2018 was a strange year in Counter-Strike. One the one hand, a single team dominated the scene in a fashion not witnessed since NiP, the very first dynasty, stood immovable atop CS:GO. On the other, numerous big names struggled to find the right line-ups and the bottom half of the top 10 in the world rankings looked weaker than many previous years.
Digging further into the details, there was an overwhelming amount of threads to be picked up and reflected upon. From MSL’s miracle run in Stockholm to NRG’s climb up the competitive ladder through to mouz and their neglect of Support STYKO.
Here is the first part of my Top 20 CS:GO Story-Lines of 2018, counting down numbers 20 to 11.
Part 1: 20-11
Part 2: 10-1
20. MSL is the MVP of Stockholm
North thought they had made one of the steal signings of the year by bringing in 2017 major MVP Kjaerbye from rivals Astralis, signing him at the metaphorical 11th hour, as Astralis had no knowledge of the move until he told his former team-mates he would not be signing a new contract with them on the very day his signature was due. Despite securing the young Dane’s talents, North floundered throughout the year, never truly coming close to championship form, with one very surprising and notable exception.
At Dreamhack Masters Stockholm there were plenty of active story-lines to excite onlookers. From Astralis attempting to win the big tournament prior to the major, with an era on the horizon already; to FaZe trying to reassert themselves with olof back; to mouz hoping to show their Snax recruitment was justified. North were not even on the agenda. The firmly underwhelming Danish line-up had seen a player change coming in, as niko replaced AWPer mertz, but there was no excitement that this would be the missing piece.
Perhaps most unlikely of all, for anyone pulling for North, was a positive outcome occuring from MSL, long-time IGL and famous for low fragging power in that role, taking over as the primary AWPer. In fact, that bizarre latter move proved most pivotal of all. North not only won the tournament, but in truly epic fashion. This would have been an entry about the ridiculous nature of North’s run, beating Astralis in two series and stomping some of the best teams in the world, but MSL’s contribution overshadowed the entire affair.
The IGL not only lead his team past the aforementioned dominant Astralis, claiming two series victories over them straight up, but was the most impactful individual player in the final, with that AWP, and both secured a big international title for his team and outshone device, widely considered both the best AWPer in the world and one the very best players, racking up MVP awards like CS:GO fans opening cases and finding low value skins.
North were irrelevant for most of the year otherwise, before and after MSL’s removal, but for this one week they were led by their tenured tactician in remarkable fashion few of us will forget.
19. NiKo takes over FaZe Clan
FaZe Clan began the year atop the rankings, but unable to win the major. They overcame the difficulties of being forced to use a stand-in and kept winning titles regardless, making them the first team eligible to win the Intel Grand Slam and a cool free $1,000,000. Who could have foreseen that olof’s return would see them return to elite status, albeit a few months later, but under the leadership of NiKo and not karrigan?
Under karrigan, FaZe had become a relevant team in world Counter-Strike two years earlier. Following karrigan’s lead, the NiKo-powered FaZe line-up halted Astralis’ first attempt at an era. Thanks to karrigan FaZe were poised to win the Grand Slam. Then came the player break.
Following a few weeks in the sun, FaZe came back and the the pressure was on to deliver results. Their map pool floundered, attempting to make dust2 their pick only to lose it most times. Some of their players went missing, while NiKo continued to hard carry and the returning olof looked surprisingly adept. Failure both in Stockholm, losing to mouz again, was disconcerting but the major would decide FaZe’s fate.
At the FACEIT Major London, FaZe lost their first two Swiss system games in the New Legends Stage – effectively the top 16 – to BIG and Na`Vi. Facing elimination from the tournament and the prospect of being one of the two teams to have to go through the minor qualifier system again, NiKo decided enough was enough. The Bosnian titan took control of the team, implementing himself as the in-game leader, reminding onlookers of his time in mouz occupying a similar role.
FaZe rallied to win out their last three games, including a series over G2 for the decider, and made top eight and secured the Legends spot they needed at a minimum. Losing to Astralis there was no shame and in fact FaZe were one of the few teams to give Astralis any real trouble in those play-offs.
