I have a confession to make: I have a hard-on for in-game leaders in Counter-Strike. In fact, they are pretty much the reason I got into the game in the first place. Since my reflexes are in line with an arthritic koala’s and my aiming skills resemble that of a drunken stormtrooper’s, it’s safe to say I wouldn’t get much enjoyment out of an FPS which doesn’t have a robust tactical aspect to it. From pronax to karrigan, I always loved the idea of a team leader with big enough brains to make up for the comparative lack of brawn, and I love to see any development or evolution where someone’s playing so-many-dimensional chess that they can refute the supposed necessity of a fragging IGL. To me, a 5v5 after-plant situation or a gutsy mid-round call is more impressive than a heroic AWP ace. I’m weird like that.
I’m saying all this so that you understand that I may be somewhat biased in evaluating Fnatic’s surprise victory at DreamHack Masters Malmö, and basically everything else which will follow in this discussion. However, the sheer volume of data points in favor of what I’m going to say suggests to me that there’s more to it than the equivalent of a hearteyes emoji clouding my judgment. Basically, most of what we’ve seen since the player break seems to indicate that we’re looking at a renaissance of in-game leaders in CS:GO, and the scene’s going to be all the better for it.
Nabokov once wrote that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness, and that’s pretty much the best way to describe Fnatic’s back-to-back title wins at IEM Katowice and the WESG bonanza in 2018. Famously, those two titles earned them more prize money than any of their storied streaks in the past, and the fairytale story of a player of the academy team leading them to victory eventually ended in tears as he was pushed out of his role to make space for Xizt. Results didn’t follow. Their reunion and instant improvement after another extended period in the wilderness was heartening to see. In fact, Golden’s success may very well herald the beginning of the golden era of in-game leaders.
There are many more stories like these. Though contentious, it was an IGL swap which catapulted the ex-NRG (now EG) side from eternal hopefuls to title-winning heavyweights, ditching daps for stanislaw for that missing X-factor in what turned out to be an upgrade for this particular core of players. Say what you will about the power dynamics in FaZe Clan and the economic arguments of supporting your superstar player over your IGL, the team remained in a state of limbo ever since karrigan’s ouster, boasting an awful record against his new side and regularly finishing below them at major events. Though mousesports are clearly far from the finished article, this was one of the more satisfying storylines of the year.
Meanwhile, ENCE’s performances and results took a huge hit after removing their in-game leader, who was reportedly offered a million dollars to head the Complexity rebuild project, instead opting to spearhead OG’s entry into the scene for what’s likely a similar sum in the end. Even the teams with world-class fraggers can trace back their recent improvements to the changes made in the leadership roles. The rise of Vitality coincided with ALEX’s emergence as their in-game leader over NBK-, and Na’Vi’s performances are already looking much better even though they’ve just shipped out Zeus and Kane, veterans who have long overstayed their welcome.
As volatile as the HLTV rankings are, they still serve as a viable benchmark for form, and you can find traces of the same narrative further down the list as well. Many attributed Renegades’ ability to crack the top ten to kassad’s coaching work alongside jks’ strong individual showings. Arguably, the fact that this OpTic side is somehow managing to stay afloat and moderately relevant despite the ownership turmoil and the many questions surrounding their future can also be traced back to their tactical approach, Dust 2 playbook memes aside.
In a way, we’ve got Vertigo to thank for this. Having new maps to play around with and innovate on also factor into this paradigm shift, and it remains to be seen whether it’s merely cyclical – like so much else in Counter-Strike – or the beginning of a greater appreciation for the strategists of the game. With a new generation of elite fragging talent finally emerging from the shadows, it’s the great IGLs who are the most limited commodity. The courting of Aleksib suggests that the market has also caught up to this – and a quick glance of the current top HLTV teams also shows a concentration of this kind of talent on the teams which currently dominate the rankings. Astralis, EG, fnatic, Vitality, mouz, ENCE, Na'Vi, Renegades: the ups and down of them all can be traced back to their recent leadership-related decisions. It’s a mouth-watering prospect for weirdos like me as the travelling circus of CS continues its tour through Turkey, Denmark, China and the US. With ringleaders like gla1ve, karrigan, Stanislaw, Golden and the rest running the show, it promises to be a hell of a final act for 2019.