Six key storylines of IEM Sydney
As the third IEM event in Australia is almost upon us, we take a look at the 16 attending teams in search for the most interesting storylines of the tournament.
Outside of the two main CS:GO regions, Europe and North America, where tournaments such as ESL One Cologne and the ECS Finals are able to return year after year to the same location and bring a specific atmosphere, there are almost no recurring tournaments in the Counter-Strike circuit. IEM Sydney is an exception to that rule, as, for the third consecutive year, teams will be traveling to faraway Australia in hopes of lifting the trophy in the Qudos Bank Arena.
Even though some notable teams are missing—namely Astralis, Natus Vincere and ENCE—, the lively Aussie crowd won't be too disappointed by the attendees, especially as one of them is Renegades, the local favorites who head into the tournament in prime form and have never looked this dangerous before.
The full team list for the event is available below:
The 16-team event will take place over six days, the first three being reserved for the group stage, which will be played in the Bankstown Sports Club, while the last three days will be open to the audience in the Qudos Bank Arena. ESL didn't do any changes to their usual IEM format, with the teams split into two double-elimination groups. The best-placed team from both groups will advance to the semi-finals, while the second and the third-placed teams will be going to the first round of the playoffs.
The best teams will be looking to take the lion's share of the $250,000 prize pool and also claim an Intel Grand Slam point to equal the current tally of Astralis. Continue reading below for the six key storylines of the event, and for a more general discussion about the event, check out our panel's preview from the last episode of HLTV Confirmed.
Liquid with another shot at a big title
While inarguably being one of the three best teams of the last 12 months, Liquid's trophy cabinet is still devoid of an IEM plate or an ESL One cup, or any trophy from a truly premier event. While they broke the deadlock at two smaller events, SuperNova CS:GO Malta and iBUYPOWER Masters, old nightmares came back to haunt them at the last $250,000 event they played, BLAST Pro Series Miami, where didn't even put up a fight in the final against a FaZe team that is far from its prime.
You may not prescribe to the theory that Liquid are chokers, or that, after all the changes they made in the last three years, they still suffer from some of the same issues they had back in 2016—but their track record doesn't lie. Liquid have issues closing, and while they are on paper the favorites for the title, it is difficult to visualize them actually lifting the trophy.
For the team that finished second at their last two tournaments and cruised through their ESL Pro League group, a playoff berth is a given, even though they have shown some weakness on Cache and continue to permaban Train. But if they get to the grand final, that is where we can forget about what "should happen", as things come down to the intangibles. Putting it into perspective, while representing Liquid, Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski has played at 41 Big events and is yet to win a single one. Shaking off that kind of a negative streak is no easy task.
Can 'The Boys' become men?
Renegades were stuck in mediocrity for what seemed like for forever, but somehow began turning things around at the start of 2018, making the playoffs of a Big Event for the first time ever at StarSeries i-League Season 4. They then followed that up shortly by making the playoffs of IEM Sydney, to the jubilation of the local crowd.
Adding Jay "Liazz" Tregillgas and Sean "Gratisfaction" Kaiwai, two inexperienced players from the Oceanic region, and having Aaron "AZR" Ward take on the in-game leader role didn't seem like a move that could propel them further, but it ended up doing exactly that. First, they secured solid online results, qualifying for the LAN finals of both big leagues, and then impressed in the offline setting as well. Their most recent achievements read as follows: 5-6th at the ESL Pro League Finals, 5-8th at the IEM Katowice Major, 3-4th at StarSeries i-League Season 7. A consistently high level of performance unimaginable for an Australian side just a year ago.
Considering the aforementioned results and their high ranking (#7 at the moment), the expectations from Renegades are much higher than they were in 2018—as lifting the trophy is now actually in the realms of possibility. That will add pressure the Australian team didn't feel before, and it also must be taken into account that Renegades' visa issues have surely affected the quality of their practice over the last few months, which should be felt on their level of play. The two factors combined might be enough to push the team off balance and see their teamplay-based approach not work as well as it did over the last few months, when they were able to consistently punch above their weight.
Australian fans most likely won't have anyone else to cheer for in the Qudos Bank Arena, as Grayhound, who have just announced the trial of coach Neil "NeiL_M" Murphy, and the new Chiefs roster, don't look up to the task of making the playoffs quite yet.
Where do mouz stand?
Finn "karrigan" Andersen will have been at the helm of MOUZ for over a month-and-a-half by the time IEM Sydney kicks off, and yet we have only seen them play a total of 12 maps over the course of two online and three LAN series. That is why the European mixture will be one of the most exciting teams to watch Down Under, as the BO3-heavy format and a diverse set of opponents will put the squad to the test and give us a good idea of where they stand.
