Will the post-IEM Rio order stick in Abu Dhabi?
BLAST World Final will see a clash between 2022's old guard of FaZe and Natus Vincere against their would-be replacements in Heroic and Outsiders.
Only a few months ago, 2022 had been a simple story. Finn "karrigan" Andersen and FaZe toppled Natus Vincere after the two met in de facto tournament deciding series in Dusseldorf, Antwerp, Lisbon, and Cologne. Apart from in Lisbon, FaZe won every bout and lifted four Big Event trophies out of the six at the beginning of the year.
Like many a great team before them, however, FaZe have struggled since the summer break. Cloud9, the only team that defeated FaZe in an arena in the first half of 2022, repeated the feat in ESL Pro League Season 16. FaZe lost to Cloud9 for a third time In the IEM Rio Major group stage. Shock defeats against Vitality and Bad News Eagles then sent the favourites, the prospective Intel Grand Slam champions, home with a 0-3 record.
That result was enough to prove that a new hierarchy was in place. Many expected Natus Vincere to fill the vacuum, despite out-of-game issues resulting in the removal of in-game leader Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov a few months prior. They had the best player in the world in Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev and the rifling duo of Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy and Denis "electroNic" Sharipov, who now held the reins, still put a shiver down the spine of many an opponent.
But they also faltered in Rio. As did Vitality, Liquid, Cloud9 and G2, all teams that seemed rejuvenated at ESL Pro League. Favourites were crowned and dethroned in a matter of hours. Natus Vincere and Cloud9 survived the group stage but not the quarter-finals; they too were spat out by the power vacuum left in FaZe's wake.
It was those on the periphery that benefited and Outsiders, the ESL Challenger Rotterdam champions, stormed past all who stood before them to win the Major. Heroic, who Outsiders made look average in the IEM Rio grand final, won over the home crowd at BLAST Fall Final and lifted a trophy of their own.
FaZe have not won an event now for 148 days, but even a win at the BLAST Premier World Final in Abu Dhabi will not re-ignite their era; we are in a new age, one of parity and unpredictability. It is not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. There is always a gap between the crown falling off of a team's head before another team is recognised as their true and rightful heir.
The question becomes one of how IEM Rio will be remembered. As upset after upset rolled in, the parallels with PGL Krakow in 2017 were bound to be drawn. Gambit ran out winners at that Major, but even that was not enough to keep Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko from departing for Natus Vincere immediately afterwards. The Major winners themselves had little belief that they could repeat the feat. Other great underdog runs have undergone similar journeys, such as Cloud9 losing Jake "Stewie2K" Yip and Tarik "tarik" Celik after Boston.
It is clear that history will not repeat after IEM Rio. Outsiders are a tight-knit bunch, bound by the belief and identity Dzhami "Jame" Ali has given them. Heroic, too, seem entranced by their own charismatic AWPer-captain Casper "cadiaN" Møller. They will both, at the very least, get a chance to establish their own hegemony.
Their first chance to do so comes in Abu Dhabi where and with just eight teams in attendance, there is no warming up, no slow starts and no easy games. Every match is a best-of-three, with a double elimination self-seeded GSL group stage, and the scene is so tightly poised that the team that wins this event very well might go into the new year as the number one in the world.
There is no guarantee, however, that they will stay there long. 2022 has been defined by the overpowered M4A1-S, with rounds coming far easier on defence than on attack on all seven maps. There are even murmurs that CS:GO's rifle skill ceiling, held sacred by most fans of the game, has been hit. Players like Petr "fame" Bolyshev have also shown how a strong captain and system can turn a technically gifted youngster into a well-rounded elite rifler in the matter of months.
The skill gap previously taken for granted by tier one teams has been eroded: Counter-Strike, according to Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken in an interview with Pley is now "about what team has a better leader or more experience ... because everyone is mechanically good." There is no doubt that this change has aided two teams whose calling is their greatest strength, Heroic and Outsiders, in their charge to the top. But even stage experience as an advantage is being washed away as more and more stage events return to the circuit.
