Don’t Call It an Upset: Domestic Matchups and NA CS:GO

Mar 22, 2016

This past weekend, ten teams from the North American region took part in the iBuyPower Spring 2016 Invitational, an online tournament that offered up $16,000 in total prize money, including a $10,000 check for the team that took first-place. As far as online Counter-Strike tournaments go–and there are few noteworthy tournaments that take place exclusively online–this is no small sum.

Before the iBP Invitational started, I took a look at the brackets. Out of the ten teams competing, there were five whom I considered likely contenders for first place–Luminosity, Team Liquid, Tempo Storm, Counter Logic Gaming (CLG), and Cloud9. As for the other competitors, I’ll freely admit that I had little faith in the ability of OpTiC, Renegades, Winterfox, Team SoloMid (TSM), or Selfless to make any sort of significant tournament run. As the weekend progressed, things played out mostly according to plan–neither OpTiC, Renegades, TSM, or Winterfox made it past the quarterfinals of the tournament.

The Upset

Selfless, however, were something of an anomaly. Expectations for the team, which had been built around the core roster of the old NME.GG lineup–without, of course, highly skilled young AWPer Kenneth “koosta” Suen, who was picked up by Team Liquid–were fairly low. This lack of hope is, perhaps, is due to the presence of two relative newcomers to the CS:GO scene, both of whom are unproven on LAN: Mitch “mitch” Semago and Noah “Nifty” Francis.

After dispatching of Winterfox easily in the Round of 10, Selfless shocked bettors and viewers by taking down Luminosity in the quarterfinal, even managing to beat the heavily-favored Brazilians on Overpass, one of the team’s best maps. If this had been a best-of-one game, we could easily overlook it–as Fnatic’s Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer stated on the analyst desk at the LAN finals of the first ESL ESEA Pro League, “anyone can beat anyone in a best-of-one.”

However, Selfless won a best-of-three series against the Brazlians–a feat that only Tier 1 teams have been able to accomplish. Following their loss against Selfless, Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo posted this on Twitter.

Clearly, one of these teams is not like the others–the likes of Natus Vincere and Fnatic are as far as you can get from Selfless in almost every respect. But domestic matchups–when two teams from the same region or competitive circuit play each other–produce a uniquely volatile and unpredictable brand of Counter-Strike. Upsets are real, and to say the victory over Luminosity was anything other than that would be disingenuous and inaccurate. However, it’s a useful reminder of a very real fact that is often overlooked by viewers, gamblers, and community members: for reasons both personal and professional, domestic matchups are usually far closer and more contested games than one would expect, especially when one team is thought of as “better” than the other.

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Teams like Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) may have international LAN experience and be regarded as a “Top 3 NA team,” but lose to a team like Splyce at the MLG Columbus Offline qualifiers. Like Selfless at the iBP Invitational, many assumed Splyce would make a quiet exit from the qualifying tournament at the first available opportunity.

Familiar Talent

It’s easy to forget–especially on LAN, where players compete in uniform–that the top echelons of the Counter-Strike scene in each region are made up of a relatively small group of players. There are a grand total of 98 players who are eligible to compete in the North American FACEIT Pro League (FPL), a matchmaking service exclusively for professional players that has provided a compelling mixture of livestreamed drama, unfiltered outbursts of male emotion, and, occasionally, amazing plays since its launch in December of 2015. There’s even a soundboard.

A pool of 98 players is small–that’s about ¼ the size of my graduating class from high school. And, much like high schoool, this is a group that spends all day interacting with one another–outside of team practice, North American professionals play scrims, mixes, and PUGs against each other. And before FPL came along, most pros in NA would compete against each other for money in unofficial “ten mans,” many of which were streamed by the players. The players on Splyce, for example, have been in countless FPL matches on the same team or against the players on CLG. Simply put–the players on the two teams know each other, even if there aren’t official match results that demonstrate this level of familiarity. They know the tendencies of individual players or player combinations. As a viewer, even I’m able to pick up on surface level tendencies–for example, on the Terrorist side of de_cache, Josh “jdm64” Marzano of CLG often likes to hold a passive angle with an AWP in A Main, waiting for CTs to take an aggressive peek for information and walk into his crosshair.

Imagine you’re a professional player who’s studying the tendencies of a team from your region in preparation for an upcoming match. This preparation is undoubtedly an easier process than trying to prepare for a foreign opponent, because you likely have first-hand experience either playing alongside or against the individuals on that team. There’s a level of personally acquired knowledge and intuition at play in domestic matchups that allow players to more accurately anticipate and predict the plays of their opponents. As we know from Cloud9’s legendary tournament finals run during the summer of 2015, being able to read and anti-strat an opponent is an invaluable tool–in fact, it’s one of the only things in Counter-Strike that allows teams to overcome a “skill differential” between themselves and their opponents.

Fluid Rosters

With a few exceptions, rosters in NA rarely stick together for an entire season, and some players spend years bouncing back and forth from team to team. For this reason, many players in North America will have been teammates with the players who are their current opponents. This additional level of familiarity is not quite as prevalent in the European scene, where rosters are still susceptible to frequent shuffles, but language barriers prevent the same degree of rampant player swapping seen on my side of the Atlantic.
It’s interesting–in North America, it’s common for both teams and players to be criticized for a lack of consistency. But this so-called ‘inconsistency’ usually heavily factors in online games against other NA teams, many of which are best-of-one matches for CEVO, ESL, and other leagues. Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say that Team Liquid get beaten by Winterfox in a CEVO match. Then, let’s say Winterfox proceed to be 16-0’d by Renegades in an ESL Pro League game. Does this mean that Renegades are a better team that Liquid? No, because it doesn’t work like that.

Perhaps the reason there’s no “best team NA” isn’t because these teams lack in terms of raw skill or ability, but more due to the fact that we choose to judge them based on how they perform against other NA teams. Domestic matchups are a poor indication of a team’s true potential–there’s too much baggage involved. This is evident in the outcome of the iBP Invitation. Selfless might’ve gotten rid of the Brazilian titans, but their tournament dreams were rudely interrupted by a vicious Cloud9, who only allowed the plucky young team to win a grand total of 8 rounds during an entire best-of-three.

Cloud9 took first place at the iBP Invitational, only dropping a single map throughout the entire event and impressing fans with a seemingly rejuvenated Terrorist side–while Cloud9 have been putting up consistently impressive CT halves after Sean “seang@res” Gares left the roster, their T sides have been greatly lacking in structure, cohesion, and effectiveness. And, in a surprising move that might’ve been responsible for an unpexpectedly successful Terrorist side campaign on de_mirage against OpTiC Gaming, team newcomer Jake “Stewie2k” Yipp served as the in-game leader for Cloud9. While it was nice to see signs of life in the long-suffering Cloud9 Terrorist side, it’s possible that simply changing the team’s caller was just enough to throw off OpTiC’s attempts to predict and counter their strategies and site executes.

One wonders whether part of the reason why roster shuffles are so pervasive in North American CS:GO is because new teams often take surprise victories over their more established domestic peers. These new rosters are, for a brief period, unpredictable, and capitalize on the mistakes of ill-prepared and unexpecting opponents.

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J.P. Corner
J.P. Corner is Esports Edition's Executive Editor. He was introduced to the wonderful world of esports by his older brother in mid-2014, and has a degree in Literature from Bard College. You can contact him via Twitter at @jpcornerGG.
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