Here’s an idea that is just an idea, but I will be pretentious enough to call a rule, anyway.
There are various calibers of teams in the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professional scene. That should be obvious (do not start with any of that “any given Sunday” nonsense). And we have a lot of different names for these divisions: first tier, second tier, third tier, legends, contenders, pretenders, premier, pro, semi-pro, world-leaders, the elite, etc. etc.
So let us make a simple abbreviation. Say there are only three levels of teams. The teams who can make the playoffs at the best tournaments of the year, the teams who can win these tournaments, and the teams who can be called the world number one by winning these tournaments with some consistency (or four if you want to classify all those who can do none of the above).
My contention is that these three levels broadly correlates to one specific competent of each of these team, namely the number of maps on which they are world leaders or world class. To make the playoffs you need one, to win a tournament you need two, to win tournaments with consistency you need three.
Level one: playoff contender
This first bit might seem especially counter-intuitive because to make it into the playoffs a team has to win several best-of-ones, a best-of-three, or a pair of best-of-threes. It does not follow that a team with only one world-class map should be considered a playoff contender as in either a best-of-one or best-of-three the opposing side can always ban out that one specific map.
However, my idea is not that a team can be a playoff contender with one world-class alone. My suggestion is that a team with a single world class map will tend to be at that level. Now that said, we have seen several instances where a team can make it into the playoffs of highly competitive event by abusing just one map. For example, BIG made it into the playoff of the PGL Major by winning three straight games of Inferno and NiP made the playoffs of ESL One Cologne 2017 by winning three straight games of Cache.
Likewise, there have been examples of teams with narrow map pools who have been able to make the playoffs of these tournaments. The best example has to be Gambit in late 2016 and early 2017 where they only really found wins regularly on two maps, Cobblestone and Overpass, and only proved themselves to be a world leader on Cobblestone. Largely using just these two maps, Gambit won DreamHack Winter 2016, placed top-eight at the ELEAGUE Major: Atlanta, and placed top-eight again at DreamHack Masters Las Vegas before teams like CLG later countered their leading picks and forced a reformation of their pool.
But on the other end of the spectrum there are also teams like North who have also been credited for having a wide map pool that have likewise made somewhat regular playoff appearances in 2017. Yet, if you look at their map pool, they only have one map you could vaguely considered world-class and even then it is only at specific points in time, their Cobblestone.
Having one world-class pick can give a team some easy wins in best-of-one group stage games especially earlier in a team’s run as their opponents might not know to ban it yet. It also helps start off best-of-threes as long as this level-one team’s leading map do not be the opponent’s permaban. While not a big enough tool to get these sorts of teams deep into tournaments or let alone win them, it is often enough to get their foot in the door.
Level two: title contender
Following the roster shuffle bonanza that followed the ELEAGUE Major: Atlanta 2017, three teams joined Astralis at the top of the world to create the “Four kings of Counter-Strike” that would reign over the competitive scene until the August player break. While SK stood out as the clear world leader by the summer, the remaining three teams, Astralis, FaZe, and G2, all adhere to this overarching guideline.
All three teams won premier-level tournaments: Astralis won IEM Katowice 2017 or the IEM Season XI World Championship, FaZe won the Starladder i-League StarSeries Season 3 Finals, and G2 won the ESL Pro League Season 5 Finals. And they all had exactly two maps on which they were world class.
Astralis had Overpass and Nuke more or less on lock down as they noticeably moved away from Train. Aside from shocking losses to Liquid and Gambit, Astralis start off a best-of-three strong after Overpass first pick when available (recall FaZe started first banning it against them after IEM). Then on Nuke during this period, Astralis won 9 of 13 maps with their only losing to the perennial Nuke specialist, Virtus.pro, and FaZe though they ultimately had a winning record against their rivals on that map (2-1).
