The current Counter-Strike scene is being hailed by many as ‘weak’ for a variety of factors. With Astralis’s dominance at the top, there is a huge gap between the number one team in the world, and the other top sides. This bracket of top teams though, is just Na`Vi and Liquid, both of who failed to yield the results they wanted post-Major - Na`Vi more-so than Liquid. Below these top three teams is a relatively loose band in the top ten, none of who seem able to consistently find wins over each other, or at the least, hold onto a coherent five-man roster. As such, the current rankings reflect a lot of uncertainty, or parity, or both.
This may not be as directly a result of the top ten becoming ‘weaker’ as much as the teams in the top eleven to thirty becoming much stronger, causing a higher variation of results. Many tier two and three teams have been able to make headway on international LAN stages in 2018, causing upsets across the board and fracturing any sense of total security sides in the top eight may have been illusioned to. The differential between teams at 4, 5, and 6 (Mouz, MIBR, and FaZe) and those at 13, 14, and 15 (G2, Tyloo, and Gambit) seems to be far closer than it should be, or has been in other eras.
The resources allowing players of this lower-level to commit to full-time play isn’t going away, which means that the threat they pose to higher order teams isn’t either. With this in mind, as a team like Mousesports, Na`Vi, Liquid or FaZe who have all suffered upsets, how do they look to regain security in their position as a top team?
Mousesports seems to be a perfect case-study in what not to-do in this sense. Faced with a series of disappointing runs, they looked to the fallacy of stacking firepower in-place of cohesion/structure to try and fix their game. Replacing snax for STYKO was a move aimed at making Mouz indomitable man-for-man, and deadly from every angle. As their results have shown since though, even a side like ENCE is capable of matching them on the right day. This isn’t as much due to the ENCE’s of the world being some god-tier group of aimers. It’s their ability to more effectively leverage what firepower they have with a well-articulated system against a side without one. Unless you have the cheque book of FaZe (and even that isn’t working out long-term), the days of simply clumping together top-of-the-scoreboard fraggers isn’t the solution.
What’s more, Mouz have also run into the trap many teams on the decline seem to fall into: burnout. We saw it happen with FaZe this year, the Brazilians last year, and most prominently, Mouz in the present. They have gone from Dreamhack Masters Stockholm, to the FACEIT Major, to ESL One NY 2018, to StarSeries S6 in just under a month.
While in New York they were able to ride the incredible wave of form of suNny and ChrisJ to win a spectacular Bo5 over Liquid, lifting the trophy didn’t fix their issues. The Mouz system is geared towards playing into individual performances, through tight trading, a deeply internalised sense of playmaking and aggression in their main stars, and stripped back tactical base. Their mid-rounds don’t need to have the elegance of Astralis in-principle, so long as they have the pace and explosiveness to make-up for it. In-lack of individual skill though, the shaky tactical framework underneath begins to lose its legs, as we saw against both ENCE and BIG in Kiev.
Likewise, Complexity from dropping jaws at the major with their insane individual performances nested inside of an excellent system of teamplay, and mid-rounding fell flat on their faces at StarSeries. They to, like Mousesports (and Tyloo, and Gambit) played at the Major, then a LAN, and then StarSeries.
The same stand-out fragging core (yay, ANDROID, dephh) we saw in London all were in the top ten worst ratings of the event. It’s a worrying, and telling sign when the IGL is the only player who could post a positive +/-. Their T-side failed to capitalise on the completely lacklustre CT-side of Renegades on Mirage, and managed to scrape only one T gun round against BIG’s relentless CT-side on Cache. Without any individual punch from their entries to punish the forward pressure of BIG, Col’s T-side really only found legs against the disparate Gambit.
As Astralis and Liquid often talk about, the primary way to maintain individual form over long stretches of time is through rest. The notion of rolling momentum from one tournament to the next on skill alone is outdated. The level of play from lower tiered sides is too high to consistently rely on the oscillating skill of star players. In order to win consistently, top teams have to target specific events with breaks in play in-between to prepare for them. There’s a reason why so few top teams are present at StarSeries S6.
This creates an interesting dynamic between the top and lower tiered sides if the skipping tournaments trend continues. As we’ve seen at StarSeries, in the absence of apex predators, sides like ENCE, NRG, and Fragsters have all been given more fair matchups, but on a large international LAN stage and the chance of series play in-playoffs; important experience for sides with such young players. These type of tournaments create more of a middle-ground for those bottom/outside-of-the-top-ten teams, and makes them stronger in the long run. It also gives a clearer platform to understand the often muddied hierarchy at this level of competition.
As such, top teams skipping these events makes the lower tiers stronger, further strengthening the competitive ecosystem. Because on one hand, you’ll have top sides who come better prepared, fresh, and with on-point individuals. While on the other there’ll be a bank of far-more series seasoned, cohesive sides at a lower level for them to compete against - driving the overall level of play up.
It’s also important to distinguish from a higher level of overall play, causing constant trading of results, versus a weak field of teams. While both of these have the characteristic of ‘random’ results, one is very different from the other. On-paper, this mightn’t be the case, but in-terms of a viewer experience, the high-points some of these teams have to hit in order to be ‘random’ is ridiculous. Obviously there will always be teams who play poorly, making a game cringey and hard-to-watch (and predict). But often times in these upsets we see top teams who still play excellent CS, but with a fundamental flaw or two, versus a lower tiered side who plays just ‘good’ CS, but with some interesting strengths.
Certainly it seems that for top teams to hold onto their qualifier as-such, they need to skip events. The performances of Mouz, Complexity, Tyloo, and Gambit at StarSeries amongst many other historical builds an image of why this is the case. In their justified absence though, the teams nibbling at their heels will only start to gather strength. As this trends continue, we’ll continue to see the competitive ecosystem fleshed out through the dynamic it creates. While this may cause more ‘random’ results though, do not mistake this for a totally weak set of teams, but instead the opposite.