SK's path back to greatness
Over the last three months, SK have experimented with their system in an attempt to find the best structure and João "felps" Vasconcellos' role, hitting a few bumps in the road before succeeding again, with trophies at cs_summit and IEM Sydney. Read on as we delve deep and explore SK's path back to greatness with the help of Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and felps.
The system. That is Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo's ideology on how to play Counter-Strike as a team, a system in which every piece has its place and role, as well as boundaries which should never be overstepped unless it's required. That system had never failed SK for nearly the entirety of 2016, when the Brazilian giants broke out and won four trophies, including two prestigious Majors, placed second five times, and made top four at five more tournaments, only failing to advance from the groups once.
After SK brought in João "felps" Vasconcellos, the vast difference between his and Lincoln "fnx" Lau's playstyle, and the youngster's own special skillset called for a different approach from FalleN, who found himself compelled to disrupt the system to empower the talented newcomer.
The acquisition of felps raised questions as to how the team would change their style after packing another highly aggressive player to go alongside Fernando "fer" Alvarenga. During SK's incredible showing at their first event with the 20-year-old, DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, where they took Virtus.pro to their limit in the grand final, we got a few answers.
FalleN took a step back and gave felps a lot of room to find sneaky plays and open up rounds in return. The AWPer was involved in the fewest opening duels from his team in Las Vegas (0.11 opening kills + opening deaths per round vs. the 0.21 he had averaged on LAN in 2016), while felps' aggression put him in second place in his team (0.27 opening kills + opening deaths per round).
"I knew it would work by the first tournament for sure, especially because nobody was able to even do research on us."
- FalleN told HLTV.org when asked why SK's first event went so much better than the one that followed, IEM Katowice.
FalleN wasn't the only one to give up ground to accommodate SK's new member, however. Others, most importantly fer, had to work around felps and concede some spots where the youngster really shined, such as pop dog on Train. The 25-year-old seems to have profited from having a player to work in tandem with, though, as shown by his incredible form from DreamHack Masters on.
A second place in Las Vegas promised a bright future for the Brazilians, yet their story took a nasty turn at the next big tournament. SK opened Katowice with a crushing loss to Cloud9 on Nuke, a map FalleN thought the Americans were not prepared for, and followed that up with another defeat to Natus Vincere on Overpass. As they fell short to Virtus.pro on Inferno, which they played for the first time on LAN, their triumphs against the two Danish squads in their group, Heroic and North, weren't enough to earn them a place in the playoffs, and SK exited the tournament in groups for the first time since DreamHack Masters Malmö.
"Not making out of the groups in Poland wasn't as bad as it sounds. If you take like Astralis, who won the tournament, their run was like a lot of OT (NiP and fnatic), like nine clutches against OpTic, lost to Immortals. That just proves how competitive CS:GO is nowadays. We made a lot of mistakes during the matches and in the vetoes, I feel we could have gone a little deeper in Katowice. But it was a lesson and a step we needed to take to grow as a team."
FalleN's impact continued to deteriorate in Poland, and he decided that it was time to reevaluate their play, especially felps' freedom, and brought more of SK's old structure back into their arsenal.
"We knew from the very beginning felps was a very explosive player and I tried to explore this as much as I could, but it didn't pay off the way we thought and kinda broke our structure. We got players that are probably the best or among the best players in their roles. We found out in the hard way that we are a very strong team when the system is working.
"We talked and showed felps that that wouldn't work with us, and in order to achieve bigger things, we needed to change and start all over again, in a better way."
"My transition has been smooth because I knew of my potential and that I would be able to make the most of it. At the beginning, it was very hard, even though we almost won DreamHack Masters Las Vegas. We were making too many mistakes and I had to readapt my game completely for us to play as a team, and that is what we have done! I have learned to play in a way in which we can all play for one another, and I believe I am a much better player now than I was back then!"
"I don't regret it at all, it was something we needed to do back then. Maybe it is the reason why today we value the structure even more."
"I was just playing for myself and not for the team. I believe it was important for me to learn how to play as the team did."
Prior to SL i-League StarSeries Season 3 Finals, SK seemed to have realized their strength on Mirage, which they often vetoed in groups at both of their first two events. That map ended up being the only one they could win in Kiev, while they struggled to find success on Train and Overpass, resulting in another group stage exit.
In spite of the disappointing finish, some of the changes SK had made ahead of the event showed; felps' turned into an extreme entry-fragger who fearlessly kept running in first, and played the role of an aggressive lurker whenever needed.
