For the majority of 2017, Astralis, SK, and FaZe tussled for control of a CS:GO crown in three parts. They were the ‘elite’ - the rest were left to fight amongst themselves. This trifecta fought each other on Grand Final stages across the globe and dominated the world’s attention. Despite the scale of these battles though, time took its toll. Astralis fell, FaZe rose, and SK plateaued. The battle to be CS:GO’s king became a two-horse race. It came down to the demonically talented, exorbitantly funded mix-team in FaZe and the tenured, serially dominate Brazilians. FaZe were meant to define their side’s narrative as one of triumph over SK at the Boston Major - with the semi-final draw setting up this fabled FaZe versus SK Grand Final. Boston was going to be the culmination of 12 months of a back-and-forth battle between two of Counter-Strike’s most historically impressive sides.
Cloud9 shattered this narrative and fractured the CS:GO monarchy beyond repair. Not only did they deny ‘the’ grand final - upsetting SK - but they beat FaZe as well, winning the Major and thwarting a satisfactory end to a long-running story. In the ensuing period, SK hasn’t even been able to claim to be the best team in their region, let alone in the world. And FaZe are now more characterised by their fragility than unrelenting talent. Mouz/Liquid/Fnatic have filled in these cracks created by C9, creating a far more closely contested top end of the scene.
The CS:GO kingdom no longer can look to the stable rule of three elite sides. The elites have been overthrown and the current scene is undergoing a revolution. Chaos reigns amongst the top six teams in the world. Cloud9 might’ve created this seminal turning point, but they aren’t the team defining the period following it.
CS:GO is without a king.
In this uncertain time, a new breed of teams are looking at defining what is ‘elite’. Between fnatic/mouz/liquid/FaZe/SK a focus on well-rounded rosters, broad, but not deep win conditions, and flexible styles has seen the most success. The make-up of what it takes to become CS:GO’s king is radically changing and being shared by six teams - not three.
When we look back throughout CS:GO history, there are often specific ways we frame the top teams. 2013 VeryGames led by the ever-divisive Ex6tenZ was a ‘tactical’ side that looked to a strat book and roster-wide structure to win their games. 2016 Fnatic turned away from the mid-round calling and balance-orientated structure of pronax to the loosely strung together rounds of dennis. Each top team in history has its signifiers. How though, would one go about describing the clumping of ‘elite’ talent nowadays?
In Liquid, Mouz, Fnatic, FaZe, and SK, you have six-teams all with an incredibly deep bank of win conditions to pull from. Mouz can win a round through a carefully constructed lmbt tactic as they can with Oskar finding a multi-kill with the AWP. Liquid’s careful transitions off the default serve to ground their game just as much as their explosive hits with the likes of elige and Twistzz opening up sites. That’s not even mentioning a FaZe or SK who can seemingly redefine their entire game on a dime based on the ‘mood’ of the team.
The post-Boston Major period has seen the death of a ‘specialist’ team dominating as number one. Even C9 who seemed so adept at winning rounds from a multitude of angles at Boston has been made linear, and as a result, obsolete. The lack of time to evolve their game in the tournaments immediately following their Major run has made them soft to the other top six sides. The resources poured into CS teams means the lapse in time between deploying a new style of play and that style being figured out and countered has shrunk dramatically. Adaption, incessant evolution, and being a jack-of-all-trades team is now the name of the game.
Astralis is a team who has always struggled in this sense. While they have the superstar AWPing of device, secondary star prowess of dupreeh and calling/structure of gla1ve, what more do they have that’s significantly better than the top six teams right now? Magisk and Xyp9x are both, in the broader scope of things, incredible players that are of an elite calibre. But they don’t contribute more to the number of win conditions on Astralis than ropz/coldzera/NAF/KrimZ/autimatic/NiKo do for their respective teams in the same role. It’s not enough anymore for Xyp9x to be the ‘stone cold clutcher’. There are six people who do the same thing while also being secondary, if not primary stars for their teams.
Astralis have a handful of the most exceptionally refined and dominant impact players in the world in device and gla1ve as an IGL. They’re competing against an incredibly dense pack of teams with either consolidated talent from their region or a hand-picked, balanced brew of international stars. The same can be said for the likes of Na`Vi with their game based around s1mple or G2 with the KennyS and shox mentality. Sole stars shine bright, but not more-so than the glare of well-rounded sides.
The most clear-cut best team in the world will have to be a truly magnificent side. To subdue this pack of closely contested rosters, we’ll need to see a peak performance FaZe or SK rise to the top. Or maybe a new team will burst onto the throne, minting and moulding the individually awesome scraps of blinding talent outside the top six into an indomitable side.
The era of parity and uncertainty ended once and birthed a new era of play. The rise of Astralis/SK/FaZe gave us the best rivalry in CS:GO history. The three of them, then later, SK/FaZe, drove the benchmark of what it takes to be the best higher and higher. Iron sharpens iron, and as SK/FaZe forced each other to become more well-versed and well-rounded, the rest of the scene followed. Now that C9 has helped shatter that two-horse race and opened up the scene, we once again are forced to wait and see how teams will evolve to dominate. This time around though, we’re starting from a far more advanced place to evolve from.
CS:GO is a game that has always been defined forward by the meta-defining sides at the time. Even though we lack a king to usher the kingdom into a new period of play at the moment, that doesn’t mean it won’t come. Don’t believe in the king, believe in the CS:GO kingdom - a side will eventually rise and that team will have to be the most refined, impressive team in the history of the game to do so given the current landscape. 2018 will be an interesting year of competition.