Neverfading Starlight: The Great Empire of Astralis
The Danish superteam returned to its usual place — the throne of the winner with a crown on its head. It would be silly to say that previous triumphs did not please the members of the roster, but such a victory must feel special.
The ESL Pro League Season 12 Europe tournament ended a week ago, and the Danish team Astralis emerged triumphant. This victory, earned in a grueling battle against on-form NAVI, became only the second in all competitions this year. It was not a habitually-dominating showing, and the win was earned through the difficulties and against the odds. This year has turned out to be very difficult for the whole world — the crazy events of 2020 will be remembered in the history books. But for Astralis the problems were exacerbated by the roster struggles: Xyp9x and gla1ve took medical leaves due to burnout, and the players signed to replace them could not immediately rise up to the challenge. Nevertheless, the Danish superteam returned to its usual place — the throne of the winner with a crown on its head. It would be silly to say that previous triumphs did not please the members of the roster, but such a victory — when you need to squeeze everything out of yourself and play to your limits no matter what — must feel special.
Ab urbe condita — From the founding of Rome
Astralis' roots stretch back to 2013 to the club named Copenhagen Wolves. The notorious trio of dev1ce, dupreeh, and Xyp9x played for the pack back then. That roster did not achieve anything special under the Wolves banner but still managed to make a good showing at DreamHack Winter 2013. The organization, which needed more tangible success, ultimately decided not to renew the contracts with the players.
The squad managed to grab three podium finishes under the über G33KZ tag, which they decided to don after leaving CW. After this success, they signed with a huge international organization — Team Dignitas. For the whole following year, the team performed well, constantly made it out of the groups, and found itself high-place finishes, but the great results constantly slipped away. The best showing for 2014 was the gold obtained at Fragbite Masters Season 2 at the very beginning of the season, and 3-4 place at the ESL One: Cologne 2014. At the end of the year the roster changed the club again, but this time the decision was up to the players.
The Danes started the next year with Team SoloMid. This period turned out to be very significant for the team, and not only because of what followed after. Under the TSM banner, the team stopped being a promising contender for the high places and started to actually win: gold at the PGL CS:GO Championship Series Kick-off Season, FACEIT League 2015 Stage I Finals, and Fragbite Masters Season 4, while also getting into the top five at the two majors. The logical conclusion to this was the first place in the HLTV world-ranking, which the team got in late October. The players realized how good they were.
But in the end, the Team SoloMid deal didn't work out. At the end of 2015, there was a big disagreement between the organization and the team — the TSM higher-ups wanted to fire the manager Frederic Byskov, who had been with the players since their time at Team Dignitas. Obviously, this development did not please the roster, and the common ground with the club was not found. It would be very easy to pin everything on this episode, but naturally, such drastic changes don’t happen out of the blue. It was unlikely that the members of the squad were comfortable that they played in Europe, yet were managed by the people thousands of kilometers away in California. Such a distance and different time zones greatly complicate both routine and emergency communication. The word of mouth at the time was also that the players really didn't like the equipment provided by the sponsors, as well as other rumors, the veracity of which at the moment no longer bears any meaning. On December 3, the Danish roster left the ranks of Team SoloMid, and after a month of appearances under the Team Questionmark filler tag, the players founded their own organization and named it Astralis after acquiring the name from the Finnish club of the same name. On December 3rd, the Danish roster left the ranks of Team SoloMid, and after a month of appearances under the Team Questionmark filler tag, the players founded their own organization and named it Astralis after acquiring the name from the Finnish club of the same name.
Sic itur ad astra — Thus one goes to the stars
Astralis was founded in January 2016 following the investments from Sunstone Capital’s Nikolaj Nyholm and the politician Tommy Ahlers. The first members of the line-up were Nikolai "dev1ce" Reedtz, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen, Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, René "cajunb" Borg, and Finn "karrigan" Andersen, as well as the coach Danny "zonic" Sorensen who joined them during their time being Team Questionmark.
Contrary to the expectations, the team failed to start winning right off the bat. The debut tournament for Astralis was the DreamHack Open Leipzig 2016, where the players confidently passed the group stage but lost in the semifinals to Marcelo "coldzera" David and his Luminosity, and at the first major of the year, the MLG Major Championship: Columbus 2016, the roster could not overcome the resistance of Danil "Zeus" Teslenko-led Natus Vincere. The team did not play badly, but it was not enough for the first place. At the end of May, by the decision of zonic, an exchange with Team Dignitas took place — cajunb returned to the yellow-black camp, and Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjaerbye followed in the opposite direction.
Initially, this did not affect the results in any way — the chain of 5-8 place finishes was followed by an exit at the hand of the Virtus.pro Polish roster after the incredibly intense battle at the ESL One: Cologne 2016, the second Major of the season.
