A year at the summit: how Astralis wrote history
On April 23, Astralis became the first team since HLTV introduced the world ranking in 2015 to remain at the top for a whole year. To celebrate their achievement, we went back through their history to retrace how they became the best team that has graced the game.
Before Astralis: device, dupreeh, and Xyp9x
Going back in time, a part of Astralis’ fate can be traced to mid-2013, when Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth left fnatic and joined CPH Wolves, playing DreamHack Bucharest with Nicolai "device" Reedtz and Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen. Xyp9x and dupreeh then played a couple more events together, namely the RaidCall EMS One Fall 2013 Finals and ESWC 2013, before the trio got back together, joining forces with Nicolaj "Nico" Jensen and Henrik "FeTiSh" Christensen, with whom they played the first ever CS:GO Major, DreamHack Winter 2013.
At the Elmia venue in Jönköping, the home of DreamHack Winter, CPH Wolves topped their group, beating Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen’s Reason and the CIS superteam Astana Dragons, although the Danes eventually fell in the quarter-finals when up against one of the teams of the moment, Kévin "Ex6TenZ" Droolans's VeryGames.
“It's hard to put it into words, we've played together for six years, Xyp, dupreeh, and myself. It's surreal to put it into perspective, to think about all of the things that happened in our lives, personally, everything we've gone through, together, all of the situations we've experienced, all of the defeats, and now all of the wins... I don't regret anything in my career, and everything has been leading up to this.
“I remember back in Dignitas when everyone started to talk about how one day we could be the team that could win a lot of tournaments, and the same thing happened in TSM, when we kind of won some tournaments, but never a big one, and then it was back to the choking again. We’ve been developing through all of those hard times, personally and in-game, and that made us really strong. I think that now we're just this crazy family that never argues and is really happy. We've been through a lot of things now, so it's kind of like the old VP that stuck together. It's just really special.”
The five players who played that first Major then landed contracts with Dignitas, where they would start to have good placings at larger tournaments, including two semi-final runs at Majors, EMS One Katowice 2014 and ESL One Cologne 2014—the latter of which they played with Philip "aizy" Aistrup instead of Nico. As one of the best, if not the best CT-sided team in the world, that Dignitas squad became a serious contender at some of the bigger events of the time, but it was during that period that they started to garner a reputation as a side that could not thrive under pressure during deep runs, bowing out of tournaments over and over again in the semi-finals.
After René "cajunb" Borg was brought into the ranks as a flexible player who could cover holes with both rifles and the AWP, it was time to try and revamp the team’s tactical style, as a weak Terrorist side was constantly making them struggle despite many times being able to garner favorable results on the defense. It was then that Finn "karrigan" Andersen, who had just ended a stint in mousesports, was brought in to try and readjust the team after they had gone back to a disappointing 5-8th place finish at DreamHack Winter 2014 following a loss to Natus Vincere.
“I think we've been through a lot of things as a team, but also as individuals. Especially when people considered us chokers, it was hard on the team, but it’s also something we have now been able to overcome and it has made us even stronger. We have learned how to follow the meta of the game, but we’ve also been good at finding our own style. I think the best asset we got from all of these times is that we could take something from every person we played with, add it or discard it to the new team we created, and actually make it work pretty well.”
Early victories under a new direction
After a third-place finish at MLG X-Games Aspen with karrigan on board and under the TSM banner, the Danish quintet had another quarter-final finish at a Major, ESL One Katowice 2015, where they lost to Ninjas in Pyjamas in the first match of the bracket. Slowly but surely, the tides started to turn for TSM, however, as the old core and the new duo started to flow. A final at CPH Games was followed by three first-place finishes at the CCS Kick-Off Season Finals, FACEIT League 2015 Stage 1 Finals (ECS’ predecessor), as well as the Fragbite Masters Season 4 Finals, and, despite a 7-8th place blunder at the first Pro League finals, TSM went on to lift another trophy at the second stage of FACEIT League 2015.
