Following professional CS:GO is an overwhelming task. Those with short attention spans or lacking patience are punished by the pace and density at which this complex web of competition evolves. Being a fan of elite CS:GO play is less an exercise in tracking numbers as it is in mapping the almost biological growth of an undulating, irregular clumping of highly charged relationships.
When a team like Astralis rises to the top, the nature of their performances can totally shift the approach of other top sides. There is never a result in CS:GO that is mutually exclusive. Each win or loss influences the direction of the scene, and usually in an upwards increasingly complicated sort-of way. When confronted with a team as good as the Danes, one can’t simply regress to an older model of playing to beat them. You have to somehow evolve past the most dominant apex predator the scene has ever known.
It’s a cold-war type arms race that never ends in a nuclear explosion. With each destruction of a dynasty, a new contender emerges prepped with the lessons learnt from the last kings.
A spark, but no eternal flame
Ninjas in Pyjamas were the first benchmark setting team in this sense. The Swedes rose so quickly and so far beyond their peers in 2012/13 that they acted as the spark for the scene’s incessant, cyclical growth. When you tyrannically win 87 games in a row, you sow the seeds of revolution. In many ways, the mindset of sides like VeryGames, Virtus.pro and Western Wolves in those early days formed the basis for how sides think of Astralis now.
There’s an immovable blockade to get to the top, but in-spite of how impossible it may seem, we ask the question: how do we beat them?
This is the profound line of thinking that NiP first catalysed. But it is not the philosophy that underpins their current play. In this moment, NiP is the once great brand that gets the odd tournament invite, only to get beaten up by those probably more deserving of the spot. Their pedigree allows them to awkwardly carry their exceedingly mediocre play across the world’s biggest stages. Of the seven LANs NiP have attended in 2018, they’ve been directly invited to six, but have failed to make top four at any of these events.
The scene is and has been passing the former Swedish kings by for years - which in CS:GO time is a millennium. There’s been no shortage of attempts made by NiP to try to change elements of their game, but a distinct lack of total structure altering moves until it was too late. As we’ve seen with their similarly veterned counter-parts in Virtus.pro, the pace of CS:GO is too fast to let old ways of thinking rest in a team environment.
We are now entering the one year anniversary of friberg being removed from NiP - which had marked the end of the primary core. Yet, despite the incredibly hyped end of the largely dead, unmoving NiP four-man corpse, their results haven’t budged. Their miraculous Oakland run with REZ playing at his career peak now has the relative context to be deemed as a one-off. A flurry of 2018 changes, from the removal of THREAT, to the addition of dennis, to the departure of Xizt to the addition of lekr0 have all been null factor gains.
While the changes to their game seem like systematic overhauls, with dennis at the helm, NiP are still distinctly playing to old tricks. As Astralis bear down on the space with their intensely cohesive, tight structured game, NiP are looking to imitate a modern flavour of their once great style.
As sides like Na`Vi, Liquid, North, and now G2 look to be on the rise with their far tighter brands of play, and the general direction of the scene seems to be moving that way, NiP remain one of the loosest teams in the top twenty. While they might not play the most aggressive, their distinct lack of cohesion makes any attempts at playing systematically feel loose regardless. It’s as though they’re playing to their inner-child, calling back the playing styles that once made them great.
Veterans at a fork in the road
If we look at NiP throughout time though, undoubtedly their best results have come from tightening their game and looking to innovate gimmicks. THREAT moving in as the head coach at the start of 2016 saw NiP actually push the boundaries of executes on key battleground maps like Cobblestone. With fresh blood in pyth and an array of injuries plaguing the top rungs of the scene, NiP were able to surge to multiple deep results. They redefined their game under the systematic play of THREAT. Rather than being the loose band of veterans pugging their way through group stages, they became known for tight anti-ecos, clean executes and countering CT-reads.
The coaching rule change in August of 2016 greatly limited the effectiveness of THREAT in this sense though, as tournament organisers made a move to prevent in-game leading by the sixth man. This change was also paralleled by the looser and more free-flowing AWPing of Maikelele replacing pyth at the end of 2016 in multiple stand-in performances. With no THREAT in the ear of the aged stars, a former teammate playing in-form and release from a looser style, NiP found a string of results with their quasi-honeymoon level of play. They used these two reference points of success to plan the construction of their team down the line.
On one hand you had the more restricting, demanding, and fresh structure of THREAT which gave them solid, consistent results. And on the other, there was the more immediate turnaround of form from playing looser with Maikelele behind the AWP.
With former Epsilon stars draken and REZ both moving in-place of pyth and friberg in the middle of 2017, it became clear which direction NiP would choose.
Princes of chaos
Draken would be brought in the team to have a similarly forward, dynamic, AWPing pressure around both sides of the map as Maikelele had. His pace would also be matched by the sharper punching power of REZ as an impactful T-side presence relative to friberg.
NiP’s philosophy of wanting to hark back to their playing styles of old would further compounded by their addition of dennis at the start of 2018. Dennis, having earned a name as one of the loosest and most puggy IGL’s in the world after his stint with Fnatic would be taking his chaotic, individually enabling style to NiP. With two young stars geared towards loose play, and an IGL looking to enable this at the helm, NiP have been a strangely dangerous, albeit incredibly linear and inconsistent side for a long time.
NiP seemingly are drawn to their regressive loose style based on the romanticisation of old success, comfort, and intermittent success in the last couple of years with stand-ins and a similar approach. Undoubtedly, this approach arms NiP’s with the potential to upset the potential rigid structures of top teams on the odd day. However, it also leaves them totally vulnerable to the pool of sharks at their feet who pedal far more fleshed-out, consistent approaches, on both LAN and online.
NiP may be the princes and forerunners of this looser style, but being suckers for chaos doesn’t necessarily open them for long-term success. Bringing on the younger aim star of lekr0 doesn’t seem to be a step in the more structured direction either in this sense. NiP could very well be relegated to the spot we saw VP in last year; dying legends held captive by their own inability to evolve faster than the scene they once dominated around them.
A fate not worthy for the pedigree of its legends.