As coaches take a step back in ‘Counter-Strike,’ team leaders rise to the challenge


Astralis celebrates after winning the ELeague Major in Atlanta, Jan. 29, 2017.
Image: matt kline/mashable

Astralis and were tied 14-14 when used their last remaining timeout to figure out exactly how to turn the tide to take the next two rounds.

A tactical timeout gave teams 30 seconds to convene and was the only time coaches are allowed to speak outside of warm-ups and halftime.

Seconds ticked away. The crowd of thousands grew louder at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.

“Let’s go Astralis!”

“Let’s go VP!”

The fans’ dueling chants filled the historic theatre as the two teams deliberated.

The coaches, breaking their silence, had half a minute to dish out everything they’d kept pent up.’s Wiktor “Taz” Wojtas likened his coach’s timeout speeches to a beatless rap that Jakub “Kuben” Gurczynski dished out as he paced back and forth behind the five Polish players.

Astralis put its faith in its in-game leader, Gla1ve, and it paid off.

On the other side of the stage, Astralis coach Danny “Zonic” Srensen talked strategy with his Danish team, but letting the players do most of the talking.

Once the 30 seconds were up, it all came down to the players and the designated in-game leader. For, it was Filip “Neo” Kubski, a 29-year-old Polish veteran who has been rolling with the same lineup since 2013. For Astralis, it was Lukas “Gla1ve” Rossander, a 21-year-old Danish star who only just joined the squad three month ago in October.

The round started. ran in to set up a defense with a weakened economy. Astralis moved toward bomb site A, reversing the last round’s rush on B.

Gla1ve was sure that VP didn’t have enough money for an AWP sniper rifle, and he knew that VP’s designated AWPer Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski would probably be posted up behind the bomb site on A, so he told teammate Nicolai “Dev1ce” Reedtz to line up the shot. He hit Snax in the leg, hurting him badly but not killing him.

That was enough information, though, to encourage Gla1ve to tell the whole team to rush in. With a flurry of bullets and grenades, the five Astralis players overwhelmed the three VP players defending A, quickly putting Astralis at a 4-2 man advantage and forcing’s two remaining players to hide in hopes of saving their weapons for the next round.

Astralis found them anyway and took them out, debilitating VP before match point and securing a thrilling 16-14 victory.

Astralis put its faith in its in-game leader, Gla1ve, and it paid off.

Since making the top eight of every single Major since the first event in 2013, the Astralis squad took home its first Major championship, the first Major championship since Valve banned coaches from speaking during CS:GO games in August 2016.

The coach ban

Valve’s ban on coach communication came without warning and applied to all Valve-sponsored CS:GO events, which includes Majors the most prestigious and important tournaments in CS:GO. Third party tournament organizers adopted the rule quickly, with ESL One New York in early October being the first premier tournament to institute the new rule.

Valve explained in its announcement that it wanted CS:GO competitions to be about the players in the server.

“Since the goal of our events is to identify the best five-player CS teams that exhibit the best combination of all CS skills, the current participation of coaches in the game is not compatible with that goal,” Valve said.

Coach-reliant teams were forced to adjust. Coaches were forced to adjust.

Before the ban, several top-tier teams had coaches standing behind players during matches acting as in-game leaders. With a sixth person focusing on opponents’ movements, the game’s economy and team positioning, players were freed of that responsibility and allowed to focus primarily on their own movement and crosshair placement.

Teams like Ninjas in Pyjamas, Team Liquid and Na’Vi relied on their coaches to provide this up-to-the-second game analysis, and Valve’s new limitations prompted outrage across the board. Players, analysts and coaches voiced their opposition online, even those on teams who had a player in-game leader like SK Gaming’s Gabriel “Fallen” Toledo.

Valve wasn’t going to budge.

On the organization side of things, Team Liquid’s general manager Steve “Joka” Perino was equally unhappy with the rule.

“My mindset was, ‘What is Valve doing?'” he said. “[Having a coach] was great for us because we had all this firepower and when we could just have this guy be the conductor it made perfect sense. So when [the ban] happened it was quite the blow.”

Coach-reliant teams were forced to adjust. Coaches were forced to adjust.

Five months after the coach restrictions were announced, the first Major of 2017 was kicking off in Atlanta. By that points, teams had enough time to adjust, CS:GO commentator James Bardolph said.

“I think that the biggest issue that teams had was [that] when Valve first came out with that ruling, a lot of organizations had a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “They gave the teams no warning, no transition time. They said, ‘You gotta follow this rule immediately, this is the rule now,’ which is not an intelligent way to do things, and not really fair for the teams, so we saw some struggle with that. But, again, theyve had time to adjust now.”

