What is an era, and do NAVI have one?
Discussion rages over whether or not we are living in the Natus Vincere era, but how do they compare to other great era-defining teams?
What is an era?
It's not an easy question to answer, partly because everyone has a slightly different definition. Even when looking the word up in a dictionary, you will be presented with multiple definitions; a long and distinct period of history, a system of chronology, a date or event marking a distinct period of time. The question of a definition is important, because in order to decide whether we are indeed living in the era of Natus Vincere, we need to first decide what criteria the CIS giants need to have fulfilled to be considered masters of their very own era in Counter-Strike history.
Instead of wasting our time with dictionaries and pedantry, let's use a more concrete approach. When you mention the word 'era' in a conversation about CS:GO, the same teams inevitably crop up time and time again, with few deviations. Whilst it seems we can't all quite agree on what exactly defines an era, we do often agree on a handful of teams that definitely had one. Without even mentioning any names, I have probably invoked images of certain teams and players in your head right now. Those teams likely include 2012-14 NIP, 2014-16 fnatic, 2016-17 Luminosity/SK, and 2018-19 Astralis.
By using these four teams and comparing their dynasties, we can start to draw up a list of criteria that each of these teams fulfilled, and apply those same criteria to the current Natus Vincere side.
The first and most obvious benchmark is a simple one: being the number one team. Later teams are easier to do this for; the Brazilians and Astralis both spent months upon months at the top of the HLTV rankings, making it a simple task to convince ourselves that they were, for a time, the number one teams in the world.
Prior to HLTV rankings it was a little bit more subjective, but it is hard to argue with the tournament success of both NIP and fnatic in the time frames mentioned. For the Ninjas, between DreamHack Valencia in September of 2012 and and StarSeries VII in October of 2013, finishing anything but first in an event was an incredibly rare exception, and they were still winning a large chunk of the tournaments they attended until mid-2014. Fellow Swedes fnatic were the team to overthrow NIP towards the end of 2014, and they were a largely indominable force through to IEM Katowice 2016, the tournament that capped their staggering run of six LAN wins on the bounce, all with stacked fields.
Natus Vincere comfortably tick the first box. In 2021 they picked up eight tournament wins, a further two top-two finishes, and two top-threes at the two BLAST group stages, the best placing on offer. At only three tournaments across the entire year did they fail to place well, two of these with a severely slumping Egor "flamie" Vasilyev in the line up and one with a fresh-faced Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy. It goes without saying that they have held a firm grip on the #1 spot in the HLTV rankings for the majority of the year. They are, by some margin, the best team of 2021, and look set to continue their supremacy into 2022.
A question to ask at this point, and it is an important one, is this: how do we account for slumps? All four of the teams mentioned, at some point, suffered from a slump in form, a pause in their period of domination that usually was remedied with a player change. When discussing an era, it seems fair to allow for a temporary dip in form; fnatic needed to replace a waning Markus "pronax" Wallsten, SK needed to remove an unmotivated Lincoln "fnx" Lau, and Astralis needed to remember that you couldn't be the #1 team in the world only attending BLAST events. What is important is that these teams were at the top for the vast majority of the period. We have not seen Natus Vincere suffer from such a slump just yet, but there is very much a chance that the first sign of the CIS powerhouse falling off may yet be followed by a resurgence, if history is anything to go by.
The second touchstone to mention, and this closely ties in with the previous, is Major wins. All four of these teams won at least one Major to put the official rubber stamp on their period of dominance.
NIP did it at ESL One Cologne 2014, right at the end of their era, having failed to secure either of the previous two Majors that they were heavily favoured at. fnatic picked up two, Katowice 2015 and Cologne 2015, and maybe would have secured the first of their era at DreamHack Winter 2014, were it not for the fallout of the now infamous 'boostmeister' incident. The Brazilians stamped their names on the Columbus and Cologne 2016 trophies, and it is probably fair to say they could have grabbed another considering the length of time during 2017 and early 2018 they were the #1 ranked team. Astralis' streak of three back-to-back Majors, an unprecedented achievement, was only just ended by Natus Vincere. We might not remember these teams in quite the same light had they not secured themselves the biggest prize in the CS:GO landscape.
This one is nice and simple, and it's another fat green tick. At the PGL Major Stockholm, Natus Vincere completed the most dominant run ever seen at a Major in CS:GO, romping through the tournament in majestic fashion without dropping a single map. They weren't ever run particularly close either, the exception being an overtime in the final map of the grand-final. Natus Vincere have emphatically fulfilled the criterion of a Major win, and they are currently firm favourites to take the next Major as well, with no obvious challenger yet to rise.
The third criterion is the one that separates the good teams from the great teams, arguably being the most important of the lot when it comes to defining an era, and that is longevity.
