Astralis haven't won a tournament since March 2019, but that didn't stop them knocking out current No. 1 Team Liquid in front of a raucous crowd in the quarterfinals of the $1 million StarLadder Berlin Major Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament.
After intense back-and-forth action between the two teams, Astralis emerged with a 2-0 victory, with a swift 16-8 set on Vertigo and a hotly disputed 16-13 on Overpass, with players on both teams delivering highlight plays. They are now on track for their third consecutive Valve Major victory.
AWPer and top performer Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz had nothing but praise for his opponents. He knew how strong the Intel Grand Slam Season 2 winners Team Liquid were. Even then, he admitted that something was off about their play as they struggled in the New Legends stage -- posting a 3-2 score at that stage, to Astralis's 3-1.
"They're still the best team in the world in my opinion; they won so much," dev1ce said. "They're a very scary team, and I feel like we have an edge [over] them, but other than that they smash everybody. They didn't really look like themselves at the Major; they will come back for sure. We're looking forward to playing them again."
"I think there's still a mental bug for them when they play against us, especially when it's something they haven't achieved before like [winning] a Major. They won so many best-of-3s in a row, [and] I respect them so much. They have grinded so much, and they keep winning."
Grinding is no laughing matter, as dev1ce's experience with Astralis indicates. The team worked its way to HLTV.org's No. 1 rank twice: from Dec. 12, 2016 to June 5, 2017; and from Apr. 23, 2018 to May 27, 2019. During their 2018-2019 streak, they neglected out-of-game matters -- including family and friends.
The matter even alarmed their Director of Sports, handball legend Kasper Hvidt, who hadn't experienced as drastic a schedule during his playing days. Predictable as the effects were, Astralis willingly underwent such a gruelling schedule until they experienced fatigue and a loss of hunger for victory. Eventually, they preferred rest over the intense travel filled CS:GO schedule.
Danny "zonic" Sørensen and his players agreed: recharging their batteries and spending time with friends and family was a must. Aside from the BLAST Pro Series, the Esports Championship Series and ESL tournaments, they skipped everything else to brace themselves for the fall season. Their summer break was longer than other teams.
"I think it's natural as an athlete to lose a little bit of that hunger when you have achieved a lot," dev1ce added. "You have sacrificed so much, and suddenly you want to prioritize your family and your friends. You want to have the time to get together with the people you have neglected to prioritize Counter-Strike."
Their schedule allowed little time to improve their play and innovate, causing them to lose their edge over time. Soon enough, their usage of utility grenades had peaked, and other teams were able to break it down, exposing weaknesses. Astralis needed more -- for the Major, the recently included Vertigo map provided an opportunity they wouldn't miss.
"We used our time [off] well," dev1ce said. "It was an important factor -- the Vertigo pick was a target pick we thought about for a little while."
As a result, their break paid off far more than their decision to stick through the grind in 2017; their fall was predictable, but their progression was much steadier. Between 2017 and 2018, their decision to stick it out saw them tumble as far as eighth place. Their 2019 spring tradeoff may not see them in fourth place for long.
With group stage exits and quarterfinal defeats a thing of the past, Astralis aim to break the semifinal wall that stopped them at ESL Cologne.
"Overall, spring was kind of productive but very tough because we are not used to losing," dev1ce adds. "Suddenly, when we started losing, we had this feeling of: 'What is happening? Why are we losing? We've won [for] like one year straight.'"
Not that Astralis haven't been the No. 1 team twice before, as he points out: "We've had this grind a few times. We've been the world's best team, fell down, and came back. It's one of those rides again."
So far, their ride has included a lot of stage time, an important step in recovering their form. At the StarLadder Berlin Major New Legends stage, they played a 59-round loss against NRG on Train, and a 60-round loss against CR4ZY on dust2.
Judging by their play against Team Liquid, they may have regained their form. Vertigo favoured Astralis, no matter the side, as they defined the meta. Given the lack of information regarding Team Liquid's tendencies on the map, they focused on executing their game plan; it worked, and they moved closer to winning a third Valve Major in a row.
However, their success on the map may have put their semifinal opponents, NRG Esports, on notice. The two teams had clashed in the New Legends stage in Train and Nuke, with Nuke being particularly one-sided in NRG's favour. Whether Vertigo will factor into the map draft remains unknown until the two teams are on stage Saturday, Sep. 7.
Ultimately, such thoughts can wait.
"We're in the semifinals of a major now, and everyone knows that anything can happen in the playoffs," dev1ce said. "It's just about focusing on our game, preparing for the match, and getting the Liquid game out of our heads. We have to focus on the next match and be as well prepared as we can."
"I'm just excited to play the games, it will be so amazing. We have so many fans in the arena, and it's a pleasure to be here."