The Mind Game meta: Astralis' mental supremacy
Previously known as the eternal chokers, Astralis began their dominant 2018 in yet another mental slump. This is the story of how the team pulled themselves out of that dark place with the help of a former Special Operations officer, and how they set new standards for the setup surrounding a professional Counter-Strike team.
Astralis are behind 1-4 on the map and 0-1 in the series that could net them their ninth Big Event win this year, and more importantly, the Intel Grand Slam prize of $1,000,000.
This is their dream. The big one. The end game.
And the 23-year-old shows no sign of pressure.
He looks the same as always on the player camera: Brow slightly furrowed, his blue eyes focused intensely on the screen. He dances around the pillar at the entrance to the B site as the bomb ticks down, forcing his opponent to come looking for him. He successfully catches the young Canadian off-guard and secures the round.
The crowd of 5,000 CS-crazed Danish fans go wild. Xyp9x' facial expression doesn't change, not even a little bit.
"You can see it in his face, it takes so much to disturb him. That balance, no matter what’s going on around him, that’s a huge strength," says Lars Robl, Astralis' Sports Psychologist, as he watches Xyp9x turn the game around with two additional clutches on Mirage, the last one being another 1v1 against Twistzz on B. This time, the stoic Dane smiles as he fist bumps his teammates. Maybe it's more of a knowing smirk, actually.
The Sports Psychologist puts on a more energetic smile as "the boys", as he likes to call them, take the lead, and comments on Xyp9x' unparalleled ability to stay calm in clutch situations:
"As a personality trait, I don’t see it very often. It of course develops in a person, but with Andreas, and to the extent that he has this ability, it’s clear that he’s born with it and that it’s also caused by his upbringing, his family. "
The 58-year-old scratches his graying beard as he dishes out insight into the mentalities of each Astralis player. He's worked with them since February, the players turning to him when in need of therapeutic talks and him introducing to them a strategical way of gaining the psychological advantage in an increasingly pressured CS scene.
There's no doubt that Astralis employ some of the most gifted players to grace the game, and that the squad's' dominant 2018 can be attributed to a slew of different factors, including the tactical prowess of Danny "zonic" Sørensen, the leadership of Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, their utility usage, the reinvigoration of their star Nicolai "device" Reedtz, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen's switch to aggressive roles, the addition of Emil "Magisk" Reif and, of course, the clutching ability of Xyp9x.
But, as several analysts, players from competing teams, and other observers have pointed out, the Astralis setup with the Sports Pshycologist Robl and the squad's increased focus on physical and mental training also play a big role in the team's unrivaled performance this year. In interviews with HLTV.org, several players have said they look towards the Danes for inspiration:
"Astralis have a full team of people, sports psychologists, trainers, and so on, and if you hire an expert in a certain field they're going to help you no matter what [...] I think if our team had that, all of those little things would add up to helping with consistency. I think it's something that has helped Astralis a lot. I personally think if they didn't have that whole team of people behind them, they wouldn't be as consistent as they are. - Damian "daps" Steele at IEM Chicago 2018.
"They [Astralis] had a better structure and chose the right tournaments. But, in general, the team is stronger collectively. They have a professional approach. This is the reason they’re number one. We did not do all we could to employ a professional approach to its maximum. For this reason, we remained number 2." - Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko at BLAST Pro Series Lisbon.
Turning the warship around
Lars Robl knows pressured situations like the ones Xyp9x found himself in at the EPL Finals in Odense. Except when he was in them, he used a real M4-rifle.
Before venturing into the world of sports as an Organisational and Sports Psychologist, Robl was an officer in the Danish Special Operation Forces for 20 years, and left the Army as Lieutenant Colonel and Battalion Commander, with several missions to Iraq and Afghanistan. "I know this map, just in real life", he says, as he points to the screen showing Astralis building their lead on Mirage, a map loosely based on a Moroccan town.
After parting ways with the military, Robl finished two degrees in psychology and worked with Danish football side FC Midtjylland and a slew of Danish Olympic athletes before joining RFRSH to work with the organisation's former teams, GODSENT and Heroic.
In late 2017 and early 2018, Astralis looked nothing like the dominant squad that will end the year with a perfect 1000 points - more than twice as many as their closest suitor. At IEM Oakland, the Danes never made it out of groups, and finished 9-10th in Odense at the ESL Pro League Season 6 Finals, before hitting a new low at the ELEAGUE Boston Major, where they failed to qualify for the New Champions stage with a 1-3 record, after having lifted the ELEAGUE Major trophy in Atlanta the year before.
