The unsung champions - Astralis remain SK's greatest threat
Current Major champions Astralis may not have won a big event since March, but it would be foolish to underestimate them in Krakow.
The sands of time move quickly in esports. It seems like it was a lifetime ago that Astralis won the ELEAGUE Major crown, which shows just how many international tournaments we have had since then and just how much the landscape of the scene can change in just six months.
Astralis’ title-winning campaign in Atlanta was anything but a coincidence. After all, just one month before they had already shown promise, placing second in ELEAGUE before winning the ECS Season 2 Finals. It was an indicator that the Danish team were finally getting over the mental block that had seen them crash and burn so many times in the past.
The conditions were ideal, too. SK were still figuring things out after parting ways with Lincoln "fnx" Lau, while FaZe remained largely an outsider – something that would change only with the addition of Nikola "NiKo" Kovač –, and the prospect of a revolution loomed over G2, who looked a far cry from the team who had wowed the community before the 2016 Summer break.
Under Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, Astralis finally managed to live up to expectations surrounding the team, with the new system introduced by Finn "karrigan" Andersen’s replacement bearing fruits in just a few months. After countless bitter moments over the years, the hard-working Danes had finally done it – they had entered the Olympus of Counter-Strike.
Astralis then flunked at DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, where they were sent packing in the semi-finals by Virtus.pro following a weird series in which all three maps were one-sided. IEM Katowice would be the team’s first real test in a while – SK already had João "felps" Vasconcellos, and FaZe were playing their first tournament with NiKo. With the Brazilians bowing out of the tournament in the groups, Astralis stole the show, posting convincing wins over Natus Vincere and Danish rivals Heroic before disposing of FaZe – who had played one series fewer as a result of topping their group – three maps to one in the title decider.
The Danish team passed that test with flying colors, but what remained in the back of everyone’s mind were Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth’s fantastic performances. The 21-year-old, who had come under scrutiny when the team struggled for form, punched above his weight and played some of the best Counter-Strike we have ever seen from him, setting a new record for 1vx situations won at a single big event and earning the title of Most Valuable Player (MVP). Xyp9x’s resurgence, much like his team’s, reflected the improvements of working under sports psychologist Mia Stellberg.
"I think losing many semi-finals in the same way made us think it was a good idea [to hire a sports psychologist], and that was why no one on our team was skeptic about it," Xyp9x recalls.
"She is indeed a part of our success, and looking back, it was a great decision to bring her on board."
That was the last trophy that Astralis have won - if you disregard the single-match ELEAGUE Clash for Cash, that is. At the StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 3 event, they came within touching distance of the title but wasted two precious match points against FaZe before losing the final map in overtime. karrigan's side would once again be Astralis' nemesis at IEM Sydney, this time in the semi-finals, while at the ECS Season 3 finals the Danes could not fend off SK's challenge in the last-four stage.
Since their victory in Katowice, Astralis have only lost series to FaZe (StarSeries and IEM Sydney) and SK (ECS Season 3), but in all cases the matches went to all three maps, which shows just how close these teams are. Besides that, they have lost best-of-one encounters against North (StarSeries), SK (IEM Sydney) and Cloud9 (ECS Season 3).
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FaZe did not look particularly convincing in Cologne, barely making it out of the Swiss stage and then losing out to SK 2-0 in the semi-finals, with the first map being a complete demolition job. This could mean that FaZe's flame is burning low, even if karrigan seems to have an edge over his compatriots, at least in series. And as for SK, the Brazilians enter this event with the wind in their sails after winning five of their last six events, but the team's success has come at a cost: the players are feeling "a bit burned out" as a result of such a packed schedule.
It has been three weeks since Astralis' last offline appearance. Their decision to skip ESL One Cologne, which was announced in April, however surprising it was to many, has given the team a lot of time to prepare for the Major - more time than any of the other candidates have had, at least. The Danes have had plenty of opportunities to study SK's tendencies and to reflect on the recent losses to FaZe. But before they can think about the playoffs, they will have to worry about the potential curve balls that the draw for the Swiss stage rounds might throw at them.
After spending over six months at the top of our ranking, Astralis enter the Major almost 500 points shy of SK and over 100 points behind FaZe. They have travelled to Krakow well prepared and determined to make history, even if shaken up by Nicolai "device" Reedtz's recent personal tragedy. Write them off at your peril.