At ESL One New York, the next event on the docket, FaZe gave karrigan another chance, but series losses to the very same G2 and NRG saw the super-star line-up out in last place and the matter decided. NiKo would take over as the IGL full-time. Despite scepticism from many, with NiKo as IGL in his previous team having been seen as a stop-gap measure to allow him to maximise his own individual game in a set of circumstances where there were no obvious quality candidates to take over, the experiment proved a success.
A month after ESL One New York had ended for FaZe, they were lifting the EPICENTER trophy and on the back of an MVP level performance from NiKo in the game and strong leadership seeing FaZe again deadly on mirage and now competent on inferno. At IEM XIII Chicago, NiKo’s boys even looked set to reach another final, having beaten Astralis in a rare sweep of the Danes and now with only TL in their path. FaZe would not reach the final and the year ended with them watching from the side-lines for the offline finals of the online leagues, having failed to qualify, and with a whimper at Blast Pro Series Lisbon.
18. VP rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic
Virtus.pro are one of the most popular teams both in CS:GO history and around the world for good reason, thanks to their distinct personalities and their line-up’s electric history as a catalyst in incredible match-ups and rivalries throughout the years. In 2018, VP finally made a permanent roster move, releasing TaZ and bringing in MICHU. Results had been so woeful the hope was that this was a move to right the course of the ship.
In reality, VP were never relevant over the year and more roster moves came and went without improvement. Snax was sold to mouz and Snatchie, by all accounts the best young talent in Polish CS, added. Onlookers could have been forgiven for thinking no change had occured. byali peaced out after the major and the death knell seemed to have sounded. At the end of the year, the VP organisation announced the end of that core line-up, indicating a move to a different look VP entirely for 2019.
VP made drastic moves, but they proved unsuccessful and in most cases probably too late to do any good. A team who had consistently been in contention for big international tournaments for the better part of four years, harkening back to the ‘Golden Five’ line-up’s tenure in 1.6, came nowhere close in the two thousand and eighteenth year of our lord.
17. ex-100Ts waste everyone’s time
After the IMT drama of late 2017, with kNg cut and the twins (HEN1 and Lucas1) demanding a transfer, matters seemed resolved at the close of the year after 100 Thieves, an organisation stemming from Call of Duty, picked up those players and added fnx, two time major champion in SK, and bit1, a legendary Brazilian captain from 1.6. With a major spot in view, many were excited to at least see what this second best Brazilian composition of talent might accomplish. Alas, the team would never even play a game there, forced to forfeit their spot after visa issues saw them unable to field their line-up at the ELEAGUE Major Boston to start 2018.
Following some twitter drama from kNg, a man of poor impulse control with his twitter fingers, the team was removed entirely from the 100T organisation, despite never having played a game for them. Picked up by the NTC (Não Tem Como) brand from Brazil, a clothing brand associated with fnx, rumours circulated that if the team performed well then they would be brought into SK Gaming as replacements for the departing line-up which was heading to MiBR – the worst kept secret in esports, intentionally so.
Those good results never came and NTC accomplished absolutely nothing of note. Playing without kNg for the first few months, perhaps wary of his influence and blaming him for what happened with 100T, felps, the former star of IMT in 2016 and a member of the successful SK of 2017, joined in his stead. After months without a LAN appearance, the twins departed and kNg came in to fill some of that space. Throughout the entire year the squad would attend only three LANs to speak of.
At ESL One Belo Horizonte, on home soil, they failed to win a single map and were eliminated in last place, losing to a BIG who had yet to do anything of note. At ZOTAC Cup Masters 2018 Europe, NTC finished 5th-6th out of a field of tier two and three level teams, winning only against Winstrike, a team famously criticised for accomplishing absolutely nothing in follow-up to their top eight run at the major in the beginning of the year.
This tale came to an end in similar fashion at the Americas Minor for the FACEIT Major London. Defeating only Swole Patrol, NTC’s two losses to eUnited saw them eliminated before even the bracket stage and thus far from making an appearance at the major itself. Then world was left to look on and wonder how a line-up featuring talents and names like fnx, felps and kNg could be such a waste of time.
