Things were looking shaky for a while this weekend at the Asia Minor, a qualifier for the US$1 million ESL One Cologne event later this year. Eight teams rocked up, two of them Australian — and that was only after a public furore that resulted in the organisers behind forced to hold an extra qualifier for Oceania.
But while things had been quietly improving for Australian Counter-Strike, the group stages looked tricky. But both Australian teams managed to pull out enough solid performances, with Renegades securing a spot to fly the Australian flag in Germany.
2016 has been a fantastic year for Counter-Strike. Prize pools have been increased substantially. There are weekly televised leagues again. China is betting on Counter-Strike as their next big esport. And the money machine behind streams and stickers has opened up a world of possibility for gamers to turn pro in a way that wasn't an option before.
It hasn't been that great for local Counter-Strike, although things have been improving. IEM Taipei was an abject failure, with Mongolia's top team rolling over the Australian representatives in an almost comical fashion.
But then things began to improve. Renegades performed admirably in the ESL Pro League, eventually finishing 7th after spending the majority of their time flirting in playoff contention and earning US$20,000 for their efforts. Immunity even recovered from having one of their stars poached in the post-Taipei panic shuffle and qualified for the Asian Minor following a tight tight tussle with new Australian super-team Legacy Esports.
And then the Australian teams drew the worst groups possible.
Counter-Strike is getting real big in China, and South East Asia by extension. But it's not just because a lot of money is being funnelled into the game — it's also because the Chinese teams are real good.
The two biggest names in Chinese CS today are TyLoo and CyberZen. The latter has recently been picked up by Vici Gaming, a name more commonly known for their presence in the Dota 2 world. Both had developed a fearsome reputation over the recent months: TyLoo was fresh off upset wins against Team Liquid and MLG Columbus champions Luminosity at DreamHack Malmo, while CyberZen set themselves apart their Australian rivals in recent online qualifiers.
Despite a slightly tricky draw, both Australian teams escaped from the group stages largely unscathed. Renegades came off second-best in their clash against TyLoo, but they avoided dropping any further maps on their way to the elimination stages. Immunity also put the current bogeyman of Australian CS back in their place by knocking MongolZ, the Mongolian team that wreaked havoc on the Australian scene at IEM Taipei, out of the tournament.
Immunity's obliteration of CyberZen in the group stages also ensured that the two Australian teams would be playing each other first off in the playoffs. The winner would still have to scythe through TyLoo to earn a spot at Cologne, but it was a step closer nonetheless.
The video above has plenty of crazy plays from the other Asian teams, although that's part and parcel of how the region plays Counter-Strike: high risk for very high reward. Australian teams tend to gamble a little less, although throughout CSGO our region has had the benefit of vastly more exposure and experience internationally (not having issues with visas helps immensely in that regard).
Immunity ended up running out of steam by the end, although their improvement suggests they'll make an appearance at a major before the year is done. The improvement of Renegades indicates they should be making a regular appearance at the larger tournaments, although whether they can consistently upset top 10 teams remains to be seen.
Given that Australia is struggling for results internationally — Chiefs were knocked out of the group stages at the mid-season International Wild Card Invitational, foreign invaders thrashed Australians at the recent Crown Invitational and Avant Garde couldn't buy a win at the world SMITE championships — it's a positive sign for local esports.
The other storyline amongst all of this is the rise of China. As CSGO continues to gain popularity in the region, so does the proliferation of tournaments. And if Australian teams can keep pace with their rivals in China and South East Asia, they'll keep giving tournaments a reason to invite them.