Something had to change, but changing players was not an option (Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye famously left the team on his own accord). So, after seeing his work with GODSENT and Heroic, RFRSH decided to give Robl a shot at strengthening the mental game of gla1ve's men in February, days before the acquisition of Magisk.
"There was definitely some adversity," Robl recalls. "When it really mattered, the guys couldn’t follow through. So the idea was to try and reinvent them.
The first time the Astralis players met Robl, he arranged for it to happen in a place very fitting for his military background:
"We brought the team together and spent three days on Peder Skram (a frigate-class warship in Copenhagen, which now functions as a museum) for a workshop. So we sat there with a paper board, no PCs, no nothing, just three days working on the strategy."
At the crux of this new strategy was 'The Dream', a sort of be-all-end-all goal that would serve as a giant carrot for the players in times of hardship. Astralis were no strangers to victories, they were already Major winners. In that sense, 'The Dream' had to be big, really big. In our interview, Robl would not disclose what it was exactly, but dupreeh revealed after the team's win in Odense this year that winning the Intel Grand Slam was exactly it.
"We started by asking ourselves, ‘What do we dream of?’ Because the dream has to be strong enough that, when things start going bad, it’s going to take you through it."
Backpacks go bottom-side up
So, what exactly does a Sports Psychologist do, apart from helping a top-tier CS team narrow down their dream?
Well, the number one tool that both Robl and the players highlight as an ongoing task is managing the difficulty of being honest with your teammates about your feelings, especially the difficult ones. That's why the team works with a pretty simple method called "emptying the backpack", where each player will open up about their current mental state and the specific problems they might have, either on the server in their private lives. It's a method that dupreeh says he has employed very often:
"I go to Lars as soon as I can feel there’s something wrong, either in-game or outside the server", says the 25-year-old when quizzed about the subject.
dupreeh is no stranger to difficult feelings or talking to professionals about them. In 2010, his father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Later, his mom would be diagnosed with stress.
"I’ve been through a lot, with my father’s illness and all that, so I’m pretty good at being open about both my private life and how I feel when I’m playing. It’s a big strength, being able to put these emotions into words. I can use the energy in-game that I would otherwise have spent on thinking about my problems at home. It makes a huge difference to me", says dupreeh.
"We do this a lot, on TeamSpeak or physically, at boot camps," Robl says. But that doesn't mean the team psychologist has to travel with the players and Head Coach zonic during the many days of flying across the world to play events. "My job is actually more to make them able to do it themselves, to make it a natural part of being on the team, and they’ve actually managed that. It’s just quickly going over which feelings are pressing right now, getting them out and refocusing."
Another important part of keeping the players focused on their common goal is avoiding them being pitted against each other in a scene that places a lot of focus on statistics. Players are constantly being evaluated by their stats, be it in articles or in the day-to-day discussions among CS:GO fans, and this is something Robl has worked hard on eliminating from the player's mindset.
"Even though we’re a team with a common goal, the players are in competition with each other. They are being evaluated constantly. When you’re both colleagues and competitors at the same time, difficult emotions lie dormant; like jealousy, envy, etc. And if we don’t have the courage, and the skills, to bring that to the table, it will always be a hindrance."
A Magisk turnaround
On home soil in Odense, Astralis are closing in on the fifth grand final win over Liquid in 2018. The scoreline is 8-8, and the Danes have taken the A site with Nick "nitr0" Cannella's men looking to retake both the site and the game. But with the information that there are players on long and in CT spawn, device shuts down Epitacio "TACO" de Melo from a distance to get a triple-kill in the round.
The round itself is a textbook example of the controlled executions and holds Astralis are known for, but the most entertaining part of the play actually happens outside the server as the Danes celebrate the round win:
Amidst unintelligible yelling, Magisk suddenly blurts out an exclamation so as to hype up his teammates, who are now within striking distance of the Grand Slam victory. Precisely what is being said, the author of this article will refrain from translating, but it has to do with a promise of fellatio later on in the evening.
Looking at Astralis' performances this year, it's clear that the addition of Magisk was the turning point in terms of the team's results. Since the 20-year-old joined the squad after an unsuccessful stint in OpTic, Astralis have won 10 out of 16 tournaments. They lifted the trophy at the FACEIT Major without losing a single map in the playoffs, and claimed the $1,000,000 Intel Grand Slam cheque in Odense.
Rounding out the year with the MVP medal at BLAST Pro Series in Lisbon this month (his first ever) is a fitting achievement for Magisk, who was famously benched in North at the PGL Krakow Major last summer. After the first few months in Astralis, the 20-year-old was moved to many of the anchoring positions he held in his old team, which opened up for dupreeh to take some of Kjaerbye's aggressive roles, a change that seemed to pay off immensely. Since the addition of Magisk, every player on Astralis has an average rating of 1.11 or higher on LAN, with the 20-year-old himself posting a 1.16 rating since joining.
