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Ups, downs and upsets: looking back at Fnatic’s path to ESL ESEA Pro League Season 1 finals victory

Sören Vendsahm's picture
Sören Vendsahm
Contributing Editor
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It was Sunday night in Cologne when the pressure - the weight of the world - was finally lifted from the shoulders of every single Fnatic player. After one of the most tumultuous weekends in recent CS:GO history, the five Swedes collected yet another title. The prestigious inaugural ESL ESEA Pro League season was over and Europe reigned supreme - but not without North America wreaking havoc in the ESL’s Cologne studios. For the first time in a long time, two North American teams made it to the semifinals. Cloud9 even carried the star-spangled banner straight to the grand finals - one day after the 4th of July.

From lower bracket to champions

The strangest story of the entire tournament occurred in Group B, with a seemingly ordinary CS:GO event grand finals becoming an elimination showcase. Before the event, how Group B would play out was a forgone conclusion. With TSM and Fnatic the two best teams in the world at the moment, everyone was looking at the two North American teams in the group to see who would take third. How wrong those expectations were was clear after only the first game. In a great showcase of skill, teamwork and poise, Counter Logic Gaming was able to topple the giant.


Fnatic on a roll in the grand finals

Just a few days beforehand, Fnatic player Flusha had voiced his displeasure at the finals event, making a case for the European teams being a lot stronger than their North American counterparts. After the match on Mirage, the North American CS:GO world was seemingly sending him a message. With North American teams winning three out of the four first round matches, a trend that no one would have expected was set in motion. While the North American side was enthusiastic about the sudden burst of success, European teams and fans were looking to the best of one system to explain the upsets.

Whatever it was, it created the showdown of two of the best teams in the world during the group stage - with a loser leaves town stipulation. Not even ten hours into the tournament, one of the European heavy-hitters was already on the way out. Either the Danes of TSM or the Swedes from Fnatic would be sent packing courtesy of CLG and Keyd Stars.

The site was Overpass, the tension and excitement high. In one of the best matches of the tournament, the two teams went the distance, with Fnatic just barely edging out their rival with 16-14. olofmeister and KRIMZ especially stepped up to the plate and delivered when the Fnatic world started crumbling in the sewers, bank or toilets on Overpass.

After that showdown, it was tough to believe that it was only the end of day one. Fnatic barely did enough to move on, CLG won the group and TSM was out already - a shocking turn of events.

Semifinals game 2Semifinals game 3

Fnatic were warned and so they seemed to be paying more attention when facing North American opponents come day two. The beneficiary of this changed composure was Keyd Stars in the quarterfinals, and a 16-5 slaughter on Inferno later it looked like Fnatic were done messing around and ready to move forward stronger than before. The Brazilian team rallied back and put on a great show on Train in the second map, but forcing overtime was the furthest they could push the envelope. The Swedes moved on, got their revenge against the first North American squad and were now tasked with dealing with Virtus.pro.


A LAN event without a single TSM win - a rarity

While TSM versus Fnatic might have been the game of the tournament, the series of VP against the Swedish juggernauts is in the running for best matchup of the tournament. Both teams didn’t give an inch, both teams went into the series with a set game plan and both executed it to perfection. At the start, it looked like the Virtus Plow train could eliminate Fnatic before the grand finals, but Overpass and Dust 2 quickly put it into perspective again. The Virtus Plow express had reached the end of the line, where the Swedish conductors then finished them off. Thus the grand finals berth for Fnatic was clinched, their road to redemption after the sloppy first day was almost completed and only a North American team in the form of Cloud9 was standing between them and first place at yet another big event.

North American resurgence

The perception was clear heading into this tournament. With North America having placed at the bottom of the standings the last couple of times at international LANs, the foregone conclusion seemed to be for a top four of all European teams. Fnatic player flusha even validated that point of view in an interview prior to the event, possibly providing material for the bulletin boards of the proud North American teams.


Cloud9 after their upset victory against EnVyUs

They came out swinging for the fences straight away, causing headshaking and surprised analysis everywhere. This phenomenon was especially apparent in the debut game of CLG versus Fnatic after the analyst desk had spend some time picking apart the fact that there are seemingly no maps where CLG should have an advantage. The team around tarik seemed to disagree with the assessment and used the dusty surface of Mirage to send a message. Just like they did in Aspen against a top European team, CLG came in with a plan, bringing the hype, aim and patience required to conquer the map. Back in Aspen it was LDLC on the receiving end of this strategy, but here in Cologne it was the Swedish giant.


Lots of reasons for North America to be happy

Even better and more symbolic of the rise of the North American region was Cloud9’s run. Coming off a 19-3 record in the North American region to qualify for this event, the region’s number one seed had the burden of carrying the North American region back to glory on their backs. After a rather disappointing weekend in London right before, the quest looked to be a difficult one - but the team proved this wrong.

