Twelve of the world’s best Counter-Strike teams will do battle tomorrow at the first major tournament of 2016. IEM Katowice has become one of the calendar events for Counter-Strike, and that (plus a $250,000 prize pool) means the players will be looking to show that they mean business.
Starting strong at IEM this week would go a long way to planting a flag in what’s set to be a landmark year for the game, as prize pools and viewership increases across the board. These are the storylines to watch heading into the tournament.
Fnatic vs. EnvyUs
The rivalry between the most elite players from Sweden and France has gifted fans some of the greatest matches ever seen. Every once in awhile we get to see these giants of the game battle it out on stage. And it’s the Swedes who usually get the best of it.
Fnatic is the best team in the world, and has been for pretty much a whole year now. They may have looked shaky at times, but by and large there isn’t a single team that can match Fnatic’s consistent high placings in tournaments. EnvyUs is the closest it gets to a real challenger. For a brief period after the French side added legendary Awper Kenny “kennyS” Schrub and former Titan frontman Dan “Apex” Madesclaire, EnvyUs were probably considered the best in the world.
At ESL One Cologne in August 2015, Fnatic came out on top in the grand final with a 2-0 victory over the French. Just one month later EnvyUs struck back with a tense 3-2 victory in the grand final at Gfinity Champion of Champions. A month later at DreamHack Cluj-Napoca, the French once again prevailed with a 2-1 win in the quarterfinals—marking perhaps the peak of EnvyUs’s dominance and the lowest point of Fnatic’s slump.
Since then, the teams have continued taking games off of each other, battling to establish themselves as the number one.
The most recent encounter between the two sides came at the ESL Expo in Barcelona where the teams were pitted against each other three times, with Fnatic prevailing 2-1 over the three-day event, even dealing the knockout blow to EnvyUs on day two.
And so the stage is once again set for the two behemoths to go head-to-head for the title. Obviously these two aren’t the only teams capable of winning, but both would be disappointed to leave Katowice without the trophy in their hands. They’ll begin in separate groups, meaning if they both top the group and win their semifinal matchups, a grand final showdown is on the cards.
Can Virtus Pro bounce back from a rough start to the year?
Virtus Low or Virtus Plow? A question everyone asks of the Polish side before a major tournament. We’ve seen both incredible highs and pitiful lows from the legendary team of veterans. Fn front of their home crowd in Katowice, they’ll be hoping for the former.
We’ll start with the bad news: Virtus Pro fans, your team is on a pretty terrible run of form right now. The team is almost out of playoff contention in the ESL ESEA Pro League. Failing to pick up a single victory in their first eight matches wasn’t a good sign. They did, however, at pick up a single victory against EnvyUs in a tense overtime ending on Cobblestone.
The good news is that Virtus Pro have never really been a team to adhere to the connotations that ‘form’ implies. The team is notorious for pulling out world-class performances at any given moment. The even better news is that they’ll be on home soil, and Virtus Pro love nothing more than put on a show for their home crowd. Last year at Katowice, they turned on the heat and blazed through to the semifinal unbeaten before meeting their demise at the hands of eventual champions Fnatic.
Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski has been the key for Virtus Pro for quite some time. You only need to look at their performance without him for evidence. The team bombed out at IEM San Jose in late 2015, losing 2-0 to Team Liquid, when they had to bring in a stand-in for the player. The youngest member of the squad, Paweł “Byali” Bieliński, also a frequently contributes to their wins, while the older members of the team often rely on momentum and drawing from the crowd to fuel their performance. Jarosław “Pasha” Jarząbkowski, Filip “Neo” Kubski, and Wiktor “Taz” Wojtas will have no problems in finding energy in the Katowice audience.
When all is said and done, a top-four finish from VP would be more than acceptable for this off-form team. Facing the likes of Fnatic, Astralis, EnvyUs, and Na’Vi to reach that spot will be difficult. But they can do it—with the crowd on their side and one or two appearances from the plow.
Luminosity have shown strength in North America. Can they bring it to the Europeans?
Luminosity’s rise to the top of the North American Counter-Strike scene has been surprising. Only a year ago the side was competing under the moniker of Keyd Stars in IEM Katowice. A surprise victory over Counter Logic Gaming in the group stage decider cemented their position in the final eight, however the team would go on to lose to Virtus Pro.
It was a huge result for the team. No one expected them to put up much of a fight in the tournament, and yet they secured a spot in the next major with “Legend” status. It’s on the back of this success that the Brazilian side began their journey to the top of a region they weren’t even based in yet.
It began with a victory in the IBuyPower invitational, followed by a 17/5 record in the ESL ESEA pro League. And then things really kicked into gear after the team signed for Luminosity Gaming. Their performance in North America cemented them in the top five of the region, but internationally they still struggled to take the next step. The team was drawn against Fnatic and Na’Vi in two consecutive major tournaments, both of whom either went go onto to compete in the final or win the event.
Perhaps their strongest performance to date came off the back of the signings of Lincoln “fnx” Lau, Tacio “Taco” Filho, Wilton “Zews” Prado (coach). best of three victories over Ninjas in Pyjamas, EnvyUs, and Team Solomid (now Astralis) secured them a spot in the Faceit Season Three grand final. Once again they fell to Fnatic, but this time they took the Swedish side to three maps.
