ATLANTA -- A crowd of nearly 4,600 fans sit on the edge of their seats, silent at the Fox Theatre for the ELeague Major, as they watch Counter-Strike veteran Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth plant the bomb and wait for his opponents to come in to attempt to defuse it. An AK-47 rifle in hand in-game, the Danish player has a moment of opportunity if he plays it right.
As the final two opponents creep into the bomb site, they line up in an I-formation, one behind the other. Instead of attempting to take down one with a head shot before the other could turn around, Xyp9x gets antsy, spraying his AK-47 and failing to take down his opponents before they have time to react. It's over as his team, Astralis, one of the best in the world, loses the second game of one of the most important series of its careers.
If this was six months ago, the Danish squad would've felt discouraged heading into the decider game, likely losing the series to a formidable opponent. But after training with a traditional sports psychologist and learning more about supporting one another, the team has learned how to bounce back. Coach Danny "zonic" Sørensen approaches Xyp9x, taps him on the head, and encourages him that it'll be OK.
Astralis bites back hard, clinching the decider map and ultimately moving on in the playoffs. Natus Vincere is arguably the toughest opponent they'll face all tournament, and Astralis eliminated Na'Vi in the quarterfinals.
"Whenever we lost the round [where Xyp9x lost the 1v2], everyone went over to him and patted him and said, 'It's OK, it's OK, we will get the next one'" longtime team member Peter "dupreeh" Rothmann said to ESPN after the match. "Everyone was trying to convince him that it doesn't matter, we just move on now, and everyone had to understand that, and everyone did. It was tough on him for quite a few minutes afterwards, but he knocked it off, especially when he got four kills in the pistol round on [the next map], Dust 2. Everyone told him it was OK, and we moved on as a team, so that was great."
With the win, Astralis has secured its spot to the semifinals despite not being favored in their quarterfinal matchup. Over the last few months, Astralis has seen a surge in performance since the addition of new in-game leader Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, but so has Na'Vi since adding star Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev. The series was worthy of a grand final due to its heavy anticipation and incredible gameplay.
"[I'm] super relived in some ways, but also very proud of the team," Dupreeh said. "We played and communicated really well and also kept our composure even though we lost some stupid rounds and some stupid situations, but I'm proud that we made it this far.
"Everyone expected Na'Vi to win, for some reason, because they were playing super well in the group stage. So what I'm really happy about right now is that we've peaked in playoffs instead of in group stages, so that's really great for us."
Over the last two years, the Astralis core -- Dupreeh, Xyp9x, and Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz -- have worked with two others in an attempt to become the best team in the world. The team first played with one another under the Copenhagen Wolves banner in 2013, and has since worked with some of the largest organizations in esports -- Team Dignitas and Team SoloMid.
Last year they formed their own team, Astralis, a partially player-owned stable with the help of some of the Danish esports community and the team's manager, Frederik Byskov. The team, throughout the four years they have been together, has seen success, but failed to win a major.
"At some time [in 2015], when we were Team SoloMid, I felt like we were the best team in the world," Dupreeh said. "The only reason we couldn't officially say it is because we hadn't won the major, we still haven't won a major yet, but I still think we have the results to back up the No. 1 spot right now. It feels great, that's what you try to achieve, that's why we play, we want to be the best. All of the money and all of the prestige is a bonus, but we want to compete because we want to be the best."
He says beating Na'Vi comes with a huge confidence boost before they move on to face Fnatic. But regardless of whether Fnatic or Gambit Gaming had won the other semifinal, Dupreeh says he's confident that after the quarterfinal, they could take home the entire tournament.
"I don't really care about who we're going to face [on Saturday]," he said. "For Fnatic, it seems like they're playing very loose, and it seems that it's working quite well for them. They have a lot of experienced players as well, but I don't really fear any of the opponents left [in the tournament.]
"Winning against Na'Vi gave us a lot of confidence, as that was the ultimate test right now, that's what everyone says. But I'm not going to take anything for granted, we're still going to face a really, really great team tomorrow, no matter who we face. I'm just hoping we'll get into the game with the same type of energy and the same type of focus that we had today, and I really hope that we're going to go to that final."
To overcome their problems with mentality struggles in the past and in hopes of winning more events, which they have since December, the team brought in Mia Stellberg, a sports psychologist from the traditional sports world. Stellberg, while unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of esports, has a history of working with world-class Olympic athletes and the Finnish national hockey team.
Dupreeh says Stellberg has helped the team tremendously, bringing lessons she's learned from other endeavors into the team's environment.
"She has helped us convince ourselves that we are some of the best players in the world, and she's helped us improve our own mental state," he said. "She's helped us on working under pressure and how to deal with pressure during games, after games and when games are upcoming, so we owe her a lot, and we've learned a lot. And she's still learning [about us and esports]."
A major win could mean a lot for Astralis, a team which alongside Na'Vi has been in the running for one for several years but has never managed to take home the glory. Previously, major winners such as Fnatic and SK Gaming have seen a snowball effect after their majors, winning lots of smaller events afterward. Dupreeh's not sure if Astralis would have the same effect if they win in Atlanta this weekend, but it's something that Stellberg is working with the team to achieve.
"What we've learned from [her], it's not hard to get to the top, but it's hard to retain the spot," he said. "So that's what we're working on right now. If we end up winning this tournament, obviously it would be very nice, but we're not going to take anything for granted. We've worked really hard to get here, and taking it for granted would be a really stupid thing to do. We're going to keep working, keep evolving our play, and all that stuff, so yeah.
"[Winning the major would mean] everything."