StarSeries XIV finals preview
The first high profile event of 2016 is a day away and we present an official preview for the SL i-League StarSeries XIV finals as preparations get under way in Minsk, Belarus.
Temperatures in Minsk, Belarus this weekend will pay due homage to continental Europe's sink into the frigid: the weekend could see lows of -23°C in the capital of the Eastern European country.
One aspect that will not be frigid however will be the team lineup for the SL i-League StarSeries XIV finals, which comprises four of the world's top five teams, six of the world's ten best, and an unknown challenger that has been making waves on the Chinese mainland.
The Minsk Arena will host action after the first two days
Eight teams in total will descend on Minsk for the StarSeries XIV finals, which will take place from January 13-17 and offer $200,000 and best-of-three action the whole way through.
There are numerous storylines to unpack for this event, which is given a heightened urgency due to its place as the first premier event of 2016 and also partially due to an incredibly weighted Group B.
Since much content has already been devoted to analysing some of these team's recent performances in the off-season, this preview will instead look at the opening matches and try to tease out some sense from the first two days of action at the StarSeries XIV finals.
Group A: Na`Vi vs. CyberZen
Oddly enough, one of the two opening matches on Wednesday, January 13th will also be the most novel of the bunch.
Bin "Savage" Liu's CyberZen have been much talked of as of late in the People's Republic, and proved themselves to be East Asia's most dominant outfit when they flattened TyLoo at the offline StarSeries China finals back in December.
Savage himself returned to CS:GO only this April and his work in pioneering the CyberZen team will be given an East-meets-West test in the opener against Na`Vi, who themselves are off the back of numerous strong finishes on the international circuit: 2nd at DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca, 1st in IEM San Jose, and 2nd at ESL ESEA Pro League Season 2 finals.
A red letter day for CyberZen
Na`Vi have clawed their way into the top three teams in the world as per our latest monthly ranking and they will likely be unfazed by all the momentum that CyberZen will bring from the Orient.
A loss in the opener here for the Ukrainian-Russian-Slovak team would throw them into an elimination match that Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko & co. will not want to play, although they do have recent experience dismantling Luminosity (doing so twice in two best-of-three's at the latest EEPL finals) and would be expected to get revenge against G2 as well (they last played the team's Kinguin core at Gaming Paradise and lost).
Regardless, barring an upset victory for the Chinese that would catapult Asia onto the CS:GO scene faster than Mongolian-thrown carcasses loaded with the bubonic plague, Na`Vi should take this first series and move on to the winners match.
Group A: Luminosity vs. G2
For all intents and purposes, this opener could be considered to be a battle for Group A's second place unless as previously mentioned the Chinese debut above all expectations.
Since the format of StarSeries means that the second and third place group finishers move directly into the quarter-finals, these teams will have their best chance in winning this opener and then trying to surprise Na`Vi in the winners game in order to make semifinals early as a stacked Group B means that a choice of fnatic, Question Mark, or EnVyUs could await in the quarter-finals.
G2 are a team with quite a bit to prove at the moment, as it has been an aeon in CS:GO since we last saw them compete in San Jose (where Mikail "Maikelele" Bill and his team beat a lacklustre CLG and then took a map off Question Mark, but overall did not particularly impress).
aizy needs to start bringing in dividends for G2
G2's failed online bid to qualify for ELEAGUE's Road to Las Vegas raised eyebrows and it is certainly past the point of bond maturity for Philip "aizy" Aistrup to have meshed with the team; the European outfit will now have to deliver and a match against Luminosity will be a perfect opportunity in this regard.
As for Luminosity, a regional win at the MAX5 Invitational will hopefully get the blood flowing as the Brazilians will be seeking to redeem deflated expectations after a mediocre performance at EEPL Season 2 somewhat took away from their miracle run at FACEIT S3 finals.
Being in the same group as Na`Vi provides ample material for a showdown and a chance for the Brazilians to revisit the stratbook, but they will have to move through G2 first, whom Luminosity last played in ESL One Cologne and defeated 16-6 (although that was the Kinguin variant with Adil "ScreaM" Benrlitom).
The Luminosity versus G2 game should therefore be the more explosive of the two Group A matches (which kick off simultaneously) as the #7 and #8 ranked lineups in the world will seek to gain a leg up over each other. It could be as simple as whichever team is better synergised on the server; either way, sparks should fly.
Group A synopsis
When talking about financial markets, the concept of a disruptive innovation is used to describe an innovation that replaces an existing market or value network because it is able to rewrite the rules and provide an innovative service more efficiently.
