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Six and a half years of never-ending competition in the open circuit has made Counter-Strike: Global Offensive one of the most exciting, prolific and narratively pleasing esports titles to follow. Yet while the scene has borne witness to great teams in every era, some sides never finished what they seemingly had to say. Squads on the come-up who left too soon. Champions who didn’t get many more chances. Dark horses who bolted before the story was done being told.

These are Thorin’s Top 10 CS:GO line-ups that left us wanting more.

Part 1: 10-6
Part 2: 5-1


10. Scrimmy but strong – iBUYPOWER

Line-up: swag, Skadoodle, DaZeD, AZK and steel
Active period: 27/03/2014 – 05/11/2014 (7 months)

Placings:
ESEA S16 Global Finals (1st)
Gfinity G3 (5th-8th)
ESL One Cologne 2014 (9th-12th)
CEVO-P S5 Finals (1st)
GXL Universe (4th)
FACEIT S2 Finals (2nd)
ESWC 2014 (5th-8th)

coL/C9 had been North America’s darlings until this line-up came along, but seangares’s men lacked some of the firepower necessary to reasonably expect to best Europe’s finest and lift trophies. iBUYPOWER acquired swag, one of the coL’s stars, and added Source veteran steel to provide some more structure to DaZeD’s team. They won their first international tournament, taking down reigning major champions Virtus.pro along the way. Clearly, this was a team with high potential.

At their best, they represented the kind of scrimmy but exciting playing style North America would embrace and find success with in years to come. Victory over LDLC in the semi-final of FACEIT S2 Finals and nearly taking FNATIC to five games in the final was big time stuff. Those are two of the best line-ups to ever play CS:GO, with the latter considered the greatest right up until Astralis’s recent dominance.

Even some of their perceived failures were far less damning in context. At Gfinity G3 they were close to earning an even better seed in the group stage, tying the new FNATIC and beating NiP – the world’s number one ranked team. Some network issues left nobody feeling good about some of those results. In the play-offs they ran into the still very strong kennyS and NBK Titan.

Their lone major appearance, at ESL One Cologne, saw them draw a nightmare group of Virtus.pro and FNATIC, two of the top four teams in the world. At ESWC, their final event with this line-up, they nearly beat the dignitas core which has since gone on to become Astralis and lost in a tight series to Na’Vi, a dark horse team and eventual semi-finalist at the major the following month.

Why they left us wanting more:

This was a team that had a lot of strong pieces, especially in the context of the time. swag was considered North America’s Counter-Strike prodigy and had been blazing hot at times that year. Skadoodle was emerging as a strong AWPer on the international stage, though he still struggled at majors.

Under DaZeD, one of the better fragging IGLs, the team played to their strong skills, put up big CT sides and could give even Europe’s best hell on maps like dust2 and inferno, their best. This team legitimately competed admirably with or beat FNATIC, LDLC, Virtus.pro, NiP, Dignitas and Na’Vi. Those were literally most of the top teams in the world.

While internal disputes tore the team apart, one is left to wonder what might have been had they been able to attend Dreamhack Winter 2014, the last major of the year, and see what one last run could have looked like. With KQLY’s VAC ban disqualifying Titan, they would have been in the depleted Group B of Dignitas, Copenhagen Wolves and PENTA.

Dignitas were at a comparable level to iBUYPOWER and had even lost two maps to them at FACEIT S2 Finals a month earlier. PENTA were relative nobodies and barely beat the much different line-up iBP ended up sending. Copenhagen Wolves had some recognisable names but were nowhere near a top team. This was a strong chance to make the play-offs of their first major as a core and, with Dignitas being close to a coin-flip game, they could played either VP or Na’Vi, teams they had beaten or played close previously. They would not have been favoured to win, but they would not have been large underdogs. A top four finish was not implausible.

Even if DaZeD and steel had not been kicked prior to the major, allowing a guy called nitr0 to get a shot at the big time, Valve’s axe was set to fall a few months later, thanks to the online game they had thrown and bet on in August. Nonetheless, this was a deceptively strong North American line-up which at least had one last run in them, seemingly.


