What started out as an underwhelming tournament for North American Counter-Strike ended on a more hopeful note as Team Liquid, Counter Logic Gaming, and Cloud9 eked out victories on Sunday to qualify for the MLG Columbus Counter-Strike tournament next month, where they will compete for a $500,000 grand prize.

North American Counter-Strike is regarded as a competitive backwater compared to the elite European scene, which boasts teams like the incomparable Fnatic and contenders like Na’Vi, EnVyUs, and Astralis. No American teams managed to win guaranteed spots at Columbus when they competed at DreamHack Cluj-Napoca last year, and this qualifier represented their only chance to compete at a premier tournament on home soil.

After American squads went winless against non-NA teams on the first day of the tournament, however, things were starting to look dreary for a region accustomed to second-class esports status. By Sunday morning, only the Splyce team had succeeded in advancing to the main event.

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On Sunday, however, the worm finally turned as the remaining American squads won a series of close best-of-three matches. In particular, CLG and Cloud9 fought dramatic battles with their opponents that hinged on a few key plays from stars.

CLG were on the ropes against Vexed Gaming thanks to some strong play from the Polish squad and some uncharacteristically weak play from their star AWPer Joash “jdm” Marzano, who was barely a presence for the first half of the match. His teammates, however, kept CLG in the series until Marzano started to get into a groove. While jdm was unhappy with his overall performance, saying that his team had carried him, the sniper may have saved the day on the last map, Train, when he decimated a rush from Vexed and checked their growing momentum.

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Despite winning 2-0, Cloud9 may have had the most harrowing journey to the main event at Columbus. Their first game against Australia’s Renegades team ended with a close 16-14 victory, which included this fantastic near-ace from Shroud.

Renegades, however, mounted a near-miraculous comeback on the second map and turned it into back-and-forth battle with Cloud9 that continued into overtime. However, while Renegades made some tremendous plays to stay neck-and-neck with Cloud9, it’s the moments where they choked that will likely haunt them.

For instance, deep into overtime and with his team’s life on the line, Renegades’ Justin “jks” Savage had the drop on C9's Ryan “fREAKAZOiD” Abadir and, like a cool professional… wildly emptied his magazine in Freakazoid’s general direction.

Freakazoid’s response wasn’t much cleaner, but he won the panic-fire duel with Renegades and set his team up for the win.

Sunday’s games mean that four NA teams will be competing at MLG Columbus, which just saw its stature increase thanks to an increased $1 million prize pool (eclipsing Katowice’s $250,000 total). However, the top-heavy prize distribution at Columbus could be unkind to this crop of American teams, who just barely made it to the main event. Their records against international competition are not encouraging, and many will likely struggle to survive their groups.

On the other hand, when play started on Sunday, there was a chance that only one North American team would represent the region at home. With some strong, back-against-the-wall play on Sunday, CLG, C9, and Team Liquid earned the right to compete among the game’s elite.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer and esports journalist. You can reach him at zacnyr@gmail.com

Top photo: American flags decorate C9's monitors at DreamHack Cluj-Napoca, by Adela Sznadjer for DreamHack.. Source