ECS Season 2 Finals preview

This article previews the $750,000 Esports Championship Series Season 2 Finals, taking place at the Anaheim Arena from Friday through Sunday.

Esports Championship Series Season 2 Finals begin tomorrow in Anaheim, California, with $750,000 up for grabs for the eight finalists. The opening day is played behind closed doors, with Saturday and Sunday’s games taking place at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena.

The four teams that qualified through the North American online season, in order of seeding, are SK (playing with fox as a stand-in following removal of fnx), Cloud9, OpTic and Immortals. For Europe, the participants are Astralis, EnVyUs, FaZe and dignitas (playing with Heroic’s valde as a stand-in for Magiskb0Y, who is in Denmark for school exams).

SK Gaming (coldzera, FalleN, fer, fox, TACO)

Following their second major championship at ESL One Cologne 2016, SK took a fairly lengthy break from competition, with fer flying home to Brazil to undergo ear surgery. The team never returned to world’s best form, making top four at all five events they have since attended in the past 12 or so weeks, with two losses in the grand final. All in all, they only lost best-of-three series against, Cloud9, NiP and Astralis – not a terribly bad record in the parity era.

But other issues led to the removal of fnx just after the one-year anniversary of him and TACO joining the Luminosity days ahead of DreamHack Winter last year. With Immortals players not allowed to represent SK Gaming at the ELEAGUE Major in January, the Brazilian juggernaut needed to look elsewhere, and they decided to pick up former FaZe member fox to play with them at ECS Season 2 Finals and the ELEAGUE Major in January. Needless to say, SK has had limited practice heading into the event in Anaheim, which just around the corner from their team house.

In terms of roles, fnx was a passive rifler, known for his ability in clutch situations, and stellar defensive play. On the other hand, fox has made a name for himself as a sniper throughout his career in Counter-Strike 1.6 and Global Offensive, even taking over Maikelele’s role as FaZe’s primary AWPer. The fit will not be easy, and SK players have reportedly said on streams that coldzera would be rifling more during fox’s stay, meaning SK will alter their play, as opposed to plugging fox in and hoping for the best. In theory that makes sense, but there are risks buried into that approach.

SK has been winning on train, overpass, dust2, and at times cobblestone. Their cache remains unproven despite the narrow loss to NiP at IEM Oakland, they are 0-5 on nuke in the past three months, and their 2-5 record on mirage has led to them shying away from the map against elite teams. There is no guarantee that SK will even get out of their group, though Magiskb0Y missing from dignitas’s line-up certainly helps.

Still, coldzera will be the #1 player of 2016, and FalleN should land in the top three. TACO has gradually improved, and fer is capable of taking over games. SK do not need fox to be a monster to be successful as a team. The roster move also adds at times needed unpredictability to their game, especially if fox is now AWPing over coldzera. By no means is this an improvement for the best team of 2016, but they are elite enough to make it work, if they catch a break or two.

They are favored versus dignitas in the opener, and were a few notches better than EnVyUs and Immortals before their roster change. Astralis must be the expected winners in their match-up, and Cloud9 have proven they can win a series versus SK. But beyond that, would SK not make the finals over FaZe or OpTic? No matter how you look at it, it is hard to make a case for SK to not make the semi-finals. And if FalleN somehow finds a way to win, we might need to revisit the possibility that he is a magician and we’re all merely passive actors in his latest trick. 

Cloud9 (autimatic, n0thing, shroud, Skadoodle, Stewie2K)

What a cool-down Cloud9 has had after the ESL Pro League Season 4 championship in Sao Paulo. Stewie2K’s team lost to Immortals at iBUYPOWER Masters, were knocked out in groups at both IEM Oakland and DreamHack Winter, and most recently fell short versus Immortals once again in a series at the Americas Minor. In fact, Cloud9’s only semi-notable wins since the EPL title at the end of October are versus TyLoo, mousesports and OpTic.

With that said, the iBUYPOWER Masters grand final had little meaning, Cloud9 had narrow 17-19 and 14-16 losses against FaZe and NiP that barely eliminated them from IEM Oakland, and they are short on practice – thoug so is practically the entire scene. Their map pool has not proven to be as consistent as they may have hoped, with teams finding holes in their dust2 and mostly staying away from mirage. I see them as having regressed to what we saw Cloud9 as for years – a good enough team for the occasional upset win, but not with limited upside.

