The group stage of ESL One Cologne 2016 will be more competitive than ever, but not for the usual reasons. No, it is not because the level of competition has risen, or the ever-growing prize purses and salaries having made players practice harder. Instead, the reason why this week’s major’s group stage is near impossible to predict is because the groups are so unbalanced.
For a while now, various community figures have spoken up about it – with HLTV.org’s Tgwri1s perhaps sharing his thoughts in most depth. There are easy ways to improve the system, and none of them would be very controversial at this point. The current system is fine as long as the top eight teams remain Legends, but any upsets – and some are guaranteed now, with four top-ten teams in group D – will always have trickle-down effects, leading to more and more unbalanced groups, without some luck of the draw.
However, while it is somewhat unfair to some of the teams, and may not produce the best possible playoffs for us to watch, it will make the opening days far more interesting than they otherwise could have been. Now, let us take a look at the four groups of ESL One Cologne 2016, with guest help from other Counter-Strike analysts: Thorin, Fifflaren, YNk, dusT, stuchiu, moses, vENdetta, Tgwri1s and HenryG.
Group A (Astralis, CLG, dignitas, Gambit)
Clear favorites in the opening group are Astralis, who are going to be missing one of their key players: Kjaerbye. Valve’s rule prohibits the 18-year-old from playing with his new team, as he already took part in the qualification stages of the major under Dignitas. The Danes have recently tried to introduce Cobblestone to their map pool, but if the Team SoloMid loss in London – and temporarily losing the one player who excelled on that map – is not enough to deter Astralis from attempting to play it, I do not know what will. For 2016, Astralis are 12-2 against the three teams they are going to face in group A – a dominant record only spoiled by a recent map loss in a series win over CLG at ELEAGUE, and the game that played a part in their first of the recent group stage exits, the 9-16 loss to dignitas on cache. However, that game took place prior to the Kjaerbye-for-cajunb and a dufflebag filled with cash-swap. By no means is gla1ve going to replace Kjaerbye in the fragging role, but he has looked better this year individually than before. They should be good enough to win the group and reach the team’s primary goal – retain their Legends status for Kjaerbye’s return.
Counter Logic Gaming has not had a permanent fifth since cutting ties with FugLy, perhaps slightly too soon, as they have been stuck with their coach-in-game-leader pita ever since. Their best player for a year now has been jdm64, who was traded – in a similar move to Astralis’s trade with dignitas, with cash playing a large role without a doubt – to Liquid in exchange for koosta. The move puts enormous pressure on tarik, who has yet to develop into the kind of player many have been expecting him to become. He has shown flashes of great play, but so far he has not been able to produce it consistently, forcing the team to even rely on Cutler at times to keep them afloat in terms of fragging. CLG escaped Gambit in the group decider in Columbus, but hold a 0-2 record versus dignitas, and are 1-7 versus Astralis for the year. I do not see CLG advancing without a dream debut from koosta, and Dignitas upsetting Astralis in the opener – giving the Americans a chance to make playoffs with best-of-one wins over Gambit and Dignitas.
From a preparation perspective, Dignitas might be best off in this group – certainly better than the previous two teams. MSL’s team have been practicing with this occasion in mind since the roster change in May, and did not attend either DreamHack Open Summer, or ECS Season 1 Finals. Similar to every other team in Group A, they did attend ELEAGUE, but their showing was weak at best, with leader MSL recording one of his worst performances to date. Dignitas has already played nuke, and made a push to begin playing dust2 with cajunb on the team. Regardless of the map, a few things are certain: Astralis will be prepared for whatever they have previously done, and they will need both k0nfig and cajunb to play at a star level to have a shot. However, they should be favored against both CLG and Gambit, though neither is a guaranteed win by any stretch of the imagination.
The fourth and final team in group B is Gambit, who made their way to Cologne after wins over OpTic, EnVyUs and G2. Dosia’s team does not play overpass, but likely benefit from nuke’s addition, as they have already began playing it. As of today, Gambit remain underrated. They lost in firepower when wayLander was removed from the team, and it is this team’s biggest issue. They play off of each other well, and have plenty of experience, but that alone does not get you wins; you still have to click on opponents’ heads, too. Gambit are just about even versus CLG in the opener, but then face a much harder task. I see their best chance in upsetting Astralis in a best-of-one – if they were to win the opener – whereas in a best-of-three setting, it is hard not to favor Dignitas, now that they have cajunb’s experience to benefit from.