Throughout the event, Cloud9 showed flashes of brilliance, incredible team play and cohesive shotcalling that seemed to have been lacking in recent times. The light blue squad was on point, executed very well, brought their communication to another level and saw their in-game leader sgares step up big time. Reddit, Twitch chat and his own teammates paid him the respect he deserved after reading EnVyUs like a book in the opening bout.

In a subsequent interview, fREAKAZOiD shared some insight on the team and sgares. The line “He is a wizard” in reference to his strat calling set the tone, showing utmost respect for an often overlooked and underrated quality in a CS:GO team. sgares’s stat lines might not have been up to par with those of some members of his team, but the extensive study of potential opponents ahead of the event paid off in strides - against French team EnVyUs especially Cloud9 seemed to be a step ahead all the time. In the group stage almost every read was spot on, just like sgares also outthinking them in the quarterfinals. A decisive 3-0 on the weekend against nV was the result, a grand finals berth the reward.


sgares in command of his troops

A mixture stepping up big time to deliver in clutch moments, perfect strat calling and a hype atmosphere in communications made the difference for the North American warriors. After eliminating their North American brothers CLG in the semifinals, the perfect story for the grand finals was complete. The joined league of North American and European CS:GO would have a fitting and deserving final with the two top seeds of the region colliding - Fnatic with 17-5 through the regular season and Cloud9 with 19-3. Who would reign supreme?

Barbecue, clutch and overtime

So the grand finals rolled around with a different flair. For a while, the North American teams have been shut out of the final game by European dominance, mostly Cloud9 losing at the major stages against gatekeepers such as Ninjas in Pyjamas or Virtus.pro. As such, it was history in the making right away, with things getting even more dramatic with n0thing and co. not surrendering without a fight.

They came into the match ready to be hyped, ready to play, ready to punish mistakes and to utilize the 4th of July spirit in their advantage. n0thing set the tone at the start of the POV, already apologizing for the use of strong language in the broadcast - a device to push everyone to their limits.

For the first map that strategy seemed to work, with Cloud9 walking away from the old and dreamy ruins of Cobblestone with a narrow 16-14 victory. This was overshadowed a bit by a hiccup in the form of a timeout on Fnatic’s side, but the win still stood and comparisons with the last big major championship of a North American Counter-Strike team from 2006 were circulating on Twitter. The entire continent was behind Cloud9 as well as a lot fans rooting for the underdog - for the Apollo Creed against the Swedish version of Ivan Drago.


Cloud9 could only celebrate in game one

Sadly the hype couldn’t pull through, and the so-called “NA CS:GO” map Cache turned into a disaster for the boys in light blue. Suddenly old issues began to resurface, communication was flawed, rotations were missed and assignments were left off. Fnatic, as the class team that they are, punished every single mistake and took a mile when C9 gave an inch. A decisive 16-6 win for the Swedes set the tone and showed one thing for sure - the angry giant was out for more.

Cache remained the only truly lopsided affair in the entire finals, mostly because Cloud9 got back on track internally straight away. On Overpass, the communications were on point once more despite some nervous jitters in terms of over-rotating and reading too much into certain setups. A narrow 16-14 defeat set up match point for Fnatic, with the Swedes the first team in this final to win their own map choice.

Grand finals game 2 | Grand finals game 3 | Grand finals game 4

Now it was up to Cloud9 to defend on their own choice of Dust 2 and to push for a fifth and final match at the ESL ESEA Pro League Season 1 LAN finals. For the first few rounds it looked like the Americans had a good shot at doing so, but sadly they crumbled at the most unfortunate times. WIth several match points on the line, Cloud9 failed to secure the 16th round, even with man advantages and Skadoodle, n0thing, fREAKAZOiD, shroud and sgares making massive plays happening. They just couldn’t muster up the five kills in one single round to hold their CT side, causing the game to go into overtime.

After the dust had settled, it was Fnatic hoisting the trophy and Cloud9 leaving in defeat. Fnatic closed out a great season with a title in the inaugural ESL ESEA Pro League season, while Cloud9 had nothing left to do but look back at failed opportunities and slight errors snowballing into big differences on the scoreboard. n0thing especially took it extremely hard on himself, walking all his fans through a key moment in the match (tweet one | tweet two) - a key moment were the popular Counter-Strike veteran saw his mistake leading to a big loss of momentum.

Looking ahead to Cologne

WIth the ESL ESEA Pro League now over, preparations for the next big ESL CS:GO event are already in motion. Just a month from now, the LANXESS Arena in Cologne, Germany, will be the site of the biggest CS:GO tournament to date - ESL One Cologne. Defending major champion Fnatic will look to use the momentum gathered at the most recent LAN finals to become the first back-to-back major champion, while other teams have redemption on their minds. The entire North American scene will leave the ESL ESEA Pro League strengthened, now ready to take a stab at causing chaos at a major event. Last but not least is the return of 2014 Cologne major champion Ninjas in Pyjamas. Can the Ninjas break their slump and climb back on top of the CS:GO scene at the site of their biggest win?

Grab your ticket for ESL One Cologne here, and be sure to follow ESL Counter-Strike on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest updates about ESL CS:GO events!