Europe has been the home of Counter-Strike excellence since the franchise began and CS:GO has not broken that habit despite the emergence of some truly legendary Brazilian line-ups and the occasional elite North American side.
Whether it be the team-play mastery of Sweden's best free-flowing sides, Denmark's tactical precision or Eastern Europe's aggressive power play, Europe remains the spring from which new dominant dynasties flow. Over nearly seven years of CS:GO competition, Europe has boasted the world number one ranked team for the majority of that time span, and of the 14 majors thus far, a European team has been crowned champion on 11 occasions.
The start of CS:GO's competitive circuit was a confusing and uncertain time, as entire teams of players migrated over to the new title and had to initially figure out which of their players had even successfully adapted to the new game, never mind how to operate within the next playing environment and initial meta. NiP famously dominated the early days, winning their first 87 maps offline in a row and their first 10 LAN events. VeryGames could play them close at times, while others merely had occasional chances to upset them and failed, but NiP's persistent refusal to lose established them as worthy dictators in the scene.
Until the autumn of 2013, more than a year after NiP began playing CS:GO, they were the name on everyone's lips. Their defeats were occasional and unexpected, all of them in series play coming from two similar but just different enough Virtus.pro line-ups. The first, with AdreN, famously bested NiP twice to deny them their first title at StarSeries V. With the mighty GuardiaN in tow, VP’s second incarnation bested them but ended up gifting VeryGames their first offline title at an event featuring NiP in attendance.
That VeryGames line-up, not VP, would be the team to take the throne from NiP. For a six-month span after Dreamhack Bucharest, NiP's last big title of 2013, it was the French side who superseded NiP to become the world number one ranked team, win the most offline events and be a threat to take the title at any tournament they entered.
Elsewhere during this period, the only other credible threat was gla1ve's Copenhagen Wolves team. They gained ground fast in early 2013 and took runners-up finishes at two notable tournaments - ESH Vienna and Copenhagen Games. Their 16-2 destruction of NiP on Nuke, considered the Swede's unassailable home map, suggested the Danes could have been the game's first non-NiP world number one, but they would eventually break apart under the weight of internal conflicts and fizzle out.
By 2014, the second phase of teams were ready to lead the way and this time around we saw some similar names, but also some new ones joining the fold of elite squads. NiP had tread remained as consistent contenders, yet failed to win any titles for a considerable period of time. However, in doing so, they outlasted the VeryGames/Titan squad which had displaced them. While Titan had lost shox, their best player and the number one in the game, NiP were back to their winning ways, taking the Copenhagen Games 2014 title and going on to win Dreamhack Summer to cement their top spot over the body of the year.
Denying NiP from winning their first major in their second finals opportunity had been Virtus.pro, this time the Polish version. Bringing back NEO and TaZ, familiar foils for GeT_RiGhT and f0rest and winners of many majors in 1.6, VP used their former 1.6 stars as supportive elements around new talents Snax and byali, with late-comer-to-1.6 pasha cementing himself as one of the best players in the world.
This new breed of power Counter-Strike was unlike anything the game had seen and many an opponent had to adapt to overcome the force of the Poles that year. VP would not rack up many titles, often forced to settle for deep runs in majors, but winning a major and taking down Gfinity G3 in epic fashion, after looking to be headed out in the semi, made it clear that VP were here to stay as an elite side.
While Titan floundered in the wake of shox leaving and kennyS coming back into the line-up, but with Ex6TenZ showing a disturbingly brittle form at majors, it was Happy and LDLC who emerged as standard bearers for France. By ESL One Cologne, the second major of the year, Happy's men, featuring names like apEX and KQLY, were legitimately contending for titles with the best teams in the world and could consider themselves unlucky to only make the semi-final of the major. NiP would snatch that major on the way out of the door to end that line-up's time as an elite side, though their next iteration was not far away.
Third time was charming
A team who did make that ESL One Cologne final and were set figure significantly in the next era of Counter-Strike was the new FNATIC line-up, bringing in olof and KRiMZ, of LGB fame, to create a new blend. This team showed promise early on, with a major final in only their second offline event together. When they finally began winning, with a StarSeries title breaking the dam, they seemed set to create an era immediately, winning three straight offline events in the run-up to Dreamhack Winter, the last major of 2014.
FNATIC's olofpass controversy and forfeit in the play-offs of said major led into a sputtering start to 2015, which had the Swedes as a very good team but initially overtaken by LDLC. The next major changed everything, though, as FNATIC narrowly bested NiP for the title and would go on a legendary run of wins to establish an era worthy of being put alongside NiP's. Sure, FNATIC could lose a tournament, but their epic dominance is perhaps best stated by pointing out how many times they did win titles in tournaments they seemed destined to lose or fall short in.