Both Stewie2K and autimatic (though the latter to a lesser degree) have come back down to earth, and the former’s in-game leading seems to be running out of ideas. If you took a shot every time Cloud9 waited until 1:00 to attack a bombsite versus Immortals on their 5-10 terrorist side of dust2 at the Minor, you would have been sober enough to drive home after the game finished. Playing fast is a style, but there is no point in continuing to hit your head against the wall after noticing it does not yield the wanted results.

The weak string of results puts added pressure on Cloud9 to perform. Following autimatic joining, they finished in the top four at five different events, only getting eliminated early on at ELEAGUE. This is starting to be the time when they need another solid result for their honeymoon not to be written off as the second play to what [email protected] helped them achieve in July 2015 shortly after fREAKAZOiD joined the team. For now, that is exactly what this run seems like, with clear beginning and ending points.

Cloud9 are once again paired up with FaZe at ECS Finals, having split six maps against the different variations of the international team’s roster in the past months offline. Lately karrigan’s side has looked better, but Cloud9’s peak has arguably been higher. This is as close as you get to a coin flip in Counter-Strike right now. The winner should be trumped by Astralis in round two, and the loser will take on OpTic. Second place after Astralis is up for grabs – maybe even first, if the Danes have a bad start – and due to the stand-in situation in group B, so is the semi-final. Who knows what will happen?

OpTic (mixwell, NAF, RUSH, stanislaw, tarik)

A few crazy OpTic fans took home five-figure wins at odds of >500x for their ELEAGUE championship. If this win is not proof of how even the scene now is – in my opinion mostly as a direct result of the over-saturation – then I do not know what would be. It seems madness to give bold predictions in the current state of Counter-Strike, where seemingly anyone can come out swinging and defeat the favorites to win it all. Well, anyone good with upside. How much unlikelier would a championship by TyLoo really be?

OpTic’s Spaniard mixwell has quietly become one of the most underrated players in the scene, and NAF’s dominant display in the grand final versus Astralis was his breakthrough in serious offline competition, which he could build on in the future. Meanwhile, tarik continues to play well as a hybrid AWPer, stanislaw has made the team function well under his leadership, and RUSH is doing his job as the team’s passive rifler. While tons of teams show promise, a la OpTic early on in the summer, they actually managed to take that potential and transform it into real results.

Despite the grand final win over Astralis at ELEAGUE, I have the Danes prevailing in the opener. Most teams regress after big wins, and that especially applies to the inexperienced ones first tasting success. Whereas OpTic must be feeling good about their re-match against gla1ve’s squad, the Danes should be pouring through demos as I am writing this to make sure they are aware of every tendency of the GreenWall’s players, and have the necessary adjustments to win the rounds that lost them the previous game. OpTic can work as hard, but will they? Usually champions have less hunger – but not always.

But there really is no way to know. OpTic has beaten Cloud9 before, but also lost versus them – most confusingly in their last offline series. They have similarly destroyed FaZe at ELEAGUE, but would anyone suggest FaZe could not beat them? As far as the playoffs go, OpTic remain inconsistent. They went out dead-last at DreamHack Winter just a week before ELEAGUE, and were not very impressive at ESL One New York or ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals. They have proven their peak level, but how often can they reach it? 

Immortals (boltz, felps, HEN1, lucas, steel)

I made the case for Immortals in a separate feature on GAMURS, which you can read here to avoid repeating everything twice in what already is a long enough article.  

Astralis (dev1ce, dupreeh, gla1ve Kjaerbye, Xyp9x)

Since gla1ve took over karrigan’s duties as the team’s in-game leader, Astralis have placed top-four at IEM Oakland, barely losing to SK Gaming, and second at ELEAGUE. Sure, they expected to win the latter and are certainly disappointed that haters – and even many fans – will chuck it up to another choke-job. But they have been steadily moving towards the right direction – inching closer to the kind of form that would make them an elite team again. For those keeping track at home, it has been over a year since their previous offline title.