9. The super stand-in – Team Liquid

Line-up: s1mple, EliGE, Hiko, JDM and nitr0
Active period: 13/06/2016 – 04/08/2016 (1 month)

Placings:
ECS S1 Finals (5th-6th)
ESL One Cologne 2016 (2nd)

It’s often cited that Ukrainian prodigy s1mple was a stand-in for this line-up, which is true in one sense and not in another. s1mple was still under contract even after he went home to Ukraine following Dreamhack Masters Malmo and later played with Worst Players at Starladder. When Liquid tired of their experiment with koosta and decided to remove IGL adreN, they brought in CLG AWP star JDM and asked s1mple to return to the line-up for a run of two events in the summer.

At ECS S1 Finals, the event G2 famously overcame Luminosity in the final of, Liquid beat the eventual champions in a cbblestone Bo1 in the group stage, only to lose to Luminosity on train and then fall in a three map decider to the aforementioned G2. In that latter series, s1mple had one of the worst series of his career, going 37:61 for a -24 differential. Fans had no reason to hope for much at ESL One Cologne, the major and the last event of this brief experiment.

Given one of the tougher groups, featuring no elite team but lots of parity, Liquid showed a strong performance and moved on to the play-offs. There, they ran a murderer’s row, beating Na’Vi and FNATIC in Bo3 series – two of the best teams of the year to that point. Those vividly memorable victories came, of course, thanks to seemingly superhuman theatrics from s1mple, who was essentially auditioning for a place in Na’Vi and to become the next “world’s best player”.

Following a disappointing drubbing at the hands of the imperious SK Gaming in the final, excitement around the line-up was such that many hoped Team Liquid could find a way to keep s1mple on board for a longer period this time. Alas, internal dispute over whether he should stay and his departure for home country titans Na’Vi soon after ended any future the two parties could have had together.

Why they left us wanting more:

s1mple has been the best player in the world for more than a calendar year now and many speculate he can already be put into the conversation for best CS:GO player in history. The Ukrainian was already improving year-on-year by he arrived at Team Liquid and his play-off performance at his last tournament for Liquid was arguably the best of his career to that point in time.

With SK set to stop winning trophies, VP returning to elite form but not dominant and Astralis yet to rise, Team Liquid would have been an erratic but powerful dark horse side in global Counter-Strike. Consider the success of teams like NiP, Cloud9 and Dignitas around this time period to highlight the legitimate championship potential that was on offer during this “uncertainty era”.

What’s more, EliGE showed his first big boy performance at that very same major, and would go on to become the strong carry of the team in his own right as the year closed out. A potential pairing of s1mple and EliGE, such contrasting playing styles and skill-sets, could well have resulted in an even stronger Liquid. s1mple and Liquid were never going to be a long and happy marriage, but to leave on that unfinished note still lacks satisfying closure.


8. Six and oh – FNATIC

Credit: Helena Kristiansson

Line-up: olofmeister, flusha, KRiMZ, dennis and JW
Active period: 12/11/2015 – 08/04/2016 (4 months)

Placings:
Dreamhack Winter 2015 (1st)
ESL ESEA ProLeague S2 Finals (1st)
StarSeries XIV (1st)
ESL Expo Barcelona (1st)
IEM X World Championship (1st)
MLG Columbus 2016 (5th-8th)

pronax’s departure after Dreamhack Cluj-Napoca was supposed to be the end of the FNATIC era and see them need to work their way back into a winning position, having been elite but decaying over those last few months and arguably charmed to have been able to summon one last push and grab the Cologne major before their fall.

dennis came in to replace pronax, fresh off a top four finish with G2 in Cluj, but left FNATIC looking like a team lacking an identity. Minus their IGL and with a player who was skilled but had not put together the kind of resume the others could boast, clearly FNATIC would be a team with dangerous firepower, but there was no reason to expect they would win big titles necessarily.

While FNATIC did prove to be a team lacking a clear identity and traditional playing style, this side defied expectations and won their first six offline events together, an absurd feat on the face of it. Sure, they lost a lot for a team with that level of dominance, falling to nV in a number of offline Bo3, but they would still end the event with the trophy hoisted high.

