Comment: What now for Astralis?
After Nicolai "device" Reedtz slammed the door behind him, the question remains whether the team can still turn the ship around.
You could see the writing on the wall. Beyond the results, the disjointed performances and the late-game struggles, there were other, more subtle signs which indicated that all was not well in the Astralis camp. Smiles had been replaced by frowns, the team didn’t really look comfortable on any map, and even coach Danny "zonic" Sørensen seemed unsure of what to do to stop the bleeding. Before, Astralis were always in it, no matter how ugly things got. But now, that intensity and, more importantly, that strong sense of belief just weren’t there. Could this be it for the most dominant team in Counter-Strike history?
device's explosive interview in the lead-up to the BLAST Premier Spring Showdown only confirmed that the team's issues ran deep and that the solid foundation upon which Astralis' success had been built was shattered. Less than two weeks later, he left for Ninjas in Pyjamas in one of the biggest and most shocking transfers in all of esports, waving goodbye to the team he had inspired to greatness and to his longtime teammates Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen and Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth.
The notion that device chose comfort over performance with this move was dismissed by the player himself in a press conference on Friday afternoon. "I think that's a bit misleading," he said. "Reducing stress doesn't reduce workload. Doing this allows me to push myself more towards the limit. A better life for me is a life with trophies, and I'm pretty sure we're going to achieve that." At 25 years old, he knows that he has only a few more years of peak performance ahead of him. He wants to prove, if only to himself, that he can lead a new group of players to glory as he looks to cement his place among the game’s all-time greats.
But where do Astralis go from here? The departure of "Mr. Consistent" is an immeasurable blow, not just to an already struggling team, but also to Astralis as a brand, with the company’s stock price dropping nearly 6 percent on Friday — a worrying sign considering that in 2020 alone it posted losses of $8.5 million. That cash inflow — rumoured to be around $1 million — is greatly needed, but what good is it when you need to replace a star marquee and every organisation with which you can conduct business knows that you have money to spend?
In the current AWP-oriented meta, it is almost imperative to have a stable AWPer who can open up space for teammates and hold bombsites almost single-handedly. And those who have tried to buck that trend, either by sticking to unreliable AWPers or adopting a Band-Aid approach with hybrid players — I’m looking at you, G2 —, have struggled. Even Ninjas in Pyjamas knew that their chances of becoming an elite side with a player like Tim "nawwk" Jonasson, who continues to blow hot and cold, were slim. They just didn’t expect that the opportunity to sign a player of device’s caliber would magically fall in their laps.
It’s hard to see Astralis looking past Patrick "es3tag" Hansen, the final remnant of Cloud9’s failed ‘Colossus’ project. The 25-year-old played some of the best Counter-Strike of his career during his brief tenure with the Danish team last year, but he’s not really a one-for-one replacement for device. He looked out of his depth as Cloud9's main AWPer in ESL Pro League, posting a 0.89 Impact and averaging only 0.26 AWP kills per round. dupreeh is a capable secondary AWPer, but he doesn’t have the playmaking ability of device. In 2018, after being the team’s main AWPer for a few months due to his teammate’s health issues, he reverted to his old role in the aftermath of the ELEAGUE Major disaster.
In the Danish scene, only one name really stands out and it is that of Casper "cadiaN" Møller, a player at the height of his career and who has plenty of captaincy experience. But with Heroic currently miles ahead of Astralis and in a battle with Gambit for the No.1 spot in the world, there simply isn't any reason for the 25-year-old to leave a more stable and younger project, one that is now part of Omaken Sports' plan to build "a Nordic powerhouse within global esports."
Some of the other options, such as Daniel "mertz" Mertz and Jakob "JUGi" Hansen, have struggled in the past with reliability issues at a top level, while players like Asger "Farlig" Jensen and Frederik "acoR" Gyldstrand haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard for their respective teams. And Astralis cannot afford to gamble on a young Danish player hoping that he will turn out to be good enough to play against the best teams in the world. If you're Astralis, you are expected to contend now, to win now. It’s entirely possible that the organisation will look abroad for a suitable player — the CIS scene with its vast talent pool would be the perfect place to start —, but even that carries an element of risk as it would force the team to revamp its structure and communication system.
Even if Astralis do manage to find a world-class AWPer, there’s still a myriad of issues left to resolve. At this point, it seems almost inevitable that at least one more player will have to step down for the team to find some stability. Xyp9x has looked out of sorts since the start of the year, and Emil "Magisk" Reif, who took over in-game leadership duties last year, is also going through the worst slump of his career. Lucas "Bubzkji" Andersen will once again be thrown in at the deep end after barely seeing any action in the first months of the year. And questions remain about Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander’s long-term availability as his son is due to be born in approximately five months, merely weeks before PGL Major Stockholm. These are challenging times for the Danish tactician, who will have to reinvent his team and prove that he can find success with a different formula.
This will be the biggest test ever for the Astralis organisation, which hit the jackpot with Magisk in 2018 after being blindsided by Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye in the aftermath of ELEAGUE Major Boston. They have to start the rebuilding process while trying to retain the team’s core pieces, whose contracts are rumoured to be expiring at the end of the year.
Astralis let go of the one player that they simply could not afford to lose, the one that had bailed them out of tricky situations countless times and been a model of consistency, most likely due to financial pressure. But what’s the hidden cost of letting your most influential and hardest-to-replace player leave? It may be a long time before we see this Danish team back at the top as they risk sliding out of relevancy. Yes, Astralis have bounced back from difficult situations in the past, but this might be too big a challenge, even for them.