During their time in Dignitas and then in TSM, the squad remained a force to be reckoned with in a span of time of time that saw fnatic’s dominant periods, the tail end of LDLC and the Major-winning Envy, as well as the rise of the Brazilian squad that would go on to be an unstoppable force for many months a little bit later. After their first wins, the Danes managed to make several finals and win one last tournament in 2015, the PGL Season 1 Finals, taking the first place in the rankings in late October—the first month of our rankings’ existence.
Needing the Heimlich maneuver
Soon after tasting victory at some of the events mentioned earlier came some of the roughest moments for this team, as they went out once again in 5-8th place at a Major—DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca, where they were one of the favorites to take it all. Despite two easy 16-6 wins against FlipSid3 and G2, TSM eventually went out to Ninjas in Pyjamas in the quarter-finals, again. A slew of finals and semi-final finishes followed, with a few more disappointing exits sprinkled in, as the team transitioned from a neglectful TSM to their new brand, Astralis.
Tagged as chokers and with half a dozen finals and semifinals lost, it was finally cajunb who got cut after two group stage exits at DreamHack Masters Malmö 2016 and the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals, making way for one of the rising stars of the Danish scene, Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye. “That was one of our issues back in the days, right?", asks device, rhetorically. "We didn't really believe that we could do it, or there was this kind of false commitment in a certain way. We believed that we could do it, but then every time we got pressured, we just choked. Now, the most influential parts of our game are being able to support each other in any way we can.”
The addition of Kjaerbye didn’t prove to be an immediate boost for Astralis, who were still struggling to find themselves as they had several more early exits in playoffs. Things got harder before they would get better, and this time it was karrigan who lost his teammates’ confidence, especially regarding his calling. One of the few remaining pieces in the puzzle of the team that would go on to make history, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, joined the team after karrigan was given his marching orders following a seventh-place finish at ESL One New York 2016.
“When gla1ve joined I think we got a better structure on our defaults and in our map pool, which showed instantly in our gameplay. We became really good at fundamental CS and not overextending. karrigan had more on-the-fly ideas and he would call a tactic in the middle of a round, which was also crazy good in certain situations, but gla1ve gave us more stability.”
“That helped Kjaerbye a lot, since he didn't thrive under the system we had with karrigan. That was the immediate change. When we played with karrigan there was this period in which we just got worse and worse results and we tried to change the way we play and so on, and it just didn't work out. It became similar to his situation in FaZe, where people kind of lost some faith in his calling and that's when you're ready to get that fresh blood, a new caller to be the leader in-game and out of the server. It just worked out perfectly.”
Renewed leadership: signing gla1ve and freeing up zonic
After karrigan’s departure, some restructuring in RFRSH also helped Astralis, as Danny "zonic" Sørensen was relieved of some of his duties and was freed up to work more on theorycrafting and spending more hours finding out how to improve the team’s strategic approach to the game. "He's really good at it,” says device when talking about his coach’s abilities, "because he has a sharp mind and he sees a lot of trends before they start. The anti-stratting he brought in from 1.6 was also very important, getting that into our game, and that happened even later, when we brought Magisk into the team."
With zonic in full stride and gla1ve on the roster, Astralis started to get the ship back on track, finishing second at ELEAGUE Season 2 and 3-4th at IEM Oakland 2016. It was then that the Danes were able to go back to winning ways for the first time since the TSM days, at the ECS Season 2 Finals, and they did so by taking revenge on OpTic, who had just beaten them in the ELEAGUE Season 2 final thanks to an impressive display by Keith "NAF" Markovic on Overpass, the deciding map.
