Headlines of 2020: A mid-season recap
As we're almost ready to enter the new season once the player break ends, we look back at the headlines of the first part of the year and highlight the biggest stories of each month up to the end of July.
January - Valve replace direct invitations with ranking system for Fall Major
At a time when people had no idea how bizarre the rest of the year would be, in January Valve contacted tournament organizers to share their plans of restructuring the invitation system for what was supposed to be the second Major of the year in the fall. Their proposed new system involved two special tournaments whose prizepool would be co-funded by Valve and that would help create a ranking, used to invite the eight Legends and eight Challengers to the next Major.
ESL Pro League overhauled and trimmed to 24 teams
Later that month, ESL made headlines with the official announcement of the long-rumored overhaul of ESL Pro League. From the 11th season on, the event was to move from regional divisions to one big league featuring 24 teams, 13 of whom with a guaranteed place in each season as part of the Louvre Agreement. Announced a month later, the team list included the vast majority of the world's best sides at the time, but the move meant that many of those who had had a spot in one of the divisions were left without it, causing a backlash that forced ESL to issue an apology and adjust the qualification system to involve the snubbed teams.
Off-season brings changes in NAVI, Dignitas, NiP, North, BIG
January often brings a plethora of lineup changes for the new season and the beginning of 2020 was no different. Dominoes were set off in Sweden by the reunion of the legendary NiP lineup in Dignitas, with NiP making Björn "THREAT" Pers their new head coach and replacing Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg with Tim "nawwk" Jonasson. Over in Denmark, Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen made his return to North in Jakob "JUGi" Hansen's place, while BIG bolstered their lineup with two new stars in Florian "syrsoN" Rische and Nils "k1to" Gruhne. NAVI couldn't avoid changes either, as their time with Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács was short-lived, and after scouring the CIS scene for adepts the team ended up deciding on Syman's Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy.
February - No audience in IEM Katowice playoffs
The first signs of the world grinding to a halt appeared in February, when various mass events were being canceled around the globe during the early days of the pandemic. For CS:GO, it was the Polish government's last-minute decision to withdraw IEM Katowice's license ahead of the tournament's playoffs that marked the beginning of the end of normalcy, and just a few weeks later it was clear that LAN play would be out of the question for some time as international travel was becoming increasingly difficult and tournament organizers were forced to move everything online.
NAVI dominate in Katowice
After a rather shaky group stage, Natus Vincere turned up to the Spodek Arena in terrifying form. With every player pulling off their A-game at one point or another — and more often than not in combination — Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev & co. dominated the bracket, beating Liquid, Astralis, and finally G2 in a one-sided best-of-five title decider to hoist their first trophy with Perfecto, and for a time became the No.1 team in the world.
B Site reveals Flashpoint
The second month finally showcased the long-awaited franchised league with a $2 million buy-in, touted as the direct competitor to ESL Pro League and spearheaded by Immortals Gaming Club and Cloud9. Advertising a better revenue-sharing model, Flashpoint engaged in a tug of war with ESL with hopes to attract some of the top-tier teams, but the more established league won the battle and B Site ended up with just eight member teams instead of the ten they were aiming for and none from the top-ten ahead of the first season: MIBR, Cloud9, Dignitas, c0ntact, Gen.G, MAD Lions, Envy, and FunPlus Phoenix.
March - ESL One Rio Major moved to November
As Covid-19 grew worse, bad news kept piling up in March, as most events were moved online and regionalized, while others were postponed or canceled entirely. ESL followed with the news that the ESL One Rio Major, originally planned to take place in mid-May, would be moved to November, replacing the second Major of the year and getting a $1 million boost to its prize pool instead.
Due to the additional four-month gap since the StarLadder Major took place in September 2019, the original invites were scrapped. The qualification system was changed to one similar to the plan Valve had in mind for the second Major of the year, called the Regional Major Ranking, consisting of four, increasingly important events (including the last Major), with each region being allocated a number of invites to ESL One Rio.
