Winners and losers of StarSeries i-League Season 5
With Natus Vincere's victory in Ukraine behind us and the next big event just around the corner, it's time to take a good look at the tournament and examine who the winners and losers of StarSeries i-League Season 5 were.
As is usual for group stages, especially those in which you can lose three BO3s before getting eliminated, some of the biggest names at the tournament had a slow start in Kiev. SK were 16-1'd by VG.Flash in the opening map, but managed to take the series by squeaking out a win on Inferno and closing it out on Train, while Natus Vincere fell flat to TYLOO, who 2-0'd them at the start of the tournament.
As the group stage progressed, we saw the favorites getting into the groove of things, with most of them advancing to the playoffs in the end. The biggest positive surprise of the group stage was AGO, who not only made it to the arena, but did it with a 3-0 record, while Gambit were the unpleasant surprise, not claiming a single victory at the tournament with their new addition Nikolay "mir" Bityukov.
The first day of the playoffs, which took place in the Palace "Ukraine", featured four BO3s that all went three maps, resulting in a long, but exciting day of CS. The bracket did feel somewhat imbalanced, though, with four top 10 teams sitting on one side—MOUZ, Natus Vincere, SK and NIP—, and only Liquid on the other one. To make it more surprising, Liquid were knocked out early, losing to domestic competition in the form of NRG. In the end, NRG got to the final where they met Natus Vincere, but the North Americans were not able to contest the local heroes, with Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev and co. walking over them in two maps to claim Natus Vincere's first title in 2018.
Finally, Natus Vincere were able to convert an otherworldly performance from s1mple into a title, winning StarSeries i-League Season 5. Things didn't start perfectly, as an opening blunder against TYLOO and a group stage loss to MOUZ raised doubts about Natus Vincere's form, but just like champions often do, the Ukrainian-Russian squad looked better and better as the tournament went on.
Come playoffs, Natus Vincere were able to take down SK in three maps, fairly convincingly overall, before facing MOUZ in the semis. In a rematch of the StarSeries i-League Season 4 grand final, we saw MOUZ taking the first map, Inferno, comfortably, and looked on route to taking the series as clutches from Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný and Miikka "suNny" Kemppi combined with the second round pistol win gave the international team all the momentum they needed. However, a magical 2v5 won by Denis "electronic" Sharipov and Ioann "Edward" Sukhariev with just pistols turned the tide of the map around, allowing Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko' team to win Mirage and then claim the series on Nuke.
With the way the rest of the bracket played off, Natus Vincere did all of the heavy lifting before reaching the grand final, where they had to defeat NRG to take the StarSeries i-League S5 title—and they did it with no slip-ups. The match was controlled by Natus Vincere from start to finish and closed out 2-0, giving the Ukrainian organization their first trophy since DreamHack Open Winter 2017, as well a as their first ever $250,000+ title with this roster.
Overall, Natus Vincere's run since adding electronic can be seen as a successful one, as they displayed an impressive level of consistency in their placings, finishing at least top four at all six events they attended since adding the Russian to their ranks. However, there is still a feeling that with s1mple's form, that sees him boast a 1.38 LAN rating over the last three months, Natus Vincere should've won more tournaments, perhaps even ones featuring all of the top teams, unlike StarSeries i-League S5.
Earlier this year, NRG made a name for themselves by going on a tear in online leagues and qualifiers, earning spots at four LAN events and even outplacing teams like SK and Liquid to do so. However, at their first two offline events, IEM Sydney 2018 and ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals, the North American side didn't really impress, finishing 9-12th at both tournaments.
The start to StarSeries i-League Season 5 was no different, NRG went down 0-2 after uninspired performances against Liquid and North, but they managed to turn it around. It's impossible to know what ended up being the key to NRG showing up much improved from that point onwards, but in interviews, members of the team pointed out that Epitacio "TACO" de Melo's criticism, Chet "Chet" Singh's coaching and the series they lost against North all helped them change their approach to LAN play and improve massively over the course of the week.
Damian "daps" Steele and co.'s biggest feat must be the victory over Liquid, who were looking like one of the favorites for the title coming in, while beating North in the semis allowed them to reach a historic result for their organisation—reaching a grand final of a $250,000+ event. With NRG being such a "green" squad, both in terms of age and experience, this result will be a great foundation on which to build and most likely find more success in the coming months.
The Polish posse AGO came together mid-2017, breaking out a couple of months later as they qualified for the European Minor for the ELEAGUE Boston Major. Spearheaded by Dominik "GruBy" Swiderski and Damian "Furlan" Kislowski, AGO placed fourth at the event—narrowly missing out on a place at the Major Qualifier. Since then, AGO has made strides forward, earning a spot in the ESL Pro League and playing a number of smaller LAN events, but wasn't able to break into the higher tier of competition. Even at the smaller events, such as the StarLadder Invitational Chongqinq 2018 and the Qi Invitational, the Poles couldn't claim the titles, while at the same time struggling to earn a place at premier tournaments such as ESL One Katowice and DreamHack Masters Marseille.
