Later this week, Australians will be able to watch an Aussie team - or majority Aussie, at least - take part in the playoffs of one of Counter-Strike's biggest events of the year. Reaching those heights, the glory of a top 8 finish at a truly global competition, is something Australian teams have only ever accomplished a handful of times. And whenever an Australian team has gotten there, there's always been a question mark. It was an upset win. It was an easy bracket. The maps fell in their favour. They're not really a top 8 team, not really.
Renegades will square off Brazil's best at IEM Katowice. And they'll be doing so in the playoffs of a major because, finally, they belong there.
More so than any other game, Australia has had a long love affair with Counter-Strike. Our attempts at cracking international fame and fortune in the 5v5 terrorist vs counter-terrorist arena go back almost two decades, when Australians were flying over for the World Cyber Games and struggling to find sponsorship for international events.
Even with the rise of streaming, which has allowed players to substantially augment their income streams by circumventing traditional geographical restrictions, Australian Counter-Strike has had a tough ride. We've had plenty of success within our region, establishing ourselves as a powerhouse within the Asian and South-East Asian regions. From time to time, there's even been upset victories. The last IEM Sydney saw a string of surprise local performances, with SK Gaming getting knocked out entirely, FaZe Clan losing to Renegades, and Cloud9 nearly getting knocked out by ORDER.
Of course, it didn't matter in the end. Foreign teams took out five of the top six spots, and FaZe recovered from their lower bracket nightmare to eventually walk away with $139,645 ($US100,000). The five Australian teams, on the other hand, collected $67,029 ($US$48,000) between them.
Heading into this year's IEM Katwoice, expectations weren't high, but they weren't in the barrel either. The main upset had already occurred during the Asian Minor qualifiers, with Grayhound (another Australian team) knocking out China's ViCi Gaming in a best-of-three to book themselves a spot in the IEM Katowice main qualifier.
For clarity, IEM Katwoice takes place over three parts. Teams played in a series of regional qualifiers around the world, with Australian teams getting their shot through Asia. In the main qualifier, 16 teams battle it out in a swiss play-style bracket to determine the top eight teams for the "New Legends" stage.
In the "New Legends" stage, the teams that just qualified go into another swiss play bracket with the top eight teams from the previous CS:GO major event (in this case, the FACEIT Major in London last September).
It's a punishing bracket. The first two rounds of matches are best-of-one, so there's no holding back. Once you get into the third round, eight teams will either be on the verge of qualifying, or the precipice of being knocked out. Those teams play a best of three, while the rest play another best-of-one to sort out the standings further.
Teams can play as many as five rounds and nine maps under this system before qualifying to the next stage - which is played under the exact same format. Cloud9, for example, had to play 8 maps before they qualified to the second stage of the tournament. The US-centric team then played another five maps, but losing 2-0 to FaZe Clan in the final round meant they finished just outside the top 8, going home with $12,205 ($US8,750) instead of at least $48,821 ($US35,000).
It's as much a test of stamina, endurance and holding your nerve, as much as it is high-level Counter-Strike. And it can also be an illustration of the distance between teams.
So when a team surpasses all expectations and qualifies for the final playoff bracket, through two swiss play stages, by playing seven games in total, it's a big deal.
To understand precisely why Renegades' performance is such a big deal, a bit of background is required.
Firstly, the ELO system and best-of-one matches didn't really help Renegades: they battled more favoured and better ranked teams at every stage. Take Finnish team ENCE, which had previously racked up a handy string of wins at DreamHack Winter and the Assembly Winter tournaments over the last few months. Renegades beat them in a best-of-three in the first bracket, and then again in a best-of-one in the second stage. And if that wasn't enough, Renegades also ran into the previous winners of IEM Sydney and the recent winners of the ELEAGUE Invitational last month: FaZe Clan.
The Aussies clawed their way through both of those trials, winning 16-13 and 16-14. And for good measure, Renegades found themselves thrown into a best-of-three against Astralis, the most accomplished and consistent champions the CS:GO scene has seen in a while. The Danish squad eventually knocked the Aussies back a peg, but even still, Renegades found a second gear by recovering from a 12-3 deficit to win the first map in overtime.
The performance hasn't completely come out of nowhere. Renegades, and Australian teams in particular, have always shown their talent in spurts. The problem has been bringing it all together for long enough, consistently enough, to make a deep run at a major event.
