The Rise of North American Counter-Strike

The Rise of North American Counter-Strike

North American CS:GO has never been stronger than it is in this moment.  Team Liquid is one of the world's elite teams and arguably the most skilled line-up in professional play, routinely making top placings at the biggest international tournaments and dangerous for every top team out there in the field.  NRG have come off a year of progressively improving and becoming more than just also-rans, developing instead into a legitimately good global side. Finally, 15 months or so ago Cloud9 lifted the first major in CS:GO history for the region.

Complex thinking

The first generation of North American CS:GO teams saw a limited field of essentially two different cores achieve occasional success but rare runs of consistent form.  Outside of those big two, there was a barren wasteland of unproven players, names who only performed online and missing talents who had abandoned the franchise in the transition to the new Counter-Strike game.

The primary names of this period were leaders seangares and DaZeD and star fraggers Hiko and swag.  DaZeD and Hiko were part of the Quantic line-up which stunned the ESEA S13 field by defeating VeryGames, one of Europe's best, en route to a second place finish behind the near unbeatable NiP.  After that line-up imploded, Hiko would join up with seangares again to help form the compLexity core which went on to finish top four at Dreamhack Winter 2013, the first CS:GO major. Among their ranks was young flourishing star swag, who left for their rivals following the next major.

coL/C9 were a team known for bringing respect to NA CS:GO, as they could match-up well with the top European sides and at a minimum secure a respectable play-off finish.  At the next two majors they would finish 5th-8th, both times losing to the NiP core which was acknowledged as the best in history, but both times winning a map against the Swedish titans.  Elsewhere, coL managed to finish runners-up at ESEA S16, placing ahead of NiP and VP - the world's best teams. As the year closed out, though, C9 hit a slump and found their results massively down-graded.

Stacking stars

After Hiko left DaZeD, the former Source pro would wind up taking over in the former Curse.NA line-up, surrounded by online talents like Skadoodle and anger.  Despite being the best in NA, routinely beating coL/C9 online or off, iBUYPOWER, as they would now be known, were infamous early for failing at international competition.  In contrast to coL/C9, iBP's first two majors saw them bounced out in the group stage. Nonetheless, they managed to secure swag's services and added in Source veteran steel to make a new line-up which would finally unleash the team's potential internationally.

iBUYPOWER had surprised many by winning ESEA S15, besting world number ones Titan, a few months before EMS One Katowice - the second major.  With swag and steel in tow, they repeated as champions, placing ahead of a strong field of teams, though admittedly at an event on NA soil and without a big stage setup and crowd.  While they would fail to make the play-offs of a third straight major, this core did break through to the elusive success in Europe on a level they had sought for so long.

At Gfinity G3, they were one of the surprises of the tournament, even though they failed to make top four.  At FACEIT Season 2 Finals, they bested eventual hall of fame level line-up LDLC to reach the final and take the future-era-owning-FNATIC to four maps.  At ESWC they again reached the play-offs and generally signs were positive for this squad. With talent like swag, the emergent Skadoodle and IGL DaZeD, they seemed the better bet for NA success in the future.  Alas, all but Skadoodle found themselves banned for match-fixing an online league game.

Tank tops of destiny

With NA's second tier yet to properly emerge and iBP taken off the chessboard, the region was back down to one team and that team was in trouble of their own.  Hiko had departed, but Skadoodle would end up joining C9. With swag replacement Shroud finally ready to deliver some star level Counter-Strike, C9 returned to international relevance with a string of three straight runners-up finishes at international events.

At ESEA ESL ProLeague S1 Finals, the core was close to surpassing iBP by beating the FNATIC core in a Bo5 final.  At ESWC they reached the finals again, only to lose to GuardiaN's Na`Vi this time around, in a battle of the two best AWPers in the game between him and Skadoodle.  Finally, at FACEIT Stage 2 Finals, C9 bested FNATIC in the semis to this time face-off against the Danes of TSM in the final, again being handed silver in place of gold.  ESWC was lacking the two best teams, but the other two tournaments were fields of the very best teams in the game. North America finally had its first consistently elite tier team, seemingly.

Despite such strong performances, though, the run came to an end by the next major, where the team failed to reach the play-offs.  Indeed, the spell had been broken and results wound down as the year went on and key IGL seangares left the starting line-up.

New life for C9

When sgares left C9, the team was in disarray, so integral had his influence been upon their game.  n0thing briefly took over as IGL in a period infamous for seeing C9 barely able to string together a few T rounds each game.  In the midst of the chaos, though, was their unwitting saviour. New recruit Stewie2k had been a pug star with little competitive experience, but his call up to C9 would change everything.  While initially he played as an individual star, with fellow rookie to the top tier Slemmy being given IGL duties, eventually Slemmy was let go and Stewie took over as IGL in his debut year as a pro.

