Thorin's Threads: VP's First Defense and 6 More EPICENTER Storylines
Next week's EPICENTER tournament might not have the name value of a premier event in CS:GO but its stacked lineup of teams, including the top three teams and a total of six of the top eight in my world rankings, suggests it is set to live up to its name and be the center of some epic Counter-Strike matches.
Are G2's winning ways gone? Will VP defend their top spot? Who is the real Na`Vi? Here are seven storylines for EPICENTER, the Moscow event that boasts $250,000 for the champion.
1. The CIS major, sort of
In Counter-Strike 1.6 there were no Valve recognised majors, with the exception of the developer giving its blessing to CPL Winter 2001 being dubbed the "World Championship". Instead, the community itself determined which events earned that status and as such between three and four per year were decided upon, by consensus, as a result of historical prestige, international flavour and significance to the players in terms of importance for ones career. Depending on the year in question, the majors were the biggest tournaments organised by the CPL, ESWC, WCG and IEM.
The above factors are cited since some events met some of the criteria but fell short elsewhere. For example, the IEM European Championship was one of the most stacked events in the world in the latter 2-3 years of CS, but had no option for North American, South American or Asian teams to compete within it, for obvious reasons which its name should suggest. As such, it could not be placed at the status of a major, even if it ended up being more competitive and difficult to win that the nationality-based World Cyber Games (WCG).
In CS:GO, the majors are determined solely by Valve, who choose from competing bids by the big tournament organisers and give their blessing to those which will make up that year's majors. As such, no other tournament, no matter how stacked, gets the same kind of prestige associated with it as Valve's own majors. With the CIS region still not having had Valve's attention or seemingly any shot at a major, EPICENTER looks to be the closest thing we have seen to an event which is approaching that level so far.
Of course, there were no NA or Asian teams involved or able to qualify, the field size is only eight and many fans likely didn't know much about the event until recently. Even so, this is set to be one of the most competitive and stacked events of 2016. The three best teams in the world are in attendance, along with three more names which are ranked amongst my top 10. Consider that these exact line-ups of SK, VP, Na`Vi, NiP and G2 have won notable international events in the last four months. You then also have one of the hottest teams outside of the contenders in Dignitas.
It's no exaggeration to suggest that, in terms of competition, EPICENTER could well surpass all of this year's EPL finals, ECS finals and most tournaments that were not MLG Columbus and ESL One Cologne. Even ESL One New York, which featured a very exciting field and numerous top teams, finds it difficult to stand alongside EPICENTER's power-packed field.
The CIS region may have to wait years to see a major held there, but this event has some of the ingredients for hardcore fans right now.
2. The much exaggerated demise of G2
When G2 lost three single maps at ESL One New York and found themselves eliminated in last place, discussion surrounding the team seemed to write them off as no longer internationally relevant or championship material. Sure, losses to Astralis and cache on G2's best maps were shocking and unacceptable for a team of their calibre, but losing to Team Liquid on train already seems less significant, as a result of the NA team's near run to the final.
Casting one's mind back over the last six months, G2 have had far fewer slip-ups that people seem to acknowledge, with many forgetting that they had relative nobody fuks standing in for them in the ELEAGUE Last Chance Qualifier and thus exited that tournament without making any headway. Given a pass for a major group from hell, G2 has been pretty consistently top tier and competed with a wide range of top teams, even if they have often come up short at the last hurdle.
It's easy enough to write the script for a G2 game, with shox and ScreaM needing to go off and RpK delivering consistency to see them forming a very competitive trio which can match any in the game. What is not often acknowledged, though, is that those two stars do indeed deliver on a very regular basis, despite ScreaM's history of inconsistency and frustrating under-performance in yesteryear.
When G2 start losing or lack individually big performance, their map pool starts to shrink, but when they have their big guns operating effectively then they become one of the most under-rated teams in terms of map pool. The French side barely has any truly weak maps, has ban advantages against a bunch of teams and isn't directly hard countered by almost anyone in the veto phase. They will still only go as far as shox and ScreaM can carry them, but don't make the mistake of writing off G2. They can very much still make a deep run into the top four or beyond in Moscow.
3. Dignitas and the chance for greatness
Dignitas have quietly become one of the most impressive teams in CS:GO. As long as SK Gaming exist, with their unbelievable win-rates on the majority of the map pool, it's tough to call any other team the most well-rounded in that respect, but Dignitas can lay their own unique claim to that title due to being capable of playing literally any map and doing so depending entirely upon the opponent. With so few teams able or willing to play nuke, Dignitas rack up advantages in the veto phase before a single bullet has even had to be fired.
Where the Dignitas of a few months ago, prior to Magiskb0Y's arrival, struggled to get strong and consistent performances out of any of their star names, this new look Dignitas suddenly showcases a strong fragging trio of their own in Magiskb0Y, k0nfig and cajunb. The new recruit in particular has dazzled, but as such covered the much more stable fragging of k0nfig. Veteran cajunb has gone from a player who looks checked out to someone again taking over games and bolstering his team with good fire-power.
Dignitas have always made their name on the back of tactics, at least since MSL took over, and the team completes a trio of strong qualities with a cohesive system which puts players in the right roles on the right maps and sees them a tough team to break down for almost any opponent.
