One trend that was extremely evident as 2015 came to a close was that almost every top tier, successful team moved away from strategy and towards skill.
Team EnVyUs and Team SoloMid enjoyed success for periods of the year with super aggressive, skill-intensive styles of play. Fnatic, the team of the year, cut their in-game leader and managed to find renewed success with a slightly more talent-focused and aggressive roster. Gamers2's rise over the course of the year came almost entirely without a true in-game leader at all, as they simply made good roster moves and out-shot their way to the top of the scene.
Everywhere you looked at the end of 2015 you could easily see that the best teams were looking to either increase their total skill or find ways to improve their ability to find easy frags. On the flip side, almost every team that was known for its ability to play tactically struggled to find success for a period longer than a couple of weeks. The only one I can consider to have found true success with slower play was Natus Vincere, who made it to the Grand Finals of a Major. But even for Na`Vi, when all else failed, they always had GuardiaN to turn to as their insanely skilled X-factor.
Although it seems rather simple in concept — better players means better results — that has not always been true in Counter-Strike. In the past there has always been cycles between skill and strategy that saw one or the other dominate the scene. At the moment it is clear that skill is all that matters.
It is no mystery why this is the case. There are many things about the current Counter-Strike landscape that gives a total advantage to teams that play simple, skilled and aggressive styles of play, and almost all of the advantages come down to a couple of reasons — the over-saturation of events and the steady increase in power of low-econ play.
Events, events, events
When players are in a constant state of travel and barely have time to play between events, it is obvious to see why tactics would stop being a good way to find success. Tactics take time to create, and even more time to master to a level where they can be used confidently in-game. With simply little to no time to practice between most events, the only way to find consistent results at the highest level is to shy away from complex tactics that require polish and focus on simple setups that have little to no obvious counter-play.
Almost every good team has chosen to focus their play on one thing: getting the opening frag. Playing 5v4 is obviously a huge advantage regardless of your style of play, but the easiest way to find that opening frag is to get an insanely skilled roster to play a safe, but flexible default setup. The better your players, the more 1v1 battles you will win and the more free rounds you can take off the back of their opening kills.
Following the pure lack of practice time, the intense schedule also means that there is plenty of demos floating around to be studied. The only way to avoid teams reading your tactics is to change them up, but if teams don’t even have enough time to create tactics in the first place, where will teams find time to recreate them? They can’t find that time if they are a top tier team. There are simply too many events to recreate your style week-on-week.
To avoid the problem of teams studying their demos, many squads, once again, turn to skill. It is almost impossible for a team to counter a simple and aggressive playstyle. Simple tactics are solid tactics that don’t overextend or leave many openings.
The only way to counter this style of play is to aim for your opponents' tendencies, as we saw highlighted in Cloud9’s legendary three-week run in the summer. But as they didn’t have the skill or foundation as a team to keep it up, they fell off as soon as the rest of the elites figured out how to stop Cloud9's tricks from working. The Americans have been easily pushed around on the international stage since then.
You can also see this trend in Luminosity. Looking at their results over the course of the year, it's clear how much they struggled with the schedule. As an almost purely tactical team (prior to their roster moves near the end of the year) the only international events the old roster really succeeded in were the Majors, which were always preceded by a week or two of bootcamp.
Playing a simple and aggressive style with highly talented players is the only good solution to both not having enough practice time and having so many demos available.
Going into 2016 this doesn’t look to be changing at all. Most event organizers are adding even more events to the calendar rather than using the increased funding to raise the stakes and create standout events.
You can see it everywhere. The bar has been set at $250,000 and no one is willing to go above that. But why would they? Valve hasn’t raised it like they did in Dota2, and the ESLs and DreamHacks of the world only need to hit that magic number to attract the best talent and the most viewers.
Finding the balance
All of these problems outside of gameplay are made even worse by the game's steady shift towards low-economic play, where almost every good team can steal close games away with SMGs, Scouts or pistols.
At the start of the year almost no one bought Deagles, at the end of the year it was one of the most used guns, and it's easy to see why. When you have the best aim in the world, pocket AWPs or jump Scouts can go out of control and become nearly unstoppable, especially if you run into an in-form Olofmeister or devve (formerly device).
It is doubtful that anything will change soon. I don’t see Valve or any event organizers raising the bar and cutting down on events, and I almost certainly don’t see any patches being made to slow the game down. Fast and flashy is fun, right? Even if it is the same story every single day.
I am not convinced.
Jacob Juillet writes about Counter-Strike for theScore eSports. Follow him on Twitter.