The homecoming: BIG's wild run in Cologne
With the help of Nikola "LEGIJA" Ninić, Alexander "kakafu" Szymanczyk, and Johannes "tabseN" Wodarz, we set out on a journey through BIG's struggles in late-2017 and the restructuring of the roster in early 2018 before coming to our final destination, ESL One Cologne 2018, where the squad had the most surprising run to a big event grand final in CS:GO history.
The story begins in July 2017, in Krakow, Poland, as that is when BIG had their breakthrough at the top tier, becoming Major Legends after securing a flawless record in the Swiss group stage to take the first step towards making German CS great again. The PGL Major is the root of expectations BIG set for themselves that has led them to the point where they pulled off the most surprising run in CS:GO history, nearly a year later.
BIG couldn't meet those expectations. The Germans' Major success faded away as the months went by and many — perhaps even the team itself — began to think that their run in Krakow had been nothing more than just a fluke. They couldn't capitalize on their best result yet, but still showed promise against some of the world's best teams for a while at tournaments towards the end of 2017 until, ultimately, falling into the depths of the second tier by the ELEAGUE Major in January after losing their spot in ESL Pro League, which they had secured prior to the PGL Major, and posting some poor results at tournaments such as WESG Europe Finals.
And that is the breaking point, when the core of the squad realized that the lineup they had created in early 2017 would not be able to reach bigger heights. An early elimination in the ELEAGUE Major group stage in Atlanta, where they finished the Swiss stage with a 1-3 record after heavy losses to Liquid, Natus Vincere, and Space Soldiers and a win over North, saw the team say goodbye to Kevin "keev" Bartholomäus, while LEGIJA stepped down from the active roster to become the new coach, with kakafu moving to an analyst role.
"There is no denying that we were all in a very good form before and during the PGL Major. I think a lot of it has to do with that we had to play every single qualifier, so there was no day off for us in three months, we were playing, talking, and watching CS as much as we could. I think during this period we learned a lot about the game and about the team itself.
"After our good and probably unexpected run at the PGL Major, things started getting worse within the team and several problems appeared, such as health, motivation, work ethic, and the results kept getting worse and worse. We said it might be only a for a period like this and we will bounce back, but truly not much changed. Talking about the ELEAGUE Major, I think there is not much to say about our performance, I think the action we took after the tournament by benching myself and keev says it all and was the right move at this point."
But completing the new roster proved difficult. BIG had their eyes set on ALTERNATE aTTaX's Tizian "tiziaN" Feldbusch, a former mousesports teammate of LEGIJA, Fatih "gob b" Dayik and tabseN whom they quickly managed to sign, but finding an AWPer that fit in with the rest turned out a challenge. The Germans trialed Niels "luckeRRR" Jasiek, but they weren't satisfied with his playstyle and ended up parting ways with the inexperienced sniper after two months and more unsatisfactory results at Play2Live Cryptomasters and WESG World Finals.
Facing the reality that there are no suitable AWPers locally, BIG turned to the international market and finally found their fifth in Epsilon's Owen "smooya" Butterfield, who had previously played in various British lineups and once stood in for FlipSid3 at iBUYPOWER Masters 2016. Their new addition naturally meant a shift towards communicating in English, something gob b, LEGIJA, and tabseN had had previous experience with as part of the old NRG roster, which resided in North America. However, they couldn't immediately hop on the server to start practicing with the Brit, as the few weeks without a fifth forced LEGIJA to step in for MDL and thus the Europe Finals and the Global Challenge, as well, due to a roster lock.
"Basically, tiziaN was quite an easy decision for us, as gob b, tabseN, and I used to play with him back in mouz and other teams. We knew that he would fit the team the best in several aspects such as communication, motivation and firepower. He obviously still has things he has to learn, but he is a hard-working player and he keeps improving.
"Now speaking about an AWP in Germany, there was only one player that could , skill-wise, have been a potential fifth and this is syrsoN, obviously. But both tiziaN and syrsoN were contracted to a different organization, so we only had the chance to buy one player out, and we agreed with ALTERNATE not to plan on taking syrsoN as well. That obviously made our life much harder than people think.
