To The Stars: The Astronomical Rise of Astralis

Astralis’ rise towards the end of 2016 was phenomenal. Astralis was a team that was constantly dubbed as a tournament winning, world beating team. They were the favorites for many people throughout the tournaments they played in throughout the course of 2015 under the Team SoloMid banner and throughout 2016 under the Astralis banner.

Throughout a lot of the tournaments they participated in, they fell short of expectations. As a team of undeniable individual skill and solid teamwork, they simply could not reach the great heights that they should have reached.

For the longest of times, it felt like greatness evaded the Danes.

Let’s take a look back at the now world beaters and their rise to the stars.

Under TSM, the Danes came close at ESL One Cologne: 2015, placing in the top four at the event, losing out to EnVyUs 2:1 in a best of three series on Cache, Dust II, and Inferno. Fast forwarding to Dreamhack Open-Cluj Napoca 2015, the Danes were back in action and had started off their tournament strong, going 2-0 in their groups with a 16-6 victory over FlipSide on Cache and then a 16-6 win over G2 Esports on Dust II. In the quarterfinals of the tournament, they fell short 2:0 to NIP, losing out 10-16 on Train and 8-16 on Dust II.

Whilst 2015 saw some success and high placings for the Danish side, at LANs such as the FACEIT Stage 2 Finals (1st), ESL ESEA Pro League Invitational (2nd), IEM San Jose (2nd) and a top 4 finish at the FACEIT Stage 3 finals, major success continued to evade the ex-TSM roster, and they closed out 2015 with a lot of “we nearly did it” moments.

2016 was the year of change in many aspects of Counter-Strike. It ushered in the era of investment. This means that tournaments had increased prize money, such as the majors going from $250,000 prize pools to $1,000,000 prize pools. Other tournaments followed suit, and all of a sudden Counter Strike saw a massive injection of investment. 2016 was also an era of change for a few. The former TSM squad, who were known as Team Questionmark became one of the first player owned organizations in Counter-Strike history, called Astralis.

A new year already ushered in so many new things for Counter-Strike in general, and for the players of Astralis. Many wondered if 2016 would be their year, but it seemed like more of the same as the year prior in the initial stages of 2016.

During the events throughout the year, there were certain statistical elements that became rather evident throughout Astralis’ tournament runs. These elements were evident in their gameplay, but displaying the statistics reveals a certain pattern about them.

At Dreamhack Leipzig, Astralis managed to qualify for the knockout stages unscathed but lost out 2:0 to Luminosity in a BO3.

The match looked a little something like this at the end. Astralis’ star player failed to deliver, but the rest of them performed to an limited extent. It simply was not enough for Astralis as they fell short to the Brazilian side.

At the IEM Season X World Championships, Astralis once again looked very promising in the group stages, going through to the semifinals undefeated (5:0), beating notable teams such as EnVyUs, Virtus.Pro, FaZe and Tempo Storm. Once again, Astralis fell short in the knockout stages, losing out to Fnatic 2:1 in a best of three series.

Then came MLG Columbus 2016, the first major to usher in the million dollar era. Once again, Astralis started off strong in the group stages, ousting Gambit 16-10 on Train and beating CLG 16-9 on Overpass. This put Astralis into the knockout stages, and they would meet Fnatic. Astralis beat Fnatic rather convincingly over the first two maps (Overpass 16-10 and Cache 16-5) in the best of three to grant themselves a spot in the semifinals against the lethal Ukranian side, Na’Vi.

The Astralis vs. Fnatic match:

This is what a dominant, stronger looking Astralis should have looked like. A team that looks good because of strong individual performances all round. Despite device not being able to show up in this series, he managed to put up some solid numbers and everyone else around him was able to perform at a similar level, or at a better level on the day.

By this point in time, many had hope for Astralis, that the finals (whether quarter or semi) curse would finally be broken. However, this was far from the truth, as Na’Vi 2:0’d Astralis (16-14 on Inferno and 16-5 on Dust II). Astralis placed in the top 4 of the event, securing themselves a legends spot.

From there, it went downhill for Astralis, with a disappointing finish at Dreamhack Masters Malmo and at ESL Pro League Season 3. If we take a look at a best of three with NIP vs. Astralis at Dreamhack Masters Malmo, and other playoff and/or group decider best of three matches, we start to notice some statistical consistencies amongst the Astralis side.

