Jul 10 2016 - 1:28 am
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America's hope versus Brazil's Gods: Breaking down the ESL One Cologne 2016 Grand Final

This article takes a look at the grand final of ESL One Cologne 2016 between SK Gaming and Liquid, previewing the match-up and giving you an idea of what to expect tomorrow afternoon in the battle for $500,000.
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LEAD-UP TO THE GRAND FINAL

The scene has been set in Cologne and it is time for one more series to decide it all – the grand final for $500,000, between defending champions SK Gaming, formerly known as Luminosity, and Liquid. Notably, SK beat Liquid at MLG Columbus 2016 – the previous major, which ended in early April – in the semifinals, after overcoming 6-15 and 9-15 deficits on Cache and Mirage, respectively. But, this Liquid roster is a whole new animal, and an even wilder beast.

SK have made their way into the grand final from the Group of Death, defeating G2 and FaZe (both on cobblestone) to top it. In the playoffs, FalleN’s team took down FlipSid3 2-0 (mirage, nuke) in the quarterfinals, and then overcame Virtus.pro 2-1 (cobblestone, nuke, mirage) in an incredibly close semifinal. By reaching the grand finals, they became just the fifth team to ever reach consecutive grand finals at a major – joining an elite crew of NiP, Fnatic, EnVyUs and Na'Vi. Their opponents, on the other hand, joined NiP, Fnatic, Astralis, EnVyUs, Na'Vi, Virtus.pro, and the Brazilians as the only teams to ever have made top four at consecutive majors in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Meanwhile, Liquid took down the ailing EnVyUs squad in their opener (train), but fell short against Virtus.pro in group C’s deciding game (cobblestone). However, a 2-0 win (cobblestone, mirage) over NiKo’s mousesports saw them advancing to the playoffs as a second seed. In the playoffs, Hiko’s team went through the hardest imaginable route. Prior to the grand final, they have taken down Na`Vi 2-1 (train, nuke, cobblestone) – stealing a map win on nuke, a map their opponents previously hated but were forced to pick up as inferno was dropped – and then Fnatic with 2-0 scoreline (cobblestone, cache), scoring two comebacks from 11-13 deficits. 

MAP SELECTION

SK Gaming’s automatic veto is cache – a map that saw them get eliminated from DreamHack Masters Malmo at the hands of TyLoo, and seemingly traumatized forever. They do play Dust2 now, but it is by no means a favorite of theirs – and unlikely to be pulled out at this stage. Both FlipSid3 and Virtus.pro tried to surprise FalleN’s team with a nuke pick, but while the Brazilians came out on top each time, it remains an unlikely pick here – especially with Liquid having also played the map a couple of times, and scored wins on it. Now, that leaves us with overpass, cobblestone, mirage and train – four maps that are all within SK Gaming’s pool.

Liquid will continue avoiding overpass like the plague it would be to their results. Considering their form on cobblestone, and the fact they chose to pick it against Fnatic – demigods on the map – suggests that they will continue going with their best map, and betting on themselves to pull off one more win there. So far, at ECS Season 1 Finals and ESL One Cologne, on cobblestone they have bested G2, mousesports, Na'Vi and Fnatic – a damn near perfect resume only tainted by the loss to Virtus.pro, a team who also won the map against SK in their semi-final earlier today.

With mirage left in the pool, despite Liquid’s surprising 16-6 win over mousesports on the map, it should be the go-to pick for SK. With mirage and cobblestone starting the series, the decider would then be one of train, Dust2 and nuke. Most likely train would produce the best matchup, Dust2 could be a slugfest, and nuke might just be the most intriguing way to end the event, given how new the map is. SK beat Liquid at ELEAGUE on the map, but that was without s1mple – who has played otherworldly Counter-Strike this week in Cologne. And Liquid did defeat Na'Vi on it with him.

Veto: cache (SK), overpass (Liquid)

Picks: mirage (SK), cobblestone (Liquid)

Decider: dust2/nuke/train (decided by randomizer)

PISTOL ROUNDS VS. LATER ROUNDS IN THE HALF

On Twitter, I have been mentioning a statistic comparing teams’ success in rounds one through three versus that in rounds four through 15. The idea is that the first three rounds are a decent proxy for pistol round success – accounting for force buys’ effect – while the rest of the half should gauge how well the team does once most of the pistol round’s effects are removed. And in this category, the teams could not be much further apart, as their success in getting to this point at ESL One Cologne 2016 has them both succeeding in different parts of the game – beyond obviously being strong overall.

