With 2018 closing out, we can look back on the events that happened with the benefit of hindsight. The two biggest storylines to come out of the year has been the dominance of two entities. The first was the dominance of the individual play by Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev. He was easily the world’s best player and may go down as the the greatest in CS:GO history. The second was the dominance of Astralis. From April 2018 to the end of the year, they have had the most dominant year of any team in CS:GO history. They have created an era, they have won the Major, and have now won the Intel Grand Slam. As I watched Astralis beat Liquid for the fifth time in the finals at Odense at the end of the year, it felt like a turning point in CS:GO history. By the end of the year it was clear that the two best teams of 2018 were Astralis and Liquid. Neither had s1mple and that was when I realized that the two teams fighting for the top spot in 2018 were inherently different from the top teams of the previous ages. That the two best teams in the world had the two best systems.This was a sharp deviation from the past as before 2018 that was considered impossible as each of the top teams of their respective ages had the best player in the world. As CS:GO hurtles toward the future, 2018 could be remembered as the inflection point. The year that saw the rise of Astralis and Liquid and the turning of the epoch as CS:GO moved from superheroes to systems.
The Age of Superheroes
To understand why that is a turning of an age, we need to look back through history to see what has happened before. Let us look back through the periods of 2012-2018 to see why I dub it the age of superheroes.
From 2012-2013, NiP were the world’s best team as they dominated the circuit. The only team that was close to them at the time was VeryGames, but the head-to-head matchup always favored the NiP side. The polarizing players of the NiP side were Patrik “f0rest” Lindberg and Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund. They were two of the best players in the world with GeT_RiGhT being the world number one. The style of play revolved around setting those two up to destroy their enemies.
VeryGamse was eventually able to overcome them, but to do it they had to make a critical roster change. In mid 2013 they removed Kenny “kennyS” Schrub and brought in Richard “Shox” Papillon as their superstar player. This was the key move for them as his inclusion gave them the superstar player that could match and beat the NiP side. Shox in turn was the best player during that time period.
In 2014, we saw the rise of Fnatic. While LDLC/EnVyUs were right on their tails at the beginning of the era, but they were eventually left into the dust as Fnatic’s era continued into 2015. The period of 2014 is an important to look at for the purposes of this article as while Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer was the star of Fnatic, it’s arguable that KennyS was potentially the best player in the world during his period on Titan 2014. However, Olofmeister would eventually leave that argument in the dust with sheer consistency as the AWP nerf hit KennyS hard and Olofmeister continued to become even greater.
In 2015, Fnatic continued their reign, though it started to be contested as multiple top tier teams stood up to fight them including NiP, Virtus.Pro, EnVyUs, and most notably TSM. In this year, Olofmeister was clearly the best player in the world and his dominance as a superstar player was the primary reason as to Fnatic’s success during this period of time.
That level of dominance continued for Fnatic as they shifted from the Markus “pronax” Wallsten period to the Dennis “dennis” Edman period. During this period, the two teams that contested them the closest were Na`Vi and Luminosity Gaming. Both had better tactical systems and better map pools, but neither could contest Fnatic’s spot as number one.
That is until 2016 at MLG Columbus Major. That was the time when it was revealed that Olofmeister was injured and as Fnatic fell, Luminosity Gaming rose to become the world’s number one. After winning the Major, Marcelo “Coldzera” David rose up as the world’s number one. Though, much like Olofmeister in 2014, there was a potential counter-argument to be made for Nikola “NiKo” Kovac, even though he didn’t have the results to back it up. Like 2014, this is another critical period of study that I will go over later as I think what Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo did with that core and the subsequent different rosters could be considered the prototype of the eventual systems that allowed Astralis and Liquid to rise up through 2017 and 2018.
By the end of 2016, we enter the uncertainty era where no one could claim the title as being the world’s number one team. When we enter 2017, this is the year where Astralis, FaZe, and SK all battle it out for the top spot. While Astralis won the Major early on in the year, it was FaZe and SK who were battling it out for supremacy between their two different lineups. While the lineups changed for both teams mid year, the polarizing superstar players remained the same. For FaZe it was NiKo and for SK it was Coldzera. Both were the two best players of the year, with Coldzera being the world’s best.
Then we come to 2018, where s1mple started off the year as the world’s best player. Then Astralis became the world’s best team. The second best team of the year was a battle between three different teams: Na`Vi, FaZe, and Liquid. By the end of 2018, I’d say Liquid was the most consistent team despite not having a premier victory and are thus the second best team of the year.