All of the aforementioned teams were not just a blinding flash in the pan, a streak of brilliance that burned bright and fast; Liquid's Intel Grand Slam winning side, various French lineups, the Polish Virtus.pro squad and iterations of FaZe can all lay claim to short, dazzling peaks in form that could see them go toe-to-toe with some of the era-teams. The eras of the teams mentioned are defined by at least a year of dominance, and in all four cases two years spent as, for the vast majority of it, the best team in the world.
In this area, the CIS superstars have some work yet to do. Whilst they can claim this year as their own, Gambit did give them a run for their money in the first half of 2021, and traded series with them consistently until after the player break. Their period of true dominance has only lasted six months or so, and we will need to see them maintain this form for a good chunk of 2022 before they can approach the longevity of some of the other era-defining teams. They have, however, laid a good foundation, the fact that they sport a 91.7% win rate in the last three months being a testament to that, and the smart money is on them continuing their reign into 2022. In other words, stay tuned.
The three factors already mentioned seem, at least to me, to be the most important in defining an era. You must be the best team, you must win a Major to make it official, and it must last for a year at minimum, going further earning you more credit. There are, however, other aspects of the era-defining teams that must be considered. The aspects I seek to mention are harder to quantify, or are surplus to requirements for an era, but arguably are more impactful in elevating a team in the minds of the fans than any strict, stats-defined benchmarks.
One such murky quality is best described as an 'aura.' All of the aforementioned teams had a distinct advantage before they even stepped onto the server, because of the aura of invincibility that they projected. The larger-than-life appearance of these teams caused many opponents to cower before anyone had even connected to the server, these squads could use their legendary stature to bully teams mentally without firing a shot in anger. Even beyond their prime years, the era-teams could invoke a little bit of that ill-defined mojo to produce a hot streak (NIP magic, anyone?), and rediscover some of their best form when it mattered the most.
This is something the current Natus Vincere team has in droves. They have an unparalleled superstar leading the way in the form of Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, they have a star trio that simply cannot be matched for firepower, and the other two role players in Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy and Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov have an uncanny knack for clutching and playmaking respectively. No one wants to play them, they blow most teams out of the server with apparent ease, and are most definitely sporting an aura of invincibility that seems impossible to dent, at least right now. Natus Vincere are in the heads of every team they play (maybe bar Liquid?) before they even connect to the server, and that doesn't seem like changing any time soon.
Another, slightly more corporeal one would be the fact that these teams were placed on a pedestal as having figured out the game in a way no one before them had, rather than simply mastering what was already in front of them. NIP pioneered the CS:GO meta, defining the way now universal systemic concepts such as entry fragging and lurking should be done, fnatic showed the world the pinnacle of teamplay, midrounding, and aggressive CT-sided action, the Brazilian core mastered the concept of map control, and Astralis elevated the use of grenades to a never-before-seen height. All of the teams mentioned of course mastered the elements of the game evolved by those before them, and then injected their own innovations to propel themselves far ahead of their peers. Usually, the ends of their eras were also accompanied by the teams around them catching on to these innovations.
This may be the one aspect where Natus Vincere obviously fall short; they haven't really pushed the CS:GO meta forwards in any particular way, they simply play the game far better than anyone else at this moment. There is an argument to be made that they have taken an old formula, five strong fraggers, and made it work with a consistency that nobody else has ever managed, but that is probably somewhat generous. Whilst Perfecto and Boombl4 can hang at the elite level and frag well in their respective roles, it would be a push to suggest that they are capable of being star players in their own right. On the other hand, it seems to be a common opinion that this Natus Vincere team are the most mechanically skilled to ever grace the game, so maybe they have pioneered the meta in that way, by fitting skilled players into roles they wouldn't otherwise have flourished in?
The final ace that all era teams had up their sleeves was at least one transcendental star player. Not one of you will hesitate to name them; Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund, Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer, Marcelo "coldzera" David, Nicolai "device" Reedtz, and of course s1mple. Every era team has to have a player that is the best in the world on their day, a player that provides levels of firepower and skill that simply cannot be matched by their peers. GeT_RiGhT was the lurker that you could never find, no matter how hard you tried. olofmeister was a player who combined cerebral play with aim in a way not before seen. coldzera was a fragging machine, outputting numbers map after map after map. device was the paragon of consistency, an AWPer that put such thought into his game that there was no way he could not succeed. Last, but certainly not least, we have s1mple, maybe the most gifted player to ever grace the game, who does things that quite frankly do not seem possible and does them with a flair that makes him immensely entertaining to watch.
So do Natus Vincere have an era? It is probably a tad too early to say so. Are all the signs pointing to the fact that we're heading towards Natus Vincere's era, and everyone else is just along for the ride? Absolutely.