Five key storylines of ESL One Cologne
Counter-Strike returns to the LANXESS Arena this week as the time for one of the game's most iconic tournaments—ESL One Cologne—has rolled around.
The German city played host to three CS:GO Majors from 2014-2016, but even without Valve's support, ESL One Cologne remains one of the most prestigious events in the circuit. Last year's stop was slightly overshadowed by the PGL Krakow Major that followed shortly behind, but still lived up to the expectations. This year, however, ESL One Cologne will serve as a closer to the first half of the year, as it is the last 16-team event to feature the best teams before the player break.
In total, 16 teams are competing at the event, with three squads from each eight-team group advancing to the playoffs, which will be held in the "Cathedral of Counter-Strike"—the LANXESS Arena. The group stage will be held on the first three days, with Friday-Sunday being reserved for action on the main stage.
Among the attendees of ESL Cologne are Astralis, FaZe, Natus Vincere, mousesports, Liquid and MIBR, making it the most competitive event since DreamHack Masters Marseille. The event in France marked the start of Astralis' dominance and the Danes will be looking to continue it in Germany, where they are the favorites for the title, but a number of teams will be aiming to dethrone Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander and co., giving us an interesting tournament to follow and talk about.
The Intel Grand Slam is within reach
With three different fifth players: Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer, Richard "Xizt" Landström, and Jorgen "cromen" Robertsen, FaZe won three Intel Grand Slam tournaments, putting themselves in touching distance of the $1,000,000 prize waiting for the first team to grab four Grand Slam trophies within ten tournaments played. It comes as a bit of a surprise that the international roster is the first team to reach three titles, as they were, for the most part, considered second to SK in 2017 and have been second to Astralis in 2018, with olofmeister's absence doing them no favors either.
Still, with a dominant showing at ESL One New York, an upset victory over Astralis at IEM Sydney and a triumph over mousesports at ESL One Belo Horizonte, FaZe have the chance to go down in history as the first team to win the main Intel Grand Slam prize. Not only would claiming it be a great achievement in itself, but it would also shake Astralis, who are looking to build their own era.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, to claim the Intel Grand Slam prize FaZe have to beat out a strong collection of teams at ESL One Cologne—with the aforementioned Danes being the biggest challenge—, and accomplishing all of that will be no easy task. Finn "karrigan" Andersen and co. have shown that they can come out on top in frenetic matchups, against teams with standins and fresh off a roster move, but dealing with Astralis, who haven't attended an event in a month, will be a different beast. As FaZe will be attending their third consecutive tournament with cromen, with whom they have had limited time to practice and mainly rely on basic teamplay, Danny "zonic" Sørensen's boys will surely know what to expect in the potential matchup, which will give them an additional upper hand.
Overall, Astralis are the favorites to take the title, not only based on their impeccable LAN performances since adding Emil "Magisk" Reif, but also because of the fact that they decided to skip events, giving them more freshness and additional drive to claim the trophy in Cologne. If they take the title by defeating FaZe in the grand final, it will be twice as rewarding: not only will they stop their rivals so close to the finish line, but they will also net an extra $100,000 Intel Grand Slam "killer bonus". An ESL One Cologne victory would also tie Astralis with FaZe at three IGS titles, giving them a chance to seal the deal after the player break, at DreamHack Masters Stockholm.
s1mple and Na`Vi are looking for their first Intel Grand Slam tournament victory
The Ukrainian-Russian squad have been on a steady upswing, which started with the addition of former FlipSid3 star Denis "electronic" Sharipov. The youngster struggled to live up to expectations at first, but has grown into a true second-star for Natus Vincere in 2018. The team, after a period of high finishes which lacked titles, managed to make the next step at the start of June, when they won StarSeries i-League S5, and lived up to the favorites tag at the CS:GO Asia Championship shortly afterwards, securing a second trophy.
Consistent top-four placings since November of last year and a couple of titles are something Natus Vincere can be happy about, but they have not been able to win a tournament featuring all of the top teams yet, or more specifically, a tournament featuring FaZe and Astralis—something that they surely want to change. ESL One Cologne could be that tournament for Natus Vincere, who have just become the longest standing roster in the top 10, something that should give them an edge over the average, ShuffleMania-affected team. And, of course, Natus Vincere stand out in another regard by having the current best player in the world: Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev.
Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko's squad has shown that they are capable of defeating the best on LAN, with victories over teams such as FaZe, Liquid and mousesports in the last couple of months. But for the Cologne title, and their first Intel Grand Slam point, they will most likely have to move past Astralis—their last victory over the Danes dates back to StarSeries i-League S4, in February.
Is Snax still hungry and is there enough place at the mouz table?
As competitive CS:GO has been around for over five years, we've seen a lot of organizations splash the cash on big signings, be it single players or whole teams. Some of them have lived up to the hype, some of them have not, but one of the teams not known as a big spender is mousesports. The Germany-based organization was the big dog locally, picking off players and whole cores off other German teams, but since their switch to an international roster, they had mostly looked for undiscovered and affordable players, which in the end earned them the nickname of a "Budget FaZe". The signing of Janusz "Snax" Pogorzelski, reportedly for a hefty buyout, is not just a small change in the way mousesports operate, but also a big risk.