Due to SK parting ways with fnx after the ELEAGUE defeat, Astralis are now the new kings of train. On top of that, few will challenge them on dust2. Unfortunately, the Danes remain scared of playing cache, and continue instead to force the action on cobblestone, a map their woes have been on-going since the losses against NiP at DreamHack Summer and Semphis’s TSM at ECS Season 1 Finals in London. The latter was an unforgivable veto mistake, given cobblestone was TSM’s only competitive map at the time.

In an interview with Slingshot, karrigan confirmed he had effectively lost the team, that they no longer believed in his game plan. It makes sense, given Astralis has some of the best personnel in all of Counter-Strike. While dupreeh has not been his old explosive self lately, Kjaerbye has blossomed to something resembling the monster he was in dignitas in the beginning of the year, and has taken some of the load off dev1ce’s shoulders. Meanwhile, gla1ve is a clear upgrade over karrigan, and Xyp9x has perked up with a couple of notable performances lately.

If you are buying Astralis’s stock, you must have them winning the opener over OpTic. They showed real class in getting together right after the bitter loss in the ELEAGUE grand final, they have the best player in the series in dev1ce, and they boast a more consistent record – despite less time together than their foes. The Danes are on an upwards trajectory, and are the favorites to hoist the trophy on Sunday at Anaheim Arena. What a difference an in-game leader makes, even without proper practice. I am long Astralis, and not only short-term.

EnVyUs (apEX, Happy, kennyS, NBK, SIXER)

Despite failing to secure a single notable offline finish since SIXER joined the team in DEVIL’s stead in September, EnVyUs have played well online, qualifying for both ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals and ECS Season 2 Finals. The ability seems to still exist, though there seems to be turmoil within the team. Happy has never lived up to his name when it comes to facial expressions, but the body language in the entire team simply seems off. Maybe they are waiting for a year-end shuffle, or perhaps this is just them being miserable due to weak results. Who knows?

The star AWPer kennyS remains a top performer, and both apEX and NBK have put in the occasional big game to help the Frenchmen score wins here and there. However, Happy has not been near his old self – and new fans may find it hard to believe he was the MVP of LDLC’s Major championship at DreamHack Winter 2014, given how little impact he seems to nowadays have. While fellow lurker GeT_RiGhT has adjusted to make his role work again, it seems Happy is unable to pick up the pace in his game enough to stop being overly predictable, and he is paying the price for it. You can only out-wait the other team every round if your team is winning to begin with.

SIXER has been utterly unimpressive in EnVyUs, and was an odd pick-up to begin with… Though DEVIL had not exactly blown the roof off the place with his play either. SIXER seems like a placeholder player to me, someone to hold onto, who is probably a solid, likeable teammate, someone EnVyUs does not mind to keep around… At least until a more suitable player becomes available, or the whole French scene undergoes another round of musical chairs – whichever happens to be more likely.

The Frenchmen are surely capable of beating Immortals – and plausibly both SK and dignitas due to each fielding a stand-in – but it is so hard to tell whether they can summon some of their impressive online form in Anaheim for multiple games, let alone days. They could top the group – though I would still see them losing the semi-final – or simply get knocked out with two straight losses. One thing they do have going for them is they have not attended an event for three weeks and at least had a chance to put in some serious practice before traveling to California. But is it enough?

FaZe (aizy, allu, karrigan, kioShiMa, rain)

It would be easy to overlook the progress FaZe have made since karrigan’s addition, if you were too focused on the short-term and only remembered the thrashing they received at the hands of OpTic in the ELEAGUE semi-final. It was not their finest moment, and cost allu a nice steak dinner – as well as plenty of dough in direct ELEAGUE prize money – but they have otherwise looked very good under the leadership of the former Astralis player. In fact, this makes for a good case study of why sometimes a player swap – in special circumstances, in a game like Counter-Strike without substitutions – can be beneficial for both parties.

At IEM Oakland, FaZe finished their group 5-0 taking down Cloud9, NiP, SK and mousesports prior to losing a close three map series versus NiP. In the quarter-finals of ELEAGUE they bested the Polish monsters of, who were well-rested and practiced, having skipped the event in Oakland and turned down a last-minute spot at the EPL Finals. But the OpTic loss undermines FaZe’s recent progress – which has been remarkable. FaZe do not have all the answers, and may not win a single tournament in 2017 – but at least they are competing now, after nearly a full year of disappointing group stage exits.

