For the FACEIT Major 2018 being hailed as the worst major ever, the best team of all-time did manage to cement itself as such on the London stage. Astralis’s win was so undeniable that it’s become almost dismissible in the discourse after-the-fact. The way they managed to best each of their historical peers and elite counter-parts in consecutive fashion, without dropping a map throughout the playoffs was considered by many as ‘boring’. Their poise and grace in victory was so immense, their implementation of strategic ideas so spectacular, and individuals bound so tightly in the pressure of the moment that it’s being taken for granted. What a shame.
In MMA, just as in CS:GO, fans and a live-audience want ‘an exciting fight.’ The criteria for this in MMA generally consists of a bloody back-and-forth war. The fight has to almost entirely be a stand-up slog fest with each fighter giving their all, throwing highlight reel kicks and punches at a rapid rate. It seems most people exclusively want that big knockout, the brutal elbow or athletic kick, and ideally in the highest quantity possible. Often times, this emphasis on glorifying the strikers and stand-up artists comes at the neglection of those who take a more technical approach on the ground in grappling.
Someone like Demian Maia or Ben Askeren have historically struggled to rally the support of fans in this sense. Both fighters are (or were) elite, world-class grapplers who have had the grounding performances of potential champions, but are considered ‘boring.’ Their ability to neutralise an opponent, take them down and then hold them there for extended periods of time lacks the same flashiness as a left hook from Conor McGregor despite being, in many cases, as effective.
CS:GO fans always want that Boston Major grand final slog fest; two teams, both with looser approaches and immense individual skill trading rounds, finding ridiculous force-buy wins and somehow edging out clutches with once-in-a-career multi-kills and timing. This is why a side like Na`Vi who has ‘knock-out artists’ like s1mple and electronic is so revered. Or why the ever exciting draken/TwistZz/Niko can gain hype heading into a server. They’re the apostles of Twitch clips, the high-impact headshotting/flicking fraggers who are never out of a round and can always make things interesting.
But our focus on ‘excitement’ as a variable for making a ‘good’ game neglects the beauty in how a side like Astralis can neutralise those heavy-hitting fraggers. Engaging with and trying to directly battle as powerful a player as s1mple seems to be exactly what s1mple would want. If you are the best team in the world at playing tight, denying opportunities, punishing mistakes and controlling the map, why would you want the game to become a scrappy, three-map battle? Why open yourself up for that left-hook when you can take the fight to the ground?
The reason why Astralis is such a good team, however, isn’t because they are like Demian Maia or Ben Askeren as the analogy might be implying. They aren’t a specialist team in one element of winning a game. They are the best because they can play to nearly all standard win conditions of a round, blend them together, and then pick and choose what is the most effective based on the context. Against Liquid, they had moments when they were more scrappy and aggressive, looking for those duels on Mirage and Nuke. They engaged Liquid on a man-for-man level and destroyed them on both maps, being comfortable with a looser approach, hunting for picks and demolishing the Liquid T-side. In the very next series though, they were able to hold Na`Vi down and slowly choke them out of the grand finals stage. They postured carefully around s1mple’s AWP on Nuke and managed to read and adjust to Na`Vi’s T-side on Overpass.
What we witnessed in London wasn’t a series of boring games, but rather six back-to-back case studies in how to effectively play CS:GO at the highest levels. Everyone is quick to criticise s1mple for underperforming in the grand finals, or twistzz in the semi finals, or Niko in the round-of-eight or FalleN in the group-stage but at what point do we address the common variable? Or more specifically, appreciate just how hard it is to make a win seem boring against these aforementioned names?
Just because Astralis themselves don’t have a focal point of superstar talent in their team like some peers, doesn’t mean they’re a boring team. Their tendency to punish mistakes and look to deny space sees their opponents often have to pull out some of the most ridiculous clutches and individual plays just to put rounds on the board. They’re an apex predator and the scene has to evolve to match their presence or suffer at their methodical, constantly shifting hand. Watching how teams attempt to do this on the biggest stage in the world is one of the most exciting moments in CS:GO for me. From Na`Vi’s T-side reads on Astralis’s set-up on Overpass to Liquid’s ridiculous explosions of individual form on the CT-side of Nuke, there were many moments in the playoffs that put Astralis’s system under stress.
Rather than focussing on the output of a close series, I prefer to try and conceptualise the inputs of the match-up. Just like the Khabib/Conor fight that’s upcoming, one in which a total clash of styles and win conditions are expected, I look at a future Astralis/Na`Vi, Astralis/Liquid match-up the same way. Will Liquid’s veto finally take some risks? How does Na`Vi’s Overpass game adjust? Does Astralis change their approach to Liquid’s inferno after being upset on it in groups? Does Astralis try to counter or change the counters that Na`Vi showed in the grand final? How do Na`Vi adjust to Astralis’s outer takes?
It’s more work to get excited about games than to let the games excite you, and there’s definitely a balance there. And I think Astralis is one of those teams you either have to get excited about due to their level of play and interesting match-ups, or root against because of how tyrannical their control is. They aren’t going to change, but maybe we can shift our frame of watching them play and characterising games.