Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's pro scene starts 2021 with a bang

(Image credit: Valve)

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive made a magical start to 2021, with this past weekend's Blast Premier Global Final event seeing an incredible comeback win for Natus Vincere, better known as Navi, alongside the most-watched match in Counter-Strike's online tournament history. Dead game, amirite.

This event had everything, though by the end the biggest story was Navi: sent packing to the losers' bracket early, favouring a six-man rotation strategy (Counter-Strike teams consist of five players and most stick with the same five at a given tournament), with the player many regard to be the best around, Oleksandr 's1mple' Kostyliev, at the heart. Day two saw Navi defeated by Team Liquid (despite s1mple scoring an astonishing 36 frags on Nuke), sending the team to the losers' bracket: from where they'd go on to beat Complexity and G2 before gaining revenge on Team Liquid in the losers' final. Although this ended up 2-0 in Navi's favour it was an incredible match, and saw the team pretty much do to Liquid what Liquid had done to them.

The tournament was emblematic of why Counter-Strike remains such a compelling esport: teams constantly upset the odds to win eco rounds, you saw crazy four-man towers on Overpass trying to snipe the tippity-top of heads, there were Aces galore, and the majority of games were close-run things.

Navi's penultimate opponent was Team Vitality, and this was not only a superb match, but the biggest CS:GO match in this pandemic era of online-only tournaments with 687,691 concurrent viewers at its peak (2017's offline ELeague Major remains Counter-Strike's all-time most-watched event, estimated at just under 1,337,000). Subsequently I've checked the VODs, which include both this match and the final: the current views for the match on Youtube and Twitch after one day are 2,640,000 and 4,206,000 respectively, an audience of 6.85 million and counting.

Navi vs Vitality began with a wild comeback on Nuke, with Navi falling behind before eventually winning 19-17 in overtime. Here's Perfecto, with Navi at 9-15 down, executing a quad-kill from the open to keep them in it.

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Vitality responded with a close-fought 16-12 win on Overpass, before it all came down to Dust 2. Led by s1mple, who consistently top-fragged, Navi stamped its authority all over Counter-Strike's most iconic map, and ran out 16-12 winners.

After this, the final was between Navi and Astralis, and something weird happened. The match opened with a tight scoreline on Nuke, with s1mple and Electronic helping Navi over the line 16-12, with the former's contribution including this amazing AWP triple indoors.

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The match ended with a moment that should go down in Counter-Strike meme history, a jumping glock headshot onto a defended site.

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Then came the second match, and something changed. To be precise, Navi's team composition.

Navi played this tournament using a six-man team, unusual in the CS:GO pro scene. Some believe it's best to have a settled five-player squad going through the whole event, but Navi's tactics involve rotation: in this case, switching between the players B1T and Flamie on specific maps, here Inferno. B1T, a 17 year-old Ukrainian, previously played for Navi's juniors team.

Navi deserves big credit for keeping the faith in its player and in its system: the team had previously lost on Inferno with B1T in this very tournament, so it's no sure thing, but in this final it worked like a dream. B1T's addition changed-up Navi's rhythm, s1mple and electronic continued to play like gods in human form, and what began as an even 4-4 match changed utterly from the ninth round onwards, as Navi first executed a brutal CT defence, starving Astralis of cash and resource and pulling off some of the stoutest site defence you'll see: in one round, Astralis has banana control, waltzes on up to B, and within ten seconds all five are dead from a hail of withering fire from two defenders.

As the momentum gathered you began to feel for Astralis: 10-5 at halftime was as good as it would get, and on the T side Navi quickly turned the screws. Check out this for a flick from s1mple, world class.

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Boombl4 and Perfecto were suddenly firing on all cylinders, heck it felt like no Navi player was missing their shots, and as every play started to fall their way the attempts from Astralis felt that little more desperate. When the end came, Astralis's unfortunate gla1ve was the last man standing for his team: surrounded by three Navi players on A site, he was triangulated, suppressed, and then taken down with a quick burst from the back. No chances taken, and no chance remained: Navi were the champs, and in the player shots afterwards you could see s1mple wiping away a tear.

The full stream is below: the game on Nuke begins here; the second game on Inferno starts here.

One side-theme in the runup to the Blast premier series had been s1mple's status as the current top player in the scene, or otherwise. As is the nature of the CS: GO scene, most of this is good-natured ribbing with some people taking it rather too seriously. Blast itself got in on the action several times in the runup to the tournament, and during it.

Blast Premier making fun of s1mple in front of 60K viewers from r/GlobalOffensive

Following the win, s1mple gave an interview on-stream where he rather gracefully avoids answering the questions about his being number one, simply reiterating his commitment to improving at the game. "Yeah of course I'm not gonna relax, as I told before I want to be at this level for many years [...] I just wanna play [CSGO] and know everything about it."

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This leads to the question of Valorant, and S1mple just laughs. "No no no man, just forget about this game!"

Fair play also to Astralis for taking the L with good humour.

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The Blast Global Premier was a brilliant start for competitive Counter-Strike in 2021, and a reminder of just how unpredictable, exciting, and full of drama its esports scene remains. As the pretenders come and go this game, the king of the competitive scene, somehow retains both the capacity to surprise and a standard of elite play that few other titles can dream of. Entering its ninth year the game is more popular than ever and, whenever you tune in, serves up a thrilling reminder of why.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."