While karrigan does not pack the kind of fire power some other in-game leaders do – and you see him tweeting about his individual play just a bit too often to remain convinced it is not affecting him – he is surrounded by four players who can take over for a map at times. The team’s Finnish AWPer allu – who is not kidding, for the record – is a quality AWPer, rain remains a rare candidate for someone who could break through as an elite player, and both aizy and kioShiMa possess the X-factor needed to at any time secure a round that looks almost unwinnable. That is said about many players, but with them it is true.

As explained in Cloud9’s section, FaZe’s group is a like a series of coin flips. Astralis are a favorite above everyone else, but beyond them there is not enough separating the rest of the teams. FaZe who must beat two of Cloud9, Astralis and OpTic to see the semi-finals for their third straight event. And if they do that, they must FaZe up – I mean, move up – in the rankings. One factor going for them is their roster is fresh, and probably has more easily reachable gains than Cloud9 or OpTic. That may not help in Anaheim, but it is worth keeping in mind when assessing this roster going forward. They have barely practiced at all with karrigan. 

Dignitas (cajunb, k0nfig, MSL, RUBINO, valde)

The story of dignitas reads very much like that of Cloud9’s. After two top-four finishes at SL i-League StarSeries Season 2 Finals and DreamHack Open Bucharest, they won WESG Europe & CIS Finals (with FaZe’s aizy as a stand-in for RUBINO due to nationality restrictions) and EPICENTER: Moscow – the latter over Na`Vi and in the playoffs. Since then the Danes have cooled off significantly, placing 9-10th at ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals, dead last at DreamHack Winter, and most recently going out in the quarterfinals of ELEAGUE.

However, it is worth noting dignitas barely lost a 14-16 map to SK at ELEAGUE, and FlipSid3 eliminated them with two 16-14 map wins at DreamHack Winter. Their opening loss at the same event in Jonkoping was in double overtime against Kinguin – another nail-biter. The whole scene has suffered from too much travel and too little practice, and when the margins are tiny, another day or two of practice could have been enough against well-rested FlipSid3 and Kinguin squads. MSL’s team has had a brutal schedule, that is now culminating in five weeks of travel – though, unfortunately, that is not the case for Magiskb0Y.

The team’s 18-year-old star flew home to Denmark after dignitas’ ELEAGUE exit to attend a school exam, meaning he will not be playing at ECS Season 2 Finals – to every fan’s great disappointment. He has been one of the most enjoyable players to watch in recent months, as him and k0nfig have lit the world on fire, enough so for Thorin to compare the duo to NiP’s legends f0rest and GeT_RiGhT following the EPICENTER: Moscow victory.

To fill the void temporarily, dignitas have flown over Heroic’s star player valde. While valde is a very talented player in his own right – an undervalued potential superstar in the making – and boasts stats that compare to those of Magiskb0Y’s, this is a team built around MSL’s tactics, not the fraggers’ individual play. And that, ultimately, is going to be the real issue for dignitas. The team has had an opportunity to practice in California, but that will not mean they will be anywhere close to being “ready”.

MSL is one of the game’s premier in-game leaders right now. His teams play a strict tactical style, even though the breakthroughs of Magiskb0Y and k0nfig have given him more leeway, and that will make it harder to plug valde right in and continue playing the same way on all maps. Meanwhile, MSL and RUBINO lack the kind of firepower to out-skill their opponents consistently. It is going to be very interesting to see how dignitas plays with valde, and whether they can still be competitive. It speaks to this event’s competitiveness that you have no idea whether they can make it out, or crash out in two games. 

ECS Season 2 Finals begin Friday morning local time with Astralis taking on OpTic in a rematch of the ELEAGUE grand final, followed by yet another encounter of Cloud9 versus FaZe and then group A’s winner’s match.

Group B will be played after, starting with the two teams that needed to resort to using stand-ins – namely SK Gaming and dignitas – followed by Immortals against EnVyUs, and then the group’s winner’s match.

Elimination and decider games of the GSL group stages are scheduled for Saturday with each held in a best-of-three format – following first day’s best-of-one games. Sunday is reserved for the best-of-three single elimination playoffs.

@lurppis_ on Twitter.

Photo credits here

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