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:GP. 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 NiP’s return to the major through to FaZe Clan winning big tournaments under trying circumstances and culminating in the red and white empire of Astralis.
Here is the second part of my Top 20 CS:GO Story-Lines of 2018, counting down numbers 10 to 1.
Part 1: 20-11
Part 2: 10-1
10. Welcome back NiP
2017 had been a wasted year for the Ninjas and CS:GO’s original dynasty still fielded three players from their formerly impossibly successful core as the year ended. A lone surprise victory at IEM Oakland and a top four finish at Dreamhack Masters Malmo had been the only big tournament results worth discussing and the Ninjas had infamously been unable to qualify for any of the majors, once their playground of five straight finals appearances.
2018 was about rebuilding and reformulating the NiP blueprint. THREAT left as head coach and pita returned for another spell. NiP finished in last place at cs_summit2, humiliatingly, and the decision came a few days later to replace original member Xizt with dennis. The classic names of GeT_RiGhT and f0rest were joined in the starting line-up by two former Epsilon players and a recent FNATIC figure. Gone were the days of NiP holding onto their original core in the face of any and all results suggesting their time had passed.
Play-off appearances at the IEM XII World Championship in Katowice and Dreamhack Masters Marseille were promising signs for the new look NiP. Finishing last place at EPL S7 Finals was a concern, but NiP again featured in the play-offs at StarSeries S5. draken, who had seemingly been unable to integrate his individual play with the team’s, was benched and FNATIC player Lekr0 came over to fill his spot. Bizarrely, it was Xizt who had taken Lekr0’s spot in FNATIC and draken would later join him there, making for quite the incestuous transfer season in Sweden.
The first couple of tournaments with Lekr0 were concerning, with dennis taking over the IGL role and failing to make top four at the CS:GO Asia Championships, a tournament at which Na`Vi were the only other top ranked team, and a dead last sputtering out at ESL One Cologne, the home of NiP’s lone major win. Fans worried this new NiP looked just as bad or worse than the old NiP were finally given reason to hope, as Lekr0 took over leadership from dennis and led the team to victory at the Europe Minor, qualifying NiP for their first major in two years.
The Ninjas followed up on that result with a top four finish at Dreamhack Masters Stockholm headed into the major. The major would see GTR and company unable to make the hallowed ground of a Legends spot, but many onlookers – including the author of this piece – saw them as arguably the best performing team not to make the play-offs, in light of victory over Astralis at the tournament and generally facing some of the most difficult opposition on average in the Swiss system.
From there on out, NiP were money in the bank as a legitimate top 10 team in the world again and even showed themselves to be one of the rare teams capable of matching up with the dominant Astralis with any consistency.
Third and second place finishes at Blast Pro Series events were respectable enough and a top four run at the ECS S6 Finals cemented NiP’s return to relevance as a team. There were failures at EPICENTER and Blast Pro Series Lisbon, but NiP were back.
9. Cloud9’s championship status evaporates
Cloud9’s epic run through the ELEAGUE Major Boston play-off bracket, following a Swiss system performance that had them facing elimination three times in a row, was the stuff movie scripts are made of. Defeating three of the top ranked teams in the world, including the best team in attendance, who had previously thrashed C9 over and over the previous year, ensured that North America’s first ever major champions did it in spectacular and memorable fashion.
Yet the big story-line for C9 in 2018 was not winning the biggest tournament in Counter-Strike, but rather how they completely failed to even defend their crown and had sunk to the status of being a meme within months. Despite signing new contracts, the line-up which won the major only lasted a few more LANs, failing to crack top four in all but one, before franchise player Stewie requested a transfer to the Brazilians of SK Gaming and in doing so brought in what was reported as the highest buyout fee in CS:GO history.
One would imagine with the remaining core of the major winning line-up intact and that kind of spending power that C9 could have quickly built another contender. Alas, roster moves would not prove to be the formula for changing C9’s fortunes. Taking in former CLG IGL FNS, they managed to win a Bo3 series over an olofless FaZe at Dreamhack Masters Malmo, but their top eight run there would legitimately be the best result, in context, C9 would have for practically the entire year.
FNS lasted less than two months and from there on out C9 were forced into using stand-ins while they tried to figure out their roster. At the time of writing, C9 only solidified their five man roster around a month and a half ago. Even then, illness means they will be forced to use a stand-in for the major next year, repeating the situation they were in for the FACEIT Major London this year, where they were technically the defending champions.
