As the EPICENTER 2018 Wild Card Qualifier and the subsequent main tournament loom large, here are some of the key storylines going into the event in Moscow.
After moving to Saint Petersburg in 2017, EPICENTER returns to Moscow this year with an eight-team, $300,000 event. Before the tournament, however, the Wild Card Qualifier will be held, in which four teams will play a double-elimination playoff for two spots in the main competition. The qualifier will be played on October 22, and will then be followed by EPICENTER 2018's group stage, kicking off the following day.
This year's EPICENTER will feature two top 5 teams in Liquid (#2) and Natus Vincere (#3), two teams on the lower end of the top 10 in FaZe (#6) and NiP (#8), as well as some teams lower down the rankings like ENCE (#11) and AVANGAR (#27). The last two teams will be decided via the Wild Card Qualifier, featuring HellRaisers, Swole Patrol, 5POWER, and Virtus.pro.
The Wild Card Qualifier's first match-ups will be:
The two groups for EPICENTER 2018 are:
It has been three months since Natus Vincere won their last event, ESL One Cologne 2018, over the local dark horse BIG. Since then, the Ukrainian-Russian side has been unable to claim the title at any of the five events they have attended, but the solid final run at the Major, where they lost to the current kings, Astralis, has kept the alarm bells from ringing despite a 5-8th finish at DreamHack Masters Stockholm and a group stage exit at ESL One New York, an event mere days after FACEIT's showpiece competition.
The top-ranked team at the event will be Liquid, as Astralis pulled out of the tournament in Russia to give their players some time to rest. The North American squad took the second place in the rankings from Natus Vincere in the last update, but they did so with a lot of heartbreak, as they haven't been able to win a single event with the exception of cs_summit 2, the laid-back tournament played behind closed doors in California.
Liquid do, however, have a lot of high placings to their name, including a 3rd-4th place at the Major and a second place at ESL One New York, an event they looked set to win but were unable to as mousesports ended up edging them out in a five map grand final at the Barclays Center, in Brooklyn. With one of the youngest cores in top-flight Counter-Strike, Liquid will be hoping to break the seal soon and become champions instead of perpetual challengers, and EPICENTER could be that event for them just like it was for the likes of Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen, Emil "Magisk" Reif, and Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke when they won under the Dignitas banner, two years ago.
The field was supposed to be much tougher at EPICENTER 2018, as Astralis and mousesports were expected to play the tournament in Russia. Now, Liquid and Natus Vincere have a golden opportunity for a confidence boost. But as all tournaments for which big teams have big expectations, the fall can be just as hard if some of the underdogs are able to make deep runs.
FaZe have been unable to show the level of play expected of them since Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer’s return late last season. FaZe managed to make two quarter-final runs at the beginning of the season, first at DreamHack Masters Stockholm —where a win would have given them the Intel Grand Slam—, and then at FACEIT Major—where they at least maintained Legends status—, but then had two crushing BO3 losses at ESL One New York and went out in last place.
FaZe have been struggling to find their place among the top teams in an era dominated by Astralis, with the other two spots in the podium taken by Liquid and Natus Vincere. At the beginning of the season Finn "karrigan" Andersen & co. fell out of the top 5 for the first time in a year, and they now sit in sixth place, behind MIBR and mousesports.
At the Major, we saw the first seeds of conflict as Nikola "NiKo" Kovač took the reins to turn a 0-2 start in the Swiss group stage into a 3-2 record. The leadership then went back to karrigan for ESL One New York as the team agreed to play the whole tournament that way, but their two losses to NRG and G2 caused the hot potato to once again land in NiKo’s hands. Despite the leadership changes, the Bosnian player said that roster changes were unlikely, although with his raison d’être pulled away from karrigan, it is hard to think that the Dane is in a comfortable position ahead of the event in Moscow. With so much friction surrounding FaZe, EPICENTER will be a crucial event as the Sword of Damocles hangs over the team’s roster’s integrity.
One of the big talking points as the online leagues started after the FACEIT Major has been the poor start of NiP, going 4-12 in ESL Pro League and 3-5 in ECS. A bad start online isn’t the biggest of worries, as the Swedes made decent appearances at both the Major and BLAST Pro Series Istanbul, showing they still have it in them to play well and show up when it matters.
