First things first, calm down.
I can hear your outrage already. The angry click of a mouse on an outrageous headline.
You’re thinking of Zeus’ speech after PGL Krakow, Vega Squadron beating NiP 16-2, or their spiritual successors Team Spirit 16-1ing Astralis. How can any reasonable sports fan not enjoy every giant killing?
I will have to admit, for Vega and Spirit, the upsets did make the event more interesting. Vega defeating the Ninjas – despite their elimination soon after - was still the most memorable moment of the Major Qualifier and Team Spirit’s Katowice 2021 victory was the deserved culmination of an already good run which saw them defeat G2 and Heroic.
But those upsets are not the kind that really grind my gears. They were funny, yes. But they were in events where the playoffs still featured the best of the best. The upsets will become nostalgic, but ultimately less iconic, than the finals of the same events.
Case in point - The 2017 Krakow Major
At DreamHack Ope – wait, I mean the $1,000,000 PGL Krakow Major in 2017 – upsets did derail the tournament enough that the final was between 15th ranked Gambit and 10th ranked Immortals.
Going into the summer of 2017 SK, FaZe, and Astralis had traded events and the Krakow Major was built up to be the stage for the coronation of one of the triumvirate. G2, NaVi, North and Cloud9 were inconsistent but promising dark horses who threatened to break the status quo.
By the time the playoffs kicked off, Astralis, after beating SK (good seeding PGL, really good work), were the only ones of the aforementioned top six teams to see the semi-finals.
FaZe, G2, NaVi and Cloud9 were all eliminated in the Swiss System group stage. And then Astralis inexplicably choked against Gambit anyway, leaving us with a final that had 370,368 less viewers than ELEAGUE’s major 5 months earlier.
For a lot of (shee)ple the randomness of these upsets is a positive, like a good twist in a movie you should have seen coming, with every neutral lapping up the tears of FaZe and Cloud9 fans. But upsets have consequences.
They can only happen if the favourite underperforms, resulting in a product where you don't see both teams firing on all cylinders. My favourite example is Leicester’s Premier League win in 2016. It is rightly heralded as a once in a generation upset, but my (somewhat warped, I admit) mind still sees the 2nd placed team on 71 points and bemoans the quality of the season.
Leicester’s miracle only came about because every single top team underperformed. It might be one of the best football stories, but the quality on pitch was lower than nearly every other season I have watched.
And the same can be said for Krakow. FaZe going 0-3 is funny. Zeus winning a major was heart-warming. Yet personally, I would have much rather seen FaZe come into the tournament well-prepared, show the same form as in the spring, and get into the playoffs instead of a (soon-to-be) washed up Virtus Pro and flash in the pan Immortals.
Despite its attendees befitting a DreamHack more than a Major, PGL’s Grand Final was an entertaining watch, but was it really better than watching FaZe and Astralis at StarSeries, or FaZe and SK at Sydney?
And we all remember the half-empty arena.
Predictably, neither Immortals nor Gambit sustained their high level after their major final appearance. After the player break, SK and FaZe both made roster changes, partly motivated by their underperformance at Krakow. Thanks to upsets, we never got the crowning moment for one of the triumvirate that their rivalry in the spring warranted.
Let me make it clear that I am not saying the upsets are not deserved. I am simply saying my viewing experience was made worse by them happening.
How Cloud9's win is different
Despite the generally low quality of playoff games, Krakow is not held to be the worst major: a TL;DR twitter poll determined the most unpopular major was FACEIT’s in 2018.
The playoff bracket in the London Major featured Astralis against FaZe, Liquid and NaVi in playoffs – all S-tier teams – but the event still fell flat.
Astralis’ dominance, and technical issues, frequently get blamed for this but I would argue, if Liquid and NaVi had performed to their best, the same bracket and results could have been a Counter-Strike classic.
Instead, Astralis’ competitors never really turned up, resulting in swift 2-0s and a Major to forget.
A balance can be struck between the dominance of London and the variance of Krakow. And it happened at my favourite Major: ELEAGUE Boston 2018.
But hang on, don’t I hate upsets? And isn’t Cloud9 defeating the European super team from 11-15 down the most ‘upset’ of all upsets?
Like Gambit, Cloud9 fell off soon after their upset run to Major victory. So, what’s the difference – why do I, a self-professed upset-sceptic, love Boston and hate Krakow?
The answer is simple: I am an Astralis fan and still upset about Zeus in Popdog.
Oh and on a way more serious note: The best teams in the world performed closer to their true level. FaZe did falter in the final, and G2 and SK were not at their best against Cloud9. However, they all made it to the playoffs, and C9 defeated what were the three best teams going into the event.
It was a deserved underdog run; lightning doesn’t strike thrice, after all.
When the Twitter legions are deployed against FaZe, it is Boston, not Krakow, that they bring up. Both are funny, but an upset in a final will always be more entertaining: we have followed the ‘underdog’ throughout the tournament allowing for narratives to develop, and it hurts even more that FaZe were that close to stopping the upset.
True underdog stories need the right opponents
If Cloud9 had won Boston against QB Fire, or mousesports, it would have been far less satisfying; the upset is impressive because it was against the best teams.
Gambit’s win was also deserved, but they did so against fnatic, Astralis and Immortals. Despite being outside of the top ten, Zeus’ squad were favourites in two of their playoff series to win a major. Lightning only needed to strike once, against Astralis, for a ‘miracle’ to happen.
Too many factors outside of Gambit contributed to their victory at Krakow in 2017 – FaZe’s group stage exit, SK drawing Astralis, Astralis choking. It remains a fantastic achievement, but there is a reason they could not sustain their level.
It is only against the best teams – not Fnatic or Immortals of 2017 - that true underdog stories can come to life. David defeating Goliath is only impressive if Goliath is strong.
Upsets can be exciting in the moment, but they do undermine events - just look at the absolute bore fest that resulted from AVANGAR’s own fairy-tale run to the StarSeries Major final, or ENCE’s at Katowice 2019.
The best (read: bearable) upsets, for me, are in two camps: the dark horses, and the new kids on the block. Think 5th ranked Cloud9 at Boston, or Gambit (now the clear number one) announcing themselves at Katowice 2021.
My ideal final is the best two teams (at a similar level to each other; not 2019 Astralis and Liquid) both performing at their best without excuses. Mismatched teams will always be inferior to this. There will be 99 Astralis-AVANGARs before you get the single Vega Squadron-NiP that satisfies your neanderthal-like lust for an upset.
Put it this way: I would sooner watch Iron Man fight Captain America than David fight Goliath.
Even David’s upset - the archetype for an underdog story - is overrated. David’s ‘victory’ was only possible because God decided Goliath would fall unconscious after a single hit from David’s slingshot.
Come on, nobody would watch that movie.