Ending the year with golden, flusha and kioShiMa on the team spells some promise for 2019, but the story of 2018 for C9 was winning it all at the very beginning and then plunging into irrelevance and torturing their fans with an inability to not only put together another quality line-up, but even field five true starters most of the time. After years of being a top three NA team at worst, typically still holding it over their domestic rivals head-to-head, the year with C9 not only no longer an NA line-up, but having been long since surpassed by Team Liquid and NRG as far as results went.
That’s a hell of a bitter chaser for that champagne celebration.
8. electronic arrives fashionably late
Na`Vi had recruited FlipSid3 star electronic late in 2017 to provide super-star talent s1mple with some more star level help in carrying the fragging load. Despite numerous top four finishes, including at the first major, Na`Vi were not getting the kind of highlights and big performances from their Russian import that they might have expected. This situation saw s1mple seemingly alone again in his efforts, trying to drag a Na`Vi which wouldn’t be close to top five without him towards the finish line against the world’s best teams.
Just when it looked as if s1mple was set for one of the most ridiculously Sisyphean years, reminiscent of NiKo in mouz in 2016 and kennyS in Titan in 2015, Na`Vi were able to crack the code and integrate electronic into the team as a star player. And what a star he turned out to be! From Dreamhack Masters Marseille, in the latter half of April on electronic proved to be not just a worthy side-kick to the mighty s1mple, but legitimately one of the world’s best players in his own right and a candidate for top five in the world in many analysts’ eyes.
It was thanks to electronic’s aid and excellent form that Na`Vi were able to best Astralis and win ESL One Cologne, their best result of the year. They followed that up a few months later with a runners-up finish at the major, the best placing in the organisation’s history in CS:GO and the highest mark s1mple had reached thusfar in his own career.
Towards the end of the year there were a few down tournaments for Na`Vi’s new star, but 2018 ends with Na`Vi having managed to establish themselves as one of the very best teams of the year, one of the few to defeat Astralis in multiple offline series and with a number of trophies in the cabinet. It seems hardly to be a coincidence the trophies began to come when electronic levelled up his play.
7. MiBR’s struggle for relevance
The SK Gaming core began 2018 as one of the greatest to ever play CS:GO and there were no reasons to imagine this year would be any different than their past two wildly successful campaigns. Sure, the major saw them unable to use their full line-up, with boltz ineligible due to having played for IMT, but even with felps, their previous member, standing in they cracked top four and took eventual champions C9 close in the semi-finals.
With boltz back in the starting line-up, SK expected the championships to come again. cs_summit 2 saw them failing to even make the final, finishing behind TL and C9. Those two North American teams would eliminate SK at their next two big LANs, TL at StarSeries S4 and C9 at the IEM XII World Championship. Having held sway over the North American region for so long, these results were worse than any old placing with the same number next to it.
The ultimate iniquity came at the WeSG Finals, an event SK Gaming had specifically cited as their primary focus of practice when complaining about being unable to use boltz for the major, claiming they wouldn’t be practicing for the major with felps due to focusing on winning the heft WeSG first prize with boltz. Despite the top heavy Chinese tournament again being famously under-powered in its field of teams attending, SK finished 17th-22nd, losing out to the Russian mix-team and a then irrelevant.
During this time period, reported had surfaced that SK were attempting to buy s1mple and flamie from Na`Vi, a move which fell through at the last stages. At the end of March it was announced that C9 star Stewie would be joining the team and in doing so causing them to switch their primary language of communication to English, away from their native Portuguese. Stewie replaced TACO, who left for Team Liquid and numerous big international finals this year.
The addition of Stewie could not propell SK back to the heights of being championship contenders, no matter how many times that narrative was pushed on desks and in interviews. SK’s best results with this line-up were a 5th-6th finish at EPL S7 Finals, where they finally lost an offline series to 2017 rivals FaZe Clan. At Dreamhack Masters Marseille and IEM XIII Sydney, SK were unable to even crack top eight, a shockingly poor set of results for a team with as incredible a history of top finishes and high a standard of play.