"We went back and changed after Poland, and StarLadder was the first tournament, so it takes time to get everything going. We felt that we were on the right track and we talked that there would be some bumps in the road, but we needed to be strong and work even harder."
On the other hand, FalleN still wasn't able to find his feet, which he sees as a combination of poor form and getting used to the new structure.
"Yes, [my individual level] suffered a lot. It was a mix of everything, playing out a structure I wasn't used to, with a new style and everything, and I missed some shots I normally hit. I look at it as just a phase, and I'm just happy I'm getting back to my normal form and I can help my team even more."
Marcelo "coldzera" David and company proceeded to confirm their dominance on their three best maps, Mirage, Cache, and Cobblestone, but their issues on Inferno and Train continued, as they conceded one game on both maps and barely survived on the former in a tough Cloud9 best-of-three match. Nevertheless, the title did go SK's way in the end after two series versus Gambit, with FalleN stepping up and getting closer to his usual individual level.
"I think cs_summit showed us that things were working, I was hitting the shots I usually hit, the team was getting the confidence again. From a personal and team perspective I was very happy that everything was starting to work again."
- FalleN said on the topic of cs_summit and his individual showing there.
Interestingly, felps didn't stick to his StarSeries approach at cs_summit and was more on the lurky side of things rather than being the team's bull on the offence, particularly on their two questionable maps, Inferno and Train.
"[The first few months] was an adaption phase in which I had to learn a lot of things and deal with the terrible results, knowing that we would soon grow as we were changing my role a little bit."
A little over a week later, SK were put to the test at a bigger event. They got off at IEM Sydney on the right foot, getting to play Cobblestone twice in a row in groups. Astralis made sure that wouldn't happen again, banning all three of SK's world-class maps and forcing Inferno, only to meet their demise once FalleN put up a fantastic performance to ensure a place in the semis for his team.
Having moved past OpTic with flying colors, the Brazilians made their way to the grand final, where they would meet FaZe, who had taken out Astralis in the previous round. As it was a best-of-five, SK were forced to play three of their least successful maps.
However, out of those three, Finn "karrigan" Andersen's team could only grab Inferno with a forceful T side. felps stepped up on Train, where his aggression near pop dog as CT played a pivotal part in his team's win, and also on Overpass, where he and coldzera led the way with 29 kills apiece. FaZe had little to show on Cache, which SK showed once more that ranks among their best maps alongside Mirage (which would have been the decider).
In the triumphant grand final in Sydney, FalleN didn't bring back his 2016 level, but he had just enough impact to go along with his well-performing stars, putting his struggling period since the beginning of the year behind him for good. felps finished the event with a tournament-high 30% of traded deaths, which speaks volumes about his ability to learn how to use his aggression for the benefit of the team.
"I have grown as a person and mainly as a player. I have learned how to play for the team. FalleN was essential, he always yelled at me whenever I made a mistake, but every time it happened I improved my game. I have so much to thank him and the team for."
- felps on his improvement in SK and FalleN's impact on it as the leader.
With FalleN back in the picture and their structure well defined, SK are now most definitely back after spending months searching for their identity with the new player. At the moment, the iconic in-game leader himself puts his team at 85% of their true potential, which he's aiming to reach at the PGL Major:
"I don't believe in a perfect playstyle, I believe that we found the system and we will adapt to the other team inside our system. I think it can work, but we will need to work harder to always recycle what we do within the same system.
"Comparing the SK last year to this one is kind of unfair, last year we won back-to-back majors, it will be hard not just for us but for any team to achieve this. So we are just focusing on winning the first major and the tournaments yet to come. But I think our fans and haters can expect a strong team that can face any team in the world.
"Our plan and schedule is to reach the peak at the major, I would say we are at like 85% from what I think this team can do, and that's one of the reasons we planned to attend every tournament possible form here to the major (the schedule worked well for us, since after EPL we just have tournaments in EU, so we will "bootcamp" in EU for 2 months), so we can speed up the process playing in a tournament environment and hopefully reach the peak at the major."
- FalleN on whether he has found the perfect playstyle for SK and if they're back to their former level.
One question remains: How will SK fare in a series against the other elite team, Astralis? We have yet to see the two meet in a playoff match, and we'll have to wait at least another month, if not two, which gives FalleN's five a chance to hit that peak.
In the meantime, the No.3 team in the world will be looking to add more trophies to their cabinet as they head into a busy period with several big tournaments — ESL Pro League Season 5 Finals (May 31-June 4), ECS Season 3 Finals (June 23-25), if they qualify, and ESL One Cologne (beginning of July) — before the PGL Major rolls around.