Five Key Storylines in the Post-ECS Landscape
While some of the best teams in the world will still complete this week in the ELEAGUE Major Main Qualifier, the ECS Finals, which concluded last Sunday night, will be the last fully realized, high-end tournament in 2016. As we lurch closer to the new year and the next Valve major following the holiday break, this final definite data point will likely dictate several narratives as we encroach upon the Major’s all important Jan. 22 start date.
Here are five of the most dynamic storylines faceted from FACEIT’s recently concluded contest:
Astralis at the Gates
After massively underperforming per their pedigree in the middle part of the year, Astralis looked completely out of the running to achieve anything in 2016. As they squirmed in their under-accomplishment, they even started to look like the dastardly overloads of the Danish scene as the evitable Astralis roster move would have to hamper either Heroic or Dignitas, who had both started to rise through the international ranks.
Astralis’s long awaited move, villainous or otherwise, finally came into fruition at the end of October as Finn "karrigan" Andersen left for FaZe with Heroic’s secondary star, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, coming to replace him. Initially, the move looked like one of convenience as G1ave would allow Astralis to retain their legends spot at the major since he was the team’s stand-in during ESL One Cologne, but since his addition, Astralis has stormed back to the top of the competitive scene.
After adding G1ave, Astralis went 4-1 in groups at IEM Oakland, with wins over Na’Vi, Liquid, Immortals, and TyLoo, which seeded them directly into the semifinals. Once there, they had to face a very strong SK Gaming. Astralis lost, but in two straight close contests on Train and Mirage, even going 14-16 on SK’s very dominate Train pick.
Then at ELEAGUE, Astralis made it to the finals on the back on their own strong Train and Overpass picks. In groups, they defeated ALTERNATE aTTaX on Nuke and SK on Overpass to move to the bracket stage. From there, they went up against NiP in the quarterfinals, who were fresh off of their tournament winning performance at IEM Oakland, but thanks to two wins on Train and Overpass, Astralis moved onto a second straight semifinals versus SK. This time, however, Astralis won 2-0 with wins again on Train and Overpass, even through SK had previously been seen as a very good Overpass team and the resolute best Train team in the world, even raking up a 17 game win streak on that map.
Nevertheless, Astralis couldn’t complete their triumph as OpTic unexpectedly turned up in the finals. Though they got to play Train and Overpass again, an OpTic win on Cobblestone and a very underwhelming performance from Astralis’s superstar, Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz, on a map three Overpass, cost them the series.
But Astralis would get their revenge and an even better case for themselves at the ECS finals. They faced OpTic in a rematch in their first group stage best-of-one, where they defeated them cohesively on Dust2. They also went on to beat a burgeoning FaZe, featuring their ex-teammate, Karrigan, in another Dust2 game, this time winning even with even more gusto, 16-3. With their two group stage wins, Astralis was seeded directly into the smaller eight team tournament’s semifinals, where they matched up with SK for a third straight time. With their questionable new addition and altered map pool, SK couldn’t keep up to the now dominating Astralis. The Danish side won 16-9 on Cache and 16-4 on Overpass.
This win happened to create another repeat matchup, with Astralis facing off against OpTic again in the finals. This time, however, Astralis didn’t the make mistake of banning Cache as they opted to remove OpTic’s strong Cobblestone with their first ban. OpTic picked Overpass, Astralis picked Train, and Nuke was chosen as the decider, but this series didn’t make it that far. Astralis again ran through their opponents on their best two maps, winning the series and tournament outright. OpTic won just 17 rounds across both maps.
Astralis won the tournament more or less uncontested. As pointed out by Milan “Striker” Švejda on Twitter, Astralis had an unbelievable 79 percent win percentage on CT rounds, winning 58 out of 73 over the course of the tournament. Also, Astralis nearly went the entire tournament without giving up 10 or more round wins in any game played, but OpTic managed to sneak in 11 round wins before falling in the second game of the finals.
With their commanding ECS performance and their world leading control of two maps in Train and Overpass, Astralis very much look like the world leading team going into the next major, perhaps even threatening to becoming the titular team of the next era.
