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
5. North America’s could-have-beens – OpTic Gaming
Line-up: mixwell, tarik, NAF, RUSH and stanislaw
Active period: 14/09/2016 – 01/02/2017 (4 months)
ESL One New York 2016 (5th-6th)
EPL S4 Finals (5th-6th)
Northern Arean Montreal 2016 (1st)
Dreamhack Open Winter 2016 (7th-8th)
ELEAGUE S2 (1st)
ECS S2 Finals (2nd)
ELEAGUE Major Atlanta (12th-14th)
OpTic were nothing special around this line-up’s formation and in fact this was not even initially intended to be their five. They brought in tarik from CLG and kicked stanislaw, only to attend Northern Arena Toronto and fall earlier than expected. Bringing back stanislaw, making him IGL and kicking Daps was the move which set in place the five who would go on to impress.
At their early LANs they were already upsetting quality teams like G2, karrigan’s Astralis, Liquid and IMT. At Northern Arena Montreal they defeated shox and ScreaM’s G2 in the final in a Bo3 to announce they were more than just a Bo1 threat. Sure, there was the flunking of Dreamhack Winter, but that saw them losing on cbblestone to Gambit – something even world class cbblestone teams would do in the coming months – and falling to domestic rivals Cloud9 in a Bo3, a common occurrence for every NA side at the time.
At ELEAGUE Season 2, OpTic battled against the odds to reach the play-offs, having to beat the new look FNATIC of twist and disco doplan in a Bo3 to do so. Underdogs in every play-off series, they first dispatched NiKo’s mouz and then karrigan’s FaZe Clan to reach the final. With the opponent for the trophy being the new Astralis line-up, OpTic’s chances seemed slim.
Astralis had finished top four at IEM Oakland just before, topped a group featuring SK and Na’Vi and beaten SK 2:0 straight up and stopped their 17 game train winning streak. With device looking like the best player in the world, gla1ve’s men expected nothing but first place. Fate had another story to tell, as OpTic reached an overpass decider and stood one map from the title. Overpass was a map Astralis had just beaten NiP and SK on in succession, but they would not come close to a win here, as NAF exploded for 30+ and handed his team the trophy.
In a bizarre set of circumstances, the two teams could run it back the next week, as ECS S2 Finals ended with them again meeting in the final and this time Astralis easily taking the title 2:0. Still, OpTic had again impressed in the field, besting Cloud9 in a Bo3 at last and again taking down FaZe Clan. Astralis looked like the best team in the world, but OpTic seemed a strong dark horse team in their own right.
At the major, OpTic would finish 1:3 in the Swiss sytem and be eliminated outside of the top eight, but not without significant context which bears mentioning. With the old and flawed seeding system, OpTic drew Virtus.pro, one of the best teams in the world, in their opener and lost 13:16. Next up they were stupefied to find themselves facing Astralis, who had been shocked by GODSENT in their own opener, and after a 12:16 game OpTic were down 0:2 without having played anyone but elite teams.
They would get a win, finally, by taking down FlipSide 16:13, but GODSENT delivered another upset in the fourth game of Swiss, stomping down 16:8 to eliminate stan and his crew. They would never play another offline map together and stanislaw left to join Team Liquid, apparently without making his peace with some of his team-mates first.
Why they left us wanting more:
OpTic did so much we had not seen from a North American team before. When Cloud9 had made their summer runs in 2015 they had failed to win a big trophy. When iBUYPOWER had defeated Titan for the ESEA S15 title and VP en route to the S16 crown, those were at a LAN without a big stage setup and the accompanying pressure and spotlight. Stewie’s Cloud9 had won EPL S4 during OpTic’s window, but had failed to deliver consistent top finishes either side of that lone victory and thus it looked set to be an over-performance.
