Esports competition to be a series of never ending games. The purpose of these games are multivariable. Some believe they are a form of entertainment and others a competitive trial to determine who is the best. For myself, I see it as a simulacrum of life. It is a series of complicated games where the answer is simultaneously the same and different for every conceivable team and player. To be the epitome of what you are and defeat the world. In Counter-Strike right now, we will see the epitomes of two teams, two identities clash. Astralis have become the epitome of the structured teamplay style. With the return of Olof ‘olofmeister’ Kajbjer, FaZe will once again become the epitome of the loose individualistic style. These two teams, these two ideals are set to go to war to prove that they are the correct answer. That their vision is the best in the world.
Before these ideals clashed on a world stage, they clashed within a far more intimate setting. In the latter throes of 2016, Finn ‘karrigan’ Andersen hit an ideological schism with his teammates on Astralis. The team wished to play a more structured style of Counter-Strike. This ideal was embodied by the two other leaders of the team, Danny ‘zonic’ Sorensen and Nicolai ‘dev1ce’ Reedtz. Karrigan believed that the issue was that they needed to play more explosively, to mix it up with a loose style of CS that caught their enemies off guard. The dispute was never resolved and eventually Astralis benched karrigan and recruited Lukas ‘gla1ve’ Rossander in his place.
In retrospect, this roster shuffle became one of the most impactful changes in CS:GO history as it created two of the biggest forces in the CS:GO landscape for the past two years: Astralis and FaZe. Astralis with gla1ve at the helm were to become the epitome of the structured team. Karrigan went onto FaZe where he took over a broken mess of ill-fitting players and set them on the path to becoming a world class team and after some roster moves, champions.
The Astralis that ended up forming after the split included: dev1dce, Peter ‘dupreeh’ Rothmann, Andreas ‘Xyp9x’ Hojsleth, gla1ve, and Markus ‘Kjaerbye’ Kjaerbye. They created an entire system and peaked in the coming months. This culminated in their ELeague Atlanta Major victory. It was a team filled with strong individual role players. What made them special however was their incredible team play and tactics. Their CT-sides were built to maximize their equipment and utility with opponents often being blinded or killed before they could react. Their T-sides were oscillated between two extremes. One one hand they ran a positional map control style where they slowly took over key areas of the map then did a slow coordinated hit of a site which allowed them to cover as many angles as possible and trade into the site with an advantage. The other choice was an explosive highly coordinated execute that ran over the enemy defense, this was exemplified by their Overpass small site execute which has since been copied and emulated by teams around the world.
As for FaZe, when Karrigan got to them they were a broken down car in a scrap yard. There were some brilliant pieces in there: Havard ‘rain’ Nygaard, Fabien ‘kioShiMa’ Fiey, Joakim ‘jkaem’ Myrbostad, Philip ‘aizy’ Aistrup, and Aleksi ‘allu’ Jalli, but it would take a master mechanic a long period of time to get it all working. They didn’t have the time as ELeague was set to happen 3 days after Karrigan joined. As it turned out, that was all the time Karrigan needed to get it all working together. He understood the strengths and weaknesses of all the players and instantly created a system in which they all thrived. Ladislav ‘GuardiaN’ Kovacs once said in an interview with Duncan ‘Thorin’ Shields that,
“Finn is the kind of leader that makes you play 100%. If you’re a sniper and good at entry-fragging, he will send you wherever you want to go. If I want to go pick B on Mirage, he will somehow know how to create a tactic on this call.”
The team never stopped traveling as they went from event to event to event. Karrigan pulled out jkaem from the starting lineup and put in kioShiMa realizing that kioShiMa could become the supportive end player they needed. As time went on they solidified themselves as a top 10 team, but it wasn’t until Nikola ‘NiKo’ Kovac that the team kicked into high gear. At IEM World Championship, they had three days to once again integrate NiKo into the lineup. It was all they needed as Karrigan and NiKo both proved their worth as leader and superstar player. They reached the finals of that tournament where they faced off against Astralis. That was the first clash between these teams and the ideals of what they represented.
At the time Astralis were set to become the best team in the world. They had won ECS Season 2 Finals, ELeague Major Atlanta, and the IEM World Championship. A victory at Starladder i-League Season 3 would have cinched it, but Astralis were stopped. Instead the Karrigan-led FaZe stopped them using their loose explosive style to overwhelm the Danish side. In the finals of that tournament Karrigan got his revenge and Rain recounts what it meant to him in this Team Liquid interview,
“…for karrigan, it’s a totally different picture. He really wants to to win and his energy level and everything, is maxed out when he plays against Astralis. He never wants to lose against them. Everytime we lose, like when we lost in Katowice, he’s watching everything and he’s trying to figure out new stuff to counter them. He has this extra will to beat them because they basically kicked him.”
