Once again, IEM Sydney didn’t disappoint: the second quarterfinal of the event was an absolute barnburner between the two big Swedish rivals, perhaps the most finely poised their matchup has been since 2015’s major final in Katowice. It wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of Counter-Strike, but it was very much an entertaining bar fight, highlighting how cool it is to have rivalries between teams of similar stature – even if both Fnatic and NiP are a shadow of their former world-conquering selves.
DreamHack Winter 2013 was the first CS:GO tournament I ever watched. I still remember how large an emphasis the analysts placed on the unpredictable nature of domestic rivalries as they were getting ready for the NiP-Fnatic final. Even if one of the teams happen to be miles ahead in the rankings, the thinking went, the underdog has a lot of demos to study and more reasons to focus on their opponent in the preparation phase. Of course, most tournaments were more stringent about their qualifying slots around the time, often limiting a country to one participant. This made domestic matchups all the more spicy.
Sure enough, Fnatic upset the Ninjas in the first CS:GO major and went on to dominate the next period of the game. It’s a matchup that still burns bright regardless of the circumstances. Nowadays, it feels like only the Swedish derby delivers on the sort of intensity you’d expect from something like a Liverpool-Manchester United match or a Lakers-Spurs clash in the NBA.
The story of Swedish CS:GO since then sometimes reminds me of what happened with the Habsburg dynasty. Once they ceased to be the undisputed bests in the game, NiP and Fnatic began a beautifully incestuous relationship, with players moving back and forth between the two sides on a fairly regular basis, culminating with Xizt’s transformation from Ninja to fanatical IGL. Now, these Scandinavian cousins-lovers-twins-brothers gave us perhaps the most epic best-of-three series of the year. Neither are as good as they used to be, but they’re uniquely suited to each other, with the high-octane craziness and myriad of meta-calls between players incredibly familiar with one another creating something beautiful whenever they meet in the servers.
It’s a testament to Swedish Counter-Strike’s decline that their LAN meetings become progressively rarer as the years went by. NiP and Fnatic only met face-to-face three times since Xizt’s move, but almost every intra-Swedish battle in the intervening period led to an insanely close series. Their match at StarSeries Season 7 went to 30 rounds on all three maps (with Cache going to overtime) and their ECS Season 6 meetings in November producing a 16-14 and a 16-13 result.
So what’s the ceiling of these two sides? It remains surprisingly difficult to tell. NiP are 8th on the world rankings despite a horrible record against top ten sides while Fnatic seemingly go from awesome to awful between back-to-back series, hovering on the edge of top ten in the world. Losing 16-4 to MiBR on Nuke, who would end up trounced on the same map by NRG who had a 20% winrate on it going into the event… what can you possibly make of this as an observer? Similarly, how the hell do you go from a 1-3 record in the major qualifier to a runner-up finish at StarSeries? It seems like the only consistent part of these two teams’ performances is how viciously they go at each other whenever they meet up in a tournament. We can only be thankful as fans for this exciting dynamic between two of CS:GO’s former greats.