Henry Stenhouse, December 12, 2016

Five Things We Learned From The ECS Season 2 Finals

Just a week after losing to the same opponents in the ELEAGUE final, Astralis claimed revenge against OpTic Gaming to win the Esports Championship Series Season 2 Finals. Here are five things we learned from the tournament.

Astralis have broken their mental roadblock

When Danish side Astralis formed after leaving Team SoloMid, they were touted as one of the major teams to watch. Following a superb rise to prominence, Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz looked likely to rival the all-time greats of CS. Somehow though the pieces never quite fell into place. Trundling through 2016, Astralis never reached the brilliance expected of them. Repeated semifinal and group stage losses on LAN developed an unforgiving mental barrier that proved too difficult to overcome. Until now.

Benching their in-game leader, Karrigan, before moving him on to FaZe, Astralis recently picked up Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander to fill the gap. With gla1ve’s leadership offering a new tactical perspective, Astralis seem to have unlocked their potential. ELEAGUE saw them push past SK Gaming to lose a jittery final against North American OpTic Gaming. A week later, Astralis found themselves facing a similar prospect at ECS. This time, however, nerves didn’t seem to register. Meeting SK again in the semis, Astralis looked almost casual in their competence, expertly baiting the Brazilian’s CT side into incorrect rotates. The outcome rarely in doubt, Astralis took a compelling 2-0 victory.

Come the final and Astralis faced off once more against the boys in green. Given the opportunity for revenge, they seemed to relish the chance, storming into a 14-1 lead on Overpass. OpTic, who had seen success in smooth, well-prepared set plays throughout the tournament, found themselves flustered. Shut down by well-timed grenades and excellent positioning, plans rarely came to fruition. Train saw OpTic put up more of a fight, but Astralis remained firmly in command, taking the Grand Final 2-0. Remarkably powerful, Astralis didn't drop a single map at the tournament, with OpTic the only side capable of taking 10 rounds off them on T side.

The win is a huge boost to the Danish side, who will be glad to wash away memories of a difficult year. 2017 looks to hold far more fertile ground for Astralis, and their fans can finally breath a sigh of relief. As Peter "Dupreeh" Rasmussen put it in their post-match interview, “It’s Christmas come early." And now for a Happy New Year at the ELEAGUE Major?

OpTic Gaming’s success was more than a one-off

When Cloud9 became the first NA team to win the ESL Pro League 4 in October, hopes were raised once more for an internationally competitive contender. But then they fell away again. As C9’s form slipped once more, the US fanbase looked elsewhere for success. It’s safe to say that starting ELEAGUE, OpTic were far from favourites to win. Despite this, the team in green led by Canadian Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz earned the eventual right to an impressive $400,000 first-place prize.

Tasked with repeating that feat the following weekend, few would have blamed them for a weaker showing. But where many teams stumbled, OpTic remained calm, acting out considered and coordinated attack patterns on their Terrorist side. Combined with some impressive individual performances, they gained a strong foothold in every match.

While the final may have ended firmly in Astralis’ favour, there is much to be lauded in OpTic’s account at ECS. With a few player swaps and a lot of training, OpTic have made great strides in both skill and mentality over the months. During their group-stage playoff against FaZe, OpTic found themselves on the losing end of a 19-15 overtime finish in the second game. Early in OpTic’s career, a loss like this would have caused an insurmountable breakdown within the team. The side present at ECS had changed significantly since then, keeping their cool and making use of early tactical pauses to bounce back with a strong win. It may not be back-to-back wins for the NA side, but as the ELEAGUE Major nears, American audiences have a strong contender to follow.

SK Gaming have a long road to the Major

Winning MLG Columbus in April, Brazillian SK (then Luminosity) looked set to dominate the international scene for some time to come, overcoming the best teams EU and NA had to offer. With Marcelo "coldzera" David earning his keep as the best player in the world and Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo providing both stellar leadership and AWPing, the odds seemed solidly in SK’s favour. Seven months later, the landscape has changed, and not for the better. Inner turmoil has led SK to an unsteady stretch, eventually dropping fnx to be temporarily replaced by Ricardo "fox" Pacheco. SK’s long-term goal is likely a player swap with Immortals' João "felps" Vasconcellos, but the timing has proven detrimental for the team. Felps is unlikely to be freed until after the January Major, leaving fox to fill in until then.

Competing with a stand-in is never a recipe for success, but SK are clearly still competent, succeeding in reaching the semifinals at ECS. Unfortunately for them, Astralis demonstrated a level of proficiency far beyond anything SK could muster. It’s certainly early days for fox on SK, but the lack of experience is clear on key maps. Of 1800 maps played in competition, fox has played Overpass just 21 times, a worrying figure considering SK’s historical strength there. With under two months until the next Major, SK have some serious work cut out to ensure they can stand toe to toe with the best.

Dev1ce could be the best player in the world right now

Competing for Astralis, Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz was unquestionably the player of the tournament, proving time and time again to be a vital fragger for the Danes. This weekend cemented dev1ce as one of Global Offensive’s pre-eminent AWPers, particularly in aggressive scenarios. Astralis have run over some rocky ground in 2016, but throughout this dev1ce has remained a powerful presence, maintaining a positive rating in every match for over a year. With no other AWPer close to rivalling him this tournament, It’s about time dev1ce received the recognition he deserves. Coming into the New Year, there are few players performing up to the level he displayed at ECS, and with the ELEAGUE Major on the horizon, dev1ce will certainly hope to take Astralis to the throne.

Despite being their primary AWPer, dev1ce’s standout moment came during his equally impeccable pistol rounds. As SK pushed onto Overpass’ A-bombsite, dev1ce managed to secure not only an ace and bomb defuse, but also two knife kills along the way.

CS:GO is in one of its most turbulent periods ever

A look back across the big tournaments this year reveals just how unstable CS has been lately. Astralis’ success at ECS brings the number of distinct teams (taking into account the LG/SK overlap) to win $250,00 or more at a tournament in 2016 to no less than 10. Olofmeister’s injury and Fnatic’s subsequent fall from power has created a power vacuum yet to be filled. While SK’s initial performances looked strong, the latter half of the year has seen internal problems restrain them from consolidating their hold. Surprisingly, fan favourites Ninjas in Pyjamas have proven most prosperous behind SK, taking three tournaments. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find any analyst predicting NiP as victors for the larger upcoming events.

If the playing field begins to settle down, the ECS finals could be a good portent of the coming months. This year has truly seen North America establish itself as a force worth considering, but it will be up to OpTic to go beyond the likes of Cloud9 and Liquid to lock down consistent high-place finishes. Both Astralis and OpTic Gaming came to the fore at ECS, but the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major will see them competing against the best efforts of CS:GO’s tier-one teams. It remains to be seen if either side will be able to repeat their late year achievements, but they’ve certainly lain down a daunting challenge to all contenders.

Henry Stenhouse

Henry writes about Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for a variety of publications including PC Gamer.