Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The State of The North American Scene

Hiko's future will have a great impact on the NA scene

The North American Scene has had a good deal of changes take place recently in its Counter-Strike lineups. There has been the departure of Spencer 'Hiko' Martin from Cloud9's active roster, the cutting and reinstatement of Sam 'DaZed' Marine by iBuyPower, the forming of the team Torqued by Josh 'Steel' Nissan and the roster shuffle over at Denial, just to name some of the big changes in the scene. Now that the North American qualifiers for MLG Aspen have concluded, and we've died down a little for the holidays, I wanted to take some time and reflect on the state of the North American Scene at the moment. The qualifiers produced some unlikely results and have raised some good questions on who is the best in the land.

1. iBuyPower
Dazed's IBP reign top of the North American Scene
Even with the recent roster changes, I still believe that iBuyPower is the top North American Team. The raw fragging power of Braztion 'swag' Pierce, Tyler 'Skadoodle' Latham and Hiko, coupled with the intelligent strats of DaZed and the often unmentioned but always essential support/clutch play by Keven 'AZK' Lariviere, iBuyPower doesn't really have an equal in the scene. I think once they get their plays together and their chemistry going, they will be the force to reckon with on the continent. They did lose to Tarik 'Tarik' Celik's MouseSpaz in the MLG Aspen qualifiers, which was a total surprise, but I do not think an online victory, even one that decisive, can be counted on as evidence for how things will play out on LAN. MLG Aspen is going to be interesting, to say the least.

2. MouseSpaz

reltuC's MouseSpaz surprised a lot of people recently

That the MLG Aspen Qualifiers were surprising would be an understatement. MouseSpaz came out and destroyed every one, and put on a show of such force, that they rocketed to the top of a lot of people's teams to watch list. Peter 'ptr' Gurney in particular put on an impressive display, both leading in the team in the IGL role and fragging like mad, leading MS to a 2-0 victory over iBP. I can't put them over iBP on these online results alone, but if they continue to impress, North America has a third powerhouse team that I didn't even see coming.

3. cloud9
ShahZam has some big shoes to fill on Cloud9

It was a close tie between Cloud9 and MouseSpaz, but due to the shaky results before the swapping of Hiko for Shahzeb 'ShahZam' Khan and the unpredictability that the new roster has, Cloud9 come in at number three for me in the North American Scene. ShahZam could really impress us, I think he has that level of skill. However, how well he performs is yet to be truly tested. He's looked good on the streams that I've watched of him, but those are hardly an indication of how well a player will perform internationally. However, Cloud9 was sorely missing structured roles with Hiko, so the adding of ShahZam could allow the players to fill the same roles every game and shine in them. ShahZam taking over AWP duties will allow Sean 'sgears' Gears to never have to worry about AWPing ever again, and allow him and Kory 'Semphis' Friesen to call with less to worry about. A good AWP opens up so much of the map on T side, as Titan and iBP will tell you as well. A strong T side will hugely benefit cloud9, and could make take them to the semi finals in the next big major.

4. Denial

Can NAF-FLY lead Denial to a top spot?

Denial has been relegated to the B team in the NA scene for the last several months, which is not a bad thing by any means. They have been nipping at the heels of C9 and iBP constantly, and taking and dropping players whenever it works for them. But they had a really strong showing at ESEA LAN, and even after losing ShahZam and gaining Nick 'Nitr0' Cannella, I think Denial are the strongest team in NA that is lurking in the shadows. Keith 'NAF-FLY' Markovic in particular really impressed me at ESEA and he is only 17 years old. With Eric 'adreN' Hoag coming in for Denial, with the raw fragging of NAF and Nitro, Denial have the ability to come from the underdog position and take some maps off of some top European teams. I don't think they have the ability to beat NiP or Fnatic right now, but I think they could give teams like PENTA, Wizards or KaBuM a good run for their money.

