop any time soon. This will bring us many attention seekers and phonies, but few have a track record of being as committed to gaming as the man behind EchoFox. He is partnered with the legendary institution Twin Galaxies, essential to the proliferation of competitive gaming, and donated two of his NBA championship rings to the #Right2Game campaign. He has been a vocal proponent of the positives of gaming, and wasted no time spreading the esports gospel, which has resonated throughout the media landscape. What a shame that his foray into Counter-Strike had to end as poorly as it did.
The approach for EchoFox was simple and well-thought. They wanted to blend popular veterans, including a well-respected in-game leader, with some raw talent and patiently wait for the inevitable improvement. It all makes sense on paper, yet that improvement never arrived. While EchoFox remained static and underwhelming, they were overtaken by Cloud9 – the former stomping ground of three of the players in EchoFox – and OpTic Gaming, both of whom won international tournaments in 2016.
Maybe being behind teams like that isn’t that big a deal. Unfortunately, when you look out of your depth against international teams to such a degree even your own in-game leader declares it embarrassing it’s going to be hard to justify taking a sizeable paycheque for a prolonged period of time. Manhandled at season 2 of ELEAGUE, they managed just six rounds in three maps against Virtus Pro and G2 Esports. The Americas Minor just a few days later barely provided any respite, seeing them labor against Splyce and even drop a map to the mighty Muffin Lightning.
Needless to say, the team went their separate ways and contracts weren’t renewed. It might be the fate of some of the players to never have an opportunity like this one again. Honestly, that’s fine: at least one presented itself. The true loss would be if EchoFox decided not to pick up another team as a result of this failure, because lord knows we need organizations that have patience - even if sometimes misplaced - in this business.