Top contenders Na’Vi and Luminosity looked ready to make a run at the world number one spot, only for FNATIC to again and again ruin their dreams. Going into MLG Columbus, the major and their seventh offline event together, they were a heavy favourite to win JW and flusha a fourth major title. That is until they arrived at the event and it became immediately clear olof was limited by injury, seeing them lose to Team Liquid and get out of their group only in second.

In the quarter-finals they ran up against the Astralis team who had been their Kryptonite the previous year, but who they had beaten with this line-up. karrigan and company convincingly eliminated FNATIC, even providing the now infamous time-out prior to the last round, to give FNATIC time to think over the result.

olof exited the line-up immediately, they skipped Dreamhack Malmo and when the former world number one returned he was never again the same kind of dominant and imposing in-game force. The FNATIC era had ended with pronax’s departure, but now olof’s individual era had ended too. FNATIC would not win another big trophy with this five man line-up.

Why they left us wanting more:

Even pronax’s FNATIC had never won six titles in a row, in fact nobody but NiP, in the first years of the game, had accomplished that feat. Even if they had bled losses en route to those trophies, this team had an aura surrounding them which intimidated and infuriated opponents. If you were Na’Vi or LG you looked over at teams like nV and Astralis, lower ranked sides, getting wins over FNATIC and wondered why they always did “just FNATIC things” against you and prevailed over you on your best maps nonetheless.

No team has ever entered a major on that kind of streak of victories. For the run to not only end in the quarter-finals, but in part thanks to an injury which ended the dominance of one of the game’s greatest individual players was an unbearable tease. It was also narratively dissatisfying, as Na’Vi awaited them in the semi-finals – having never beaten them in an offline Bo3 series – and Luminosity, the same team they’d beaten in the Katowice final, would have been a potential finals opponent.

Being as this team did reunite, twice, but not to the same level of success and with their window having passed, a little of the “what if” was delivered upon, so they are ranked this low despite their accomplishments.


7. Ninja assassins – Virtus.pro

Credit: ESL

Line-up: GuardiaN, Dosia, ANGE1, kucher and Fox
Active period: 02/06/2013 – 18/07/2013 (1 month)

Placings:
StarSeries SVI (3rd)
Dreamhack Summer 2013 (3rd-4th)
EMS One Summer (2nd)

While it was this line-up minus GuardiaN and with AdreN that had ended NiP’s perfect 87:0 run, defeating them in the upper bracket final and final of StarSeries SV, that team never made it to another offline event together. With AdreN pushed out, the team brought in Slovakian mercenary and god-like Source AWPer GuardiaN, who was far from fluent in the team’s native Russian.

That didn’t matter much with firepower like the Slovak brought, though, and VP continued their status as one of the world’s best teams and one of the few sides which could match the reigning Ninjas. At EMS One Summer they finally overcame NiP for the first time with this line-up, and on their third attempt, only to fall to shox and Ex6TenZ’s VeryGames in the final and denied a trophy.

Less than three weeks after that runners-up finish, the team disbanded and the Astana Dragons CIS super-team was formed, with Dosia and ANGE1 joining up with previous team-mate AdreN and Na’Vi’s stars of markeloff and Edward. The Dragons showed their own strengths, but too failed to win big international trophies.

Why they left us wanting more:

This was only the second line-up to hand NiP an offline Bo3 series loss and aside from that had also played them close in another series. Considering four of the members had previously battled NiP valiantly and then eventually ended their streak, this was a line-up which seemed not only deep with potential but essential to the health of a scene in which NiP still very much looked set to remain tyrants.

Remember, that EMS victory for VeryGames marked their first ever offline trophy at an event NiP attended too and it wouldn’t be until October that the French finally bested NiP themselves. VP, in a similar sense to the later Polish line-up, were the formidable dark horse who could hold even the kings of CS:GO accountable and force them to play their best each time.

Had they stuck together for longer, not only were trophies not implausible, but they would have been just outside of the favourites for Dreamhack Winter 2013, the first CS:GO major. It would take the CIS region until Dreamhack Cluj-Napoca to see its first major final appearance and until PGL Krakow, four years after this VP line-up, to win one.