Back in September, NiP had their best run at a tournament this season when they reached the semi-finals at DreamHack Masters Stockholm, albeit through fairly easy match-ups. They beat NRG in a BO1 opener, won a BO3 winners’ match against Ghost, and progressed from the quarter-finals at the expense of Heroic before falling to Astralis. They then traveled to London to play the Major, where they breezed through the New Challengers Stage with a 3-0 record, including a multiple-overtime victory against Astralis. They then played five maps in the Swiss-style New Legends Stage, but were taken out by MIBR in a three-map decider. At BLAST Pro Series, the Ninjas took third place NiP as a 15-15 draw against MIBR ended up costing them a final appearance.
The Swedes, who are placed in Group B with AVANGAR, Liquid and one of the Wild Card teams, shouldn’t have issues making it out of the group stage as three of the four teams will make it through to the playoffs. It is therefore important for Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund, Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg, and the rest of the squad to hit the pavement in search of a deep tournament run that will drive off the ghost of bad online results and get the team feeling confident again.
ENCE started showing real signs of promise at ESL One Cologne, where they beat NiP and mousesports 2-0 before falling in the last round of the group stages to Natus Vincere. They then followed it up at DreamHack Montreal, only losing the final to Kinguin, another team on the up. The Finns are now fresh out of StarSeries i-League Season 6 in Kiev, an event that consolidated them as a contender for a coveted top 10 spot in the rankings, where they beat teams like TYLOO, OpTic, BIG and mousesports en route to lifting the trophy.
Having made it to the main event thanks to being the highest ranked team in the Wild Card qualifier, ENCE now have the opportunity to show what they are worth against the likes of Natus Vincere and FaZe, with whom they share a group in the opening stage of the event. In an interview in Kiev, Jere "sergej" Salo, the youngster who took the MVP medal at StarSeries, said he believes ENCE can make it into the top 10 and eventually fight for a top 5 position if they are they able to fix some of their mistakes. EPICENTER is going to be a great proving ground for the Finns, who will be pushed harder by stronger teams and will have their flaws exposed. If they do not cave under pressure, a good result in Russia could go far towards cementing their claim as one of the new contenders in Europe.
The big underdog to not have to play the Wild Card Qualifier is AVANGAR, who had made it to the Wild Card through the CIS qualifier but were then bumped up to the main tournament once mousesports backed out amid roster instability. As of late, AVANGAR have been on a tear, winning both online and offline against teams of their calibre. They won the MSI MGA tournament hosted at the Barclays Center during ESL One New York by beating Movistar Riders, eUnited, and compLexity, and then qualified for IEM Chicago, which they will be playing early next month, after beating teams like Gambit, Heroic, and ENCE. A golden opportunity could present itself in Moscow for AVANGAR as EPICENTER will feature a six-team playoff, meaning only one team from both groups will go out in the first round. Should the CIS side make it out of the groups, then the Russian event will offer them a considerable chunk of experience against top opposition.
Four teams will be playing a double-elimination bracket for a spot in EPICENTER's main tournament. The favourites to go through the upper bracket are HellRaisers, ranked 12th in the world, as they are miles ahead of any of the other teams. Kirill "ANGE1" Karasiow's troops will also be looking to get a strong start to the tournament as they attempt to get back on their feet after an unexpected group stage exit at StarSeries i-League Season 6, for which they had been regarded as title contenders.
The second of the EPICENTER 2018 slots given out at the Wild Card Qualifier will be much more contested. Virtus.pro and Swole Patrol are the two teams to watch, although there is no clear prediction to be made. The Poles have been on a downward slope in the rankings for months, and Jarosław "pashaBiceps" Jarząbkowski tweeting about statements regarding the team, old memories from the frag eXecutors days, and international teams leads to think that the Polish side are not as focused as they should be going into a tournament like this. Virtus.pro will be taking on 5POWER hoping for a repeat performance of the IEM Shanghai match, but chances are they will be sent to the lower bracket by HellRaisers if the two are to meet in the upper bracket final.
Swole Patrol will need to have all hands on deck if they want to make it through to the main event. The North American side have been making some progress since bringing on Edgar "MarKE" Jimenez and Braxton "swag" Pierce in July despite a few hiccups, but Virtus.pro—even in their state of total crisis— could still prove to be a tall order for them as the Poles are far more used to facing top opposition, both online and on LAN. Finally, 5POWER will come in as an enigma. The Chinese-Mongolian team will be looking to make an upset run in the qualifier, although with all matches being BO3 that seems rather unlikely. It will be interesting to see if the appointment of former wNv and TyLoo member Nan "Jewelry" Wang as coach will help to revitalise the team, who bowed out of the eXTREMESLAND Asia Finals in the quarter-finals after drawing the short straw in the former of Flash as they had placed first in their group ahead of tournament sensation NASR.