OpTic’s rise was steady, going from Bo1 upset merchants to eventually taking down the teams in the top 10 in Bo3 series. Their victory over Astralis, winners of the next major, was only one of two Bo3 series loss Astralis would face until February of the next year, with the other team being the two time major winning SK Gaming. That ELEAGUE victory gave them a big international trophy to boast alongside their consistency and quality resume of wins. While the final had looked like an over-performance, two series wins over FaZe Clan and one over Cloud9 showed OpTic were for real.
In the end, one poor major, even then a very hard one in context, inexplicably broke the team apart. To this day, nobody knows who stanislaw decided to leave and some of his team-mates and fans of the team took a long time to forgive him for his decision.
OpTic had a strong distribution of skill, with mixwell and tarik already playing like stars and NAF showing flashes of the player who would two years later become NA’s best. stanislaw was a strong fragging IGL and RUSH was a loyal and reliable entry player who brought their aggressive style together. The team had a respectable map pool, able to play five maps to an international standard: overpass, cache, train, nuke and cbblestone. They should have been able to match-up with practically anyone out there, had they remained together.
This was not just one of North America’s best ever line-ups, but one which had major winning potential long before tarik was wearing Cloud9’s white and blue.
4. Under-rated and well-rounded – LDLC
Line-up: apEX, KQLY, Happy, Maniac and Uzziii
Active period: 02/02/2014 – 03/09/2014 (7 months)
EMS One Katowice 2014 (5th-8th)
Copenhagen Games 2014 (3rd-4th)
Dreamhack Valencia (1st)
ESL One Cologne 2014 (3rd-4th)
The line-up I have dubbed “the forgotten LDLC” managed to accomplish enough in around six months of play together that end up as one of the most under-rated line-ups in history. Certainly, the presence of KQLY, who was VAC banned for cheating a few months after the end of this line-up, taints this team’s accomplishments, but without being certain whether he cheated in official matches for this team or not one must simply look at what is.
Titan were the best team in the world at the formation of this LDLC line-up and the next best player outside of Titan was kennyS, who had played with the core of this line-up at Dreamhack Winter 2013 but now was in Clan-Mystik. This LDLC line-up had no reasons for anyone to expect them to be world class and certainly no expectations that they would contend with the big boys for the big titles.
At EMS One Katowice, the second major and LDLC’s first event together with this line-up, they managed to reach the play-offs, but ran right into the impossible-to-stop Virtus.pro who were in full plow mode and en route to the major title. Copenhagen Games came the following month and this time LDLC took down Titan in the quarter-finals, leading to shox departing that line-up after the event, and again faced VP in the next round. Once more, VP took down Happy’s men.
Dreamhack Valencia was an event lacking many of the best teams, but shox’s Epsilon were in attendance and a veteran-loaded HellRaisers was lurking, still containing many of the players who had first dethroned NiP the previous year. LDLC took the title and cemented themselves as a team who were only going to lose to the very best in the world.
At ESL One Cologne, the third major, LDLC at last got revenge on VP, 2:0ing them in an infamous quarter-final. In the semi-final they faced an NiP who were more vulnerable than ever. Having had their top four placing streak snapped in the months prior, NiP had been beaten by Epsilon in the group stage and made it to the play-offs in second place. There, they had faced a red hot Cloud9 who had come so close to ending their hopes of yet another major final. Now, LDLC would face the same fate, pushing NiP to three maps and a 30 round decider, only to fall at the last moment to an NiP showing a truly memorable instance of “NiP magic”. NiP went on to win the major, pulling off similar shenanigans against FNATIC in the final and for a third straight series in a row.
Despite being in such strong form and with a line-up which not only worked but was a clear example of being “more than the sum of their parts”, LDLC would be torn apart by politics within the French scene. As is often the case when a newer line-up rises up without big names, the teams who previously been on top swarmed and picked apart the pieces they considered valuable. Traditional best French team Titan stole away apEX, Maniac and KQLY to retool their squad. NBK and shox took Happy as their fifth player for the next LDLC line-up. Uzziii was quietly put out to pasture. So fell this LDLC line-up.
