15 November 2016 - 14:45
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Key Storylines for IEM Oakland

Key storylines for IEM Oakland's $300,000 tournament, as well as some side-storylines to keep in mind while following the action.
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Despite losing some of its glory when the world’s number one team Virtus.pro withdrew their participation, IEM Oakland promises to be one of the most exciting events of the second half of 2016. Part of it is in the IEM Katowice-style system, with two six team round robin groups promising 28 matches over the first two days, ahead of the six team playoffs on the weekend at the Oracle Arena. Now, here are some things to watch for when following the action.

Immortals and Astralis look to prove consistency

In the past week, we have seen Immortals overcome Cloud9 in an admittedly mostly-meaningless series at iBUYPOWER Masters, and Astralis top SK Gaming at ELEAGUE to win their group. Both wins came after roster changes, with IMT substituting former SK coach zews for steel – who played for Luminosity last year at all three majors – and the Danes bringing in their ESL One Cologne stand-in gla1ve to replace karrigan, who since has bolted to FaZe.

Unfortunately, iBUYPOWER Masters merely functioned as a glorified offline qualifier for IEM Oakland, with barely any prize money difference between first and second, and no semifinals, so it is impossible to know how seriously the teams took it. However, Immortals also put together a promising comeback win versus FaZe in their group stage game, coming back from a 15-9 deficit as counter-terrorists to win Cache in overtime. Notably, star AWPer HEN1 put up 42 kills and a +26 K-D differential, including a 12-2 score in the final six rounds of regulation to force overtime.

FalleN’s tweet suggested perhaps zews was not the optimal leader for Immortals, slightly piercing the former SK coach’s reputation as a leader-type. Sample size remains irrelevant for now – especially with IMT also dropping a map to fellow Brazilians Luminosity online last night – but early signs are good, and it is all you can ask for at this point. The team could be on the way to improving again, after the controversial choice of picking up zews earlier in 2016.

On the other hand, the entire community – aside from its resident Danish homer Anders – has been seemingly sleeping on Astralis after a year of disappointments. Their win over SK did come in a best-of-one, but for Astralis, that hardly matters – it is still a win this team could only dream of for months now. I look at their ELEAGUE run as a proof of concept, with IEM Oakland their first chance – luckily with a minimum of five games, giving the results more legitimacy – to prove it can last, and they can consistently play well.

Both of these teams need to, at the very least, score a couple of impressive wins, if not make the playoffs, to prove their wins were not flukes. Fans of other teams will be waiting for them to fail, as the case against them is easier to make, at least for the time being. Each has a chance to make the playoffs, but the beauty of the six team groups is you need consistent play. A fluke or two will not get you to the Oracle Arena.

One of the last chances for fallen angels Liquid, G2 and TyLoo

Admittedly, Pimp was put in an impossible position in having to replace s1mple, but the comparisons cannot be stopped, and while Na`Vi has had their own struggles, Liquid’s problems have been much more glaring. In New York, the American side did reasonably well, but since then, the team has crashed out of ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals and Northern Arena, with no results to write home about. The year is coming to an end, and without knowing the team’s contractual obligations, it should be safe to assume the organization wants more, especially given the acquisition of a controlling stake by aXiomatic, an ownership group led by the likes of Peter Guber and Ted Leonsis.

On the other hand, G2’s fall from the top of the Counter-Strike world has been purely organic. There have been no player moves, but the G2 team that won ECS Season 1 Finals is barely a memory at this point. As shox tweeted, his team is struggling, with the grand final loss to OpTic at Northern Arena only the latest proof of that. With rumors of a potential French shuffle at the end of the year making the rounds in the community, G2 will need results to justify sticking to this roster – with EnVyUs presumably ready to play a new round of musical chairs, should the opportunity present itself.

I have written about TyLoo’s issues in the past, so I will not repeat it all. Their very one-dimensional style has been figured out, and they cannot beat the best teams on skill alone – as evidenced by the 16-0 loss versus Cloud9 at iBUYPOWER Masters, and the close games versus Echo Fox, the team that won mere six rounds combined in three maps at ELEAGUE a week earlier. It's safe to say TyLoo could use a confidence boost prior to the major qualifier next month, but they are facing a difficult task. With mere days between the events, it is impossible to reinvent the wheel in time.

While no major changes can be expected in the last month or so of 2016, all of these teams have in common the fact that they badly need something to hang onto. Few would argue against their potential, but unfortunately, potential does not pay the bills – or satisfy fan bases. Five guaranteed maps is a good sample size to give us a real idea of how good they currently are, all in a competitive group of similarly skilled teams. Only one thing is certain – some will go home disappointed. 

Will FaZe or mousesports escape no-man’s land?

Group B has three consensus favorite teams to make the playoffs, but you could make a case for either FaZe or mousesports to get a couple of best-of-one wins and see the light of day. Currently, each is stuck in no man’s land, an area somewhere in the close vicinity of the world’s top-10 ranking, where the sun does not really shine and where no one who has tasted the lemonade higher up wants to be. It is the uncomfortable area for a top team where it is hard to decide whether you have something to build on, or if it is time to blow it all up, and start again. So, which one is it?

FaZe recently lost jkaem, a Norwegian player who turned heads a year ago at DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca in then-G2’s top-four run at the major, but who has since been entirely unforgettable. His replacement, kioShiMa, is more experienced and likely a better player, but karrigan will have almost no time to adjust the team’s play to fit him in properly. At iBUYPOWER Masters, their play was not particularly impressive, as they lost six game points against IMT, and lost a map to Renegades in the decider to qualify for IEM. Best case scenario for FaZe is likely a couple of wins to build on; this team should not be ready to compete, yet.