Astralis create extended roster with es3tag signing, foil FPX's deal with Heroic
In the first part of what has become a rather long saga, Astralis made a stunning announcement in March, sharing their plans to create an extended roster as they reached an agreement with Patrick "es3tag" Hansen to join the organisation from July 1. The core message was rather clear — the Danish organization aimed to improve the working conditions of their players and give them the option to take a break when necessary —, but despite Astralis' assurances that es3tag would be on "equal terms with everyone else" in the team, many doubted that the newest addition would be more than a glorified substitute.
The move had direct implications on es3tag's team at the time, Heroic. Their deal to transfer to FunPlus Phoenix seemed like a lock as the squad started their journey in Flashpoint 1 under the new banner, but everything fell through at the last minute, in part due to the sudden loss of the Astralis-bound player.
ALEX leaves Vitality
Another shocker came from the Vitality camp and its in-game leader, Alex "ALEX" McMeekin. The Brit had decided that the relentless travel schedule was too tiring for him to maintain and stepped down after the team was unable to lighten the load in 2020 due to partnerships with BLAST and ESL. Rookie Kévin "misutaaa" Rabier, 17, was brought on to fill in the gap, with Dan "apEX" Madesclaire taking on in-game leadership.
April - SG receives substantial nerf
One of the most impactful updates of the year so far arrived in mid-April, when Valve put an end to the SG553's reign. The weapon had become the popular rifling choice on both sides whenever available and ended up being fearsome enough to change the meta and the fashion in which people took (or rather didn't take) duels when facing it, prompting players to call for its nerf. The SG received an update similar to the AUG's last year, with its rate of fire and accuracy reduced, and, just like the CT-sided counterpart, it would quickly turn into a rarity, used only by a select few players.
fnatic and Liquid win Pro League, MAD Lions triumph at Flashpoint as scene moves online
By this point, the scene had already moved entirely online, with the long-form ESL Pro League and Flashpoint being the first tournaments played remotely. After nearly a month of play, many of the teams who had been expected to do well delivered. fnatic beat mousesports to the European Pro League title, with Astralis and Natus Vincere rounding out the top four, while in North America, Liquid stood at the top after a dominant win over Evil Geniuses in the grand final. Fresh off replacing Nicolai "HUNDEN" Petersen with Asger "AcilioN" Larsen, MAD Lions triumphed in the first season of Flashpoint, leaving MIBR in second place.
May - Astralis bring in JUGi, while gla1ve and Xyp9x take leave
The Astralis story continued to develop in May, firstly with the announcement of the signing of the seventh player, JUGi. It came as a big surprise at first after the Danes had previously claimed they wouldn't add any more players, but the move started making sense once it came to light that Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander had decided to take a medical leave for the rest of the season to deal with stress and burnout. Less than two weeks later, Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth followed suit for the same reasons, but unlike with gla1ve, this was unforeseen by Astralis, forcing the organization to bring in Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer as a stand-in to fill the gap as es3tag was unable to join the team until the beginning of July.
olofmeister takes another break, FaZe trial Bymas
FaZe found themselves in a similar situation when Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer stepped down to take time off, recuperate from fatigue, and regain motivation. It was the second time during his time with the European side that the Swede had decided to step away from the game, having done so for a three-month period in the first half of 2018, but this time it looked like his return to the team would be unlikely. To replace the best player of 2015, the North American organisation turned to FPL prospect Aurimas "Bymas" Pipiras, who was picked up on a trial basis.
June - BIG and Complexity take Europe by storm
In June, the unpredictability of the online era culminated in the rise of two hard-working teams. After promising results at the lower tier, BIG's new lineup finally got the chance to show their improvements against Europe's best teams in DreamHack Masters Spring and surprised everyone, with syrsoN and Johannes "tabseN" Wodarz leading the way as the German side won the tournament after an unprecedented reverse sweep against G2 in the best-of-five grand final. BIG soon proved it was by no means a fluke with a second title from the summer Regional Major Ranking event, cs_summit 6, making history as the team reached the No.1 spot in the rankings, where the Berlin-based team has remained to this day.
