In the four-and-a-half years since Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was released, the game has emerged from the shadows of its predecessors and forged its own identity as one of the premier esports titles today. The journey from release to the game's current status has seen the rise and fall of many champions, the development and resolution of countless rivalries, and the inflation of tournament prize pools. Through the years, the world's best teams have continued to compete for the prestige of being called the best in the world.
Much of this history is commonly characterized in terms of the most dominant teams of each period, eras of championships that span months or years at a time. However, this approach misses some important context - context that is perhaps better explained in terms of the rivalries between the best teams of each period and their most formidable opponents. In Global Offensive, this manifests across much of the game's history as a constant back-and-forth between two countries: the champions of Sweden, and the challengers from France.
It is perhaps an understatement to say that Ninjas in Pyjamas was the best team in the early days of Global Offensive. Much has been said of their vaunted 87-0 win streak on LAN. Some say Global Offensive was still in its infancy, and hence the stakes were lower and the competition less fierce. What is often left out of this discussion is the team that constantly met them in the finals-the team that became the foundation of France's efforts in CS:GO - VeryGames.
While much of the Swedish scene had its roots in Counter-Strike 1.6, VeryGames' background was in the less popular rendition of the series: Counter-Strike: Source. The organization and its players switched to Global Offensive in August 2012, fielding the French-Belgian mix of Kevin "Ex6TenZ" Droolans, Nathan "NBK" Schmitt, Edouard "SmithZz" Dubourdeaux, Kenny "kennyS" Schrub, and Cedric "RpK" Guipouy.
To any fan of modern Counter-Strike, this collection of players is a who's who of the very top of the French scene, and the various combinations that added or subtracted a number of them comprise the majority of the French teams that Global Offensive will remember. At the beginning, however, VeryGames played second fiddle to NiP, consistently meeting the Swedes in the finals but never able to overcome them when it mattered most. In the first four tournaments following the roster's formation in late 2012, the French side was repeatedly denied gold by NiP.
It was during this period that NiP was at the peak of their dominance. With the dynamic firepower of Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund and Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg, the Swedish squad asserted its dominance over the early Global Offensive scene. The two stars and the team's in-game leader, Richard "Xizt" Landstrom, all hailed from CS 1.6, and were joined by Adam "friberg" Friberg and Robin "Fifflaren" Johansson from CS: Source. On the whole, NiP embraced the best of Global Offensive, with the mixed-background team exemplifying the philosophy behind the game's development. Their loose style was carried by the unmatched skill of their two stars, both of whom were prodigies in 1.6 before their transition.
Two different events in early 2013 reshaped the Global Offensive paradigm moving forward. For the French, VeryGames made two significant roster moves that set the stage for their challenge to the reigning Ninjas. RpK retired and the team added another Belgian player in Adil “ScreaM” Benrlitom, and kennyS’s departure was filled by Richard “shoxie” Papillon. These moves remade VeryGames into a more rifle-focused team, with the two new players quickly making names for themselves as elite aimers.
On the Swedish side, the aura of invincibility that surrounded NiP was finally diminished as their first LAN defeat came at the hands of the mix-CIS squad Virtus.pro at Starladder Starseries V in April. VP beat them not once, but twice in both winners’ and Grand Finals, taking away NiP’s win streak and the entire tournament. But even with this result, NiP’s edge over the competition was still large.
VeryGames’ woes against NiP were not immediately remedied with the addition of their new players. NiP held the advantage over several online and offline series throughout the summer of 2013, with VG only managing to snag the odd win. It wasn’t until October that VeryGames took their first series over the Swedes at a major LAN. The LAN final of the EMS One Fall Season saw VG finally defeating NiP 2-1 in the finals, including a close game on Cache, a map that would go on to become a favorite of the French.
The next month, the first Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Major would take place. DreamHack Winter 2013’s $250,000 prize pool was the delivery of Valve’s Arms Deal update which promised to use part of the revenue generated by cosmetic skin purchases to fund their burgeoning esport. This first Major effectively set the stage for CS:GO’s rise, but it was also a pivotal tournament for both the French and Swedish scenes.
Ninjas in Pyjamas and VeryGames both qualified as high-profile teams, and consequently experts at the time predicted that one of the two would end up the champions. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how two other teams were perhaps the more important stories. First, the unassuming French squad Recursive, featuring the former VG sniper kennyS along with both Vincent “Happy” Schopenhauer and Mathieu “Maniac” Quiquerez, made a splash with a playoff berth before falling to the eventual champions.