16. device flies up the all-time MVP award list
Astralis star device has had a tortured career, even while he has established himself as a hall of fame lock. Despite having won eight notable international titles, device had still not established himself as the dominant force of his team in terms of individual awards. Even at their major win in Atlanta, in early 2017, many saw his finals performance as unfitting of the MVP and gave the award to youngster Kjaerbye.
2018 changed the narrative of device as the great player who faded too much late on in tournaments. At event after event, Astralis were the dominant team force and device stood out, sometimes by a small margin, as their best. As such, the MVP awards began to accumulate for the 23 year old. By the end of the year, he had won more MVP awards in a single calender year than any player in CS:GO history. From the game’s most fragile super-star to its most efficient.
15. NRG earns acclaim
When former CLG player Ethan joined NRG early in 2018, there was no reason to expect great things from the squad. Their IGL daps had been a solid leader of a number of teams, but always replaced when they were ready to step up towards the higher international levels. FugLy was a reject from Team Liquid and seemingly washed up holdover from the gob b NRG days. Brehze had occasionally put up numbers but otherwise had seemed stalled in his development. New recruit CeRq had shown some promise in Europe, but did not have the same kind of hype around him as the likes of ropz and ZyWoo.
Dominant online form built the excitement around NRG, as the team were easily dispatching anyone in front of them, with CeRq looking like a world class carry talent. Their early offline performances made their online form look like fool’s gold, though, as they failed to make top eight at both IEM XIII Sydney and the EPL S7 Finals. Hope suddenly arrived to match their early hype with NRG beating Team Liquid and rolling through to the final of Starladder S5 and then immediately following that up with a top four finish at ECS S5 Finals.
Now that NRG had arrived, with respectable placings on their resumes, the year would be up and down from there on out but with enough bright spots to secure NRG a legitimate place in North American history as one of the region’s better teams. Victory at smaller events like IEM XIII Shanghai and cs_summit 3 showed NRG were a level above teams outside of the top 10 and a top four finish at ESL One New York and runners-up finish at the smaller SuperNova Malta showed NRG were no mere flash-in-the-pan.
Notable failures included proving unable to secure a major spot, flunking the minor; fumbling the lay-up of beating the lowly depleted Vega Squadron at an under-powered StarSeries S6 field, losing in the semi-finals; finishing dead last at Dreamhack Stockholm and failing the offline finals of the online leagues to close out the year.
For a bunch of players with largely no competitive history making deep runs into big international events or even winning smaller trophies, NRG’s hit and miss form showed a ceiling holding them back from being an elite team, but also enough quality and ability to accomplish at a new and respectable level of performance for their core.
14. gob b brings German Counter-Strike back
The last time German players were making any kind of impact on world Counter-Strike it was as the criticism-magnets on a mousesports line-up hard carried by NiKo and with little credit to be distributed elsewhere in the line-up outside of their young Bosnian super-star. With mouz eventually removing said Germans and finding success with a mixture of nationalities and talents blended, German Counter-Strike was irrelevant. ESL One Cologne was even praised for not just being one of the best events of the year, but having one of the best crowds, due to them having no home team to cheer for and thus being less partisan than other locations.
Both narratives were set to change half-way into the year. gob b’s BIG recruited mouthy British talent smooya, known as much for his trash talking as his impactful AWP play-making, and hit their stride for the aforementioned ESL One Cologne. The German crowd was ecstatic as BIG’s run saw them dispense with the major-stacked MiBR line-up, a surprisingly effective G2 filled with legendary names and a FaZe Clan poised to potentially win the Intel Grand Slam at that very event.
Beyond that, BIG had their failures and proved largely unable to match that level of performance on the international stage, making top eight at the major being an outlier in their run of form. Nevertheless, gob b had his side back in the top 10 of the world rankings on a number of occasions and their blend of tactical play and great utility usage impressed many.