This match ended 2:1 to NIP with the star player, device, being the only one that put in a notable performance. The rest of the team seemingly struggled and lacked the performance to back up the star player and lead them to the victory.

In the Group A elimination match for the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals, it was more of the same – the star performer putting up the numbers, and everyone lagging behind. This match had ended 2:1 in favour of Luminosity, but we still saw more of the same – we still saw Device performing and the rest seemingly struggling.

8 days after their poor finish at the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals, Astralis sought to make a change, and cajunb headed over to Team Dignitas, with Kjaerbye headed to Astralis. Astralis were able to make it out of groups with their new roster at Dreamhack Summer but fell short to NIP 2:1 in the semifinals of the tournament.

However, despite making this change it seemed like Astralis were plagued with the inability to find success at tournaments still, and was evident in their failure to qualify from the group stages of the ECS Season 1 finals, losing out to TSM in a best of one and Cloud9 beating them 2:0 in a best of three series.

In the Cloud9 vs. Astralis game, the statistical side of things looked a little like this:

A little bit closer, but more of the same generally. We saw that device had an overall OK game despite a loss, but the rest of them struggled in the matches.

On came the second and last major of 2016: ESL One Cologne. This major proved to be a crucial character test for the boys within the Astralis lineup. Due to Dignitas using Kjaerbye at the European Minor, he was ineligible to compete for Astralis. It was announced on the 26th of May that gla1ve would be filling in for Astralis. They managed to qualify from the group stage with a 2-1 record, beating Dignitas in a best of one on Overpass 16-12, then losing out to Gambit 6-16 on Dust II, only to face their Danish counterparts in an elimination best of three match on Cobblestone, Mirage, and Cache. The series was close, but Astralis managed to edge Dignitas out and qualified for the knockout stages, thus securing their legends spot for the next tournament.

After qualifying for the quarterfinals, it was revealed that Dupreeh needed surgery on his appendix due to an infection. Their stand in was their coach, zonic. In two very close maps, Virtus.Pro managed to edge Astralis out in consecutive overtimes (19-17 on Overpass and 19-15 on Train). In this major, Astralis were unable to use their new 5th, and had to use their coach due to completely unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances and still were able to qualify for the knockout stages, and thus secure a legends spot. On top of that, they gave a great account of themselves against a very strong, veteran team in Virtus.Pro. Considering their circumstances, it must have taken a great deal of mental fortitude to push through and give a good account of themselves in the quarterfinals considering their circumstances, as well as good individual and team play.

Astralis placed in the top 8 of ELEAGUE Season 1 after losing out 2:0 to mousesports in a best of three in the quarterfinals.

This was a loss that probably should never have happened to begin with. Mousesports are far from the world class side that Astralis is, or was always capable of being at the time, yet the loss still happened, largely thanks to a monster performance by NiKo. It was more of the same still for Astralis, where device was performing and at the time backed by only one teammate, and the rest simply failed to deliver.

After more disappointing tournament finishes at the Starladder i-League Season 2 Finals, where Astralis suffered elimination at the hands of a pyth-less NIP, the idea of change likely lingered in the Danes’ minds, and considering their performance looked a little something like this:

It would be easy to see why change may have crossed their minds. It simply reinforces the point that whenever device performed, the rest of the team was simply unable to, or when device underperformed, his team performed. These two parties relied on each other for victory, and is evident throughout their knockout stage matches that they did win. Something was wrong within one of the parties.

In important matches, it felt like device lacked the support around him that he needed for his team to flourish. If you look at Luminosity/SK Gaming back during their back to back major run and other international successes, coldzera was definitely the standout player, much like device is here now, but he always had his team backing him up throughout their victories, and device simply never had that.

Sometimes the opposite happened, where his team is able to put up a decent performance but device struggled to keep up with them statistically, and when the star player is unable to keep up or perform alongside the rest of the team in important matches, the team generally will struggle in big games.

After ESL One: New York 2016, Astralis felt like it was time for another change, as karrigan was benched & eventually traded to the FaZe Clan. Astralis then brought in their ESL One: Cologne stand in, gla1ve.

Gla1ve was brought into the team on the 24th of October 2016 from Heroic. Under his leadership, Astralis seemingly suddenly found their stride again, in contrast to their run of form. This started to become evident during the ELEAGUE Season 2 playoffs, despite a good placing at IEM Oakland. Their placing at IEM Oakland was largely based on of their victories in the group stage, a variety of best of ones against strong teams such as Immortals, Na’Vi, and Liquid. They met SK Gaming in the semifinals of the tournament and lost 2:0 on Train (14-16) and Mirage (12-16). Two relatively close maps vs. the best team in the world (at the time).

