Thorin's Threads: Who is FNATIC? and 6 Other ESL One New York Storylines
ESL One New York looks to be both one of the most stacked non-major events of the year and one of the most wide open. Reigning world champions SK Gaming have had a few stumbles online and a number of big names enter the event with new lineups. Here are six storylines for ESL One New York.
1. Has anything changed for SK?
When SK Gaming took the crown at ESL One Cologne, winning their second major title and in back-to-back fashion, any dispute over who the team of the year is came to a conclusion. The Brazilian powerhouse lost only a single map, in very close fashion at that, en route to tying a record for the number of majors won by a single line-up. They had cemented this as "the SK Gaming era" and looked set to clean house for the rest of 2016.
VP could play them close, but had still lost both big series at the majors, despite being the only team to take a map from FalleN's men. G2 seemed to be the true match-up and map pool threat, thanks in part to strength on both dust2 and cache, and yet the explosive French side had made no impact on the major and some still wondered if they would flame out soon enough or pull the trigger on another French shuffle, with nV's players only too eager to be involved. FNATIC were a highly skilled opponent, but hadn't lifted a trophy since March and seemed to be tending to the ghost of what olofm was prior to his injury.
Not only were SK one of the most complete and dominant teams CS:GO had seen, with a fantastically developed and diverse map pool, but there looked to be no true rival for them for the trophies which they would pursue. Talk after Cologne was instead people wondering if they would become the first team to ever sweep three majors in a year. As it turns out, there will be no third major in 2016 and fans must wait until January to see if the Brazilians can accomplish the feat within a 12 month span at least.
Despite not having played an offline competition since Cologne, the world looks different for SK. Online results should not panic the best team in the world and one as consistently excellent as SK, but look at their reactions to their misfortunes since Cologne and you'd be hard pressed to say they actually believe that themselves. Forced to sit back and watch VP take the ELEAGUE title - admittedly as a result of some of their own choices - in their era, SK has seen only question marks pop up around them in the meantime. fer departed for surgeries, no doubt hoping to get everything in order before the expected final major of the year. In came SHOOWTIME, from Immortals, to replace him in online matches. At that point, the sky began to fall.
Now, SK comes to ESL One New York as the reigning two-time world champions, but looking shakier than expected. When they lost to TyLoo at Dreamhack Malmo it could be forgiven, since the Chinese side were a complete mystery to every top Western team and that loss actually spurred coldzera and company to take a gamble on dust2 and begin banning cache, which turned them into an even more impressive team. No, this is the first moment where it has looked as if SK might falter. Were a simple online loss of no real consequence, then would their super-star be blowing up on an obnoxious fan on social media? Would the team continue to bleed games in online play after fer's return?
As VP and Na`Vi have shown, online play need no carry over to offline play for the great teams, but that is also a matter of mindset as well as history. SK still have all the pieces to dominate the CS:GO world and thus ESL One New York. If the SK from Cologne arrives at the tournament then they should leave as champions of another ESL event.
2. Who is the new FNATIC?
For the first time since the Summer of 2014, more than two years and more than 10 trophies ago, a FNATIC team enters an event as a team without the excitement of being potentially one of the world's best. The good news for the black and orange is that they retained the two best players of the last few months, in the form of dennis and olofm. twist finally gets a chance to show what he can do on the biggest stage, having largely been battling at a lower level since the end of the LGB days of early 2014. LeKr0 is unproven but will get the opportunity to change that. wenton is still a surprise for many as the fifth man of the team, but seems to be set on being the stable anchor of team-play.
In isolation, we have an idea of who these players are, but who are they really as a team? The side playing in online leagues has been fairly average and not possessed of any special flair or force. Is FNATIC really to be home to an also-ran, forced to sit out the time clock of "potential" and watch others battle for the trophies? Right now, teams like SK, VP and G2 have everything they need to win titles. What does FNATIC have?
Perhaps the greatest player of all-time, but in unconvincing form for that pedigree; a newly emerged star in dennis, but who has never even played in the final of a major; a would-be star - twist - who has constantly sought escape from such a spotlight; and largely unproven newer players. A roster on paper is not always what the team ends up being, but that run-down doesn't fill many with hope right now. Of course, their first offline showing will given olofm and company a chance to show us that a FNATIC which, in its previously incarnation, relied upon the raw talent of its line-up, can be more than the sum of its part in this one.
How will they even play offline? Will they be wild and explosive? Will they be calm and build a system around the stars? Will they be good for some upsets? Will they shock the world and make a deep run? Will they flame out entirely? I'm not sure even FNATIC has an idea right now.
3. Is G2 missing a step?
G2 have been one of the best teams of 2016, with finals runs at three notable international tournaments and a title at one of them: ECS Season 1 Finals. When they are flowing on a map they look like a contender for the best team in the world, running over opponents on their strong maps and battling to solid wins on those lower down the hierarchy of their map pool. When that pace drops, though, and those headshots seem harder to come by, G2 revert back to being just another good team who can make the semi-final of a tournament and beyond, but will yield to the strength of one of the other big names in good form.
Ever since their blistering EPL S3 finals run, it has been the question from all analysts as to whether G2 would burn out and return to Earth. It happened a few times, like at ELEAGUE and the major, but their StarSeries S2 Finals run showed us that it is not a permanent state in either respect and they can oscillate between elite and simply good form. The question remains as to whether that's good enough to win more titles.