Fox and Friends
Despite their post-Cologne slump, the original five man Luminosity/SK roster was still the most accomplished team in 2016. They won both Valve Majors, earned first place honors at two additional tournaments in the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals and Americas-only DreamHack Austin, and have accumulated five silver finishes at other leading international events over the course of the year, with numerous other top placings.
Their troubles only began after Fernando "fer" Alvarenga temporarily left the team following ESL One Cologne to take care of a medical issue. With Gustavo "SHOOWTiME" Gonçalves, the recently departed member of Immortals, acting as a stand-in, SK didn’t look impressive online and even suffered a social media meltdown after losing 16-0 to Renegades in a regular season EPL match. However, after Fer returned in late September, it was widely assumed that SK would retake their place as the absolute best team in the world, once again.
That didn’t happen. SK only finished top-four at their first event in almost three months, ESL One New York, losing to Virtus.pro in the semifinals. The same result repeated at EPICENTER, as SK again found their way into a semifinals bout with Virtus.pro, where they fell once again. They went deeper in the ESL Pro League Season 4 finals and IEM Oakland, where they made it to the finals twice in a row. Yet they still couldn’t reclaim their kingdom, as they lost both finals in close 2-1 fashion.
But the last vestige of the SK era fell in the ELEAGUE semifinals as they lost their signature Train pick on their way to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Astralis. Soon after ELEAGUE ended, their long-standing five man core also dissolved as Fnx was finally removed from the team after rumors of internal conflict. As none of the players from the second and third best Brazilian teams were eligible to compete in the major due to their participation in the Americas Minor and its qualifier, former FaZe player, Ricardo "fox" Pacheco, was instead introduced into the ranks.
The temporary addition was not well received, by analysts and the community at large. Not only was Fox not an effective individual performer during his tenure with FaZe, SK had perhaps the leading AWP duo in the world with Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and Marcelo "coldzera" David, making Fox’s highly expense weapon of choice best set in other hands.
Instead of improving with the new, albeit temporary, addition, SK wasn’t terribly impressive at the ECS Season 2 Finals. They lost their opening group stage match on Overpass to Dignitas, who was also playing with a stand-in. They were then able to rally back in an elimination match versus their Brazilian brethren, Immortals, but had to play Dignitas to make it out of the group. This time, they were able to flip Overpass back into their favor to win the three-map series, but they had no chance against their semifinals opponent. Despite splitting past semifinal bouts with Astralis 1-1, this time, SK was crushed, not finding double digit round wins in either of their two consecutive losses.
As an individual player, Fox had a particularly poor showing over the course of the tournament, only averaging 13.6 kills and 61.3 ADR across eight maps. Even though SK hasn’t been able to find any tournament wins since their major win in July, they were still fiercely competitive and always amongst the elite teams in the world, capable of runs in every single tournament. At ECS, SK managed to move past decent teams in Immortals and Dignitas with a stand-in, but the combination of Fox's limited effectiveness and a new absence of dominance on Train are not encouraging signs as we move towards the major. Until João "felps" Vasconcellos joins the lineup after the major, as heavily rumored, SK might not only fail to lead the world, they also might not be an elite team at Valve’s next million dollar major.
OpTic’s Second Surprise
No one expected much from OpTic at ELEAGUE, and no one should have expected much from OpTic at ELEAGUE. While they had a good showing at Northern Arena Montreal, beating respectable teams in Heroic and G2 in best-of-three series, they had not beaten any of the top teams in the world since the reformation of their roster with Tarik "tarik" Celik.
It seemed improbable that they would even make it out of their group, with far more seasoned teams in Fnatic, EnVyUs, and Dignitas included. But they dodged Dignitas, faced Fnatic when they had to use a stand-in, and upset EnVyUs, to make into the bracket stage. Even in the bracket stage, they also found some breaks.
First, they met the other massively underwhelming team of the bracket stage, mousesports, in the quarterfinals. After winning, they faced FaZe in the semifinals, who surprisingly beat Virtus.pro, despite the Polish side being widely considered the best in the world. After another win, they got to face the newest burgeoning, but still untested, iteration of Astralis in the finals. OpTic was given a favorable map-draw, and one of their non-stars in NAF-FLY had the series of his life, while Astralis’s star Device crumbled in map three as OpTic stole away the series.
