In anticipation of the ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals, we took a look at the teams in attendance and chose our six biggest storylines connected to the $750,000 tournament, which begins on Tuesday.
The ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals are set to begin, with 16 teams from all over the world about to lock horns in Dallas, Texas. Eight top-10 teams will be in attendance — all with the exception of fnatic and Gambit — as well as four more from the top 20, but there are only six playoffs spots up for grabs.
The $750,000 tournament will kick off on May 15 with ESL's new group stage format, featuring eight teams per group playing in a double-elimination bracket, with the first-placed teams securing semi-final berths, while teams finishing second and third will advance to the quarter-finals.
From Friday on, the competition will move on to the Verizon Theatre, where the first two stages will be played in best-of-three series, followed by the best-of-five grand final, which has become the organizer's standard.
To learn more about ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals, such as the full schedule, talent lineup, and prize distribution, head over to our viewer's guide, in which you'll find everything you need to know about the event.
Now we take a look at the tournament's biggest storylines, featuring some of the favorites, who come to Dallas on the back of strong showings at the recent IEM Sydney and DreamHack Masters Marseille, as well as a few question marks that will be answered come Sunday:
Will FaZe double up...
IEM Sydney answered a question many had been asking since Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer took his leave of absence: can FaZe keep challenging for titles with Richard "Xizt" Landström? Naturally, the answer is yes, they can. Although it took them one tournament, DreamHack Masters Marseille, to get adjusted to their new fifth player, Finn "karrigan" Andersen's team showed in Australia that they are here to stay at the top.
It should come as no surprise to see the trio of Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács, Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, and Håvard "rain" Nygaard turn up, but it had been a while since we had last seen Xizt be as consistent as he was in Sydney, where he complimented the aforementioned threesome alongside karrigan. It's unlikely the former NiP player will ever match olofmeister's peak form — at least he hasn't thus far —, but he has proven to be a good fit nonetheless, despite all of the criticism aimed towards him.
The question now is whether FaZe will add more titles to their name, now that they've clinched their first in 2018. Dallas will be a tougher challenge for them, particularly in the groups, where they could meet as many as three top-six teams, Cloud9, mousesports, and Natus Vincere, before they potentially take on the likes of Liquid and Astralis in the playoffs.
Another matchup against the Danes would certainly be a mouth-watering follow-up to the IEM Sydney showdown, in which only six rounds in total separated the two teams, and an exciting continuation of the long-standing rivalry, in which FaZe are up 2-1 this year, after defeating Astralis in the playoffs at IEM Katowice and IEM Sydney.
… or will Astralis put their foot down?
The other side of the coin are Astralis, who have now reached two finals in a row and are looking to make their third as one of the biggest — if not the biggest — favorites of ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals. Throughout the two recent tournaments, DreamHack Masters Marseille and IEM Sydney, the Danes won six series against current top-five teams, all of which were convincing, with their only loss being the nail-biting grand final in Australia.
Not only have all of their players been in fantastic form in the past month, Astralis are far and away the best team at using their utility, especially HE grenades and molotovs/incendiary grenades. Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, and Emil "Magisk" Reif are three of the world's very best players in using damage-dealing utility, as you can see in the graphic below, which portrays just how good the trio, and the team as a whole, is in that regard.
With all of that in mind, gla1ve & co. should still be considered the best team in the world, but now they've got FaZe breathing down their necks. Sydney showed that Astralis are mortal, after all, and it's Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen in particular who has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to performing in big matches.
The 25-year-old has had a worrying tendency to dip in semi-finals and finals for a long time. We've seen plenty of proof of that this year, as he has averaged a 0.87 rating across four out of five such series he played; all except the semi-final against mousesports in Sydney, his only above-average big match in 2018. That is something to look out for should Astralis reach those stages again, because it seems to be their one big weakness.
s1mple and Na`Vi - three for three?