G2's matchup against SK is one of their most promising qualities as a team, since it means if they do face the best team in the world in a match then they are arguably the only team who should not directly fear them. With that said, VP have already won more titles over the last three months than G2 have managed in an entire year. A team like Na`Vi has the pieces to be a potential world champion and waits like a sleeper agent awaiting the activation code to send them into action. Winning now is essential for the French, as the field will not be as weak in three months time.
4. Another roll of the Virtus die
VP are the only team in recent memory one can think of who can win a huge event and then go out in last place at the next. Their idea of consistency involves pulling back from the weekly calender and looking at a span of months. From week to week, one never knows what to expect, as is the case for the team themselves. VP's ELEAGUE run looked like a flashback to their famous EMS One Katowice blaze of dominance, but seems like form it would be madness to expect to see again on demand. The win in Bucharest was more reasonable, with clutch play helping them through the odd tricky spot and then a welcome finals opponent of a still inexperienced, at that level, C9.
VP can very well win this title, but if they do then it will be a new VP. Snax is back to being a consistent force within the team, but their Bucharest win saw byali spike back to form we have not seen since more than two years ago and NEO was legitimately of star power, not simply complimented for being "well rounded" - a term people often use to praise players who can do a bit of everything well but do not dominate in any single area of play.
As ever, it seems folly to bet your chips on VP. Better to sit back and enjoy their confusing shifts of direction, each sure to be dramatic and exciting in its own right. They will probably never be the best team in the world, but they are still one of the most compelling to watch.
5. Life after s1mple
Those who imagined my praise of s1mple's individual play in Cologne to be hyperbole or exaggeration, in the light of good performances from other players on key maps, have been steadily heading in my direction ever since. Team Liquid have avoided all opportunities to play offline and so all one can look at is some online performances. The most notable, of course, was them being denied a spot in the offline portion of ELEAGUE by Echo Fox, Hiko's old team-mate sgares's team.
As TL arrive at their first offline event, they retain four members of the team which gave NA its best ever major finish, but the formula must be changed if similar results are to be considered even possible. JDM was allowed to be a relative bystander at times in Cologne, in respect to star level play, and now looks to be called upon as the new power piece of the team. EliGE showed some phenomenal rounds at the major, but was the same player who disappeared entirely in the deciding dust2 game against EF which cost the team progression in ELEAGUE. nitr0 has gone back to in-game leading, thanks to Valve and their notions about how the game should be played, which asks questions of the team's style, since he was far from convincing in that role earlier in the year.
New man pimp has looked good enough in a number of games, but cannot be contrasted directly with s1mple and will look instead to be more of a middle of the pack player. Make no mistake: this is a similar looking TL lineup, but they will not find success unless they place their emphases in very different places than at the major. If TL can get it together, they still look capable of being a legitimately good team, but there is little to go off right now.
6. Life with s1mple
Before one speaks about the new Na`Vi lineup, it has to be noted that it's almost as if someone at Valve really didn't like the s1mple acquisition and thus struck out with the ban of coaches as in-game leaders. The leadership of starix, from outside of the server, is what took Na`Vi to the status of being legitimate favourites at MLG Columbus and one of the best teams in the world with astonishing consistency. That same starix is now not only handicapped in what he can do for the team, but sees his squad without a natural leader inside the server, as Zeus was the man called upon to make way for s1mple's addition.
Na`Vi has one of the most individually skilled line-ups in the world, but their false start at StarSeries was depressing for those expecting greatness from them. The news of s1mple moving onto the secondary AWP, as opposed to seized, is as encouraging as it is puzzling that it took being eliminated in such fashion to be instituted as a part of their approach. s1mple has pressure upon his shoulders, but then so does the entire Na`Vi side right now.
The failure of GODSENT is shocking in how far those names have fallen, but not in terms of the poor form many of them can be found in. Na`Vi, on the other hand, have seen a number of terrible performances from names who could be relied upon, like seized. Perhaps the only good news from Kiev was the return of flamie, who was the true second star of the team along with GuardiaN earlier in the year and was powerful again at StarSeries.
7. Now or never
Astralis have been performing poorly all year long, in spite of their talent and previous strengths. They managed a top eight at StarSeries, including a classic three map elimination at the hands of NiP in familiar fashion, but something has to happen in Astralis. Either they start churning out legitimate top four performances or someone will surely be replaced, with a lot more room than ever before for who that could be.
It's not simply the context of Astralis' own position that puts pressure upon their performances, but the state of the entire Danish scene. There are three top 15 level teams in the world who hail from Denmark and Astralis are right now the worst of the three. Dignitas have emerged from their nightmare to become a solid and reliable side, thanks in part to Magiskb0Y's arrival and cajunb's revival. Heroic are more than the old SK ever were, with valde and MODDII making them a promising and potent source of potential upsets.
Astralis still have the most talent of the teams, the most experience and the potential to be the best of the bunch. It's not longer about asking if they can become a top team any more. They must or something will give. In the most talent packed scene in the world, for top level pros, Astralis cannot sit on big names and continue to flounder, far from trophies and top level form.
Photo credit: ESL, Dreamhack