Twice in the past year, SK Gaming have been the number one team in the game. Once last summer with João "felps" Vasconcellos as they won five of six straight tournaments across a three month span, then again after picking up Ricardo "boltz" Prass in October as they took three of four straight victories including one win over FaZe in the finals of ESL Pro League Season 6. But in both cases they came back down to Earth after the PGL Major and ELEAGUE Major: Boston respectively. While they declined in a variety of ways in either scenario, SK has continued to struggle on one of the two most popular and important maps in current competitive pool: Inferno.
Following the PGL Major SK’s record on Inferno dramatically tanked, winning only two of their next eight games on the map, and while their 9-8 record with the Boltz lineup looks better numerically, that improvement may be overstated. First, SK with Felps’s post-PGL record is somewhat less damning when you consider three of those losses came from Team Liquid with Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz whose best map by far and away was Inferno. Then, there is a bit of inflation on the other end as well as some of SK with Boltz’s wins came from teams like Torqued and MVP PK.
Still, the map remains an exploitable weakness for the Brazilian side. Since the PGL Major, SK have lost 14 best-of-three series in total, with 12 of those series featuring an SK loss on Inferno.
Now, many might recall that SK’s Inferno looked well within the their wheelhouse for the first six months of the Felps formation especially during their winning streak. The general narrative often states that SK’s struggles on the CT of Inferno corresponded with their issues with Felps’s role and personality in the post PGL downturn. But the story that SK were an excellent team on the map previously isn’t exactly true.
At the start of 2017, after SK failed to make it out of the group stage at two straight tournaments, IEM Katowice 2017 and Starladder i-league StarSeries Season 3, they found started to find their form by moving towards and excelling on three maps: Cobblestone, Mirage, and Overpass. From DreamHack Masters Las Vegas to the PGL Major, SK was 12-4 on Cache, 12-2 on Cobblestone, and 14-5 on Mirage. SK accumulated a less impressive 9-6 record on Inferno over the same period, and it’s lower place in the pecking order was reflected in pick and ban phases at that time. And looking at their play itself, SK actually seemed far from comfortable on the map despite decent results on paper. Their T-side wasn’t especially innovative and their CT side could crumble nearly as often their competitors.
Adjusting to the map after it was added back into the competitive pool, SK’s CT positions changed several times between tournaments until SK reached IEM Sydney. Looking just at the B-site for example, Marcelo "coldzera" David and Felps played it at IEM Katowice, Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and Cold played it at cs_summit, then FalleN and Fernando "fer" Alvarenga were paired there for IEM Sydney, ESL Pro League Season 5 Finals, and onwards. It wasn’t until after the PGL Major concluded that the swiss cheese defense of Fer and Felps was installed on the B-site with Epitácio "TACO" de Melo covering the apartments and pit alongside the more on-site Coldzera with FalleN replacing Felps archside.
But the post-major shift to Fer-Felps on B is curious. From the time Felps joined SK in early 2017 up to and including the PGL major, SK’s CT-side was actually it’s better half. Out of 220 CT rounds SK won 117 rounds (53.2%), while only winning 95 out of 200 rounds (47.5%) on T-side. And their CT record looks better knowing that the map had a very slight T-side bias looking at all LAN games played at big events over the same February to late mid-July time period.
Graph provided by HLTV.
That is not to say that SK’s CT half always worked. For example, SK gave up 10 or more rounds when on the CT-side in three straight games in May and June, their loss to FaZe in the Finals of IEM Sydney, their embarrassing 16-3 loss to EnVyUs in the group stage of the EPL 5 finals, and their narrow 16-14 win over mousesports at DreamHack Open Summer 2017. But perhaps that’s to be expected given their relative mediocrity on this map, and the fact that CT-sides on Inferno generally can be streaky due the extra importance of the CT economy via Inferno’s often utility heavy defenses.
So why did SK make this ultimately switch in the first place?
Many top-teams such will often let their primary AWPer play on the arch side of A due to feasibility of early peeks down mid and the variety of angles and fallbacks positions available on that side of the site. Perhaps they thought FalleN playing the B-site most rounds was not the optimal approach for the team’s primary AWPer. Additionally, this next era of play simply had better competitors on Inferno. Perhaps SK correctly predicted that teams would show up in September after the player break with and much stronger Inferno, like Liquid and FaZe did. If they were going to keep pace, improvement had to come from somewhere.
