Five key storylines of IEM Beijing 2019
Some of the world's best teams have already landed in Beijing, where they will be competing for the lion's share of a $250,000 prize pool and a spot at the first ESL Pro Tour Masters Championship, IEM Katowice 2020. The current top two ranked teams in the world, Evil Geniuses and Astralis, headline the list of participants for the event, which includes BLAST Pro Series Copenhagen champions FaZe, as well as Vitality, ENCE, 100 Thieves, and the local duo of ViCi and TYLOO.
IEM Beijing will feature two groups of four playing a GSL-style bracket, with all matches being played in a best-of-three format. These are to be played during the first two days of the event, November 7-8, before the single-elimination, best-of-three playoffs begin on Saturday, November 9, at the Beijing University Students' Gymnasium. The best-of-five grand final will be played on Sunday, earning the victor $125,000, a ticket to IEM Katowice 2020 and a point in the Intel Grand Slam Season 3 race.
Astralis and Evil Geniuses fight to be top dog
Liquid and Astralis shared the top spot in the world rankings for the past year and a half, with the Danes dominating most of 2018 and Liquid taking over the first half of 2019. Liquid started to struggle after the player break and Astralis found their way back to the peak during the first few weeks of October, but Evil Geniuses have now come out of left field with victories at ESL One New York and StarSeries i-League Season 8, propelling them past both their domestic rivals and the Danish stars.
The tournament in Beijing will have several absentees, most notably Liquid, who pulled out of the event citing a dense schedule, with the team slated to play at the finals of ECS, ESL Pro League and BLAST Pro Series before the end of the year. Another team that will not be present in China will be fnatic, whose summer transfers are paying off as they slid past Liquid to take the third place in the ranking thanks to first and second-place finishes at DreamHack Masters Malmö and StarSeries i-League Season 8, respectively.
As the fight at the top tightens, with four squads within just over 300 points, the third and fourth teams in the world will be sorely missed, giving Astralis (who come off of a forgettable weekend on home soil at BLAST Pro Series Copenhagen) and Evil Geniuses a golden opportunity to set the pace in China as the season starts to wind down and teams make their final sprints ahead of the winter break. It will be especially important for the current top two, who are in direct competition for that No.1 spot, and although there are still plenty of tournaments to be played in a packed November and December, getting good momentum at IEM Beijing ahead of the different leagues’ finals could prove an invaluable asset.
Was FaZe's Copenhagen success a flash in the pan?
FaZe made headlines last weekend taking the BLAST Pro Series Copenhagen trophy and the $125,000 grand prize with best-of-one victories over the likes of Astralis, Natus Vincere and NiP, whom they also beat in the best-of-three grand final. It’s hard to get overly excited after five best-of-ones and one best-of-three, but FaZe have earned the chance to build on something and prove they can live up to the hype in a more competitive setting.
Janko "YNk" Paunović and his men had already won a BLAST Pro Series stop earlier this year, in Miami, with Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev and Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács on the team, but they were unable to capitalize on that result. After falling short on several occasions and making the changes that brought their current lineup together, featuring the additions of Marcelo "coldzera" David and Helvijs "broky" Saukants, FaZe will hope winning this BLAST Pro Series will be the beginning of a new chapter instead of a one-off victory. Early struggles, both on LAN and online, garnered the team some heat from fans, but this new roster now has a chance to mesh together and figure out a middle-ground in their understanding of the game, somewhere between coldzera’s passive approach and Nikola "NiKo" Kovač’s aggressive style, that can make them a consistent title contender. At a tournament with squads on different rungs of the competitive ladder and with best-of-threes on the card, FaZe will be able to find out exactly where they stand.
Having just regained a spot in the top 10, it will be important for FaZe to not only make deep runs in tournaments, but also show that they can face anyone and play competitive series, something that may not prove easy as Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer continues to settle into the AWP and broky finds his role playing around coldzera. FaZe will be facing Evil Geniuses in their opening series in China, and although they may not yet be able to take on the North Americans, they have a serious chance of making a deep run if they can keep up the form they showed in Copenhagen.
Where do Vitality and ENCE stand?
