Team Astralis hoisting trophy among confetti after their win over Navi at the FaceIT Major. (Photo by Kieran Gibbs / ESPAT Media / Getty Images)
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has the most hectic news cycle in esports, and a major contributor to that is the frequency of player transfers.
Though traditional sports have a defined window where roster moves happen, CS:GO trades, acquisitions and releases are an almost weekly event. Cuts often happen in the immediate aftermath of a big tourney and can be followed up with one or many players getting trial runs before the gap is officially plugged. Add to that how entire teams can jump from one organization to another and it’s daunting to track the pro scene, even as a fan of the game.
But fear not! We are here to discuss the top dogs in CS:GO, past present and future.
Normally, it’s tough to pick out the best CS:GO team in the world. The strength of competition from region to region varies wildly, roster tweaks are constant and the ceaseless CS:GO tournament schedule means that winning a championship earns just a week’s worth of credibility.
At this time, however, it’s easy to pick out who the best CS:GO team of 2018 is. It’s Astralis. No doubt about it.
The Danish team ticks almost every box one could have when it comes to analyzing success in CS:GO and it doesn’t seem like that will change any time soon.
From a roster perspective, the crew has little competition. All five players are legitimately excellent talents that stand up with anyone in the world. Meanwhile, most of the players have been working as a unit since 2016 which translates to a synergy and comfort that few can match.
As for the tournament results? Well, they speak for themselves.
A shaky opening quarter to the year, defined by its poor showing in January at the ELEAGUE Major was weathered and followed with an exceptional Spring and Summer, which included first-place finishes at DreamHack Masters Marseille, the ESL Pro League Season 7 and the Esports Championship Series Season 5. Snuggled in between those were a number of top-four finishes in notable LAN tournaments.
That momentum only increased with time and by the Fall, it was a snowball rolling downhill. The team earned a whopping $675,000 in prize money in September, most coming from its first-place performance at the FACEIT Major: London.
Granted, Astralis isn’t immune to the ills that plague the CS:GO scene. Like everyone else, it’s just a transfer or two away from mediocrity and that threat could strike at any time, without warning. The team has had a great run over the last two years, and that is almost certainly doomed to end in an unsatisfying way at some point.
Right now, though? It doesn’t get any better.
Defining success among CS:GO teams is a difficult endeavor. There are many, many reasons for that but the biggest of all is that it’s very difficult to even define what a CS:GO team is. Players transferring organizations is such a common occurrence in esports’ leading first-person shooter that it’s often difficult to draw a line between five players that compete on the same side at any given moment and the actual banner that they compete under.
As such, when it comes to picking out the single greatest team in CS:GO history it’s important to look at a specific stretch by a core group of players, rather than an extended period of success by a larger organization that may have changed internally during that time.
With that in mind, it’s hard to deny the Luminosity Gaming and SK Gaming squad that included Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo, Epitácio “TACO” de Melo, Fernando “fer” Alvarenga and Marcelo “coldzera” David.
Under the Luminosity banner, the team kicked off its run at the elite level with a first-place finish at the MLG Columbus Major in 2016 and followed that up by earning the top spot at DreamHack Open Austin 2016 and season 3 of the ESL Pro League. The team’s contract with Luminosity expired shortly thereafter, but the entirety of the group was signed to SK Gaming just days later.
That move paid immediate dividends for the organization as it reeled in its first big CS:GO trophy at the ESL One Cologne Major just a week after picking up the roster. Even more impressively the team actually improved as time went on, which resulted in a trophy mantel that included the top prizes from ECS Season 3, Epicenter 2017 and the ESL Pro League Season 6.
Unfortunately, the wheels started to loosen in early 2018 and then came off entirely at the World Electronic Sports Games in March when they washed out of the first set of group stages and reacted with the unceremonious release of Taco.