Why they left us wanting more:
At the time of this line-up, these players were much less well known than they are now. apEX was a player with potential but who had yet to be a part of the elite squads. KQLY had skills but had only really performed in the out-of-the-blue Clan-Mystik ESWC run of the previous year. Happy had been around the French scene for years, but nobody had him down as someone with a trajectory to be a top IGL. Maniac and Uzziii were players the top teams would not have given a second glance.
Despite such circumstances, LDLC’s line-up turned out to be a consistently high level performer. apEX had his career best form and was a monster, tearing open T sides with his powerful AK entry play and leading the way for what was one of the best offensive teams in the game. KQLY was one of the best hybrids in the game, though at times erratic in his form, as he could both rifle and AWP with great impact.
Happy was much less rigid in his lurking style, willing to occasionally go in with the rest of the pack to make his tactics work. Speaking of which, this was a squad which was very different from the infamous “I lurk here and you four attack elsewhere” style Happy won a major with. This LDLC squad were far more likely to run executes and got the most out of their players in admirable fashion. As such, Maniac did his job and was much better than the player who initially joined Titan and Uzziii was not a noticeable liability, as some might imagine.
The results they did have were impressive, finishing top eight at their first major, making the semi-finals of a big international tournament, winning a medium sized international tournament and finishing a couple of rounds from the final of the second major they played together. Adding in that they defeated Titan and VP in Bo3 series offline, when those teams were among the very best in the world, is big time stuff.
This is also a team which has a lot of “what if” plot-lines within that successful run. In Katowice one is left to wonder how far they could have gone if they’d played some of the other opponents they could have gotten, such as Sweden’s LGD and Denmark’s Dignitas. Instead they lost to the eventual champion. In Cologne it was a similar story, where NiP beat them and took the title but had LDLC won two more rounds in that decider then they would have been playing in the major final. Their opponent there was a FNATIC line-up which was considered the greatest for many years after, but were at only their second offline event together and had yet to develop a champion’s mentality.
LDLC also had a surprisingly strong map pool. With very strong records on maps like inferno and dust2, ever available in the map pool against most teams; a strong record on nuke, a map many teams disliked; an under-rated mirage, with two of their losses coming to VP and them eventually getting one over on the Poles too; and a train which they used only occasionally but scored them a notable win over a Titan who left it in the pool and were punished.
Sure, the next LDLC line-up went to on to win a major and become one of the greatest in history, far exceeding the accomplishments and trajectory of this team, but this was a team without the big star names or massive strengths in specific areas. Here was a well balanced team, with players who played above the level their names would suggest, with a nicely rounded out map pool and a style which was consistent against even the best teams in the game.
Those next six months after Cologne would have been very interesting for a squad like this. One could even imagine what might have been had they survived long enough to themselves get access to big name player acquisitions like shox and NBK.
3. So strong and so suddenly over – FaZe Clan
Line-up: NiKo, rain, allu, kioShiMa and karrigan
Active period: 20/02/2017 – 03/08/2017 (6 months)
IEM XI World Championship (2nd)
StarSeries S3 Finals (1st)
IEM XII Sydney (2nd)
ECS S3 Finals (2nd)
ESL One Cologne 2017 (3rd-4th)
PGL Major Krakow 2017 (15th-16th)
FaZe had been a laughing stock in 2016 until karrigan had taken over as IGL. Quickly, he had gotten them to a level where they could compete with the game’s top teams and make solid play-off runs. Acquiring NiKo weeks prior to IEM Katowice gave karrigan and company the super-star talent they needed to push for the absolute top spot.
At their first event together, the aforementioned Katowice, they powered all the way to the final, only to lose out in a Bo5 final to an Astralis side who were the best in the world at the time and had too deep a map pool for FaZe, who were playing with barely any practice time logged with NiKo. At the next event FaZe were already stronger, again reaching a finals match-up with Astralis and this time battling to comeback into the deciding third map and winning in over-time. With this title in their grasp, many expected we could enjoy either more trophies for this multi-national side or a great rivalry with Astralis to come.