The team that defeated them was a new set of Swedes in Fnatic, making their first claim to fame on the world stage by not only making it to the finals to face NiP, but also defeating them 2-1 to take home the first Major of Global Offensive. The roster at the time included the legends of today, with Robin “flusha” Ronnquist and Jesper “JW” Wecksell both taking orders from Markus “pronax” Wallsten.
DreamHack Winter 2013 brought many new names to the forefront of the CS:GO scene, officially ushering in an era of change that completely reshaped the landscape of the game for the next twelve months. For NiP and VG, it was an awakening. They were on notice, and complacency would not be allowed. The stakes were getting bigger, and fast. VeryGames knew it and signed with a new organization as the promise of a gaming house was in the air, a way to allow them to elevate their game and take practice more seriously. And thus, Titan was born.
The year began with promise for Titan as they managed second place at ESEA Season 15 in Dallas and first at the DreamHack Invitational, a four-team face-off between the best squads in Europe at the time. They dispatched the Ninjas twice, and sandwiched in a win over Fnatic as well to take home gold. For a time, it seemed as if the French team’s philosophy would prove successful, but the true test would be in March at the first Major of the year in Poland.
EMS One Katowice 2014 was a litmus test not only for Titan, but also the rest of the teams coming from Sweden and France. As the first Major in the new year and the second for the growing game, it was an important chance for the teams to establish their right to be champions. NiP, Fnatic, and the Recursive core (now under the LDLC brand) returned as Legends. Joining them as a holdover from the previous Major was LGB eSports, a roster that included Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer and Freddy “KRiMZ” Johansson. Katowice will be remembered as the tournament where the Virtus.Plow was originated, but the performances of these teams here had large ramifications on the future.
It was at Katowice that Titan’s Major woes began. With the unfortunate fate of having drawn Virtus.pro in their group in the latter’s home country of Poland, the deck was stacked against the French team from the start. Despite handling mousesports easily in the opener, they were steamrolled by the Poles in the winners’ match and ultimately lost a close decider map against HellRaisers to fall out of the tournament. This early exit was a shock to everyone as the team never looked better, with shox in particular playing at a level unmatched in the scene at the time.
The reigning champions fared better, at least making playoffs despite drawing Dignitas in groups. Fnatic, however, fell in quarters to their Swedish brethren LGB, a series that would be the impetus for change for both teams in the future. LDLC also survived groups only to meet their demise in the first round—the second French team to fall to the Plow at the tournament. LGB put up much more of a fight against Virtus.pro, but they succumbed as well to set up the final showdown between VP and the Ninjas.
For NiP, this tournament was a chance to right a wrong. They came up short in the first Major, failing to deliver on the promise of their dominant streak during Global Offensive’s youth. Katowice 2014 was their opportunity to show the world that they were still the best—that they deserved to be called champions. But as any fan knows, this tournament was not theirs to take.
This second silver brought with it questions of NiP’s form. While they had unquestionably been the best team for a long time the previous year, CS:GO’s competitive scene was quite a different place in 2014. Similarly, Titan’s failure was criticized heavily, with many fans calling for changes. Surprisingly, it was shox who left soon after the Major in April, with kennyS returning to fill the void. At the time, having a premier AWP talent was viewed as a necessity, and kennyS had only gotten better in his time away from the team.
Fnatic also made changes later in the year. After a disappointing second Major and a run of poor placings at LANs, they opened spots on their team for the duo from LGB, olof and KRiMZ, to form the Fnatic roster that would stay intact the longest. At the time, this retooling was viewed positively, especially as the team was one of the first to experiment with a coach in Jonatan “Devilwalk” Lundberg.
As summer waned, the second Major of the year approached. ESL One Cologne 2014 has been thought of as the crowning achievement of the great Ninjas in Pyjamas roster, with their miraculous run including 3 consecutive 2-1 series wins with single-digit margins. Again, however, the context goes much deeper.
It must be mentioned that Titan again exited in groups. Despite having a superstar AWPer and an in-game leader that was viewed as one of the best among his contemporaries, the French side was outdone by their countrymen a second time at the Majors. This time it wasn’t just LDLC that strode past them; shox’s upstarts in Epsilon put on a show in groups (including a 16-1 thrashing of HellRaisers) to make the playoffs.
It was the new Fnatic side, however, that ultimately faced NiP in the final. In another world, LDLC might have beaten NiP in the third map to meet Fnatic and set up an interesting precedent for what was to come later, but it was not to be. The all-Swede final was a battle between the old guard and the new, and the Ninjas managed just enough to edge Fnatic out.
After Cologne, rumours flew around the French scene about a roster shuffle. The players knew that none of these teams could achieve greater things without change. Thus Titan, LDLC, and Epsilon all split, and pieces of each were taken to form a new LDLC team that would be able to challenge the reigning Swedish dominance. The roster read thus: Happy, NBK, SmithZz, shox, and Fabien “kioShiMa” Fiey.
