Written by: Richard Lewis
In the final group stage of ELEAGUE, the letter “D” supposedly stood for “death,” meaning it was the toughest group of the lot. Instead, for two teams with aspirations of greatness, it stood for “disappointment.” Or perhaps, it quite possibly stood for “Denmark”, depending on what side of the fence you are sitting on.
For the small country with a population of 5.7 million, the same as that of the Atlanta metropolitan area, it’s mind-blowing how Denmark has managed to produce three top-tier Counter-Strike teams, each one with distinguished coaches, and still have a number of young talents clawing at the door where the top tier live. This comes at a time when old enemy Sweden, the dominant force throughout Counter-Strike history, can only just about scrape together one team worthy of a top ten placement, Ninjas In Pyjamas. It took a while for the changing of the guard, but the shift cannot be ignored.
Then, Astralis did Astralis things, which was to look incredibly confident and comfortable in the group stages of a tournament. Only having to play maps, they deconstructed the Team Liquid tactical approach on Overpass, a map the North American team need to move away from against top-tier opposition for now at least, before blowing out Danish rivals Heroic on TBS 16-2 on Train. I’m still not convinced by Astralis though. We live in a time where having some of the most consistent stars in world Counter-Strike simply won’t be enough to win tournaments. Not when you have to butt heads with high-powered all-star rosters like FaZe or G2 Esports. Is there anyone on Astralis that can take the game by the scruff of the neck and out-aim Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, or step up to shut down Kenny "kennyS" Schrub? The quick and easy answer is no, and those are just two names you can pick that are capable of single-handedly destroying teams. If you’re relying on tactics to stop the likes of a FaZe, then you better pray that they play at a fraction of their capacity. The best players, in their best form, defy any meta-game and stomp out theory-crafting with brute force. I’m not sure how you overcome that problem. Regardless, they looked good here and managed to secure a playoff spot again. They have been granted something of a gift in the playoffs too in the form of the Swedish roster of fnatic. Expect that changing of the guard narrative to be underlined in brutal fashion.
As always, SK Gaming came into group D with a cloud around them. The Brazilians and the ELEAGUE competition certainly haven’t clicked. It has been more like a series of awkward speed dates, always off-kilter, never quite in sync, and just when you think you might have a solution, it’s over. Time to sit at another table and meet someone else. Disqualified from the first season, beaten by Astralis in the semifinals in the second, and crashing out in the groups, despite having what should have been an easy road. Paired against Heroic in the first game, they got to play Train, a map they enjoyed a legendary winning streak on. Yet they were blown out, embarrassingly so, and never in the game. It was so weak a performance most pundits didn’t even bother to break it down in any meaningful sense. “They just failed to arrive”, was the conclusion, but one of the world’s best teams on their worst days should be competing against comparative minnows.
There’s speculation that the issues are off the server, but nobody is quite sure what it is. Another roster change? A move to another organization? Interpersonal issues akin to those of Immortals? No one is sure, despite the guesswork, but it’s clear that it’s impacting their ability to deliver the level of play they are capable of. A series win in overtime against Team Liquid might paper over the cracks, but we all know they’re there. SK Gaming not making it through to the playoffs might be the shape of things to come until they can resolve whatever is going on and bolster their map pool by either committing to learning Nuke, or unlearning the way they play Inferno.
Team Liquid will be disappointed, no doubt about it. A team on the rise that has received plaudits I’m still not sure I agree with, everyone is expecting them to be the team that puts NA Counter-Strike back on the map. It has been a long road for the organization whose spending must be only behind FaZe in the quest for excellence, something I admire even if the returns have been incredibly poor for the outlay. Making the finals against ESL One probably gave them an unwanted amount of attention coming in to this, but let’s look at the reality of this group. You have Astralis and SK Gaming both in downturns of form and you have Heroic, a team that has never truly shined at this level before. This was there for the taking, and if anyone says otherwise, they’re probably an idiot. They padded their score line against Astralis, thanks to a great performance by rising star Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken, and they blew a lead on a deciding map against SK Gaming. I’m sure there are positives here, and I guess we can give it one more tournament before we bring down the gavel and pass judgement, but honestly, I expected more.
So the last words go to Heroic. Last time they were at an offline competition in Mykonos, they mostly stunk. Still, they were adjusting to life without Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså, who made the move to North to fix all their woes. After their disappointment in Greece, they went on a run of great results online, which any seasoned veteran knows to take with more than a generous helping of salt. The detractors will say they got lucky, catching SK Gaming cold in a best of one, then getting a best of three rematch after a grueling series against Team Liquid. These complaints are valid to a degree, but SK Gaming knows a thing or two about long tournament runs. Heroic’s entry into the playoffs was a triumph over style more than anything. They play a brand of Counter-Strike that doesn’t respect a measured tactical approach. They run the type of plays that will always require one player to deliver something special, and when it fails, as it did against Astralis, it’ll make them look like amateurs. When it succeeds, you’ll be entertained and any experienced opponent will be frustrated and flustered.
In-game leader Marco “snappi” Pfeiffer cuts a confident figure, exuding just the right level of arrogance when discussing his opponents. His calls set up the twin stars of Jakob “JUGi “ Hansen and Nikolaj “niko“ ristensen to shine and here they did. As a side note, it might be worth Nikolaj considering a name change, because I expect to see him lighting up the scoreboards of more major-tier tournaments in the future, but the “niko” brand will always be overshadowed by the most expensive player in Counter-Strike history. Rip that band-aid off now son. The only issue I can foresee is one of form. Tactics such as these are built on the motivations and moods of the players that must perform optimally at all times. Can they adapt to bumps in the road? The blowout against Astralis suggests not, but for now, they’re probably the most exciting and uncertain thing about the evolving Counter-Strike scene.