Wins in smaller competitions like the Adrenaline Cyber League and Moche XL Esports tournaments meant nothing in the context of the top teams in world Counter-Strike and the tournament circuit. Likewise, finishing top four at ESL One Belo Horizonte was fool’s gold in that the status of the tournament, as part of the Intel Grand Slam, and respectable prize money on offer could not change that Astralis were not in attendance and in fact the only teams with their full line-ups who were featured in the top 10 of the world rankings were Team Liquid and SK themselves. FaZe Clan and mouz, who made the final, were both using stand-ins, FaZe with cromen for olof and mouz with n0thing for oskar.
In that context, SK’s inability to reach the final or win this event on home soil, with a massively partisan crowd, ended up feeling like yet another big defeat in an already rough year. In June the team finally completed the worst kept secret in the industry, moving from the SK Gaming organisation to establish their own with the ownership of Immortals, reviving the legendary Made in Brazil (MiBR) brand. Along with the new name came a new face, as boltz was shed and tarik, another C9 player from the major-winning line-up, made his way over to join Stewie as the American contingent in a team which was marketed for being Brazilian.
Initial results with tarik were not much of an improvement, finishing 7th-8th at ESL One Cologne and then 5th-6th at ELEAGUE Premier. World reknown analyst YNk was added as the team’s new coach on the first of August and improvement immediately began to show in the server. While the high points placement-wise were finishing top four at the FACEIT Major London, making the final of ECS S6 Finals and cracking top four at EPL S8 Finals, the most impressive sign of improvement for FalleN and company was emerging as one of the teams best matched against Astralis, a team far ahead of their competition on the whole. Time and again MiBR were able to play at least one map close with the Danes, eventually even taking a whole series off them at ECS.
There were still some poor moments mixed in there, such as losing all five maps and finishing last place at Blast Pro Series Copenhagen and a 9th-12th placing at IEM XIII Chicago, but MiBR had shown clear improvement, albeit not quite yet an elite team and enough months into their new formation to suggest they might have hit their ceiling. The team seemed to agree, despite what they had been preaching in interviews all year long and even moreso after YNk’s arrival, as they made the blockbuster move to trade Stewie to Team Liquid in exchange for TACO and coach zews making their return to the core they won two majors back in 2016.
For a core who seemingly had winning encoded in their DNA, it was shocking for all to see them go almost eight months without a top four finish at a big international tournament featuring most of the world’s best teams.
6. Astralis win the Intel Grand Slam
When the Intel Grand Slam was announced, with a free $1,000,000 prize being granted to the first team to win four sancitoned events within a 10 tournament window following the first victory, Astralis player dupreeh apparently remarked privately that nobody would be able to win that prize. Indeed, multiple time champions SK Gaming fell apart before they could reach even three of the four necessary victory and FaZe Clan, a team filled with super-stars and assembled to win championships, blew chance after chance and despite being the first to hit three wins never even made the final of a potential fourth event during their eligibility.
Of course, since dupreeh’s comments, his team had made a key roster move, bringing in magisk, and months later become the clear cut number one team in the world and the new dominant force in Counter-Strike. By the scare of FaZe snatching the Grand Slam had passed, it seemed clear that Astralis would win the hefty payday if they could maintain their exceptional level of form. The only real threat to their efforts was having chosen to miss events like ESL One Belo Horizonte and ESL One New York that year, choosing to sit home for the former and attend a Blast event – a tournament circuit run by the company backing the team – for the latter.
As if to highlight their level of dominance and sustained excellence, Astralis not only won the Grand Slam in spite of skipping events, but even did it one event earlier than they had to. Victories at Dreamhack Masters Marseille, EPL S7 Finals, IEM XIII Chicago and EPL S8 Finals granted Astralis the four needed wins and the $1,000,000 prize. One hell of a sweet cherry of scrilla on the top of the cake of unbridled success Astralis had hungrily consumed over 2018.
5. FaZe wins under difficult circumstances
FaZe Clan looked set to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year, though not at SK or C9 levels, admittedly. The year began with the super-star-stacked line-up continuing to reach seemingly every final or semi-final available, only to lose all of them, including, and most painfully, seeing the major taken from them after securing four map points in regulation on the deciding map. Not only had FaZe failed in their mission to secure a major title, the rare accomplishment most of their line-up still missed from their resumes, but they had continued to blow chances to move closer to three wins in the Intel Grand Slam.
