All of history tells us that everything must end. All kings, all empires, and all dynasties. In the case of CS:GO, this applies to some of the greatest lines throughout history. The breaking of times is of particular note as that is where the eras are founded. Teams have had one shot miracle runs before, but it takes longevity to be one of the great teams in CS:GO history. So understanding why a lineup breaks apart and what are the symptoms of a possible decline helps us model what it means to be a great team and what it means to break one. In this article, we’ll look at three completely disparate teams (SK, G2, and Virtus.Pro) to try to understand the commonalities between them and what broke them apart.
The SK lineup which was one of the best teams from the end of 2015 to the end of 2017 is a good place to start as they had multiple roster shuffles during this period and all of them were done at very specific moments in time. The first actual lineup to talk about is the Luminosity Gaming lineup that lasted from July 28th 2015 to November 23rd 2015. This team included: Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo, Marcelo “Coldzera” David, Fernando “fer” Alvarenga, Ricardo “boltz” Prass, and Lucas “steel” Lopes.
That team stuck together for a span of three months. They had hit a ceiling in their results and were no longer improving as a team. At that point, the team decided to remove boltz and steel. In their place, they got Epitacio “TACO” de Melo and Lincoln “fnx” Lau. In an interview with Tomi “lurrpis” Kovanen, Fallen recalled the reason for the move being, “We tried everything we could to keep evolving but we felt that with that lineup we were stuck.”
They replaced them with the experience of fnx who was having a surge of motivation at the time and TACO, someone who they believed had the right mindset and role that they were looking for to play on the team. That particular squad went onto have incredible success and won two Majors.
However by the end of 2016, another change had to be made. During this period, SK were struggling to stay at the top of the world. They were a consistent team making top 4s or finals, but could not close out tournaments like they used to earlier in the year. The best way to track the progress of SK was to track the strength of their map pool. The LG/SK squad during this period had built and expanded their map pool. Their initial strengths came from maps like: Overpass, Mirage, Train, Inferno, and Cobblestone. They played some cache when they had to, but generally speaking their empire was built on those five maps. As time went on inferno went out of the map pool and was replaced by nuke. This in turn forced the team to start picking up Dust2 where they find fairly good success and were one of the better Dust2 teams.
However by the end of the run, the strengths across the map pool started to decline. Mirage, Dust2, and Cobblestone were all falling off for SK. They couldn’t play nuke and weren’t able to ever get cache going. So the end of SK’s run they only had two great maps: Overpass and Train. Overpass still had some of the other top teams beating them. As for Train, they had a 17-0 win record on that map, but it was broken by Astralis at ELeague Season 2.
That loss didn’t only break the record, it also broke the lineup. Soon after fnx was benched from the team and Joao “felps” Vasconcellos came into the lineup. The Brazilians then declined before once again reaching to the top of the world. Nearing the last quarter of 2017, another roster move was made again, this time with felps leaving for boltz.
Among the various roster moves, this particular move had the most public information given from the team. In an interview with HLTV, Coldzera noted the difference between felps and boltz as,
“In the beginning, when felps joined our team, I had doubts because our team was going to be too aggressive. We have fer who plays really aggressive every time and when we brought felps, we lost a little bit of our passive parts and that’s not in the system.
We have a system that works really well, so when boltz joined, we have this system again that is step-by-step and gives more freedom for fer and especially for me. When felps joined, I stopped doing a lot of good things I used to like to do so that he could try it. But he didn’t play inside the system, a lot of the time it was random.”
FalleN’s described the view of the move in his interview with EPICENTER,
“The change was a sum up of felps being a little bit burned out from playing roles he didn’t even like, requiring a lot of adjustment. Small problems that we had to deal with outside the game eventually became more difficult for felps to deal with, more so than other players. “
From the outside, the move was initiated after multiple losses that followed the PGL Krakow Major 2017. When we look at the map pool of this particular lineup I’d say their best maps included: Mirage, Cobblestone, and Cache. Outside of that, they were a decent to good Overpass, Train and Inferno team. Their permaban was still nuke.
In the events after the Major, they got top 8 at DreamHack Malmo, 3rd at ESG Mykonos, Top 4 at ESL New York, and 9-12th at ELeague Premier 2017. Once again the team had hit their ceiling and the symptoms of that was their declining map pool. The most memorable losses coming from their inability to win on Inferno. The team composition never felt right as they were unable to find the right pairing to hold banana on the CT-side.