FNATIC's primary rival for titles was the LDLC/nV line-up they had beaten on every occasion in offline bo3 play. Despite being unable to take down JW and the gang, LDLC/nV were so good and dangerous for all other opposition that they managed to take plenty of titles and deep finishes for themselves, even winning a major, to keep FNATIC in danger of losing that world number one spot they would give up briefly early that year. When nV finally fell from winning ways, they quickly assessed their circumstances and made the appropriate shuffle to ignite a new run of form.
One of the teams making life difficult for FNATIC and providing them with direct competition was the Danish side TSM. karrigan's arrival transformed their fortunes, with losing in semi-finals no longer their cursed fate, but rather winning against top competition in prestigious (but smaller) competitions being the new test. TSM won three straight LANs in a row once they got rolling and would make the semi-finals of the next major. Despite eventually boasting a record of seven offline Bo3 victories out of eight played against FNATIC, TSM lagged far behind in number of titles won and could never live up to their potential and reach the final of the major.
While those powerhouses won the trophies and vied for the era, VP still lurked in the background, ready to step forward and push any elite team to the limit and test their chins with heavy haymakers that could knock any of them out of a big tournament at seemingly any moment. VP were not a team able to lead the pack, but they ensured anyone hoping to be among the leaders of the scene had to showcase some grit and heart en route.
NiP had their magical moments and came close to a few trophies in their own right, but their time at the top had begun to fade and they were more of an exciting fan prospect for upsets as opposed to a legitimately elite squad for much of this era.
When the FNATIC era ended with nV drubbing them in the Dreamhack Cluj-Napoca quarter-finals, pronax departed from the squad and they looked headed for a period marked by uncertainty and the demands of retooling their game. Instead, FNATIC caught lightning in a bottle with the signing of dennis, helping them tear off their first six offline events in a row, relying largely on phenomenal individual play and a seemingly irrational level of confidence.
Denied championships by that FNATIC core would be two of the game's best tactical sides, as Na`Vi and Luminosity Gaming both consistently reached top finishes but could not take down flusha and the gang. Na`Vi had risen from perennial upset merchants to a true force, boasting GuardiaN - one of the very best individual carry players in the game - and a fantastically consistent offensive tactical playing style, led by coach and leader starix.
The turning point in 2016 was MLG Columbus, not just because it was the first major of the year but because olofmeister and GuardiaN, the two best players in the game, both arrived at the major with performance-limiting injuries. FalleN and coldzera's Luminosity seized upon this opportunity to take the reigns of the scene away from the European scene for the first time in CS:GO history. Victory at back-to-back majors had Luminosity/SK holding the throne as the best the game had to offer. Their dominance was manifest in their epic seventeen-game winning streak offline on Train.
While Na`Vi transitioned to bringing in s1mple and FNATIC tried to rehabilitate olof and eventually made drastic changes, the team playing the VP role of keeping the top teams in check was G2. As with LDLC before them, it was the left-overs in the French scene who stepped ahead of their peers to take on the world's best. After his coup d'état failed in nV, shox was forced out and came over to be the central piece of rivals G2. His own individual return to form, coupled with a renaissance in ScreaM’s career, had G2 keeping apace with anyone put up against them over a span of a few months, culminating in a near win at EPL S3 Finals and then a spectacular championship run at ECS S1 Finals.
Who knows any more?
After SK won ESL One Cologne 2016, the last title those five Brazilian players would take together, the scene seemingly entered its most unusual and uncertain period, as event after event saw different winners lifting trophies. The only consistent team at the time was Virtus.pro, who had fully overcome their minor offline slump to again return to championship form and against a new era of contenders; a feat so astounding and unlikely it cannot be overstated.
While NiP showed a brief revival, even bringing in former starter Maikelele as a stand-in, it would be a reformulated Astralis who emerged as the next top team. With former Copenhagen Wolves IGL gla1ve taking over from karrigan, Denmark's finest at last captured the world number one spot, going from top four at IEM Oakland to runners-up at ELEAGUE S2 to winning ECS S2. As the best in the game, they would follow up their ECS win with the ELEAGUE Atlanta major and IEM Katowice a few months later. They would not capture an era, falling soon after to become merely the third best team, but Astralis helped guide European Counter-Strike during the dark night of uncertainty.
During Astralis' rise, two teams made notable runs. On the one hand, the previous number ones of SK still remained highly relevant, a permanent feature in semi-finals and finals, but eventually hit a fork in the road, choosing to jettison fnx and take on young talent felps for the following year. On the other hand, there was the rise of new would-be-elite side Dignitas. Over the latter part of 2016, Dignitas managed a number of top finishes, including a memorable victory at EPICENTER, to give Denmark two teams in the top five of the world. Dignitas, who became North the following year, would fail to get over the top and instead wash back down and out of the top five.