A huge talking point of the BLAST World Final is their use of the new version of the game. Anubis will be in the map pool instead of Dust2 for the first time on LAN, as well as the 5-bullet AWP and the nerfed M4A1-S. The M4 nerf, in particular, is highly anticipated and should push the skill ceiling slightly higher as headshots are made more important on defence.
The pressure will also be on Outsiders and Heroic in a way they have not felt before in Abu Dhabi. To borrow a phrase from the late F1 commentator Murray Walker, it is one thing to catch the best teams in the world and another to pass them. However, both teams are already alongside FaZe and company, if not edging their nose ahead.
They have shown their quality throughout 2022; it is not like they emerged out of nowhere. It would be a treat to be rewarded to a rivalry like FaZe and Natus Vincere's between the aggressive, proactive Heroic and the methodical Outsiders. There is no reason to think that these two teams will suffer from the M4A1-S nerf any more than the other teams who prospered in the 2022 meta.
Despite all of the positives to be seen in Jame and cadiaN's systems, it still seems like folly to count out the likes of FaZe, or players like s1mple, Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, and Nikola "NiKo" Kovač too early. FaZe showed signs of life in their grand final run at BLAST Fall Final, with Robin "ropz" Kool and Helvijs "broky" Saukants showing elite form. Heroic will also have to defend their top spot in the world ranking without star player Martin "stavn" Lund, although Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke is a more than able replacement.
Natus Vincere, while they integrate Andrii "npl" Kukharskyi or another new player, may not be among the favourites in Abu Dhabi, but it will be a different matter in 2023. Vitality, Liquid and G2 are some of the most skilled lineups in history, teams that you can see upsetting Outsiders or Heroic on occasion. Teams like MOUZ, FURIA, fnatic and Spirit are also capable of laying a deadly trap. Astralis and Cloud9 should also be threatening prospects in the new year.
If Outsiders or Heroic establish an era in this climate, it will be an achievement nobody can take from them. Previous dominant teams have needed a superstar: Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund, Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer, Marcelo "coldzera" David, and Nicolai "device" Reedtz held a near monopoly on MVP medals while their teams reigned. When s1mple hit career-best form in 2021, the same was true of Natus Vincere.
FaZe are the outlier, a team that wins tournaments largely by committee. In a future where Outsiders or Heroic establish an era that outlier could become the norm. They would become modernised versions of 2019's Team Liquid, with impact coming from across the roster and largely with the rifle.
They are teams that can bring in the era of the system, where in-game leaders can trump individuals. Outsiders have a traditional three-man fragging core, with David "n0rb3r7" Danielyan and Alexey "Qikert" Golubev taking more supportive roles. As good as their trio is, few would take it over that of Natus Vincere, Cloud9 or FaZe. Even Liquid and G2 have a star trio with more firepower on paper than Outsiders or Heroic.
On HLTV Confirmed, Ismail "refrezh" Ali has spoken of the demands cadiaN places on every player within the Heroic system: How every player must take initiative, how roles are shared across maps. It is complicated — something that might explain Jakob "jabbi" Nygaard's slow start before coming to life as of late. It is clear that Jame operates in a similar fashion, with layers upon layers of rounds that look entirely the same to an opponent until it is too late.
For these teams to stay at the top, those systems will have to keep evolving. They will become the most studied teams in the game, contending with a higher level of counters as the meta shifts. It is a challenge few teams have overcome in the modern era of the game. Only Astralis have truly built an era across player breaks, a worrying trend for Outsiders and Heroic's 2023 hopes.
Time moves fast in Counter-Strike. However strong a team's form is, there is no security in how long that lasts. Every tournament matters, every event a chance to make hay while the sun shines. FaZe and company are in the hunt for a second wind to cement their already storied legacy. The fire within Outsiders and Heroic burns just as fierce but with a different motivation: their legacy is yet to be written.
It is a battle of old versus new, of systems against superstars. It is the fight to prove that IEM Rio heralded the future, or that it did not matter at all. A new king may be crowned in the desert but the coup d'état is not complete yet. This is only the second leg of a long journey for Heroic and Outsiders as they attempt to prove that they are yet to reach their zenith. Nothing is certain, but that only makes the future all the more exciting.