Titan was a team of leftovers. With ScreaM relegated to a team made of shox’s former Epsilon teammates, Ex6tenZ and kennyS were joined by the remains of LDLC: Maniac, Dan “apEX” Madesclaire and Hovik “KQLY” Tovmassian. For a time, it looked as if Titan might have been the superior team despite the circumstances, with wins over Fnatic and LDLC at the second DreamHack Invitational en route to first place. Unfortunately, the team’s true potential remains unknown to this day, as KQLY received a VAC ban before the next Major. This added an asterisk to the team’s performances while he was a member and robbed them of a chance to play at the final Major of the year.
This period was the beginning of one of the greatest rivalries in CS:GO history. Fnatic already proved they had what it took to compete at the highest level, and the French squad in LDLC was hungry to stake a claim to the Majors’ prizes and prestige. In the run-up to DreamHack Winter 2014, the teams traded golds and silvers, with Fnatic taking the majority in the head-to-head. Fnatic came into the final Major of the year as the clear favorite, but if anyone was going to beat them, it was LDLC.
As fate would have it, the teams met in the quarterfinal, the product of Fnatic dropping a close game in groups to HellRaisers. The series came down to the final map, one that remains infamous in CS:GO lore. After a dominant first half on the CT side of Overpass, LDLC had the momentum and the options to close out the game on their Terrorist side. However, Fnatic released a hidden tactic: A boost that allowed them to see over much of the map and abuse the opposing team with sniper rifles. olof repeatedly sniped down the French players as they were subdued by confusion, unable to see olof’s position and retaliate. With this boost, Fnatic was able to take the map 16-13 and the match.
The series of events that followed the conclusion of Overpass were difficult to follow at the time. Social media was abuzz with cheating claims, preying upon Fnatic’s already murky reputation. Officially, both teams filed complaints against each other for using illegal boosts, and the DreamHack staff ruled that the second half was to be replayed. Instead, Fnatic ended up forfeiting under relentless negative pressure from the community, reviving LDLC’s chances at the Major and closing an ignominious chapter in the history of their rivalry.
While DreamHack Winter 2014 was a launching point for LDLC and Fnatic, it coincided with a radical change for the legendary Ninjas roster. Despite an admirable performance at the Majors and an overall successful year for the team and the organization, public perception had turned against the squad in the preceding months. Fifflaren in particular was singled out by fans and experts alike as a weak link. Sure enough, the news broke in early November that he was retiring, opening a spot that the team has struggled to appropriately fill ever since, and marking the end to an era.
Ultimately, LDLC met the Ninjas in Pyjamas—now featuring aggressive AWPer Mikail “Maikelele” Bill in place of the departed Fifflaren—in the grand finals, and the series ended on the controversial Overpass as the decider. This time, the battle between France and Sweden brought with it no controversy, but it was no less exciting. After two dominant Counter-Terrorist halves indicative of the metagame of the time, the final map went to overtime. LDLC emerged the victor 19-16, handing NiP yet another silver at a Major, and finally bringing home the first place prize for France.
As the holiday season came to a close, MLG Aspen kicked off 2015 with a bang. Major League Gaming’s first CS:GO event was held at the X Games in Colorado, a sign of the growth of the game over the past year and a test run for MLG’s future plans with the esport. LDLC followed up on their win at DreamHack with another triumph over NiP in the finals after the Ninjas upset Fnatic in one of the most memorable series to date. Amid all their success, the French squad was signed by Team EnVyUs, and Fnatic immediately bounced back, winning two LANs and two online tournaments in the early period of 2015.
Meanwhile, the Ninjas were still searching for answers. Despite admirable results with Maikelele’s short tenure, the team signed Finnish AWPer Aleksi “allu” Jalli before Katowice. Titan was in a similar boat. Having lost one of their more promising players in KQLY and forced to use their team manager at one event as a fifth, the French squad resorted to bringing RpK out of retirement to provide a stopgap.
ESL One Katowice 2015 held many questions. Could Fnatic regain the top spot at a Major, or would nV repeat as champion for the first time in the game’s history? Was allu the answer to NiP’s slow decline? Could RpK bring Titan out of the Major doldrums? In the end, only Fnatic would leave satisfied with the answer to these questions, adding another Major victory to their collection and solidifying their status as the best team in the world.
