Thorin's Threads - 10 Story-Lines for the ESL One Cologne Final Four
As exciting as matches and tournaments are on their own, I always find the context surrounding matches to be a key factor in enhancing the experience of watching the matches unfold. Knowing the historical component of the impact, a win or loss can have on a player's or team's career heightens the excitement. Seeing how individual performances can shape the way we think of players, make the big pressure moment they rise to or fall from only more intense. Thorin's threads picks out key story-lines to follow, with their historical and cultural context explained.
ESL One Cologne, the sixth CS:GO major, is down to the final four teams, with the first semi-final set to begin at 10:45 CEST. The semi-finals see EnVyUs facing TSM and FNATIC meeting Virtus.pro. In this battle royale of 2015 champions, here are the 10 story-lines I find most interesting surrounding the tournament.
1. Virtus.pro face their final boss
Virtus.pro have taken down three offline titles this year, but their biggest hurdle has been the best and most successful team of this year and era: FNATIC. Facing the Swedes in four offline Bo3 series from March to now, the Poles have only prevailed on one occasion. That their lone series win came thanks, in part, to a custom map which is only used in ESEA (season); with narrow wins on the two maps they won (season and cache) and getting comfortably beaten by FNATIC on the map they lost; it's hard to see a foundation for confidence on NEO and his men's side.
In the other three series between the two teams, FNATIC have won a combined eight maps and lost only one, again on cache. FNATIC are the team with the deepest map pool in the game, boasting no truly weak point, only maps which are less strong than their best. For all of these reasons and more, FNATIC very much represent a "final boss" style scenario for VP. If the Poles can defeat their nemeses, then surely they can be expected to have a good chance to win their second major, not least since they have historically always match-up well against the likes of TSM.
On the other hand, if VP fall here, in the semi-final, then their resurgent form, which began back with their drubbing of Na`Vi and bullying of C9 at CEVO S7 Finals, will seemingly have all been for naught. As good as their run here in Cologne has been, a semi-final finish is merely a good placing, not one to remember for a team who has won numerous CS:GO titles and are past major champions themselves. Even as one of the underdogs to take the title at this point, VP's only satisfaction can lie in hoisting that trophy.
2. kennyS enters his first ever major semi-final
kennyS is undoubtedly one of the very best CS:GO players in history, with his peak of late 2014 and early 2015 the stuff of legend and favourably comparable to the finest runs of form from any great player in the annals of history. Yet, despite such individual prowess and success in building up a solid resume of top placings, kennyS had only once even ventured into the play-offs of a CS:GO major, reaching the quarter-finals of Dreamhack Winter 2013, the first major held.
For such a great individual player to have been denied the kind of team success typically fitting someone of his stature was a black mark upon his career, accomplishments-wise. All the other great players had played in semi-finals, finals or even lifted the trophy at a major. Now, kennyS, decked out in the new clothes of EnVyUs, has a chance to both play in his first semi-final and battle for that spot in the final his individual play would have seemingly deservedly commanded in late 2014, were the circumstances surrounding his team different back then.
Whether nV win or lose, one of the great players in history has corrected another wrong in his past and looks to enter uncharted territory.
3. device looks to a first CS:GO major final
device is another of CS:GO's true greats, a phenomenally gifted all-around talent who has consistently been a top 10 player in the world for more than a year and a half. During that time span, his teams have always hovered around the top four, yet their tendency to choke always meant they went out in at most the semi-finals. device has made the play-offs of all six majors, finishing in the semi-final on two of those occasions.
Up until April of this year, device had not even made the final of an international tournament, such was the degree his individual and team career was hampered by the obvious psychological blocks which haunted them. Since April, TSM have made five international finals, albeit with Copenhagen Games not boasting an impressive field, and have secured four titles, three in a row at one point.
Along with his team success has been the stabilising of device's individual game, as he is a consistent performer who gives his team edges thanks to his high skill level and wide set of abilities. device and TSM are now champions in CS:GO, but they still have yet to take the last step of becoming major champions. Will the old demons whisper their familiar paralysing song or will device banish them in a epic exorcism of what had, until recently, appeared to be one of the cursed careers, never to be fully realised relative to the talent of the individual in question?
4. TSM seek revenge for IEM Gamescom
IEM Gamescom was all fun and games, but you can better believe TSM remember their four straight losses to the new EnVyUs line-up. Losing twice on cbblestone, once on inferno and once on cache, TSM could blame the fans for forcing them onto cbble, their least favoured map, but the other two were well within the deep pool of TSM's maps.
Here, in the semi-final of a major, at a tournament which counts as much as any in history, would be the ideal opportunity to gain some revenge on the French side and show that nV are not set to become TSM's counter in the manner in which TSM are now known to be FNATIC's only counter.
5. Happy quietly makes history with semi-final appearances
Every CS:GO fan has heard the ever repeated line that "NiP are the only team to reach ever major final", which has ceased to be accurate as of yesterday, so it is an understood fact that NiP's four man core (GeT_RiGhT, f0rest, Xizt and friberg) have played in five straight major semi-finals. Yet who knows what Happy accomplished yesterday?