@lurppis_: Astralis > dignitas, CLG > Gambit, Astralis > CLG, dignitas > Gambit, dignitas > CLG
@Fifflaren: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, Gambit > dignitas
@dustmouret: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, dignitas > Gambit
@stuchiuWriter: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, dignitas > Gambit
@YNkCSGO: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, dignitas > Gambit
@OnFireMoses: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, dignitas > Gambit
@Thooorin: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, dignitas > Gambit
@Tgwri1s: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, CLG > dignitas, Gambit > CLG
@HenryGcsgo: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, Gambit > dignitas
@vENdettaCSGO: Astralis > dignitas, Gambit > CLG, Astralis > Gambit, dignitas > CLG, dignitas > Gambit
Group B (Na`Vi, NiP, OpTic, FlipSid3)
Much like group A, group B also features two clear favorites who are head and shoulder above the rest of the competition – at least on paper, and based on past results. Na’Vi’s recent results include winning their ELEAGUE group, and placing second to Virtus.pro, NiP and Luminosity at three consecutive events. GuardiaN was not his usual self for at least two of those, and they have had issues since as well – first with seized’s visa, and now with flamie being ill. Na`Vi also dropped two maps at ELEAGUE to mousesports and Echo Fox, so they definitely are not in the shape of their careers. Finally, replacing inferno with nuke hurts Na`Vi perhaps the most out of anyone – as much as we can judge prior to seeing them play the latter. Ignoring the grand final in Malmo where GuardiaN could not play with his sensitivity, and the online match with starix, Na’Vi are undefeated versus NiP in 2016. They have yet to play OpTic, and are 9-2 versus FlipSid3. Winner’s game is up in the air, and you might favor NiP due to maps, but Na’Vi are a lock to make playoffs, especially with the best-of-three lower bracket. With all of that out there, Na’Vi remain favorites to clean up group B, and advance into the playoffs with a top seed, which should net them a favorable opening round match-up in the quarter-finals.
Ninjas in Pyjamas are coming off a rough couple of weeks, including a grand final loss to Immortals at DreamHack Open Summer, and a two-losses showing at ECS Season 1 Finals, where they lost to Luminosity and G2 en route to a last place finish – thanks to a tough group, something other teams will feel the pain for in Cologne. But this NiP team has overall been nothing but impressive so far in 2016, and are going to be one of the teams competing for a spot in the final four, if not in the grand final. The addition of nuke in the map pool greatly benefits the Ninjas; they are 4-1 versus OpTic so far, and 2-0 (excluding match at MLG with threat playing) against FlipSid3. Whether or not the Swedes top the group is not all that important – the potential opponent from group D is a monster regardless, and they should be favored in any other potential match-up. For further reading on NiP’s chances at repeating their championship from two years ago in Cologne, take a look at my previous article The case for NiP at ESL One Cologne 2016.
OpTic does not play dust2, and must remove cache versus NiP. That makes them incredibly vulnerable in the all-important opener, where they could score a huge upset in a best-of-one setting. The Canada-based team had a 14-16 loss versus G2 in the group stage of ELEAGUE, and were up 14-13 against NiP in the deciding map. They can play, and have been steadily improving since the addition of Spaniard mixwell. It is all-but impossible to predict OpTic to defeat either of Na’Vi and NiP in the best-of-three decider, but they have shown enough capability to pull off a best-of-one upset. NAF’s team played FlipSid3 in the major qualifier, and scored an easy 16-9 victory on train. On paper, they should have a good chance to place third in this group, but expecting a series win over a top five team in the world is, simply put, too much to ask.
As I explained in my ELEAGUE recap on GAMURS, FlipSid3 are finally moving up in the Counter-Strike world. Following a lengthy period where they seemingly accepted being a filler team at the majors, they have begun improving in the past months, following the roster move that saw wayLander replacing bondik. FlipSid3 thrives under B1ad3’s tactical system, and coming fresh off of a bootcamp, should be well prepared for the teams they could be facing in their group. Their history does not suggest they could defeat group B’s top dogs in a series, but if five things broke right and some luck was involved, a best-of-one win over Na’Vi would not be impossible. The real test for FlipSid3, in terms of form, is how well they do versus OpTic. Both seem to be trending upwards, and getting the extra match can be valuable experience. FlipSid3 always puts up a fight, but this time it simply should not be enough.