How the Age of Superheroes Worked
That is a brief history of the age of superheroes. Across the time period we can see that for the most part, the best players in the world came to define the best teams in the world. However as I pointed out there were potential exceptions to that: kennyS in 2014 and NiKo in 2016. Both are worth going into as they shed some light as to why having the best player in the world alone doesn’t make for a top team.
Both kennyS and NiKo were working with incomplete rosters. The Titan 2014 squad was supposed to be built around both kennyS and Hovik “KQLY” Tovmassian. As KQLY was VAC banned, the team was hamstrung. They focused around kennyS as the primary superstar and Dan “apEX” Madesclaire as an entry fragger. While the tactical system made sense, it didn’t have enough firepower to match the top teams in the world. As for NiKo’s mouz team, it had even worse problems. There was no leader, so NiKo had to take up the role and become the in-game leader and superstar player himself. While that style worked at enabling him, the only player that was reliable in any sense was Chris “chrisJ” de Jong. Everyone else was a liability on that squad.
While both were fantastic players that were arguably the best of their periods, the respective team around them couldn’t matchup to their respective rivals. Olofmeister and Coldzera both had claims to being the world’s number one and the general consensus was that both were the best players of those time periods as well as the other periods I’ve pointed out.
What differed Olofmeister/Coldzera and KennyS/NiKo was the level of team that surrounded the respective players. KennyS and NiKo were both the polarizing players of their squads, but the supporting casts when compared to better teams weren’t comparable.
Fnatic had: Olofmeister, Freddy “KRIMZ” Johansson, Jesper “JW” Wecksell, Robin “Flusha” Ronnquist, and pronax. Luminosity had: Coldzera, FalleN, Epitacio “TACO” de Melo, Lincoln “fnx” Lau, and Fernando “fer” Alvarenga. Where KennyS and NiKo had one other player each that could be considered star level, the balance of skill across the rosters of both Fnatic and Luminosity far outweighed what either of them had. Man for man, there is no argument as to which side won out when you compared Titan to Fnatic or Mouz to Luminosity.
What really made those two teams excel above their respective peers was the system that was built around their superstar players. While tactically, the Titan team could match Fnatic, in terms of overall skill and role balance, it was nowhere close. That Fnatic squad had a great mix of aggression and playmaking from olofmeister and JW with olofmeister being the consistent one and JW playing the wildcard. They were then counterbalanced by KRIMZ being an incredibly consistent passive star player. It was then rounded out by flusha’s passive intelligent style and pronax filling out the roles. Pronax as an in-game leader used a loose playstyle which was built on the framework of KRIMZ and flusha which in turn enabled olofmeister to be the superstar player and for JW to be a wildcard element in the team.
As for the Luminosity/SK lineup, the balance of roles was fantastic as well. FalleN was the aggressive star AWP in charge of finding picks on either side of the map. Fer was a secondary aggressive option who restrained his aggressive instincts so that the teamplay and style of the team could function. TACO was the role player who did all of the dirty work. Coldzera was the superstar player who used all of the information and aggression the others made to finish out the rounds. Fnx was the other support player who had an incredible propensity to clutch out rounds for the team.
From these examples, you can see that being the best team in the world isn’t as simple as having the best player in the world. That you also have to build a cohesive system around it with the right balance of skills, roles, and style of play. Even with that caveat though, it’s fair to call it the age of superheroes as every system essentially revolved around building around the best player in the world (or at worst second by a sliver in the cases of Olofmeister and Coldzera for small periods of time).
The Fall of NiP and The FalleN System
In this next section, I will now detail what I think a system entails as I think there could be some some potential misconceptions when I’m talking about the concept. For me, a system is a set of principles or model by which a team uses to find competitive success.
So when I say that we are going from the age of superheroes to an age of systems, that doesn’t mean that the best players in the world will no longer be on the top teams, but rather that the previous model of building around the best player in the world as the sole win condition will likely no longer be enough to attain consistent competitive success.
This sounds a bit vague on paper, so I will give two concrete examples of two completely different systems from two all-time great teams: NiP and SK. NiP were the first team to create an era, but as I pointed out they were superseded by VeryGames in 2013.
For NiP, they were stuck in a bounded loop of logic that was built on their past experiences. They seemed to think along the lines of, ‘Our five man lineup was the best in the world and so if we continue with the same we will eventually be number one’. When Robin “Fifflaren” Johansson retired, they still stuck with the same belief that they had the core four of the team was the correct mix to be the best team in the world.