When olofmeister announced he would have to step away from competitive play for an undetermined amount of time, some wondering if he would return at all, FaZe’s time to win championships seemed over. Especially as the team chose to wait for olof, rather than outright recruit a new fifth player, though efforts were made during the year to inquire about a number of talents. If FaZe were losing most semis and finals with their full line-up, which had already accomplished a truly historic level, then what chance did a FaZe Clan featuring stand-ins have?
FaZe would win two international tournaments using a different stand-in for each. At IEM XIII Sydney FaZe Clan were able to stand as the first team to halt Astralis’ absurb level of dominance, besting them narrowly in an incredible 3:0 Bo5 final. The stand-in making up the numbers? The same Xizt who had been removed as IGL and player from NiP. At ESL One Belo Horizonte, admittedly a tournament lacking a number of the top teams and seeing even rivals mouz with a stand-in, FaZe again hoisted the trophy, making them the first core to three in the Grand Slam chase.
As one might expect, such rare but spectacular performances came as a result of individual efforts from FaZe’s legendary stars. IEM Sydney had seen them almost eliminated a number of times, looking highly shaky, but a performance for the ages from Slovakian AWP god GuardiaN secured them the title. In Brazil it was NiKo, who still hungered for championships after having been starved on mouz two years prior, who carried the day.
FaZe reassembled their line-up with olof and again proved incapable of winning titles or even making it into the final of big events. That is until NiKo usurpsed karrigan’s leadership and completed the hat trick of unlikely and difficult wins, taking down his first full event as IGL by winning EPICENTER as both IGL and carry player, winning the MVP award for his efforts.
FaZe Clan were unable to live up to the very high expectations they and others had justifiably set for themselves, but somehow this band of rogue stars continues to show glimpses of what is possible when their special talents align at the right time.
4. Astralis vs. Team Liquid one-sided war
At StarSeries S4 back in February teams like Astralis and Team Liquid were both boasting freshly altered rosters and moving towards elite status. Liquid took a map in their series there, though neither team won the event or made the final. A few months later, at Dreamhack Masters Marseille, circumstances had changed, as Astralis emerged as the best team in the world and Liquid showed one of what would be rare moments of fragility, failing to make the play-offs. Still, the squad, which now featured TACO rather than steel, played Astralis closest of any team at the tournament and again took a map from them.
Astralis remained the number one team and nobody could truly pull level to them, but Team Liquid continued to show themselves as one of the teams best matched against the Danes and, with their own form improving to reach numerous international finals, would time and time again defeat the rest of the field to face Astralis in the final. Team Liquid played Astralis in five finals over the year, losing all five, despite some close and exciting maps of play along the way. Combining both rosters, the NA side never once got the better of the Danes in their offline Bo3/Bo5 series played.
Astralis were the team who rarely ever lost a tournament, while Team Liquid could beat anyone not called Astralis but seemingly rarely ever won a trophy of note. Thus, 2018 saw one of history’s most one-sided rivalries play out over and over with ultimately the same outcome.
3. Team Liquid’s quest for international gold
When an elite team loses five times in big finals to the best team in the world and perhaps all of history one would expect that to be the story-line which defined them that year. In fact, Team Liquid’s pain went further than that and the over-arching narrative has become that Team Liquid cannot win a big international title at all.
In tournaments featuring Astralis, TL has on a number of memorable occasions beaten and even thrashed other elite teams like Na`Vi and FaZe Clan, then to lose to the Danes in the final. Elsewhere, though, the obvious analysis that “they just lose to Astralis” has fallen to the altered story-line of “Team Liquid can’t win big tournaments”. This shift came as a result of Liquid’s form following the major, as they played in two tournaments not featuring Astralis and failed to win either.
At ESL One New York, TL were heavy favourites for the title once they reached the final, Na`Vi and FaZe not even featuring in the play-offs. Up 2:1 against a spotty Snax-edition mouz, TL choked up the map and saw the trophy go to Germany. At EPICENTER, again with only Na`Vi and FaZe as elite opposition in attendance, TL were unable to take the title, this time losing to an inspired NiKo-fuelled FaZe in the semi-finals.
As 2018 ends, Team Liquid’s line-up loses TACO and coach zews, meaning the answer will never truly be answered as to whether this specific five man line-up could have won a big international title. In the end, they perhaps proved as formidable an opponent for themselves as even Astralis.
