Familiar LAN // Brand New Chaos
The long awaited CS:GO Major is upon us, and the New Challengers stage is already over in a flash. Dreams already crushed and expectations already shattered, and we still have two more stages ahead of us. In just this one stage, it’s already clear this Major is like no other.
While other esports have retained some forms of offline presence, CS has almost exclusively continued its course in 2020 and a good part of 2021 online. As a result, some of the power dynamics between teams at big offline events completely changed during “the online era.” Some strong LAN teams got battered once they booted up the router, while several unproven teams stepped up to the plate and stormed the scene seemingly out of nowhere.
Although it seems unlikely that we will ever return to an event calendar just like before March 2020, we’re slowly returning to offline events. IEM Cologne was the first, and gave us some sort of sneak peek for what would come once we’d get “back to normal.”
At IEM Cologne, no team better embodied the wild variance in this new normal than FaZe clan. The team fell off a cliff in the second half of 2020, cratering to their lowest in June of this year. Only to rise and land a top four at IEM Cologne while beating some of the best teams in the process, reminding everyone that when LAN comes around, these five have the experience to take most teams down.
That wild variance of this era showed immediately in the New Challenger stage. With the pressure at this tournament being sky-high, many teams were making uncharacteristic mistakes, lending to the Major an air of shakiness. Even the favorites aren’t assured a comfortable stroll to the later stages.
Considering this is the first Major since September 2019, the insane pressure only makes sense. Even for many veterans, this is the first opportunity in a long time to win CS’s most prestigious event.
Such is the difficulty of winning a Major that both S1mple or ZywOo have yet to do it. These two are just the tip of the iceberg, many eager veterans with incredible careers lining up behind them. For the numerous Major rookies, this is the first time they will experience this level of pressure. For some rookies, even this type of environment is new. Those who rose up within the online era have never endured the gauntlet of top tier offline events. It’s an open question whether or not they can withstand this kind of habitat.
Some of these rookie teams and players dominated the top ranks, even though most of them were almost unheard of a few years ago. The Gambit and Heroic lineups did not exist in their current form a year ago. Both boast one high-profile player each, Hobbit and cadiaN respectively, but otherwise they were rising stars, academy team players with no experience at the top. These teams took advantage of the literal home comfort of the online world and made their presence felt from their abodes. They established themselves as favorites in any tournaments they entered, and forces within the scene.
As offline looms, we have to ask if they can do it all again, in a completely different environment. IEM Cologne was half that test, played live from a hotel but without the unrelenting roar of a crowd. Even then there were signs that showed the rules had changed. Both Heroic and Gambit proved that you shouldn’t count them out right off the bat, securing a top eight and a top six respectively, but they weren’t as dominant. Meanwhile, FaZe resurged off the back of their “LAN buff.”
The Major ups the ante several notches, especially when the crowd comes into play during playoffs.
The narrative lines of this Major aren’t all offline vs. online either. If we look down the ranks we see teams that have improved by leaps and bounds throughout the year and started to challenge the established powerhouses. Their rise hasn’t been as meteoric as Gambit’s and Heroic’s, but they’ve cemented themselves as a threat nonetheless.
These are the Copenhagen Flames, the ENCE, the Entropiq. ENCE in particular are a great example of that, as they rose slowly but steadily all year long, and entered this Major right when they cracked in the top 10. Copenhagen Flames came barging in as a rising but still unproven team with a few worthy scalps collected in the months leading to the event, which they then took by storm, going 3-0 against all odds right off the bat.
They did so by taking down Astralis, BIG, and finally Heroic in a quick sweep that shocked the world and reminded everyone that no team is safe. Astralis came in as a favorite, an old emperor coated in plot armor, and they struggled at the hands of lesser teams. The Danes looked extremely solid in the weeks leading up to the event only to have to claw their way out of a dire deficit.
It’s already worrying in and of itself for certain top teams that they do not come in at their strongest, but it’s even worse when one looks at the field, packed with hungry Major rookies that have fleshed out game plans and heavy firepower. Rookies for whom their worst adversary is themselves, their nervous neurons firing as the crowd goes wild in favor of established names.
Many of these newcomers have the tools to beat top teams, but the scariest upstarts will be those with mental fortitude. For some of them, playing at the Major was a dream, and now that they have reached that milestone, anything else is pure bonus. This type of wildcard mindset could remove self-imposed obstacles, cut out anxiety, and become the X-factor pushing them to the 16th round against an opponent that they should lose to on paper.
Team Liquid will be amongst the teams that must withstand this wave of rising stars. Although Grim is a Major rookie, the rest of the lineup sports some of the most experienced players the Americas - if not any of the CS scenes - have to offer. With three major trophies spread between FalleN and Stewie2k, and multiple Major playoffs runs under the belt of EliGE and NAF, Liquid does not lack experience.
Past the team goal, every Liquid player has a page of their career to write here. As the longest-tenured player on the squad, having joined all the way back in 2015, EliGE will forever be Liquid’s legacy, Liquid’s Hall of Famer, if he can bring a Major trophy home. Despite FalleN already sitting on two, a third Major title would cement his legacy as one of the greatest AWPers and leaders of the game.
As the MIBR project went down in underwhelming fashion, the Brazilian leader will want to prove that he can translate his skills to an english-speaking team and repeat his peak again, years later in an all-new meta. Another AWPer and leader, Stewie2k remains one of the most passionate players of the scene. However, the title he won with Cloud9 still bears an asterisk. At the time, it was perceived as the alignment of the planets allowing Stewie, C9, and NA to win their first major. The fiery leader superstar now has an opportunity here to prove that his biggest win had nothing to do with luck.
The Legends stage now plays out, and we’ll finally see who fits that name.
Though many teams directly qualified into the stage, the challengers who approach could be just as strong - if not stronger. There’s no doubt that this week many eyes will zero in on the performance of Copenhagen Flames and Entropiq. One can imagine coaches and analysts scrambling to revise and adapt their team plans for the Legends stage as underdogs made their way through and favorites struggled. One imagines what Liquid feels, given they now lack their coach adreN.
As the year comes to a close, all the struggles and resurges fall into the rearview. In front of every team and every player are things even bigger than the most important trophy in Counter-Strike.
For individuals like ZywOo, S1mple, or dev1ce, there is a chance to shape the GOAT debate. For the Ninjas in Pyjamas and Virtus.pro, there is an opportunity to reclaim their legendary origins and return to Major success. For Astralis, to extend the most impressive Major streak of all time and rebuild an empire they lost during the online era. For any of the rising teams, there is the chance to make this wild online dream last past the netcode and carry into the all-important realm of the LAN. For Team Liquid, there is yet another shot at a trophy they have come so close to before - yet another chance to create the long sought-after NA dynasty.
For the fans, there is the chance to watch it all play out, to witness the highest form of Counter-Strike, once again from the seats of an arena.