A party of powerhouses again
When Astralis were unable to close out the StarSeries S3 final and begin the work of establishing an era of their own, the moment proved significant in more ways than just that. FaZe, the champions of that event, would go on to be a consistent contender at the upcoming events, though they were unable to make this own their time for more trophies. Failing to make the play-offs at that same event but then reinventing themselves were SK Gaming. The Brazilians, now with fer taking up a starring role as a stats monster of aggressive play, pushed their way to the front of the queue again and at one point near the middle of the year had won five out of six events.
That run led them into the PGL Krakow major, where many looked to them to win the third major for that core. Instead, SK would be shocked by an amazing performance from Astralis in the quarter-finals. Astralis themselves gave up the trend of the elite teams taking all the titles, though, as they fell to Gambit, who surprised many with the first ever major victory for the CIS region in CS:GO.
Outside of the SK, FaZe and Astralis trio were G2. No longer left-overs, this line-up was the infamously billed "French Super-Team", who took in NBK, apEX and kennyS from the major-winning nV squad. G2 would hit their peak and win two big events, EPL S5 Finals and Dreamhack Masters Malmo, but ultimately fail to meet the expectations of a scene which wanted to see another French side battle the best with consistency, as VeryGames and LDLC had done previously. Instead, G2 had their occasional flourishes, but largely remained relevant as unlikely but exciting counters to SK's style of play.
Balance at last
After PGL Krakow, a number of teams would see roster moves and changes in fortunes following. FaZe themselves reacted to a disastrous 0-3 Swiss performance at the major by bringing in super-star names olof and GuardiaN to retool their squad. FaZe would become the seeming protagonists of the scene, taking so many fans' favourite players and vying for an era of their own. Despite dominant victories at ESL One New York 2017 and ELEAGUE Premier and making many finals, FaZe were upset too many times to create the legendary period of dominance that had at times looked almost inevitable.
FaZe's primary foils were SK Gaming, who had now transitioned to yet another fifth in Boltz. As well as beating FaZe in their notable meetings, SK managed another string of strong performances, this time closing out 2017 with three offline wins in four events played with Boltz. Unable to use him at the major, they would manage a strong run there but never again be truly in contention for world number one status, shockingly.
With FaZe's failures as the game's would-be dominant force, it was ballsy but otherwise unspectacular teams like FNATIC, Cloud9 and NiP who stole away some of the titles karrigan's men had seemed destined for. Likewise, growing in force elsewhere were teams like mouz and Na`Vi, who didn't have the pieces to be the best themselves but could keep other teams from staking territory at the top of the rankings.
mouz were a band of outcasts and outsiders who showcased strong consistent performances to climb up to the heights of a second place world ranking at one point around the Spring of 2018. Natus Vincere returned to relevance as one of the game's top sides thanks to superlative individual play from s1mple, a super-star to best all other super-stars, and eventually electronic. The latter's activation saw Na`Vi go on a run of three straight titles around the summer, even if only one - ESL One Cologne - was a huge event also featuring Astralis.
That win proved significant. By the summer it was undisputed as to who the best team in Counter-Strike was, with Astralis having not only won most events they had attended but also doing so in staggeringly emphatic fashion, rarely even losing maps, never mind series. After winning the FACEIT Major, the Danes were headed for an equally ludicrously successful close to the year. Astralis were no longer being discussed as the best team of the year but now potentially the best to ever play CS:GO, with good reason.
While teams like FaZe, Na`Vi and even North were able to take some trophies this year, Astralis were the central theme at practically all moments. Few teams could bring device and his fellow Danes close to defeat, but even fewer could consistently hold pace behind the trail-blazers. Where in the past fellow European teams would have been primary antagonists for Astralis, perhaps even the FaZe of former IGL karrigan seeming the obvious suggestion, it would be a non-European team contesting Astralis for many of those titles, as Team Liquid became the first North American team to legitimately battle for team of the year.
The ongoing war
European Counter-Strike remains at the forefront of the global scene. Astralis remains the dizzyingly dominant tyrant yet to be properly unseated from the top. Elsewhere, Europe can offer more than just Na`Vi and FaZe, as Finland's ENCE have not just elevated their own status but, with their runners-up finish at the major, even put themselves into the esteemed company of the elite teams.
Team Liquid are no doubt still a potent force and one of the sides best equipped to battle Astralis; perhaps one day even dethrone them. But for now, Europe remains the breeding ground of great CS:GO sides and the home of most of the game's legends.