Last summer and fall, Counter-Strike might have had the most closely-matched, dramatic, and competitive scene of any eSport. While Fnatic had won several major championships, they had a number of teams hot on their heels. EnVyUs seemed to overtake them as the best team in the world in August and September. Then Virtus.pro nabbed the ESL ESEA Pro League invitational. By October, the Fnatic Era looked like it might be over.
Now, less than six months later, Fnatic have definitively put those doubts to rest. While this week's IEM Katowice might be the world championship for the IEM Counter-Strike series, Fnatic have already proven they are the world's greatest before a shot has been fired or a round played. The question is how far they can go - and can anyone stop them?
Changing of the Guard
The thing to understand about Fnatic's nearly unparalleled dominance over pro CS:GO in the last year and a half is that we're really talking about two separate teams, each of which was the best Counter-Strike team of its era. That's part of what makes them such a remarkable eSports story: they had a winning lineup and then, by making some painful choices, they successfully transitioned to another one.
The team Fnatic that won IEM Katowice 2015 was led by Markus "pronax" Wallsten and coached by one of their former players, Jonatan "Devilwalk" Lundberg. Their victory there last year was probably their high-water mark as a roster: with the exception of a couple misfires at smaller tournaments, they'd won practically every tournament in which they had competed since August 2014. While there were a few more major wins after Katowice, they'd face tougher competition for the rest of 2015 and by DreamHack Cluj-Napoca in October, they were starting to look uncompetitive with top-tier teams.
This is usually where the story ends in eSports, especially when a team is trying to rejuvenate a flagging lineup. In Fnatic's case, however, they managed a surprisingly graceful transition away from Pronax (thanks in part to the veteran leader's own willingness to let his team off the hook for the decision). Pronax left some big shoes to fill, and there would have been a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking if Fnatic had gotten the wrong player to replace him. Fortunately, they got a budding star in Dennis "dennis" Edman, and Robin "flusha" Rönnquist proved to be a first-rate leader once he stepped into the role.
Since then, Fnatic have finished at the top of every tournament, once again outclassing the game's elite teams. Most ominously, Fnatic had a troubled and lackluster performance two week ago at ESL Barcelona… and they still finished first. It was a victory that suggested that on Fnatic's worst weekend, they are still a better team than any of team they're likely to face in a final. With a new coach, captain, and rifler/AWPer, Fnatic look poised for a repeat of their success under the old lineup.
What makes Fnatic's recent performance so remarkable is that they are doing it at a time when the rest of the competition is easily championship-caliber. This isn't like when Ninjas in Pyjamas were the best team in CS:GO in 2012, when CS:GO's eSports future appeared to be in doubt and the pro scene was only grudgingly adopting the new game. Fnatic have taken-on the best teams at the absolute top of their game, and still come out on top every time.
Katowice will be the toughest competition they've faced yet this year. While EnVyUs faded a bit toward the end of 2015, they appear to be in very good form so far in 2016. In Kenny "kennyS" Schrub they have one of the most imposing AWPers in the world: a sniper whose crosshairs seem permanently glued to his targets, and who is just as dangerous when he's cornered as when he's camping. But Envy's tournament will probably hinge on whether Fabien "kioShiMa" Fiey and Nathan "NBK" Schmitt can get back to the kind of strong supporting play (and play-calling) that made them so devastating last year.
The most interesting dark-horse at Katowice, however, might be Astralis (former TSM). While they fell-off during their transition away from the American eSports organization, their recent performance indicates that they've solved whatever were their issues. They were very good at ESL Barcelona and even found a way to give Fnatic a run for their money in their final matches. With Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth they have a player who can step-up in the clutch, and a strong AWPer in Finn "karrigan" Andersen.
What none of these teams seem to have, however, is that ability to perform on command. The reason Fnatic keep winning tournaments is because when they are in a tight match and things aren't looking good, someone almost always finds a way to win a round or two. Fnatic are a great team because they have great players, but they are a dominant team because, when the moment calls for it, they are all capable of becoming amazing players. At Katowice, they'll have another chance to prove that they are in a league of their own.
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