Ahead of a week of premier CS:GO action set to take place in Sydney, Australia, we take a look at the field of competition and line out the four key storylines of the tournament.
IEM Sydney 2018 is the second Intel Extreme Masters event to take place in Australia's most populated city, following up on last year's event, which was won by SK. This year, however, the event features two times the number of teams it did in 2017, sixteen instead of eight, as well as a new format. The event kicks off with two eight-team GSL groups, with six teams advancing to the playoffs - two directly to the semi-finals, four starting it off in the quarter-finals.
The team list for IEM Sydney 2018 is a mixed one; it features six out of the seven best teams in the world, according to our ranking, followed by a couple of teams placed between #11 and #18, and seven teams from the Asia-Ocenia qualifiers to cap it off. The regional squads have a tough task ahead of them if they wish to live through the group stage, which takes place from May 1-3, and get to play at the Qudos Bank Arena, which will host the playoffs, from May 4-6.
The combination of top tier and challenger teams, a scene in flux with a lot of fresh rosters, and the addition of a new map to the pool all make for an interesting event, but here are the key storylines we recommend everyone to watch out for at IEM Sydney 2018.
How will the addition of Dust2 play out?
Valve has been putting off the reintroduction of Dust2 into the map pool for seemingly too long, keeping the whole scene on the edge and speculating about which map it would be replacing. Finally, it was announced that Cobblestone will be making way for the return of CS:GO's most iconic map, and ESL decided to include it into their tournament circuit straight away, with IEM Sydney 2018 being the first big event to feature the map.
Judging how teams will do on the new Dust2 based on their results on the previous version would be more akin to guessing than analysis, since it has been 14 months since Dust2 was removed, and not only has the meta of the game changed, but so have the lineups - not a single one in the top30 still features the same five players they had when Dust2 was an active map.
That leaves us to watch IEM Sydney, observe how the teams fare on the map, and see who will be the first one to pick up a few good results and stake a claim on it. Time to practice the map was very limited; therefore, it's likely that favourites will be trying to avoid it, especially since it has also always been known as a map on which an underdog squad can get a win if they are individually on point.
It will also be interesting to follow how the removal of Cobblestone and the introduction of Dust2 influence the map pools and veto phases for certain teams - a new map adds a lot of room for bluffs and risky vetos, something Finn "karrigan" Andersen, for example, has historically loved to play with. Teams such as SK and fnatic, who had a strong Cobblestone game, will have to adapt, either shoring up some of their former weak maps, or going all out on Dust2. The latter is more likely, as Dust2 hasn't been radically changed and plug-and-playing some old setups and strats should be easier than taking on a map such as Nuke.
Astralis look to build on their dominant Marseille win
One LAN event and one dominant win at it was enough for Astralis to leapfrog FaZe, mousesports, fnatic, and Cloud9 and grab the #1 place in our rankings this week. The Danes showed an incredible level in France, starting out strongly but still managing to elevate their game further in the playoffs. Astralis kicked off the event by manhandling Space Soldiers before taking down Liquid 2-1 in the group decider. Astralis' two map wins were 16-3s, while the loss was a narrow 16-14 on Mirage—and it would end up being their only map dropped throughout the tournament. One by one, FaZe, fnatic and Natus Vincere fell to Nicolai "device" Reedtz and co. in the playoffs, with no team really able to challenge them in series.
Lifting the trophy was a result of a classic Astralis team performance—there was no one to be singled out in praise, everyone contributed in their own department—, however, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander was the most improved player when comparing DreamHack Masters Marseille performances with career averages. It is to be expected that gla1ve's level regresses to the mean moving forward, which could see Astralis have a bit of a tougher time in Sydney, but they have shown enough to still be the favourites for the tournament.
Not only are they looking like a solid squad, but external factors are also playing in their favor; the rest of the teams look shaky and inconsistent, Natus Vincere, who looked like the strongest challenger, dropped out due to visa issues, and their permaban, Cobblestone, has been replaced by Dust2. All of this plays in Astralis' favor, and the Danes will look to claim another title this week and solidify their place at the top of the rankings.
How to rank the top teams?
The CS:GO scene has been in a state of flux since the start of 2018. Last year's champions have been struggling, new teams have risen and claimed titles, but no one has been able to string together a really impressive series of results. Adding to that a small roster shuffle that took place before DreamHack Masters Marseille and it has become extremely hard to rank the best teams in the world.
Things certainly won't be crystal clear after IEM Sydney, but the event's results will certainly help us gauge the competition much better. Is it time to stop expecting that SK and FaZe will be competing for titles? Will mousesports or fnatic show enough consistency for them to be considered elite squads? On the other hand, Cloud9 will need a very deep run to join the same list, now that they are led by Pujan "FNS" Mehta.
Top five spots in the world ranking, which allow teams to skip pesky qualifiers and get direct invites to tournaments all over the world, are currently up for taking. A good level of competition, albeit weakened by the last-minute withdrawal of Natus Vincere, combined with the IEM Sydney 2018 format, which features quite a lot of BO3 series, will give us a good sense of "who is who" as the busy tournament schedule kicks off.
Regional teams with a chance to impress
Seven teams residing in the Asia-Pacific region have got the chance to compete at IEM Sydney, as the event hopes to give domestic squads a taste of top-flight competition. Even though the number of domestic sides is high, with only three squads advancing from each group and the world's best teams present in Sydney, their chances to actually make it to the arena are still very slim.
Talking about the Australians, competing at IEM Sydney are ORDER and Grayhound, two teams currently vying for the top domestic spot, Chiefs, who now feature only one member of the lineup that impressed at last year's IEM Sydney, slot in the country's top four, with Legacy, who upset Yaman "yam" Ergenekon's Tainted Minds in the qualifier, rounding up the list as a last-minute replacement for Space Soldiers.
When looking at LAN results, Asian sides have been showing more than their Oceanic counterparts recently. MVP PK finished top eight at WESG, beat Vega Squadron at the StarLadder Invitational, and won the CS:GO Asia Summit and the ESL Pro League S7 APAC Finals. On the other hand, TYLOO come off a second-place finish at the Qi Invitational, and picked up wins over the likes of AGO, BIG and Spirit in recent times. Decent results against lower-tier European teams don't make them favoured to get out of groups here by any means, but, unlike the Australians, they have at least shown that they can hold their own against the European style.
Even though making the playoffs seems near-impossible for these teams, the group stage format will allow at least some of them to play a lot of maps and potentially grab a map win over a top team. That is what they should be aiming for, gaining crucial experience, establishing themselves, and catching the attention of the international viewers.
The team with a decent chance to make it through to the playoffs is the Aussie hope Renegades, but, considering how long they have been playing in North America for, it's not fair to place them in the same group as the rest of the APAC teams. With Space Soldiers dropping out to visa issues, Aaron "AZR" Ward and co. are now favoured over four out of seven teams in their group, but will still need to have an inspired performance if they want to play in front of the Qudos Bank Arena crowd—as that will mean one of FaZe, SK, or Cloud9 won't. It's a tough task, but with none of these teams at their peak currently, it's not an impossible one.