Five key storylines of StarLadder Major New Challengers stage
As the StarLadder Major is about to kick off with the New Challengers stage, we have taken a look at the teams participating in the first phase and picked out five of the biggest storylines going into the prestigious event.
The first stage of the StarLadder Major packs 16 teams from a large variety of places ranking-wise, as it features big favorites in the likes of the world's No.2 team Vitality and a number of other top-ten sides such as NRG and FURIA, as well as massive underdogs on paper in several names currently ranked below the top-30.
All of them have gathered in Berlin to kick off 2019's second and last Major, which will see its first eight teams eliminated over the course of the next four days in the opening Swiss stage and eight progress to the New Legends stage to join the top-eight teams from IEM Katowice.
Let's take a better look at some of the participating teams and dive into five of the biggest storylines of the first stage of the StarLadder Major, set to start on Friday.
HellRaisers a huge question mark
While HellRaisers hasn't been able to dethrone Natus Vincere as the best CIS team and squads like mousesports and FaZe have always been a step ahead in terms of international rosters, there is no denying that Kirill "ANGE1" Karasiow's teams, both the CIS and the EU-based ones, have always at least been dangerous dark horses. That is backed by their rankings: ever since October 2015, HellRaisers have been a solid top 15-20 team, peaking at #7 with the Martin "STYKO" Styk-Patrik "Zero" Žúdel roster and #11 with the Özgür "woxic" Eker-Issa "ISSAA" Murad one.
Their streak of three years within the top30 was broken after the team's recent overhaul that saw Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný, Žygimantas "nukkye" Chmieliauskas, and Christian "loWel" Garcia Antoran join. On paper, it is a respectable roster, the players on the team are certainly more proven than the ones ANGE1 picked up in the past. However, maybe it is exactly the fact that the Ukrainian IGL was able to mold youngsters such as STYKO and woxic in the players he wanted them to be allowed HellRaisers to be successful in the past ?— because this lineup hasn't been doing great.
Four months have passed since HellRaisers finalized their roster with nukkye, and they have little to show for it. The well-fought loss against Liquid at ESL Pro League was a highlight for the European side, but in all honesty, that was more a display of oskar's individual capabilities than the strength of the lineup as a whole. Other than Pro League, HellRaisers attended just two small LANs, We Play! Forge of Masters S1 Finals, where they placed second to AVANGAR, and Good Game League 2019, where they exited the tournament in the group stage after two defeats to GamerLegion. They also played merely 25 maps online and had little success, finishing 5-6th or worse in qualifiers for ESL's Cologne, Chicago, and New York events.
Looking at HellRaisers' results, there is little that indicates they are a Major team. And, in all honesty, had they not taken advantage of the substitute rule to swap in nukkye for Bence "DeadFox" Böröcz (which allowed them to retain their Major spot with just two players that participated in IEM Katowice) they most likely wouldn't be competing in Berlin this week. While there is still some hope HellRaisers can accomplish something off the back of their strong individuals, none of them have been in hot form, with ISSAA in particular looking like a shadow of the player he was in 2018. HellRaisers's lack of outings at Big events make them a question mark in the eyes of many ahead of the Major, but it unlikely that they will be seen as a much better than their ranking implies after it.
G2, FURIA out to make a statement
The initial infatuation with the up-and-coming Brazilians has passed, FURIA has gone through a fast rise (DreamHack Masters Dallas, ECS S7 Finals) and a fast fall (Moche XL, ESL One Cologne) and are now looking to show where they really belong. Following the turbulent period, Andrei "arT" Piovezan and co. finished the first half of the year with two not extremely impressive, yet very important achievements: qualifying for ESL Pro League and making it through the Americas Minor in second place.
Opponents preparing for FURIA's trademark aggressive plays and countering them was an issue the Brazilians needed to deal when they skyrocketed in the rankings for the first time, but it is unlikely teams will pay the same level of attention to them at the Major, where your next opponent is harder to predict and the schedule is more packed. With that being said, FURIA also had the chance to add new things to their playbook during the break, as well as tweak their style a bit if they deemed that necessary.
A big change in their approach is not to be expected, however. FURIA have reached this point by playing their unique style, and after fending off multiple approaches for their players by MIBR, they will be looking to make it deep into the Major to prove that they are here to stay.
G2 had a trajectory similar to FURIA in recent months, although their lows and highs were slightly less evident. Seemingly out of nowhere, Richard "shox" Papillon's team finished second at the ESL Pro League Finals, and followed that up with a win at the Good Game League 2019 LAN and qualification for ESL One New York. What happened at IEM Chicago after that grounded them swiftly, though, as after losing a close game to Liquid, the Frenchmen were eliminated to MIBR who were playing with their coach.