Their models of their attaining competitive success worked for a good period of time, but eventually broke down as the parts no longer worked. The idea of building around a superstar player was fine, but because the decision making was left in the hands of the players, they were too close to the situation. They were unable to identify that they were about to be superseded by the likes of Olofmeister and KRIMZ. In that sense, the GMing of the Fnatic team at that time (which as far as I know was done by the players) was one of the reasons why Fnatic were able to supercede NiP to become the world’s best as they recognized and seized the opportunity by getting both of them onto their own team.*
That was likely the breaking point for NiP’s chances to remain the best team in the world. The idea of building a coherent team around superstar players was the correct model at the time, however their lack of a GM outside of the team meant that they didn’t have that objective view that could see that they needed to make a roster change at that juncture of time. This continued ability to let talent slip through their fingers time and time again plagued the NiP org until they got a new CEO in 2016 which effectively changed their approach.
The antithesis of that was FalleN. From the period of 2014-2017, I’d say that FalleN was a one man system. He was someone who essentially did everything and to such a level that if were to compare all of the organizations and systems across esports from the period of 2015-2017, I’d say that FalleN was one of the absolute best.
Tactically, he understood the game at an incredibly high level in 2015, to the point where I’d argue he was the best leader in the game during that year. This is an important thing to note as this is correlated with a bunch of attributes that are normally designated to an organization. He was an incredible scout because he understood what roles the team needed, the approximate skill level of the players, and the cultural fits he was looking for.**
As someone who basically raised the entire Brazilian scene, he was able to instill a cultural identity in his teams, was a teacher to his squad, and was probably the best GM in any esport from 2015-2017. He continually found the correct players at the correct times. Each time his team hit a ceiling or a slump, he never let it get too far like NiP. He seemed to be able to identify the problem, find a potential roster solution, and then made the harsh choices that were needed to go back to number one.
While the effects and principles that FalleN had compared to the NiP players are disparate, there is one commonality between the two that is shared with a vast majority of esports teams. That is that the primary decision makers were the players within the team itself. That is why even though FalleN himself is in my view is one of the best raw systems anyone has seen (whether that be tactical, cultural, scouting, GMing, or coaching), it wasn’t the same as Liquid or Astralis who have made organizational moves to implement these effects on a wider scale. It’s more like Luminosity and SK hit paydirt with FalleN, whereas Liquid and Astralis have put in infrastructural systems across the board to create a consistent machine that didn’t rely on the players within the team to make a majority of the decisions.
*The caveat here is that they only wanted Olofmeister at the time, but Olofmeister convinced them that KRIMZ was the best team player he had ever played with. They decided to trust Olof’s choice and the rest they say is history.
**There is the caveat to be added that it was fer that scouted Coldzera. In addition to that, Wilton “zews’ Prado was a coach for the team from the end of 2015-2016. So it wasn’t an entirely one-man show, though FalleN was the leader and figurehead.
The Rise of Astralis and Liquid from 2016-2017
The rise of both Astralis and Liquid in 2018 is important in a number of different ways. Through consistent results and placings, we can say that they are the number one and number two teams respectively for this year. Astralis is undoubtedly the best as they’ve won nearly every tournament they attended, created an era, won the Grand Slam, and won the Major. In the case of Liquid, they battled FaZe and Na`Vi for the number two spot for most of the year. In the end, they have proven themselves to be the most consistent team behind Astralis, so while they don’t have the big tournament victories, they are decidedly the second best team in the world.
So how did they do it? In short, this has been a long term process for both squads. They had to have a vision and put the right people in those positions. In the case of Astralis, part of the work was already done for them. When the Danes left TSM to become team ?, they were already one of the best teams in the world. On top of that, they had just recruited Danny “zonic” Sorensen as the coach. With that buyout, Astralis were given an incredible base from which to work with as they had a working core group of players in the team (Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, Peter “Dupreeh” Rasmussen and Andreas “xyp9x” Hojsleth), a great leader (Finn “karrigan” Andersen), and a great coach.
As for Liquid, they started from the bottom as they first recruited eLevate. Since then, the team has followed a similar GM style to their League of Legends squad where they continued to make blockbuster moves as they tried to create the strongest team possible. The list of moves they made from 2015-2016 and the reasons why is an article in and of itself. Instead I will focus on a two critical decisions they made during that year.
At the end of ESL One Cologne Major, the team had hit an untenable decision as Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski gave them an ultimatum. It was either him or s1mple. In the end, the team decided to go with EliGE. While s1mple is a once in a generation talent, he was also someone who wanted to go home and it would have been hard to continue building around him at that time given he had yet to mature as a professional player. In the case of EliGE, he had shown himself to be a secondary star in their Major run, he was incredibly young and a key piece they believed could be part of their franchise in their attempts to become the best NA team. So Liquid decided to go with EliGE. This proved to be the case as Liquid are the best NA team in history and the only two players to have remained from that time are EliGE and Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella. The other decision they made that shifted the course of their franchise in CS:GO was hiring zews as their coach.
