Since the beginning of analytical discussion in CS:GO, the two most powerful weapons given to commentators have been the infamous phrases ‘loose’ and ‘tactical.’ As pundits, we look to broadly lump teams into these camps based on the general direction of their game. It quickly characterizes their play and gets the message across to the average fan. Gob b is a tactical in-game leader and heavily structures his team. ChrisJ is a loose in-game leader and his team has little structure.
These two ends of the spectrum are often at the heart of framing any discussion around a side due to their implications. If you’ve listened to, and watched enough games of CS:GO, you know certain things stem from these specific characteristics. At the base of a successful loose system is probably a band of talented individuals who are given freedom within a less structured environment. In a tighter, tactical system, we expect less freedom given to individuals with a great emphasis of playing coherently to a set strategy.
But is it fair to give both of these heavy characterising terms an equal weighting in the current ecosystem of play? Just because they might lie on either end of a scale doesn’t mean that sides edging towards either extreme are as good as each other. As recent results show, in-spite of how flippantly we might use these terms, there’s an undeniable bias towards structured teams finding success. While it’s hard to paint broad narratives, it’s definitely worthwhile to readjust our expectations and weighting of terms we use to describe the actors in them.
Is ‘loose’ still a neutral measuring stick of a team’s style, or has the stick turned into a criticising weapon to slap at the knuckles of team’s who opt into the more devil-may-care approach of play?
At ESL One Cologne 2018, we saw two ends of this spectrum collide, but at very different points contextually. It was in the lower bracket semifinal of Group A, between Mousesports and ENCE. On one hand, you had Mousesports, a team who were once the placeholder best in the world side and sporting an incredibly individually focused style. On the other, was ENCE, a team formed out of Finland’s regional talent and barely scraping into the top 30. The Fin’s, with a lack of apparent world-beating talent opt to structure their game far more and in a ‘textbook’ sort-of way.
ENCE would upset Mousesports 2:1, having beaten a similarly loose NiP in a 2:0 the stage prior and playing a close 2:1 against the eventually crowned winners Na`Vi.
ENCE were able to defy expectations and upset a very established and acclaimed side like Mousesports in easy fashion. In spite of their lacking strength in areas like individual skill, they were able to beat sides far ‘larger’ and more regarded than themselves. What’s more, ENCE’s approach isn’t unique. They are apart of a collection of sides achieving big upsets with a similar push away from the glorification of stars. In 2018, we’ve seen AGO, Grayhound, Renegades, BIG, Tyloo, Imperial and NRG all embrace this ideological shift to structure and cohesion rather than hoarding up-coming superstars.
This is especially contrasted by the long-term failure of teams trying to peddle the more familiar and immediate surge of form from looser approaches. While a side like Grayhound can make headlines at IEM Sydney 2018 with big upsets, Mousesports, Fnatic, Cloud9 and NiP, the loosest teams in the top 15, have all struggled immensely to maintain form. Undoubtedly, there is a felt ‘shift’ in the climate of professional play.
The days of lower tiered sides smashing the most flashy aim stars their player politics will allow and aiming for group stage upsets are becoming distant. The competition at those lower tiers is too fierce to allow such play, and these rosters now have the capital to allow them to spend the time forming such cohesion. Consistency through disciplined structure is now the name of the game and the ‘pug’ sides of old are being left in the annals of history.
With the resources and tenure to now justify the tedious hours of blending teamplay with intensive strategising, the evolving nature of competition will lean towards that which is the most successful over the longest period of time. While the allure of clumping talent in a loose way to enable stars still rests at the bottom of any team dynamic, it’s suppressed by the pressures of the scene.
In this sense, ‘loose’ feels more like a criticism of a side than a characterisation. The weight of single tournament upsets has been removed more and more as the level of competition at events like Dreamhack opens increases month-to-month. Making top four at one of these events is now a goal for sides from a wide range of regions and levels, and one result in the short-term isn’t enough to generate the hype it used to.
By shifting expectations, plotting the rise and fall of teams with loose styles over the long term and appreciating the ground-swell of structure tier three teams right now, we can see the overall move away from positive characteristics of loose styles.