Complexity decided to stay in Europe in the midst of the pandemic and seized their opportunity in the BLAST Premier Finals. The Benjamin "blameF" Bremer-led side had locked their spot in the tournament way back at the beginning of February in London, and in the Finals four months later the juggernaut delivered again, beating some serious competition in Natus Vincere, FaZe, and Vitality en route to their first big title.
Seven teams handed ultimatum by Valve over ownership conflict
Earlier in the year, Valve asked teams participating in ESL One: Road to Rio to publicly declare their involvement with other teams and tournament organizers in order to promote the discussion regarding conflicts of interest. Initially, it looked as if there would be no repercussions from Valve despite their previous stance against multiple team ownership, but in the end the developers gave seven teams until the beginning of the ESL One Rio Major to resolve their conflicts of interest.
Yeah in particular were entangled with several other parties, as the organization was co-owned by MIBR's Epitacio "TACO" de Melo and Ricardo "dead" Sinigaglia, FaZe's Marcelo "coldzera" David, and Wilton "zews" Prado from Evil Geniuses. Valve also identified conflicts of interest in Dignitas and NiP, with Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund still having a stake in the latter, as well as between Immortals Gaming Club's (MIBR's parent company) Tomi "lurppis" Kovanen and ENCE, where the Finn was a minority shareholder.
July - nitr0 to step down as Liquid turn to Grim
As the calendar turned to July, the scene entered the off-season and that meant more lineup changes. The biggest of all happened in Liquid, who had maintained the same exact roster for over a year and a half. The last member of the original Denial team that was picked up in early 2015 by American-Dutch organization, Nick "nitr0" Cannella, is now on his way out after more than a five-year-long tenure, just several weeks following the transfer of in-game leadership duties from him to Jake "Stewie2K" Yip. To bring in some fresh blood, the team is looking to add Michael "Grim" Wince, who has been turning heads with Triumph throughout 2020, averaging a 1.31 rating.
Astralis replace JUGi with Bubzkji
Just when we thought changes in Astralis were finally over, the Danes had one more surprise up their sleeves. At the end of July, they brought Lucas "Bubzkji" Andersen over from MAD Lions as a direct replacement for JUGi, explaining that the former Heroic and North AWPer would not have the chance to play the role he is most comfortable with. At the same time, the announcement insinuated that gla1ve and Xyp9x would not be returning for the start of the new season, which means that es3tag and Bubzkji should slot into the starting lineup in August.
The move left the rest Danish scene in an awkward position. With one high-performing star in Bubzkji now locked away in the best team of the country, MAD Lions and North find themselves without a player after the latter lost Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye earlier in the month — a situation they're still trying to find a way out of.
Cologne to be held online
Hopes of a return to LAN play as early as in the summer with ESL One Cologne were dashed when the organizers made the final decision to hold the tournament online. ESL first postponed the staple event to late August with hopes of hosting it at a studio in the German city but ended up deciding against it after realizing that it would remain difficult for the teams to travel to one location.
CSPPA under fire
July was a difficult time for the Counter-Strike Professional Players' Association (CSPPA), which found itself under fire from multiple directions over the course of the month. It is currently in a dispute with Flashpoint over a $165,000 fee from the tournament organizer, who claimed that the association's lack of response cost the league a key monitor sponsorship and made several other allegations, including that the CSPPA operated as an agency in Heroic's transfer to FunPlus Phoenix and played a role in the deal falling apart at the last minute.
HLTV.org later obtained evidence that members of the CSPPA had indeed been acting as agents through the Danish Elite Athletes Association (DEF)., which shared key members with the CSPPA, raising concerns over a potential conflict of interest and the misuse of information obtained by the association. The CSPPA later responded by announcing that it would cease player agency services and that none of their employees would be involved in agency activities by the end of August.