However, while FalleN playing arch side seemed to work out well enough, the pairing of the team’s two most aggressive rifles on the hard-to-hold B site famously turned out disasterous. SK only won two of their next eight Inferno games before Boltz started to replace Felps at EPICENTER. Now, again, three of those losses came from Team liquid and three games (including one versus Liquid) were lost in overtime, so there weren’t nearly as bad as their record might indicate, but their CT-side clearly looked off.
While SK’s T-side remained relatively similar in terms of success at this time winning 52 of 104 rounds, (50%) a modest improvement, SK only won 54 of 128 rounds (43.2%) on the CT which is an 11 point drop from their previous average.
Over time, it became increasingly obvious that the B-site with the new Fer-Felps combo was a weak point, and a weak point often exploited by their opponents. Their combined aggression often failed, and playing back in site got them run over again and again. Now, many teams still struggle to hold B on Inferno, that hasn’t changed, but I think the Fer-Felps combination on Inferno were especially unsuccessful for two main reasons beyond just synergy. First, because of the natural wall created the voley of smokes, flames, and flashes thrown into banana early in rounds, the duo could not pull off early aggression nearly to the same effect they could elsewhere.
Second, I think the risks taken by either player are inherently more risky due the the distance between the B and A sites in comparison to other maps. If Felps say gets one or two kills via a push but is killed himself, he could be exposing Fer to an extended four versus 1 or three versus one before the typical three men on the A site can move over, and we know how hard B-site retakes can be.
And more surprisingly, SK’s problems did not neatly go away once Boltz was brought in for Felps in October. When Boltz came in, Fer and Fallen again were sent to B, but this time Colzera was sent arch side with Boltz tending to the more centralized positions. Obstenively, the returning Fallen could be a better support to Fer’s aggressive on B while providing more consistent frags with the AWP from the back of the site. However, in many maps we’ve continued to see SK struggle heavily on the CT. In their first map with Boltz at EPICENTER SK, lost 8 of eighth CT rounds, and in two of their last three games, losing 14 of 15 rounds to Liquid and 12 of 14 rounds to Cloud9.
Now, in raw numbers SK’s CT with boltz looks better winning 107 of 210 rounds (51%), with a similar amount of success on the T-side, wining 116 out of 221 rounds (52.5%). But if you take away SK’s run away the games where SK played two teams who are highly irrelevant internationally, Torqued and MVP PK, you see a numbers more in between the SK with Felps pre-PGL Major record and SK with Felps post-PGL Major record Excluding those two games in addition to the two games SK played on Inferno with Felps at the ELEAGUE Major Boston, SK won 89 of 189 rounds (47%) on the CT side. The winrate is four percentage points better than the August to October period but still six percentage points below than their original February through July 2017 average.
Now, yes, these changes in percentages are relatively small. Across 10 full halves a 10% better round win rate would only give you and extra 15 rounds wins total, but those one or two extra rounds could, of course, dramatically alter the course of the game. Since October, SK have played four games on Inferno where the final score was 16-13 or closer.
With FalleN and Fer controling B, I think you’ve seen some modest improvement on that side of the map, but the combination of Boltz and TACO covering the far side of the A-site together, looks weaker than the previous Taco-Coldzera combination. Even Coldzera perhaps being put into a better position for himself, secondary AWPing from Arch, and having better mid-round opportunities with rotations to B, their CT side still feels far from optimal given their lineup. SK have put their obtenively weakest two fraggers on the heavily rushed far side of the A-site site.
In my opinion, the optimal setup on Inferno would to be to have a high-fragging rifler play the pit or balcony positions given the amount of short range, high traffic confrontations in that area with a more supportive player playing off him. Then, your next best player paired with another more supportive player or secondary AWPer on site, while your main Awper still plays towards Arch or the other side of A.
Perhaps, Fer would better suited as the pit/balcony player where he could pull more pushes through the hall/apartment area. Boltz could remain on-site and Fallen could go back to arch, which would allow the longtime-duo of Coldzera and TACO would then be freed play the other site. Perhaps the team’s best player and the longtime world number player is needed end SK’s problems on B.
SK’s last two placings at Starladder I-league StarSeries Season 4 and IEM Katowice 2018 were subpar. They map pool is eroding. They suddenly look far more vulnerable on Train and Overpass, where they excelled earlier with Boltz, even being timid in picking these maps in best-of threes. And there doesn’t seem to be any easy roster change out there that they can do to reverse their fortunes. If SK are going climb back up to the very top of the world rankings once again, they need to be better than vulnerable or average on one of the game’s most critical maps. Perhaps another shift moving FalleN and Fer away from B will only reopen the wound we saw last in September, or perhaps an even more radical change is needed to fan SK’s flames and reestablish their greatness.
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