@lurppis_: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, NiP > Na`Vi, FlipSid3 > OpTic, Na`Vi > FlipSid3
@Fifflaren: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, Na`Vi > NiP, OpTic > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic
@dustmouret: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, Na`Vi > NiP, OpTic > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic
@stuchiuWriter: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, Na`Vi > NiP, OpTic > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic
@YNkCSGO: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, OpTic > NiP, Na`Vi > OpTic, NiP > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic
@OnFireMoses: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, Na`Vi > NiP, OpTic > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic
@Thooorin: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, Na`Vi > NiP, OpTic > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic
@Tgwri1s: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, Na`Vi > NiP, FlipSid3 > OpTic, NiP > FlipSid3
@HenryGcsgo: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, NiP > Na`Vi, FlipSid3 > OpTic, Na`Vi > FlipSid3
@vENdettaCSGO: Na`Vi > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic, Na`Vi > NiP, OpTic > FlipSid3, NiP > OpTic
Group C (Liquid, Virtus.pro, EnVyUs, mousesports)
With ESL One Cologne’s two easiest groups out of the way, we move to C, which is headlined by Team EnVyUs. The Frenchmen come in as challengers, having fallen short against CLG and Gambit in Columbus. 2016 has not been kind to the team, who removed kioShiMa in March to make room for DEVIL. Since then, their resume includes a group win at ELEAGUE, qualifying for the major and a quiet top four finish at DreamHack Masters Malmo. Reading that out loud, it does not actually sound too bad – obviously the horrible form was more prevalent online. Indeed, it seems like the “Boys in Blue” could finally be rebounding, with kennyS showcasing vintage form against dignitas in Malmo, and then in the ELEAGUE group where he wreaked havoc, especially in the 2-0 victory over Virtus.pro. Losing inferno hurt, and their preparation for nuke remains unclear – though it was previously a strong map for the old teams of kennyS and NBK. The Frenchmen are 1-4 against mousesports for the year, though with their form, possibly, finally improving, it is unclear how meaningful those results are now. The key match-up will be Liquid. Win the opener, and half of the minefield is gone. But there is no history, and that could favor the Americans – more of this in their section. Finally, a game against Virtus.pro is as near to a coin flip as you can get. They are 3-3 for the year excluding inferno, but with three straight wins.
Whereas it remains unclear whether Happy’s team is back to playing at a high level, the Poles of Virtus.pro proved they are up to the challenge with their win at SL i-League Invitational in Kiev in May. NEO’s team has not had a bad year, but it has not been up to their admittedly high standards. But they are known for having a huge standard deviation in their level of play – likely the largest of all teams here – meaning they could go out in groups, or make advancing look easy. Traditionally, TaZ and company have been strong on nuke, but their loss to Gambit at ELEAGUE on the map did not exactly put other teams off from challenging them on it. For 2016 Virtus.pro have a 1-4 record against mousesports, and are yet to play Liquid – not that they could have played this version of the roster, anyway. This group has a lot of uncertainty, and whereas the Poles have seemingly perked up in the past few months, mousesports have been trending in the other direction, which makes it seem like one should favor NEO’s team. Playing better at the majors is becoming a bit of a myth for Virtus, as they have not necessarily backed that up in a while. But here, they have as good of a chance as any to prove their doubters wrong, with a group draw that still favors them to take the stage on Friday.
Mousesports are last year’s flavor, with NiKo’s heroic performances nearly forgotten by now. They remain the kind of team that is capable of ruining others’ events, but few expect them to challenge any legitimate contender in a series. In this context the reported signing of oskar makes sense, as both chrisJ and nex remain inconsistent to this day. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for NiKo, who is definitely getting showered with offers from just about every team not currently competing for the titles. Keep losing until the end of his contract, and I would be shocked to see one of the game’s biggest talents re-sign with the team. It adds pressure this team does not need, or really know how to deal with. They had a chance to make semi-finals in Malmo, but GODSENT knocked them down. At ELEAGUE it was FlipSid3. It seems to be tough for mousesports to do well from the position of favorites, and no one knows whether that will ever change. However, in their opener, they get to play Virtus.pro as the underdogs, in a best-of-one – and that is their best chance for a win in Cologne. I do not see them beating any of these teams in a series – including the North Americans no one knows about – but then again, in group A they would be favored to make the playoffs. Such is the role luck plays in Counter-Strike.
