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Astralis Won’t Back Down

Nikhil Kalro

“It’s not how you start, but how you finish that matters.”

astralis iem cologne

Image Credit: ESL | Helena Kristiansson

Several versions of this quote have become a celebratory riposte from teams worldwide when they rise from a point of no-return. In some ways, this line is also a fair reflection of how Astralis had fared at IEM Cologne 2022, clinching a 3rd-4th place finish after falling to NAVI in the semifinals.

They struggled at the start despite making a slew of roster changes. They had hoped these would help them build on their recent success. At the Pinnacle Cup, they finished second. At the Roobet Cup earlier this month, they made the semi-finals. That these came on the back of IEM Dallas, where Astralis suffered early elimination, at the hands of G2, was massively encouraging.

Coming into Cologne, there was a fair degree of expectation on the team. However, they were given a reality check. 00Nation smashed them, a result not many saw coming. More than the loss, the manner of loss must have hurt them. 00Nation took the first game 16-6 on Mirage. From there on, every attempt by Astralis to pick up a few rounds on the T-side was met with a staunch counter. 

“It was definitely a slow start, part of it you attribute to a slow start, we lost some really crucial rounds, I remember in particular the 5-4 round, it’s haunting us,” Asper “Farlig” Jensen told HLTV. “When we lose the close rounds in a best-of-one it becomes really hard to win the match, right? A few crucial rounds make all the difference, but yeah, we had a slow start and they played well. Props to them.”

It was a bit of a surprise since the roster had been together for four months, unlike 00Nation, which had made changes days prior to the competition. Epitácio “TACO” de Melo, Bruno “latto” Rebelatto and Eduardo “dumau” Wolkmer, their additions, had hardly played three official games between them coming in. Two of them were on the leaderboard by the end of the game. Latto recorded a 23-10 K/D ratio and dumau boasted of a 19/15 score line. This defeat, however, has proven to be the catalyst for better performances.

One of their hallmarks over time has been their ability to overcome early setbacks. At the Roobet Cup, they were blindsided by FaZe Clan, but they hung in there to gather the pieces together and grabbed the last semi-final spot with a win over forZe. This has somewhat been a recurring trend. Every time you write them off, they show there’s some fight left. With them, it’s not over until it is over.

Form issues weren’t their only setback. Earlier this year, they swapped their main CS:GO head coach Alexander “ave” Holdt with the Astralis Talent coach Martin “trace” Heldt. The change potentially brought with it the possibilities of a big churn, one that wouldn’t guarantee immediate results. Coming at the time it did, just days ahead of ESL Pro League S15 and ahead of PGL Antwerp RMR, there were apprehensions and cynicism even within the group. After all, ave was one of the coaches banned for the infamous coach spectating scandal of 2020.

An already tough start was made tougher when they removed Philip “Lucky” Ewald due to a string of poor results. Expecting a new signing in Farlig to come in and deliver straight away was a little far-fetched. However, he blended in superbly and the transition almost seemed seamless as the side settled together to deliver one big performance after the other at the Pinnacle Cup to set them on the road to redemption.

“I feel like I’ve been performing horrifically. It feels horrible playing that bad, right? Not that I’m going to talk myself up like some huge star AWPer, but I feel like I’ve definitely performed better on my older teams,” Farlig said. “But yeah, I mean it doesn’t feel that great. I’m obviously doing my best to ignore social media because there’s more of it when you’re in Astralis, but I think it’s just a process. If I had to give my own opinion up to this point, obviously I’m not happy with how I’m performing.

“It’s hard to say, sometimes you have the confidence, sometimes you don’t, sometimes it can be really hard to find it, especially when you’re in a bad… I guess you can call it a slump, but I wouldn’t say I’m slumping, it’s just when we have really difficult matches. I feel like I’m getting better at it. At least I’m getting more consistent now, which is a good thing. Some of the maps I’m still struggling on, like Dust2, I never played on any team that was good on it so I feel a bit behind on it, but yeah, I feel like it’s getting better at least.”

But what is a road without speed bumps? They had several of those at IEM Cologne, but finally managed to advance to the group stage after beating BIG. Being consigned to the lower bracket, in many ways, left them with little options but to go for broke. 

Early losses to 00Nation and Outsiders threatened to derail their confidence. But cometh the hour, cometh Benjamin “blameF” Bremer and, of course, Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke. Until they got to the lower bracket, he’d blown hot and cold, but against BIG, he performed like a giant slaying star.  

With both halves of Astralis’ fragging duo — k0nfig and blameF – hitting their shots, it was too much for BIG to overcome. The pair’s ability and class was never in doubt; they had established themselves over time in the Danish scene, having competed together for Complexity. It was just a matter of how they’d turn up with a new team.

Also, contrary to the early inhibitions, Ave’s position as coach couldn’t have come at a better time.  Known for his unique insights, he has lent tactical understanding and analytical skills to the team, as well as preparation, strategy and a structure to the way they train and play.

He has been head coach since November 2021, around the time they benched Danny “zonic” Sørensen just as his contract was about to run out. They bet on Trace as the head of Astralis Talent – despite him having been inactive for a good length of time before returning in 2021. That’s the thing about X-factor players and talent – you know if they’ve got it in them, and if your intuition is right, you will definitely see a performance along the way.

Astralis saw the combination come together superbly under Ave and Trace. Within a month of his signing, Trace set the ball rolling as Astralis Talent finished third at the WePlay Academy League season three in February. It was their best result until then. This set them up superbly for a grandstand season, even if they knew the odd blips could be tidied over.

One of the hallmarks of a great team or a great coach is succession planning. Despite the controversy surrounding his ban, Avi hasn’t been blindsided by instant results and has used every opportunity to get Trace up to speed with modern-day competitive coaching.

He was blooded into the main team as coach for the ESL Pro League S15, an event many termed would be baptism by fire because they hadn’t had the desired results they hoped for until then. It was a massive challenge and an awakening of sorts for the team, for they knew the areas they needed to work on over the next two months, which they seem to have done so superbly.

Despite the ups and downs, Astralis haven’t shied away from a challenge. That is unlikely to change. For that, they can give themselves a firm pat on the back.