However if you look at the other maps, the entire map pool was in decline. All of their maps started to become less consistent, and the worst of it was their losses on Mirage and Cobblestone as those had been the crux of the reason as to why they were among the best teams.
Looking back now, it’s clear that the biggest quality that signified a change in the Brazilian lineups was the weakening of the map pool. When the fnx lineup finally lost their streak on Train, they changed rosters. When the Felps lineup lost inferno and started to become less consistent across their map pool, they also fell. While the decline in map pool was similar, the causes of those symptoms were a bit different. Fnx had completely lost motivation whereas felps was unable to continue playing the role that was required of him and it couldn’t be fixed.
The next lineup in this list is G2. The all-star lineup that included: Richard “shox” Papillon, Alexandre “bodyy” Pianaro, Kenny “kennyS” Schrub, Nathan “NBK-” Schmitt, and Dan “apEX” Madesclaire. This was an incredibly inconsistent team through the entirety of 2017. Unlike the Brazilians, they were never able to secure a place for themselves as the best team in the scene and were more of an unstable top 4 team in the world with a surprisingly good matchup specifically against SK.
As a team, they oscillated between playstyles, individual form, map pool, and results. They could won DreamHack Malmo in incredible fashion and then go to ELeague and get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs with a lackluster performance. This inconsistency carried over to their map pool as beyond Nuke, they could never solidify their spot as a number one team on any particular map. They played Cache, Cobblestone, Overpass, Inferno, and some Mirage at the end, but could never be consistently solid on any of the maps for a prolonged period of time. For instance, at the ELeague Boston Major in 2018, G2 had a great looking Cache but decided to opt for Overpass against Cloud9 in their quarterfinals.
This inconsistency was rooted in the team’s inability to form a coherent identity or team vision that all five players believed in. In an interview with HLTV, Shox recollected the year as G2’s leader during this time,
“I changed the team style like three times during last year because I tried to find a solution where everyone in the team can agree with how we play, with everyone fitting in it. When I look back at what we did, it wasn’t the best solution, because in my opinion the best solution before thinking about your teammates is that the captain has to be comfortable with how he will lead and how he will play.”
This disharmony was confirmed by apEX in an interview with Flickshot. He confirmed the continued changes in game styles that the team used, but also believed that the team culture, specifically the team stars had a cause in the fall,
“We had so much talent, but people weren’t working enough. That’s my biggest complaint about shox and kennys : they were our star players and they never behave like ones. I always tell Kennys, he’s a fan of CR7 and never acts like him, unable to give its fullest to the game.”
NBK- was on a similar wavelength to apEX. In an HLTV interview done in November, he told HTLV that,
“Players have to be more selfless. Not everybody can do what they want in the team. We need structure and very defined roles in the sense that if it doesn’t work naturally you have to set roles and hope it becomes natural between the players. Sometimes some players just can’t play with each other, but we don’t think we’ve reached that point yet so we’re going to keep on trying and trying to create things. Changing who plays with who, imposing strict roles… There have been a lot of rounds where we make good plays and rotations but then we make small individual mistakes in advantageous situations, so we need to artificially create those roles to be better as a team which will make us naturally trust each other more.”
NBK- eventually tried to institute more structure and artificial roles into the team to try to create a team synergy, but that took part in the eventual dissolution of that G2 lineup.
The final team to talk about is Virtus.Pro. Virtus.Pro is an exception amongst exceptions. The five man lineup consisting of: Filip “NEO” Kubski, Jaroslaw “pasha” Jarzabkowski, Pawel “byali” Bielinski, Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski, and Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas is a unique team not only in CS:GO, but all esports. No one stuck together for as long as they have and no one has been able to consistently find a way back to the top of the scene.
This is a team that consistently found ways to reinvent themselves. They would either shuffle roles or learn and master new maps. TaZ and NEO often passed the in-game leader role to each other. Pasha, NEO, and Snax have all had turns being the main AWPer. They’ve changed positions multiple times. In terms of map pool, they were one of the first to master cache and mirage. They became masters of train. Later on they figured out maps like Cobblestone and Nuke. If a declining map pool is the symptom that a lineup is about to end, then Virtus.Pro felt eternal at times as they consistently found ways to reinvent themselves over and over.