Both Liquid and Astralis found two of the best coaches in the CS:GO scene. The coaching role is a sparse one in CS:GO as orgs are desperate to try to find one that can become the head of their enterprise with mixed results. Among all of the coaches in the past few years, both zonic and zews have been hailed as the two best in the scene as they have shown they can handle everything from studying demoes, instilling a culture, being a father figure, and dealing with the emotional side of the game. In the case of zonic, we know that he also sometimes calls for the team when they’re at home which allows for gla1ve to get new ideas as a leader and practice his own individual skill. As Sean Gares said in his HLTV interview,
“I think people like zonic and zews are such excellent coaches because the emotional support that they bring to the team is only half of the value they add. That’s what everyone sees, zews’ leadership and zonic lifting the team up when the times are tough, being very emotional behind them. That’s only half of what they do, they do so much behind the scenes tactically, finding new nades, researching teams and stuff like that.”
With the coaches set, both organizations started to build infrastructure, method, and vision for their respective teams. One of the critical moments for both teams was pairing the coach with the right in-game leader. At the end of 2016, Zonic and Karrigan had a split in ideas of how to proceed forward. In the end, they couldn’t settle their differences and had to part ways. So the team brought on Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander to be the in-game leader.
As for Liquid, they had recruited Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz in early 2017 as he looked to be the best in-game leader in NA because of what he did on OpTic. Later on in April 2017, they also recruited Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken. This was to be arguably the best addition to Liquid’s roster as he was an incredibly young and talented star that became a globally elite player in 2018. For now though, he was a good player for Liquid and on paper, Liquid looked to be a great team. However the results didn’t bear out for them and after the PGL Krakow Major, the team decided to swap roles and have nitr0 became the in-game leader. The move worked, but Stanislaw was dissatisfied with the direction and clashed with zews. Liquid management decided to back zews instead of stanislaw and this was to be a critical choice in 2018.
Both teams continued to build infrastructure with the most notable addition being a sports psychologist. This was critical for both teams. In the case of Astralis, they were notorious chokers during the 2015 period as they were never able to achieve to come out clutch during the highest pressure matches of their career. This was an important change for the team and as Dupreeh notes from his interview with thescoreesports,
“We have a huge advantage above a lot of teams mentally now, and it’s funny when people think it doesn’t make a difference having a sports psychologist and they feel they don’t need one. Well, sure, go ahead and believe that, but look where it took us. We’ve learned so much about professionalism and how to function as a team in such a short time. I’m confident that a lot of teams will pick up this method.”
A similar parallel can also be drawn to Liquid. While the team itself has gone through numerous iterations, the idea of them being chokers has stuck with them ever since Coldzera got his graffiti on Mirage. While it was a bit overblown, they also suffered from bouts of inconsistency. So in 2017, the team follows in Astralis’ footsteps and also got a sport psychologist. EliGE talked about the impact of the change in an HLTV interview,
“We also had a bootcamp after the player break, where we went to EU with our sports psychologist Jared Tendler, who really helped tackle every issue that still existed and was able to work with us in-depth with everything he saw. I credit a lot of it to his work that he did and what he was able to do with us.”
While much ado was made over the Astralis sports psychologist, I think what really separated Astralis from the other orgs was how they started to prepare for events. They were the first top level team to start skipping events so that the players could use the time to prepare and get better at the game.
CS:GO has an intense amount of international LANs and online games that have to be played by the top teams. This means that there is an increased amount of burnout and less time for teams to practice. LANs are the things players love and in addition to that if a team had a bad LAN event and skipped out on another one, their ranking could go down. This in turn could mean that they could not be invited to the following LAN after that as they’d no longer be in consideration. This in turn meant that Astralis would be risking monetary value as their players would have less exposure overall.
Astralis decided to take that risk as they wanted their players to be at the heights of their game. This would be a great move for any team trying to manage burnout, but was an even better move considering that gla1ve has proven himself to be a master tactician and the Astralis team have continually used their time off to innovate and refine the meta of CS:GO.