Finally, it is time to take a look at Liquid. Hiko’s team traded koosta and a bag of money for jdm, a massive upgrade that already saw them putting up an encouraging result at ECS Season 1 Finals in London. With s1mple temporarily on-board, the team took down G2 in their opener, played a close game versus Luminosity, and then lost a three map series to shox’s team, who went on to win the entire event. Since then, they have had roughly a week to bootcamp and prepare for the one-off event before Pimp joins the team, and what they were, or were not, able to accomplish during this past week will largely determine how they fare in Cologne. On paper, this Liquid squad is a clear upgrade of their team at MLG Columbus, where they came out of left field to upset fnatic, and then ran with the easy bracket to a top four finish, two rounds away from knocking out eventual champions Luminosity. Liquid is a very skilled team, and with s1mple on-board, they can challenge anyone in group C. The divisive Ukrainian superstar is effectively auditioning for future teams, and should be in tip top shape. Combine that with no one truly knowing what to expect from Liquid, and the fact they clearly gained from inferno’s switch to nuke, and you could see them going to the playoffs. Yet, imagine the issues going forward in case of another deep playoff run. This team cannot co-exist with s1mple, yet they can be so effective together.
@lurppis_: Liquid > EnVyUs, mousesports > Virtus.pro, Liquid > mousesports, Virtus.pro > EnVyUs, Virtus.pro > mousesports
@Fifflaren: Liquid > EnVyUs, Virtus.pro > mousesports, Liquid > Virtus.pro, EnVyUs > mousesports, Virtus.pro > EnVyUs
@dustmouret: Liquid > EnVyUs, Virtus.pro > mousesports, Virtus.pro > Liquid, EnVyUs > mousesports, EnVyUs > Liquid
@stuchiuWriter: Liquid > EnVyUs, Virtus.pro > mousesports, Virtus.pro > Liquid, EnVyUs > mousesports, Liquid > EnVyUs
@YNkCSGO: Liquid > EnVyUs, mousesports > Virtus.pro, mousesports > Liquid, EnVyUs > Virtus.pro, EnVyUs > Liquid
@OnFireMoses: EnVyUs > Liquid, Virtus.pro > mousesports, EnVyUs > Virtus.pro, Liquid > mousesports, Liquid > Virtus.pro
@Thooorin: EnVyUs > Liquid, Virtus.pro > mousesports, EnVyUs > Virtus.pro, mousesports > Liquid, Virtus.pro > mousesports
@Tgwri1s: Liquid > EnVyUs, Virtus.pro > mousesports, Virtus.pro > Liquid, EnVyUs > mousesports, Liquid > EnVyUs
@HenryGcsgo: EnVyUs > Liquid, Virtus.pro > mousesports, EnVyUs > Virtus.pro, Liquid > mousesports, Liquid > Virtus.pro
@vENdettaCSGO: EnVyUs > Liquid, Virtus.pro > mousesports, EnVyUs > Virtus.pro, Liquid > mousesports, Liquid > Virtus.pro
Group D (SK, fnatic, G2, FaZe)
Oh boy. This is the all-time group of death in Counter-Strike at a 16 team event. SK, previously known as Luminosity, are the defending champions from MLG Columbus, the very first $1,000,000 major. Since then, FalleN’s team famously crashed out of groups in Malmo – cockily choosing to play cache when it was not necessary – won DreamHack’s event in Austin, overcame G2 3-2 in the grand final of ESL Pro League’s third season, topped their group at ELEAGUE, and most recently placed runners-up to G2 at ECS Season 1 Finals. A Counter-Strike resume does not get much better than that, especially as we saw the Swedish event proven to be a fluke. However, here are their problems going into Cologne: Fnatic have been without olofmeister during their time on the throne, prompting fellow analyst YNk to call Luminosity the interim champions, and G2 has played them to a tie, winning the last encounter. The Brazilians have not played FaZe since January and Fnatic since March. With G2, their history is now well documented, and they are down 2-5, excluding inferno. On overpass, they have lost twice, they are tied on train and dust2, and G2 won the game on cobblestone – currently the weak point in SK’s map pool. And yet, having reviewed their recent VODs, I cannot help but believe SK will finally abuse G2 in the sniper department, and simply play better. G2 are a very good team, but SK are a complete team – and that is why I have them advancing on top of the group.