With so many strengths and ever rising form, nearly eliminating Virtus.pro in a full Bo3 in the semi-final of Dreamhack Bucharest, Dignitas are a team whose name doesn't yet carry the value of Na`Vi, SK and VP and yet could well place above a number of them come the end of next week. Should they make a deep run here, Dignitas is set to join the list of elite teams in Counter-Strike, something which seemed impossible for a squad which earlier in the year was happy enough to be able to get the odd upset as a tactically sound but under-skilled squad who relied upon being cbblestone specialists.
4. The first title defence for the world's new number ones
Virtus.pro's Polish lineup had, despite all of their titles and incredible performances spanning three years, never been the world's number one ranked team in CS:GO. That changed after the ESL One New York final, when their loss to TL could not stop them pushing past an SK which had lacked for activity and into the top spot.
Taking the top spot is not enough, though. When a champion in combat sports wins the championship belt, he has not yet distinguished himself as an all-time great fighter. Many have won the belt and then immediately lost it and spent the rest of their careers wondering what might have been. The great fighters are those who can defend their crown against the elite contenders who will come for their spot. Having taking that world number one ranking, VP sees SK Gaming, who narrowly lost the spot at said ESL event, awaiting them in Moscow and eager for revenge.
From both directions, VP sees revenge storylines, as SK want back a series which looked to be headed their way in two maps in the semi-final and VP themselves want another shot at the Na`Vi team who broke their hearts late in the day in the final. VP's time to take the top spot sees them set for an incredibly rigorous testing of their world number one mettle right away. Will NEO and Snax begin piecing together an era of their own or was their ascension an anomaly of SK's inactivity and a couple of inspired runs on the Poles' parts?
5. Who is the real Na`Vi?
Despite winning ESL One New York and doing so in impressive fashion, in terms of the opponents beaten - having played only the eventual top three placed teams over the span of their run, Na`Vi could have been expected to be considered the new top team in CS. Instead, their flaws seemed apparent and one wonders how they will fare in what is essentially take two of a battle against their biggest rivals. cbblestone has betrayed them and looks set to, being as they ban nuke and cache so routinely; GuardiaN arrived only in the final itself; and it took one of the single best LAN performances in CS:GO history, from the prodigy s1mple, to secure a narrow win for the CIS squad.
If Na`Vi are to win at EPICENTER and continue to show themselves to be an elite level team, it would seem that they will need to show better performances elsewhere in their ranks and improvement in their map pool. Being strong on maps like mirage and train is no first class ticket to assured success in a world where you will be facing teams like SK and VP late in the tournament.
This Na`Vi lineup has played only two events. At StarSeries, also on CIS soil, they were eliminated in last place. At ESL One New York they finished at the opposite end of the rankings: winning it all. Where will Na`Vi settle given a larger sample size of opponents and games? They might well be the next great CS:GO team, but they could also be one bad series match-up away from getting 2:0'd out of a competition like this outside of the top four.
6. Keeping the Maikelele magic going
NiP bringing Maikelele in as a stand-in for StarSeries S2 saw them seemingly turn back the clock 22 months or so ago to the days of the former LGB and G2 man being their replacement for fifflaren. Back then they were recreated as one of the most exciting and explosive teams in the game, charging through to two big finals in a row and narrowly losing out on a major. What many forget, though, is the tournament which saw them rid themselves of the very same Maikelele, after flunking entirely at IOS Pantamera only three months or so after bringing him in.
NiP were in miraculous form at StarSeries and put up against most teams in the game would make for a fantastic series. With that said, much like Maikelele's own individual form, it's hard to rely upon NiP to arrive in the same fashion in Moscow as they displayed in Kiev. GeT_RiGhT has struggled for much of the year, friberg was a liability for many months prior to StarSeries and THREAT's leadership has seen resistance and a drop-off in results prior to the coaching ruling change.
NiP at their best are still a magical team to spectate, but which events will we see that dramatic transformation at and which will we see the team dropping out of tier 1 that accounted for the last few months of play? A compelling case could be made that even with three of four teams making it out of each group, that NiP will be the team not moving on to bracket play.
7. Is the era really over?
When SK Gaming were crowned champions of ESL One Cologne they not only reinforced their status as the best team in the game, but cemented an era in CS:GO history. At the time, it was possible to see teams who could match-up with them, but barely any who could actually stop them winning titles. The came problems out of nowhere. fer had to have surgery and their use of a stand-in saw them struggle online. Their coach departed for the second best Brazilian team. They remained inactive while the other top teams all attended events and gathered ranking points. When SK finally had their team back together and attended their first event since Cologne, they looked good but not the dominant force they had been back in Germany.
With superstar coldzera delivering one of his worst individual events of the year, SK saw an incredibly tight first two maps against VP spill over into a nuke game which inverted the dominance of their Cologne match-up, where the Brazilians had smashed the Poles from the CT side, as VP ran all over them on the more difficult T side of the custom map. Eliminated before the final, SK were still clearly a top team, but not the unbeatable titans of the Summer. Now, the world awaits the chance to see how a second opportunity will see them fare.
Do they return to their sparkling best, win the title and reclaim both the top spot in the rankings and the narrative of extending their era? Do they fall again and see the months leading up to January's major as a chaotic period of small wars leading into a very uncertain battle for the major title? Right now, even SK Gaming couldn't tell you.
EPICENTER begins on Monday, Oct. 17 and runs through to Sunday, Oct. 23.
Photo credit: SK Gaming, Dreamhack