For Astralis 2017 was a fairly successful year, at least for most of it. The changes they made at the end of 2016 with the leadership change and some of the infrastructural changes paid off as the team won the Major and were one of the best teams throughout the year. However they were never able to secure the era they were looking for as FaZe and later SK were able to surpass them in the global rankings. While they were unable to secure the consistent dominance they were looking for in that year, the lessons they took from that time would later help them in 2018. By the end of the year though, things were rough for Astralis as dev1ce had personal injuries that forced him to take time off. At the same time, the team had conflicting role issues as Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjaerbye and Dupreeh wanted to play a similar role. It was briefly fixed when dev1ce had to take time off as it forced Dupreeh to become the main AWPer when Astralis had to play with stand-ins.
As for Liquid, it was an year of struggle as while they continually had a great roster on paper, their results were inconsistent throughout. Their peak was in September of 2017 where they made numerous role swaps after the PGL Krakow Major. This created a kind of honeymoon phase that they used to get to the finals of ESG Mykonos and ESL One New York. By the end of the year though, the honeymoon wore off. However the experiences they had here and some of the decisions they made would become the base from which they’d launch their 2018 campaign.
So Above, So Below
As 2018 rolls around, I think Astralis had proven themselves to be a top tier organization as they had succeeded on nearly every level to try to be a competitive team at the top level. Well almost succeeded. If there is one critique that can be rightly leveled at Astralis, it is that they failed at the GM side of the equation.
As I noted before, the team had role clashes within the squad as Kjaerbye and Dupreeh wanted to play a similar role. This was exacerbated by the fact that early on in the year, Kjaerbye was the clear second star of the team and by the end of the year, it was Dupreeh. On top of that, gla1ve’s individual performance had dipped as a player as he wasn’t in his correct positions. This in turn made his calling worse.
If we look back on the history of someone like FalleN or the Team Liquid organization, this is a moment when both of them would have likely consider a roster change. This was a clear time to do it as there were role clashes that couldn’t be resolved and the roster had already hit it’s ceiling and was trending downward. In the end, Astralis didn’t do anything, but instead tried to do a makeshift role swap for the ELeague Boston Major where they put Dupreeh on the AWP and dev1ce on the rifle. Though that roster change arguably had less to do with the role clashes and more to do with dev1ce coming back from his sickness.
For all of the praise that I’ve given Astralis for their system, this is one of those points where they essentially got lucky. After the Major, the team had planned to stick together, however in a last minute maneuver, Kjaerbye decided to join North. This left Astralis scrambling and they decided to recruit Emil “Magisk” Reif in his place.
While they were incredibly lucky in the sense that they didn’t initiate this move, I also have to give them credit in that they had every system in place to capitalize on the move after it had happened.
If I had to describe the organization’s team philosophy from the top of the chain down to the players, I’d say it’s an attention to detail. The measures that the team has taken at the organizational levels are done in consideration of the players they have. It’s hard to know as to who came up with what idea, but the decisions the organization have made are in sync with the players they have. Astralis were infamous for being unable to deal with pressure so they got a sports psychologist. The team itself has put in measures to make sure that the players don’t got to every event and burn out. This in turn allows for the Astralis players to prepare for events by innovating or refining the meta.
This is seen on the coaching level. In an interview with unikrn, Zonic gives a tidbit about how they think in terms of utility usage, “It’s not just the nades but the effectiveness of our smokes and flashes that I’ve spent a lot of time of on. In practice with the boys I kept practically whipping them “Why did you throw that flash? Was there purpose in it? Why did you throw that molotov, the opponent can just step away from it…” There has to be solid reasoning behind throwing these. “
This attention to detail is one of the edges that gives Astralis a leg up on their competitors. The most tangible example I can give was Magisk’s introduction into the lineup. When he came into the lineup, the easy and fast solution would have been to fit him into whatever roles that Kjaerbye had when he left the team. Instead the team rebuilt from the ground up. Magisk recalled this process in an HLTV interview,
“I think it was just that since the beginning, when I came into the team, we didn’t focus on being as ready as possible for the first two tournaments. We just wanted to make sure I was implemented into the roles and the strats, slowly building it up, and I think that worked really well for us because we took it slowly. We started with basic CS and could slowly add more strats to every map, which made it pretty easy for me to get into the team because I didn’t really have to get set into everything from the beginning. That was pretty nice for me because then I could get the feeling of the basics with the team, and I got to know the teammates.”
Many other top teams in the past have had to make roster changes and instead of trying to figure out how to best utilize all five in a revamped system, they just slot him in. In Astralis’ case they rebuilt from the bottom and this had the added effect of pushing Dupreeh and gla1ve into far better positions for themselves without sacrificing what Magisk could bring to the team. Their role balance is the best in history and will likely be used a model when considering how future CS:GO teams should be formed.