AGO finally earned a chance to show how they play on LAN against the best by beating Heroic and North online and qualifying for StarSeries i-League Season 5. To open the event, AGO played no one else but Virtus.pro, their Polish rivals. With Michał "snatchie" Rudzki and Tomasz "phr" Wójcik leading the fragging for their side, AGO managed a 2-0 win in the first offline match between the two sides, and also leapfrogged Virtus.pro in the rankings the following day.
Taking the victory over Filip "NEO" Kubski and co., and at least temporarily, the title of the best Polish team, invigorated AGO and saw them pull off two impressive wins over the next two days. NIP fell to Furlan and co. in two maps, while MOUZ pulled of a massive comeback on Train but couldn't beat the Poles either, losing 2-1 in the end.
With a remarkable 3-0 record in the group stage and only one map dropped, AGO managed their first playoff outing at a big event, a step forward for the team. Unfortunately for them, their main man of the group stage, snatchie, wasn't able to continue performing at the same level in the quarter-final match against North and the Poles fell to Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen and co., 2-1. Despite an underwhelming showing against the Danes, the 20-year-old AWPer still ended the tournament as the second highest rated player overall, but he will need to find more consistency in playoff matches if AGO plan to build their game around him.
MSL's squad has been struggling to live up to expectations for so long, with their last roster changes which saw them snatch away Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye and promote Daniel "mertz" Mertz from the academy team not having paidgse off in the short term. At last, North managed to have a good result at DreamHack Open Tours two weeks ago, a tournament which had a fairly weak field of competition, but still showed that the Danish squad was moving forward.
A similar trend continued in Kiev last week, where North had some bright moments and earned a decent placing overall, but didn't show anything that would imply they are closing in on the elite teams or a top 5 world ranking—where they certainly aim to be.
Looking at their group stage, North did what was expected of them based on their current status; they beat NRG, HellRaisers and GODSENT, while losing to MOUZ and NIP, with one of the two losses being a fairly contested one. In the quarter finals, MSL and co. were fontrunning throughout the series against AGO, but struggled closing out maps, something that could end up being an issue for the squad moving forward. NRG, who, in all honestly, showed up looking much better than the first matches, were too much for North to handle in the semis, leaving them with a 3rd-4th finish in Ukraine. Summing it all up, StarSeries i-League S5 is a step in the right direction for North, but potentially still a too small one, considering the team's appetites.
Fresh off a notable second-place finish at the ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals, where they beat both MOUZ and Natus Vincere in BO3 series, Liquid was one of the main favorites to win StarSeries i-League Season 5. And it all started according to plan, Nick "nitr0" Cannella's squad handled NRG comfortably, didn't look threatened by GODSENT despite dropping a map and then played SK for a place in the playoffs and a perfect 3-0 record.
That's where problems started for Liquid, TACO struggled against his former teammates while on the other side Jake "Stewie2K" Yip shined for SK, resulting in a victory for Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo's side. Liquid then played AVANGAR and ended up losing Mirage, the same map they dropped to GODSENT, but Wilton "zews" Prado managed to rally the troops and Liquid secured a victory to advance to the playoffs, hoping for stronger showings on the stage.
The playoff draw saw Liquid land on the side bracket that seemed almost too good to be true, as, at that moment, no top 10 teams stood on their way to the grand final. However, instead of claiming at least another second place finish, Liquid would end 5-8th after being upset by NRG 2-1, with daps's forces blowing them out on both Nuke and Train, 16-6.
Losing against rivals in form of SK and underdogs such as NRG—with the latter being in such a dominant fashion—, combined with their weakness on Mirage against puggy teams such as AVANGAR and GODSENT, spells a bit of trouble for Liquid and shows that they still have some holes to fill before being able to contest for titles regularly.
The downwards spiral for last year's Major winners continues, as the IGL hot potato is passed back to Mihail "Dosia" Stolyarov and mir is added, on trial, in hopes of fixing the team's issues with more firepower. Moves like this often work in the short term, during the honeymoon period, but for Gambit, StarSeries i-League Season 5 was just more of the same issues.
Gambit were eliminated with a woeful 0-3 record, not even facing the favorites for the tournament but challengers such as AVANGAR, Virtus.pro and Renegades, winning only one map over the course of those three BO3s. Abay "Hobbit" Khasenov's 1.11 rating is a small positive, as the 24-year-old looks rejuvenated, following series of poor individual performances that came as a result of taking on the in-game leader role.
With a premier CIS talent such as mir slotting alongside Hobbit and Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev, Gambit have three very good players in their squad, and Rustem "mou" Telepov is far from a poor AWPer, albeit a somewhat inconsistent one. The core of those players alone, despite limited practice, should see them finish higher than the 14-16th place they earned last week. Things will probably look a bit better with time as this seems like the lowest Gambit can go, but the main issue, leadership, still seems like too big of a hindrance for Gambit's success.