DreamHack Masters Malmo ended in spectacular fashion. Going into the tournament, Astralis, EG, or Liquid were the favorites. Instead all three lost and in the ensuing battle royale Fnatic came out victorious.
It was a magical run as the Swedes pulled out that special brand of Counter-Strike that tilts reality into their favor. It was an amalgamation of teamplay and individual skill that hearkened to the old days of peak Fnatic. It was brilliant, intoxicating, and explains their almost maniacal faith in the older veterans of their scene.
[A]lliance is back syndrome
The first time I encountered this phenomenon was in Dota2. In 2013 [A]lliance were the best team in the world. They had an all Swedish lineup that included: Joanthan “Loda” Berg, Fustav “s4” Magnusson, Henrik “AdmiralBulldog” Ahnberg, Jerry “EGM” Lundkvist, and Joakim “Akke” Akterhall. It was a brilliant and idiosyncratic team. They weren’t a squad full of high individual skill across the board, but were players that had particular specialties that when combined became greater than the sum of their parts.
When that team played together during their peak, there was a level of smoothness to their teamplay nearly unmatched to this day. There was a certain magic to them too as regardless of what situations you put them in, they always found a play that could make the game theirs. Those heights were so brilliant that they continued with the same lineup half a year longer than they probably should have. In early 2014, they were still a good team and could make a brilliant run (DreamLeague Season1 comes to mind). But they were an aging beast.
The team eventually split apart, but then reunited again at the end of 2015. They had two good runs as they won WCA and StarLadder i-League Season 1, but then summarily dropped off the cliff. For those who watch Counter-Strike, the parallels between the story of [A]lliance and Fnatic are striking. The thing I remember the most during this time period though was that the moment [A]lliance won any game or did any incredible game, the community would come out and celebrate with the words “[A]lliance is back.”
Perhaps the sentiment was born out of a hope that if Twitch chat spammed the meme enough, it could turn into reality. More likely though, it was just a fan’s desperate hope that [A]lliance could return to their top form as they had a fascinating and unique Dota. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I’d see this cycle repeat itself when I started to spectate Counter-Strike.
Fnatic of 2015
Near the end of 2014 to 2015, I took my first steps into CS:GO. When I entered the game, Fnatic were in their prime. At the time I couldn’t understand the intricacies of what was happening, but it was shocking to watch. Back then, basic intuition told me that the team with the better guns and more people should win the round. Fnatic consistently kept flipping that script on its head as they won round after round, often breaking the hearts of the opposing teams and crowds.
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It is only years later, with more knowledge and understanding that I have come to understand what was so special about fnatic. Jason “Moses” O’Toole likens it to a hivemind. As if one mind controlled all five bodies. While the analogy is a good one, it may suggest that there is some level of conscious thought behind it. When I watched their games, it seems instinctive in nature. As if their connection to the game and each other was at the primordial level.
Like [A]lliance, the Fnatic style has never been fully replicated. Teams have taken the fundamentals and base of it, reinterpreted it into their own prisms of players, but it was never again duplicated. The teamplay in particular stands out to me as different from even the best squads that eventually took over the world. Astralis and SK for instance had fantastic teamplay, but theirs was system based. Both teams used set roles for each player and they largely stuck to those confined roles. This made them consistent, disciplined, and at times unstoppable.
Fnatic were consistent and unstoppable, but they weren’t disciplined. At least not in the typical sense. Jonatan “Devilwalk” Lundberg described the system on Peeker’s Advantage as, “We had a rule that if someone has a gut feeling, they should always do it.”
The Fnatic style of teamplay was one that created a synthesis of individual plays and teamwork to its absolute highest level. For almost any other team, that amount of freedom leads to disaster. Players will start focusing on their own individual micro battles instead of the macro battle and overextend. It would eventually lead to internal strife as they stepped over each other.
In the case of Fnatic, they had the exact right five players to make it work as each player had a disparate specialities that rarely overlapped. Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer was the straight forward duelist and the best in the world. Jesper “JW” Wecksell was the wildcard who used unorthodox plays to surprise his enemies. Robin “flusha” Ronnquist was the passive genius lurker. Freddy “KRIMZ” Johansson was the rock of the team. He has the strongest fundamental game of anyone and created a base level of consistency and efficiency to his game that made him an absolute beast in the clutch. Markus “pronax” Wallsten was the weakest player on the team, but when push came to shove, he always found high impact frags to swing the game.
The [A]lliance and Fnatic Parallels
As the years continued on, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between [A]lliance and the Swedish Counter-Strike teams. None of the moves were the same, but the core themes followed the same lines. The Swedes believed that they could turn back the clock. NiP stuck with the core four of: Patrik “f0rest” Lindberg, Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund, Adam “Friberg” Friberg, and Richard “Xizt” Landstrom for years in the belief that they could reignite their form of 2012.
Fnatic didn’t keep the core together for that long, but they kept trying to go back to the past. At the end of 2015, Fnatic replaced pronax with Dennis “dennis” Edman and went on a 6 LAN run. That lineup eventually split apart in 2016, but reunited again in 2017.
The biggest similarity of all was the [A]lliance is back syndrome. However it was far more magical in the cases of NiP and Fnatic than it was with [A]lliance. [A]lliance only ever had those two events in their last run together. In the case of NiP and Fnatic, both squads kept pulling out ridiculous over-the-top movie level victories when they had no right to.