Stewie would show a level of maturity not expected from such an young and inexperienced player, successfully calling a makeshift game around himself and individually carrying C9 to some memorable relevant top international placings again.  Sharing the spotlight would be new recruit autimatic, whose peak moment early on came at EPL S4 Finals, where C9 stormed to the final and defeated SK Gaming, still considered one of the very best teams in the world and reigning back-to-back major champions, in a final held on the Brazilians' home soil.

While that C9 line-up did not have the consistency to maintain their run or, for that matter, qualify for the next major, their winning a big international title was a significant moment for NA CS:GO.  This was not an ESEA title in a ballroom in Dallas, as ESEA wins of the past had been. Here was victory at an international location, on LAN and against the best team of the year. Fortunes were changing for the North American region.

That C9 line-up hit their own slump early in 2019, but climbed out of it briefly to mount another memorable summer run, evoking scenes from the 2015 line-up, but with shroud and Skadoodle no longer the carries of the team and far more on the other end of the equation.  C9 would manage top four finish at ECS S3 Finals, make the final of ESL One Cologne and qualify for the next major.

Another run but this time the crown

After the summer run of 2017, C9 make the hard but necessary decision to replace two members of their line-up, choosing to bring in OpTic talents tarik and RUSH to take the spots of Shroud and n0thing.  The team pretty quickly showcased a respectable level, scoring some notable international top four finishes. This all led up to their unforgettable and epic run through the next major.

After facing elimination from the tournament, down 0:2 in the Swiss system, C9 rallied to not only make their first major play-offs stage in years, but levelled up series on series to peak at the most fortuitous time possible, slaying heavy favourites FaZe in the final.  Despite having lost three notable offline series to NiKo and company prior to the major, on that day in Boston C9 could not be denied and stole away the trophy from some of CS:GO's most decorated names and clear-cut future hall of fame stars.

Now North America could boast its first Counter-Strike major in more than a decade, even if the team winning it could not follow up the win with the requisite international consistency to truly challenge for the top spot in the game.  In fact, months after their victory, C9 began to fall apart and bled star names Stewie and tarik to SK/MiBR that year, barely even resembling an NA team by the end of the year.

This looked promising, for a while

Elsewhere in North America, at a similar time to Stewie's successful piloting of C9 back to relevance and eventually the ESL title, OpTic Gaming rose in prominence to become a top tier international team in their own right, arguably better than C9 at the end of 2016.  The key acquisitions for the team were mixwell earlier in the year and then tarik in the latter part. Shortly after bringing in tarik results took an uptick and the team was soon besting top European sides and routinely placing decently to well at international events.

This steady but impressive rise culminated in a few weeks in December where OpTic not only shocked the world by winning the prestigious ELEAGUE Season 2, but then managed a runners-up finish at ECS S2 Finals a week or so later.  Alas, OpTic's peaking form was cancelled entirely, as a rough draw at the major coupled with a bunch of close losses had them eliminated much earlier than expected and IGL stanislaw chose to end his participation in the project, leaving for Team Liquid.  OpTic floundered from there on out, largely wasting the talent remaining in their team until most of them left.

From a trickle to a waterfall

Team Liquid were present as a relevant North American team from 2015 on, but their downfall had always been international play.  Domestically, they were quickly established as a quality side, but did not win tournaments and when they went afield would typically be unable to secure victories and looked plagued by their collective inexperience.  Acquiring veteran and former best NA player Hiko was a big step towards success, as his drive to be a part of another top international team saw him push the squad towards roster moves which could upgrade their talent.  This culminated in the significant but ballsy gamble of bringing in Ukrainian CS prodigy s1mple.

Now known as the best player in the world, even back then, in early 2016, s1mple was a clearly prodigious talent, largely held back by personal conflicts with team-mates and a poor attitude to team chemistry.  Nonetheless, his skillset was far and away beyond anything Liquid could have found on home soil. s1mple's run with the team would not see them playing many offline tournaments, but the results spoke entirely for themselves.

At MLG Columbus, Liquid won their group and made it all the way to the semi-final, where they lost in two over-time maps to the same Lumunosity Gaming who went on to win the title.  At the ESL One Cologne, the following major, s1mple was back as a stand-in and played even more inspired CS:GO, at times carrying Liquid to stellar wins over top ranked sides like Na`Vi and FNATIC.  Reaching the final, one better than their top four finish in Columbus, Liquid again lost to LG, who were now known as SK, but they had already shown the world something unexpected and special. This was the first North American team to ever play in a CS:GO major final.

s1mple's stand-in status saw him exiting the line-up after the event and he would never again don Team Liquid's colours.  With their best player departed, Liquid looked for a star who could step forward and carry them with elite level play. As it happened, EliGE put himself as such a candidate and his strong individual play, arguably making him the best native player in the region, kept Liquid afloat while they transitioned through some different players and battled to remain relevant internationally.