Despite their loss, Astralis looked like they were headed in the right direction, in comparison to their tournament performances throughout the year.

The ELEAGUE Playoffs is where we started to see the full extent of the “gla1ve effect”. After their stint at IEM Oakland, Astralis went to Atlanta with a renewed purpose, to win.

Astralis beat NIP 2:1 in the quarterfinals (13-16 in Cobble (Loss) 16-2 Train (Win) and 16-10 Overpass (Win)).

For the first time in a long time, it looked like Astralis were finally able to play as a unit in a knockout stage. They looked confident throughout the series, dominating on Train, losing a close match on Cobblestone and winning out on Overpass. Previously, I didn’t think that this version of Astralis existed. I did not think that one or two of their star players would perform, and the others would be able to perform behind them, to reinforce them.

They then beat SK Gaming 16-11 on Overpass and 16-12 on Train. In this semifinals series, we saw more or less the same thing – a very strong, unified looking Astralis:

Even though their star player was not performing at the level that he was used to, his teammates were actually backing him up and allowing room for error and so forth. They essentially relieved the pressure from device’s shoulders.

Suddenly, they’re in the finals, and in a thrilling best of three series, lose out to Optic 2:1.

Whilst many had this current iteration of Astralis to win the tournament, they were unable to. Nevertheless, Astralis were finally able to break the “curse” and reach the finals of a tier one tournament. Astralis had beaten stronger teams to get to the finals but were unable to finish the job. This certainly was a massive improvement from their run of form throughout the year in general, which was filled with inconsistencies.

ECS Season 2 was the defining moment of Astralis’ year. For the first time, they were able to do what they were almost destined to do: achieve greatness. 2-0 in the groups, very convincing wins over Cloud9 and FaZe.

They beat SK (who had fox as a stand in) on Cache 16-9 and Overpass 16-4. Astralis were then able to extract revenge on Optic Gaming for beating them in the ELEAGUE Finals in a very convincing manner. 16-6 on Overpass and 16-11 on Train.

Again, back to what it is supposed to be, device, the “star player” performing at the level that pundits, people and players expect of him and his team actually providing adequate support, as opposed to the team crumbling under him.

In the finals, Astralis were able to dish out some sort of revenge for the loss at ELEAGUE Season 2.

A strong performance over the two maps (16-6 on Overpass and 16-11 on Train), once again we saw the team actually performing well as a unit and hence delivered them the result (and the title) that they have been chasing and have deserved for such a long time. It seemed like overall, ever since gla1ve’s arrival up until that point, Astralis overcame that mental barrier, the “curse”, and went on to place highly and eventually win a title.

Now, as we move deeper into the gla1ve erawe can see an element of consistency all of a sudden. All of a sudden Astralis were able to consistently perform in playoffs, beat the teams that they’re supposed to beat and eventually win the trophies they were more or less destined to win. All of a sudden device performs and his team is able to back him up. The in game leader’s frags are not compromised by his calling, everyone else is performing well and even if device doesn’t perform as well as a star player usually would, his team is there to elevate and compensate for that, so that way Astralis look stronger as a unit overall.

Before we proceed to the major, it is important that I state that Astralis have always been a top tier team. Their inability to go past quarter/semifinals, in my opinion, was a mentality issue, it was never a skill issue. Their rise is astronomical because of their ability to adapt to the change they made to their roster before a string of big tournaments so quickly, and to overcome the mental obstacle to go past quarters and semis to actually win a tournament. The mental obstacles overcome, combined with the individual and collective skill of the team finally being put together is what makes their rise great.

The addition of gla1ve was probably the best thing that happened to Astralis towards the end of the year. His addition to the team was a perk in more ways than one. To begin with, under his leadership, the team started to seem like more of a unit and the team backing up the star players (or whoever performed on the day). Since the introduction of gla1ve, Astralis seem more mentally solid as well.

They’re able to overcome the stigma that they’re cursed in the quarterfinals or the semifinals, and most importantly, when they’re down in rounds, they do not seem to be as frail when they’re down rounds compared to before. Gla1ve’s addition to Astralis also unlocked Kjaerbye. Some saw Kjaerbye as a mistake made by Astralis by swapping cajunb for him, however, as we learned at the major, that was not the case.