NiP were only a playoff team for the latter half of 2016, but pulled out an encore of magic at IEM Oakland 2016. They beat SK in the finals 2-1 with vintage NiP magic. NiP went on to be even worse in 2017, but somehow managed to pull off an even more magical run against FaZe at IEM Oakland 2017.
Fnatic had similar runs. While Fnatic were a top team in early 2018, they weren’t in the same league as FaZe in the finals of IEM Katowice 2018. Even so, they were able to push the finals to a fifth map. In the fifth map, Flusha hit god levels of play that he hadn’t reached in years to take the series from FaZe. As the lineups changed, Fnatic still continued to pull out shocking victory at times when it felt like they had no business being there. They made a top four run and nearly beat prime Astralis at IEM Chicago. In 2019, they made the finals of two tournaments, but outside of that have been vastly disappointing.
Each time one of these magical moments happened, the community rallied around them. Early proclamations were made of the return of the greats. Each time f0rest makes a play or drops 30, threads pop up about why he’s the GOAT. When JW pulls out exhilarating highlights, people spam vintage JW. When we watch the old Swedish legends play at their top forms, there is something special about it, different from other top players of the day. That makes you want to believe that they will make a comeback, that will make the return.
On some level, I believe the orgs and teams themselves bought into this belief. Both teams had ambitions to be the best in the world and if you looked out the raw results, both teams should have made harsher roster cuts to their veteran core a long time ago. NiP dragged their heels on every roster cut until they were months or years too late.
Fnatic was less egregious, but had a similar story. While KRIMZ has been great for the last few years, the same cannot be said for either flusha or JW. After Flusha’s MVP performance at IEM Katowice, he had a massive slump during the rest of his time in Fnatic and only found himself again after being kicked and playing for Cloud9. JW’s efficacy was degrading by the end of the Fnatic era and he has been inconsistent for years. JW has only found his form again recently in 2019 with his performances at StarLadder i-League Season 8, IEM Chicago, and DreamHack Masters Malmo.
Faith rooted in the Platonic Ideal
On some level though, I can understand why the teams and players have continued trying to make the old veterans work. There is something unique about the highest echelons of Swedish Counter-Strike that makes you want to gamble on those heights. That particular playstyle, when played at its absolute best, represents the platonic ideal of teamplay.
It is a type of teamplay where you can tell that they know what the other is doing before they do it. They have no need of structure or comms because they have an inborn understanding that runs deeper than any articulated knowledge can touch. When their teamplay is at its absolute zenith, you can no longer distinguish individual plays from their teamplay as they transition from one to the other seamlessly. It is why when the Counter-Strike reaches a chaotic state, when the Swedes are playing at their best, they feel unstoppable. They are subsumed into the essence of what Counter-Strike is on a level that no one else can reach.
So each time one of NiP or Fnatic could have made a change, they perhaps asked themselves what if? What if we could resurrect the past, what if we could reach that level of team play again? That is why the Swedish scene has had such maniacal faith in their older veterans when analysts outside of their scenes say they should move on.
Fnatic at Malmo
At DreamHack Masters Malmo, that faith paid off. Fnatic have made another reunion. They have kept KRIMZ, JW, and Ludvig “Brollan” Brolin from their previous lineup and have reunited with flusha and Maikil “Golden” Selim. It was a shocking victory as Fnatic barely had time to practice. On top of that flusha had just come back from a 7 month long hiatus.
It is even more shocking in the context of the tournament itself. Fnatic struggled throughout this entire event. They lost to ENCE in the bo1, dropped a map to TyLoo in the lower bracket, FURIA took them to 6 overtimes on Overpass, Fnatic dropped another map to NiP in the quarters. It is only in the semifinals and finals that I felt that Fnatic majesty return to full form.
Fnatic had an impressive victory against Astralis. They beat them on Overpass convincingly and JW had a massive impact on Nuke which let them close the series in triple overtime. The finals were a high octane battle as we saw Fnatic’s tactics, individual, and teamplay reach levels that I hadn’t seen since the dissolution of the Fnatic 2015 lineup.
Fnatic eventually won the finals in the most classic Fnatic fashion possible, on an eco round with a KRIMZ throwing the perfect flashbang for Brollan to get a multi kill with a Cz. As the trophy was hoisted, I can to an epiphany. It was at that moment that I fully understood why orgs like Fnatic and NiP have bet so hard on full Swedish lineups and their old veterans. When things click, these lineups have a unique flavor of Counter-Strike that only they can produce. That feeling of five individuals wading into the chaos, perfectly insync with each other at all times, reading into the game, and finding the perfect play that will let them take the game. There is nothing else quite like it and for years now, NiP and Fnatic have chased that high.
As the lights closed out, I asked myself the same question Chad “SPUNJ” Burchill asked JW. Can Fnatic do this consistently?
I don’t know and a part of me impulsively denies such a possibility as I don’t want to hope. You can only feel pain and disappointment when you hope. Even so, among all of the Swedish lineups formed in the last two years, this has the best chance of making it work. KRIMZ is a certifiable monster. JW is playing the best he has in years. Flusha hardly seems to have missed a step since his return. Golden’s calling is perfectly in sync with this squad. Brollan’s aggression and firepower makes him a great fit. If ever there was going to be a Swedish lineup that could make a run for the top in the modern world, this is that lineup.