While the natural synergy was there, the reason for their consistency is because of the work the team puts in. When other top teams in the past became the best in the world, they didn’t have the process that Astralis have. Some of the worked hard, but didn’t have the coach or the personnel that allowed them to evolve their game. Others became lax after becoming the world’s best and this eventually allowed others to catch up or surpass them when their own individual form fell off. In the case of Astralis, they use that extra time between events to recalibrate and come back stronger than before. In an HLTV interview, dev1ce believes that this is their advantage,
“I still feel like our philosophy about how we prepare and how we do things together as a team is something that a lot of teams don’t know, or they’re not adapting, or doing it the same way as us. It’s really easy to copy in-game stuff, but the outside part is what’s hard, the preparation and the general mindset, and I think we have a slight advantage there.”
Xyp9x also notes that this gives them additional motivation in another HLTV interview where he states,
“For the motivation, I think it’s just about not attending every tournament like we are doing right now, having time at home to actually find that motivation again and getting the hunger to win the tournaments”
For Astralis, the microcosm of the beliefs of the individual players is iterated across the entire spectrum of the team. All of the players, the coach, and the organization have bought into the system. It showed strong results in 2017 when it had a good roster, but showed dominant results never seen before in 2018 when they had the right mix of players. As of right now, there is almost no team in the world that can match them in that respect except for Liquid. As Xyp9x notes in an DBLTap interview,
“We are creating how a CS:GO team should be playing right now. Liquid is one of the guys copying our structure and how to do things, and I think that’s why it’s going well for them.”
Same Approach, Different Tools.
Many have noticed the striking similarities between Liquid and Astralis in their current iterations across the board. Both have sports psychologists. Both are built around a core of talented players from a national region. Astralis in Denmark, Liquid in NA. Both have strong coaches that have shaped their rosters. Zonic for Astralis, zews for Liquid. Like Astralis, the practices of the team is iterated across the team from the organization, to the coach, to the players.
The biggest differences is where each respective lineup is in their timeline as players and what type of players they have. Liquid right now are enduring the troubled times of what TSM struggled through in 2015/2016. In a post-tournament interview after ESL Proleague Season 8 finals, Zonic commented that Liquid reminded him of his old days back in mTw, where his team was unable to defeat Na`Vi back in CS 1.6.
For me, the most interesting thing about Liquid in comparison to Astralis is the answer they came up with after considering their tendencies and own experiences in a team. Astralis is a CS:GO team straight out of Plato’s allegory of the cave. They are the perfect Platonic ideal that is casting the shadow on the wall, they are what people envision the perfect tactical CS:GO team to look like. Incredible balance of skill across all roles and with the ability to play the entire map pool because of it.
While that is incredible, as I’ve noted before it was partly due to luck as it could only happen with Magisk.In Liquid’s case, I give far more credit to their system. It’s hard to know who the chief decision maker was for the 2018 lineup, whether it was management, zews, the players, or a combination of the above. Whatever the case, maybe, for now I’ll credit zews for simplicity’s sake as it makes most sense considering he likely has the authority to detail the vision of the team and has the tactical know-how to envision the idea they were about to bring about.
On February 2018, the decided to recruit Keith “NAF” Markovic as their fifth player. NAF was to replace Joshua “jdm64” Marzano on the lineup. This was a brilliant move as the paradigm in CS:GO had always been that a team needed a primary AWPer. The last team to defy that logic was Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen’s Dignitas where he ran a rifle setup and took up the AWP when needed.
The Liquid iteration was different from that as MSL’s Dignitas system was structured in the typical MSL model that made him a world class leader. What Liquid did was use a hybrid rifler style. All five players were versatile rifle players that could be used in an assortment of different ways. This was further enabled when steel decided to leave the team in 2018 and it coincided with the time that TACO decided to leave MIBR. This was a perfect upgrade for Liquid and helped enable the style of play they were going for even more. When looking through Liquid’s games in 2018, it looks like what the team did was use this hybridized rifler system to their advantage and put it within a structured style of Counter-Strike.
What I mean by that is that in any given tournament, the team can shift roles or spots between the players. A recent example of this is EliGE and NAF trading CT spots on inferno within the last few tournaments. On the other hand though, the basic strategy and tactics remain the same as all of the players still work under the same understanding and principles of CS. This allows them a surprising degree of flexibility that enables their star players to shift roles when they’re uncomfortable and in turn the support players like nitr0 and TACO can easily fill in the spots.
The beauty of Liquid’s 2018 is that it could only have been accomplished through the efforts of everyone on all levels. Liquid’s management had to be willing to trust zews and to buyout the players that the team wanted. As for zews, he had to have the vision to see what kind of players were on the market, what players he had, and create a winning vision from that. The players evolved and matured under their tenure and became for more professional by the time 2018 started than they were in previous years. They in turn likely also had input into both the tactical side and in terms of what players they wanted to get to join the roster.
