CANCUN, Mexico -- The top two Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams in North America failed to make it to the playoff portion of the Esports Championship Series Season 4 Finals which took place in Cancun, Mexico on Friday through Sunday. Cloud9 and Team Liquid, No. 5 and No. 10 in the world respectively according to industry-observed HLTV global rankings, both were eliminated in group play at the event.
The ECS Season 4 Finals is the culminating event of the ECS's regular season. Four teams emerged from both the North American and European divisions and seeded for the tournament based on placement in their regions.
Cloud9 and Team Liquid, because of the somewhat unreliable results of online play, were placed together in Group B alongside the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the world, FaZe Clan and Astralis. The group was considered one of the toughest ever seen in a major Counter-Strike tournament, and on paper, Cloud9 and Team Liquid were the two teams that shouldn't have made it out of group play.
So was the result really that surprising?
In some ways, yes. Cloud9 was coming off first-place finishes in five of its last eight events; fans and pundits were bullish on the North Americans. C9 beat mousesports in the semifinals of DreamHack Denver and took down both Astralis and SK Gaming in group play at IEM Oakland. The team finished third-fourth in that event.
However, while Cloud9 was on a charge, Team Liquid with newly acquired Lucas "steel" Lopes were on the struggle bus. The squad took an 11th-12th at the ESL Pro League Season 6 Finals and an 11th-12th at IEM Oakland. Obviously not great results, but with recent roster changes, Liquid did have some exigent circumstances.
"As far as Liquid goes, due to the fact that they just made a roster move and because of that have to split their focus between using (Wilton "zews" Prado") for the Major and steel for everything else, it's hard to really gauge them," analyst Dustin "dusT" Mouret said. "I am not sure it should really be a surprise they didn't advance.
"It's somewhat disappointing Cloud9 didn't make it given their recent success, but when you consider they were knocked out by FaZe, it doesn't sting as much, nor is it surprising. Cloud9 is really struggling to produce against FaZe. Every time they've faced off, Cloud9 absolutely shuts down."
In fact, Cloud9 is 4-14 against FaZe Clan in maps since January of 2016.
Former Cloud9 player and current in-game leader for Misfits' CS:GO squad, Sean "sgares" Gares, was more surprised by Astralis, which yet again was playing with a stand-in: Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel came in from Team Dignitas to help the squad.
"Cloud9 not getting out of group was only surprising because Astralis beat C9 and FaZe in the (single-game matches)," sgares opined. "With (Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz) playing, that might be expected, but it was shocking that they once again played well with a stand-in. Once Astralis got the 'W' over FaZe, it kind of doomed the North American teams in the lower bracket."
It isn't just Cloud9 that struggles against its European counterparts but North American teams in general. The lack of wins against top-tier European teams has created an overwhelming stigma that North American teams can't compete against its Western counterparts.
And 2017 has done nothing to exorcise the thought. A North American team has only won only three main event tournament titles in 2017. Cloud9 won of those three, the DreamHack Denver and the iBUYPOWER Masters.
This tournament was a chance for a surging Cloud9 to put some of the stigma against North American squads to rest. That, however, will have to wait until 2018. Team Liquid, meanwhile, will need to focus its offseason on practicing with steel and getting him acclimated to the new team environment.
Until then, the North American scene has a couple of options in order to effectively compete.
Some teams might need to acquire roster talent outside of the region, but they might face that a burdensome obstacle in buyout prices for noteworthy players. Others need to start paying serious attention to critical staff members such as performance coaches and sports psychologists.
Improvement on the global stage, both for top-10 teams and other North American rosters, comes with a price tag.