Luminosity are in an outstanding position to finally break their international luck. IEM Katowice is stacked with talent, but this team has already shown they can beat them—well, except for Fnatic. In-game leader and AWPer Gabriel “Fallen” Toledo is in the form of his life, with many hailing him as the best IGL in the game right now. The main challenges Luminosity will face in their group are Fnatic, Na’Vi, NiP, and Mousesports. Top three is needed to make it to the Round of Six. With that group, their fans will expect them to be there.
While Luminosity comfortably hold the No. 1 spot in North America for the meantime, their former academy team, Tempo Storm, have also executed their own fleeting rise to prominence. The team, formed by Luminosity captain Fallen, is a project designed to raise talent from the Brazilian scene. The youngsters have certainly caused a stir upon their arrival to the U.S., claiming victories in qualifiers to both IEM Katowice and Dreamhack Malmo. AWPer Henrique “Hen1” Teles, in particular, has been drawing the attention for his outstanding performances in recent tournaments.
Despite their impressive performances in North America, the side has yet to prove themselves in an offline setting, and no stage will be harder than Katowice. In a group of potential champions EnvyUs, home favourites Virtus pro, top three side Astralis, and the unpredictable Faze, the team definitely has their work cut out for them. Tempo Storm faced off against noticeably lower forms of competition at the MLG Columbus offline qualifier and crumbled.
Ultimately no one is expecting tempo Storm to make it out of the group, and yet, there seems to be a small glimmer of hope surrounding them. Perhaps it’s just because everyone loves an underdog, but Tempo Storm have climbed to the higher echelons of North America in such a short amount of time. Who says their rise to the top ends there?
Time for Astralis to bury that choking tag once and for all
Astralis is essentially in a tier of it’s own right now. The Danish team consistently challenges for semi-finals and finals placings at tournaments but often falls at the final hurdle. Though that’s not always the case: The team has certainly shaken off the “chokers” tag they inherited from their time at Team Dignitas.
At the ESL Expo, they survived long enough to meet Fnatic with two lives remaining, only to lose in two very close games. That tournament should be taken into context due it’s format, however, they did topple the likes of Team Dignitas and EnvyUs. Prior to that, they picked up bronze at the Global Esport Cup in Romania, falling 2-1 to EnvyUs in the semifinal.
So their form isn’t bad. What about their lineup? It’s safe to say Astralis enters the tournament with a top-three roster on paper. Finn “Karrigan” Andersen sits at the helm of an extremely talented squad of Nicolai “Dev1ce” Reedtz, René “Cajunb” Borg, Peter “Dupreeh” Rasmussen, and Andreas “Xyp9x” Højsleth. Pretty much the cream of the crop when it comes to Danish Counter-Strike talent.
Heading into the tournament, Dev1ce switched to take the main AWP role in the side, and his skills will immediately be put to the test in their opening game of the group against EnvyUs and the man with the magic stick, kennyS. if they can topple the French, Astralis stand a pretty good shot of taking first in their group, with Virtus Pro and Faze being the next biggest threats.
Astralis can firmly plant themselves in the top three with a trophy at Katowice. A silver medal would be a good finish for the side, but would once again be used as evidence to suggest they are merely on the cusp of greatness. Anything less is simply what is expected of them. A top-four finish for a top-four side is okay and would prove consistency. But it doesn’t advance Astralis above either EnvyUs or Fnatic.
NiP have just a fingertip hold on their status as an elite team
Ninjas in Pyjamas need a miracle in Katowice to convince the world that they’re still a top-tier squad. The days of the Ninjas instilling fear into opponents is long gone. Just making it out of the group stage in Poland will likely be considered a successful tournament. At least, successful in the sense that they were able to topple one of Fnatic, Na’Vi, or Luminosity.
Fans of the team cried out for change as they headed into 2016. The team had failed to win a major tournament for the entirety of 2015, and yet the only change came at the hands of AWPer Aleksi “Allu” Jalli leaving the team to be replaced by Jacob “Pyth” Mourujärvi. Patrik “Forest” Lindberg, Christopher “Get_Right” Alesund, Richard “Xizt” Landström, and Adam “Friberg” Friberg all remained and were painstakingly announced one by one over the course of a week. Essentially, Ninjas would remain the exact same team just without the glimmer of hope that was Allu.
The Ninjas and their fans can at least take some solace in the fact that this team always seems to show up the majors. Even when things look their darkest, the Ninjas are always able to put on a good display in prestigious events. At DreamHack Cluj, they finished in the top four. At IEM Cologne they slogged their way out of the group stage to fall to semi-finalists Virtus pro. And only one year ago in Katowice we witnessed an all-Swedish grand final in which the Ninjas took eventual champions Fnatic to three tight games.
Ultimately, a victory at IEM Katowice would be one of the most surprising results of recent times. Their last major tournament appearance at the Faceit offline finals at DreamHack Winter ended in group stage disappointment, and the addition of Pyth isn’t a game-changing roster move. If the team is looking at 2016 as a year of growth, they have to show some strength early on and at least pushing for a spot in the knockout stages. Any further would be good but giving a strong performance against an elite team would be progress.
Photo by Helena Kristiansson via ESL/Flickr (All rights reserved, used with permission)