13. G2’s naive ambitions
The French CS:GO scene has always been the best drama around, despite Brazil’s strong push to usurp that crown. The difference is that in past years even failure or disharmony still meant contending for the top spots and winning trophies. In 2018, G2 were entirely irrelevant and despite making a number of wholesale changes.
Early on the team blew a strong run of form in the swiss portion of the ELEAGUE Major Boston by failing to turn up at all against eventual champions, and a team they had beaten already, in the quarter-finals. The first drastic change saw shox leave the starting line-up, to secure surgery and recovery for his injured wrist, and NBK take over as in-game leader. It was announced that NBK would have his chance with his line-up, but that if it didn’t work out then when shox recovered he would be part of a different line-up, which would feature former team-mates SmithZz and Ex6TenZ making their return to G2.
NBK’s G2 were lacklustre and so shox and company took their turn in the server. Despite a brief thrill at ESL One Cologne, beating Na`Vi in a Bo1, taking down mouz in a Bo3 and playing Astralis close on a map, the team saw their Cinderella run end and a harsh defeat at the hands of BIG to eliminate them in 5th-6th. G2 would never look as promising or be as relevant again in 2018. Their best moment was perhaps their Bo3 series win over FaZe Clan in New York, but that moment proved enough for FaZe to remove karrigan as IGL and G2 didn’t reach the play-offs there.
At their worst, G2 could be appalling. Barely able to steal wins at the major and typically both failing to place high up, even in smaller competitions like Dreamhack Opens and cs_summit, and showing a terrible track record of matching up with opposing teams. G2 typically won close games, creeping over the finish line no matter their leads, or were blown out entirely and in a manner entirely unbefitting some of the legendary names in their ranks.
G2’s initial plan had been one with promise: pairing shox and kennyS, France’s two best individual stars in history, and putting them under the direction of Ex6TenZ, legendary leader of both earlier in CS:GO and considered Source’s greatest ever tactician. With shox coming off an injury, kennyS showing wavering form and Ex6TenZ seemingly unable to implement a consistent tactical style or strength, even those positive moves proved unsuccessful.
The organisation’s naivete truly showed with the rest of their roster decisions. SmithZz had been in poor form at the end of his playing career back in early 2017 and never managed to establish himself again as a competent professional player, stinking up the scoreboard. Finally, bodyy had struggled in the latter portion of the 2017 G2 “super-team” line-up and was unable to rediscover himself under Ex6TenZ. All hopes were in vain and none of the team’s strengths manifested, with the exception of shox reclaiming some status as a skilled all-around performer.
12. FNATIC’s fluid roster
FNATIC came into 2018 as a team with some promise of improving their status and legitimately establishing themselves as a top 5-6 team in the world. They had showed strong consistency late in 2017 and at ELEAGUE Major Boston, the first event of 2018, they were close to defeating SK Gaming to make top four or beyond. Going out of StarSeries S4 in last place seemed to spook the team and rumours began to swirl that they would replace IGL golden, who had only come into the team following the player break the previous year, with former NiP IGL Xizt.
Despite such rumours, FNATIC suddenly hit peak form, miraculously winning IEM XII Katowice – with flusha looking like the flusha of old – and taking the huge payday of the WeSG title. With those combined prize hauls of over $1,000,000 on the table, golden made his infamous “I stay” tweet and it would have been easy to imagine this FNATIC line-up would have been given its crack at the rest of the year, especially with a top four finish at Dreamhack Masters Marseille following.
Instead, the first roster move began after one one lesser result, finishing top 6 at IEM XIII Sydney. Xizt was signed and made IGL, but at the expense of Lekr0, who eventually went the other way to NiP. golden was moved over to the role of entry fragger, one which seemed puzzling in light of his low firepower skillset. Some, including the author of this piece, speculated this was a slowly-boiling-the-frog strategy to remove golden entirely.
Indeed, failure to crack top four at ECS S5 Finals saw golden removed and replaced with draken, troubled AWPer of NiP. Word came from the FNATIC camp that they not only loved Xizt as IGL but felt confident draken could develop into the kind of international star he had been unable to become as a Ninja. Two more tournaments of 5th-6th finishes and failure to contend for the title at ESL One Cologne and the ELEAGUE Premier showed promise with some of the results but also in ability to actually make it deep.