"Emil came in with his own authority. He entered a team that had already proved itself as the new guy. But very quickly, he rose to the occasion and made himself readily available. It was brilliant... it didn’t take long for us to wonder, 'who’s actually the new guy here?,'" says Robl, when quizzed about Magisk's role in the team.
The seamless integration of Magisk wasn't set in stone when the news broke that he would join the squad, though, as the 20-year-old had a reputation for being hot-headed and stubborn, admitting himself in several interviews that he used to have issues with criticism directed towards him. His former coach in North, Casper "ruggah" Due would tell Danish media outlet DR that his penchant for winning would often cause problems when things didn't go well:
"A player that runs so much on confidence is going to crash when things go awry. The higher you fly, the further you fall. And seeing as he has an enormous winning mentality, he sometimes has problems realising his own mistakes."
As the team's psychologist, Robl recognises this personality trait in Magisk:
"He has what you could call a weak impulse control. And many people have this, feeling something and then immediately acting on it", he says, when quizzed about the 20-year-old's early beginnings within the squad.
But the story of Astralis' dominant 2018 is also the story of Magisk's maturation into a calm and collected, well-balanced player who has learned to utilise his talent for the game to the fullest. Just as importantly, he has seemingly found a way to channel his energy and fierce personality into something positive, hyping up the team in crucial rounds and playing psychological mind games with their opponents, a development the 20-year-old touched upon in our video interview with him in June:
"I think my emotions are starting to benefit me more... I've learned that if I can channel my emotions into something better, and use it to play better, it's a big improvement.
"Sometimes, I yell and just say something funny, it can be anything. It's just going to get the team in a good mood, and make everyone laugh, while still being very serious about winning. It's important that you still have fun while playing, because if you don't have fun, you're definitely not going to be a good player or team. I think hyping up everyone can help with that [...] and I think they kind of missed that in the team before - a hype guy, so even if I'm playing badly, I'll still be hyping the other guys up."
This emotional maturation has not gone unnoticed with the person in charge of developing player mentality, as Sports Psychologist Lars Robl recognises the work put in by Magisk himself, but also the rest of the team when it comes to integrating the 20-year-old:
"It’s been great, also the fact that he is not afraid to bring up stuff where he says ‘I find this difficult’, asking the team what can be done about it, and that’s where this team is very mature."
When talking to Robl, it becomes clear that, in his mind, you cannot build an elite team without making sure the players are one hundred percent focused when they go into the tournaments they attend. This year, Astralis famously skipped a number of events, including StarSeries i-League Season 5, ESL One Belo Horizonte and EPICENTER 2018. As the first event was going on in Kiev, zonic and his players would spend their time preparing for the ECS Season 5 Finals in London, which they won by beating Liquid in one of the five grand finals the two teams played this year:
"People say that we're riding on a wave right now, that we beat everyone, and that we could have probably won StarSeries, but, in the end, it's not going to be good for you if you just attend every event. You need to give your players a rest at some point." - Head Coach zonic at ECS Season 5 Finals.
This practice of skipping events is also a part of the 'strategy' that the team formulates during their PC-devoid bootcamps, says Robl:
"We sit down and take a look at the events, and talk about which ones we want to prioritize, which ones we will actually practice for, and which ones we'll skip completely. But it's mostly Kasper (Hvidt, RFRSH Director of Sports) and the boys deciding that."
The resting strategy can only be said to have paid off for the Danes, as, despite having been eliminated by Natus Vincere at ESL One Cologne 2018, they also won ELEAGUE Premier 2018 after deciding to prepare for those two events instead of participating at ESL One Belo Horizonte, just as they hoisted the trophy at IEM Chicago and the ECS Season 6 Finals in November after skipping EPICENTER 2018 in late October.
"When I joined, Kasper and I agreed that we need to be careful that the boys don’t burn out, that we need to conserve our energy. And in my background in the military, you can’t spread your troops out thinly over a huge front. If you want to penetrate defences, you have to focus on only a few spots," says Robl, as he reflects on the decision to sit out several Big Events throughout the year.
It's one thing to decline third-party events, though, and an entirely different challenge to turn down down demands from your own organisation. It's well known that the majority of Astralis is owned by RFRSH, who also run the BLAST Pro Series tournament circuit, which is currently expanding, with eight events set to take place all over the world in 2019.
Astralis have participated in all the four BLAST Pro Series stops so far, winning two of them, the ones that took place in Istanbul and Lisbon this year. In our interview with Lars Robl, he revealed that, after the event in Copenhagen in early November, two of the team's players had found the obligations that they face while attending events, from sponsors and media, to be very demanding.