Following the summer break, G2 are in a position where they need to prove that the peaks they have shown since adding François "AmaNEk" Delaunay are what they will be bringing to the table consistently moving forward. Pushing them forward is surely the success Vitality has been having as of late, with Kenny "kennyS" Schrub seemingly converting that additional motivation into frags on the server. The team's AWPer and the latest addition AmaNEk (who also deals with a lot of the tactical side of the game) are in inspired form. With the occasional shox masterclass bound to happen in Berlin, G2 could, after a long time, establish themselves as a top team again.
Are forZe the real deal?
One of the biggest talking points leading to the StarLadder Major surrounds forZe, who finally get a long-awaited chance to prove themselves at the highest level after disappointingly missing IEM Chicago last month on account of visa issues. The Russian team began making waves almost a year ago, when they almost reached the grand final at PLG Grand Slam, beating G2 and AVANGAR, and playing out a nail-biting three-map thriller against eventual champions fnatic.
Missing out on the CIS Minor leading to IEM Katowice was a painful experience for the Russians, but they bounced back by winning Copenhagen Games, which reassured them that they were on the right track. In terms of online play, they have acquitted themselves well in qualifiers, but they have either fallen at the final hurdle or been forced to skip events through no fault of their own.
The stage is now set for forZe to go up against the game’s best and brightest, and they are one of the teams that fans are most curious about heading into the New Challengers Stage. More often than not, there is a CIS team that goes on a deep run at Majors with their fun, unpredictable play style, and the StarLadder Major could be all about forZe, whom many regard as an insta-lock for the New Legends Stage. All eyes will be on Bogdan "xsepower" Chernikov, who boasts an impressive 1.19 career rating on LAN but has yet to attend a Big Event, He will have quite the baptism of fire as other teams will try to lock him down and limit his impact in the server.
mousesports keen to prove doubters wrong
It is hard to think what would have been of this mousesports team had they not made the Major, but such a scenario was on the cards when the team endured a slow start to their Europe Minor campaign. After losing their opening game against NoChance, Finn "karrigan" Andersen’s troops had to go the full distance against Sprout and Kevin "kRYSTAL" Amend’s side to make it out of the groups, and even though they redeemed themselves in the playoffs - taking down North and fnatic in convincing fashion -, it was impossible not to feel that it had been too close for comfort.
Such a bumpy road was hardly expected from a team that had gradually been rising through the ranks since their creation and had been hovering around the top 10 since May. And while they had not exactly punched above their weight at any of the tournaments they had attended, they had not been prone to upsets either, which is sometimes the case for new teams still trying to find their feet.
In most people's books, mousesports are one of the favourites to go through the New Challengers Stage, but they will need to avoid a repeat of the antics from the Minor group stage, in which they looked way off the pace, both individually and collectively, and a shadow of the team they have occasionally shown that they can be. An opening clash against forZe is hardly what they were looking for, but a loss here won’t be the end of the world. They will just need to keep their wits about them and make sure that David "frozen" Čerňanský won’t feel the pressure as he prepares to play his first Major.
Pressure mounting on North
It is now almost four months since the current North roster was established - following the arrival of Jakob "JUGi" Hansen - and we have yet to see more than glimpses of the team’s undeniable potential. With Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså taking over the in-game leader mantle, a slow start was to be expected, but the team exceeded expectations in a way by finishing top eight at Dreamhack Masters Dallas, only losing to Liquid and Vitality, two teams who are in a class above, and top four at the ECS Season 7 Finals, where they took down the French heavyweights before losing to a FURIA team that had not been figured out at the time.
But since then the road has been tough for the Danes. They began a steady decline by placing top 12 at the ESL Pro League Season 9 Finals, where they lost to a shaky FaZe team and to an MIBR side that was about to implode, and followed that up with another sub-par performance at the Minors. They were soundly beaten by three different teams in Berlin - fnatic in the groups then mousesports and CR4ZY in the playoffs -, and the Minor Play-In victory over MVP PK, the weakest of the four at this stage, was hardly impressive.
After qualification was secured, Nicklas "gade" Gade alluded to the fact that his team is still a work in progress, but the reality is that we are past the point of calling North a new team and their recent performances should be a cause for concern. Their deep-rooted problems remain unsolved and they often come up short in the fragging department despite Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye stepping up under valde’s leadership. At this point, making predictions about North’s chances is a daunting task: they should have enough in their arsenal to make it through to the New Legends Stage, but it would not be that big of a shock if they were one of the teams who crashed out in the first stage of the Major.