The two teams battled for spot at the top with FaZe gaining the upper hand. Eventually neither team was able to hold on to the top spot as SK Gaming came surging forth to become the test of that era. In the ensuing year, FaZe underwent transformation to try to topple the Brazilians while Astralis stagnated.
Just as FaZe and Astralis were diametrically opposed in terms of CS philosophy, they were also diametrically opposed when it came to how they approached the CS:GO tournament circuit. They approached it much in the same way that they thought of their CS strategy. When it came to tournament management, Astralis has consistently sit out of events so that they could get their practice in. Conversely FaZe go from event to event and try to get as many lives games as possible. NiKo expounded upon the difference in an HLTV interview,
“…we’d [FaZe] never consider skipping tournaments to prepare more for other ones, I think playing events is better practice than actually practicing. Also, if you also compare our style to Astralis’ it’s completely different, they are more structured, maybe that’s why they need more time to prepare. We are playing with more freedom so we don’t practice the tactics so much and stuff like that.”
Even in terms of dealing with roster issues, they have completely different methods. In the case of FaZe, they continued to upgrade the team as they filled out their roster with: Rain, Karrigan, NiKo, GuardiaN, and olofmeister. Astralis on the other hand continued to try to stick with the same five man lineup and were going to stick with Kjaerbye for 2018 except that he decided to leave at the last moment which forced them to pick up Emil ‘Magisk’ Reif.
Though the timing was completely different for both squads, the parallels are uncanny. When the superstar FaZe lineup was formed, their style of play was pure brute force. ESL New York and ELeague were the some of the most dominant victories we’ve seen. It felt like they had broken the game, as if no one was ever going to challenge them. It was a highlight reel of play upon play upon play. Playmaking that begat map control that begot playmaking. It was a sight to watch and it felt like they had broken the entire game. However that form didn’t last and soon they found themselves under pressure as they were the favorites in every tournament they entered.
This created a level of pressure that they failed to live up to and unfortunately for FaZe, their resume has been riddled with disappointments. This is a team that knows it should win everything, however they’ve lost huge finals and series to NiP, Cloud 9, Fnatic, and most recently BIG. Despite those losses, they were still the best lineup from the end of 2017 to the first months of 2018. Soon after olofmeister had to take a hiatus for personal reasons and FaZe have gone from event to event with a stand in. This came at an inopputune time as it cleared the way for a dominant Astralis to come to the fore.
In the first few months of 2018, Astralis started to build a gameplan with Magisk in play. His introduction shifted the roles allowed Dupreeh to play his favored role as an aggressive spacemaker. At the same time cobblestone was removed from the map pool and Dust 2 was reintroduced. Dev1ce was recovering from his injuries and the rest of the team seemed to peak in form. Finally, zonic forced the team to better their utility usage. In an interview with Daniel Ranki he says,
“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. “
The stars became aligned and this culminated in one of the most dominant victories we’ve ever seen tactically at DreamHack Marseille 2018. Where FaZe of 2017 looked like they broke the game, Astralis of 2018 looked like they solved it. Since that moment they have been the best team in the world and are close to cementing the status of an Era if they haven’t already.
However like FaZe, there have been some hiccups along the way. They lost to FaZe at IEM Sydney 2018 when FaZe had Richard ‘Xizt’ Landstrom as a stand in. That finals ended 3-0 in FaZe’s favor, but it was incredibly close and could have been an 0-3 in the other direction. In a post victory interview with Max Melit, Xizt recalls why he thinks they won
“We kept reminding each other, the pressure is on Astralis, it’s not on us. I think that helped a lot.”
Outside of that loss, Astralis were also eliminated in the semifinals of ESL One Cologne by an ascendant Na`Vi. Like the FaZe loss, it looked to be an overperformance on the part of Na`Vi fired on all cylinders to defeat Astralis in the semifinals. Like the FaZe of 2017, the luster of Astralis may be fading. Where FaZe’s style and form couldn’t show up at all of the big series, Astralis’ tactics are being copied and studied by the entire scene.
As gla1ve puts it in an interview with Daniel Ranki,
“I can confirm teams are catching on. We practiced yesterday with another top team and they double naded us, got double kills with it. We were like, “Oh my god, they already stole our tactics.” We know people are going to steal these, it’s part of the game, and they should, that is how you get better.”
This is why Astralis have continued to not play in all of the tournaments. Their edge comes from their tactics which takes them time to build and advance. In contrast to that, FaZe’s edge comes from their individual players and they feel like their best practice is gained out in the field where they can hone their skill in real time battle.
