Looking at the history of CS:GO majors, two victors stand out due to their inability to pass muster in the open circuit. It’s no coincidence that their triumphs coincided with the rise of the unseeded Swiss format, with both the teams and their major titles slowly but surely becoming odd outliers in the eyes of the community.
Up until the CIS-based line-up’s unprecedented win in Krakow, the journey of plucky underdogs usually ended in the semi-finals at the majors, and the identity of the eventual finalists was surprisingly consistent with the lay of the land in the wider scene. Either Fnatic or NiP appeared in the final of the first six majors, the last being ESL One Cologne 2015, whose runner-up – Team EnVyUs – ended up winning in Cluj-Napoca ahead of Na’Vi, who then in turn finished second behind Luminosity Gaming in Columbus. The streak continued with FalleN and co sort-of retaining their title under the SK banner over Team Liquid in Cologne. Atlanta was the first major to feature the best-of-one Swiss system as its group stage format – and the streak promptly ended there. That’s not saying Astralis and vintage Virtus.pro don’t belong to classic CS royalty, and their battle for the title at a time of upheaval in the scene wasn’t exactly a shock, but it was in many ways a sign of things to come.
Krakow’s group stage infamously featured BIG going 3-0 in controversial fashion, winning three times while only playing on Inferno and making use of a contentious glitch. Meanwhile, FaZe Clan’s shocking failure to win a single map triggered the Manchester City-esque pickup of GuardiaN and olofmeister shortly after the event, and the early elimination of Na’Vi and mousesports also surprised the audience. Nominally, six of the eight teams in the play-offs were Legends previously as well, but the seismic shifts between Krakow and the previous major meant that, paradoxically, teams like Virtus.pro keeping their spot was more of an upset than the expected outcome. In fact, perhaps the biggest indictment of the event is that only three of the eight playoff participants are still relevant in the scene – or, to give you another metric, it’s also not a good sign that only two teams managed to “defend” their Legend spots in Boston five months later.
The initial expectations were clear: Astralis were the runaway favorites for the knock-out rounds, especially after taking out SK Gaming in convincing fashion. The other half of the bracket featured four fairly underwhelming teams – similarly to the recent StarSeries final –, guaranteeing a grand final appearance for one of BIG, Virtus.pro, North or Immortals. The Brazilians easily took out the untested Germans, then breezed past the ailing Polish line-up in the semi-finals. The real upset came in the other semi-final: Gambit, after beating a re-shuffled Fnatic line-up in two close maps, managed to take out the Danish favorites in a thrilling three-map semi-final series as Zeus’ IGL performance pushed them out of sight at the end of the decider on Train.
All in all, their run to the title featured best-of-one wins over mousesports, G2 and Virtus.pro, a 2-0 over a Fnatic in transition, an admittedly impressive performance against Astralis, plus a close victory against a team in the grand finals that hasn’t even appeared at a major up until that point. For some of the players, history was made, but the organization failed to capitalize on the performance, with the roster changed only a few months after their win – the IGL is still being passed around since Zeus’ departure – and no notable tournament wins (apart from the nondescript ROG Masters 2017) ever since. They failed to make it out of the groups in Massachusetts, but the nature of the system means that Dosia and his merry men will get another chance as “Boston’s Fallen” in the New Challengers stage at the upcoming FACEIT major. For now, their win in Krakow seems like nothing but a one-time high-roll, partially based on a fortunate set of brackets.
Which ties in neatly to the story of the next major and its unexpected winner…
Going into Boston, it was basically impossible to tell whether Krakow was a one-off or the rise of new pretenders that, like Virtus.pro of old, would pull out the big guns for the major despite their disappointing performances otherwise in the tournament circuit. As it turns out, neither of these happened. Enter Vega Squadron, Space Soldiers and Quantum Bellator Fire, plucky upstarts who surprised all of us by making it past what was previously known as the final qualifying stage, now part of the main event as the Challengers Stage. QBF made it as far as the playoffs while the other two were just one win away from playing spoilsports as every single one of the unexpected success stories of Krakow were eliminated. In fact, the other seven teams of the final eight genuinely felt like they belonged there, with Astralis’ shock elimination being the notable exception to the rule. Cloud9 played its own part in this story, eliminating the Danes on Train in the fourth round, barely making it out of the groups in the end after initially going down 0-2 against G2 and Space Soldiers. Famously, Skadoodle failed to make it to the playoffs in any major up until this point: he would smash expectations very soon after.
Still, whatever you may think of Cloud9’s performance in the New Legends stage, this is the point where their story diverges from Gambit’s: you can’t take away their run of impressive best-of-three wins in the playoffs. It began with a 16-6 and 16-7 trouncing over the Frenchmen who flawlessly cleared the groups and even beat them previously in the event. Next up, with the home crowd’s chants already risen to a crescendo, came a victory over a resurgent SK Gaming in the semi-finals. In the end, they faced the Faze Clan juggernaut, and the rest is history: a comeback and a double overtime win against the heavily favored international side on Inferno marked “the Miracle in Massachusetts”.
It was an incredible result – and just like in the case of Gambit, the winners were not able to maintain such a performance level while also failing to keep the title-delivering line-up intact. Stewie2k, arguably the best player on the roster, is now part of the very SK team they took out on their way to the major title, and Cloud9’s results have taken a nosedive ever since, in search of stability to this day. While London didn’t produce another upset on such a scale, the messy seeding still gave us a few upsets, most notably the elimination match between FaZe and mousesports plus HellRaisers’ playoff finish without managing to beat a top ten side. Katowice showed us the importance of a more robust format, and while the specifics of the Swiss system were not yet announced for StarLadder, we can only hope that the majors’ ruleset become more and more skill-testing as time goes on.
Editor’s note: this is an updated and revised version of “The major winners who shocked us all”, an article originally published on June 12, 2018.