ENCE and Vitality bubbled up at a time in which there was a void in the circuit’s top echelons, hitting top 10 positions in the ranking in the first few months of 2019 and peaking at No.2 before dipping back down with the appearance of Evil Geniuses and the resurgences of Astralis and fnatic. The French team have managed to remain in the top 5, albeit quite far from the quartet ahead, in large part thanks to the stability that a superstar player like Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut can bring to the table. The Finns, on the other hand, have been carrying problems since changing their starting five, struggling to find their identity after letting Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen, their in-game leader, go in favor of more firepower.
As mentioned above, Vitality have fared better than ENCE since the beginning of the year and also since the roster changes this summer. Despite a good start to the season after the Major with a second place at DreamHack Malmö, a 7-8th place finish at the recent StarSeries i-League Season 8 wasn’t the best follow-up the French team could have hoped for with 0-2 losses to Renegades (now 100 Thieves), FURIA, and fnatic. A good showing in Beijing would go a long way as they will be hoping to climb back up the ladder amid a more competitive field, although just closing the gaps with the top sides could be enough to steer the team in the right direction for now. Set to face TYLOO in their opening encounter, Vitality are penciled in for the Group B winners’ match, but with FaZe and Evil Geniuses across the bracket they will have to bring their A-game just to make it to the playoffs.
ENCE are in a much more dire situation than Vitality, with a comparable albeit much more criticized roster move than the French team’s to begin with. Popular opinion was strongly against the removal of Aleksib after the Berlin Major, and mounting pressure has affected the top Finnish side, who have been unable to make it to the playoffs at any of the three events (one of them BLAST Pro Series Moscow, which they ended in fifth place) they have attended with Miikka "suNny" Kemppi. Down to No.14 in the world rankings, ENCE are hard-pressed to start finding results if they want to keep some of the cachet they won earlier in the year, and an eight-team tournament with several of the top teams in the world missing could be just the place for the Finns to show they still have what it takes to compete at the top.
Finding consistency: 100 Thieves’ top priority
100 Thieves will be eager to prove to their new owners that they are a force to be reckoned with, but whether they are able to bring that to terms is something that remains to be seen. The Australians have had their peaks this year but also their troughs, most of which came during a period in which Sean "Gratisfaction" Kaiwai was dealing with visa issues. After an impressive semi-final appearance at the StarLadder Major, they made another deep run at StarSeries i-League Season 8, though it could be argued that they were disappointed at failing to break on to the podium after losing to FURIA in the lower bracket final.
Justin "jks" Savage has confirmed time and time again to be the team’s stalwart, particularly in the fragging department, often showing a direct correlation between the numbers he puts up at an event and the final placing of the team. At StarSeries i-League Season 8, Gratisfaction proved key in many of the team’s map wins, and if he and Jay "Liazz" Tregillgas - who had been essential to the team's success at the Major - both find their best versions, 100 Thieves could finally break out of the cocoon and become a solid top-five side.
Little hope for the local teams
Two qualifiers were set up for IEM Beijing, one for Greater China and one for Asia. ViCi took the first one, beating teams like Invictus and 5POWER along the way, while TYLOO won the other one, taking revenge on Invictus—who had eliminated them from the earlier Greater China qualifier—in a best-of-five grand final.
Long gone are the days of a Chinese team being able to challenge the best western teams, as the last international events have shown that the strongest Asian sides have little to do on the biggest stage as things currently stand. At their last outings, TYLOO finished 13-16th at DreamHack Masters Malmö and 15-16th in the StarLadder Major’s New Challengers Stage, and while ViCi have been taking some of the glory at home as of late, their last international events ended with an underwhelming third place at the four-team MSI MGA Finals, in New York, and a 13-16th place all the way back in May, when they played at IEM Sydney.
Neither team has much of a chance in Beijing, where ViCi will open against Astralis, and TYLOO will have to go up against ZywOo and his team in their first match. Regardless of the outcome of those matches, every team they will face will be in or around the top 10 in the world, leagues ahead of them. With the tournament scrapping a best-of-one format even in the opening round, the prospect of a Chinese team pulling off an upset looks nigh on impossible.