Yesterday, Astralis successfully defended their crown in Berlin and became the first team to win back-to-back-to-back majors, with four of their players claiming an unprecedented fourth career title as well. While their playoff performance and impressive series against NRG and Liquid are to be commended, the damp squib of a final put meant that the event ended on a sour note for many. Of course, it was ENCE the last time around who played the part of whipping boy in the grand final, and the regularity of such one-sided playoff matchups in the Swiss-based majors raise questions about the format.
The red star shines again. Once more, Astralis are your major champions, setting up a finely poised confrontation with Team Liquid for the tail end of the year, potentially delivering on the rivalry that never quite was in 2019 due to the whole scheduling kerfuffle. It’s just a shame that the Berlin major pretty much peaked at the tail end of the New Legends Stage as far as excitement goes, with a string of upsets in the quarter-final setting up fairly one-sided games for the final rounds of the tournament.
This isn’t the first time something like this happens at the CS:GO majors, and while underdog stories can be quite appealing on occasion, they lose a bit of their shine when they become an everyday occurrence. In fact, this is exactly what’s been happening at the Valve-sanctioned Counter-Strike events ever since the Swiss-based format was introduced, and while many of its smaller kinks were ironed out over time, the regularity with which it throws up upsets should be examined going forward.
By now, we have enough of a sample size to consider as seven of the fifteen majors featured this kind of a group stage in some capacity. Looking back, it’s quite crazy to see how much of a mess they were originally: there was no seeding whatsoever and every round was a mere best-of-one match. No wonder we had odd results and unexpected finalists left and right: overall, four out of the seven majors with a Swiss group stage featured a finalist outside the world’s top ten at the time (Cologne 2016, Kraków 2017 and the two events from 2019) – and that doesn’t even account for Cloud9’s Cinderella run in Boston. Perhaps more importantly, only ENCE managed to actually keep up with the pack from that point on while everyone else turned out to be a one-hit wonder.
The playoff brackets tell the same story: Cologne 2016 had FlipSid3 Tactics, Atlanta had Gambit (arguably an edge case), Kraków also saw BIG go 3-0 off the back of nothing but some nifty Inferno play, Boston infamously saw Quantum Bellator Fire nick a top eight spot – and essentially causing a rule change dubbed the “Winstrike rule”, a term coined after the org that picked them up for the next major, which pushed teams that went 0-3 in the New Legends Stage back into the minors –, then it was Complexity’s turn in London before Renegades and ENCE followed it up at Katowice. Now, it was AVANGAR’s time to become the darkest of dark horses, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to show anything of note outside the major itself. Precedent is not on their side.
Strictly speaking, there’s more to this phenomenon than just the way the group stages are organized: the change to the Swiss brackets also coincided with the move to two majors a year instead of three, with ESL Cologne 2016 being the second and last major of the year and also the first to feature this new format. Since re-invitations are strictly based on the teams’ placements at the previous major, this increased gap between the events means that the ranking shifts can be quite seismic in the meantime, which isn’t accounted for whatsoever. Teams like Virtus.pro stunk up the place for two consecutive majors due to a top eight finish, though the fact that the teams going 0-3 in the New Legends Stage no longer qualify automatically to the next event has helped this somewhat. Still, the current system means that any team which rose atop the rankings between two majors has to go through the entirety of the gauntlet – as we’ve seen with Vitality this time around and Astralis in London – while also giving free wins to whoever runs into the ailing ex-top side. Back in the past, it was VP, now NiP and MiBR supplied the goods.
There are also the regional differences – or lack thereof, at least as far as Valve is concerned – to consider. While some of the “underrated” regions keep surprising us every major and the CIS sides definitely showed their mettle in Berlin, there’s no denying that the talent pool is not distributed evenly across the world. This isn’t just about name recognition and: the number of teams signing up for the open qualifiers in Europe dwarfs the field in every other region, and even if the third-place play-in allows for a wider range of outcomes, it’s still essentially guaranteed that lower-ranked teams with little international experience get to play at what’s supposedly the biggest CS event of the year.
That said, even if the data shows that upsets and underdog runs are baked into the current system of the majors, the question remains whether this is actually an issue. Your answer will likely depend on where you position these events in the scene. There’s a good argument to be made that they’re no longer the true pinnacle of Counter-Strike competition, and the back-to-back wins of Gambit and Cloud9 (alongside the aforementioned top eight finishes by minnows like QBF) followed by little to no achievements in the wider circuit underlined the true nature of their accomplishments.
Since Counter-Strike is blessed with a healthy enough third-party scene to handle this, maybe it’s okay that the majors are more of a celebration of global CS than the true showcase of the best of the best. If you think so, you might be more inclined to support the quirks of the current format: in that case, you’re looking at this as a feature, a source of great spectacle and storylines year after year. For the purists out there, it devalues the competition. Of course, this is much like how TI functions, where your performance at a one-off mega-tournament for all the marbles will always amount to more than your achievements or consistency across a multitude of tournaments over time.
This is not the angle you usually approach the CS-Dota comparisons from, but it has some merit. While it’s understandable why many in the CS community feel like their game is the red-headed stepchild alongside Dota and all the attention that’s given to The International, the many issues that stem from the top-heavy nature of that scene shows that the grass is not always greener on the other side. However, you don’t have to wish for seven-digit prize pools, crowdfunded events or even an appearance by Gabe Newell at a showpiece event to recognize the alarming regularity with which odd results and one-off storylines show up at the majors. With initiatives like the Intel Grand Slam already beating it out in both prestige and prize pool, it’s either time to accept that high variance is the price to pay for keeping the tournaments as they are, or that an overhaul is due. Based on what we already know about the application requirements for the 2020 majors, it looks like we’re in for more of the same – so if you enjoy trying to guess who the next AVANGAR will be, you’ll feel right at home.