Coaching outside of games

Despite the tempered role of coaches, every team at the top level has kept a coach on the team because of the value they bring to organizations. CS:GO analyst and ELeague host Richard Lewis said he thinks coaches are absolutely necessary in pro-level Counter-Strike.

“The coaches are still there, just not [standing] behind [their players],” he said. “Theyre still there to talk in between rounds, talk in time outs, talk backstage before the games, after the games. They can still travel with teams. I think any organization worth its salt should have a coach.”

Astralis’s coach Danny “Zonic” Srensen has been with the team since 2015 and has successfully survived the new ruling.

“We pretty much adapted to the change instantly when Valve put it through,” Zonic said after the team’s quarterfinals win against Na’Vi. “Obviously right now it works.”

“Its more clear what my actual job inside and outside the game is.” – North’s coach Casper “Ruggah” Due

That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult though.

“It can be really tough standing behind the team and sometimes I see stuff that I want to communicate to the team,” he said.

On the other side of the coin, Zonic’s job is also a bit easier, in a way.

“You have to also remember that it can be really stressful to have six guys talking in teamspeak,” he said. “And this kind of crowd, as well it can get [noisy] in the communication so Ive been helping them and being with them in every practice weve had at home, trying to fix communication and fix small mistakes that we make so that they can pretty much play themselves and dont rely on a coach.”

North’s coach Casper “Ruggah” Due echoed that sentiment a day before the team’s quarterfinals match against

“Im very limited in what I can do but I think its also helping out my role because before I could be wearing 10 different hats for things I needed to do during and before games,” Ruggah said. “Now its more clear what my actual job inside and outside the game is.”

North’s coach Casper “Ruggah” Due at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Jan. 26, 2017.

Image: Dave vagts/mashable

Coaches are more like analysts now, watching what players and opponents are doing and giving feedback after the action happens instead of controlling every move at every moment possible.

“Of course, it would be easier for me to help out during the round if I have a good read on what [opponents] are doing, but thats also why I need to be more on point during my preparations and during the time outs,” Ruggah said.

Players have to do their own reading, which usually falls on the shoulders of the in-game leader.

The rise of the in-game leader

Even before the coach restrictions, SK Gaming’s Fallen acted as the in-game leader to the Brazilian team, leading them to win two back-to-back Majors in 2016. The coach ban didn’t have a huge impact on SK Gaming.

“I think there are coaches that act as in-game leaders for their teams for example [Sergey “Starix” Ischuk of Na’Vi] and [Wilton “Zews” Prado of Team Liquid] but for us, I have always been in-game leader so we dont suffer too much for that,” he said.

In-game leaders have a unique job. Fallen keeps the players motivated during games and makes calls on where they should move to and what areas to cover while SK’s coach, Ricardo “Dead” Sinigaglia, focuses on helping the team with their own individual strengths and struggles rather than analyzing what the other team is doing.

The coach ban dialed back the role of coaches who acted as in-game leaders, but it also put smart, yet oftentimes underperforming players back on the map.

“When you make that decision, you cap the level that Counter-Strike can get to because its not being coordinated,” Lewis said about the coach ban. “But, equally, it adds this fascinating little mini drama because players like [Godsent’s Markus “Pronax” Wallsten] and [North’s Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen] are statistically terrible. Pronax especially…is one of the lowest level performing pros if we just go on kills. But hes a great in-game leader, hes a great tactician, he knows how to activate players and [how to] use them. So, suddenly, this rule has effectively prolonged his career and players like him.”

The coach ban dialed back the role of coaches who acted as in-game leaders, but it also put smart, yet oftentimes underperforming players back on the map.

You won’t see many of these players who have in-game leader roles at the top of stats charts, but they’ve become vital to their teams over the past few months regardless.

“If we dont have the coaching rule, why would you keep Pronax?” Lewis said. “‘I dont need him, I dont need his skillset.’ So you effectively kill a generation of in-game leaders. MSL wouldnt be on a team, Pronax wouldnt be on a team. What would they do? Who would pick them up? I think CS would lose something if we marginalized guys with those skill sets.”

This points back to Valve’s original reasoning behind the coach ruling. The competition at these events is about the five players in the server, and part of what’s needed of those players is a deep understanding of the game, something that takes years of practice and studying to develop.

That in-game leadership is what led Astralis to hold up the ELeague Major trophy in January. Gla1ve read his opponents and made a call, and the team trusted him and went for it, solidifying the Danish team’s lead and leading to its victory.

The Astralis players pulled off something crazy and’s coach stood behind his team with clenched fists.

The Major came down to the players.

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