Astralis's acquisition of Disrupt Gaming was the business move of the year in "Rainbow Six Siege".
The "CS:GO" powerhouse is a household name among fans of FPS esports; everyone involved with shooter esports at the very least knows something about their dominant run in one of the longest-tenured and most beloved esports. They won three Majors in a row, four in total, and an Intel Grand Slam -- nothing to sneeze at -- and they arguably reinvented their game while they did it.
Getting picked up by Astralis to play a first-person shooter is a big deal, and it comes with expectations.
"Getting Astralis wasn't going to make us a great team overnight," said Kevin "Easilyy" Skokowski, the team's head coach. "At the same time, it could've given us a bit of a boost to play better, but it ended up being a negative on our shoulders for a little bit."
Easilyy says that Astralis's lackluster stage is at least partly due to the pressure the roster felt after the acquisition, but he thinks it's past them now. There was no real internal pressure from the organization. Instead, it was the team looking at the brand they now represented, and beginning to play not to lose, as opposed to playing to win.
Those two terms, 'playing not to lose', and 'playing to win', may seem as if they're the same thing.
But there's a hidden distinction between the two: playing not to lose can mean not taking the risks that end up being round-winning plays, it can mean a split second of internal doubt that makes all the difference on whether a site execute is successful or not. If you play not to lose, you play scared. Playing to win is assertive, it's confident, it's unwavering.
"You tunnel vision, you focus in on your little zone," said Easilyy when asked about what tangible effects in the server come from playing not to lose. "...We definitely played a little more timid. Our decision-making wasn't as decisive as it needed to be."
Pressure and stress in "Siege" can compound itself very quickly, especially over an extremely small schedule. In the NAL, you get eight games a stage. If you aren't making a Major, you're only playing 24 maps a year, not counting SI Qualifying tournaments and potentially other charity or community tournaments.
All the same, 24 maps over the course of a year, just eight maps over the course of a stage can lend itself to a "snowball" effect, something Easilyy says Astralis experienced towards the beginning of the season.
"You come out with a loss, and the next game you're trying to be perfect, but you're playing to play so perfect...when you play to not make mistakes, you end up making the most mistakes," said Easilyy.
As far as righting the ship, Easilyy says the nerves began to calm around the time of Astralis's bout with TSM, after a meeting with Astralis Director of Sports, Kasper Hvidt, who works with their "League" and "CS:GO" teams.
All the same, the snowballing danger is there for any team. All it takes is one bad game, or even a bad half to put a team on their back foot. That bad game snowballs into another, and then another, and so on. With so few maps on the season, and NAL relegations only working on Stage 3 results, every round is precious.
While it isn't the entire reason for Astralis's issues, something that didn't help the pressure on their shoulders were the NAL relegation rules and the small amount of maps.
In other regions, relegation is decided by your body of work over three stages. In the NAL, it's only the third and final stage. Eight maps are all that stand between the player and losing their job, no matter if they're the Major champions or if they placed first the two stages before.
"We're just worried about winning our last game, and that's it," said Easilyy.
Astralis currently holds six points, one of a staggering four teams in the league with that distinction. XSET has five, and are currently in last place. Astralis has one final game remaining to make up some ground: an Oct. 20 bout with DarkZero.
All of the other teams hovering in the five to six point range will get at least two chances to get more points. A head to head tiebreaker over Mirage and XSET are points in Astralis's favor, but their loss to Mirage could throw a wrench in the already-complicated bottom half of the league.
Astralis will log onto the server next up against DarkZero on Oct. 20.