With another season of StarSeries i-League around the corner, we examine the teams in attendance and take a look at the four key storylines of the event.
Despite a hefty $300,000 prize pool and a Swiss group stage system that makes it harder for favorites to be upset early on, a number of top teams declined an invite to StarSeries i-League S5, which will take place from May 28 to June 3. Initially, it seemed like it was just a busy tournament schedule that had led to the decision, but the latest news revealed that three out of the four teams top ten teams that skipped the event have either gone through roster changes or are intending to do so.
That leaves us with a handful of top teams in Kiev and a large number of challengers and underdogs. Even though on paper the absence of Astralis makes the tournament less enticing, the way they have been winning tournaments can be off-putting to some viewers who dislike the notion of a team dominating the whole circuit. From that point of view, StarSeries will be interesting as it will give us a better look at how the "rest of the best" match up against each other.
In the absence of Astralis, the current number one team in the world, as well as their main challenger, FaZe, teams who are usually lower in the pecking order will be elevated to favourite status in Kiev.
Natus Vincere have been very consistent since adding Denis "electronic" Sharipov, placing top four at all five events they have played, but they are still looking for their first $250,000+ title with this lineup—and their first title at all since a victorious debut at DreamHack Open Winter 2017, in December. Over the whole period, Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev has been on a godlike level, with electronic coming into his own only recently, at DreamHack Masters Marseille and the ESL Pro League S7 Finals, following some role shakeups in the Ukrainian-Russian side.
One of the teams that Natus Vincere will be looking to get revenge upon is mousesports, who stopped them from claiming the StarSeries i-League S4 title just a couple of months ago. The European mixture has not been as impressive recently as it was in February and March, when it claimed back-to-back tournament wins, but it remains a dangerous, well-rounded squad that can thrive at a tournament that doesn't feature some of the strongest teams. One of mousesports issues is that their home map, Mirage, once an impenetrable fortress, hasn't been that strong for them recently—something they will be hoping to fix before Kiev.
The first two teams have a longer track-record with their current rosters, have placed higher overall and won tournaments, but looking at the short-term form, Liquid look the best. The team's debut with Epitacio "TACO" de Melo in Marseille was a short and disappointing one, but with more time to practice with their new Brazilian, Liquid impressed at the ESL Pro League S7 Finals. In the end, their only losses came at the hands of Astralis, who beat them in the group decider and the grand final, while they 2-0'd both mousesports and Natus Vincere in the playoffs.
All three teams are serious contenders in Kiev, but even though Liquid may look like the obvious pick after the results in Dallas, at StarSeries the North American side will no longer have the surprise factor that a new squad can benefit from. The powerful s1mple - electronic duo can't be taken lightly, nor can the stacked mousesports roster—they have already shown that they can roll over teams if their players show up individually.
The three aforementioned teams are the main contenders for the StarSeries i-League S5 trophy, but a couple of big names are lurking in the dark horse category.
SK have been struggling massively in 2018, hitting rock bottom after losses to TYLOO and Grayhound saw them finish 13-16th at IEM Sydney, but hey have started to turn things around recently. At the ESL Pro League S7 Finals, SK only lost to Astralis and FaZe to earn a respectable 5-6th placing, and, more recently, edged out Gambit and beat AVANGAR to take the title at the small Adrenaline Cyber League tournament. Even though their run might not be that impressive when looking at the SK of old, the Brazilians might be invigorated by the tournament win and pull off something big this week in Kiev.
Another big name on the team list is NiP, who brought in Dennis "dennis" Edman earlier this year and instantly placed top six in Katowice. Since then, the Swedes have not been really active or impressive, with an early exit at the ESL Pro League S7 Finals—where they were swiftly eliminated by SK and OpTic—, putting additional pressure on the players coming into this event. Considering the opposition at the tournament, Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg and co. are expected to have a deep run at StarSeries, and maybe playing a bunch of BO3 matches is what sparks the fire and allows them to make deep tournament runs once again.
There are a couple of other teams that have an outside chance of going far, North are on the upswing after winning DreamHack Open Tours, HellRaisers have historically been capable of good results in Kiev, TYLOO's top four at IEM Sydney shouldn't be taken lightly, but lifting the trophy should still be out of reach for these teams.
Teams from the same country matching up always brings some additional spice to the game, and the stakes are even higher when the squads are openly vying for the number one spot in their homeland. StarSeries i-League S5's first-round matchup draw brought us no fewer than three domestic matchups, with probably the most exciting one being the Polish derby Virtus.pro - AGO.
The Polish Plow hasn't been working properly for some time, but, despite all the issues Filip "NEO" Kubski and co. have had, they have never been overtaken in the rankings by the challengers of AGO, who have faced growing pains of their own. The teams have met online three times, with AGO claiming all three victories and boasting a 6-1 map record, but those results were from back when Wiktor "TaZ" Wojtas was still a member of Virtus.pro, and an offline environment will be the real proving ground. The result of this BO3, as well as the final placings of the two sides, will give us a good idea of how the balance of power stands in the Polish scene.
The first round of the Swiss system will bring two more domestic matchups, as Gambit will take on AVANGAR and Liquid will face NRG. Ali "Jame" Djami's men were able to best the PGL Major Krakow winners in the CIS qualifier for this tournament and to outplace them at Adrenaline Cyber League, so they will surely be eager to prove their worth on LAN against a Gambit side who will be travelling to Kiev with Russian talent Nikolay "mir" Bityukov on trial and with Mihail "Dosia" Stolyarov back on in-game leader duties. On the other hand, the North American match looks like a more one-sided one. NRG have been dominant online this year, but their LAN appearances haven't been impressive enough to make Liquid worry about their opening match of the tournament.
There is the possibility that we will see the newly-formed VG.Flash play against TYLOO on LAN, which would be the first such match between the two Chinese powerhouses. TYLOO are playing with a stand-in at the moment, Yue "AE" Yu, but that should not lead to diminished interest in a potential Chinese showdown in Kiev.
With only a couple of elite teams and a Swiss BO3 system that will see a lot of matches played out, StarSeries i-League S5 is a tournament where an underdog breakout is set to happen. As IEM Sydney showed, when so many lower-ranked teams are given so many shots, one is bound to hit its mark—resulting in an upset.
It is almost certain that at least one team will greatly exceed what is expected of them at StarSeries i-League S5, putting the spotlight on themselves and generating excitement about their future "if they continue developing at the same pace", as people often say. But as we have seen, improvement rarely follows a steady line in Counter-Strike, and the underdog making waves in Kiev will most likely regress to the mean in the following weeks, and the hype will quickly fade.