OpTic won five best-of-three series, versus some of the best teams in the world, but the amount of breaks they received made the run look unrepeatable; an anomaly of the uncertainty era.
That reality was almost confirmed in the opening rounds of the ECS Finals. First, OpTic lost to a vengeful Astralis in their first group stage match, forcing OpTic to win two straight best-of-threes to make it out of the group, and to start out, they had to play Cloud9, who had profoundly outclassed them in their last two meeting at the EPL Finals and the more recent DreamHack winter. It very much looked like OpTic would be repeating their DreamHack Winter appearance rather than their ELEAGUE one, as Cloud9 took map one and went up 12-3 in the first half of the second map. But, in the second half, OpTic won 13 straight rounds to take the map and start their tear through another tournament. They beat Cloud9 on Cache in overtime to take that series, and went on to play FaZe once more in the group decider match.
This time, FaZe played more to OpTic’s weakness, picking OpTic’s sixth best map, Nuke, and banning, instead of picking, Overpass, an OpTic favorite. This time, the series was closer, with OpTic losing the map two, Nuke, in overtime, but they still prevailed with wins on Train and Cache. Then, in the semifinals, versus another repeat opponent in EnVyUs, a similar story was also repeated. EnVyUs picked Nuke to again test OpTic’s depth, but again, OpTic prevailed with a dominating 16-3 win on their own map pick Overpass, while also surprisingly taking Nuke to move onto their second straight final.
While Astralis won the day this time with their own adjusted pick/ban, OpTic’s repeat victories at ECS firmly demonstrated that there is merit to this North American underdog. They have a solid leading three maps in Overpass, Cobblestone, and Train, while also showing an ability to win Dust2, Cache, or even Nuke when the stars of the team, Tarik and Mixwell, are rolling in conjunction with their high-impact player in Rush. While OpTic’s ELEAGUE win did look flukey, their ECS performance was a sharp rebuttal to the skeptical. By all means, OpTic looks quite dangerous moving into the ELEAGUE Main Qualifier and even the major itself.
Dignitas’s Exaggerated Demise
When Dignitas won EPICENTER over an extremely competitive field back in mid-October, they were readily accepted as one of the best teams in the world. They have been a very strategic team with Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen at the tactical helm, while also having one of the most skilled lineups on paper in the current competitive landscape.
Since moving over to Dignitas from ex-SK, Emil "Magiskb0Y" Reif has churned out star-level performances far more consistently, having output some of the best numbers of any player over the last few months. Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke, likewise, has seemed to have a better impact overall as an aggressive rifler, becoming the second star of the team. René "cajunb" Borgh has also shown a good overall level and can occasionally throw in high level performances, while Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel Brødreskift has been a very adequate support player.
However, despite their prowess in terms of tactics and firepower, Dignitas has not looked impressive in terms of results since their win in Moscow. The didn’t make it out of groups at the ESL Pro League Finals or even at the less competitive DreamHack Winter. They made the playoff at ELEAGUE, but fell out in quarterfinals, and didn’t make it out of groups again at the ECS Finals.
But those results might miscast Dignitas’s actual level of play.
The EPL Finals took place three days after the conclusion of EPICENTER, with Dignitas traveling across the globe to São Paulo, with Magiskb0Y catching food poisoning along the way. Still, at the tournament, they were only one win away from qualifying for the bracket stage amongst very tough competition in SK, NiP, Cloud9, and FaZe. Their loss at DreamHack Winter was less excusable, but their defeats were all extremely close contests. Versus Kinguin, Dignitas lost in double overtime 22-20. Versus Flipsid3 in the best-of-three elimination match, all three maps were extremely contested: Flipsid3 won Train 16-14, Astralis won Overpass 16-13, and Flipsid3 won Nuke 16-13.