Astralis were also finally able to win the most elusive of titles, the one that had caused struggle and strife nine times before, at the ELEAGUE Major in Atlanta. On the biggest stage, Astralis were able to lift a Major trophy after playoff victories over Natus Vincere, fnatic and Virtus.pro, and it seemed like it could now be time for them to have their moment at the top—especially when they won IEM Katowice 2017 shortly afterwards in an event that saw Xyp9x start to get recognized as the "clutch minister" with 13 1vsX situations won. Disappointingly, the Danes weren’t able to keep it up and it became more of a 15 minutes of fame situation as SK and FaZe battled it out for the top place in the rankings in the months that followed while Astralis —still a top contender—once again struggled deep in tournaments.
Lows and highs: signing Magisk
Astralis then went into a deep crisis as star AWPer device was sidelined with stress-induced stomach issues, playing with Dennis "dennis" Edman and Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel as stand-ins while dupreeh took up AWPing as he and Kjaerbye were clashing over the roles they wanted to play. When device came back, in early 2018, to play the ELEAGUE Boston Major, the team decided to keep dupreeh on the 'Big Green' as device played on the wings in a lurking position. A bad call by the team, Astralis went out in the group stage of the Major for the first time, beginning what would turn out to be the best year of their careers on a sour note.
An unexpected turn of events came right after the Major blunder when Kjaerbye decided to sign with North without giving notice to his teammates. An apparent blow to the Danish lineup, it proved to be the last piece of the puzzle for the team that has now been dominating the scene for a year. “Losing Kjaerbye was a hard hit, obviously, because it left us in uncertainty,” says dupreeh when asked about some of the hardest moments they lived through, “but after all, it turned out even better [for us].”
Astralis then turned to Emil "Magisk" Reif, who had just ended a brief and unsuccessful stint with OpTic’s European lineup. The first tournaments they played together were not bad, considering the last minute changes: a quarter-final run at StarSeries i-League Season 4 and a semi-final finish at IEM Katowice 2018. But it wasn’t until after a month and a half away from the competitive circuit, when the Danes had time to practice hard to get the last member of the team up to speed, that they were finally able to go all the way again and win a tournament. It was at DreamHack Masters Marseille, and it happened in dominating fashion, as they were able to smash all opposition, dropping only one map in ten, a 14-16 loss to Liquid, en route to the grand prize.
“I remember when we brought in Magisk, we were quite convinced that we could become the number one team in the world and that we had some experience on how to stay there, but we never really imagined making it a whole year as the best team in the world. For us, it was always a long-term goal, but we really kept focusing on the short-term goals, which are the tournaments, and how to improve on the tactical and the technical part of CS. I guess in some sense we dreamed of it, although we really never thought it was going to happen. But we believed.
“Right from the get-go Magisk had this motivation, this spark that we didn't have when we were playing with Kjaerbye, and I was just coming back from my sick leave. The first few tournaments, we had this direction, we had these calls that we made together and we knew we were on a path and nothing was going to stop us even though we lost in the quarter-finals. Then we improved and lost in the semi-finals, and from those losses we learned a lot.
“We had a month of practice before Marseille and we were just destroying everyone, we were winning all of the practices and it was quality over quantity, as well. We changed our systems a lot. Our sports director, Kasper Hvidt, brought a lot of new ideas and put us into a system that created stability outside of the server and we had stability in the server with gla1ve. Magisk just gave dupreeh the possibility to play the role he wanted to, so that took care of all of the role issues and it worked out perfectly.”
The beginning of an era
The day after DreamHack Masters Marseille, April 23rd, 2018, Astralis hit the No.1 spot in the rankings. All of the pieces of the puzzle were in place. They had all of the players filling the roles that were necessary for the team: an aggressive rifler, a support player who can decide late rounds and win clutch situations, the star AWPer who was back from injury, a young, hungry, and adaptable rifler, and a fragging in-game leader that was hard at work with the coach trying to always push the meta and keep the team ahead of the curve.
The rest of the puzzle, that which is not always visible to the eye, was there as well, as a small army of RFRSH staff members, including sports psychologists, managers, and professionals in several other fields, were backing the team to try and squeeze every bit of their potential out. Astralis were set. Looking to up the standards, the Danes started to pick and choose the events they would attend instead of burning out on the road, and to follow meal plans and workout routines to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. In the server, a brand of solid CS with an ever-increasing playbook and map pool that allowed the team to always have an edge over their opponents proved to be exactly what was necessary to find the stability needed to win consistently, something that started to rid the team of the ghosts of their past.