On the other hand, mousesports won their group at ELEAGUE after an overtime battle versus Cloud9, at loWel’s debut event. NiKo is, give or take, in his usual form, while chrisJ has sparked up over the past months. Finally, newcomer loWel has proven to be a good addition to the team. As usual, there is some light if you look for it, but for now, mousesports remains the kind of team that can be easily overlooked, but whose occasional upset wins do not surprise you… Exactly like FaZe.

What level will NiP and Cloud9’s play stabilize at?

NiP’s play seemingly surged with Maikelele, after starting from the depths of being eliminated by FlipSid3 and losing their Legends status at ESL One Cologne 2016 in early July, when pyth last represented the team offline. NiP is now 4-2 online with pyth back, having split series with Dignitas and Virtus.pro, and taken down fellow Swedes, GODSENT, 2-0. With Maikelele on the team, NiP seemed like borderline contenders at times, but also went out of EPICENTER in dead last place. With pyth on-board, they are likely going to be more consistent, but does it come at a price of lower peaks?

Across the pond, Cloud9 is currently ranked fifth in the world, and boast a very impressive record since autimatic joined the roster in August. I do not hold the iBUYPOWER Masters loss against them, given non-existent stakes, but I am reluctant to call Cloud9 a consistent top-five team yet. Their story reads too much like a dream scenario where everything clicks from the get-go in the honeymoon period, and the team does not need to go through the growing pains. The ELEAGUE loss is the only stain on this team’s resume so far, but they need to play well in California to stay at it – another IMT-type loss will not suffice, and while they are favored to advance, teams such as mousesports have proven to be capable of upsetting Stewie2K’s crew. I want to see Cloud9 get back up after being punched hard enough to fall to the ground.

Are SK or Na`Vi ready to take the throne in Virtus.pro’s absence?

With Virtus.pro declining to attend and the world’s number three team Dignitas (per HLTV.org) headed to ELEAGUE instead of IEM Oakland, the favorites to win at Golden State’s home will be SK, closely followed by Na`Vi. The Brazilians last won at ESL One Cologne 2016, with Virtus.pro knocking FalleN’s team out of ESL One New York and EPICENTER in the semifinals after a lengthy break from offline play. Cloud9 stole SK’s title in Sao Paulo in front of their home crowd, and gla1ve’s new-look Astralis beat them for Group C of ELEAGUE last week. However, they did nonetheless beat Na`Vi twice in Atlanta.

Na`Vi’s track-record without starix constantly opining in tactically has been spotty at best. After a poor showing at their debut in Kiev for SL i-League StarSeries Season 2 Finals, they memorably won ESL One New York, but fell short against dignitas in the semifinals of EPICENTER. Finally, as mentioned in the paragraph above, they were shut down by SK last week at ELEAGUE, knocked out of the playoffs without a chance to take on Astralis. Currently, it seems Na`Vi still has not put their game together without starix’s calling, and notably, GuardiaN has been absent at best, aside from the deciding map in New York. In short, this team does not yet add up to more than the sum of its parts.

If SK and/or Na`Vi want to be in the conversation for the world’s best team, they need to make the grand final in Oakland. The field is good, but it is lacking both the number one team, Virtus.pro, and a solid challenger, Dignitas. Teams such as NiP and Cloud9 – and even others, given high level of competition – can mount a serious challenge, but they should remain just that; challengers. SK has been much more consistent than Na`Vi, and it would surprise me if they did not make the finals. But could you not see Na`Vi bowing out even before the semifinals in a nightmare scenario? Both SK and Na`Vi go in to California with a lot to prove – and frankly, more to lose than to win. Such is the life of the favorites.

Five other storylines to keep in mind:

Who wins s1mple vs. Hiko round III? In New York, Na`Vi came out on top both in the group stage and in the semifinals, and frankly, this match will stop being an event if Liquid lose once more. But for now, watch the friends go head-to-head again in the IEM Oakland opener, a match they are all surely dying to win.

Could loWel turn into a star player? At ELEAGUE and EPL Season 4 Finals, mousesports’s latest recruit loWel turned heads with good play in wins over IMT, Liquid, OpTic and EnVyUs. So far, Cloud9 has been his kryptonite, and this time, his opponents will be a notch tougher. Can he be the Robin to NiKo’s Batman, and help lead mousesports’s tormented fan base to the promised land?

Heroic has nothing to lose, but does it make them dangerous? If you look at the IEM Oakland team list, Danish Heroic sticks out – they are the least qualified team to be there, having replaced Virtus.pro at the last minute. Northern Arena will have affected their preparation negatively, but could the underestimation be enough for MODDII and company to win a game or two?

How many games will take place on Nuke? As HLTV.org’s Tgwri1s pointed out, Nuke was played more than usual at Northern Arena. The map may not be the most popular in the pool, but it might still be on the way to becoming a mainstay in tournament play – a welcome development, given how unlikely another round of changes to it is before the likes of Cobblestone.

Will fans enjoy the large round robin groups? I have been a vocal supporter of large round robin group stages – and playing more than one game at a time – as they provide so many games and matchups to watch. IEM Katowice was amazing, and IEM Oakland looks to build on that. Keep an eye out on how the format fares, as it will surely play a part in determining its future in ESL’s events.


@lurppis_ on Twitter.

Photo credit: Levyrestaurants.com

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