2016 will likely be a year where lesser ranked teams enforce disruptive innovation in CS:GO and this Group A is a microcosm of that innovation in force. Although Na`Vi are projected favourites to top the group given that team's recent excellent track record, numerous hazards lurk below the surface.
A beardless Edward may just fail to strike fear in the hearts of his opponents
Although unlikely, CyberZen could pick up where Skyred left off back during DreamHack Open Stockholm and make a statement for East Asian CS:GO.
Luminosity will only get more dangerous as the lineup gets its famous well-drilled practice and Marcelo "coldzera" David should continue to play to a level of high-tier Counter-Strike that will guarantee his team an advance from the groups.
Perhaps the biggest question mark then (no Danish pun intended) is G2, who have taken a long hiatus from offline play and will no doubt enter into the group with a lot of weighty expectations as the eighth best team in the world.
Group B may be the heavyweight group, but Group A is very much an experiment in the "global" part of Global Offensive.
Group B: fnatic vs. EnVyUs
There is a somewhat somber sense that this match-up would have been a little more exciting had it transpired two months ago. While both teams continue to play at the highest tier of Counter-Strike, they are both punching somewhat below their usual form.
That statement might seem odd in lieu of fnatic, who come into StarSeries XIV as event champions of the last three events the Swedes have attended: FACEIT Stage 3 finals, Fragbite Masters Season 5, and ESL ESEA Pro League Season 2.
However, it is undeniable that fnatic struggled in some way at all three events and only got it together enough to persevere and retain the semblance of being the world's best team. The Swedish superteam had close series in all three tournaments, and even lost best-of-three's at times to NiP and EnVyUs.
A question of calling "olof go A" or "olof go B"
The latter loss is all the more important because it will play out here as Group B's opener and because EnVyUs dismissed the Swedes in Burbank in two fairly uncontested maps. Since the groups were unseeded after Method's dropping out from the event, we are now gifted this showdown of leviathans: the world's best and second best teams duking it out early on in the event.
The ability of French teams to often outskill Swedish lineups, especially outside of grand finals, could play into EnVyUs' hands here and drive fnatic into the elimination match where they will likely face Titan.
The true unpredictability of this group means we may see this match-up take place again later in the day during the decider; certainly no-one is complaining about the potential for so much great Counter-Strike despite the slump in both teams' overall forms.
Group B: Titan vs. Question Mark
If the online results of today's Red Dot Invitational semifinal are anything to go by, this pairing between the 11th best team in the world and the fourth best is nothing to scoff at.
Titan's biggest advantage will be the Franco-Belgian team's extremely long hiatus from offline play (the longest of all eight teams in attendance with a last appearance at CEVO Season 8 in early November 2015), giving tactical mastermind Kévin "Ex6TenZ" Droolans plenty of time to have written treatises on how to counter-strat in a true "Group of Death."
Question Mark are still a strong team however, though losses such as the one incurred to SK at the Fragbite Masters Season 5 finals have continued to sow internal discord, but Finn "karrigan" Andersen and his boys have always prospered in the absence of too much community pressure and may just arrive to wipe the floor with their Gallic rivals.
Due to the group draw, shox & co. give the illusion of having no chance
The pretence of having signed to a new spiffy organisation will further boost the Danes this time around, whereas Titan are still playing under the weary banners of "France's second best and ever-ailing team."
Question Mark are favourites to carry the day here, but expect the maps to go a little haywire if Richard "shox" Papillon is allowed to have a say, and if his teammates come to play as well.
Group B synopsis
While Group A has the story-line of a neoliberal economist's dream marketing pitch with its globalist overtones, Group B is very much an ode to elite European Counter-Strike.
fnatic remain favourites due to their string of event victories, however far stranger things have happened in Minsk than the world's best CS:GO team failing to exit groups, and Titan have been a perennial threat to the fnatic core should the Swedes lose the juggernaut clash against EnVyUs.
No longer a device with which to guarantee results
In short, Titan are the team with nothing to lose here whereas the other three all have their reputations riding on Thursday's action. Regardless, a scenario is possible and likely where fnatic, Question Mark, and EnVyUs all advance to the playoffs, with the team that makes the semifinals and wins the group given an automatic advantage over its rivals.
The SL i-League StarSeries XIV finals kick-off at 11:00 on Wednesday, January 13th. The first two days will be played without a live audience but feature streams in English, Russian, and Chinese.
We will also prepare a viewer's guide for you as the event draws closer to kick-off.
stich writes for HLTV.org and can be found on Twitter