The former did not arrive, but the latter delivered. At IEM Sydney, FaZe again beat Astralis, this time in the semi-final, but ran into a resurgent SK Gaming in the final and again lost a Bo5 with a title on the line. SK were establishing themselves as the best team in the world and FaZe would be the unfortunate victims of numerous losses to coldzera and company.
At ECS S3 Finals, FaZe made the final and sought a win over SK, but saw a first map led turn into two incredibly close over-time losses and another runners-up finish. At ESL One Cologne, FaZe faced SK in the semi-finals and, despite one over-time loss on cache, again saw the series go the Brazilians’ way and a third straight offline Bo3 series fall to their enemies.
Despite only having one trophy to boast of, FaZe came into PGL Krakow, their first major with this line-up, as one of the favourites to take the title. In one of the most unexpected and shocking runs of form, FaZe not only failed to make the play-offs of the major but were denied even a single map win. Losing to mouz in over-time could perhaps be forgiven, but their losses to BIG and FlipSid3, far from top teams, were embarrassing and killed the line-up then and there.
Why they left us wanting more:
FaZe did go on to recruit GuardiaN and olof and win a number of trophies and establish another disappointing yet somehow stellar run of form. Still, that line-up achieved so much of its success thanks to their super-star talents and clicking heads inside the server. This previous FaZe line-up was a much more interesting affair. NiKo finally had the supporting cast to make his strongest case for being the best player in the world. karrigan had rehabilitated his career by taking pieces which hadn’t had success for quite a while and make them champions and an elite squad. kioShiMa went from “the problem” to a savvy role player.
Knowing what we know now, about the problems the next line-up would run into, it would have been intriguing to see what this FaZe could have accomplished by staying together. They had one of the better map pools in the scene and arguably the best IGL at throwing off opponents in the pick-ban phase and getting edges for his side. They had a nice balance of star talents and role players, making them a much more complete team than the FaZe line-ups which followed.
This is a team which was close to winning legitimately three titles in a row. Realistically, two was probably the more likely number they would have gotten, but they were in position for more trophies than they ended up with. Likewise, they could have been such a dangerous squad in the play-offs of the major, had they not arrived in their worst ever form and promptly collapsed into elimination.
Consider that this is a team who won a significant international title, played in four straight finals, reached top four in their first five events together and only had one objectively poor result. To accomplish all of that in five events and then kill the line-up seems both hasty and unsatisfying, though some of the personality-based factors behind-the-scenes certainly make sense.
2. Dangerous dual AWP set-up – Titan
Line-up: kennyS, KQLY, apEX, Ex6TenZ and Maniac
Active period: 03/09/2014 – 20/11/2014 (2 months)
Dreamhack Invitational II (1st)
StarSeries SXI (3rd)
ESWC French Qualifier (1st)
ESWC 2014 (5th-8th)
The first French shuffle brought this line-up about after a little game of musical chairs. Initially, Ex6TenZ had hoped to get apEX and Maniac, while retaining NBK. Little did he know, but NBK was trying to lure kennyS to come and join him in a new line-up with shox. As it happened, neither party got everything they wanted and thus NBK left for LDLC, kennyS stayed with Titan and KQLY was brought in to replace NBK. LDLC had gotten more of the big names on their side of the shuffle, but Titan had built a squad with strong double AWP possibilities and they still retained one of the best tactical IGLs in the game.
The second Dreamhack Invitational in Stockholm was the first event for both of the French sides post-shuffle and Titan would be the first to impress. In the semi-final they went up against the FNATIC line-up many have since considered CS:GO’s finest, fresh off a finals run at ESL One Cologne. kennyS and KQLY styled all over FNATIC and easily swept them aside to reach the final against LDLC. In a final hampered by internet issues, Titan proved the better team and took the title over a shox and NBK who were less than amused. kennyS legitimately looked like the best player in the world and Titan had shown they were dangerous for any team.