Gla1ve’s impact for the side in terms of his own game has also been significant. More fragging power and great knowledge of the game and their opponents. Gla1ve’s fragging was not impacted by his calling. Often, we see in game leaders that sacrifice their fragging to concentrate on calling and micromanaging the team throughout the match.

Coming into the ELEAGUE Major, Astralis were certainly the favourites heading into the tournament. After their superb run of form, it was touted by many that Astralis would come out and win the major championship. Whilst there were other teams that came into the tournament looking strong, Astralis shone brighter than all of them and definitely looked like the real deal headed into it.

Over their best of ones, they looked rather shaky. Loses to GODSENT on Train and SK on Dust II were not the best image for the Danish side, who also recorded victories over Optic and G2 on Train and Liquid on Mirage. With their three needed wins on the Swiss system, they were headed into the playoffs. Best of ones are not an accurate indicator of anything, keep in mind. The main thing was that the tournament favourites qualified for the knockout stages, and little did they know they were about to make major history.

In the quarterfinals vs. Na’Vi, it was more or less the Astralis that we saw in the tournaments  that closed out 2016 – a strong star performance with the team actively backing device up, which ultimately lead them to a win.

Come the semifinals vs. Fnatic, it was a much tighter scoreboard, with everybody contributing equally across the board. A strong, unified performance as a team as opposed to the star player exploding into the game and the rest of them backing him up.

 

The finals were a bit of a different scenario for Astralis, as shown below:

A very, very close game between Astralis and Virtus.Pro, this game was a grand final worthy of a major. Nobody was robbed of CS:GO, the spectators saw all three maps to their fullest and the players had to play most of the rounds in the matches they had. Interestingly enough, device underperformed, Kjaerbye stood out amongst everybody else and the rest of the team had his back to a degree. Their comeback on the third map was absolutely sensational. Gla1ve made the call and the team executed it. The phenomenal comeback was real and Astralis were able to grasp the major that had evaded them for so long.

What’s also interesting is, where device slipped up, Kjaerbye stepped up, and on top of that under gla1ve, Kjaerbye has been performing significantly better than he was performing under karrigan. In fact, the whole team has been performing stronger as a unit since gla1ve’s arrival, looking tighter and stronger. Even if device pops off, the rest of the team supports him or if he doesn’t, the team still performs, and they’re able to win. Previously, that was not the case. Basically, in high intensity, high pressure situations under karrigan, the team would crumble as opposed to Astralis now, who, under gla1ve’s leadership, are able to thrive in and overcome high pressure situations, and the major finals are a perfect example of that.

Astralis’ major win was no fluke. They made the right changes at the right time, brought in somebody that they knew was going to be a good player (in the form of Kjaerbye) and brought in an in game leader that was able to contribute on the score board as well as by calling and communicating in game, leading his team round by round back to where they should have always been, at the top.

Astralis have always been a good team. Since their TSM days they have always been solid, and for the most part consistent. Relatively high placings in 2015 came to the TSM side, and despite their struggles in 2016, they managed to close out the year and start 2017 out strong on both sides. Eventually, you get tired of being only “good” and “consistent”. Through the period of uncertainty in 2016 for Astralis, they made changes, and they turned out to be the right changes to make. Astralis’ ascension to the top of the world is astronomical for many reasons. For one, their rapid integration of gla1ve into the team, followed by the results that they had almost immediately after he joined the team. Secondly, the mental resilience to finally overcome that idea of being “cursed” in the later stages of the tournament by going on to three consecutive finals (ELEAGUE Season 2, ECS Season 2 and ELEAGUE Major), as well as any self doubt they may have had over the last two years. Once that confidence was built, they were able to then head into the major full of confidence, and despite some scary moments, prevail and take home the title of the “best team in the world.”, and thus elevate themselves from consistently good to, at this moment in time, consistently great considering their run of offline form stretching from ELEAGUE Season 2 to the victory at ECS, to the huge victory at the major. For this team to be able to make that giant leap from consistently good to finally great is why their sudden rise is astronomical.

It is truly fantastic to see Astralis at the top of the world right now. They are where they deserved to be so long ago. The addition of gla1ve was key for the team’s success. He was able to seemingly polish and sharpen the team in such a short amount of time, and after they realised that they were able to do what they have been able to do previously and what everybody has said they could do, this refined their will and self belief, and Astralis went on to rise at an astronomical level in such a short amount of time to be where they are today:

Amongst the stars.