Five key storylines of EPICENTER 2019
The last Big Event of the year approaches as EPICENTER kicks off on Tuesday, so we have chosen the five biggest storylines going into the Russian tournament.
Although for a lot of teams the 2019 calendar is over, some of the world's best will still be at EPICENTER in Moscow including top-five representatives Evil Geniuses and mousesports, two more from the top-ten in Vitality and Natus Vincere, as well as some challengers in Virtus.pro, forZe, Heroic, and EHOME.
The $500,000 tournament will begin with a rather unusual GSL group stage as only the bottom sides will be sent packing. The group winners will go directly to the semi-finals, while the runners-up and the third-placed teams will be placed in the quarter-finals. The group distribution looks as follows:
Can mousesports beat the jet lag?
Although mousesports have been riding high for the last month, they will go up against additional challenges this time, as they have had to travel directly from the west coast of America because of cs_summit 5 to Russia with very little time to rest in between the tournaments. And, to make things even more difficult, Finn "karrigan" Andersen had to make a stop in Kiev to sort out his visa, prolonging his trip even further.
Having endured a busy month already, the relentless traveling and the hectic schedule are certain to take their toll on the players as mousesports are set to attend their fourth tournament in as many weeks in Moscow. As the only player who got some rest in this last week and didn't travel to the far edge of USA and back on account of visa issues, Özgür "woxic" Eker will have additional pressure on his shoulders to pick up the baton and attempt to balance the scales.
Having brought home three consecutive titles from the CS:GO Asia Championships, the ESL Pro League Season 10 Finals, and cs_summit 5, karrigan's squad are surely in consideration for their fourth trophy as the highest-ranked team of the competition. They have overcome big challenges so far, coming back from the brink of elimination against TYLOO in Shanghai and from a grim-looking decider against Astralis in Odense, as well as winning Summit without their biggest star and, at the very end, without the in-game leader as well. Can they do so again?
Vitality's best chance to win
Even though eyes will be on Evil Geniuses and mousesports as the biggest contenders for the title, or perhaps on Na`Vi as a team who has just come off a promising campaign at ESL Pro League Season 10 Finals, there is a fourth name who should be on that list despite a rather uninspiring track record as of late — Vitality.
It's fair to doubt the Frenchmen's ability to compete for titles with this lineup when they've only looked close to tournament-winning form once so far with Richard "shox" Papillon in a total of five trips. That was during their debut at DreamHack Masters Malmö, where they conceded a close grand final to fnatic. After that, they went out in 7th-8th place at StarSeries, in the semi-finals at IEM Beijing, and failed two winnable groups during ESL Pro League Europe.
But unlike the other big names present in Moscow, Vitality have had a month to themselves since their latest outing in the second stage of ESL Pro League, giving them the opportunity to iron out the kinks in their gameplay and prepare properly for EPICENTER, making this a much more important tournament for them than for the likes of mousesports and Evil Geniuses.
With big rivals skipping the event, EG slowing down as the year is coming to a close and mousesports being in a tough position due to all the traveling, the Russian tournament is by far the best chance Vitality have had to go really far and win since making changes back in September. With the Frenchmen boasting a promising track record against some of their main competition on top of that — albeit from months ago in the case of Na`Vi and mouz — EPICENTER is a great opportunity for Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut's side to get back to winning ways.
Virtus.pro and forZe battle for No.2 in the CIS
A competition within a competition will take place at EPICENTER, as the No.2 spot in the CIS region is up for grabs again as Virtus.pro have been on a steady decline since the run that saw them finish second at the StarLadder Major and win BLAST Pro Series Moscow, dropping to 15th in the rankings. They are now sitting on exactly the same number of points as forZe (138), who have been on a bit of a hot streak over the course of the last couple of weeks.
Extra motivated on the back of wins at DreamHack Open Winter, the MDL Europe Finals, and the ESEA Global Challenge, Andrey "Jerry" Mekhryakov's team will be looking to take Dzhami "Jame" Ali & co. down a peg on home soil as the two teams have been placed in the same group at EPICENTER, one that also features the two red-hot favourites for the title, Evil Geniuses and mousesports, which gives us a very real possibility of an extra-spicy elimination match between the rivals, who last met in the final of BLAST Pro Series Moscow, with the Kazakhstani side coming out on top.
Virtus.pro are heading into the last event of the year with some additional incentive to do well on their debut representing the brand and their massive CIS following, who will be certain to turn up in the Crocus Expo Hall to support the home organization should the white bears make it to the playoffs, upping the stakes for the potential CIS derby.
GuardiaN walking on thin ice
Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács heads into his final event of the year under a dark cloud after what has so far been a disappointing return to Natus Vincere. The Slovakian AWPer had already struggled for form during his last months in FaZe, and he has not been able to rediscover himself in the CIS team, leaving many to wonder if this is it for the 28-year-old — the only player to have featured in every top 20 of the year list in CS:GO.
Since joining Na`Vi, GuardiaN has averaged a team-low 0.98 rating and just 0.29 AWP frags per round. And it’s not because he is dying a lot; in fact, he has the second-lowest deaths per round ratio on the team in the last three months. He just isn’t finding kills or opening spaces on the maps, which is reflected in his Impact (0.84) and ADR (62.4), both of which are the lowest on the team, as well as in his opening kills per round ratio (0.09), which is only better than Egor "flamie" Vasilyev’s.
All this leaves GuardiaN in a very fragile position before EPICENTER, a tournament where, under normal circumstances, Natus Vincere would be one of the favourites for the title. But it has now been eight months since Na`Vi last reached a final or won a trophy, with the recent last-place finish at StarSeries i-League Season 8 also raising the spectre of another dreaded early elimination, this time on home soil.
We are now three months into GuardiaN’s second tenure with the squad and past the point where communication should still be an issue. EPICENTER will be the definitive test for GuardiaN, and another failure will likely see fans join renowned analyst Thoorin in asking for the Slovakian’s head.
EG's last chance to end the year on a high note
There have been quite a few bumps in the road for Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz’s side since the honeymoon period following the transition to Evil Geniuses came to an end. After the victories in New York and Belek - which still came either side of an early exit in Malmö - came a tough reality check as the team failed to impress in their Chinese outings and crashed out in the first round of the playoffs at both the ECS Season 8 Finals and the ESL Pro League Season 10 Finals.
The results in Arlington were encouraging, but the same cannot be said of what happened in Odense, the wounds from the 0-16 loss to mousesports on the decider map probably still stinging. However, when you factor in that Evil Geniuses have been one of the busiest teams on the circuit in recent months and that star player Vincent "Brehze" Cayonte's form has been erratic since Belek, it is not all that surprising that the North Americans had a hard time keeping their top-three status and moved down to fifth in the rankings before EPICENTER — their lowest placing in over three months.
With several big-name teams missing in Moscow, this is the perfect opportunity for Evil Geniuses to set the record straight and pick up some ranking points before their New York victory stops being considered as a recent achievement. Otherwise, they risk slipping even further once 2020 begins.