It should be a given at this point that Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev is a huge storyline on his own whenever he is present, as we've seen time and time again this year when he surpassed his own standards multiple times over.
It doesn't matter how you look at it, the Ukrainian beast is without a shadow of a doubt the best player in the world right now. Just look at some of the out-of-this-world numbers he has put in at 2018's big events so far and wait in anticipation for when he enters the server once again come Tuesday:
Na`Vi are now two for two in reaching the grand final and losing after StarSeries and DreamHack Masters Marseille, with s1mple receiving the MVP medal on both occasions. They must be hungry for a win after getting so close twice in a row, but it seems to be out of the 20-year-old's hands; surely he can't be any better than this.
Or can he?
We've had a s1mple-less month, as visa issues plagued Na`Vi before IEM Sydney and they were forced to skip the tournament, but now the wait is over and we can once again get our fill. Sit back and enjoy.
SK, Cloud9, and Liquid are set to try again
The trio will attempt to get back on the horse, now that they've had over a month with their new lineups. Cloud9 had a solid start with Pujan "FNS" Mehta thanks to their playoff run in Marseille, but the North American side certainly didn't impress anyone at IEM Sydney, where they lost to TYLOO and barely made it out alive against ORDER before eventually falling to FaZe in a one-sided series.
SK have very little to be positive about at the moment, having bombed out of Marseille and Sydney early, with TYLOO and Grayhound eliminating the Brazilians at the latter event. At the same time, SK have had more to overcome than most teams ever do, which is to start communicating in their second language, and it should only be a matter of time before they get used to it.
Dallas may still come too early for Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo & co.; they've only just returned from Australia, after all. Moreover, they appointed Marcelo "coldzera" David the in-game leader in response to what happened in Sydney. That may or may not be a change for the better in the short term, as it could either spice things up or add to their troubles, but coldzera has been known to call the shots in certain scenarios, so we should at least give him the benefit of the doubt.
Liquid's chances look the best out of the trio despite also getting off on the wrong foot with an early exit in France. Nick "nitr0" Cannella's team have had the most time to practice thanks to missing Sydney, and they only swapped similar players, while Cloud9 have a whole new system to learn and, like SK, have had little to no time since returning from the Australian tournament.
Renegades: A chance to go one step further
IEM Sydney saw Renegades put up their best result at a big event yet, taking down FaZe on the way to the playoffs before conceding a tight series to mousesports in the quarter-finals, in which Noah "Nifty" Francis's massive performance on Inferno allowed his team to reach the deciding map, Train, and fight in overtime.
The ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals provide a chance for Renegades to go one step further. Group B looks relatively easy to get out of from their point of view, as they will meet a Space Soldiers team without one of their key players in the first round, with the winner of Liquid vs. Grayhound awaiting in the following best-of-three series.
In ESL's new format, to win that series means a spot in the quarter-finals at least and a chance to go to semis directly if you win the last best-of-three as well. However unlikely the latter option seems given who is on the other side of the bracket (Astralis in particular), even second place would put Renegades in a good spot for the quarter-finals, where they would meet the third-placed team from Group A.
OpTic set out on a journey to become Denmark's No. 2
After Shahzeb "ShahZaM" Khan and Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz made way for Heroic's Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer and Jakob "JUGi" Hansen, OpTic's new, fully Danish lineup will make their debut in Dallas. Here begins their journey to become Denmark's second-best team, a place that is right there for the taking, as North are making little headway, while Heroic are not even Danish anymore.
With three weeks having passed since the aforementioned changes, we should already be able to see at the finals which way OpTic will be heading in the near future. They have quite a tough road ahead of them, though, as they'll first meet Astralis in a best-of-one before taking on one of NiP and SK, depending on the results.
While that looks like a tall order for a team that is still brand new, it'll be interesting to see how the new-look OpTic works and to find out whether Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke can return to form, after finishing his tenure with North in a downward trajectory in late 2017 to early 2018.