The roster, on paper, always looked like one that could swiftly climb their way up into the top 10, and that could easily happen post-Sydney, especially as the unknown factor will be working in their favor. We have only seen them play five out of the seven maps in the pool, with Train statistically being their best one with three wins, but perhaps their dominance on Mirage (16-5 vs. North, 16-4 vs. Vitality) and their affinity towards picking it implies that that will be their home map.
Analyzing the small sample size of matches, Robin "ropz" Kool is currently the highest fragger of the team with a 1.28 rating, David "frozen" Čerňanský, Özgür "woxic" Eker, and Chris "chrisJ" de Jong follow closely, while karrigan has also been able to hold his own. The Turkish AWPer is the most active and also most successful player in terms of finding openings, with his individual skill giving them a way to easily bully lower-tier teams into submission.
While they are currently ranked 21st in the world and have had minimal LAN experience with each other (or in frozen's case, at all), MOUZ have been a team long enough that they could do serious damage in Sydney, where some of the elite squads are missing, especially as they are led by karrigan: the Danish tactician is known for making dysfunctional teams find success in shorts spans of time.
MIBR are in the danger zone
Flashes of brilliance followed by periods of mediocrity and humiliation are what we have seen from MIBR ever since the squad was formed. After having some good games at BLAST Pro Series Miami, the Brazilians couldn't live up to the task at the ESL Pro League group stage, as a defeat to Luminosity saw them finish second. The other two BO3s, against Cloud9 and Envy, were convincing wins, though, but that is not enough for a team of this caliber.
MIBR desperately need some good results to break out of the negative trend they have been on ever since the IEM Katowice Major, and a big tournament with not so many great teams like IEM Sydney is a great place to start building their confidence back. The cornerstones of the team, Marcelo "coldzera" David, Fernando "fer" Alvarenga, and Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo, are showing they are still capable of performing well enough to contest for titles, and João "felps" Vasconcellos has been integrated better than last time, but with the lack of time to actually practice and prepare, it shouldn't surprise us if we see more of the same inconsistent performances from the Brazilians.
The question is if MIBR will make it out of the woods and into the less-busy part of the year, when they can practice and rebuild, or if the results will be bad enough that they will have to look towards roster changes ahead of the StarLadder Major, which is fast approaching.
FaZe look to build on Miami success
FaZe fans breathed a sigh of relief as they watched the team lift the trophy at BLAST Pro Series Miami, ending a trophyless period at Big Events that stretched back to EPICENTER 2018, in October. Just as impressive as the victory itself was the manner in which they dismantled hometown favourites Liquid in the final, with Håvard "rain" Nygaard showing flashes of his old self in that match.
The Norwegian star, the fourth best player in the world in 2017, seems to be returning to his prime form, and that is excellent news for FaZe. He was also the team's best performer in the ESL Pro League group stage, with a 1.40 rating, which suggests that the level he displayed in Florida was not a one-off and that Nikola "NiKo" Kovač can look towards his Norwegian partner in crime for some assistance in the fragging department when needed.
FaZe will have to do without Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev and NiKo when they take on Chiefs, but they should still have more than enough firepower to beat the Australian side. The Kazakhstani player has already secured his visa permit and, if the Bosnian talent is also able to make the trip, there is no reason why FaZe should not be considered one of the clear favorites for the title.
Squads on the fringe
A whole group of teams that will be playing at IEM Sydney can be placed in a fringe cluster as they are surely not favorites but are not clear underdogs, either. fnatic is the squad that is on the upper border of that as Richard "Xizt" Landström's men impressed by making it to the grand final of StarSeries i-League Season 7, but once again showed a lack of consistency by only placing third in their ESL Pro League group.
NRG is in a similar place, as the North Americans only narrowly lost to fnatic in the semis of the tournament in China, and are still to show us the full potential of the Tarik "tarik" Celik-powered roster. The raw talent of Ethan "Ethan" Arnold and Vincent "Brehze" Cayonte, or Freddy "KRIMZ" Johansson and Ludvig "Brollan" Brolin on the Swedish side, could see either of these squads break into the top places, but it is not a given considering their shaky track record.
A squad just below them is Ninjas in Pyjamas, who saw Dennis "dennis" Edman return and have his best tournament since ECS S6 Finals in November, but the team still had a poor showing at ESL Pro League Season 9, ending up last. The Ninjas can never be taken lightly and, here and there, still have tournaments where everything clicks, but are no more of a title contender than some of the up and coming teams sitting behind them in the ranks. One of them is Heroic, who will try to continue their good run under the leadership of Benjamin "blameF" Bremer, while a recovering BIG will also be a threat to many, although the fact they will be playing with Nikola "LEGIJA" Ninić instead of the visa-issue stricken Ismailcan "XANTARES" Dörtkardeş makes them significantly less exciting.