Put another way, Astralis is about discipline. They want a structure and a system that they can rely on. Everyone knows their role and their part within every aspect of the game and how that feeds into the next. They play for the likely scenario given all information they have on hand. For instance, at DreamHack Marseille 2018, Astralis played Liquid on cache in the group stages. On the fifth round of that map, they went for a 1-1-3 split with three of the players in the B position. The reason was because they had a read on the economy so the highest probable tactic that Liquid can make that can win them the round is an explosive B execute where they trade into the site and their weaponry isn’t as much of a problem.
This particular setup has Xyp9x support by holding A alone, has dev1ce holding an AWP from Z and peeking a safe angle into mid so that the chances of a Liquid play one tapping him. Two of the Astralis players are doing a boost on B site to get info into sunroom to see if anyone is there while the third supports from checkers. If Liquid go B they likely straight out lose. If they go mid control, dev1ce can get a pick and Astralis will either be able to wrap by pushing B or rotate into better positions. If Liquid hit A, Xyp9x can fall off and Astralis win the retake. This is the style Astralis bring to the fore. All players in the right role, a read on the situation, and the setup that maximizes their chances of winning.
Perhaps a better example of their structure is how they do a power play situation. At DreamHack Marseille, Astralis played FaZe in the ro8 on Mirage. In the 21st round of that map, dev1ce gets an early pick as Rain tried to go for a play. From that point onward, every move the Astralis players make across the map is in reaction to the first pick and in harmony with each other. Dev1ce throws a molly at T Ramp so that no one else can follow. Gla1ve throws a flashbang and a HE nade down mid while spraying through the smoke so that any fast reaction hit is shut down from mid. Xyp9x throws his smoke into B apts to stall any movement from there. Dupreeh knows that gla1ve has mid covered and knows that the only danger is a potential explosion from B apts so he shifts his attention there. At the same time, Magisk shifts over to connector while dev1ce shifts back to ticket. Any chance of FaZe trying to burst onto the site and catch them off guard is stymied. From that point on Astralis rotate around to maximize their defense and shut down FaZe.
In contrast to that we have FaZe. At ELeague Premier 2017, FaZe played against Astralis on overpass. it was a full rifle round, with full utility and weaponry available. Theoretically they have the entire playbook they can use. What they decide to do is change the pace. In the previous rifle round, FaZe played the info game, stalled Astralis out, hamstrung them across the map and shut down the hit. This time they went full on in their face. The basic setup was to have 2 smoke nades thrown down middle to block off vision into party from the T perspective. From that point on, Rain, Olofmeister, and NiKo played off of their individual skill, teamplay, and instinct. Rain jiggle peeks the angle that looks toward playground. When Astralis pokes out, he communicates that to olofmeister who swings, kills one and is traded. This sets up FaZe’s next play as NiKo is right behind olofmeister and uses correct spacing to revenge frag immediately and now FaZe are in a 4v3. Karrigan immediately tries to take an angle on connector as that is likely the only play that Astralis have left but loses the duel to Xyp9x. Seconds before NiKo smokes off long to try to retain the advantage.
On the one hand we have Astralis who play off the numbers, the economy, and the nades to block, stall, and force rotations from the enemy. On the other hand we have FaZe who rely on their individual skill to create the plays they want and combine it with their game sense and fundamental CS. This philosophical split even comes up in how they deal with economy. When Astralis force buy, it is with a set tactic in mind. When FaZe force buy, it’s because every player in that lineup believes that they can create a pick, got into a 5v4 situation and win from there.
On every level we see the characters of the team shine through. Astralis emphasize schedule control, roles, equipment usage, tactics, economic management, and structure. FaZe emphasizes the loose skill. They have gathered the superstars around the world. Each has an ego that is managed by Karrigan. They want to play a style of CS where they individual skill shines, they want to go to every big LAN event, and Karrigan has proven he may be the only man for the job. Each have proven they were the best in the world at their respective times, FaZe in 2017 and Astralis in 2018.
Now both teams will finally come to the clash at the height of their powers. Though Astralis lost at ESL One Cologne, they are still the best team in the world. As for FaZe, olofmeister has finally returned to the lineup. It would be unreasonable to expect them to be at the same level they were at once, except that this is karrigan and olofmeister. Karrigan has consistently proven he can make anything work with almost no time at all. Olofmeister is one of the all time great players and he has proven his strength time and time again.
This is a battle that has long been in the making, one that has happened time and time again. Astralis and FaZe, gla1ve and karrigan. They battled for the top of the world in the midst of 2017. In the latter end of 2017, FaZe rose ascendant only to fall at the precipice. In 2018, Astralis are the best team in the world and now FaZe has returned. This is an ideological battle, the same one that caused Astralis to remove Karrigan in the first place. The idea of the tactical structured style against the loose individualistic style. It is a battle of ideals that each side has come to personify and in this contest, the winner will stamp their idea, their identity upon the very history of Counter-Strike.