It became abundantly clear that some changes were needed. In early October, after the coach’s decision, karrigan was first benched and later sold to FaZe Clan. To fill the gap the team signed gla1ve. The first tournament after his arrival happened to be the ELEAGUE Season 2, where Astralis reached the final only to be defeated by OpTic. The revenge over the “greens” was executed a mere week later in the decisive match at the Esports Championship Series Season 2 – Finals, where the “stars” were triumphant in two maps. And thus, in two big leaps, the Danish squad roared from the fifteenth place in the standings to the very top.
At the beginning of 2017, Astralis achieved its first significant success: the team did what it was created for — won the major. The triumph over Virtus.pro in the ELEAGUE Major: Atlanta 2017 final was reinforced by the victory at Intel Extreme Masters XI – World Championship in Katowice, and the Danes cemented the top spot until early June.
Few could have guessed then that this would be Astralis' last victory that year. The whole year was full of ups and downs — the top-3 finishes and the finals appearances were followed by them bombing out from the playoffs and even not making it out of the group stage at the ESL Pro League Season 6 – Finals. The final disastrous chord in this étude was the 12-14th place at the major in Boston at the very beginning of 2018.
After that, Kjaerbye decided to continue his career in North, and Astralis signed the last member of the dream-team — Emil "Magisk" Reif. The management also hired a psychologist Mia Stellberg, who later helped other great champions — OG in Dota 2. The construction of the "empire" was completed. It was time to conquer.
Veni, vidi, vici — I came, I saw, I conquered
"Which team is the best in the CS:GO history?" The answer to this question for the vast majority of fans of the game will be "Astralis". The team’s performances and the success they achieved in 2018 plays a major part in that perception. Just think about it: they participated in sixteen LAN events and won ten of them. Moreover, they won the first-ever Intel Grand Slam and added a hefty sum of $1 million to their bank account.
Commentator and host James Banks has personally witnessed many of these achievements, and he vividly remembers what it was like:
“In my eyes, there were multiple factors for the incredible run that Astralis had. Let's start with zonic, an incredible coach and accomplished player, but he truly was working harder than any other coach at the time from what I could see. The team believed in him, he was respected by them, and, at least in public, you wouldn't see them arguing with him like I have seen with some other teams. There was a huge level of respect and chemistry from the team to him, this is hard to find!
We then look at the players they had, dev1ce returns to the roster after medical leave, a huge boost to the team of one of the best and most consistent players in the world. Kjaerbye then leaves the team at a crucial time, we all think this would hurt them but they pick up Magisk and he mixed so well into the team. They had the core 4 of players who all wanted to achieve the same dream, find the same success, and were on the same page, and a young and hungry Magisk, who wanted to find success like he had never had before. He knew this was his time to shine and prove himself.
Another key point for me was that they were training smarter than anyone else at the time. It is hard to get 5-6 people on the same page to achieve one goal, but they somehow managed to do it. Smart bootcamps, not over practicing, doing enough theorycrafting. We also can't ignore the idea the team had on physical and mental performance, hiring coaches, and trainers to make sure they were physically and mentally ready for games. This was way before other teams were trying to do it. Now, a lot of people will argue on how much that works, and we have seen some teams who prepare none of this find success, sure, but not in the same way Astralis has, and I am a big fan of it for sure.”
2018 also marked the beginning of another landmark achievement for the Danes. After the disastrous first major of the year, the players' eyes were focused on the September FACEIT Major: London 2018. They confidently passed the first two stages and got even better in the playoffs as they did not concede a single map. The victory over NAVI in the final was the starting point for a remarkable series of three major victories in a row — an unprecedented achievement that was formalized a year later. The series could have continued this season, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented the organizers from holding an offline event of this level.
The very same season brought us a new rivalry that grew into a classic derby — Astralis versus Team Liquid. Yes, the Danes were unarguably the best team, which was reflected in their ranking, where they held the highest spot for more than a year. But Team Liquid was always there, always ready, hungry, and eager to punish them for any mistake. Unfortunately for them, that year the "stars" did not allow themselves any blunders: Astralis defeated Team Liquid in five LAN finals, and TL managed to take the revenge only in early 2019.
Great teams are a kind of paradox, and Astralis is no exception. In 2019, the team won "only" six LAN events, among which were the two aforementioned majors. For any other club, this season could’ve been called amazing, legendary even. But for Astralis it was "Meh, they did better last year." Probably, this perception was influenced by an ambiguous decision to take part in a certain number of BLAST tournaments and skip some of the Intel Grand Slam events. Said Grand Slam was taken by Team Liquid in the record time.
