The year of the underdog
In 2018, on seemingly a monthly basis, we witnessed outsiders arriving at big stages and sweeping established teams aside. Can underdog runs still be disregarded, or is there a pattern emerging which should be examined more closely?
The Hainan International Convention & Exhibition Center was where one of the big upsets of 2018 happened, early this year. In March, the venue on the Chinese island Haikou hosted the $1,500,000 WESG 2017 World Finals, and on the fifth day of the event, TeamOne took down the reigning Major champions Cloud9. Up to that point, TeamOne had only been known as the organization that "was asking too much" for their star players, Alencar "trk" Rossato and Pedro "Maluk3" Campos, and, being ranked 56th in the world ahead of the tournament, no one gave them a chance in the quarter-finals against the North American powerhouse.
But they did it. Over the three maps, trk managed a 1.37 rating, proving key to his team eliminating Cloud9 and securing a massive payout—the $70,000 the Brazilians won is the same amount you would get for placing top-4 at a Major, or $20,000 more than what you would get for winning a DreamHack Open. It was a potentially career-changing moment for the team, and judging by their reactions, they knew they had accomplished something big.
After the fact, it was easy to chalk off the game as an outlier, an unpredictable one-in-a-million match, and move on. But is that truly a case, or are these teams less far apart than we—fans, talent, analysts—make them to be? Are there factors we are not taking into consideration when talking about these games, and is there something the favorites can do to avoid these slip-ups?
Neither before nor after that match did TeamOne look particularly great at WESG; they had some struggles against the lower-ranked teams in groups and were outclassed by the stronger teams in the playoffs. And the same could be said for their year as a whole, as they would not manage a feat similar to what they did in China. Their ranking did skyrocket in March as a result of the top-4 placing, but—like many upset teams of 2018—they regressed to the mean, falling from #20 to #52 over the next nine months.
What then was the cause of TeamOne playing well enough to beat Cloud9 in that game? First of all, the event didn't run perfectly; the PCs were subpar and matches were often delayed. These issues will always take a larger toll on the world's best teams—those who are used to playing in near-perfect conditions—, than on up-and-comers. But on its own, that shouldn't be enough.
A factor that is rarely taken into account in matchups like this is how well underdogs know the top team's style and tendencies. "For this game, we didn't do anything special, but Cloud9 plays in a lot of really big tournaments and they are always at the top, so we are always watching them play" Caike "caike" Costa said after the game. "We have an idea of what they like to do, what their strengths are. [...] We were kind of aware of what they might do", he added, revealing that even though they didn't anti-strat them, it almost felt like they did.
In addition to that, Cloud9's simple style of play makes it easier for an opponent to exploit their weaknesses, while the team's congested schedule at the time made it almost impossible for them to innovate, add new things, and surprise their opponents. Blaming burnout became the "go-to excuse" in 2018, but Cloud9's busy scheduled at the start of the year can't be underestimated: in little over two months, the American squad spent three weeks at the Major, attended cs_summit 2, flew to Europe for StarSeries i-League S4 and IEM Katowice, then back home to play ESL Pro League matches, and four days later, they were in China for WESG.
Being at so many big events, as well as winning the Major, won't only mean you are behind in terms of preparation and innovation, but it will also, in many cases, lower your competitive drive. Despite the two teams being on the same server, they weren't playing the same game. For Cloud9 it was just another match, while TeamOne were fighting for their personal SuperBowl, a potential win that could change everything for them.
The burnout, the lack of preparation, a lower level of motivation, subpar playing conditions at the tournament, all of that combined resulted in a meager performance from the favorites. Were there enough indicators to make one expect the upset? Surely not. But, in hindsight, there was enough for us to not completely rule out the underdog, whose odds of winning the match were as high as 11 according to certain bookies.
SuperBowl vs. just another game
The difference in motivation is an omnipresent factor, with the issue being rooted deeply into the CS:GO scene at the moment. The open circuit and a calendar packed with events see top teams often approach certain tournaments as "practice events", not giving close to their all while preparing for them. "This tournament is more like a bootcamp for us. The main goal for us is the Major", Denis "electronic" Sharipov said at DreamHack Masters Stockholm, a $250,000 Intel Grand Slam tournament. In their opening match there, Natus Vincere lost to Ghost (ranked 33rd at the time) on Dust2 - a map the CIS squad had been struggling on, but still decided to play so they could improve on it for the FACEIT London Major.
While this doesn't mean that a team like Natus Vincere do not try their hardest to win when the game actually starts, it is obvious that lower-ranked teams put in more work than them before a tournament such as DreamHack Masters Stockholm. A squad like Ghost—built around the Valve-banned Joshua "steel" Nissan—, will try to be at their individual peak here, as it is their biggest event in the foreseeable future, while the top teams will already be looking at the playoffs of the Major, which were three weeks away. In the end, North, who have been a top10 team at best throughout 2018, won the event, with Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen AWPing his way to the MVP medal: this confirms that the event wasn't one taken seriously by the majority.
Playing on home soil is something that was overplayed for a long time in Counter-Strike, however, while it is not a magical potion that will make an average team a Major winner, the added motivation of playing on the stage in your home country can make the difference from time to time. "It's always been a dream of mine to play in front of a home crowd" Justin "jks" Savage said after his team, Renegades, had upset FaZe in the group stage of IEM Sydney to make the playoffs. After disappointment struck in 2017, when Renegades bombed out of the groups, jks put in extra work to make sure they reached the Qudos Bank Arena stage this time: "I was very motivated [...], I put in a lot of time individually, I was playing a lot of deathmatch, a lot of pugs, I was watching a lot of demos". Grayhound eliminating SK and taking a map off of the eventual winners FaZe at the same event was another example of what teams can do when they are in a comfortable environment in their home country.
