Once upon a time, the name of Astralis inspired raw fear. They had always been the Danish powerhouse, but, now, they were on an echelon of their own, two steps ahead of everyone else. Since Emil “Magisk”
Reif came into the line-up, in February 2018, they had done nothing but win. What started as a completely unexpected change ended up being the Danes’ salvation.
They had already raised the trophies at DreamHack Masters Marseille, the ECS Season 5 Finals, and the EPL Season 7 Finals, but they wanted more. Their tactical level was unparalleled, their firepower was radically boosted by their exceptional in-game synergy, and they were willing, even anxious, to vie for their next success. ESL One Cologne was approaching, and they were the absolute favorites. Should they crown themselves champions at the cathedral of Counter-Strike, their dominance would, once and for all, turn into the Astralis era.
That, however, was not the case in the end. They got to the semifinals with ease, and, once there, facing up against Natus Vincere’s inconsistent squad, reaching the finals in Cologne did not seem like a far-fetched goal at all. Life, though, is often surprising, and, this time, it was decided to be so. Natus Vincere closed out a nail-biting best-of-three series with a 16-13 affair on Inferno, and, as such, Astralis were denied the inception of their era. That era would end up existing, of course, but, seemingly, Cologne was nor the place neither the moment to start it.
Natus Vincere, the ESL One Cologne 2018 champions. Photo via: ESL.
The Danes’ performance in Cologne, indeed, arose a stampede of worries among their fans. Astralis’s core had a long history of failing to perform right when everything was at stake due to a so-called “choking” issue. Cologne was the most important tournament that the new line-up, the one who was destined to end that tradition, had attended in their few months together so far, and they had, apparently, not been able to deal with the pressure. Due to Cologne, Astralis lost their status for a few weeks, before they were able to get back into action.
In 2018, Cologne seemed like a dealbreaker. One year has passed since, however, and Astralis are not anywhere nea
r where they used to be. During this time, they have lost all their prestige, and they have let their era vanish away without even trying to preserve it. Coming into this year’s ESL One Cologne, thus, the Danes had not much to lose, but, rather, a lot to win back. Had they been able to take the trophy, they might have recovered everything they let get away due to their own hubris.
After all, if your comeback takes place at the biggest tournament of the year, what else will the crowd possibly remember? In 2018, Astralis vied for absolute greatness. In 2019, they vied for the chance to strive for greatness once again. The stakes, although objectively lower, seemed certainly higher for the Danes. The crown was theirs, and they were going to perform accordingly. But, did they?
The lead-up to a predictable performance
Astralis at BLAST Pro Series São Paulo. Photo via: RFRSH.
On March 3, 2019, Astralis ratified their status as the best team in the history of CS:GO. The rise of ENCE, the Finnish underdogs, was not enough to stop them from winning their second major in a row, IEM Katowice 2019. The Danes had started the new year just like they finished the last one. They were confident, they were professional, and, most importantly, they displayed superb play no matter the opponent. That, however, was not going to last for long.
At BLAST Pro Series São Paulo, they continued their legacy, as they defeated Team Liquid in the finals. The shock, though, came when they announced that they were not going to be attending any non-BLAST events until, most probably, the ECS Season 7 Finals. São Paulo finished on March 23. The ECS finals were scheduled for the first week of June. This meant more than two months in which they would not play at any S-tier tournament, including IEM Sidney and DreamHack Master Dallas.
The alternative they had chosen instead seemed, at minimum, unreliable. BLAST Pro events’ format featured only one best of three. In order to play at it, moreover, you previously had to overcome a best-of-one group stage where, basically, anything could happen. The games were almost puggy, the outcomes did not usually match the actual level of the contestants, and, thus, the competitive community did not take whatever happened at BLAST all too seriously.
Why had Astralis, then, chosen to go to BLAST events instead of to the truly competitive ones? Well, there are two different versions. The first one is the one that the Astralis members so desperately tried to make the public believe, to no avail. Flights to BLAST events were, for some reason, better for the team at the time, they said, and, as they were suffering from certain health problems, they did not want to attend longer events. A completely different more reliable explanation of what the Danish superstars were doing, however, did not take too long to become apparent.
BLAST events were organized by a company called RFRSH Entertainment, which was, casually, the same company that owned the Astralis organization. In order to attend BLAST events, teams had signed a contract with them, in which they committed to attending a certain amount of RFRSH’s tournaments throughout the year. Astralis was, at the time, the best team in the world, and as such, the best way of having fans paying attention to everything BLAST-related. Fans simply had to tie loose ends.
Probably, the players could do nothing to stop it. Regardless, once they came back to the actual competitive circuit, nobody expected them to be the same. They had not been present at the essential moments of the last couple of months, and, most importantly, they had not even won the BLAST events they had attended. In Miami, they did not manage to make the finals, and in Madrid, ENCE took revenge for the major finals and denied the Danes the title. Astralis were not the number one team in the world anymore, and, as such, the expectations were as well different.
Not having played any relevant tournaments in the last two months, the Astralis players, who had once occupied the CS:GO throne, wanted to demonstrate that they could still do it. They could still reign over the world, they thought. However, they had not had any meaningful competitive experience for quite some time, and that was notable. When they returned, at the ECS Season 7 Finals, the world saw an angry Astralis. They punched monitors and shouted in fury when something went wrong. Overall, they were not the impassible, calm-and-composed Danes that they used to be.
