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Daniel Vorborg, the co-owner and interim coach of the Copenhagen Flames, set a goal for his team to be one of the top 20 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams in the world by the end of the year. It was an ambitious target, but the team was optimistic they could make it happen.

Six weeks later, they’re rated at 19th.

“We didn’t expect it to go that fast,” Vorborg said.

The event that catapulted the Copenhagen Flames toward the milestone was IEM Fall, a Regional Major Rankings tournament. The Flames ploughed through the group stage in dominant 5-0 fashion, beating more established teams like G2 Esports, BIG, mousesports and FunPlus Phoenix. While the team was confident in their own abilities, the results were still a surprise.

“I don’t think any of us expected to compete at this level so fast,” Fredrik “roeJ” Jørgensen said. “The way we work when it comes to practice, when we talk about rounds, how we want to play… I think it’s a combination of all those things that makes for us playing this way right now.”

While it’s easy to point to the best-of-one format and say that it aided the underdog team in upsetting some of their opponents, it’s harder to make a case for lightning striking the same spot five times in a row.

“I feel like it helped us to some extent, but I wouldn’t say it would’ve been impossible for us to go 5-0 even in a [best-of-three] format,” Rasmus “HooXi” Nielsen said. “When it comes to the toughest scenarios for underdog teams, like mid-round scenarios where you have to think and make a decision in a split second, I still feel like we are pretty much at the same level as the other teams.”

Major hopes

With the group stage finished and playoffs secured, the Flames thought they’d all but clinched their spot at the PGL Major Stockholm 2021. While the RMR wizards crunched the numbers and mapped out every conceivable scenario for teams to qualify for the major, the Flames waited in eager anticipation. When all was said and done, the major was within reach but not yet assured.

Still, for a team with players that arrived not knowing they were at an RMR event, they couldn’t ask for much more than to be within fighting distance of a slot at the most prestigious tournament in CS:GO.

“The last week of the event was such a big roller coaster and was tough on the mental state of everyone in and around the team,” Vorborg said. “When we finished first in the group after the first four games, we expected to already have qualified for the major, but the results didn’t go our way.”

Even still, the team only needed one Bo3 win to qualify for the Stockholm Major.

Their first opponent was Vitality, one of the strongest teams at the event. The match was a close affair, but the Flames still lost 2-0. Their next opponent were the Movistar Riders, one of the other underdog teams making their name at the tournament with a fresh-faced roster.

The Copenhagen Flames suffered another 2-0 loss.

The Flames, who just days ago were riding the high of thinking they’d qualified for the major, now had their backs against the wall. Their final opponent was the Bulgarian squad, Fiend, and the winner of the match would go on to the major. The loser would go home empty-handed.

The first map went the way of the Flames. The second map, Inferno, was a back-and-forth bloodbath. After four overtimes, the Flames pulled the game over the line with a slick clutch from the veteran roeJ. In total, the teams played 88 rounds in only two games.

Tired, with emotions running high, the Copenhagen Flames celebrated. The organization and every single player on the team were going to attend their first ever major.

“It feels both surreal, but also as a huge relief to have qualified for the major,” Vorborg said. “Losing to Movistar really put the pressure on us. But we talked a lot about the Movistar loss, about how the pressure got to us. The players need so much credit for how they adapted for the next day against Fiend.”

Danish excellence

There will be 20 Danish players represented at the PGL Stockholm Major, the second most of any country — behind the 21 Brazilians. Seven of the Danes have played on the Copenhagen Flames. René “TeSeS” Madsen and Ismail “refrezh” Ali, who now play for Heroic, are both Flames alumni. In fact, the Flames have accrued a bit of a reputation as a Danish “talent farm,” giving young players a chance to realize their potential before their contracts are bought out by larger organizations with more cash to throw around.

“We try our best to offer more resources, salary, anything we can offer the team, but sometimes it’s not possible to keep up with the evolution of the roster and how well they’re doing,” Vorborg said.