2. s1mple raises the bar
If you don’t follow CS:GO closely and hear that Na`Vi finished in the top four of every offline tournament for the first eight months, failed to make the play-offs at only four events over the entire year and won four championships, one – ESL One Cologne – famously one of the highlights of the calender, then you could be forgiven for imagining Natus Vincere are a fabulously constructed team with parts which all fit together well and players all in contention for the best in their role, a run-down which fellow consistently elite teams like Astralis and Team Liquid fit. Sadly, that is not the case for Na`Vi.
Two of the five players in Na`Vi (flamie and Edward) are not in contention for best in their role, in fact Edward is considered one of the worst in his role relative to the level of team he plays on, and another player (Zeus) is a legendary in-game leader but with as many idiosyncratic flaws as clear strengths. So how did Na`Vi manage such success and consistency in their level of performance over the year, at one point boasting the second best map pool in the world? The eighth story-line on this list helps account for some of those results, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to super-star s1mple.
Just as Astralis were not just clearly the best team of 2018 but arguably the best ever, at the very least challenging for the best ever run of form over a roughly year long span, the story is similar for the Ukrainian Counter-Strike prodigy. He was not just clearly the best individual player in 2018, but showcased the best single year of play we’ve ever seen in CS:GO and thus immediately forces his way into the discussion for the best player in history.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that Na`Vi with any other CIS player other than s1mple would likely be struggling to maintain a top 10 world ranking. With s1mple dominating the scoreboard and providing massive impact seemingly every game, Na`Vi have repeatedly hit second in the world rankings, won a respectable share of trophies in the Astralis era and been at times impossible to stop prior to the semi-finals of any tournament. s1mple and electronic even had the team playing in the final of the major at a time when rumours abounded that there were internal issues and perhaps a roster move was on the horizon.
Oh and this is all for a team s1mple himself agreed to leave early in the year, having toiled away at a still impressive epic level of individual play last year with very few results.
s1mple is one of the best entries in CS:GO, best AWPers, best riflers, best pistol players, best aimers, best clutch round players and now, shockingly, best team-mates. Na`Vi weren’t ever the best in 2018, but the same can’t be said of s1mple.
1. The Age of Astralis dawns
Astralis winning the Intel Grand Slam or the FACEIT Major might have seemed like obvious picks for the top spot of this list, but those aspects are secondary sub-plots in the tale of their dominance over 2018. Their superiority over the scene was such that even with “only” four titles they were a team already drawing comparisons with and being shadow-boxed against the best teams to ever play CS:GO, having so rarely ever lost maps and series en route to those titles and with a ludicrous run of something like six months without a team being able to stop Astralis reaching double digits rounds won in a map of offline play.
Winning the FACEIT Major cemented this as Astralis’ era, finally allowed me to use the “Age of Astralis” moniker I’d been forced to shelf after the previous line-up came up short in the Spring of 2017. Unlike SK, who immediately stopped winning after establishing their era, or FNATIC, who bled titles and had to win in spite of rockier form after hitting that status themselves, Astralis have continued to rack up tropheis since making this year their own. They are currently on a streak of having won the last four tournaments in a row they have played, including picking up the aforementioned Intel Grand Slam along the way.
Teams have begun to beat Astralis more often, but that has mattered little in the final outcome and they still reign supreme across most maps in the pool and when they reach the finals of a tournament. Not only have Astralis featured in a total of 13 finals this year, winning 11 of them, but they have been in the final of eight of the last nine tournaments they have played in, winning seven of those titles. For the sake of not making this entry a list of all of Astralis’ accomplishments I’ll throw in that on nuke the team has still yet to ever lose offline, winning 27 games against the rest of the scene.
Astralis have been so spectacularly dominant that common complaints from fans include the notions that they are boring, due to winning all the time and against seemingly every opponent, and that they only win due to practically every other top team having failed to make the “right” roster moves. Even the seemingly analytically-based observation that Astralis benefitted from cbblestone, their long-time permanent ban, being removed in favour of dust2 falls down when one considers that so few teams in the top 10 have been able to establish dust2 as a strong map for themselves, while Astralis have lost only once in the 14 times they have played the map they do not even emphasise as a regular pick.
When there aren’t even any viable narratives to counter or legitimately down-play your team’s unending dominance you have established the most significant story-line of the year.