Along with that came a drop in performance. Fifth places both at the ECS and EPL finals were not results the 2018 Danes would have even considered acceptable. Something was clear: the Astralis era had long been completely over, and the players behind it were only just realizing. Their teamplay was almost non-existent compared to what it had once been, and, coming into Cologne, nobody felt like Astralis could realistically put up a fight. There was, however, a lingering sense of hope, as there is with every former best team in the world.
Last year, Astralis were the ones that were supposed to win it, and that did not happen. If there was a place for upsets and unexpected results, if there was a place for true greatness to show itself, it was in the Lanxess Arena. There, Astralis would have to fight for their legacy. If they managed to emerge victorious, the fire would be reignited, the eyes would turn to them once again, and the possibility of a second era would generate its own happy tale. If they faltered, however, they would go down the same path they were already following. They would fall down for eternity, and the tale of the five Danish prodigies would finally come to a close. What would end up happening?
ESL One Cologne: a bitter aftertaste
Astralis’ first match was against Berlin International Gaming, also known as BIG. Last year, the German squad surprised the local fans by making it all the way to the semifinals. Ever since then, however, they had struggled to obtain any impressive results, and, coming into Cologne, nobody was even hoping that the German dream would come alive.
BIG was an easy first step for the Danes, as they dismantled them 16-4 on Overpass. Astralis successfully used the match-up against the Germans as a warm-up for what came next: Fnatic. Ludvig “Brollan”
Brolin and co. seemed like a more serious, although fairly inconsistent, opponent. Astralis, however, left them no options, as they humbled them both on Train and Nuke (16-1 and 16-6, respectively). Peter “dupreeh”
Rasmussen had an amazing series, commanding his teammates to a victory that ignited a spark of hope into the hearts of Danish Counter-Strike fans.
Like that, Astralis sneaked their way into the playoffs. One series was left before they began, however — the series that would determine whether they directly advanced to the semifinals. Their opponent? Ninjas in Pyjamas’ brand-new roster, featuring Nicolas “Plopski”
González for the first time in the organization’s history. The Swedes seemed unprepared, not yet synchronized as a proper team. Even then, however, Dust 2 went all the way to overtime before Astralis closed the series on the second map, Inferno.
Up to then, Astralis had done nothing but win. At that point, many started to wonder whether the aura of invincibility and prowess that the Danes embodied not many months ago was back. After all, they had already had time to get used to competing once again at ECS and EPL. Was it possible that they had found their old selves and were about to show the world that they were still the best? As the tournament itself demonstrated, not really.
Once the semifinals played out, Astralis shifted roles completely. They had been on the winning end of match-ups ever since the tournament kicked off, but against the new French revelation, Team Vitality, they seemed to be constantly trying to catch up. Andreas “Xyp9x”
Hojslet still had an amazing series to round out an impressively good tournament, but, apart from him, the Danish hope turned into a complete disaster.
The series was certainly a fun one, with several clutches and multi-kills along its course, but, in terms of tactics and teamplay, Astralis lagged behind all the time. Against BIG, Fnatic, and NiP, this had not penalized them, but against a team with the necessary level and confidence, Astralis’s flaws ended up being severely exposed. Vitality’s pick, Dust 2, went their way in easy fashion, the Danes not even achieving two digits.
Inferno, Astralis’s choice, was initially supposed to go the other way around. The French squad, however, put up a valiant fight, taking their rivals all the way to double overtime before finally succumbing. At this time, even though the decider was left to be played, everybody knew, deep inside, who was going to win. On Overpass, a 16-9 affair sealed the deal for Vitality, who advanced to the real fight for glory on Sunday. Astralis, for their part, were left wondering what was going to happen to them.
Once more year, the Danes have not been able to overcome the semifinals in Cologne. They are not the same Danes, though, although both the players and the result are. These players will not go on to win the next few tournaments, as they would have done the year prior. These players will not go on to dictate the way the game is played, as they would have done in 2018. That is something Astralis have to accept, no matter how hard it is. They are not at the top anymore. Simply put, they are not good enough.
Cologne has confirmed the beginning of a new era of Counter-Strike. Now, once and for all, there is no way Astralis will enjoy their own renaissance. Nowadays, it is not about them, as they have stopped being the main characters of the competitive scene. Their performance in Cologne has proved so, but, still, they are not dead at all. After all, these are the same players and coach that managed to be deemed the best team to ever play the game. If someone can some day come back to the top, it has to be them.
The synergy, the system, the tactics, the conviction — Everything that made Astralis what they were is not there anymore. After Cologne, people will not consider Astralis an international contender. However, it is in their hands to reclaim the throne. If they want to start all over again and reach the top in the future, they can certainly do it. After such a downfall they have experienced, however, they will really have to commit to the grind.
Until then, goodbye Astralis, and good luck in your quest. We are all looking forward to hearing from you soon.
Lucas "LuckyNeck" Chillerón is a vivid esports fan who loves following as many competitive scenes as he can in order to write articles about them. If there is anything you would like to discuss with him or let him know, you can do it at @lucprd.