While that was the impetus of Liquid’s lineup in 2018, like Astralis, the consistency came from all levels within the organization. The organization has continued to implement systems to try to increase performance, whether that be through scheduling of tournaments, psychologists, or training centers. Zews has set the culture of the team and is an emotional and tactical pillar of the team. The players themselves have come to understand and buy into the system of their coach and org at this point. This buy in on all levels was one of Liquid’s edges through the year.
By the end of 2018, Liquid are already the best NA lineup to have ever graced CS:GO. Their strategy was fantastic, the balance of roles and players was perfect for the style of play they are running. If there was one criticism, it was that they have yet to develop the Champion’s mindset. In that way, they are incredibly similar to the TSM of 2015. As TACO described it in an HLTV interview,
“I don’t know how to explain what happens, it is just weird. (laughs) When it comes to that moment that we are close to winning the tournament, we just shut down. I don’t know how to explain it, if I knew how to explain it I would just fix it (laughs). I don’t know, it is a mental thing from the whole team, it is not one player, not two players, it is the team. We are going to just work on it.”
While Liquid have been unable to get over that mental hurdle, it is also the case that five of their big finals came up against Astralis. Astralis is in a sense the big brother of Liquid as their strengths lineup in similar areas, but with Astralis being the natural superior in terms of tactics, personel (dev1ce’s AWP being a big factor), and experience in dealing with the mental issues.
Comparing Astralis and Liquid to their Peers
I think the best way to understand why we’ve gone from the age of superheroes to an age of systems is by comparing Astralis and Liquid to their peers. Through most of the year, the two teams that were closest to matching Astralis and Liquid were Na`Vi and FaZe. FaZe were the best team in 2018 prior to Astralis creating an era, though they weren’t dominant as they didn’t have the victories. As for Na`Vi they were battling Liquid for most of the year for second place, but their inconsistency had them fall short at the very end.
So what was the difference? If we look at the separate lineups on paper, both lineups could theoretically work. We already know that as both have had success in the recent past. FaZe was the best team at the end of 2017 to early 2018. Na`Vi was the second best team in the world mid 2018.
I’ll break down each team on a few separate levels: players, leaders/coach, and organizationally. Na`Vi had s1mple, and Denis “electronic” Sharipov. During the peak period of this roster’s career, Egor “flamie” Vasilyev was also a valuable asset. On the other hand Ioann “Edward” Sukhariev rarely fit his role and consistently made strange mistakes throughout this period. So in terms of player pool, Na`Vi had the biggest gun in the game and a great secondary star, but didn’t have the right mix of players to surround them.
Na`Vi’s leader was Zeus and their coach was Myhailo “Kane” Blagin. Zeus is clearly the leader of the squad with Kane being his right hand man. The partnership between them clearly has some tangible effects given that Zeus’ resurrection as an in-game leader in the Gambit period was partly due to this partnership. At the same time, s1mple has credited Kane for their economic strategy in how they use the forcebuy. But kane isn’t someone that can instill a culture. In an interview with Cybersport, Zeus compared Kane to James Hunt from the movie Rush,
“If you remember the movie Rush that I mentioned, there was one racer in it who was a kind of nerd; he calculated everything, knew every angle and radius, and kept coming up with improvements to the racecar. The other one was simply crazy, he kept taking risks and getting ahead because of it, and as a person, he was a total slacker who drank, smoked, and partied with girls. But they were both world champions. Perhaps Misha is at times like that other racer.”
Now organizationally speaking, they’ve done a few things through the year. The first thing they did that was a success for them was keeping on s1mple. Additionally, they are one of the teams to have already skipped out on one of the online leagues which certainly helps with burnout and preparation. However they’ve been unable to make Liquid GM moves that could have made their roster stronger and unlike either Astralis or Liquid, they didn’t have the infrastructure or coach or manager in place that could instill a sense of rigor and culture into the team that it probably needed considering the amount of inconsistency we saw from Na`Vi throughout the year.
As for FaZe, they have a super team where it feels impossible to cut any of the players. They have Karrigan, NiKo, Olofmeister, Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs, and Havard “Rain” Nygaard. Man-for-man, FaZe is still the most skilled lineup in the world and has been for all of 2018. The difference between the FaZe scenario and the Na`Vi scenario though is that we’ve seen this roster be played out over a long period of time and as all rosters have an expiration date, moves should have been made.
