Gambit Esports won the PGL Major. Let that sink in for a minute.
SK, FaZe, and Astralis were the only conceivable contenders. Teams like G2 and Fnatic and Na'Vi were dark-horse picks, but it seemed like an unrealistic ask even for them. Gambit was not even in the conversation. The Gambit lineup had never beaten a top-3 team previously, and a month prior, it couldn't even make into the playoffs of the second-tier DreamHack Summer event. Yet Gambit won the PGL Major.
On Train versus Astralis in the Game 3 decider in the semifinals, Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko called a timeout. It was 13-12 and Gambit's lead seemed unavoidably sunk. It had lost four of the last five gun rounds, with Astralis looking to replicate its Game 3 comeback versus Virtus.pro in the finals of the last Major. But Zeus made a gutsy call. He decided to abandon the typical slow pace and go straight at Astralis's best-performing player on that map, Peter "dupreeh" Rothmann, to immediately break open Astralis's A-defense. Zeus cleared out dupreeh in back-to back rounds to deplete Astralis's money and win the match outright.
This triumph of Gambit's T-side is likely the moment that comes to mind above all else when we look at how Gambit won. Now, there is obviously more at play. There was the frequency of early upsets, the early elimination of FaZe and G2, the flaws of the Swiss system, a too-early meeting of Astalis and SK, the overperformance of Rustem "mou" Telepov in the playoffs, the MVP-level overall play of Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev and the heroics of Abay "HObbit" Khasenov in the last game of the finals. But we might forget that Gambit's nine-round counter-terrorist side start in that Train game versus Astralis is also what allowed them take the map.
For all the webcam recorded conversations and well-articulated articles dedicated to explicating this victory at the PGL Major, the success of Gambit Esports on their CT-side is the real story.
Gambit won 72 out of 137 rounds on its highly-lauded T-side (52.6%), but actually did better on the CT-side winning 82 of 145 (56.5%) rounds. Now, Gambit was substantially stronger on the CT-side in the Swiss format, winning 23 of 30 rounds (76.7%), while it was more hit-or-miss in the playoffs. In three of its four wins in the semifinals and finals, Gambit won on the CT-side by decisive margins: 10-5, 9-6 and 11-4. At the same time, Gambit's defense was crushed in both of its playoff losses, going down 5-10 on Inferno versus Astralis and 3-12 on Cobblestone versus Immortals, but that doesn't suggest Gambit's overall victory was tangential to its strength on that side of the map. It's the opposite. Gambit's wins and losses late in the tournament hinged heavily on Gambit's performance as the Counter-Terrorists.
But what's surprising isn't that Gambit's T-side received more praise, despite its equal or slightly stronger results on the other side of the map; what's surprising is that Gambit could be strong on the CT-side at all.
If you think about Gambit as a team, it has a clear separation of strengths and weakness. Because of the presence of tenured in-game leader, Zeus, Gambit has always been seen as a more structured and coordinated team. On the other hand, it has never been considered the leading team of its region and therefore is not the magnet team for the most talented players. While AdreN has been better than usual this year, and Hobbit, the rookie, has had a very consistent level of output, the remaining core of Gambit still pales in comparison to many of the game's strongest lineups.
The CT-side has usually been considered to be more dependant on raw skill, and the T-side is where the best in-game leaders are able to exert themselves and help their team grind out rounds. So you would expect Gambit to do far better on the T-side. It just has never worked out that way with this roster.
Earlier this year, Gambit was known as a decent team held back by a narrow map pool. Before entering cs_summit, Gambit found six of its seven offline wins in 2017 on either Cobblestone or Overpass while maintaining a 1-7 record across the remaining five maps. Of these leading two, Gambit played Cobblestone more frequently which allowed it to find a seven-game winning streak on the map and briefly looked like the best team on it worldwide.
But surprisingly, Gambit succeeded on Cobblestone largely thanks to its CT-side. Over this seven-game streak, Gambit won an astonishing 61 of 85 rounds (70.9%) on the CT-side even as it played some of the best Cobblestone teams at the time, such as OpTic with Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz, North with Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel, and the pre-slump Virtus.pro. And Gambit did it on a map that traditionally has been said to have a T-sided bias. While none of Gambit's players were extraordinarily strong at any of their individual positions on Cobblestone, they were able to convincingly win CT-side after CT-side by relying on their ability to survive initial executes and win retakes, especially on the B site. And while this strength paid incredible dividends on this map particularly, the current Gambit lineup has always broadly exhibited this general strength due to the fortified fundamentals of their veterans and their coordination under Zeus.
It's a quality Gambit shares with SK and Astralis, who have also displayed dominant CT-sides on their own speciality maps. Now, it is true that Gambit lacks the reinforcing firepower of either of these two teams, but it's this regulated quality of play that has helped Gambit's CT-sides be as strong or slightly stronger than its T-sides. And more importantly, it helped it win the major.
In addition to this broad capability, Gambit did show some specialized strengths on individual maps at Kraków. For example on Inferno, where Gambit won three of four games, it succeeded in part due its Banana control. Gambit's best best two players, AdreN and Hobbit, both play on the B side of Inferno, and the pair played fairly aggressively when they had each full utility. As such, the duo took complete control of Banana surprisingly often, which either allowed AdreN to rotate away early or Hobbit to make an unexpected flank.
On Train, Gambit went undefeated, and won a majority or more rounds on its CT-side in all four wins. But its specific strength was more reminiscent of its original winning setup on Cobblestone. Gambit didn't use special gimmicks or play aggressively in certain spots; the map's terrain and the players' chosen positions aligned to allow Gambit to be far more durable. Just as Hobbit and Mou held the B long/statue/chicken coop half of the B site on Cobblestone, they also held the right half of the A site on Train covering the popular T-con and Ivy entry ways. Even if Hobbit and Mou were smoked off, traded or taken out, Gambit's remaining trio of veteran players spearheaded by AdreN is perhaps the best combination to carry out methodical retakes.
Then on Overpass, Gambit found surprising success versus the world's best Overpass team, Astralis, by frequently playing the B site passively. After Astalis took the site with its famous B-hit or something else, Gambit's B defense could almost always fall back and retake the site alongside its A players. In the pistol round, Gambit was down a man in a 4v5. There was also a 3v3 in Round 5, a 2v2 in Round 6, a 5v4 in Round 8, a 1v1 in Round 10, and 3v2 in Round 13. All six scenarios were retakes, all six took place on the B site, and all six were won by Gambit. But to be fair, it helped that Mou was having a legendary performance by grabbing 12 kills without a single death across these six rounds.
Now, Gambit didn't get to play that many CT-rounds on Cache and it was quite poor on the CT-side of its former stomping ground, Cobblestone, but the overall underlying pattern still holds. While Gambit was also propelled forward by some great T-sides, occasional individual over-performances, and key upsets in the Swiss format, its proficiency on the CT-side was an equally important, if understated in its surprising tournament victory.