Written by: Richard Lewis
The Clash For Cash is rapidly approaching, an event that has shifted gears from being an intriguing exhibition match to something that represents much more. Since the final of the Major Championship, which took place only in January, both Astralis and Virtus Pro have gone on to enjoy very different fortunes. Astralis, who claimed their first ever Major title on that day, have gone on to become the best team in the world, picking up another trophy since in the form of the Intel Extreme Masters XI in Katowice, and placing top four in three others.
However, Virtus Pro bounced back immediately after the Major, winning DreamHack Las Vegas and earning a win over Astralis on the road towards the trophy. Following this event, Virtus Pro’s fate took a turn for the worst. After being defeated on home soil at the Intel Extreme Masters tournament against Astralis, they went to Kiev for season 3 of StarSeries, intending to redeem themselves, but that had a detrimental outcome as well. Virtus Pro was demolished by SK Gaming and Fnatic with a score of 16-2, and were also faced with a heavy 16-5 defeat at the hands of NiP, who are in a slump of their own. It was clear that something just wasn’t right. We’ve seen downfalls like that from Virtus Pro before, which is explainable considering that they have an older team with wives, children and other commitments across the board. The predominantly online segment of the season is often treated like a holiday, certainly by this team and by many others as well. Very rarely do the wily Poles show up to an LAN event and get annihilated. When coupled with these factors, the seasonal “slump” feels like something of greater significance.
Virtus Pro’s online form suddenly hit an all-time low, although some people will argue about how much they were “battling” to stay in the ESL Pro League. They are owned by ESForce, which eliminates any form of immediate sponsor-related pressure for exposure that other teams might have. With rumors about other organizations looking to start online and offline league circuits this year, it’s possible that the prospect of an even more packed schedule fills the veterans with an internal dread that they can’t do anything about when it comes to game time. Speculation, sure, but whatever you think about the impressive state of competitive Counter-Strike right now, you’ll be hard-pressed to explain the beatdown that VP took in the second half. Losses to FaZe and G2 are one thing… They were also scalped by EnvyUs, Hellraisers, LDLC, Heroic, and North. It was complete freefall.
Not that Astralis looked like the best team in the world in the same competition of course… Online Counter-Strike is an erratic load of nonsense at the best of times… Yet the Danes did enough to be level on points with teams who did indeed finish in the top six and make a spot in the finals, even if they themselves would not be there. That is what cruise control looks like. There was never a chance Astralis would slip out of the league. Virtus Pro however went to relegations to face teams that really should never have had a chance.
Incidentally, this happened last year too. Virtus Pro, after a pretty wretched online season in the ESL Pro League, found themselves relegated. It was then announced that the team coming from the lower tier of competition would have to play Virtus Pro in a relegations match, which seemed to give the Poles a lifeline. They were facing PENTA, a German team that had been on the wane for some time. This was as close to a sure thing as we’ve seen in Counter-Strike; the VP fans breathed a sigh of relief and people didn’t think too much of it. Then VP lost, which caused an apoplexy of rage and multiple conspiracy theories about both teams. People simply couldn’t believe it. Virtus Pro always rise to the occasion when there’s the most to gain.
In the end, it didn’t matter. ESL made up some fan-voting-nonsense that allowed Virtus Pro another chance at retaining their slot, and thus they were fortunate enough to be put up against the newly-formed GODSENT line-up that had only just been announced. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t “match-fit” and Virtus Pro managed a 2-0 win to put the slump to bed once and for all. The headlines were later dominated by people talking about ESL’s favouritism. Some would later go on to pretend that the slump was exaggerated or that it might never even have existed in the first place. All was right with the world.
That didn’t happen this time. The relegation tournament again featured Germans with the surprisingly impressive BiG who grounded out a 2-0 over the Poles in the first series. Virtus Pro still had lifelines even at this stage, and they were playing PENTA once more, this time with only one German on the roster. This result was even worse. Finnish players Miikka 'suNny' Kemppi and Jesse 'zehN' Linjala put in the type of performances people expected from their rivals. Virtus Pro were out of the league at the hands of minnows and this time there was no justification anyone could invent up to save them.
A following announcement stated that they would not be playing in the second tier of competition and thus they withdrew for the whole season. This is a move unlikely to be without serious penalty moving forward; it’s hard to envision a world where Virtus Pro can return to the ESL Pro League without the tournament organiser surrendering their credibility. For now, though, it’s the credibility of the Polish squad that will take the hit. Currently back in action in the online component of FACEIT’s European Championship Series, their results don’t seem to have improved greatly, taking only one map out of four played so far.
So, this is where it gets interesting. Last time Virtus Pro fell this low, they did manage to come back and prove themselves a dangerous force in global Counter-Strike once again. They climbed back to the number one spot in the world. They laughed in the faces of professional and armchair pundits alike and declared that people didn’t know anything about their motivations, their hunger or the problems they overcame. It has often been said by people supposedly in touch with Virtus Pro that few things motivate the team more so than sheer cash. $250,000 on the line for a single best-of-three will provide that motivation, but can Virtus Pro actually find the extra gear they need in order to beat a much better team?
There’s a key thing to remember here before you answer… The Poles almost won that final in Atlanta. A few key rounds on that final map took away the type of lead experienced teams rarely surrender. Credit to the bold brilliance of the Danes… Ballsy force-buys in must-win situations and star performances across the board lead to victory in the end. I never truly believed that they would go on to become the best team in the world just by replacing their in-game leader, but I knew in that moment, as Astralis’ celebratory confetti landed on the visibly crushed Virtus Pro players, that there was no doubt they were the best. For me, they were the first team to raise the collective skill-ceiling since the Brazilians were in their prime. Astralis are coming into this match with this knowledge, understanding that while a lot of money might be at stake, their reputation most certainly is not.