"Our manager then came one day and suggested luckeRRR for the team. None of us really knew anything about him, but, for some reason, we agreed to give him a chance even though he had zero experience and just 3000 hours in CS:GO. That was a bad call by us. Things were really bad apart from our decent winnings at WESG. So, after China, it was more than obvious for us that we would have to make another roster change. The team then also asked me to finish the MDL season with them and play the EPL qualifier with them.
"During this time, besides practicing, we also had to figure out who we would get as a fifth. We didn't find the perfect replacement in Germany, so we were thinking about going international, and smooya was the guy I personally really wanted because he had had some good showings against decent teams online and also had good games on LANs such as Copenhagen Games."
The majority of the team still got a taste of what playing with smooya would be like at the Qi Invitational, where gob b couldn't travel and so the AWPer stepped in. However, while the 18-year-old performed well, BIG were still only a mixture without their in-game leader and ended up placing last after losses to Eclipse and TyLoo.
It wasn't until nearly a month later — after BIG had qualified for Pro League and also triumphed at the Global Challenge with the coach slotting in — that smooya started practicing with the squad ahead of their first big test, at ESL One Belo Horizonte, in June. At that point, BIG were also invited to ESL One Cologne as the home team, though the decision was met with much criticism from the community at the time, as the team were hardly considered worthy of an invitation to a large-scale event after some of their disappointing runs at lower-tier tournaments.
In Brazil, the team was shaky, but not entirely without a spark of a promise, as they played two close matches with Liquid and beat Não Tem Como en route to a group stage exit at their offline debut with the full lineup. During the tournament, smooya looked disappointed with some of his performances in the first Liquid series and stated that BIG are running at 40% of what they could become, but we would see what a large portion of that remaining 60% looks like only weeks later.
"Going to Brazil, we really didn't know what to expect from our form and potential. Our practice results were probably the best we had had in a long, long time, but you could feel that in things such as communication and mental fortitude, people were not at 100%. We didn't realize how much those aspects could affect us when things don't start as well as they did in practice. Also, losing twice to Liquid during this time is not the end of the world, and we still had the pleasure to play in front of the amazing fans in Brazil (obrigado)."
The team decided to revamp their playstyle completely after Belo Horizonte, despite only having 10 days' worth of practice before ESL One Cologne came, as gob b and kakafu came up with a more straightforward system with less freedom and with clearer communication:
"After our exit in Brazil, we had some talks within the team with the players, coaches, and manager, and came to the conclusion to change our game style completely. We started playing more straightforward, with less freedom, and made much shorter calls so everyone is always on the same page, and then gob can balance the game and make the mid-round calls.
"Thanks to gob b and kakafu, we made a completely new system and approach on almost all maps. And huge respect to the players for really stepping up in these 10 days we had between Brazil and Cologne, they worked their asses off.
"Speaking about our goal for Cologne is very hard. I think everybody in the team wanted to play in front of the amazing crowd, but, on the other hand, everyone also knew that this road would be absolutely hard to go through, even if not impossible."
The first signs of improvement showed already at the beginning of ESL One Cologne, when BIG once again locked horns with Liquid in the opening match of Group B on Dust2. In what was their first triumph over the North American side since the PGL Major Main Qualifier, gob b & co. proved that Dust2 can be more than an individual-based map and a strong choice for them. It was very much a team effort that gave the German-British roster the 16-7 win, not only in terms of fragging contribution — all five players scored between 16 to 19 kills —, but also due to their utility usage; BIG scored 12 flash assists throughout the match and an impressive (especially for Dust2 as a very open map) 43.2 utility damage per round.
But the pressure was soon on BIG after day two, once fnatic sent them to the lower bracket after a dominant series, in which Jesper "JW" Wecksell went on a rampage, with the German side unable to shut him down as the Swede averaged a 2.00 rating across the 16-10 win on Cache and a 16-4 on Train.
"It was just a weird game, we played so badly and couldn't find our game. JW was playing without any respect and he was rushing us everywhere, we couldn't hold our ground against fnatic and we didn't have a good day, so it was just a match to forget."
In the lower bracket semi-final, BIG opted to pick Dust2 instead of Cache against Renegades — a choice likely driven by their opponents' strength on the latter map and by their own success on Dust2 in the opening match versus Liquid —, but it all went wrong when tabseN's side let go of control at 12-9 and went on to lose the opening map 13-16 after Renegades had converted multiple clutch rounds.