At StarSeries SXI, an event which featured the other top French sides and Na’Vi, of the teams relevant to the top end of world Counter-Strike, Titan finished in third, losing out to LDLC at last and falling to GuardiaN’s Na’Vi. Some of the hype of their Dreamhack victory had been tempered.
Prior to ESWC, which was still a top tournament back then, there was a qualifier for the French teams. Titan faced LDLC and beat them again, provoking them to change IGLs from shox to Happy for the main event. In said main event, the two teams rematched in the quarter-final and this time LDLC were the team leaving with a victory. Titan would never play another offline game with this line-up.
KQLY logged into Steam one day at their bootcamp for Dreamhack Winter 2014, the fourth major, and found himself VAC banned for having used a cheat. Along with his ban, he was kicked from the team and Titan ended up disqualified from the major. With so much of the other French talent over in LDLC, who went on to win that major, there were not many options for Ex6TenZ and the gang. Deciding not to go down the ScreaM route again, they were able to convince RpK, Source legend and former team-mate of Ex6TenZ and kennyS, to return from inactivity and become a full-time professional again.
That move was not as simple to execute as they had hoped, with RpK lost in a meta he had not played in, having retired in early 2013, and thus required intensive attention from the IGL to be effective. Even superlative play from kennyS was not enough to get this team to a championship again.
Why they left us wanting more:
Titan were unlikely to have become the best team in the world or won majors with this line-up. Nonetheless, they represented a very strong dark horse team, especially in the context of their match-ups with the world’s best teams. They had scored two offline Bo3 series wins over LDLC, who went on to win the major and become of the very best line-ups in history. FNATIC, who would end up having an era and staking their claim to G.O.A.T. status, not only lost to this Titan but even lost a number of notable offline series to the KQLY-less Titan, who were clearly weaker, both man-for-man and in terms of effective level of performance.
Having a dark horse who could legitimately be expected to score wins off the very best teams in the game would have been a tantalising prospect. Especially when you consider the other big factor at play for Titan: kennyS. 19 year old kenny was the best player in the world and by a large margin, even over the emergent olofmeister who would hit the top spot later in FNATIC’s reign.
kenny had been an elite player prior to KQLY being banned, but needing to carry more of the load and seemingly tipped him over into god-mode. For months after, kenny would carry to a degree that Titan won games and reached stages of tournaments they had no business winning or being at, relative to their roster and the strength of the rest of the scene. Had that kennyS still had talent of KQLY’s level alongside him, not the gradually reanimating corpse of RpK and an erratic apEX, then this could have been taken some trophies here or there.
KQLY also brought a double AWP threat which had never really been witnessed to that point in time and when rolling, as teams like FNATIC and NiP had found out, could completely roll over an opponent without any resistance. Alas, four LANs, one a qualifier at that, is all we got.
1. Making magic again – Ninjas in Pyjamas
Line-up: GeT_RiGhT, f0rest, Maikelele, friberg and Xizt
Active period: 03/11/2014 – 24/03/2015 (4 months)
Dreamhack Winter 2014 (2nd)
MLG X Games Aspen Invitational (2nd)
Assembly Winter 2015 (1st)
IOS Pantamera (4th-6th)
NiP were in dire condition when fifflaren finally retired. They had won the previous major, but barely scraping through all of their play-off series and with fifflaren finishing the event with an absurdly bad -72 kill-to-death differential. Their map pool was in tatters and results had seen NiP far from winning any other trophies and even failing to qualify for offline events.
Recruiting Maikelele didn’t seem like a move with strong potential to bring NiP back to relevance. The Swede, formerly known as Eksem, had been a part of the less successful LGB line-up and his only results of note since had been a decent run at Dreamhack Summer, helping to twice upset FNATIC and kill that line-up. Statistically, Maikelele was nothing special, a very up and down player who feasted on lesser teams and could lose you as many rounds as he could win.