Now let’s look at the leadership of the team. They essentially have two leaders: Karrigan and NiKo. After Karrigan joined the team, he became it’s center. That has remained the case up till the latter half of 2018 where NiKo became the God king of the roster and decided he was to be the in-game leader and Karrigan was to be the support player. FaZe also have a coach in Robert “RobbaN” Dahlstrom, but it seems like he is more of a second hand considering how the moves went down.
Organizationally speaking, we know a few things about FaZe. First they rarely did any practice during the period when Olofmeister was having personal leave. Second, we know that Karrigan is an all-time great in-game leader. Third, we know that the old FaZe roster wasn’t working and something needed to change. There were a few options that FaZe could have employed to combat this. They could have instituted a strong head coach at any point to work alongside either Karrigan or NiKo to force a level of rigor in the team to make them more consistent. As GMs, they could have realized that something needed to change and they could have gone for players to give a new look for the team.
Finally, and most importantly, the organization needed to figure out the identity of the team. In the case of Astralis and Liquid, they have built around a core of players and the pairing of a coach and in-game leader. In the case of FaZe, they let the players battle it out for supremacy within the team itself. I don’t think either choice would have been necessarily bad. Karrigan is a fantastic in-game leader who can take any squad of five from 0 to 95 in a few days. NiKo is generational talent you see once in a lifetime. They should have found a way to reconcile those views, or when they split apart, to all-in on one or the other.
Instead we have this a compromised solution between the two. They have NiKo being the in-game leader and Karrigan being the support player. I’ll give a large amount of credit to both as I think the move has already done more than I expected, but at the end of the day, FaZe is running on the old paradigm of the age of superheroes, where it is the players that are deciding what happens to the team. If that’s the case, their fortune is inherently tied to the decisions those players make and will live or die based on what they decide to do.
Now compare those two teams to Astralis and Liquid. Those two teams were able to build and find most of the right players. While both got lucky at times with how some of the roster moves panned out, they were able to exploit those chances of luck with fantastic organizational infrastructure and an identity that had already been set in place prior to Astralis getting Magisk or Liquid getting TACO. While Na`Vi and FaZe have most of the right pieces, the organizational aspect fell behind and that in turn has had some impact within the games and consistency of the teams as well. While we can point to a number of individual, tactical, team-oriented, and culture-oriented deficiencies of Na`Vi and FaZe in comparison to Astralis and Liquid, in a sense those are all ramifications of the identity and process by which the organizations got to their results. In the end, Astralis and Liquid’s systemic efforts were able to give their teams that extra advantage they needed to gain the edge on teams like Na`Vi or FaZe in 2018.
It feels like we are at a turning point in history. More money has come to the top CS:GO organizations compared to the past. WIth it they have started to find ways to improve and empower their teams to competitive success. In the case of Liquid and Astralis, this was already put into action in earlier years and it is in 2018 where we’ve seen the fruits of their labor.
From 2012-2017, each of the top teams of the age had the best players in the world. NiP had Get_RiGhT, Titan had Shox, Fnatic had olofmeister, LG/SK had Coldzera, FaZe had NiKo. It is only now in 2018 where we are starting to see the tides shift. Na`Vi with s1mple was unable to be the best team in the world. They weren’t able to be the second best as Liquid took that spot from them by the end of the year.
The age of superheroes seems to be coming to a close. That doesn’t mean that top teams will no longer have the best players in the world. Rather it means that having the best player with a workable system around them is no longer enough. If a top organization has the right five players as Astralis or Liquid do, then the systems they implement will give them an additional advantage compared to teams that don’t have that.
Astralis and Liquid cultivated a system and ethos that was iterated through the heads of the organization to the coach to the players. On the other hand, FaZe and Na`Vi were working with the old system and because of that fell into pitfalls. FaZe didn’t have the practice culture nor the vision to sustainably be the best team in the world. Na`Vi didn’t have the additional organizational infrastructure that Astralis or Liquid implemented in order to try to keep Na`Vi consistently performing at a high level throughout the year.
Throughout CS:GO history, teams have always been in a war of escalation. They have continually tried to find a competitive edge by getting the big superstar name, getting the incredible leader, or finding the next great player. As it moves forward, that war of escalation will continue, but now it will also be fought on the organizational front as teams try to find the best possible systems that enable their teams to perform at a higher level compared to the rest.
FalleN once said this, “Players decide matches, teams well assembled take trophies.” As CS:GO pivots towards an age where more organizations are getting more money and using that to gain competitive advantages, I can’t help but think of a corollary to that statement. That well assembled teams backed by strong systems will define dynasties.