As Renegades and potentially ENCE move into quarter-final slots and the accompanying “Legends” status associated with them, a distinction can be drawn from the underdog runs of majors past. Previously, without the peer seeding; Elo system and Bo3s, many upsets were easily and appropriately written off as flukes.
The teams making their entry into such hallowed ground this time around are less one-off and benefactors of luck than they are real teams who emphasise the team-play and tactical strengths which have made the Counter-Strike franchise more than the seemingly mindless fragging and action of the Call of Duty series. This marks the era of the rise of the small but real teams.
No wonder the other team were upset
Casting one’s gaze back across the history of CS:GO, the vast majority of the underdog teams causing upsets en route to a big tournament placing were very much riding a fortuitous run of circumstances. They relied upon shallow and narrow map pools, needing to find an opponent fool-hardy enough to let one of their strong maps through or good enough on the map that they thought it wouldn’t matter. Typically, a win condition required a star player or two for the underdog side having not just a good performance, but either the performance of their career or one which in some sense out-matched the performance of the opposing teams’ stars.
The latter point – the bigger named team under-performing – being the underlying component which has led to many an upset being easily written off by experts, even if fans of said team were elated and hoped their side had taken a step up in overall level and would legitimately be that kind of team going forwards. So rarely was it possible to confirm or join in with such a chorus of optimism and hope, as when those fortuitous conditions were not present it was inevitable that what went up must come down again, like some cynical but predictable analytical “law of lesser team gravity”.
Meet the new breed of underdog
While sides like HellRaisers are still very much representing the old archetype of the team with dangerous but inconsistent upset potential, a new breed of team has emerged which promises to both excite neutral observers and impress analysts along the way to bigger and better placings and scalps taken. These are teams who may not possess the best players in the game, but have a systems-based approach which allows them to perform at a higher level than the marquee value of their names might suggest.
Here are line-ups who enhance the individual contributions of their members thanks to having them placed in the right roles and with a coherent logic which allows for a level of team-play and depth of play-book that had typically only been the domain of the elite sides previously. With these fundamentals in place and given their proper attention, the stars of these sides certainly deliver big game performances and highlights, but the work put in to provide such a platform from which to shine should not be overlooked.
Such observations help account for the disparity between analysts and fans in affinity for lesser but structured teams previously, like Dignitas/North and the pre-Dreamhack Winter 2015 Luminosity Gaming. Here were sides whose upsets made sense, whose map pool was better than expected and who did not rely on headshots alone to win rounds.
2019 sees not just one or two teams, but a glut of them emerging on the international stage. Australia’s Renegades may never see a player as good as NAF in their ranks again – indeed it was only an unusual set of circumstances which afforded them his services in the first place – but look like a better team than they ever did with him wearing their colours, capable of competing against seemingly any team in the field.
Finland’s ENCE might have seemed to have risen on the back of allu’s return or sergej’s talent developing, but those factors alone are far less significant to their victories than their well balanced roles and coordination. Suddenly a side like FaZe look practically one dimensional in comparison.
BIG are still navigating the transition from smooya to nex and integrating XANTARES, but last year’s results have shown they were a team with a better map pool than anyone at their level, a constant forward momentum in innovating tactics and a keen sense of getting onto the same page as legendary IGL gob b. If North could make the same claims then how many more titles might they have won?
NRG in many ways led the way for all of the aforementioned teams, taking players who had never been global to stars on the global stage and pairing them with a role player and IGL who appeared washed up or never-were-going-to-be’s and, after a few months of settling into offline play together, accomplished results which make it unfair to even categorise them as an underdog team any more. As such, NRG stand as the pioneers who have led the way, as the late 2016 Dignitas team did previously, for these smaller and humbler sides to climb the ladder of international rankings.
Enter stage right
When the world’s best Counter-Strike teams are playing out their first matches in tournaments, with our scene now almost universally adopting sturdy seeding systems, they are no longer looking simply to avoid a specific map or contain or survive a single star name. They will be required to play real, fundamentally-sound and tactically-driven Counter-Strike from the get-go. That or play against it.
I hope even the most casual of fans can appreciate that beyond the headshots and the novelty of an unexpected result, this new era promises to build a stronger competitive scene entirely and promote the values which make champions into champions, even if we can sometimes get distracted by their flashy headshots and stunning reflexive reactions.