As Milan “Striker” Švejda noted in his Astralis: A legend in the making article, in which he did a statistical analysis of why the team worked so well at the time, Astralis had one of the best starts after their first 75 maps on LAN, winning 79% of them (59-0-16), topped only by the legendary NiP of yore—although it could be said that the quality of competition during the first months of the game’s existence was hardly what it is today. The Danish side then really rocketed to the stars, winning three out of the following five events, the ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals, the ECS Season 5 Finals, and ELEAGUE Premier.
“I think we've been through a lot of things as a team, but also as individuals. Especially when people considered us chokers. It was hard on us, but also something we have now overcome and that has made us even stronger. We learned how to follow the meta, but we have also become good at finding our own style. I think the best asset from all of these times is that we managed to take something from every person we played with, add it or discard it in the new team we created, and actually make it work pretty well.”
All eyes were now on the Danes as they clutched to the top of the rankings and continually put further distance between themselves and the teams lagging behind. The quality over quantity methodology seemed to work, especially as they started not only to have one of the best map pools in the circuit, but their best maps started to become so good that their win percentages put fear into any rival willing to play them. To this day, Astralis have a 30 win streak on Nuke, with the last loss dating back to over a year ago.
Writing the epic
After a surprise loss to North in the DreamHack Masters Stockholm final, Astralis went to the FACEIT Major in London, the true trial by fire, where they came out unscathed, pulling through the New Challengers and the New Legends stages with 3-1 records before winning six maps in a row in the playoff encounters with FaZe, Liquid and Natus Vincere. "There were a few moments where we kind of thought about having the potential to become a historic team,” says device. "When we went to the FACEIT Major and won fairly easily, that's when we thought, ‘OK, yeah, this can go pretty far.’”
Astralis then won BLAST Pro Series in Istanbul, and after a small slip-up at BLAST Pro Series Copenhagen, in front of their home crowd, they win four tournaments in a row: IEM Chicago, the ESL Pro League and the ECS finals, and BLAST Pro Series Lisbon, the final tournament of the year.
“Even in Chicago, where we had a somewhat bad tournament, we won. At that point, we were like, ‘OK, our base level is high enough to win tournaments,’ and we won so many tournaments during the whole year that we didn't even realize it. I'm not sure we've realized it yet, or we won't until it's over and we look back at how crazy it has all been.
“You get used to winning and lifting the trophy, and in some way it's silly because you really want to enjoy it, but after the trophy ceremony when you go back to the hotel and speak to the team, you haven't really realized what just happened. Then you start thinking about the feelings you should be going through and so on, and it's kind of surreal because looking back three years, four years, when we were in TSM and we started Astralis, we had all of these issues, and now we're on top of the world—a crazy dream world.”
We got insight into another piece of the puzzle in Odense, when we interviewed Lars Robl, Astralis’ psychologist and a former special forces officer, and wrote about it in The mind game meta: Astralis’ mental supremacy feature. Robl spoke at length about the importance of being able to go through issues within the team to create a healthy atmosphere, something that device agrees with when he says that "it is quite hard to say, 'I think you should change this,’ and it's quite hard to receive that criticism and understand that it's not anything personal, especially when you have been together as much as we have."
“I think that, in the beginning, when we got gla1ve, when we were working with Mia [Stellberg] back in the day, it was a lot about dealing with pressure, the pressure you put on yourself, understanding that pressure isn't something to be avoided. A lot of people imagine that when you're under pressure you should just try to walk around it instead of going through it, but in reality, what's the worst that can happen? It's your job and you just have to deal with it, in some way. That was one of the issues we always had and never talked about. When we choked we talked more about what happened in-game, instead. Sometimes we would play not to lose instead of playing to win, and learning these things as a unit and with the addition of gla1ve, that kind of pushed us to believe that we could win the big tournaments and the Majors.
