Written by: Richard Lewis
I have been enjoying a much needed holiday, sipping rum cocktails in the sun and trying to disconnect from the never-ending esports news cycle. Yes, this time of year is a brutal assault on the senses for anyone who has been entrenched in the business. Post major, we have the requisite “rostermania,” where organizations flood the endemic media with leaks and disinformation as they clamor to try and get around the blockade of market value on their acquisitions. The mainstream media has once again rediscovered esports because The International is happening… “DID YOU KNOW PEOPLE CAN MAKE MONEY FROM THIS?!?!!” Throw in the Overwatch World Cup, a new Hearthstone expansion, and Starcraft: Remastered from Blizzard, while over in League of Legends teams are jockeying to get one of the newly announced “franchise” slots for 2018’s LCS. You can see how a few days out of the loop can change the landscape dramatically, similar to the movie Dark City, but with more freaks and crazies.
With all of that, it’s a welcome relief to sit down and write a column about what happened most recently in Counter-Strike. The Krakow Major saw the biggest Championship upset since fnatic beat NiP at DreamHack Winter 2013. More than that, we saw two finalists nobody predicted, Gambit Gaming and Immortals. While the former was one of Europe’s most improved teams and could have been construed as a dark horse for a deep run, Immortals were in their first major, and can’t even be considered the best team in Brazil. Both took down opponents who had more money, bigger star names and championship pedigree, en route to Gambit doing something few thought was possible.
There was a romance to it all seldom seen in Counter-Strike, particularly for Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko. The former Na’Vi in-game leader was unceremoniously booted from the organization whose name he had helped build. At the time, the prescribed wisdom was that while he was a solid in-game leader, he didn’t frag enough and rubbed star players up the wrong way. Gambit seemed like a lifeline for his professional career when the move was first announced. With his stock at an all-time low he felt it necessary to tweet that he wouldn’t quit until he won a major, which is all too often either a hollow sentiment, or the words of the delusional. Kevin “Ex6TenZ” Droolans said the same thing. You can decide which of those two categories he falls into. Teslenko’s Na’Vi were considered one of the best teams to never have won a major. They remain that way, while the big Ukrainian now boasts one among his many achievements.
Prior to this major, many believed, myself included, that we were entering the era of the superteams. FaZe, after hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk into their team, were finally winning events. G2 had finally put together all the French phenoms in one lineup, something fans wanted for years. Astralis were always consistent and now backed by millions of investment money. North were surely sleeping giants, so many Danish stars on one roster, also now backed by real money. As long as SK Gaming has Marcelo "coldzera" David on the books, they can always be considered a super-team. Yet it was none of these who lifted the biggest trophy CS:GO has to offer. Instead it was Gambit, a team that the casual fan would have dismissed as being made up of washed-up veterans and players who have yet to make a name for themselves.
What’s amazing is there really are no excuses. For the naysayers, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than the lack of proper preparation holding their teams back. Initially, they blamed no salaries, then they blamed salaries being too high… After that, it was a lack of new talent coming through, then the scene went on to produce the best rookies in the world. As a region, it is massively underachieving given the talent pool it can draw from. American teams have all the pieces they need to produce a world-beating roster, but it seems too many don’t truly value the status that winning brings. Many of them would rather be a Twitch streaming celebrity than a title winning professional player. There’s even a few who seem to genuinely believe they can be both. Trust me, you can’t.
Many European fans as well may have to accept that many of their teams are falling flat despite an embarrassment of riches, figuratively and literally in many cases. FaZe’s 0-3 should have rightfully seen them castigated, although fortunately for them all anyone wanted to talk about was their defeat at the hands of the German team BiG and their supposed bug abuse. Even if you were sipping on that brand of Kool Aid, there’s not enough in the bowl to justify losses to mousesports and Flipside Tactics.
FaZe are the most egregious example of big failures in Krakow, but G2 and Na’Vi are not that far behind them. Both sport mercurial talents and rosters that should have chemistry but you wouldn’t know it from their performances. There are few smiles among these players when it comes to game time. Most of them look tired, weighed down by the knowledge that they should be better but lacking any explanation as to why they aren’t. Both these teams show that reputations are counting for less and less, that the puzzle of success has increasingly obscure solutions.
When Astralis won the major, many felt it would usher in the next era of dominance in global Counter-Strike. Instead, the Danes, while incredibly consistent and always contenders, didn’t win enough to be considered the same as the dynasties before them. Since their drop off, the spoils have been shared among a few teams, many of them hoping to use those events as a catalyst to starting an era of their own. It’s not shocking to say there won’t be an era for Gambit. There’s already talk of a reunion between Teslenko and Na’Vi, which some feel would be the end of any hope of sustained Gambit prosperity. There’s a reason everyone was so surprised by it, even the Gambit players themselves. You can respect them while still acknowledging they will never match this achievement again. For the first time in a good while, the landscape of professional Counter-Strike seems completely undefined.
All of this is kick-starting a renewed hunger among teams and fans alike. It’s not just the fact that the highest measure of success has been achieved by a comparative minnow, but also that everyone can see the void that is there to be filled. Players who had previously professed loyalties to teammates and organizations are now open to the idea of change, even the unlikely ones. Equally, star players suddenly find their stock diminished when there’s a compelling argument to be made that a 27 year old Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev is, on current form at least, one of the best players in the world. Chances are going to be taken on new talent, and some combinations of players that were unthinkable even three months ago are likely to become reality. In that sense, the most recent major was a shot in the arm for the whole competitive scene, the result having profound ramifications rather than just a continuation of what we knew. Thanks to all of this, and I can honestly say, without it being labeled corporate hyperbole, that the upcoming season of ELEAGUE is likely to be the most exciting yet.
This article was written before the conclusion of multiple roster changes and player transfers, a summary of the most important ones will follow in a subsequent column.