The echo of this was the thunder that cracked in the middle of the summer — Astralis separated from RFRSH Entertainment, which previously managed the strategic and commercial operations of the Danish team. Instead, the company focused entirely on its BLAST league. A new organization called the Astralis Group was founded by players and management, and it included both the CS:GO team and the League of Legends and FIFA rosters.
By December, the Danes once again became “the first in history”. This time Astralis became the first organization, whose shares became available for purchase by private investors on the stock exchange. The company's capitalization, according to Stockpedia, is $43 million, but its shares are constantly losing in value due to the unfavorable environment associated with the pandemic.
This year a pair of Astralis players Xyp9x and gla1ve took a medical leave because of the burnout. The wolds-best-players-sized hole is not easily filled, and even the Danes with their innovative seven-player roster couldn’t manage to do so. But they didn’t stop working even after plunging to seventeenth place in the world ranking, their worst position in four years. Patrick "es3tag" Hansen gradually jelled with the team, gla1ve returned from sick leave, and with the victory at the ESL Pro League Season 12: Europe, the star empire once again proved its uniqueness.
Alexander "Enkanis" Polishchuk assesses Astralis as a whole:
“I think there are two things that make this team unique: the thorny history of the backbone (dev1ce, Xyp9x, and dupreeh) who have been together for a long time, and the extremely successful fit of the players and the coach.
This is one of the most close-knit teams in the history of esports. The fact that they have gone through many failures (while being with Dignitas) and heartbreaking losses together already suggests that this is not just a stack of strong players, but a coalition of professionals. I’ve often heard that they were compared to robots: the team looked just so perfect at its peak. I only partially agreed with this statement, because I understood that these were five players who had reached the ideal balance of the mental component. Only a person completely unfamiliar with these personalities can claim that Astralis is an emotionless machine.
In recent years, an atmosphere of uncompromising competition has reigned over the professional CS:GO scene — there are many strong teams and star players. As with any field, leaders eventually break away from the pack. This is where the Danes succeeded: they brought up personalities, formed a philosophy of their game, and were inspired by examples from different sports. Just look at how each player deals with the media, communicates with fans, and behaves with opponents. Their sportsmanship shines not only at the moment they enter the server."
Divide et impera — Divide and rule
In late 2018, RFRSH Entertainment and Origen, founded by ex-League of Legends player Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martinez, applied to join the European franchised league LEC. The application got accepted, and the team, while holding onto its own name, was placed under the Astralis management, where it remained even after the separation from RFRSH.
The best result of the squad was reached during their very first season — silver medal of the spring split after the finals defeat at the hand of the mighty G2 Esports, Each subsequent result was worse than the previous one, and it all culminated in Origen placing last this season — hardly the result Astralis was used to.
This September it was announced that Origen, as well as Future FC, an unremarkable FIFA team (the best result of its players is 5-6 place in the FIFA 20 Summer Cup Series MEA), will be rebranded and will play under the Astralis tag. General manager Martin “Deficio” Lynge and community manager Silvano “Fr33stylez” Allemekinders left the team, but Enrique Cedeño Martinez remained as a shareholder of Astralis Group.
Astralis co-founder Jakob Lund Kristensen admitted some mistakes in how they approached Origen in his Lolesports interview:
“Everything we have built in esports has been based on the challenges, learnings, and successes of Astralis and our organisation around it. It’s among one of the most advanced brands in esports globally, and it’ll bring a lot more than just a change of shirt to the league. Like everyone else, we started our relationship with Origen as fans. We were very humbled by the opportunity to bring the brand back.
Looking back, we never really took the needed steps to fully implement our performance model which has been so successful on our Counter-Strike team. We have always prided ourselves on being willing to make the tough choices to ensure long-term success, and with Origen we simply made too many short-term fixes.
We’ll bring completely new ways for fans to interact with a team. We always consider the fans in everything we do.. At the end of the day, what we value the highest is our relationship to the fans. If we can’t contribute with excitement, passion, or a reason for the fans and viewers to spend their time on what we offer, we’ve not created anything really.”
Next year, the battles of Astralis against G2 Esports, MAD Lions, Fnatic and Team Vitality from CS:GO will also take place in League of Legends. If everything goes especially well, they might even be able to sort it out with the rival Team Liquid at Worlds 2021.
The word "Astralis" in the esports world evokes admiration, respect, envy. Many want to shine just as brightly, or to be the one who extinguishes their light, become the beginning of their end. The Danish organization has big plans for at least two leading disciplines, and there is no reason why they won’t reach them: the foundation of this empire was built to last for centuries. History has taught us that no empire is eternal. But everyone also knows that the stars in the sky will shine forever.