Written by: Richard Lewis
It’s that time. We did a preview show that highlighted most of the storylines going into season two of ELeague. We had some banter, made some predictions, but none of us were really nailed down calling a winner. When it comes to making predictions, it’s been a shaky year for me, and my colleague Duncan “Thorin” Shields will testify to that. After all, I publicly wagered that the Virtus Pro slump, which Thorin recently denied was real (despite agreeing at the time), would continue while FaZe would rise into prominence. At the time, the core of that team was coming into 2016 having made the semifinals of a major and rumored to be making improvements to the roster, so it wasn’t a crazy bet. Alas, they remain the Counter-Strike equivalent of a hit of nitrous oxide, giddy but short-lived. Meanwhile, the Polish powerhouse has somehow worked their way back into contention to being the number one team in the world.
Ah, predictions. If you ever measure the intelligence and wisdom of a pundit by predictions, you’re a bigger fool than those who volunteer them to begin with. It’s a fool’s errand. If you guess correctly, people will simply say you picked the favorites. Maybe you did because that would make sense in the prediction business. On those occasions the favorite falters and you don’t see it coming, you’re an idiot. How could you not see it coming? Apparently, every other nameless critic could. A lot of fans don’t seem to realize that sports predictions are mostly number-crunching and studying trends, mixed with a sprinkling of insider information-driven hunches. There is no clairvoyance, however much my head resembles a crystal ball.
For those reasons, I stay away from them. It’s a “hiding to nothing” in the most classical meaning of the phrase. But here’s the reality; it is an easy thing to throw out there in the name of the almighty “content.” It is literally what you think will happen, and it can differ so wildly from someone else’s belief about the supposed same outcome, that the resulting arguments alone can fill all the time you need for debate. So, let’s get on to the filler.
Here’s who can’t win it: Alternate Attax will enjoy their holiday, but they are going to get beaten so badly the studio audience will think they accidentally bought tickets for “Stomp.” If they win a single map during the time in Atlanta, it will be a miracle. Slightly ahead of them in the “hierarchy of the doomed” has to be Echo Fox, not just because of their own limitations, but mostly because they are in a group of death where picking up one win would be a sign of huge growth as a team.
Outside of that, you’re immediately plunged into lengthy discussion. Naturally, I’d add the North American teams to this list of non-contenders but that doesn’t tell the full story. OpTic Gaming recently looked solid at ESL New York picking up convincing wins against top European opposition. Their roster change seems to have worked for them. I don’t think they will be a pushover, but there’s too many stronger teams here to think they could continually defy the odds. Cloud9 are in a similar position. Huge improvements over where they were six months ago following a roster change, now capable of mixing it up with the Europeans, but simply not good enough to win a tournament of this caliber for all the positive changes.
Each of the teams left now are all individually capable and the process of elimination becomes a lot harder. Immediately jumping out at me is last season’s runners-up, fnatic. They can’t win it either. In fact, the way things are for them at the moment after they lost the core of their team to GODSENT, there’s no guarantee they get out the group. I think they are one star player short of ever being a serious contender for a sizeable tournament again. Despite me vocalizing this, as pundits do, the team management insists this is the team to carry the brand forward. It’s fairly easy to add FaZe to this pile of malfunctioning talent too. Ever since that wager I mentioned in the opening paragraph, it’s been a downward spiral for them, a failure that still doesn’t make much sense to me.
Astralis has been consistently unimpressive despite their roster and experience. The Danes finally bit the bullet and benched their in-game leader, which wasn’t necessarily the problem, but something was certainly amiss. At this stage, it’s unlikely the team even knows what the issue is, and this represents a pretty substantial role of the dice. The timing of the changes probably means they won’t do much at ELeague, but they will certainly have one eye on January’s major as the competition they want to be in shape for. Similarly, I have to say that the run of mousesports last season was an anomaly and with all their roster problems, I think they will be out of the running a lot earlier this time around.
Duncan is raving about Team Dignitas at the moment. He thinks they are genuine dark horses right now, but I can’t take them seriously. They almost faltered in getting to the offline component of Eleague, losing a map against a Kazakhstani team, and being taken to 16-14 twice by Gambit Gaming. I appreciate the fact that they have two bona fide young stars in Emil 'Magiskb0Y' Reif and Kristian 'k0nfig' Wienecke, kind of like the Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott of Counter-Strike, but I still feel there’s something about them that makes them susceptible in crunch matches. Their online form this month has been up and down, recording wins and losses against Virtus Pro, EnvyUs and Na’Vi, decent teams to be rubbing shoulders with, but only one of those would I expect to get brushed aside at LAN.
Both French teams will throw up some exciting games, but realistically, I doubt either can win it. G2 Esports are a phenomenal team with the emphasis on “phenom”, powered by the twin aim-stars of Richard "shox" Papillon and Adil "ScreaM" Benrlitom. They do have deficiencies though, and are so wildly inconsistent that they are impossible to back for any tournament that requires them to maintain their best over a prolonged period. EnvyUs is yet another team that should have done so much more when they were at the top of their game, instead ended up adding players to the roster who truly didn’t belong. Another recent roster shake-up will see them improve, but both of these teams will falter, looking across at each other wondering if the French dream team is ever going to happen.
Virtus Pro had a miracle run last year and it seems to have been part of a Lazarus-like resurrection. They have gone from being a team people expected to be announcing roster swaps and retirements, to up there as a contender for best in the world. I think they can go far again this time around, but all things considered, I think retaining their title would be unthinkable. I’m nervous typing this out though, as they have a habit of proving me wrong consistently and only seem to falter when I back them.
NiP has been looking better since the addition of Mikail “Maikelele” Bill. Meanwhile, his new (and old) teammates have wasted no time on the media trail telling everyone how much he has grown as a person. In truth, I think that also applies to the people who couldn’t simply agree to handle him as he was, despite the team winning at the time. This is a chance to put all that to rights, and I think they’ll be surprisingly solid this time around. They might even make it to the final few.
This time around, Brazil has two teams, and both are certainly capable of winning tournaments, evolving from fan-favored underdogs into disliked champions. Immortals is certainly going to impress, and the fact that they feel like an easy and obvious pick to win their group tells you how far they’ve come. SK Gaming though, is the team that should be flying the flag and most likely will be there or close to it by the end of the event. A lot of my colleagues have them winning it, but I think they’ve looked mortal lately. That Virtus Pro defeat in New York is for me the best series of Counter-Strike this year, and crucially it acts as a touchstone for any team looking to beat them on Overpass, a map they usually dominate everyone on. It’s hard to lead from the front, and even though SK Gaming has a habit of winning big tournaments, I think they are hitting a dip in form right when other teams are finally starting to get their act together.
So, that leaves me with Na’Vi, and I’m going to double down on all the things I’ve said lately. Since picking up Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, they’ve had their ups and downs, but it finally feels like their time. Winning New York was huge for their confidence, but it felt inevitable. They’ve now got world-class firepower across the board and a tactical system that gives them one of the deepest map pools in the world. I truly believe these are the future major winners unless something crazy happens between now and the start of 2017. I think Na’Vi is the team that signals their intentions by winning our second season of ELeague en route to their ultimate goal.