The spring and summer of 2015 featured multiple clashes between nV and Fnatic with huge prize pools at stake. ESL, FACEIT, Gfinity, and others invested heavily in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and the period between the first and second Majors was scheduled tightly with online and offline matches for both teams. Fnatic grasped the solid upper hand during this period as nV routinely fell to them in the finals of these competitions, just short of their ultimate goal.
Unsure of the state of their roster, the EnVyUs squad skipped the LAN final of the FACEIT Stage 2 tournament. Rumors of a new French shuffle were alight, and the result was a swap with Titan: shox and SmithZz were replaced by kennyS and apEX. EnVyUs hoped that the addition of the AWPer and entry-fragger would net them the firepower required to battle Fnatic’s highly skilled lineup.
The final two majors of 2015 were defined by the battle between nV and Fnatic. At Cologne, the rivals met in the finals, and Fnatic took a deceptively close 2-0 series to secure back-to-back Major championships. Only a few months later at DreamHack Cluj-Napoca, it was EnVyUs who came out on top, dispatching the Swedes in the quarterfinals, freeing the path to the core’s second Major title, finally fulfilling the promise of the overhauled roster and lifting the trophy for France one last time.
The series in Cluj was effectively the end of the rivalry between the teams. For better or worse, neither roster would be the same again. EnVyUs fell into a long slump after the victory, and the departure of pronax left Fnatic without an in-game leader, reshaping the team’s identity. While nV was slumping, the Titan players lost their organization and were picked up by G2 Esports. They failed twice to make it out of groups at Cologne and Cluj, and their other placings were decidedly mediocre. Both teams appeared resistant to the idea of simply trading players again, nV choosing instead to replace a struggling kio with Timothee “DEVIL” Demolon. NiP’s fifth spot revolved again, this time to Jacob “pyth” Mourujarvi. In addition, they added a new coach in the new year in Björn “THREAT” Pers, hoping to improve strategically.
As the MLG Major Championship: Columbus approached, Fnatic looked comparatively unstoppable. They seemed to have adjusted to the loss of pronax quite well, winning six straight LANs from December to March. Their first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Danish Astralis team was therefore a surprise to much of the community. This matchup was only made possible due to a shocking group stage upset by Team Liquid that put Fnatic into the second pool of playoff teams.
With the Brazilian team Luminosity Gaming taking home the title, it was the first time since Virtus.pro’s magical run in Katowice that a team not from Sweden nor France took home the title, the end two a two year reign of dominance from the two countries. Columbus was the beginning of a new era in Counter-Strike, with the traditionally dominant teams struggling to stay among the elite as competition ramped up immensely throughout the year.
Fnatic has dropped off significantly after the tournament, trading players with pronax’s new team GODSENT throughout the year in an attempt to build a singular capable roster from the collection of Swedes. Likewise, nV has been unable to return to form, changing in-game leaders and players multiple times. NiP has had intermittent success, though partially with stand-ins for an injured pyth.
The best of the lot during 2016 was the French team G2. They placed second in the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals to Luminosity, then took revenge on the Brazilians at the Esports Championship Series Season 1 Finals. Not even they could make the success last, however, with middling placings for the rest of the year and a disappointing 12-14th placing at the ELEAGUE Major in early 2017.
After years of domination from the Swedes and the French, CS:GO’s upper echelon has finally become truly global. The names of Brazilian teams and players are on the lips of fans in stadiums across the continents because of the exploits of SK Gaming—champions of 2016’s two majors. Danish CS:GO is better than ever, led by ELEAGUE Major champions Astralis. The CIS mix of Natus Vincere and the Polish squad of Virtus.pro retain their moments of brilliance. Even the US has broken its collective duck through OpTic Gaming and Cloud9, winners of ELEAGUE Season 2 and ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals, respectively.
The response from the Swedish and French sides has been yet another round of shuffles. The once-dominant Fnatic squad is mostly reformed, albeit without pronax. NiP finally looked inward and kicked one of the original four, breaking out of a years-long struggle to fix all of their problems by changing only a single player. The French superteam G2 has left behind both Ex6TenZ and Happy, and has brought the two stars of France, shox and kennyS, together at last. That team, at least, has already had flashes of brilliance that fit the expectations one would have of a team with such high caliber players, but the jury is ultimately still out. It’s easy to be optimistic about the return of France and Sweden to the top given the pedigree of these teams, but in the modern era of the game, it’s a harder task than it once was.
One thing, however, is for certain: the previous chapter of Sweden and France has closed. This is a new age of Counter-Strike, with new names and new stories shaping the narrative of the game. When we look back upon this era, what will we remember? Will it be the globalization of this esport and a new balance of power? Or will it be the success or failure of these two great countries chasing past glories?
Sweden and France will have a role to play in our future, but exactly what that entails is up to them.