SK Gaming boast a 33-9 record in the first three rounds – a win-rate of 79%, identical to their pistol round win-rate. Compare that to Liquid’s 20 round wins and 34 losses, good for a win-rate of just 37%, and you see a large discrepancy. Their pistol round win rate is only slightly better at 39%. While the pistol-god Dennis is no longer in the running, SK’s fnx is the second best pistol round player so far at the event with a rating of 2.06, followed a few spots behind by Coldzera’s 1.55 and fer’s 1.31. Liquid’s sole player on the list of players who have played five or more maps is Nitr0, whose play has been good for a 1.54 rating on the opening rounds.

Excluding the first round three rounds, SK’s win-rate plummets to 55% (down 24% compared to the first rounds), a respectable figure, but short of what you would expect from a team that is 6-1, and whose sole loss came in overtime, i.e. there were no blowouts to mess with the ratio. For Liquid, the picture is the opposite – their win-rate in rounds four-15 has been 64%, a massive jump upwards of 27%. Liquid’s map score is 7-2 thus far. The conclusion to be made is that so far at the event SK has been far more reliant on pistol round success, whereas Liquid has grinded their way back into games despite slow starts.

IN-GAME ROLES AND INDIVIDUAL MATCH-UPS

Both teams have dedicated AWPers in FalleN and jdm64. Each team has a superstar who is capable of being the secondary sniper – namely Coldzera for SK, and s1mple for Liquid. Hiko is Liquid’s answer to fnx’s clutch prowess, and EliGE is the Americans’ comparable to fer’s aggressiveness. TACO and nitr0 are in a way their teams’ role players, with similar levels of opening round usages. However, there is a clear difference in the leadership department. FalleN leads SK Gaming, while former Tempo Storm coach and fellow Brazilian peacemaker is the brains behind the Team Liquid operation. SK’s coach zews is more of a motivational figure, though reportedly also sometimes chimes in during timeouts.

By far the most successful player in opening kills has been FalleN, with a success rate of 73% showing how effective he has been going for early picks he likes. No other player in the grand final boasts a rate above 60% at ESL One, with nitr0 and fnx both sharing the only sub-50% rates of 43%, each. As far as usage goes, fer has been the most active with 28%, followed by EliGE’s 26%. TACO and nitr0 share the third place, with 22% each. Most passive have been – as is to be expected – Hiko and coldzera, at 13% and 11%, respectively. No surprises there, and the splits seem to be within reason.

Personnel-wise, there are few differences between these teams. Topping the charts at ESL One Cologne 2016 is currently Coldzera with a 1.31 rating, followed by s1mple’s 1.20 not far behind. Perhaps surprisingly third from the grand final participants is TACO with a 1.13 rating, with EliGE and FalleN right behind with 1.12 ratings each. Looking over a period of three months offline, SK’s stars have been coldzera (1.25) and FalleN (1.16), who are expected to show up in tip top shape tomorrow. For Liquid – and this is misleading given they have played most of the past three months with two different players – only s1mple has a plus-1.00 rating.

THE CASE FOR SK

SK Gaming have been the best team in the world over the course of the past three-plus months, with MLG Columbus beginning their reign on the throne back in early April. They boast one of the world’s best playmakers and snipers in FalleN, likely world’s best player Coldzera, and the soundest tactical approach in the entire Counter-Strike world. Unlike Liquid, they have been through this before – it is not their first major grand final, and they have reason to feel confident going in. They also played the earlier semi-final, giving them a chance to take in Liquid’s Fnatic game in peace, knowing to look out for tactics and plays that could surface against them in the grand final.

With their semifinal win, they also became just the second team ever to stop The Plow In Full Force (other one was fnatic at Cologne last year), showcasing that they remain capable of summoning peak level play when it is required of them. To put it simply, SK Gaming are to be considered favorites to win the grand final, as they were coming into ESL One Cologne 2016, based on the past few months. The debut tournament under SK’s flag was always a championship-or-bust for them, and that remains the case – whether they admit it or not. These guys will not settle for a second place, and why should they?

