Sweden has lost its titans. Once a powerhouse region of elite talent, the Swedes used to define the direction Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was heading. From Ninjas in Pyjamas giving that first taste of dynastical tyranny to spark a revolution in styles to the impossibly strung-together success of a dennis-led Fnatic at the start of 2016; the Swedish influence in CS:GO bleeds at its roots. But at the moment, it does not look to define its future.
In the present, Swedish warriors have been made to legend, from battle-hardened, to battle-weary, their international superstars, to regional veterans. NiP have struggled not just tournament to tournament, but seemingly meta to meta and year to year since their fall from grace in 2016. While their occasional pulses of form and bumps of success in an otherwise lacklustre resumé inspire hope, it does not lend itself to consistency. On the other side of the Swedish coin though, Fnatic have been more promising. Having been a mainstay presence in the top ten in 2018, Fnatic are old dogs still posting results with a slew of old tricks.
Once Sith-like lords in their own right, the Fnatic core of flusha, JW, and KRIMZ have been forced to exercise their skills in a type of LAN guerilla warfare. Like a Japanese soldier left in the jungle after the war has finished, Fnatic lacks the evolved system or talent to be the best, but they have that internalised ‘sense’ for the game to be dangerous.Their once brimming arsenal of weapons they used to take over the scene in 2014/15 have been dulled by the mill of progress. Understanding what made them great, and where those skills ‘went’ is key in understanding their current state as a team, and what both draken and Xizt can do for them in the future.
When we look at what made Fnatic great in their prime, we observe a number of layered win conditions feeding off each other.
You had, at its base, a team a step ahead of its peers in terms of structure and importantly, CT-side rotates. Fnatic’s CT-side would obliterate challengers and humble other legends. Pronax was key in this sense. The now unremarkable IGL of Team Chaos, once was the careful orchestrater of a system that many will take for granted today. Fnatic had one of, if not the most stacked man-for-man line-up in the world, with both JW and Olofmeister demanding space and freedom for the cost of their star power. Pronax allowed both players to perform how they wanted in early round aggression and decision making while also maintaining the careful rhythm of dynamic CT mid-round set-ups.
On the macro level, you had Pronax’s intuitive sense of how rotates flowed and evolved in a round and a half. And on an individual level, this same free-flowing, yet team-focussed feel of the game allowed his stars to shine. With Olofmeister in his peak, flusha peaking when it mattered, KRIMZ feeding off the space afforded by his teammates and JW creating those openings, Fnatic didn’t need a water-tight structure.
This philosophy of play was also bolstered by the intensely cooperative spur-of-the-moment teamplay and cohesion that existed between many of the players, most infamously in KRIMZ and Olofmeister’s duet. It was as though the spontaneity of their success flash-fused the playing psyches of this line-up together out of a need to ride the wave of form.
Many of these elements we still see in Fnatic’s game today, but, so to in most top teams. Ideas that generate success and greatness are quickly internalised amongst the CS:GO elite.
Looser CT structures that emphasise occasional moments of individual freedom but largely centre on mid-rounding, reading, and rotates are a given to be a top team nowadays. Every side in the top ten has to have this as a foundation; it hardly defines a unique flavour let alone a historical era. Astralis’ Overpass, Na`Vi’s Inferno, FaZe’s Cache, SK’s Mirage, NiP’s Cache, Renegade’s Train, Mouz’s every map, the list can go on of CT-sides who are built from a chunk of these characteristics. When we look for what a team brings to a map, we now think in terms of cohesion, strategy, depth of structured aggression and XvX dominance, or more likely, how effectively they mix these elements together.
Astralis’s Overpass might be susceptible to being picked by JW’s individual looseness on CT-side, but it isn’t totally dominated or obstructed by this one element. For Fnatic to win against Astralis in this sense, they have to look more towards Astralis making mistakes than playing at the peak of their own powers. They lack a punchy AWPing presence to deal with device, field a weaker B-hold to contest Magisk and Dupreeh’s fast water takes and a lack of creativity in aggression on the peripheries of the map. Two years ago, their Overpass would’ve murdered amongst the top five, now it struggles to beat a broken Cloud9.
Fnatic’s once gloriously deep map pool has been reduced to being comfortable on the two maps everyone is comfortable on in Mirage and Inferno. Their pocket pick of Cobblestone was clapped out of their reach by Valve and their Train can be easily banned against them as we saw in Sydney.
Fnatic instead of looking to structure, map pool, or deep tactics, have to take elements of what made them great in the past and manifest it into the present.
Similarly to pronax, Golden called a very stripped down T-side that relied on plays off the default in the mid-round. On CT-side, there were, and still are very little obstacles put in the way of his stars - now JW and KRIMZ - to make plays or hunt for picks. Lekr0, who was the site anchor and foundational member of the fragging core, has been swapped out for Xizt who has historically played a similar role, albeit with less emphasis on individual skill. JW also plays less of an explosive brand of CS, being more subversive in the way he finds picks with the afforded freedom. There seems to be more emphasis on punishing timings and elite team’s expectations than in brute-forcing absurd flicks or pushing smokes.
KRIMZ has also been forced to evolve as an individual star, being more forward in his engagements and more confident in leaving his spots on CT-side. Without his partner-in-crime in olofmeister, he’s been playing lots of sites with lekr0 - now Xizt - and is often the rotator. His infamous base of fundamentals and tight positioning hasn’t gone away, but his mentality has been forced to shift in the way he applies these.
While this current Fnatic’s structure was a step ahead of its time back in the day, at the moment it remains one of the loosest in the top ten. Mouz, FaZe, and SK are all on the looser side of things as well, but make-up for it with a huge emphasis on a tactical playbook to fall back on and/or late-round clutching as a safety net. Fnatic though, isn’t really characterised by either of these elements of play.
Fnatic, as a result, feel unique in their mindset and approach. And one can imagine, given their success and relative parallels to NiP’s historical play, Xizt won’t be changing with it’s underlying philosophies a whole lot. The transition of looser teams never seem to be as rough, being able to more easily plug and play talent so long as the chemistry between stars remain consistent.
While they’re behind in some ways they have a unique, unexpected edge against top sides. They feel like that old boxing coach who lacks the cardio and footwork to be a world champion but will throw a knock-out right hook if you aren’t paying attention. Xizt will hopefully add depth in this sense, bringing a more refined sense of the late-round and support role. They also lose though, a key opening force on their T-side in lekr0 and the pressure will redouble onto the likes of KrimZ, JW, and especially, draken to make-up for the hole.
Sweden might’ve lost its champions, but it hasn’t lost its pedigree or tenured hand. Fnatic can’t contest to be the best, but in such a highly evolved and dense ecosystem of competition, success is relative. Even for legends.