5. Torqued

steel can fully shape Torqued and make it his own
Last but not least, is John 'steel' Nissan's Torqued. I think that they are probably tied with Mythic in terms of this number 5 spot, but just knowing how sharp steel is, I have to give it to Torqued here. Mythic did just add Todd 'anger' Williams, and Erik 'fl0m' Flom's is a sick aimer, but steel is probably the smartest person playing CS right now, and I think his frustrations and bad luck get in his way. I think he can be a bit unprofessional at time (you can't be calling out other pros for cheating) but I think he has a great mind for CS. Even though Mohammed 'Moe" Assad can be toxic at times (which he will need to scale back if he ever wants to be a top contender) I think Torqued can make a name for themselves. Of all the teams on here, they have the biggest skill gap between themselves and the team above them, but hey, all of these teams had to start somewhere, right?

All photo and link credit to HLTV.org. The real heroes of the CS Scene

Sunday, December 14, 2014

ESEA LAN impressions

It's a little late, but I got busy, and decided that waiting a little while may give myself more time for insight as the fall out of ESEA LAN Season 17 finals settles. ESEA Season 17 concluded with a Fnatic win over Virtus Pro in the finals, with Fnatic taking two best of threes from Virtus Pro. Just like the last LAN debriefing on Dreamhack, most of the expert analysis has already been written, so I'm just going to write down my thoughts from a semi-serious MMer point of view.

iBP's AZK, nitr0 and swag
First, let's start with iBP. I have to say, I did not expect much of iBP initially. This was just my opinion, but with the recent change of DaZed out (now back in, as of this writing), nitr0 being untested, and adreN coming from a semi-long LAN hiatus, I think most expectations were for iBP to take this LAN as a sort of testing ground and serve as good LAN experience for the team. They did well, kinda surprisingly, taking it all the way to the semis where they lost against fnatic, who is arguably the best team in the world at the moment. They came out swinging and nitr0 showed us we have some reason to be excited for the NA scene, proving that there is talent in NA outside of iBP and Cloud9. It's too bad desi couldn't make it, as he is a very strong player. I hope to see some good action out of desi in the coming months, whatever team he gets picked up by. Skadoodle also proved that he is the best AWPer in North America at the moment, even with his reported sub-standard comms. If he can work on his chemistry, he can truly be a world class talent. I hope DaZed's new tenure on iBP will help Skadoodle continue to develop in the player he can be.

Cloud9's Semphis, sgears and n0thing

Moving on, Cloud9 was one of the favorites coming into this tournament. Their quick exit in FACEIT was seen as an anomaly, but the group stage exit at Dreamhack hinted that maybe it was warranted. They spent a month in Europe bootcamping, but I am of the opinion that the boot camp burned them out. Cloud9's style is always an intellectually surprising style of play, and by playing for so long, I think they meta-gamed themselves out. They rely on taking advantages of enemy's expectations and doing what the other teams don't expect. When you play everyday for a month, nothing seems new to you anymore. Cloud9 has the same team core that surprised VeryGames in DreamHack 2013 in one of the most exciting games to this date. These days however, they are not playing at the same level. There are many theories as to why this is happening. I think it's a combination of other teams seeing c9's play style more since that DreamHack upset. I think that upsets like that rely intimately on Semphis and sgears playing out of their minds, and that hasn't happened too much recently. n0thing has been playing CS for so long, that it's up to him to be unpredictable. He is one of the few that has enough experience to have truly seen everything, so they need him to do things that enemy's won't expect. Without his and Semphis entry fragging, Hiko's lurks look pointless. Shroud seems like he's a bit without guidance. I used to think that sgears was one of the smartest minds in CS. I don't want to say he's not. I think he's smart, but it's hard to match someone like Pronax in terms of raw fragging ability and tactics. I think Sean would do great in a coaching role, with a strong AWP brought in as a replacement. There are many rumors of Cloud9 roster changes that have swirled around recently, but only time will tell if they are founded or not. C9 is still my favorite team, mostly on the back of n0thing's personality and likeness to myself. I'm hoping they can turn it around and have a chance to place in the Top 4 internationally.