Refrezh, for one, was not surprised by the success of his former team. He spoke about the strong work ethic and positive atmosphere that the team fostered as reasons for their recent results. “They’ve been doing amazing,” he said. “We’ve been watching as many of their games as possible. We’re really impressed with how they’ve played.”

And refrezh is not the only Dane taking notice.

“I’ve played with some of them so I’m not really too surprised that they’re doing well,” Astralis’ Lucas “Bubzkji” Andersen said. “They play a lot like us. They try to play structured and play around each other instead of so much individually. And then they have a lot of experienced guys coupled with some younger talent, which is a very good fit. I mean I didn’t really expect them to go through, but I’m not surprised that they upset some of the better teams.”

Because of the success they’ve found on the Heroic squad, refrezh and TeSeS are the two most noteworthy Copenhagen Flames alumni, but there are others. In June 2020, the Flames’ entire roster was transferred to the Spanish-owned team, x6tence, after they’d found some modest success.

“There’s no hard feelings if the players feel it’s the right move in their career making five, six times their salary making a change and still playing with the same team,” Vorborg said.

Even guys like HooXi and roeJ were bought by other teams before finding their way back home to the Flames — on three different occasions, in the case of HooXi.

“Astralis, Heroic, whoever. I still feel like the Flames are doing a much better job with the amount of money and resources they have,” HooXi said, addressing why he returned to the team. “It sounds kind of cliché, but it’s a family. I do believe in this project. The organization as a whole is driven by passion and not some guy with a lot of money coming in and investing to get a little bit of cake from the esports scene.”

HooXi gives a thumbs-up to the camera. Provided by Copenhagen Flames

That passion is evident in Vorborg, who positively beams every time he’s given the chance to talk about his team. Despite being the co-owner of the org, Vorborg took on primary coaching responsibilities to fill in for Faruk “pita” Pita, one of the coaches temporarily banned from Valve-sponsored events in the coaching bug exploitation scandal. Still, the possibility of losing yet another roster to big buys looms large over Vorborg’s head.

“There’s nothing more I would like in the world than to keep this roster,” he said. “But when teams do this well this fast, there’s always a disconnect, because the market value — the fair salary of the players — is much higher today than it was six weeks ago.”

It’s easy to picture bigger orgs, Danish or otherwise, salivating at the thought of acquiring this current iteration of the Flames, but they’ll have to wait. For now, the Copenhagen Flames only have one thing on their minds: the 2021 PGL Stockholm Major.

Eyes on the prize

The Valve-sponsored major tournaments are the culmination of a CS pro’s career. It’s where legends are made. From unsigned players grinding the FACEIT Pro League to superstars backed by huge orgs dominating the ESL pro tour, there’s no more sought after, no more vaunted, no more esteemed forum of play than a major.

“I want to attend a major, I want to win a major, and I want to be the best,” the team’s AWPer, Nico “nicoodoz” Tamjidi, said.

Nicoodoz is perhaps the best example of how far the Copenhagen Flames have risen in such a short time. In July 2020, nicoodoz was on the verge of quitting CS:GO and trying his luck with that animated temptress, VALORANT. That was before he was signed by Team Singularity.

“I hadn’t done an HLTV map for a year, but obviously I got the chance and I just picked it up and kept grinding at it,” nicoodoz said. “Eventually I got picked up by Copenhagen Flames, which was probably the best thing that happened in my life.”

Nicoodoz reacts to winning a round at IEM Fall 2021. Provided by Copenhagen Flames

Although the Copenhagen Flames have now guaranteed their stickers, forever immortalizing the club in CS:GO and ensuring a nice cash bonus for the players, the event itself still lies ahead. For Vorborg and his Copenhagen Flames squad, it remains to be seen whether they can take maps off the best international teams the game has to offer or if their performance at IEM Fall was in fact just a fluky series of lightning strikes. What is clear, however, is that the Flames find themselves in an enviable position: no pressure, nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“Our dream is not to keep losing talent and selling them to another organization,” Vorborg said. “We also dream of attending Majors, winning Majors, winning championships, competing with the best in the world. For us it’s the only path forward right now, to keep doing more with less.”

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