What has seemingly crept up on a world which hasn't noticed the historical backstory to Happy's runs in the majors, is that the French in-game leader has now reached his fourth straight semi-final, putting ahead of everyone in history except the four NiP players. At ESL One Cologne, his apEX and KQLY powered line-up, which operated far more in line with the execute style of leadership than his looser current approach, fell to NiP in a very closely fought semi-final. At Dreamhack Winter 2014, his LDLC team was the second best in the world and after moving past FNATIC; boost, forfeit and all; went on to claim the title.
At ESL One Katowice, part of a dominant pack with FNATIC at the top, nV came out entirely flat in their semi-final against NiP and fell to a mixture of "NiP magic" and the newly arrived allu. Now, with victory over Na`Vi, one of the hottest teams in the world over the last three months, Happy enters his fourth time in the final four of a major. In the early days, Ex6TenZ was unquestionably the greatest in-game leader, but Happy's resume puts him into the conversation more and moreso as the months pass.
6. The possibility of the dream final: FNATIC vs. TSM
CS:GO has been denied the dream final, of the two best teams, again and again at the majors. At Dreamhack Winter, VeryGames and NiP were the two best teams in the world, but met in the semi-final. At EMS One Katowice, Titan were ranked number one on paper but fell out in the group stage and could not join NiP in the final. At ESL One Cologne, the top end of the scene was so shaky, with so many contenders, that nothing could really have delivered, but NiP vs. VP would have been a likely candidate, except they were on the same side of the bracket and VP fell in the quarter-final to LDLC.
At Dreamhack Winter, LDLC and FNATIC were clearly out in front as the world's best, but met the now infamous quarter-final which resulted in the boost and forfeit on overpass in the deciding map. Finally, at ESL One Katowice, EnVyUs, the new name for LDLC, couldn't deliver us the dream #1 vs. #2 final, as they were rolled by NiP and left FNATIC waiting in the final.
Now, the world has a chance to see the two best teams of the last five months battle for this major title. They are the two teams with the most international LAN titles won this year, with FNATIC with six (or seven, depending on if you count ClutchCon, which many wouldn't) and TSM on four. Both can boast the deepest map pools in the game, able to go down to six and seven maps, respectively, and still pull out wins against top tier competition.
For FNATIC, they have reigned supreme over the year with the most titles, tons of finals finished and nothing but top four finishes, yet there is something missing. Even with the first major of the year already sat in their back pocket, they need to beat TSM to feel complete. TSM's rise to championship status came in April at the expense of FNATIC. In fact, during three of their four title runs, TSM met FNATIC in series play and defeated them, including two Bo5 wins.
FNATIC may be the best team in the world, but TSM have been their counter and are the only team who can boast status as favourite when facing FNATIC directly. Beating TSM in this final would not only grant FNATIC the major, but also help them start to turn that unfavourable match-up back in their direction. They managed a series win at Fragbite Masters S4 finals, but still ended up losing in the final.
This would be the ultimate moment for FNATIC to beat their rivals. It would also be the battle of arguably the two best teams in 2014.
7. Champion on champion
No matter which of the four teams in the semi-final reaches the final, it will mark a championship team of 2015 battling another. FNATIC have won seven titles in 2015, TSM have taken down four, EnVyUs have four to their names and Virtus.pro have collected three. There are no more worthy champions in 2013 than this group of teams and one will leave Cologne with this major title in their grasp.
8. Virtus.pro and EnVyUs seek entry into the two majors club
FNATIC are the only team to have won two majors, with two players changed between their wins, but three other teams have won a single major each. Virtus.pro and EnVyUs stand as two of those three teams. VP's win came in March of 2014, rampaging through the field and making their mirage a legendary stomping ground, even brutalising the hall-of-famers in NiP in the final. EnVyUs overcame their rival, FNATIC, and a dose of NiP magic, taking down Dreamhack Winter 2014.
For Virtus.pro to take their second major would not only continue their upward trend back towards the top four, having dropped out in the past few months and been gradually sliding down into one of their slumps, but it would also be a familiar pattern in the careers of NEO and TaZ. What made their great teams in 1.6 so unusual, was that they were very rarely the number one team or victors in the medium sized tournaments, but at the majors they were money and finished up with the most in history - 6 or 7, depending on your definition of a major.
In CS:GO, VP have shown bouts of consistency, more in line with their latter couple of years in 1.6, but never truly secured a spot as the top team. Despite that, they have been able to return to peak form every few months and win titles. In 1.6 they averaged roughly a major title per year. With their major win in CS:GO coming last year, can they deliver such a championship performance at this major?
9. FNATIC look to crown themselves as the greatest of all-time
A case can already be made that this FNATIC line-up is the greatest in the game's history, especially since so much of their success has come during a far more competitive era than NiP's incredible run of success, which was over the first half of the game's history, by and large. With a major title, numerous smaller trophy, lots of top four placings and some great win-rates against key opponents, FNATIC are at worse the second best five man unit to ever play CS:GO.
With victory at this major, they would strengthen their case as the best even further, not least by being able to boast that they are the only line-up to have won both two majors and two straight, at that. They are already the dominant team of this era and that would elevate their dominance, which has seen them never fail to make top four in 2015 and reach the final of all but three events, only more NiP-esque in its magnitude.
10. Three can repeat, once and win for the first time.
TSM has never won a major and can become only the sixth line-up in history to win one if they succeed in taking down two Bo3 series today. The other three teams, or at least the cores of them, have all won a major, with FNATIC boasting two. Do the rich get richer or does TSM grab a share of the wealth?
Photo credit: ESL, fragbite