After the new version of Inferno was released to the public in October 2016, it was added back into the active duty map pool in February 2017 just after the conclusion of the ELEAGUE Major. The new version of Dust2 was released this year in October again with another ELEAGUE Major, this time set in Boston, set to begin and end next month. So if the pattern holds, we are due for another change in the map pool fairly soon.
So which map will be shipped off into year-long exile?
Maybe, that is not the right question. Valve has been and continue to be about as opaque as a black box. We probably will not know who is the victim until the body hits the floor. So, perhaps the better question is “what map should be removed.”
Looking at it from the vantage point of the competitive scene exclusively, Nuke is by far the most sensible pick. First, in terms of pure functionality when thinking about a map’s role in the greater pool, Nuke does not do its job. If the purpose of having a seven map pool is to create variety by having separate avenues of action, then an unpopular map does not contribute to the cause, and Nuke is incredibly unpopular.
Across all LAN tournaments I would classify as “premier-level” since the ELEAGUE Major, 596 maps have been played. If each map was played equally often over those tournaments, each map would have been played 85 or 86 times, but Nuke specifically was only played 44 times over that same period (7.4% of total plays). In comparison, Inferno, Mirage and Train were each played over 100 times at these same tournaments while the next least played map, Cache, was played 57 times.
Subsequently, Nuke’s popularity, or lack thereof, is not improving over time; it is the opposite. Nuke was not only absent from the group stage of the ESL Pro League Season 6 Finals, as Gabriel 'FalleN' Toledo pointed out in a recent tweet, it has not appeared in the last two premier-level events at all. If you look the premier-level tournaments after the ELEAGUE Major up to and including the PGL Major, Nuke got played 33 times across 333 total plays (9.9%). While that’s still below the 47 or 48 plays it would have gotten if all maps were played equally often during this period, it’s far better than the 11 of 263 plays (4.2%) it got at tournaments from the post player break to the present period.
If you go back even further the trend still holds. Looking at premier-level events from the 2016 player break to the ELEAGUE Major, Nuke was played 36 times across 313 maps played (11.5%), though that comparison isn not as direct as the map pool had a different composition back then with Dust2 still in the picture.
In response to FalleN’s tweet, Richard 'shox' Papillon replied, “Nuke is really good map, just need[s ] more hard practice than others and people are lazy.” However, this trend of Nuke getting less popular over time seems to run counter to Shox ’s opinion. Nuke was the second to last map to be reworked and added back into the map pool, and Inferno was adopted more quickly and much more widely, but, for the sake of argument, l et us agree that Nuke could be a special case. It’s unique layered bombsite structure could make it harder to adjust to, and therefore it could take a team far more practice hours to gain competency on the map. But if that was the case surely its popularity would increase as it was played and understood more.
Recall that Nuke only started to see some sustained play after the player break in 2016 following its reintroduction the previous April. Its play rate flourished mainly due to the efforts of three teams: VirtusPro, Ninjas in Pajamas and Dignitas/North.
Virtus Pro have stuck with it since then, but poor results and more teams banning it against them have forced them to play it less. Since the 2017 player break, Virtus Pro have only played Nuke three times on LAN. On the other hand, NiP and North simply seem less keen to play it. North played Nuke nine times total in 2017 on LAN, but have only played once in the last 100 days, and in the same vein, NiP have played it much recently. They picked or played it six times so far in 2017 despite playing it 8 times in the last three months of 2016.
Falling out of favour
Moving forward as new teams tried to adopt Nuke a similar pattern repeats. After the ELEAGUE Major, three more teams started to play Nuke with some regularity: Astralis, the new Niko-backed FaZe, and the freshly formed G2 “superteam.” Astralis seemingly picked up the map due to Virtus Pro but soon became comfortable enough on it start first picking it in some series. At the same time, FaZe also became become a world-leader on the map, while G2 made more tepid in-roads on it.
However, since the 2017 player break only G2 have stuck with it. Astralis have only played it once since the PGL major while the new FaZe have playing it three times with only one win, but have never outright picked it. In comparison, Astralis and FaZe have played 12 and 13 games on Inferno respectively over the same period.
After tournament break or player change, many teams similar do not want to continue to play as it as often or at all despite their extended previous efforts to learn and utilize it. Perhaps, instead of laziness, it’s that these teams put a lot of effort into this ultra-niche pick, but the corresponding returns don't align with expectations. Perhaps, they realized that the same problems with Nuke everyone has pointed out before (excessive CT-side bias, static game play, hard to interpret sounds due to the vertical nature of the map, ect.) are still prohibitive to consistent results.
Now, Cache might be the next best replacement for similar reasons. Its role as a playmaking-heavy and skill-dependant map might be made somewhat redundant by the returning Dust2. But Nuke has no role right now. It’s not a staple like an Inferno or a Mirage. CT-side centric teams don’t abuse it, look at FaZe. It’s not even a frequent tool of the desperate as Team EnVyUs seem to be the only underdog willing to pick it at top events.
It is just the niche first pick of G2 and Virtus Pro. Otherwise, it is the permaban of two top-ten teams Cloud9 and SK and near the bottom of almost everyone else's pool. The last time Nuke was played at a premier-level event without VP, G2, EnVyUs present was September 2nd at DreamHack Masters Malmö. You will also notice it hardly shows up in best-of-ones, as Nuke teams can not pick it after just one opponent ban. Nuke was not played at the Blast Pro Series or EPL which featured a best-of-one group stage, and neither G2 nor Virtus Pro in the playoffs. And individually, Shox and G2 have not played a best-of-three or Nuke at all since October.
The only case I see for keeping Nuke in the pool is that it looks better visually as it was reworked relatively recently while other maps such as Mirage and Cache are more due for a makeover in that respect. But surely cosmetics shouldn’t be the most heavily weighted factor, or worse the only factor, in a decision that will have dramatic ramifications for the competitive scene. Players, viewers, pros, and the scene at large don’t seem to share this esthetics first value-system, and if they did, they surely would have migrated over to Call of Duty or Rainbow Six: Siege or something similar by now.
But even if some maps needed to be updated visually why would Valve have to remove them from the active duty pool to do so? Why can’t they work on an active duty map, and just update it when they are done? Can't the game play of a removed Nuke and the graphics of another active duty map be improved simultaneously?
Yes, Nuke has a unique design and a place in the game’s history. It would be missed if it was deleted from the game entirely, but right now it has little to no place in the competitive pool in terms of function or identity. It should be removed.