Dreamhack Winter was the fourth CS:GO major and the first test for the new NiP. Escaping a close game against ESC in the group stage, they smashed HellRaisers to reach the semis. VP were favoured to end their run there and indeed looked close to doing so in the opener, but NiP prevailed and progressed to the final. LDLC had beaten NiP in the group stage and would do so again here, though with NiP reaching championship point first. A fourth straight major final and their third silver medal showed that NiP could continue their greatness without needing that exact five players and that you could never count NiP or “NiP magic” out.
At MLG X Games Aspen, NiP overcame an upset loss to C9 on nuke to reach the play-offs anyway. There, they went head-to-head with FNATIC in one of the most epic and exciting series ever played. Despite some fantastic play from pronax’s future era-defining team, it was NiP stealing the series and moving on to their second back-to-back international final. Again they faced LDLC, again the series went to three maps and again the Swedes were the ones watching as the French lifted the trophy. NiP had yet win an event, they were one of the world’s elite teams again, without a doubt.
Assembly Winter was an event lacking the presence of LDLC and FNATIC, the game’s two best teams; or Dignitas, who had finished third in Aspen and were again rising up as a threat to the top end of the scene. It did feature VP, still a strong team; a KQLY-less Titan, with the best player in the world (kennyS); and HellRaisers, who could still upset or threaten a top team or two. NiP won the event and solidified themselves as a team who should only be looking to the likes of FNATIC and LDLC as rivals for upcoming trophies.
IOS Pantamera was a smaller scale event but with most of the best teams in the world attending. NiP lost to FNATIC, nV (formerly LDLC) and Titan. They drew VP and beat the Norwegian LGB. This run was not enough to make the play-offs and was apparently also the catalyst for a roster move. NiP would not play with this line-up again for more than a year and a half. Maikelele was mysteriously benched and eventually let go, with Finn allu coming over to replace him.
Why they left us wanting more:
This line-up only played four LANs together, with a medium sized title, a major final, another big international final and one group stage flunking to their name. That’s a hell of a run to throwaway over what would appear to be personal issues between Maikelele and unnamed other members of the squad. This was a team a single round from winning another major at their first ever event together.
In the Aspen final the randomiser selected the release version of cbblestone, a terrible map practically no teams knew or embraced, and one Maikelele had literally never played offline before. It’s no exaggeration to suggest NiP could have won one of these events, perhaps even both, though they weren’t favourites for either title.
With Maikelele in the line-up, NiP had an AWPing presence, freeing up f0rest, and a wild-card player, with an aggressive AWPing style which could provide impact and win you rounds and games. This was a team with a high peak, even if they couldn’t always hit it, and as such represented a greater threat to the elite teams than the later line-up which allu, who was a more consistent less erratic force.
Years later, when NiP brought Maikelele back as a stand-in to replace pyth for four event, they managed to win their first playing together, taking the StarSeries S2 title; finish top four at EPL S4, losing to world number one ranked SK Gaming; and cracked top eight at ELEAGUE S2, losing to an Astralis who came close to the title. Their only outright failure was their last place finish at EPICENTER which came with the caveat that NiP didn’t lose a single series, tying all three and being eliminated on round difference.
In both instances, Maikelele in NiP proved a successful addition and who gave NiP a dimension they didn’t have with allu and pyth, respectively. One can only wonder how different the FNATIC era might have been if Maikelele had still be in NiP’s ranks. Could the Ninjas have taken a title or two? Would they have still suffered such a one-sided rivalry with LDLC/nV, who frequently thrashed them much harder than with Maikelele?
Results and the eye test suggest that the initial Maikelele line-up of NiP is one of the great “what if?” stories and a story-line we’ll sadly never get to see play out, with the injustice of even being teased by it a second time the following year.