Though it didn’t have a nice ending, the team enjoyed a remarkably long run at the top and won an absurd number of trophies along the way. Even today, those four players stand atop the all-time top-earning CS:GO leaderboard, courtesy of that 20-month run. Today, Fallen, Fer and Coldzera remain together with the reformed Made in Brazil organization alongside former Cloud9 stars Tarik “tarik” Celik and Jake “Stewie2K” Yip. Though that particular dynasty may have run its course, a new one may be starting.
Though a “team” is more about the players than the ownership or the logo, it would be wrong to completely dismiss the role organizations play in the CS:GO scene. Larger esports brands are critical in maintaining the game’s competitive cycle and ensuring fans have the ample amounts of content that they enjoy on a daily basis.
That’s often a thankless job, too, as organizations frequently see their efforts end with players walking away at the first hint of strife.
Most have stuck it out, as CS:GO offers more opportunities for monetization than most esports titles. Few, however, have been able to consistently field a steady roster without having to take months-long hiatuses from competition to rebuild. Even fewer have figured out a way to field top-level, tournament-winning squads for more than a year or two.
The organization that has been able to most successfully navigate the CS:GO minefield is Fnatic.
An early adapter to CS:GO following a lengthy history in the original Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source, Fnatic competed at many of the game’s first tournaments. Its original, predominantly Danish team struggled out of the gate and was ultimately dumped in 2013 and replaced with the former Epsilon Esports team. That group found immediate success under the Fnatic banner, and provided the foundation for the Fnatic dynasty which began in earnest in 2015.
Fnatic hit a rough patch in 2016–stemming from one of its former players, Markus “pronax” Wallsten, founding the new Godsent team and bringing many of his ex-teammates with him–but managed to rebound in 2017. Towards the end of the year, it fully regained its footing and when 2018 rolled around, it exploded with consecutive first-place finishes at the Intel Extreme Masters XII World Championship and the World Esports Games.
Though Fnatic hasn’t been able to fully recapture the dominance it had in 2015 it has been an unwavering staple of nearly every CS:GO top-10 rankings. It might not consistently reel in trophies these days, but it is a real threat to win any event it participates in.
CS:GO might be volatile, but success rarely comes out of nowhere. Sure, a team might get hot at the right time and make a top-eight run at a Valve Major, but it will rarely sneak its way into bona fide elite status and keep that spot for any length of time.
Indeed, though a team can be blown up in an instant, the building process usually takes a fair bit of time. As such, it’s not too tough to peg which teams are capable of making a solid run in the near future, assuming they stick together long enough.
In terms of pure talent, few compare to the recently formed Made in Brazil team. Essentially a supergroup that mashes up the top stars of SK Gaming and Cloud9, everyone involved is already proven at this point in their career. Chemistry is key, of course, and the team hasn’t had the time to gel yet, leading to some less-than-stellar results in its first tournaments. If the players can click, though, MiBR could be an absolute powerhouse.
A team that has been good for a while but might have officially achieved top-tier status, however, is Natus Vincere. The black and yellow brand has been a staple of CS:GO for a long while now, but has gone through its share of ups and downs over the years. It’s been on a steady climb since its acquisition of Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev and blew up this Summer by taking first-place at ESL One: Cologne 2018, the CS:GO Asia Championships 2018 and StarSeries & i-League Season 5. That’s likely not a coincidence and as such, NaVi is positioned for success for the foreseeable future.
Team Liquid, similarly, seems poised to establish itself as a top-flight organization. Long caught in the mid-tier North American quagmire, Liquid began finding its way to top-four placements in smaller tournaments towards the end of 2017. When the calendar turned, however, it started to find similar success in larger events like the ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals and the Esports Championship Series Season 5 Finals. It doesn’t have a big first-place finish to hang its hat on yet, but with how good the team has looked in 2018, one has to expect that won’t remain the case forever.
The list goes on, and there is always a handful of proven teams that might just be a transfer away from breaking through to the next level.
Time will tell who becomes tomorrow’s elites, but one thing is for certain; the sheer talent making its way up the CS:GO ladder is overwhelming right now.