This team had a high fragging level, with Dosia one of the game’s best players and GuardiaN electrifying servers with his ridiculous AWPing ability. This was not yet the consistent GuardiaN of 2015, but when he was on it was one of the best shows in town. With one of the game’s best riflers, one of the best AWPers, a fragging IGL and their own playing style, VP teased us only to change their minds.


6. No third act – Gambit Esports

Line-up: AdreN, HObbit, m0u, Zeus and Dosia
Active period: 12/10/2016 – 09/08/2017 (9 months)

Placings:
ESWC 2016 (5th-8th)
Acer Predator Masters (1st)
Dreamhack Open Winter 2016 (1st)
ELEAGUE Major Atlanta (5th-8th)
Dreamhack Masters Las Vegas 2017 (5th-8th)
StarSeries S3 (12th-14th)
cs_summit 1 (2nd)
Dreamhack Open Austin (1st)
Dreamhack Open Summer (5th-6th)
PGL Major Krakow 2017 (1st)

Gambit’s acquisition of HObbit on loan from tengri and Zeus from Na’Vi did not come with much fanfare. HObbit was 22 year old nobody and Zeus was considered a washed up former in-game leader coming back to his role. Na’Vi’s best success in CS:GO had come under starix’s leadership and few would have imagined what Zeus might accomplish elsewhere.

Gambit began ominously enough, flunking against a field of tier two and three talent at ESWC, but winning a Dreamhack Winter which featured teams like Dignitas, Cloud9 and OpTic in the field. Making play-offs at the major was a bold statement, but Gambit were a team caught in the difficult spot of being specialists on maps like cbblestone and overpass, and thus a Bo1 upset threat, but unable to win big Bo3 series over top ranked teams. As such, it took until the summer before Gambit began to show signs of being a team capable of more.

Beating out G2 and IMT to win Dreamhack Open Austin, Gambit were heating up and proving more than just map specialists. Even their failure to make the play-offs at Dreamhack Summer comes with the caveat that they were upset in over-time by FNS’s CLG on overpass, CLG themselves being a team capable of sniping bigger names in Bo1s; beat the same C9 about to go on a run of their own in a Bo3; and finally fell to a FNATIC which had one of its few inspired runs at this tournament and went all the way to the final.

At the major, Gambit were monstrous. Beating a strong set of names (mouz, G2 and VP) in the Swiss system, they then exacted revenge upon FNATIC for Dreamhack in the quarter-finals. Into Gambit’s first ever major top four, their run was expected to finish with a match-up with Astralis, the dominant team in global Counter-Strike a four months earlier. An epic and close three map win had the hard yards behind Zeus and company. They beat IMT in the final and Zeus and the CIS region won their first major.

How they did they follow that up? Coach kane was kicked, Zeus left and the team recruited fitch, another Kazakhstani “who?” to replace him. Despite initially looking still relevant, the team began to enter their nosedive and by early 2018 were fairly irrelevant.

Why they left us wanting more:

The gradual but steady improvement of Gambit up to their major run was admirable but showed no omens of a potential major champion. That run in Krakow had them playing all quality opponents, besting one of the top teams in the world straight up and their 4:0 score on train at the tournament suggested their match-ups going forwards would have been quite intriguing, as Astralis had abandoned the map, VP had fallen off as a team overall and only SK stood as monsters of the map.

Credit: Adela Sznajder

A line-up which had initially seemed lacking in big guns found itself boasting two. AdreN had already been approaching top tier individual status prior to this run, but HObbit joining him with big numbers was unexpected. m0u, ever the gate-keeper AWPer, was not needed to carry regularly and could contribute one-off stand-out performances, such as the infamous overpass opener against Astralis, which put Gambit over the top. With Zeus having reaffirmed himself as a strong IGL, Gambit were a tasty little package.

It’s never going to be satisfying to see a team hit their zenith of form together, beat one of the best in the world, win the major and then end their time as a five man unit without ever playing another map.

Despite winning the major, this was not a team who had a track record of beating the likes of Astralis, so their ranking reflects that much of the hype of seeing them defend their title would have been strictly hypothetical.


Later this week I’ll count down the top five teams that left me in the lurch and wishing for a peek into an alternate reality where they kept going.

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