Until they didn’t. Virtus.Pro had an incredible start to 2017 where they got to the ELeague Atlanta Major Finals and won DreamHack Vegas. Some considered them the best team in the world and at the very worst, vying for that tile with Astralis. Soon after Virtus.Pro nearly completely disappeared with their only two good performances coming at PGL Major Krakow 2017 and EPICENTER 2017.
This particular break down was different from the others in the fact that it was Virtus.Pro. For a start off, the symptoms were obvious to see for everyone involved. Virtus.Pro weren’t able to win games online or on lan. Many of their players had dips in form, most notably NEO, TaZ, and Snax. However the community and fans still believed to a certain extent that Virtus.Pro could come back, if only because of their history in doing so. That at some point the change in roles or an improvement in map pool or player would send them right back to the top.
It never did. When we look back at it now, it’s a bit easier to see what started the calamitous fall for the lineup. The beginning of the end itself came from a role change when NEO gave up the in-game leader role to Snax. In an interview with HLTV, NEO said,
“I think it was my decision at some point, I decided to step down from that spot. I was leading for most of the time and after doing that for a while, it gets a little bit overwhelming, so I just needed a break from that. I just needed a break from that.”
In retrospect this move broke the team as Snax lost his way as a star player and the team lost their identity as a team. In a facebook post on Sept. 20th, Snax gave his own thoughts on the change,
“Finally the time has come everyone’s been waiting for, I’m done with being the IGL as of right now. I don’t think I was a bad IGL, I think I did good enough (my IGL-ing was to make neo perform better who was supposed to focus on playing and make it better, but it didn’t work out it looks like). However, the older part of the roster couldn’t adapt to the style I always wanted (freestyle). So they looked for the problems at every step.”
Soon after, TaZ took up the in-game leadership role and the team was able to get to the finals of EPICENTER 2017 in a final hurrah that was a call back to their glory years.
SK, G2, and Virtus.Pro were all great teams in their own way. The core of SK were the best for nearly two years. G2 despite their inconsistency, won huge international tournaments. Virtus.Pro created a legacy for themself that I suspect will never be matched by any other five man lineup in any esports game. While all three were from completely different cultures and circumstances, there are certain commonalities between all of them.
The biggest giveaway that something was wrong was their map pool. When SK was able to stabilize their map pool and prove themselves to be the best on a certain range of maps, they were the best team in the world. When that map pool no longer improved, they found the root cause of why. They identified the player that was holding them back and for what reason they were holding them back, then made the correct choice based on those parameters. In the case of G2, they were inconsistent throughout their entirety as they changed roles and play styles, which meant they never got the depth required to truly round out a great map pool that is characteristic of the best teams in the world. Finally, in the case of Virtus.Pro, they have constantly been in an ebb and flow with their map pool as they player form and roles changed. However in mid 2017, all growth in the map pool stopped and the lineup subsequently died despite going on for the rest of the year.
The map pool is the biggest symptom and is most closely tied to the length of a time a lineup sticks together. Outside of the Luminosity lineup with boltz and steel, every lineup described in this article lasted between 6 months to an year or in the case of Virtus.Pro multiple years. In both Dota2 and CS:GO, all lineups generally last between 9-12 months and have done so throughout their competitive histories. With that much raw data, it seems likely that at some point there is a degrading return of investment in terms of improvement for long standing lineups that last longer than that period. The only two exceptions I’ve seen to this rule being Virtus.Pro in CS:GO and Wings in Dota2.
While each of these lineups had different reasons as to why they broke apart, the underlying message seems similar. To be a top CS:GO lineup, you need to have the right players in the right roles, a team chemistry, and an ability to consistently improve overtime as a roster. In the case of SK, when players could no longer function in their right roles, they found new ones. In G2, they never found the team chemistry as they never found a guiding principle that all five players agreed on. In Virtus.Pro, their ability to improve as a five man lineup finally died out, which caused them to break up. As we go forward in time and look at the great lineups of the modern day, these are the signs to look out for to determine if a team will become great. Do they have the right players in the right roles, a team chemistry, and an ability to improve over time? While each of these factors are hard to distinguish, at the end of the day, the strength of the map pool gives it away as that is the result of all of those factors combined.