While the Australians didn't make particularly deep runs in Sydney, a few months later, the German squad BIG did so in Cologne. Fatih "gob b" Dayik's men were just inside of the top 30 when they were invited to one of the biggest events of the year, which caused an uproar in the community, but they proved worthy of it, in the end, placing second after beating three top-6 teams: Liquid (#4 at the time), MIBR (#6), and FaZe (#2). That saw them jump 18 places in the rankings, but BIG weren't the only ones to upset at the event, ESL One Cologne was also where ENCE broke out, to a degree, by beating mousesports (#5) and NiP (#11).
The never-ending shuffle
The number of upsets in Cologne is also tied to one of the problems of 2018: a nonexistent transfer period. With the FACEIT London Major taking place so late in the year, the usual "summer trade window" was effectively closed out, and we witnessed top teams being in constant state of flux, swapping players in and out since the first Major of the year ended. At ESL One Cologne, despite it being probably the most anticipated tournament of the year behind the Majors, we had NiP and G2 fresh off roster changes, mousesports and fnatic debuting with new players, MIBR featuring dead-man walking Ricardo "boltz" Prass, and FaZe and Cloud9 playing with stand-ins. None of these teams were even near their best shape, and neither was Liquid, who had a stable roster but, similarly to Cloud9 earlier in the year, attended too many events in a short span of time. "I think we weren't able to really develop during the four weeks and it's one of the main problems when you go back-to-back-to-back in a bunch of tournaments" Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski said while recapping their worst event of the year, with personal issues Liquid's players had been dealing with not helping the cause either.
Not even Majors are immune to upsets, au contraire: one of the biggest surprises of the year actually happened at the ELEAGUE Boston Major at the start of the year when, out of nowhere, a CIS squad battled through two Swiss group stages and secured a place in the playoffs. They were, of course, Quantum Bellator Fire, whose "Unpredictable Journey" to a Legends spot and their massive drop off that followed seemingly inspired what the community dubbed the "QBF rule". From the FACEIT London Major onwards, the teams that went 0-3 in groups would no longer be invited back to the next Major qualifier, forcing them to go through the Minor system.
The London Major had its fair share of unexpected results as well, despite teams, for the most part, being very prepared for the event. Complexity, HellRaisers and BIG reaching the playoffs was helped by the fact that the Major is still using a BO1-heavy format. This allows underdogs to focus on the four-five maps that will get them to the Legends stage, while the favorites are forced to go wider, practicing six or seven maps which they need to be good on to have a shot at winning the title. While this makes them an overwhelming favorite in the BO3 playoffs, they are under a higher risk of an upset early on in the tournament.
Today's underdogs are also not some amateurs or part-time CS players, which perhaps was a case in the past. A team like Complexity has major mainstream sports backing which not only pays full-time salaries to the players, but also provides support in terms of a coach, a manager, and fairly-lengthy bootcamps overseas. And they are willing to practice hard, perhaps too hard, in order to do well. "Even the days leading up to the Minor, we were playing for, I want to say 6-7 weeks straight without a single day off" Shahzeb "ShahZaM" Khan said, recalling their path to the Major. "From tournament to tournament, from practice to practice, long days, we were playing tons of qualifiers, 10 hour days of just qualifiers, tons of matches." And that kind of a schedule, while it might bring results, isn't sustainable, which is one of the reasons many underdog teams eventually fall off.
When ENCE bombed out of EPICENTER a week after winning StarSeries i-League S6, Aleksi "allu" Jalli echoed a similar sentiment: "Why we failed here is not because our motivation dropped, it is mostly because we are really tired of playing." After a nine-day event in Kiev, half of a day off wasn't enough to recover, and the Finns were simply drained in Moscow. "You put in everything, you put your heart in, you want to just beat everyone. [...] It showed here that we are really tired. When we went to Kiev, you could feel the energy, even in the airport, when we were traveling, that we are going there to play."
Helping underdogs pull off the one-off upset is favorites not doing even the basic preparation, and at times, underestimating opponents. A team like TYLOO was stable in the top 15 for the majority of the year simply because no one respected them enough to ban their strongest maps, the most PUG-friendly ones—Mirage and Inferno—, and force them on more complex ones such as Train or Overpass, where they struggled significantly. A similar sense of disrespect could be felt when AVANGAR attended EPICENTER after going 47W-6L in maps online—the Kazakhstani team then finished 3rd-4th at the ~$300,000 event. Similarly, LDLC had been making waves in the European scene, playing over 60 maps online in the 30 days leading up to IEM Chicago—where they went on to place 5-6th. NRG or North surely could have been ready for some of the Frenchmen's gimmicky plays and could have stopped them earlier in the bracket, but we still hear the worn out excuse that a team "had not played top tier LANs" so it is "hard to prepare for them". With the amount of online games a team like LDLC played, if anything, preparing for them should be too easy.
No signs of change
The trend of underdogs punching way above their weight, on a regular basis, isn't something that is going to end soon. Until top teams start playing less, similarly to Astralis (a team which we have written about perhaps too much this year) they will simply not be able to prepare for every team on the rise, and slip-ups are bound to happen. A sensible transfer period during the winter break will help with roster stability in 2019, but with factors such as the disparity of motivation and burnout still present, and more and more resources being allocated to teams lower in the rankings, we should better prepare for—and expect—more QBFs, TeamOnes and LDLCs in 2019.