The grind of seasonal play has a tendency to beat teams down. The onslaught of matches makes most sides who regularly qualify for events fatigued or ‘burnt out even.’ Those that are rewarded are the ones who have tenacity and depth, and as a result, consistency. At the end of any multi-month long gauntlet of international LANs, there are no shortages of corpses to pick over.
The events immediately after a player break though, the first steps of teams back into the forge of competition, has the opposite quality. It seems that the post-player break period has a mystical quality of resurrection. In mid-2016, NiP was a team who floated around the bottom of the top ten. After the player break, at StarSeries Season 2, they used Maikelele as a stand-in, and would, out of nowhere, win the event outright. In late-2017, after bombing out of the Krakow Major, and being upset at ESL One Cologne 2017, G2, the supposed French super-team were looking lost. Again though, in the post-player break event at DreamHack Malmo 2017, they beat the best team in the world in the Ro8, and then convincingly won the tournament.
DreamHack Stockholm 2018 was this year’s first post-player break event. In the historical echoes of so many revivals, the long-rotting corpse of North was reanimated.
North’s first LAN with former Heroic rifler niko was undeniable. They beat what many might’ve considered before this event, the best team of all-time in two Bo3’s, in which, six different maps were played. In between these canon moments, they took the series scalps of Na`Vi and Mousesports, the second and fifth best sides in the world respectively.
There’s a lot at play beyond the ‘aura’ of the post-player break as to why a team many would consider a borderline top ten side was able to win one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
The Bosnian Superstar The Danish Glue
Niko, as a player, doesn’t strike me as someone unique. At least, within a scene as brimming with talent as Denmark and its surrounds. Without knowing player politics, it seems that there are many players of his build who could achieve, in a team with so much momentum, what he achieved in Stockholm. That’s not to say he is a bad player. Nor a dismissable one. It wasn’t his direct impact that was leveraged to take North to such lofty heights. Rather, it was the background shuffling of roles, and resource allocation that was sparked by his replacement of mertz that gave North their spark.
Mertz leaving meant North needed an AWPer. This call was answered in a left-of-field fashion by MSL. MSL was the T entry and played on a lot of North’s small-sites. As a result, Kjaerbye and aizy had to change their positions on both sides of the map. Specifically, Kjaerbye would have to entry harder with MSL sitting back with the AWP, and aizy would be more crucial in trading off the pressure with niko being more inexperienced in North’s executes. Niko himself would take a lot of spots around valde and kjaerbye on CT-side, often playing for them. We saw this around ivy on Train, pit on Inferno and B-site on Overpass. Valde would be emphasised more on CT-side, while remaining in a coldzera-type role on T-side. He moved from jungle to B-anchor on Mirage, arch to pit on Inferno, and was forced to become the key impact player on B-site Overpass and Train, with his usual teammates moving to other positions around the map.
In short, mertz leaving and niko coming in gave valde more important positions on CT-side, and put more responsibility in the hands of aizy on T-side and, especially, with the AWP MSL to frag.
In April of this year, on this website, I controversially labelled MSL as the worst pro player in the world. Whether or not you thought Edward was worse is another issue, but, undoubtedly, things were not great for MSL. At Stockholm, he proved that this dark period was just that, a transitional moment. He relentlessly studied device’s demos, had experienced the success of Mixwell’s textbook, but aggressive AWPing in Valencia, and knew exactly what role he needed to fill within his own system. MSL was a foundational block with which aizy and valde could build success on either side of the map. While importantly calling North’s own brand of CS, MSL elevated himself into a legendary bout of form.
His individual performance and willingness to take up mertz’s role with so much success was the linchpin to North’s run before anything else. He allowed valde and aizy the room to be so successful in their changed-up positions and given his consistency on the sniper, allowed North the resources to fuel hits and holds.
Trust in the system, at least, sometimes
The broader system of North, especially in how it interacted with their opponents is a little bit more complex. MSL has always been a caller that could post big CT-sides. He’s had some of the most valuable CT performers of all-time under his wing in the likes of Magisk and valde and his set-ups reflect this. They are dynamic, capable of bullying advantages but not arrogant in relentlessly pushing it. Valde coming into a golden age of career form while simultaneously being required to find more impact and being in a system that’s geared towards his success bred insane results.
North weren’t some miraculously water-tight side in terms of teamplay. Their damage traded percentages and ability to win rounds after they lose a man are unremarkable. They have many intelligent players who’ve been together for a long time, and each had stand-out moments of individual form. They were blended together in a way that was good enough to match the likes of Astralis, but it wasn’t profound cohesion that brought them above and beyond.
They called confidently, often looking to MSL’s deeply fleshed out book of explosive, fast strats. With valde and aizy in such magnificent form, they could either snowball a round or close it with ease. There was no need for a litany of fakes and inventive new smokes. North backed themselves in mid-round ideas and hesitated very little in their decision-making process.
Their win at Stockholm was so crazy in large part because of how simple they made it look. They played their brand of Counter-Strike, a dynamic, faster paced, structured style, and fostered immense individual talent within this system. When we look back over their run with Mixwell at Valencia, we see the same executes, same pacing and similar levels of aggression on CT-side. It was simply the re-jigging of roles and resource allocation on both sides of the map that catalysed the individual peaks required to make their game function at an elite level.
This is, at its core, why North has always been the most frustrating team in the world to analyse.
For all their underperformance and inherent issues, there always was the looming threat of the calibre of play we saw at Stockholm. On-paper, they’ve always presented a dangerous team, one who can match any roster man-for-man on a good day. In-game, MSL has consistently shown himself to be an above average IGL. But they always seemed to lack that killer instinct, that tenacity to prevent a collapse, to claw back into a game or to assertively go for the jugular when on the front foot. In Stockholm, after years of toil, we’ve seen the animation of this of North’s underlying potential.
Whether or not this second wind in the North narrative will continue to bring results will rest with the individual form that brought it about in the first place. Or more specifically, if the fragging power of aizy, or valde, or MSL can withstand the studious counters and expectancy of teams at the major. As Cloud9 will tell you, the miracle doesn’t lie in stars aligning and winning one event upset fashion, it’s being an underdog and doing so consistently. Such a victory as North’s in Stockholm, or Cloud9’s at Boston inspires rigorous analysis and forces a side to evolve or die.
You only get one shot at a second life. And fortunately for North, this chance comes on the cusp of the FACEIT Major. If they seize it, then resurrection in the specific period of the post-player break won’t matter. They’ll have a chance to live forever in the tapestry of CS:GO major history instead.
Photo Credit: DreamHack