As Above, So Below: The Renaissance of Tier 2 Counter-Strike

Under the skin of the top ten, CS:GO’s tier 2 solidifies its play

JUN 15, 2018

Counter-Strike is at a new level. The teams operating outside the top ten today have systems of play that would out-match or equalise those of elite sides two years ago. While the general level of individual skill might oscillate, at times, to higher, and lower levels, it’s far harder to gauge with certainty. Undeniably though, the approach of rosters we’d usually coin as ‘tier two’ are heads and shoulder above their peers historically. When you watch the 10th-20th ranked teams in the world play you aren’t watching semi-professionals pug out games. These full-time professional sides are playing unique, polished, and importantly, tight brands of Counter-Strike that leave analysts in sweaty heaps.

It’s a challenging time to be contending for a top 20 spot in the world. It’s an excellent time, however, to be a fan of Counter-Strike.

When we look back to June of 2016, we see teams occupy the top 20 who are husks of potentially dominate line-ups carried by the inertia of their international skill. There’s every form of disaster from a fractured CLG with a soon-to-depart jdm and tarik sitting at 20th, to the linear and lack-luster NiKo-led Mouseports with denis and Spiidi at 12th. These sides boast the pieces of sides that would go on to become great, but they feel more like waiting-rooms for bigger opportunities than legitimately dangerous units.

None of these sides boasted some sort-of exceptional approach to the game as much as exceptional individuals operating inside a functional, but exceptionally mediocre structure. To find those special characterising brands of play, you’d need to climb up to the likes of the loose, duel-hunting Immortals perched at 9th, or the infamous 1-2 of Shox and ScreaM, G2 roster proudly rising to a 5th spot.

In the present though, every single team in the top 20 bar maybe (20th) and Heroic (19th) have the chops of legitimately stable, solid rosters. Rather than having the throughline of these teams chasing tier one or ‘elite’ status being the capability of their stars, we instead see them defined far differently.

AGO, Hellraisers, Renegades, NRG, Space Soldiers, and North, are all teams which can have their primary strengths defined when in-form through the lens of cohesion.

While there are certain players like w0xic, XANTARES, Kjaerbye and Nifty who stick out as stars above the rest, these are sides which very much feel ‘together’. When we look at Hellraisers, we see a team characterised by their T-side unity and ability to roll off each others space and pressure. Likewise, as Renegades showed in Sydney, these allegedly lower-level sides can also have a clinical macro on CT-side as well. The Australian mix-team perfectly blended individual freedom, with their stars in Nifty and jks in deadly double AWP setups, while also carefully managing scoped-out concepts like pressure and control on heavy-rotate maps like Train.

The closest we get to our more traditional model of a lower-tiered ‘puggy’ side is in TyLoo, GODSENT, or Space Soldiers, all of who have slowly started to lean into a more structured stylee as they are forced into more Bo3’s on LAN. Space Soldiers might have a limited T-side arsenal in terms of structure, often looking to a default to sure-up a lack of creativity, but they aren’t poorly coordinated in this cookie-cutter approach. The Turkish side doesn’t have an emphasis on strategy in defaults, instead, they look to team play and tight trading to mask holes elsewhere. You’d rather see teams being punished for playing too simple a derivative of ‘good’ CS than play bad CS a lot, occasionally finding success.

If the clean trading and articulated defaults of Space Soldiers are on the looser end of the spectrum, then it’s a telling sign of how incredibly nuanced and complex the styles of play are on the more structured side of things. NRG has a careful mid-round based game with a very intuitive approach to strategy and picks off the default. On the other hand, TyLoo and AGO both look to mix-in strangely timed executes and bouts of contact aggression with high individual talent and devotion to supporting their stars in late-round situations.

With such a grouping of cohesive talent in the lower end of the rankings, those at the top cannot afford to be fractured. We’ve seen, and will likely continue to see, throughout 2018, tier one and ‘elite’ teams being consistently punished for either pushing the same approach without variation or having cracks internally.

The Brazilians with Stewie2k in the mix is a great case study in this idea.

We’ve seen SK fall victim to the in-form and incredibly together Grayhound at Sydney just as they were nearly bested by the peak-performing seized-Gambit at the Adrenaline Cyber League. They were almost broken by Vici in the group-stage of StarSeries as well. This isn’t as much an issue of certain teams being able to have that ‘one lucky day’ against SK, it’s SK being fractured and not being able to overcome the pattern of strong glued together lower-tiered sides playing well.

With a faltering internal leadership structure, faith lost in their system and a slowly pieced together communication protocol, SK have to scrape together a lot of series wins. If they were playing many of these games in Bo1’s, their narrative might look even more harrowing. Grayhound was able to beat SK through punishing mistakes with a sustained double AWP presence, calling a tight mid-round and being confident in late-round XvX situations. It wasn’t a fluke of individual dominance from one domestic gladiator, it was a team effort crashing against a disjointed SK.

The hegemony of rule no longer belongs to those with big Twitter followings or autographed stickers on their guns. The seething cauldron of talent beneath them is becoming organised, more focussed with how they make the incisions of their talent against top teams, and importantly, efficient and diverse in their approach. A key element of this has been the deepening and widening of players salaries at this level of play alongside the tournament infrastructure and opportunity to justify the money spent. For the 20th best team in the world to be able to be paid full-time sums of money and then scrim against sides in the 30th-40th range on less, but also full-time pay is huge in closing gaps in skill.

With so many people being able to justify spending their lives inside the server, individual talent is becoming far less a driving force as teams are pressured into expanding win conditions against so many other teams doing the same. Without this base of money, opportunity and infrastructure, it’s very hard for sides to have the means or time outside the game to manifest such incredible play inside it.

We saw AGO in StarSeries borrow many of these characteristics of ‘togetherness’ and their own unique brand of play to expose and demolish the more fractured nature of Mouseports and NiP as well.

These sides aren’t miraculously winning because of individual talent. They’re consistently winning because of developed systems and a keen sense of synergy.

An interesting dynamic of so many teams being successful in this way is that it’s very hard for the top teams to specifically prepare for opponents. While someone like AGO might have their timings figured out, or Space Soldiers have their game read on-the-fly, there’s only so much preparation an IGL can do when faced with such a slew of unique sides. Trying to anti-strat the repeek game of Mertz on CT-side for North and then apply it to CeRq or w0xic as well might leave you exposed to their excellent fast-paced rifling on CT-side. Adapting your awareness of a strat to the smoke-pushes and all-out assaults of TyLoo’s T-side might leave you unnecessarily timid against the creep of a late-round AWPing Nifty hunting for an opening.

These teams all bring unique flavours of play, a wide array of win conditions and all at developed levels. It makes sense then, that we have a side like Astralis at the top. The pressures put on the best teams in the world are so intense that for them to stay on the throne consistently they almost have to be the greatest team of all-time.

Nothing in a scene like Counter-Strike’s happens exclusively, everything is mutual, and the pressures of the bottom directly inform the drives of those at the top. As above, so below. And the depths of CS’s scene is coming for scalps this Summer.