Astralis: The gold standard of Counter-Strike

Astralis won the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice 2019 Counter-Strike Major in Katowice, Poland. Adela Sznajder for ESL

"One more round! One more round!"

A booming chant from an electric Atlanta crowd erupted just seconds after Astralis eclipsed Virtus.pro at the 2017 ELeague Major in rounds; only more was needed to decide between overtime or a championship. Onstage, the Astralis players locked in. They were more than 4,500 miles from home, but the rowdy and enthusiastic crowd in the historic Fox Theatre didn't care.

In the next 40 seconds, one of the team's veteran players, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen, hit three clutch shots to close out the game and end the series. Boom, the confetti cannons went off and sprayed the crowd, who let out a massive roar. One of the best series of professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive series of all time was over.

For the first time ever, Astralis became Counter-Strike Major champions, joining the likes of Fnatic, Team EnVyUs, Team LDLC, Ninjas in Pyjamas, Luminosity, SK Gaming and Virtus.pro.

It has been two years since Astralis joined that elite list of teams. In the time since, they've made history again, becoming only the second team to win three majors over the course of the game's six-year history.

The highest-ranked team in the world for one consecutive year, Astralis have become the gold standard for competitive Counter-Strike teams.

But unlike others, much of their team has stayed the same. The roster has changed only one player since their first major win back in Atlanta, and in that time, they've won two more in London and in Katowice, Poland, with the same squad of five.

In a game that is forever changing rosters and filled with players who struggle to get along over long periods of time, Astralis have shown that they can make it work.

Behind that is a series of players who believe in the cause and think differently -- focusing on their own maturity and development, mentally both in and out of game, while creating an environment of trust, cohesion and openness. In the time since their first major win, those players have learned conflict resolution, separation of work and life and, most importantly, to work on themselves before blaming one another.

Since late 2013, the team has kept three core players: dupreeh, Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth and Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz. When the three first began competing with one another, dupreeh was 20, while Xyp9x and dev1ce were both 17. It wasn't long before the three started competing on some of the largest stages around the world.

Around those three young men, the team began looking for what worked, changing players every so often and seeking out new talent from within Denmark who could fix their problems. But it never replaced one of the core. The team cycled through a number of players, such as Henrik "FeTiSh" Christensen, Finn "karrigan" Andersen and Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye.

It took five years to figure out the right formula, but when they finally did, they added first Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander before their first major win and later Emil "Magisk" Reif in early 2018.

"For a long time, we've been wanting to create a team that's able to compete for titles but obviously that we felt comfortable with the people we've played with," dupreeh said. "Every time we've had different people on the team, things haven't turned out as we've wanted, so it feels good to finally have found stable teammates in terms of Magisk and gla1ve, where everyone is being really nice to each other both inside and outside of the game."

Since April 2018, the team has been the highest ranked in the world for a full consecutive year. It's rare that any Counter-Strike team keeps that level of consistency, and in down times, many break, opting to replace players. Some have kicked players, only to invite them back months or years later. Others have disbanded altogether. But not Astralis.

Part of that is what happens at home. After teams in games such as League of Legends leased team houses for all the players to live in, Counter-Strike teams took note. At a time, the Astralis core considered a team house, but decided against it.

"We were curious about the whole situation, but eventually we dropped the whole thing because we realized that we already had 150 traveling days together, and if we were going to spend the remaining days at home, we'd probably start ripping each other's heads off," dupreeh said. "We think it's really important to have a private life, to spend with your girlfriend or family, rather than wondering if you can bring your girlfriend to the house. We realized how important it is to have a private life, in a sense."

Team houses can often be restrictive, with managers living in the home to ensure the players meet their requirements -- practicing within a confined multi-hour block, attending team meetings and film review and meeting any media or sponsorship obligations. But Astralis have built trust with their players, and for a period of time, the team all lived in Copenhagen, Denmark. Now, however, they're spread across the country and frequently don't meet together in person while off the road.

In fact, many on the team said they believe they practice less than others. In game, however, that doesn't show, with the team being the de facto favorite in each tournament they attend, and often following through on that promise. Much of that trust has come at the core of dupreeh, now 26, and Xyp9x and dev1ce, now 23.

"The way they prepare for games, how much work they put into their game, it's amazing," gla1ve said. "And of course, how much they've evolved outside of game as well, just as people, too; how down to earth they have become -- they're not choking as hard. Their mental strength is a lot better than when I first joined the team, so that's how I can really feel the change. Everyone has gotten more mature."

Winning the next major is still a goal for the team, and that next opportunity will come in August and September in Berlin. The feeling of the first, in Atlanta, likely will never be replicated -- before that, the team had often been criticized for being unable to fulfill its potential. Winning their second in London in 2018 was special, because it was Magisk's first. And for dupreeh, winning the third in Katowice in March 2019 meant a lot after his father died a few weeks prior. But nothing beats Atlanta, the team agreed.

"Atlanta was still the craziest thing that has happened to me in my entire life," gla1ve said. "Nothing is comparable to that."

"It was a great mix of relief and being happy," dupreeh said. "Before that, the team had been dealing with the choking accusations and some of the accusations were probably very true. That we had a hard time proving our performance when it actually mattered. I'd say that when we won that thing, I don't think people thought we were going to win more. We felt like this was a one-time deal because we know how competitive the scene is, but winning that one finally made us one of the guys in the club."

With the in-game success has come the out-of-game recognition as well. Dupreeh said that it's hard to step outside in Denmark without being recognized, whether going shopping or attending a friend's birthday party. In the county of just 5 million, Counter-Strike has been a prominent part of the culture for several years, and in Europe in general, for over a decade. On April 30, Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen visited Astralis owner RFRSH's office in Copenhagen and played games with head coach Danny "zonic" Sørensen.

"Someone will always recognize what we're doing and will always ask for a picture or want to chat about something," dupreeh said. "It's something that's really flattering but also something you have to put away and put in a box sometimes, because you have to find a stable balance between your work life and your private life.

"A lot of people just see Counter-Strike as playing video games for a living. Whereas, I'm seeing this more as a professional career, as if I'm playing professional football. I think that does a lot for you as an athlete, where you come to a point where you put everything in front."

For now, Astralis are riding high. Like any sports team, however, they know it won't last forever and they're bracing for the moment it changes. The challenge for them will be to keep a level-headed attitude, to learn to bounce back and change, rather than follow in the footsteps of past major champions and make impulsive roster decisions that some ultimately regret.

"It's very important, and we've talked about this many times, that when we hit the hard times and we eventually will, we have to be true friends and good teammates," dupreeh said. "That comes down to mostly importantly in game. Back in the days, we changed players because we couldn't handle ourselves when things got rough on us. When we had all these choking things, we started overthinking things instead of true to ourselves and doing what we're good at. That's the main thing we've thought about, staying true to each other and still being a good teammate."