IEM Shanghai was an event steeped in caveats. The 250k+ prize pool, relatively large crowd and viewership numbers saw a preemptive barrage of asterisks launched Eastwards. While the on-paper build of Shanghai as a tournament would suggest a large event on CS:GO’s calendar and a melting pot of elite teams, it was anything but.

NRG, Tyloo, and a shell-like Hellraisers were the only bright spots in an otherwise lacking pool of teams. In place of intensity between top sides vying for playoffs and their chance at the $125,000 first place prize, instead, novelty dominated the mood around group play.

Grayhound played into their moment while in the international spotlight, winning fans on reddit but failing to do the same with CT-rounds in the server. The top Australian team failed to manifest their momentum on home soil into results that would validate themselves internationally. Grayhound’s run in Shanghai showed that there are advancements domestically, but not necessarily at the same pace or at the same level as even lower leveled side internationally. Many of the domestic scene’s problems were exposed without the narrative context of IEM Sydney to fall back on.

Of these lower-levelled international sides, Gambit sported their most recent acquisition in Flipsid3 IGL turned coach, Blad3, behind them in-game. With limited time to implement any real changes, worryingly, we saw Gambit’s CT-sides collapse against both Grayhound and NRG on Overpass. Overpass was one of Blad3’s better constructed maps on Flipsid3, and also in-general, CT-side strength was a hallmark of a strong Gambit. Their measly three CT-round rounds against NRG in the semi finals and struggle to close against Grayhound in groups showed that neither the coaches or historical strengths were there for them.

Shanghai for Gambit marked another lukewarm 2018 result for the post-Zeus roster. Not being afforded many direct invites to tournaments, Gambit has to battle through online gauntlets or try to scrape together series wins in more diluted events like Shanghai. With sides even in the lower order of the top ten like NRG handily beating them though, Gambit’s future remains muddy heading into the pointy end of the year.

But above the strange sub-narratives of Grayhound and Gambit was the triumphant run of NRG.

Team NRG Shanghai

The mediocrity of sides like Gambit only served to further contextually elevate the tight play and refined win conditions of the eventual tournament winners, NRG. What made NRG’s win in Shanghai impressive was not necessarily the huge performance of a star, but the overall performance of the team at a star level.

From the assertive AWPing of Cerq, to the tight anchoring play of nahtE on CT-side and forward trading on T-side, NRG’s individual talent found impact on many avenues. The overall performance of NRG in Shanghai served as an allegory for their campaign throughout the Summer. In Shanghai, we saw a great evolution in NRG’s game, one that is more focused and incredibly tight relative against the collapsing T-sides of Tyloo.

They put on a showcase of what the full breadth of their team can achieve even in-spite of not being able to dominate every clutch or multi-kill. There were more impressive moments of teamplay, trading and utility usage than once-in-a-lifetime shots or instantly upvoteable frag highlights. NRG were a team that showed many strengths, and importantly, strengths that can be replicated over the long-term.

So while Shanghai might be an event drawn up in a dismissable light, the hints gleaned from watching sides like Gambit, Grayhound and NRG play are suggestive of narratives anything but.

Grayhound showed a clear gap in understanding between a region pegged to explode upwards for years but constantly falling flat. Gambit’s struggles seem to be more layered and complicated than ever before, leaving Blad3 with his hands full despite having great talent. And NRG put on a clinic that suggests their future will be one littered with closely fought series. The second best NA team is one that isn’t easily pushed around by individual talent and doesn’t necessarily need it in a superstar quantity to win themselves.