Still, BIG recovered from the loss and grabbed Train after an 11-4 Terrorist half while Johannes "nex" Maget and tabseN began to stand out, with the former putting in a great performance on the offense, before closing it out at 16-12 on the defense. Their first Inferno of the tournament followed as the decider and that time it was tabseN at the forefront due to consistent play throughout the map, which BIG only just toppled in overtime after Renegades had survived two match points.
"During the game vs Renegades, as a coach I noticed something in the team that I had noticed myself as a player with this team: it doesn't matter what the score is, the communication and the mindset don't change. Once I felt this, I knew we could beat any team there if we kept this up."
Later that day, the hometown heroes took on MIBR and returned to their trusty Cache pick. tabseN picked up where he had left off against Renegades, putting in another great map while everyone else contributed well to the 16-9 triumph, most notably tiziaN — who had already been solid in the team's wins up to that point. The Brazilians responded with a clear-cut victory on Overpass, a map on which BIG looked out of their depth on the Terrorist side as they were unable to convert early advantages consistently.
It once again came down to Inferno. tabseN conspicuously went missing, but nex did not as BIG showed their mental strength, coming back from a 9-13 deficit with six rounds in a row as CT. Just like in the series versus Renegades earlier, they couldn't convert two series points, however, and the decider went to overtime yet again. gob b stepped up in the first set, while MIBR survived another series point to force double overtime, where tabseN finally reappeared to drive the series home and reach the LANXESS playoffs stage.
"I think the comeback versus MIBR was pretty key. We have history against them, we have played them in three important matchups: the PGL Major, WESG, and Cologne. They are a top team and very hard to beat in pressure situations. At this point, we took it as a test to be ready for the stage matches and the opponents that would come. The team proved themselves and to the world that we are capable of winning a close game and showing the will to win."
At that time, smooya was yet to show his true colors, as he averaged a 0.92 rating in the group stage (the lowest in the team), and he was about to step into the most important match of his career — as was tiziaN — in front of BIG's home crowd.
"I think playing in front of such an amazing crowd always has its pros and cons. It's an awesome feeling, being cheered on by thousands of people and your name being chanted. But in CS, focus and mental fortitude are key. So, for example, interacting with the crowd after a big round can take away your focus leading into the next round. And not every person has the skill and mental strength to refocus. I think that was for some of us an issue and obviously the experience."
It would have been fair to assume the two would not be able to deal with pressure, and that was the case for tiziaN at the beginning of BIG's quarter-final series with G2, as he got off to an awful start and looked shaken in-game during the first half of Cache. But smooya was in his element, getting entries and contributing a couple of clutches to BIG's third overtime win at the tournament alongside the strong-looking duo of nex and tabseN, as not even a red-hot Kenny "kennyS" Schrub could change the outcome of the first map.
"[tiziaN] has improved so much, I think he is one of the guys who has improved the most on our team. He has learned so much about his positions, he understands the game way more now. He is doing very well.
"I think it affected him a bit that he was on the big stage, but after some good rounds, after some good matches, he felt way more comfortable and he believed in himself like everyone else did, and he also felt that the crowd was behind him. In some way, it affected him positively."
tiziaN had already started his recovery during the first map, but he was truly out of his shell on the next one, Dust2 — the second of BIG's favorite maps in Cologne alongside Cache —, where he and smooya (and the rest of the team, for that matter) were impenetrable on the CT side. BIG once again showed how powerful their molotovs and grenades can be, as they dealt 62.7 utility damage per round on the back of the dominant defense; there was little G2 could do to stop BIG as they stormed to the semi-finals with a 16-1 victory.
That is where they faced their toughest test in FaZe. As Finn "karrigan" Andersen vetoed Cache, BIG did not get to have their two favorite maps in the pool like they had against G2, but they unsurprisingly opted for Dust2. Things didn't go well at the start, as BIG only got four rounds on the Terrorist side. Great play from nex and tabseN on the defense helped the German side pull off a comeback and take it to overtime, but they couldn't get past Nikola "NiKo" Kovač in the extra rounds and found themselves trailing 0-1 in the series.