As for FaZe, they instead seemed to be the leading Train power for much of this period winning two tiebreakers and 7 of 8 games on it before falling off on it later as the that FaZe roster fell apart. They also were a near world leading map on Mirage where they won 6 of 8 games on it, including a victory over the clear leading Mirage team at the time, SK, who racked up a 14-4 record on it over the same period.
G2 is more iffy, but I think the pattern still largely holds for the French team. They were clearly a world leading power on Cobblestone going 11-1 over the same period with their only loss coming from the former map leader, Gambit. But their Nuke is more debatable as, yes, they had a good win rate on the map, five wins out of six games, but they played neither Virtus. Pro nor Astralis on it, and they did not get to play it regularly due to the map’s incredible lack of popularity.
I think the pattern holds here because with two world-class maps under a team’s control they have a much better chance of landing on one of these two maps in a best-of-one and can grab a win almost automatically in every best-of-three. Still, these teams surely can run into trouble if the other side feels free to ban your best map instead of their own permaban, as Astralis found in FaZe, or in scenarios where another strong team happens share multiple stronghold as we saw in the summer SK vs FaZe series.
Level three: world leaders
Again looking at late 2016 to present, the pattern holds. All teams who presented themselves as clear world leaders have all had three or more maps world leading maps in their arsenal.
When Astralis looked to be the clear best team in the world before the post-Major roster shuffle and the removal of Dust2 from the map pool, they had three world class maps. After the addition of Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander, Astralis could regularly find wins on Overpass (7-1) and Train (9-2), but they also were perhaps surprisingly effective on Dust2 (5-1) despite their reputation as a more tactical, less firepower-rich team. Also, you could point out that Astralis rivals during this period, Virtus Pro, never had a full three-map force. From the August player break to the EL Major, the more inconsistent polish side had Cobblestone (18-6) and Nuke (12-0) in their back pocket, but never dominated in the same way on Train (6-5) or Mirage (10-8).
Likewise, in the Parity Era in the middle of 2017 the only team to move beyond the pack was SK Gaming with João “felps” Vasconcellos who had Mirage, Cobblestone, and Cache under their control. While SK initially struggled somewhat to rework their play style and map pool with Lincoln “fnx” Lau’s very different replacement, SK went on their summer rampage winning five or six tournaments once they figured it out. Across these three maps from aftermath of the ELEAGUE Major to the August player break, SK won 38 or 47 games, and it only looked better for them as they later improved on Train.
And in the present moment, we see the same sequence repeat. FaZe and SK lead the world and no one else is close. FaZe has Overpass, Inferno, and Mirage (38-9 across the trio), while the new SK with Ricardo “boltz” Prass has 14 wins and just 2 losses across Cache, Train, and Cobblestone, and can even challenge FaZe and Astralis as a world leader on Overpass where they are 6-2.
With three world leading maps, it is even more likely that one of these world leading teams can make quick work of someone in a best-of-one group stage game, and, as long as the other side’s permaban is not one of their three world-class maps, the world leader-to-be can always play two of their best three maps in a best-of-three series as both sides only have two bans. Also, if opponents use their first ban one of these leading maps instead of their permaban, the level-three team could then play the opposition’s permaban and one of their leading three map in the series. In either scenario, this world leader-to-be would ostensibly have a decisive advantage in the series which could lead to some consistent series victories.
Now, if you were to gauge a team through their map pool more holistically, I think there are four factors that have to be considered. First, how many map maps they are world-leaders or world class on i.e. on many maps can they get a more-or-less guaranteed win on, which I am using as a leading indicator here. Second, how a team’s map pool interacts with these map’s popularity or lack thereof, so weighing something like a strong Nuke less than a strong Inferno or Mirage. Third, the breadth of a teams map pool or the effectiveness of their other maps beyond their specialties. And fourth, how a team’s map pool interactions or matches up with likely opponents or the leading teams in the world.
But as you can see from the examples above, this one, two, and three world-class map “rule” seems to fairly consistently align with a team’s overall competitiveness within the hierarchy of the competitive scene. Let us see if this pattern can bear the heavy uncertainty of the future moving forwards.
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