Denial's ShaHzam celebrates beating Cloud9

Next, we come to Denial. Denial is Todd 'anger' Williams's newest team, and one who people didn't have  really have high expectations of. That situation in it of itself was a perfect setup for them to surprise everyone, and surprise they did. NAF-FLY, daps and ShahZam all played out of their mind and beat took Cloud9 out early. I honestly don't know much about Denial outside of anger and ShahZam's reputation as being a shit-stirrer, but this outing put the players on an internationl map. ShahZam in particular showed us that there is another AWP in NA to watch for. If he can consistently have results like this, he can be top contender. Expect to see some big things out of Denial if they can keep developing.

Fnatic shakes hands with Virtus.Pro after winning
Fnatic proved that they're really good at either playing or cheating. This is the second big LAN with people breathing down their necks with the cheating accusations and they still perform. Their loss to LDLC in the quarter finals was considered the finals of DH for many, so their exit at that stage is not indicative of their skill. At ESEA, they were able to fight their way through the lower bracket, beating iBP and then VP in two best of threes. They are almost unstoppable. The only team that has an honest chance at beating them is the French powerhouse of LDLC, who is the other team in contention for best team of the world. If Fnatic is still cheating after all the witchhunting that is going on, they are the gutsiest team out there. It probably means that their hacks are so ingrained in the game, its impossible to detect and get them out. I have a theory that IF they are, the organization Fnatic is behind it. The organization has lots of money that could be used to hire hackers and programmers, and could develop to a level that would be tough to detect for Valve. Fnatic also has pressure from shareholders to perform well, something most other teams don't have. When it's your ass on the line, we have seen many humans do unethical things to not get fired. IF they are cheating, its systematic to a level that we probably couldn't catch. At least, those are my thoughts on it. However, short of any other evidence, we must assume that they are clean. It would destroy the sport if we thought cheaters were winning major LANs. We could never trust anyone again if that came out.

What else is left for VP to accomplish?

Lastly, we come to Virtus.Pro, who are doing well. Reportedly, they just signed of the most expensive contracts in the history of Virtus.Pro and CS. It doesn't appear as though their careers are in trouble, and it couldn't happen to better guys. The Polish 5 are some of the most looked up to people in the scene. However, I think that they are doing super well because of snax. Snax has crazy smokes, pulls out huge clutch rounds and can almost always be counted on to deliver. He is one of the great underrated CS players, in my opinion. PashaBiceps, of course, is the other carry. He shows up every game, and plays with such confidence and precision when he is on, that he is a force to be reckoned with. When he is on, he is in contention for best player in the world, and has one of the highest game impacts of any player. Coming from 1.6, its crazy to say that Neo is the one not pulling his weight. He was said to be the first person to hit the skill ceiling in CS 1.6, but his skills have never transferred that well to CSGO. I even think his sidekick TaZ is a little better than NEO, as TaZ has has some of the craziest and most intense clutch rounds I've ever seen. TaZ routinely brings VP out of tight situations, something that I can't say happens with NEO as much as it used to. NEO will play for as long as he wants to, as he has earned that right with his 1.6 performance. But I think it's safe to say that his best days are behind him. However, his waning years are still better than the vast majority of the population, so I have no answer for if he should stay or go. He is a legend, so it will be a sad day when he finally calls it quits. However, I think that if VP needs to change, it is NEO and TaZ who need to go. Snax and byali still have so much room for improvement, that I don't think you can keep people whose skills are going to decline as they age in favor of young blood. For now, the results are strong enough to not see a change, and so we can expect to keep seeing VP take Top 4 finishes for a long time to come.

All picture credit go to my boys over at hltv.org

Saturday, December 06, 2014

ESEA LAN Pre-Write Up

I'm excited for the ESEA LAN that is happening this weekend. We are going to see CS:GO on American soil, something that has been sorely lacking (in my opinion) from the CS scene lately. While cloud9's extensive bootcamp in Europe and subsequent quick exit from Dreamhack proved to us that being in Europe for a long time prior didn't necessarily lead to better results, I still think that CS changes when you change continents. The environmental factors every country has invariably have an affect on how players perform. Just as one tournament is not enough to prove who the best team is, playing in only one continent will only give you some of the picture. By playing in as many different environments as possible, you get the most detailed idea of who the best teams really are. I also like that some lesser known teams from North America can make the trip to the LAN and not incur huge expenses. It gives LAN exposure to up and coming players from the North American scene and gives them much needed experience playing in front of lots of people.

