As we’re gearing up to the 2019 edition of IEM Sydney, it’s both interesting and instructive to look at the last time CS:GO’s top teams duked it out in the land down under. Many of the current storylines were still only just taking shape and some teams that were still considered elite were on the verge of their eventual downfall. This, coupled with unexpectedly strong performances from certain sides, truly made Sydney the event last year that doubles as the end of the “uncertainty era” and a harbinger of things to come.
We didn’t yet know what was to come. Fresh off the back of DreamHack Marseille, Astralis already began their rise but weren’t at their sterling best just yet. The potential was there but no one could foresee how far they would end up going. These were such different times that the Danes actually had to go through the qualifiers of the event. (A year later, they wouldn’t even take a direct invite.) FaZe Clan could still lift themselves to the top, even with a stand-in, shocking the world by picking up Xizt to temporarily replace olofmeister. Cloud9 were still rocking with the short-lived FNS experiment, YNk was still on the analyst desk and NRG were considered pure onliners at the time.
Not only that, but both Fnatic and mousesports were still quite strong contenders: the Swedes went all the way at Katowice and followed it up by a win at WSOE, even if that one was regarded as a freebie at the time. Meanwhile, the international side was still basking in the afterglow of their wins at the StarSeries Season 4 finals and the practical joke that was the V4 Future Sports Festival. The old guard’s collapse was almost complete: VP finally ran out of undeserved tournament invites and SK Gaming recorded multiple awful performances with their group stage eliminations at Katowice and Marseille. It would mark the beginning of the end for the side – showing that the Stewie pickup at the end of March wasn’t quite working out.
So what went down during the event? With seven of the sixteen slots handed out to Asian and Oceanic qualifiers, the group stage was expected to be little more than a formality with essentially nine teams fighting for the six playoff spots. In fact, FaZe and SK were expected to breeze their bracket with ORDER, Legacy Esports, Renegades, Cloud9, Greyhound and TyLoo placed alongside them in Group A. Not quite, as it turns out: the opening round of best-of-ones already had a few surprises in store. Though most of the minnows immediately fell down to the lower bracket, TyLoo managed to beat SK on Mirage in overtime. Meanwhile in Group B, NRG managed to push Astralis to the limit on Overpass but ended up losing 17-19.
The second group mostly played out in a predictable manner, with Astralis, Fnatic and mousesports making it to the playoffs. However, Group A was full of surprises from the moment the best-of-three portion of the bracket kicked in: Grayhound eliminated SK in the lower bracket and Renegades managed to beat FaZe on home soil with the third map going to triple overtime. TyLoo’s 2-0 win over Cloud9 was also considered quite surprising at the time, setting up a shock meeting between the two Asian sides for the top playoff seed. They recorded a fairly comfortable win over the hometown heroes, guaranteeing a top four finish for themselves. The lower bracket finals gave us a rematch of the Boston major’s final where FaZe only gave up fifteen rounds over two maps. Cloud9’s only wins at Sydney came over Greyhound and ORDER before bowing out from the competition.
FaZe butchered Fnatic in the first quarterfinal, but the real drama came in the second as Renegades tried to continue their Cinderella story against mousesports: after losing 16-7 on Mirage, they had yet another dramatic Inferno showing with a triple overtime to take the series to a third map. With the crowd fully behind their backs, they went to overtime once again, but couldn’t pick up a single round from that point on There was also that stupid thing with the “shoeys” as certain fans were evicted for their traditional oddity, prompting many others in the crowd to do the same in protest, fueling the, erm, “Aussie-ness” of the event even further.
While neither semi-final was a procession, both FaZe and Astralis made it fairly comfortably to the finals. At this point, the international roster was still considered the team to beat with the Danes on the rise, and it was truly a series where the end result doesn’t tell you the whole story. The first two maps went to overtime and the third ended 16-14, a best-of-five series between heavyweights going toe-to-toe, with the tiny edges going FaZe's way each time. It was perhaps the least one-sided 3-0 victory in competitive CS:GO history, and a fantastic series.
They’ve managed three runner-up finishes in a row in the circuit before losing to Astralis in the quarterfinals at Marseille – and now a win at Sydney with a stand-in? For many, this cemented them as the odds-on favorites for the inaugural Intel Grand Slam, and it remained theirs to lose for a long time because of the Danes’ schedule management. Of course, it wasn’t to be: for FaZe, perhaps this marked the point where the cartoon where the coyote stops running mid-air, realizing he’s got no ground to stand on. We didn’t know yet, but the changing of the guard was only a matter of time. And yet, if you wanted to find a tournament that could serve as the perfect “previously on” segment for the long-running soap opera that is CS:GO esports, you could hardly find a better one than last year’s showdown in Sydney was.