At ELEAGUE, Dignitas made it through to the bracket stage thanks to two straight wins over EnVyUs and Fnatic, but they were given a very difficult opponent, SK, in the quarterfinals. While Dignitas did lose to SK to post another underwhelming tournament result, the match was again very close. SK and Digitas traded one-sided wins on their own map pick before Dignitas ran into another 16-14 loss on Overpass. Finally, at the ECS Finals, Dignitas was forced to used a stand-in, Valde, as Magiskb0Y had attend to his studies. Also, Dig was again forced to play SK in the group decider match, which they lost.
While the above considerations might come off as a litany of excuses, when you consider Dignitas’s circumstances, quality of opponents, and their competitiveness in those losses, you do get the impression that they haven’t fallen off as sharply as their results might indicate.
Cloud9’s Falling Sky
When Cloud9 placed second at Northern Arena Toronto, top-four at StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 2, second again at DreamHack Bucharest, and most importantly, first at the ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals, many were ready to call Jake "Stewie2k" Yip and Timothy “Autimatic” Ta’s Cloud9 not only the best iteration of C9 yet, but even the best North American team ever seen in CS:GO. While their accomplishments were certainly quite impressive, perhaps even surpassing Cloud9’s over mythologized 2015 summer run, C9 has hardly impressed since then, riding a tailwind of under performances back into mediocrity.
Over the past two months, Cloud9 has dropped out of the group stage in four of their last six international tournaments. They couldn’t advance beyond Mousesports or FaZe in their ELEAGUE group a week before their win at EPL. They did advance from iBUYPOWER Masters thanks to wins over Flipsid3 and TyLoo, but didn’t make it out groups at the connected IEM Oakland tournament, nor did they enter the bracket stage at either DreamHack Winter or the ECS finals this past weekend.
Cloud9 still clearly have their merits. Stewie2k has looked like a true star player in recent months, even while taking over more of the in-game leading responsibilities since the departure of Alec "Slemmy" White. His budding duo, Autimatic, had been a middling player on a mostly unimpressive team in Team SoloMid, but has looked significantly improved since joining his new team. He even starting to look like a star level player at certain events, putting up huge numbers at the EPL finals, even earning MVP honors. But Cloud9’s former stars in Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham and Mike "shroud" Grzesiek have been very underwhelming since the departure of Slemmy, earning fierce criticism from several analysts in the scene.
What seemed to have propelled Cloud9, in addition to very good performances from Autimatic, was actually a string of good showings by Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert, despite his long-standing inconsistency as a player. Recently, Autimatic and nothing have cooled somewhat contributing to their dip in results, but even before their outputs declined, Cloud9 showed several clear vulnerabilities.
Besides lacking in firepower somewhat, Cloud9 also never had a defined map pool. With Nuke as their permaban, Cloud9 seemed willing to play all six of the remaining maps without a defined hierarchy of preference. While Cloud9 has tended more towards Dust2 most recently, they still seem willing to pick Mirage, Train, or even Cobblestone first in a best-of-three, depending on the map pools of their opponents. While it’s certainly not a flaw to be adaptive in pick and ban, Cloud9’s all-of-the-above strategy hasn’t let them have a map where they can find a near-guaranteed win on, like old SK’s Train, or even something they will always have chances on regardless of the quality of their opponent, like OpTic has done recently with Cobblestone and Overpass.
Also, while Stewie2k taking the reigns has led to a demonstrable spike in performance, there have been worrying aspects to his leadership. After Cloud9 failed to make it out of their mediocre ELEAGUE group in the middle of their good run of form, Richard Lewis on the ELEAGUE podcast suggested that the emotional distress of Stewie2k in key games and critical moments led to some of their failures. In interviews, Cloud9 players have stated that Stewie2k can shut down or not know how to move forwards after multiple successive failures on the T-side. There have also been times, such as the Cloud9 vs. Immortals match in the upper bracket finals of the recent Third Americas Minor, where Cloud9 didn’t take a needed pause after losing an extended series of rounds.
While a roster change might be necessary to end their slumping results, adding a full-fledged coach to bolster the leadership of the still very young Stewie2k might also be a prudent step moving forwards as they try to rekindle their fall form in 2017.
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