Short of any concrete proof of Fnatic cheating, I think we have to assume that flusha, jw and olofmeister are all clean players. This makes fnatic the best team in the world for now, so it was really good that they could come to this tournament to give legitimacy to it. jw's response on reddit, pronax's post and even flusha's post on facebook has really softened me to them. I admit that I still have some suspicions about flusha, but they are people and deserve to be treated as such. Short of any evidence to the contrary, I assume that they are just trying to be the best team they can be. I want to see them do well and prove to people that they are not cheating at all.

I want to see Denial do well, as they are an up and coming team that could make some noise if they believe in themselves and play as well as they do pugging in America.

The team I'm rooting for the most, of course, is cloud9. I hope that they can shake off their loss in Europe and pull through and do well in this tournament. I also want iBuyPower to do well, mostly for the sake the North American Scene. We need good teams to make North American teams taken seriously. We also need good teams, because people like cloud9 and iBP can only scrim against each other so many times before it turns into anti-stratting. There's a reason that no matter how much Australian teams play against each other, if they don't play against European teams, they'll never get good enough to  compete on the international scene.

We will have to see what happens!

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Dreamhack Winter

You've read all the formal write ups about Dreamhack already, so I'll get straight to the point: I've been watching competitive Counter-strike for the better part of a year and a half. That isn't that long, but I've seen it grow from 2,000 viewers being a good turn out, to 20k viewers being the norm. I saw fnatic beat NiP in the infamous Dreamhack Bucharest episode. I've seen the Virtus Pro dismissal, the dissolution of the old Navi, the creation of Astana Dragons and the entire circle dance that is the French Scene, involving VeryGames, Epislon, Titan and LDLC.com. I got up early to watch the Polish 5 Virtus Pro stomp on everyone in Katowice. I watched NiP reign supreme at Cologne. Dreamhack Winter 2014, was one of the most fun I've ever had watching Counter-Strike.

This year's tournament took place during American Thanksgiving, and happened to coincide with my girlfriend leaving town for 5 days. Coincidentally, that meant that I could get up and stay up whenever I wanted. This lead to some weird hours, but some great counter strike watching. I haven't made it clear here on this blog yet, but my favorite Counter Strike teams are there, in this order: 1) cloud9 2) HellRaisers 3) NiP/LDLC/Virtus.Pro/iBuyPower. I like cloud9 because n0thing is one of my favorite players, and I think he looks like me. Plus, he's from California, so I have to rep my home country and state. I also am a big fan of Hiko's play, not as big of a fan of his personality. I like Hell Raisers because I like Dosia and Markleoff, as well as adreN and his replacement s1mple. I also for some reason, just like Russians. I can't really explain it.

I went to bed early on Thanksgiving night so that I could get up at 4am to watch my two favorite teams take each other on. cloud9 did not look good in it, and it did not bode well for their inevitable game against fnatic. With all the accusation of cheating against fnatic, I was not a fan of them going into the tournament. But short of a VAC ban, we have no conclusive way to prove anyone is cheating. But since cloud9 did not beat HellRaisers, I did not see them moving pass groups. I ended up being right, in less convincing fashion from cloud9 than I would have liked. I think they knew they wouldnt best fnatic. No fault to cloud9, they got a really rough draw. There was a guaranteed disappointment in that group, and cloud 9 just happened to be it on that day.

Friday was one of the longest days of Counter Strike I've watched as well. I went to bed after it was clear cloud9 was going to play fnatic later in the morning, so I woke up to see that. I watched the day progress, but it became clear that all the expected teams that were supposed to win, were winning. The only upset that I didn't see, was iBP losing to PENTA, which should not happen. Steel quitting due to Skadoodle and Swag's inability to communicate is completly understandable in this case. I may write about that another time.

