As Astralis stood on stage at the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in late February in Katowice, Poland, one of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's most successful teams stared out into an empty arena.
Although no cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in Poland at that time, concerns around COVID-19 spreading at big events quickly put a halt to live attendance at esports competitions. As the coronavirus pandemic has caused turbulent change across the world, it has been a turbulent few months for Astralis.
The team has worked to add two new players to the roster, Patrick "es3tag" Hansen and Jakob "JUGi" Hansen, but there was backlash. After the team signed es3tag to a forward contract, they were mired in controversy, with his former team, Heroic, threatening litigation. The past two weeks, two of the starting Astralis players, Lukas "gla1ve" Egholm Rossander and Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, have taken leave, citing burnout as a primary reason for their departures.
The Danish lineup that won the past three Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Major championships will look far different come their next competition.
Success in Counter-Strike has long been tenuous. The game is noted for having back-to-back competitions and struggling to balance an event calendar when so many unrelated parties are involved. It has been an ongoing issue the past few years, with the Counter-Strike Professional Players' Association enacting a player break period and marking off part of the calendar for players to recuperate. Burnout is not new to the game, but for a lineup that for the greater part of the past three years has remained atop the HLTV rankings, it is.
"The culture is the major factor [for burnout]," Astralis Group sports psychologist and performance coach Lars Robl told ESPN. "It is a hasty growing sport driven by performance -- here and now -- without many thoughts on long-term endurance for the athletes. It is a culture that has been driven by the idea that if you do not perform constantly, you will get benched, leave the team, and we will find a new player instead."
Astralis didn't make Xyp9x or gla1ve available for comment, given Danish restrictions around medical leave. ESPN spoke with Robl and their teammate Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz about changes being made within their team and the push to expand their roster to allow for more flexibility for player breaks.
Dev1ce is no stranger to taking a break and the effects it can have on both your game and your mental health. In late 2017, during Intel Extreme Masters in Oakland, California, he was hospitalized and sent back to Denmark to do testing. After recovering and reflecting, he said he should've taken a break earlier, but "that was simply not something you did back then, though."
"It impacted my confidence and belief in my game, which was something I felt at the Boston Major [a few months later]," dev1ce said. "As soon as I regained that, everything was back to normal.
"After my break, I regained a lot of control on how my body reacts to stress and how to tolerate it, so for me, the last few years haven't been as tough as before. But it's extremely tough to keep prioritizing CS over everything when you've basically won it all. That's where you need a good core of people that help with that, and this is where it is important to have a professional organization around the teams and players."
Given their success, Astralis have become the epitome of Counter-Strike excellence. From Ninjas in Pyjamas to Virtus.pro to Fnatic to Luminosity and SK Gaming to Astralis, the expectations for the best team in CS:GO are enormous, and faltering makes fans quickly call for your benching. In the past few months, the Danish club have hit their biggest slump in some time.
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Identifying player burnout has been difficult, but it can easily develop, given the stress of travel and the expectation of high-level performance over an extended period of time, Robl and dev1ce said. The issues aren't new for Robl, who hopes to implement solutions that he has found while working with traditional sports teams.
"Establish a performance team around the athletes," Robl said. "Create a culture within the team where it is accepted and expected to be 'vulnerable.' Focus on long-term goals, which calls for prioritization between tournaments. Increase the roster so that players can rest when signs of fatigue [appear] and change the competitions to allow this without being punished. Help the athletes create an identity other than a 'player,' as his or her identity will overshadow his or her ability to admit fatigue or burnout."
That led to changes in the lineup, adding other players and allowing gla1ve and Xyp9x to take time off. Astralis will be one of the few teams to have an expanded roster as they do, with the intent of eventually rotating Xyp9x and gla1ve back into the team once they are ready and switching between games with es3tag and JUGi.
One question remains unanswered, which is how players will take it. Will there be discontent around internal competition? Will players become envious that another is getting playing time when they believe they deserve it? Robl hopes the changes will foster an environment of putting the team before individuals.
"The precondition is to make the team look at the entire team -- all the players -- as one team and give them a deep insight of the term 'group dynamics' in order to understand the difficult feelings related to that, such as envy, jealousy, rivalry, etc," he said. "The tools to deal with them includes a performance team with an independent psychologist who is confidential with the players.
"Astralis Group has been doing that for four years now, but everybody is aware there is still a lot of work to be done. It is new in esports, and we all make mistakes, but this should also be a part of the culture -- to allow yourself to make mistakes. It is also key to make a rotation system work, similar to others."