ATLANTA -- As fans move through the halls of the Fox Theatre, the noise of excited conversation is loud on Sunday. These are conversations about a currently tied 1-1 series that's taking part within the walls of a venue best known for its annual showings of "The Nutcracker," not sports. It's a testament to how far Counter-Strike, a game which launched in 2000, has come in its 17-year tenure.
A prize in the amount of $500,000 and the title of "the best team in the world" were on the line at the ELeague Major, a bi-annual occurrence sanctioned by Counter-Strike developer Valve. One of these teams was a sleeping giant, awoken by a tournament victory in Atlanta six months ago, but no stranger to what it takes to win a major, having won the second in the history of the game three years ago.
The other, an up-and-comer, who has bottomed out of major tournaments for years peaking and ultimately failing in the semifinals. They've made changes, however, and coming into the tournament were an expected favorite -- despite having their backs against the walls due to the opponent that they faced. The third map starts and the goliath, Virtus.pro, are off to the races. Known for their dominance on the map, Train, it looks as if they'll repeat their 2016 success here and close it out. But not if their opponent has anything to say about it.
With the crowd rallying for both teams, Astralis, the favorite-turned-underdog comes to and ends the half 9-6. But the second half is all that matters, as the Danes mount a comeback on the T-side of the map after losing the crucial first four rounds. It's over, they jump out of their seats, the crowd screams and cheers their name. They are the champions.
"It feels so good. It's hard to describe and I don't think I'll really realize it right now, but I will soon," longstanding Astralis player Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth told ESPN, nearly out of breath. "My phone has been blowing up, like Twitter, Messenger, text messages and calls, just everything. It feels amazing to have all this support by both fans, friends, and family, girlfriend, everything. It feels amazing."
For the past four years, since 2013, the core of Astralis, Xyp9x, Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz and Peter "dupreeh" Rothmann, have worked vigorously hard to win their first major but have always fallen flat in the final stretch. They've played for some of the biggest esports organizations in the world -- Copenhagen Wolves, Team Dignitas and Team SoloMid -- before moving out on their own to create a brand, Astralis.
But even after making that move in early 2016, the team failed to see the results expected of them. In hard times, they, like many teams, made roster changes, saying goodbye to long-time members René "cajunb" Borg and Finn "karrigan" Andersen in the process. With it, they welcomed Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye and a new in-game leader, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, both of which competed on lower level Danish teams before their time in Astralis.
"[Mia Stellberg] was saying, 'Within two to three months, you can probably make the best team in the world.'"
For their part, Kjaerbye and gla1ve were integral to such a phenomenal win. Gla1ve, the tactician and designated captain, showed that he deserves to be among the best of them, making surprising and thoughtful calls when the team was down and out. Meanwhile, Kjaerbye was a highlight performer in their time in Atlanta. To many, his performance was the catalyst in which Astralis made a stomping playoff run and closed it out.
"Making some roster changes help [us move past the semifinals finally]," Xyp9x said. "I think what we had achieved with both cajun and karrigan was what we could achieve. We couldn't progress and it was really hard to progress as a team at that time. But now that we have gla1ve, it feels like we can always improve and stuff."
"[Adding gla1ve] brings more leadership. Even though he is not that structured in his way of calling, it seems like everyone is confident in what he wants to call. It's just amazing to play under him and his leadership, that's all."
The team all weekend spoke about the importance of their sports psychologist, Mia Stellberg, who has worked previously with the Finnish national hockey team and Olympic athletes. The members of Astralis attribute much of their recent success, including a win at the Esports Championship Series Season 2 finals in December, to her credit.
"I remember we had a meeting in our office with [her] and the team and she was saying, 'Within two to three months, you can probably make the best team in the world,'" dupreeh said in the postgame press conference. "And I remember the majority of the team said, 'Eh, that's not going to happen since the level of Counter-Strike is so high right now.'
"But we've come to understand that it has now happened and what we're going to achieve now is to remain here, not take anything for granted or not play anything loose. We're going to keep going, keep grinding, keep practicing, keep improving."
Stellberg's methods are working out, according to the team. On Jan. 22, the team started out the ELeague Major with a bumpy group stage performance, losing to the likes of Godsent and SK Gaming later in the week. It managed to, however, take wins over OpTic Gaming, G2 Esports, and Team Liquid, qualifying for the playoffs of the event.
But its quarterfinal matchup, in the opinion of many, would mark the end for the Astralis side. It met Natus Vincere (Na`Vi), who wreaked havoc in the group stage by advancing undefeated, looking like one of the best teams in the tournament. Just like its Virtus.pro matchup, Astralis did not falter despite some close matches. They beat Na`Vi, a contender for the best in the world, and moved on Friday.
"After having struggles in the group stage in the start, it felt good to beat Na`Vi, which were considered by many the favorites to win going into the playoffs," Xyp9x explained. "But we won because we were much better prepared for every match, people were focused in their heads, and it was a mix of many things, but I'm proud of what we did as a team."
After the victory Friday, the team faced two-time major champion Fnatic on Saturday. Rumored to make changes after a lack of form, in comparison to their 2015, Fnatic did not look like a formidable opponent. Following that win, Xyp9x said the team went to dinner and watched the other semifinal between SK Gaming and Virtus.pro play out as they awaited their opponent.
"Dev1ce wanted to play SK, but the rest of us, we didn't care because we saw [Virtus and SK] as equal opponents," he said. "I think Virtus is a very tactical team, they're strong mentally, it's really hard to tilt them and stuff like that."
"What we prepared for was looking at the tactics and just believe in what Lukas is calling. If we believe in that and he's watched their demos and they do the same, then we will win. Everyone believed in Lukas, there were some times where we didn't but that's going to happen."
With the win on Sunday, the team takes home a $500,000 prize, more than what's awarded at most Counter-Strike events. For Xyp9x, he said it's not about the money, but that something else that comes with the win means so much more.
"The money means nothing," he said. "When we won, I didn't even know how much money we had won, so it means kind of nothing. What it means is that we grow our brand and we grow our organization, which we are co-owners of. I hope that [our new sponsor] Audi is happy as well, perfect time for that sponsorship, I guess. We hope to stay on top, this is going to be the hard part. I hope we'll be successful."
"It means so much [to win]. Indescribable."