"As we were evaluating the tournament, two of the guys said ‘can anyone take over from me? I need to step away from this..."
"[The busy schedule of a CS player] is definitely extremely demanding. And that’s why we work so much on—taught by the time we’ve been together—setting up boundaries. The players know they have to deliver, and they want to deliver, and they have sponsors and obligations, but being able to set your own limits is very important. They’re very nice people, and they want to do signings, interviews, all that stuff, but, in the end, it can make you burn out."
Free your mind and the rest will follow
In Odense, the remaining rounds of the final map between Astralis and Liquid, Dust2, turn into chaos, as the Danes come ever closer to the Grand Slam title. The calmness of the team is being put to the toughest of tests.
Ahead 14-10, with only two more left rounds to close the deal, dupreeh pushes out through the smoked off mid doors to catch Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski with his back turned, but almost misses the CZ-75 kill on the American. As the Liquid players are picked off one by one in and outside of the B site, they retract from their PCs, visibly disappointed by the prospect of yet another loss to their Danish nemesis.
That's not to say that nitr0's men are strangers to working with the mental aspect of the game. During the year, the Liquid lineup undoubtedly became the best North American in the world, with impressive runs in almost all the LANs they attended. Like Astralis, the Liquid organisation have also addressed the need to upgrade staffing and resources around the players.
In an interview with zews, the 31-year-old coach, who recently joined MIBR together with TACO, told HLTV.org that they had started working with Mental Coach Jared Tindler, who is most famous for his work with professional poker players. In an August episode of the podcast Peeker's Advantage hosted by the Canadian Spacestation player David "DAVEY" Stafford, EliGE revealed that he has seen tremendous progress after consulting with Tindler.
NiP have also emphasised the impact of their Sports Psychologist Jens Hofer, who, per the organisation itself, helped Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund and co. lift the trophy at IEM Oakland 2017, their latest Big Event win. In their "ROAR" documentary series, the Danes in North can also be seen working with a psychologist.
In a year-old reddit thread about Astralis former Sports Psychologist Mia Stellberg, Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne revealed that they too employ a similar expert (a fact that Martin "STYKO" Styk would later praise after his return to mousesports), but that the players 'need to buy in for it to be effective,' further hinting that not all players can see the value of psychological help to further their performances.
HLTV.org also knows of another organisation with up-and-coming players who tried without success to hire a Sports Psychologist, as the players shrugged it off as an unnecessary and redundant exercise. And therein lies the key to making mental changes have a real, lasting effect on a team's performances, says Lars Robl:
"This mental aspect is very intangible, but if you want to move people towards bettering themselves, you have to meet them where they are. The players have to believe that an idea like this is beneficial for them. If they don’t think that, then yeah, you might be able to forcibly push them a bit, but they won’t really move."
And this might be why Xyp9x and co. have found so much success with utilizing Robl and the rest of the setup around the team, that they are more open towards the idea of mental work, and that their personalities lend themselves more to being worked with by professionals than those of other players in the scene. This is also Robl's experience after working with the team since February:
"They're what I would call an intelligent team, they’re curious and very reflective. They could spot the need for something like this and knew that they had to try something new to move on. I'm continuously surprised by their level of reflection and their maturity. "
In the 26th round of perhaps their most important grand final ever, Astralis finally seal the deal, as gla1ve fittingly picks off his IGL rival nitr0 in an intense AWP battle, both players scoped in during the last second of the match.
They have done it.
After winning DreamHack Masters Marseille, IEM Chicago and both ESL Pro League Finals events in 2018, Astralis hoist the trophy in Odense and make history by claiming the first-ever Intel Grand Slam title. The Odense crowd go nuts as the players are rewarded with a gold bar representing the million dollar prize. Clad in a Danish flag and an elated ear-to-ear smile, dupreeh kisses his gilded reward.
Perhaps the biggest proponent of using a Sports Psychologist to perform better, the 25-year-old grants HLTV.org an interview in the press room after the last of the confetti has fallen in the Sparekassen Fyn Arena, suggesting that pro players should embrace the idea, and that other teams will have to copy the Astralis setup to challenge them in 2019:
"Other players just have to try it out. You can hear from the way they’re talking about our setup, they want to try this thing. We’ve finally reached a level where other players are looking at us going, ‘they’re definitely doing something right, maybe we should actually copy them.’ And I’m sure a lot of players are still stuck with that ‘what am I supposed to do with a psychologist, I’m a PC-player,’ feeling but try it, man, and see how you fare, because it really does make a difference."