With golden going over to Cloud9, FNATIC seemed locked into this new look line-up for good and their worst results since back at StarSeries now arrived. A last place finish at Dreamhack Masters Stockholm, on home soil, was humiliating and at the major they could not reach the play-offs and Legends status, a first in the organisation’s history.
Those results were clearly significant to the players, as the shocking decision was made to remove flusha from the line-up, eventually seeing him go to join golden in C9. Not shocking due to his individual form, which had been poor outside of his Katowice MVP earlier in the year, but more due to how entrenched a figure he was in FNATIC and the sentiment that he was a “package deal” along with JW.
Without flusha, FNATIC were forced to initially use a stand-in, taking Belgian ScreaM to ESL One New York with them and finishing in last place there. twist was brought in to replace draken and eventually ScreaM was relieved of his stand-in duties, as the team decided to gamble on 16 year old talent Brollan. Then Red Reserve pairing represented different elements of the Swedish scene, with twist the talented but bizarrely seemingly unmotivated player who had numerous times ignored opportunities to move up to bigger named teams and Brollan as the soon-to-be-star who was still gaining experience and working his way up the ladder.
Pivoting from being the team taking on NiP’s left-overs and stuck with a trio of legends who seemingly would not be separated, FNATIC had become a team willing to make bold roster moves to reshape the complexion of their team. They were immediately rewarded with a top four run at IEM XIII Chicago that had them all but eliminating Astralis, the dominant power in CS:GO and perhaps the best in history, in a semi-final series that went a full three maps and had the Danes at elimination point for a long stretch of the final half.
With victory at the small PLG Grand Slam event to close 2018, FNATIC’s results have finally begun to match the drama and scrutiny of their fluid roster over the calender year.
11. mouz’s revolving door for STYKO
mousesports began the year taking the step up from dark horse to legitimate champion of big international tournaments. Their win the previous year at ESG Mykonos had been at a smaller event and with most of the world’s best teams missing. After earning Legends status at the major, mouz won a stacked StarSeries S4 finals and followed that up with victory at the V4 Future Sports Festival, a tournament that featured FaZe Clan – the world’s best team.
Ranked as highly as second in the world, mouz’s time seemed to have come. The problem was that it came with the team in the position of place-holders, with other bigger names making roster moves or about to. As the months went on, mouz remained a solid top 5-6 team, but not one making notable finals or winning trophies. The team decided Support player STYKO was at fault and replaced him with Snax, former super-star but seen as washed up in Virtus.pro and a big gamble, especially for the kind of money reported – over quarter of a million for his buy-out.
With Snax in the line-up, the team were eliminated from ESL One Cologne in 9th-12th place. Despite some strong comeback performances, making top four at both ELEAGUE Premier and Dreamhack Masters Stockholm, Snax’s performances seemed to have brought little to the team. Failing the major entirely, losing all three games and even a spot for the next major, due to a rule change by Valve, the clock had begun on the Snax experiment. Shockingly but impressively winning ESL One New York, besting an in-form elite Team Liquid, that result proved the outlier, as the team immediately bombed out of a light field at Starladder, failing to make a top eight that included names like fragsters, Vega Squadron and ENCE.
Snax was sent packing and STYKO made his triumphant return, having been playing for Cloud9’s troubled line-up in the meantime. A memorable comment from mouz star suNny in an interview with HLTV revealed that it had only been after STYKO had departed that the team had realised how much he had brought to the team’s communication, taking up the slack for quieter players or those too focussed due to being alive in a round still.
STYKO’s return has not changed mouz’s fortunes drastically, but already they looked more cohesive and stable. Their year finished with a top six at IEM Chicago and ECS S6 Finals and a solid top four at the EPL S8 Finals. In all three instances they were eliminated by Astralis, making placing higher quite the feat.
Those were only the 20th to 11th best CS:GO story-lines of 2018, for my money. Tomorrow I’ll reveal the rest of the top 10.