Will the signing pay off? Snax, without a doubt, has a track record a few CS:GO players have, with a Major win and numerous trophies lifted with Virtus.pro, as well as plethora of individual accolades: finishing amongst the top 5 of HLTV.org Top 20 list from 2014-2016 and being #20 in 2017. But seeing his last twelve months in Virtus.pro, the question is if he still has what it takes to get back to the top.
A CS:GO circuit that is tougher than ever, adapting to new teammates after playing in Virtus.pro for such a long time and switching to English communication are all things that Snax will have to deal with now that he is in mousesports. Frustrations will arise and tough times will come, and the 24-year-old will have to prove that he still has the drive, enduring through all of it in order to get back to the peaks of his legendary sneaky-beaky plays.
Even if the Pole ticks all the boxes individually, we still need to see how he will fit into the mousesports squad. The team that came together after the PGL Krakow Major exceeded all expectations, picking up three titles and reaching the playoffs at 12 consecutive events. The team's stars Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný, Miikka "suNny" Kemppi and Robin "ropz" Kool surely deserve a big portion of the credit for it, but the trio was given a lot of freedom as Chris "chrisJ" de Jong and especially Martin "STYKO" Styk were happy to do the "dirty work" whenever it was needed.
Snax is no support player, and even if mousesports use him in similar roles and positions than the ones STYKO played, it's hard to expect Snax to play them the same way. The Pole is known for a high-risk, high-reward style, which will require adapting from the rest of mousesports. Almost anyone could be taking the hit for the team, chrisJ has dropped the AWP and picked up IGLing to help the squad, but it seems wrong to use him in a non-aggressive way. ropz is perhaps suited based on his slow, methodical playstyle, but meddling with him too much could have a strong negative impact considering how early he is in his career. Perhaps the addition of Snax is even aimed towards relying less on the enigmatic AWPer oskar, who has carried mousesports to wins but also gone missing at critical times.
FalleN and co. find stability with MIBR
It would be disingenuous to imply that the former SK team has been struggling in 2018 because of organizational issues, but friction between the players and SK, which happened during a tough transition from a fully-Brazilian roster to an English-speaking one, surely didn't help.
During their last couple of months in SK, the team didn't seem their usual selves. The debacle at WESG with Epitacio "TACO" de Melo was followed by more underwhelming results when Jake "Stewie2K" Yip came into the picture, but after scratching the surface, it seemed like the team was going through an experimental phase, figuring out what works and what doesn't. They went on to play almost every available event, even small ones such as Moche XL and Adrenaline Cyber League, while Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo forfeited the IGL role to focus on his individual game, which was also starting to become an issue. Since joining MIBR, the team seems to have a new level of focus. The 'Godfather of Brazilian CS' is back in charge as the IGL, no small events are in sight and they have even talked about adding a coach— a position that has remained vacant since Wilton "zews" Prado's departure.
With the long event tour ending with ESL One Belo Horizonte and the MIBR announcement event in São Paulo, the team had a couple of days at home to refresh and get ready for ESL One Cologne. Their bedrock is still Marcelo "coldzera" David, who has continued to put up big numbers throughout the ups and downs in 2018. He can certainly be relied upon to deliver the goods in Cologne as well.
MIBR will surely want to make a good impression while donning the black jerseys for the first time, and even more so considering the event takes place in the city their former organization is based. While winning the tournament doesn't seem like a reasonable expectation for MIBR at this moment, if they are able to just slightly improve on what we saw from them in Brazil, they are a good pick for dark horse status in Germany.
Swedish teams still looking for the winning combination
The Swedish flag has been a regular sight deep in the playoff brackets of tournaments throughout Counter-Strike history, but that sight is becoming a lot rarer these days. Long gone are the NiP and fnatic eras, with the two teams, while still the prides of the country, now limited to a couple of playoff outings and sporadic title wins.
In the most recent attempt to bring new life to the Swedish scene, fnatic added former Ninjas Xizt and William "draken" Sundin, while Jonas "Lekr0" Olofsson went the other way, joining NiP. The knock-on effect is that NiP have shifted towards a Liquid-esque no-primary-AWP roster, while fnatic now have not one, but two snipers.
NiP surely didn't wow the community at their first offline event with Lekr0, the CS:GO Asia Championships, where they finished 5-6th after a playoff defeat to TyLoo, but managed to achieve their main short-term goal last week—making it through the Europe Minor Closed Qualifier. That probably makes ESL One Cologne a less important event for Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund and co., who will be using it to drill the structured style they aim to have at the upcoming Minor in London.
On the other hand, fnatic will be debuting with draken as the main AWPer and Jesper "JW" Wecksell moving to a hybrid style of play. A drastic change like this was perhaps what was needed for Xizt to reinvent the squad, whose core has been together since 2014, with a short pause in the GODSENT period, and has become somewhat stale.