THE CASE FOR LIQUID

The case for Liquid is s1mple. Actually, no – there is legitimately more to Liquid than the Ukrainian superstar, who just seems uncontrollable. The North Americans proved their ceiling was incredibly high already at MLG Columbus, even though it was never going to be sustainable with adreN or koosta. However, this time with s1mple being – at least for the time being – only temporarily onboard, the team has blossomed. While s1mple has been their superstar, ElIGE is also having the best tournament of his career, as is likely nitr0, all things considered. Hiko is yet to have that mega-game – which could happen tomorrow – and jdm64 has been solid, though fans will remember his missed shots on cobblestone against Fnatic.

Basically, Liquid has been the hottest team this tournament – they have had the kind of firepower no one has been able to match – not even Fnatic. Add in that coach and in-game leader peacemaker has done a good job keeping the team together, and preparing them for each opponent – plus, who knows SK’s tendencies better than him? – and you begin to understand why they have made it into the grand final. Finally, while s1mple admitted prior to their quarter-final that he had never beaten Na'Vi, and Fnatic in a best-of-three was uncharted territory for them, SK arguably is not. With adreN this team was within two rounds of a win at MLG. And no one on this team thinks the MLG-Liquid compares to their current form.

IF SK WIN…

The Brazilians become just the second five-man roster to win two CS:GO majors (together with 2015 fnatic including pronax), and to repeat as major champions. Overall, they become just the third core to ever win more than one major (third one being LDLC/EnVyUs) – which instantly solidifies their claim to being the most successful team of 2016, with two majors bagged, and makes this the SK-era. In all likelihood, Coldzera picks up his second MVP at the majors, the only player to do so in CS:GO history. And FalleN joins pronax as the only two in-game leaders to win multiple majors. In short, the Brazilian SK Gaming squad become true legends – and I do not mean the kind Valve calls top eight finishers at each of these. There are legacies at stake here, and that stuff matters when you are already champions. 

IF LIQUID WIN…

Liquid’s run at the major goes down as the hardest CS:GO major win to date, having gone through arguably all of the world’s top three teams – Na'Vi, Fnatic and SK Gaming – to win the championship. In fact, it would rival Na'Vi’s ESWC 2010 run – over f0rest and GeT_RiGhT’s Fnatic, zonic’s mTw, and RobbaN’s SK – in Counter-Strike 1.6 for the hardest win in history at the majors across all Counter-Strike versions.

Hiko finally wins, proving his career was not a waste of time. In all likelihood, soon-to-be Liquid member Pimp unfortunately loses his job – because as we know from sports, you keep the winning squad together, at any cost – and Liquid could start a new era where North American Counter-Strike is taken seriously. Finally, s1mple most likely wins the MVP, shutting all the doubters and haters up for good. And perhaps The Love Story of Our Time is not over.

PREDICTION

Tomorrow will be a true test of each team’s ability to adjust, as the punches begin to get traded. These are basically two polar opposites in style going against each other – the razor precision of SK’s tactics versus Liquid’s brute force – and as they say, styles make fights. The world’s best team against an unlikely underdog, but one that has arguably looked better so far at ESL One Cologne. The perhaps most loved superstar of all-time FalleN against an at times hated villain s1mple. From a story line perspective, it is possible even the much-waited for dream grand final between SK and Fnatic could not have matched this one. At least, if we ask The Bald Eagle, or most other American fans.

Liquid need to win cobblestone here. SK Gaming are sizeable favorites on mirage, and while Liquid’s win over mousesports was convincing – winning 15-1 in the rounds following 0-3 and 1-2 starts – it is SK’s go-to map, and one they have consistently inflicted pain upon their opponents on. Though SK could seize the series 2-0 with a win on Liquid’s pick, note that Virtus.pro were able to win cobblestone today against FalleN’s team despite 0-3 starts to each half, showing there are holes to be abused in SK’s play. Now, if we do go to a third map, the results can vary depending on the not-at-all-loved randomizer. I give a slight edge to Liquid on nuke, and must favor SK on train. However, Dust2 is anyone’s game. For the overall series, my rational brain says SK, but my gut says Liquid. Take it as you wish – I will focus on watching instead.


I will be live tweeting during match, and you can find my tweets at @lurppis_ on Twitter.

Photo credits: ESL

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