Saturday is when the real good matches happened. First up, HellRaisers vs NiP. I made a cup of coffee for this match, but ended up falling asleep right after drinking it. I woke up enough to see NiP crush HellRaisers in a match that didn't seem very good. I had some fever dreams about f0rest man-handling HellRaisers, and that is exactly what happened. I went to bed knowing Virtus.Pro would take out Penta, but I made sure to wake up to see the match we had all been waiting for: LDLC versus Fnatic.

The game started out very good. LDLC came out strong in the opening match, but I had seen several other teams take opening maps over stronger opponents. It happened to Cloud9 against NiP in Cologne. Sure enough, fnatic took the second map off of LDLC in a convincing fashion, making me wonder if LDLC had been outplayed. However, LDLC came out strong against fnatic in the first half on Overpass, and it looked after pistol round 13-3, that LDLC was going to go to the semifinals.

When the boost first happened, LDLC ran around it twice unknowingly. Anders posited, "maybe LDLC know about this boost?" But then LDLC ran out of squeaky into water and got destroyed from above, not knowing where they were getting shot from. I have only seen that disparity in map awareness in noobs first playing maps. They look confused. They looked like 12 year olds playing CS for the first time, not the 20 somethings that were among the best in the world in their craft. At first it was kinda funny, but then it got sad, and frustrating, when round after round, fnatic abused the boost and gunned LDLC down before they could get anything going. It turned from a clever boost, to a clear exploit. It wasn't even a map anymore. LDLC had to rush everything, as they just had to hope they could go fast enough to not let Olof get a shot on them. It was gross. I sat there, stunned in my chair, lost for words. I was typing to several different friends on Steam, and twitter and reddit blew up. I have never seen the CS community react so strongly, so vocally as when that happened. It was honestly a lot of fun to be apart of the twitter firestorm that was the CS scene in the wake of the olof boost.

It would be extremely hard to top the controversy and the drama that surround the fnatic and LDLC game, and dignitas and Navi didn't really come close. Dignitas folded in yet another digniatas fashion. The removal of Fetish as in game leader is no doubt a result of the quick 2-0 exit they faced against Navi.

I woke up the next day, to seeing LDLC playing Navi in the semi finals. I was not expecting the news that fnatic had decided to forfeit the match against LDLC, as cArn and Devilwalk's behavior after the match suggested that they didn't think it was an unfair boost. NiP over VP didn't shock me, but a VP win wouldn't have shocked me either. LDLC was able to best Navi, even though I secretly rooted for the Russian side to make it to the finals, something that they had not managed to do during anything outside of Star series. LDLC took Navi to the house, and prepared to face NiP in the finals.

The home environment in Sweeden must have been great. Every round that the Ninjas took, you could hear the crowd roar. Every entry frag was met with cheers, and clean picks met with even louder cheers. I felt bad for LDLC, as when they did something good, they got a small cheer from the crowd. I was pulling for them, however. NiP had won the last $250K tournament, so I usually root for the underdog.

In true dramatic form, the match came down to Overpass, the very map that had caused the biggest uproar I have seen in the CS scene yet. The match was hard fought and somehow, I knew, just because of the way things had been going, that LDLC would pull it to OT, even as they went down in rounds. I was sitting in my chair, just dumb founded and giddy. I truly didn't know what to expect from each round, and that is a sign of great counter strike.

When LDLC finally pulled it off, it was an obvious let down for the home crowd. People congratulated LDLC well enough, and we saw the manager really celebrate.

I walked away from the tournament, with all the best feelings you can walk away the tournament with. This post is already running very long, so I don't want to talk about much else right now. I'll probably make a separate post on the boost, communication importance, and players who didn't perform up to their level (ehhem, shox). But for now, I'm exicted with the growth CS has been having in the last 2 years. I started playing in late 2012, and got into the tournaments in May of 2013, and I seemed to pick a fantastic time to jump on board. In only 20 hours, the ESEA LAN will start, and we will be treated to another (hopefully) great weekend of counter strike.


  1. Counter-Strike Global Offensive