The first half of 2017 was largely wasted, but after the player break the team found a run of form which was significant and paralleled the C9 summer run of 2015.  At three straight tournaments, Liquid not only matched up well with SK Gaming, then the number one ranked team in the world and the dominant force of the summer, but also scored a few notable finals appearances.  At ESG Tour Mykonos, Liquid bested coach zews's former side SK in the semi-final to reach a final they would lose to mousesports in five maps. At ESL One New York, right after, the North Americans again beat SK in the semi-final and again lost a Bo5 final, this time to the new look FaZe line-up.

At ELEAGUE, Liquid would not progress from the group stage, but their close series against SK again showed their international pedigree and the development which had occured as the year had gone on.

More than just good

2018 was the break-out year for North America as a region and in terms of representation at the top of the game.  Team Liquid would add star talent NAF, formerly of the OpTic who had won ELEAGUE S2 but who had gone on to become a powerful individual talent since, and cycle Brazilians steel and TACO.  The result was a team who were immediately elite tier. After winning cs_summit 2, TL would score half a dozen big international finals placings over the year. Never before had a North American core been as good, as often and with as much consistency relating their performances.  Team Liquid finished the year as legitimately one of the two or three best teams to have competed in 2018.

The two knocks against Liquid, which prevented them from surpassing C9's best moments in years gone by, were that they were unable to win big international titles and always lost to Astralis.  The latter was somewhat forgivable, as the Danes were establishing arguably the most impressive and dominant era in history, but the former saw the team frustrated, especially in losing the ESL New York final to mouz, with no Astralis in attendance.

With MiBR forcing their hand and bringing zews and TACO back into the fold, Liquid were forced to gamble on integrating former C9 man Stewie and bringing back ex-IGL adreN to be their new coach.  The team initially found exciting success, beating Astralis in the final of iBUYPOWER Masters to win a title over their nemeses on LAN. That event had extentuating circumstances surrounding it which drew questions over its significance, though, and wasn't a prestigious big title at any rate.

Since then, Liquid have continued to showcase elite tier play.  Losing at IEM Katowice, the first major of this year, seemed utterly shocking at the time, but now looks more reasonable, as the team who upset them - ENCE - has since gone on to showcase strong form internationally themselves and didn't just stop with beating TL anyway.  Elsewhere, Liquid has made both finals of smaller events they have played in.

Sure, iBP Masters aside, Liquid still lack the trophies their talent and potential seemingly demand, but if any team has the personnel and potential to best Astralis and become the top side in world Counter-Strike, Liquid stand as arguably the clear choice.  That alone is a unique status for an NA CS:GO side.

There is another

Elsewhere, NRG were able to complement Liquid's unparalleled success by asserting themselves as a promising second horse from the NA region.  Built around throwaway or unproven parts from other teams, NRG quickly began to replicate offline the startling form they had displayed from the outset online.  Playing around star CeRq, but also featuring Brehze and ethan, NRG managed a runners-up finish at StarSeries S4 and a top four placing at ECS S5 Finals. Later in the year, the squad would also make top four at ESL One New York and win the smaller cs_summit 3.

They were not at the level of Liquid, nor did they have the big pop off moment like C9 had in winning the major, but on balance NRG were the second best NA team of the year and a near permanent appearance in the top 10 of the world rankings.

Men who would be king

For North America, their fates currently rest upon a number of special talents.  For Liquid, who harbour many players who could be the primary stars of other teams, one looks to the trio of Twistzz, EliGE and NAF as powerful forces who could all be MVP of a big international tournament.  Twistzz showcases phenomenal individual aim and a streaky but scintillating peak level of form. NAF is the most well-rounded player on the continent and has given the team series of play which established him as one of the very best players in the world last year.  EliGE is no longer relied upon to hard carry and now showcases a consistent game, especially attuned to the era of the Aug, which has neatly fit his spray-centric style of play.

Over in NRG, their own trio has now been joined by ex-C9 man tarik.  What makes their team so interesting is how different their players' strengths are.  CeRq is the flashy AWPer who is destined to produce highlight clips in his good games but has shown a tendency to disappear against the big European teams offline at times.  ethan is the young aim star who many are still waiting to develop into a Twistzz, but is still coming along every few months that pass. Finally, Brehze is the stable player who doesn't leap off the screen with his play but you check in and see has racked up a cool 30 frags without much fanfare.

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