Train followed as a map BIG had had mixed results on in the earlier stages of the tournament. A 4-16 loss to fnatic and a 16-12 win over Renegades were not very encouraging, but the underdogs stayed competitive, as smooya, nex, and tabseN shone again, and even looked to take control of the match when they were up 12-11 as CT. Things started to look dire when Jorgen "cromen" Robertsen crushed BIG's economy with an ace including a 1v3 clutch, but two rounds later, smooya turned around a 2v4 in an eco round and the momentum swung back, with BIG besting FaZe 16-13 in the end.
"We knew that we should've won the round easily because it was a very safe round for us, [cromen] just did sick shots. But we were not that disappointed that we had lost the round, we kept our heads high and we knew that every round counted even though we had a low buy, an eco round or something like that. We knew that even with a low buy, an eco round or something like that, we knew that we could win every single round because we are going through a very good period.
"In the next round, they came out on a B explode and two of our CZs made two kills, someone came from behind and smooya got the last kill onto karrigan after he had killed me from oil, it was very close but we managed to come back with that. It was an amazing feeling that we won that round, it was really important for us."
And so it was time for Inferno, the deciding map that had proved successful for BIG twice before after overtimes. This time, it almost looked easy for the home squad. While nex completed his best series of the tournament with another stellar performance and tabseN followed closely behind him, BIG put up 12 rounds on the defense and soon emerged victorious at 16-6, once again showcasing their strength in utility usage with 48.5 damage per round.
With a 1.38 rating across the series, nex shredded his reputation for breaking down in big matches, which LEGIJA sees as a result of the team's playstyle change before the tournament, which fits him and the rest of the team:
"As I said, we have changed our system to one that fits everyone well. Everybody was included and asked what kind of style they like to play and, if they had ideas, they should suggest them. And people started coming up with executes and ideas on how we can approach the game and support each other better, so gob b and kakafu started crafting the game plan.
"In practices, it was only about adapting the rounds a bit and adjust here and there. And that, I think, was a big factor in him playing well. Also the team's and especially his communication was twice as good as it had been in Belo Horizonte and in previous games. He has a very unique way to think and and understand the game, and if he contributes and shares it like he did in Cologne, I promise this team will be insanely hard to beat."
Of course, the tournament wasn't over as BIG had yet to face Natus Vincere in the grand final, but that is where the Cinderella story came to an end. Though tabseN continued to put up a fight until the end, nex ended the tournament with two poor maps, as the Ukrainian-Russian squad bested BIG on Overpass, the only map BIG looked shaky on at the tournament, as well as Train and Inferno, while gob b's team could only challenge their opponents on Dust2, where nex added another impressive map to his resumé.
Still, the German team's run at ESL One Cologne is one for the history books. With the win over FaZe in the semi-finals, BIG already completed what is the most surprising run to a big-event grand final in CS:GO history, as they were ranked 25th when the tournament began — five places lower than NRG had been before their run at StarSeries i-League Season 5 a month-and-a-half before.
What does this mean for BIG's future? We've always known what tabseN is capable of, and now nex has proven his worth again with one of the best tournaments, if not the best, of his career, as both players received EVP awards for the event. Although the duo may not always be able to combine in the same way they did in Cologne, smooya, who is still only 18 years old and a completely new player in the upper echelons of Counter-Strike, has shown a certain potential, which could mean bigger things for BIG if he is able to stabilize and become a consistent star for his team. We also can't fail to mention tiziaN, who may not have been a star but was very stable throughout BIG's wins in Cologne despite being an inexperienced player at this level of competition.
What's more, BIG proved that they can win important matches even without their stars' ridiculous performances, thanks to great teamplay, gob b's leadership and tactical prowess, and particularly a utility usage that rivals Astralis'. With this part of Counter-Strike creeping its way into the current meta more and more because of the Danes' recent dominance, BIG might be a step ahead of the competition.
"We focus a lot on [utility]. As the stats say, tabseN and gob b had the best utility usage in this tournament, and that's mainly because they have a very good gamesense and understanding of the meta. They have great timings and good anticipation, so it makes it much easier for them to grenade or flash people, or block them with a molotov, etc. The same goes for Astralis - by probably having the best communication in the world, they can even make more out of it than we or other teams can.
"Thank you for all the support we have received lately."