Fnatic are hard to read right now, simply because olofmeister’s absence not only made their results irrelevant to their coming form in Cologne, but also put, on some level, an asterisk next to everyone else’s results. So what is the baseline you compare everything else to? The Swedes did not play badly while the world’s best player was gone, coming incredibly close to beating G2 in the semi-finals of ESL Pro League Finals, the only offline event they used wenton at. But despite oozing confidence last weekend, they were knocked out by G2 in two straight maps, including a 2-16 thrashing on overpass – the map G2 now should be considered the world’s best at. fnatic’s history against FaZe is very one-sided, though the addition of kioShiMa has improved the international team’s roster. Either way, I do not see flusha’s team falling short in the opener, even though it is entirely possible they will not top this group later on. But the second round match-up is what truly matters – it is what will either make us all remember how great fnatic have been since olofmeister and KRiMZ joined just over two years ago. The all-time greats tend to find ways to win, and that is what Fnatic must do. They are yet to lose against Luminosity, and yet to beat the newly re-energized G2. I have them overcoming the odds and winning the group, but that relies – perhaps too heavily – on olofmeister’s arm being fully healthy.
The French-Belgian squad led by former VeryGames duo shox and ScreaM is currently the hottest team in the scene, fresh off of a victory at ECS Season 1 Finals in London’s SSE Arena Wembley. Whereas Fnatic is a team that usually finds a way to win and SK is the most versatile of the group, G2’s game is pure firepower combined with mid-round smarts. The genius of shox’s calls will play a huge part in determining this team’s fate – and it will not be visible, directly, on the scoreboard. Both he and ScreaM will need to continue playing as if the always knew they were destined to win majors, and it would not hurt if RpK continued his form from London. And finally, though it is not necessarily this core, aside from one newcomer, having made playoffs at the majors at some point, it is still this group – this tag – that tends to always fail at the events that come with shiny new stickers. However, G2’s recent form has far surpassed anything they have rolled into the majors with in the past, and it seems replacing Ex6TenZ, the team’s long-term leader, has truly changed how the entire unit functions. Currently their recent history suggests they could escape from this group with two wins and a top seed, yet it is too hard for me to go against the great teams – still, even after G2’s two runs in London – to predict them to advance. This group stage is going to be a bloodbath, and unfortunately only two teams can walk out alive.
Last, but only in group D’s context the least, is FaZe. For a long time, the team that previously represented the G2 organization was largely just a collection of contracts, almost a way for the people running it to cash out on larger teams recruiting their players. Exhibit A would be dennis from the fnatic roster – with flusha stating rain would have been their second choice – and for a second example, you do not need to leave group D, as ScreaM was also bought out to Titan from G2, only to end up signing back with the organization for free. However, with the addition of kioShiMa as Maikelele’s replacement, it seems the team has turned a new leaf, and begun to perform at a new, higher level. To me, the deciding games at ELEAGUE proved that Fnatic still has rain’s team’s number. The problem for FaZe is that they could score best-of-one upsets, but I cannot imagine them winning against this crew in a series. In any other group, they could well make the playoffs, but they are amongst the losers when it comes to the group draw – no matter how this turns out. Sometimes lady luck is not on your side, and for FaZe, this is one of those times.
@lurppis_: SK > G2, fnatic > FaZe, fnatic > SK, G2 > FaZe, SK > G2
@Fifflaren: SK > G2, fnatic > FaZe, SK > fnatic, G2 > FaZe, fnatic > G2
@dustmouret: SK > G2, fnatic > FaZe, SK > fnatic, G2 > FaZe, fnatic > G2
@stuchiuWriter: G2 > SK, fnatic > FaZe, G2 > fnatic, SK > FaZe, SK > fnatic
@YNkCSGO: G2 > SK, fnatic > FaZe, G2 > fnatic, SK > FaZe, fnatic > SK
@OnFireMoses: SK > G2, fnatic > FaZe, SK > fnatic, G2 > FaZe, fnatic > G2
@Thooorin: SK > G2, fnatic > FaZe, SK > fnatic, G2 > FaZe, fnatic > G2
@Tgwri1s: SK > G2, fnatic > FaZe, SK > fnatic, G2 > FaZe, fnatic > G2
@HenryGcsgo: G2 > SK, fnatic > FaZe, G2 > fnatic, SK > FaZe, fnatic > SK
@vENdettaCSGO: SK > G2, fnatic > FaZe, SK > fnatic, G2 > FaZe, fnatic > G2
Once the group stage is finished on Thursday night and the playoff bracket gets drawn, I will be putting together a separate preview for the playoffs, which will once again feature predictions from the same crew of Counter-Strike analysts, pending availability during the event. If you are looking for help for predictions from people who study the game, it does not get much better than this.
You can follow me on Twitter at @lurppis_.
Photo credit: ESL