“After that, when we added Magisk, we started to understand more about setting goals and maintaining a plan. It wasn't just about, ‘we have to win this, this, this, and this tournament’, or, ‘we have to go to quarter-finals, then semi-finals, and at some point win a tournament,’ it was more about the technical and tactical part of the game, the individual part of the game, how to develop that.
“It's also about structuring diet, exercising to have more energy, the psychological part. There's this huge plan we made and the goals were just like 5% or 10% of it, and it's constantly changing, there's constantly something we're working on, things we talk about after tournaments, it's a whole puzzle and you have to fit all of the pieces. It’s about learning to understand that you don't just set goals as an individual or a team, but how to clear the way towards those goals and make them possible. That helped us a lot and it gave us a perspective that's really important because otherwise, if you just fail one of your goals, like the one we had of winning ESL One Cologne, you can't look back and ask yourself what went wrong.
“When you have the whole plan in front of you, you can take out the pieces and say, ‘oh, maybe our calendar planning wasn't good enough, or maybe we didn't work enough on our map pool, or we didn't play well enough individually, or we had a lot of unspoken stuff in the psychological aspect.’ You can always pick out the issues and work on them for the next tournaments.”
After becoming the first team to win an Intel Grand Slam at the ESL Pro League Finals in Odense, in front of their home crowd, Astralis started to set new goals to keep their hunger as time went on, and they got one Major closer to making history again after winning IEM Katowice, where they won five matches in a row—once again, not giving up a single map in the playoffs against Ninjas in Pyjamas, MIBR, and the tournament's surprise package, ENCE.
“Starting 2019 we lost the iBUYPOWER Masters LAN and we were wondering if we'd lost the mojo. But in reality, everyone had had a one-month break and why should the other teams have come back stronger from it than us? It's kind of silly, right? But it's how the team works and how the community thinks, so we just talked a bit about it and how silly it sounded and got back to grinding, which led us to win the Major and São Paulo.”
“We had this one-year meeting at the same place we had last year, where we set some long-term goals. At some point, it's really hard to go higher than we did last year, and it would be quite naive to think that it's just going to continue for eternity. Our goal is to win three Majors in a row and we have one left, but other than that, as I said earlier, the short-term goals become more important. The structuring of the calendar, learning from mistakes regarding where to travel, and why, and when, and learning how to take care of our bodies to prolong our careers. That's becoming more of a focus.
“I think at some point it will happen, there will be another team that will be as good and we'll have a bigger rivalry, or a team will come that becomes even better. We've seen now that Na`Vi are getting a dietician and a psychologist, and they're starting to work on some of the same aspects that we're working on, and I think that it's a natural development for the scene. When there's a dominant force you start investing in the same stuff as the dominant team, so I think it's just a matter of time, but as it is now we still have a lot of confidence.“
One of the ways Astralis maintain their dominance is through their map pool, with a 30-0 LAN streak on Nuke that goes back over a year and a 19-0 streak on Inferno that was just broken in overtime by BIG, and overall impressive numbers on just about every other map in the pool. “When you start out as a team you don't really know what your strengths are,” says device. "We tested all of these different maps and Nuke, in the beginning, was the map we were really comfortable and good on. You get into a state where the things you do are so good and you have so much variety that you don't always have to come up with new stuff."
Having been able to put themselves at the top of the food chain, Astralis have also managed to make other teams work for them. “You rely on other teams coming up with new stuff and then you can basically steal from the games that you play against them or that they play against other teams, and you learn while you keep the minimum level to win the matches,” the Danish AWPer adds. "That's how it started on Nuke, we played a lot of close games against mousesports and Liquid, and we kind of learned from all of those games.”