The team was originally founded back in 2015. Renegades, originally known for its exploits in the North American League of Legends circuit, acquired the all-Australian team Vox Eminor. The thinking was that Australia was a better hunting ground for talent; players would be available more cheaply, and easier to relocate, than sourcing a team from Europe at the time; and the Australians had shown flashes of talent, but nothing consistent.
It was a chance Australians hadn't had for almost a full decade: a full salary to live and train on, able to compete consistently against tougher and more diverse competition in North America.
But the results were still hard to come by. Renegades started 2016 poorly, losing to a team from Mongolia at IEM Taipei and struggling for most of the year. A 2nd place finish at DreamHack Open Winter was a nice foil, but for the most part, the problems remained: the team had a shallow map pool, and were yet to really flourish.
It's not the kind of match-up you'd expect to see in esports with US$50,000 on the line. But that's precisely what's taking place right now, with one plucky team from Mongolia pulling off a nice surprise to kick off the Counter-Strike calendar for 2016.
It's a story that's really a microcosm of Australian Counter-Strike in general. If you look beyond CS:GO, back into the Counter-Strike: Source and 1.6 era, Australians have always struggled. Sometimes it's been a lack of opportunity, with only a couple of teams ever able to travel overseas for a global competition every year.
Sometimes it's been a lack of experience, with a new team winning a national tournament and then finding their way overseas, struggling to adapt and assert their brand of CS on the tournament. You can even go all the way back to the era of Counter-Strike 1.3 and 1.5 era, where Australian teams like function zer0 made waves with occasional upset wins against more favoured US and European teams (including in 2001, where the Queensland-based team used a little-known trick with a smoke grenade repeatedly to knock out Team 3D, the best team in North America at the time).
But for the most part, Australian teams would never really make it deep into a truly international tournament. That's why our best Counter-Strike result, if you consider the quality of international competition, is still all the way back in 2001 - when an Aussie team finished 5th at the World Cyber Games.
Towards the end of 2017, Valve announced that the structure of the Majors - tournaments officially sanctioned by Valve with prize pools of $1.39 million ($US1 million) a piece - was being overhauled.
The change effectively broke the major tournaments into a three-stage affair, introducing the system that's still being used today. But on a practical level, the changes ended up being a huge boon for teams who qualify outside of North America and Europe - like Renegades.
Because the majority of Renegades were still holding Australian citizenship at the time, Renegades were able to keep qualifying through Asia rather than having to battle it out in the more congested North America region. And save for the hiccup at IEM Taipei, it meant that Renegades' spot at every major was more or less assured.
It can't be underestimated how much of a difference the changes made. Firstly, having almost certain qualification for every Major meant an extra boost in income for players through in-game sticker sales. The team still had the benefit of being able to play in smaller US tournaments and leagues, so the quality of practice hadn't declined. And unlike some players coming over from Europe, all of the Renegades players spoke fluent English.
For the players within Renegades, players looking to change teams, and owners looking for potential acquisitions, things were looking up for the Aussies.
But the rise of Renegades was always punctuated with a speed bump. After attracting Canadian star Keith 'NAF' Markovic to the team, NAF departed for another NA organisation, Team Liquid. 2018 saw even more changes, with the in-game leader Nifty joining Team Envy, Australian rifler Karlo 'USTILO' Pivac returning to Australia and their stand-in coach all departing.
2017 and 2018 saw a mix of results - the team continued to do damage and take maps off more favoured opponents, but their performances in the largest tournaments was still lacking. Renegades finished equal 20th at the FACEIT Major in London. The result denied them automatic qualification for IEM Katowice, and thanks to the player-selected seeding system used to determine the first round of matchups, it meant their path to the top 8 would always be difficult.
Whatever happens on Saturday morning, the Australians have earned themselves a level of respect that the local Counter-Strike scene has spent almost two decades searching for. It will never be the same amount of validation that comes with a win, or when our shores host an international tournament the size of IEM Katowice.
But none of that compares to the relief that, finally, an Australian team has made it. The scene has been brimming with individual talent for so, so long, perennially held back by a lack of opportunity, geography, and experience. None of those factors are in play anymore, and there are no excuses that could be levelled against a group of individuals who have ground thousands upon thousands of hours in demos, aim maps and other monotony to finally get where they are.
Renegades aren't amongst the world's best by luck; they're there because they belong.
Update 2011 AEDT: Amended story to reflect Grayhound's victory over ViCi Gaming, not TYLOO, in the Asia Minor qualifier. Thanks, Matt.