With such strong performances, the Danes have a psychological advantage when it comes to drawing out the vetoes. “Now we're in a situation where it's also in the opponents' heads,” says device. "so nobody wants to play Nuke, and now also Inferno. The same thing happened there, we grew in that map and we learned from all of our games. The match against Liquid at the FACEIT Major, where they beat us 13-2 as Terrorists, we learned a lot too. We developed our game style making little changes from practice to practice and every time we see a good strategy, we say, ‘OK, let's try to run that,’ so we just keep getting more and more tactics.”
Little under 400 points ahead in the ranking over the current No.2 team in the world, Liquid, Astralis have proven that the methods they and RFRSH have been working on are paying dividends, and that the big picture, which includes both the team and the organization, is crucial to their success.
“It's always impossible to say, but I'm strongly against the thought that this would have happened either without RFRSH or without any of the players in the team," reflects device.
"I think it was a mutual agreement that we were going to professionalize everything with them, and in the same way they gave us everything we needed. I had a lot of help from doctors and dieticians regarding my sickness, and they helped with the structuring of the calendar and being more aware of where you're going, what you're eating, how to properly exercise, how to maintain a good work environment, working with the sports psychologist...
"More individually at the beginning, working on the choking issues, now more geared towards creating an environment in which we can talk about things that are quite hard even for adults to go through. So to answer your question, I don't think you could take any piece of the puzzle out, and you couldn't take Kasper [Hvidt] out of the equation, either.”
Cementing their legacy
After winning the first Intel Grand Slam and equalling fnatic’s Major record, Astralis are now trying to become the first to win three Majors in a row and take the solo lead in terms of Major trophies raised. “A lot of it is up to ourselves, staying hungry and motivated," says device. It is surely something we talk about from time to time, but it's always the same answer: we want to be the best, and we want to prove we are the best. We put in hours of practice to learn from our mistakes, and hours to make new tactics and moves to always try and be unique, but it's hard to be the favorite in terms of the pressure because you always have to win an event, otherwise people will see it as an upset, and so will we."
As it stands, with only a few months left before the StarLadder Major in Berlin, it seems more than plausible. But at what cost? Some voices have started to question the team’s scheduling, such as Chad "SPUNJ" Burchill, who wondered if Astralis are tarnishing their legacy by choosing to skip too many events, something that could get worse if they to lose a few of the ones they go to, like it happened at BLAST Pro Series Miami.
Be as it may, the team and their support network have come up with a method that has worked so far, holding onto the first place in the rankings for a full calendar year and still leagues ahead of any suitor. But as with all other legacy teams that had their time at the top, be it the early NiP of 2012-2014, the fnatic side that dominated in late 2015 and early 2016, or the 2016-2017 Luminosity/SK roster that won back-to-back Majors, it now remains to be seen how far Astralis can take it, and if they can keep pushing the envelope, breaking records and accomplishing unprecedented feats. Looking ahead as the interview wound down, device added:
“How do you push yourself more as a player? That's quite a tough question, which as an individual you can kind of reflect a lot upon. That's something you can get complacent about in some way, as I said earlier. When you win a lot of tournaments, it just starts to feel like another one, in some sense, but also it's important to understand the perspective of the time we're in, the hardships we've been through, and demanding a lot from ourselves even if we're winning because there's always something you can get better at. As Danny said, I can get better at flash assists. I was a really good CT player last year, so now I really want to work on the T side, as well, because there’s always something to get better at.
“Other than that, it's just about maintaining and working on the short-term goals. With Vertigo coming into the map pool, that's pretty cool, so maybe becoming really dominant there. Demanding a lot from teammates, as well. We'd rather take a day off and then have a really good day of practice than having two semi-good days of practice. I think that's one of the things we're doing that gives us time to breathe—you have time to see your girlfriend, your family, and do stuff that you usually miss out on. I think that's the most important part, but also being aware and not being naive and think that this is going to go on forever. As long as we don't fall into those traps, we have a good chance of staying at the top for quite a long time, but nobody really knows when the other teams are going to be taking the next step."