Five key storylines of ICE Challenge
The $250,000 ICE Challenge invitational is ahead of us, with eight teams set to compete in London from February 1-6. We took a look at the team list and analyzed the five key storylines from the event.
Last year's edition of the ICE Challenge saw just four teams battle it out, with North coming out on top over Natus Vincere in the final to win the lion's share of a $50,000 prize pool. This year, the tournament has been expanded and features a respectable team list with mousesports and Natus Vincere as the two headliners, with the prize money having been increased five-fold.
The tournament will feature a best-of-three GSL group stage, which will take place over the weekend, followed by an off day. Three teams from both groups will advance to the single-elimination playoffs, starting with the round-of-six and finishing with a best-of-five grand final.
The groups for the event look as follows:
Let's look at the five main storylines which we will be following as the event unfolds.
mousesports aiming to confirm elite status
Coming into the tournament as the second-highest ranked team in the world, mousesports are the overwhelming favorites for the ICE Challenge trophy. Their resurgence at the end of last year saw them leapfrog the likes of Liquid and Evil Geniuses in the rankings, and, to live up to their status, they should dominate the tournament in London.
The other teams in London will be no pushovers, however, and Finn "karrigan" Andersen's charges will need to show that their form didn't deteriorate during the player break. mousesports will be taking on Nicolai "HUNDEN" Petersen's MAD Lions in the opening match, and that is a team that has already upset them at a tournament that seemed to be theirs for the taking - the V4 Future Sports Festival last year. Even if an early loss were to happen, with three teams advancing to the playoffs and Heroic and Virtus.pro in their group, it is hard to see a way in which mousesports don't make a deep run in London.
Alongside the super-consistent Robin "ropz" Kool, the duo of Özgür "woxic" Eker and David "frozen" Čerňanský are expected to do a lot of damage at the event where the best opponent they could face is a recently shaken-up Natus Vincere. Barring a stellar debut from Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev and the boys, mousesports should be adding another trophy to their cabinet.
First look at new Na`Vi
After the removals of three veteran players in the last year — Ioann "Edward" Sukhariev, Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko, and now Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács —, Natus Vincere have landed on one of the youngest rosters in the tournament circuit (21.6 years), with Egor "flamie" Vasilyev being the oldest and most experienced player on the team.
That s1mple's return to the AWP will be successful is something we take for granted given his immense talent, but Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy remains a question mark. Will the ex-Syman player, who has almost no top-level experience, be out of his depth in Natus Vincere? And how will he fit in, role-wise, when there are quite a few similarities between him and flamie?
Coach Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy's primary focus right now should be figuring out those two things and finding out a way to make all of Natus Vincere's players as comfortable as possible. However, working on Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov's calling will be crucial as well, as the young leader needs more tutelage to develop into a person that could command this team to where it wants to be — the No.1 spot.
While Natus Vincere's group doesn't really look scary, all three of ENCE, OG, and GODSENT are hungry for results and are coming in better prepared than the CIS side. Whether or not that will be enough to outweigh the firepower of Natus Vincere remains to be seen.
ENCE vs. Aleksib: who was right?
Almost half a year has passed since the announcement was made, but ENCE's benching of their in-game leader Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen is still a hot topic. The Finnish side has since fallen down the ranks, making the team a target of significant criticism, with the fans of the young IGL aiming a lot of their frustration towards the new signing, Miikka "suNny" Kemppi.
A busy period without much practice resulted in a streak of terrible results for ENCE, who exited four tournaments in a row in the group stage. Their form picked up at the end of the year, when the team finished second at the CS:GO Asia Championship and 3rd-4th at the Champions Cup, but a false start to 2020 saw them fail to qualify for IEM Katowice.
While ENCE have fallen off from their early-2019 heights, Aleksib's new squad, OG, haven't displayed anything that proves they are better than his previous team. cs_summit 5 was a good warmup event where they showed some promise, but they too failed to qualify for Katowice, crashing out in the open bracket.
While realistically one BO3 (or even this event overall) can't be the judge of whether ENCE's move was right or wrong, the grudge match between ENCE and OG will certainly be considered a key point in this saga. A win for ENCE would help alleviate the pressure, while there is no doubt Aleksib would love to get some sweet revenge on his former teammates. The game kicks-off the tournament on Saturday, 11:00 , and it is surely going to be one for the history books.
The battle for Denmark continues
Ever since Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså left North at the start of October and they suffered a sharp decline, teams in Denmark have been vying for the title of the "best team in the country that isn't called Astralis". Heroic have been the closest to grabbing it but have lacked consistently good results or a big breakthrough to establish themselves as such. Their last trophy came at DreamHack Open Atlanta in November, with semi-final runs at EPICENTER and DreamHack Open Leipzig being respectable but not nearly inspiring enough to make fans forget the early exits at DreamHack Open Winter and at the ESL Pro League Season 10 Finals.
MAD Lions are Heroic's main domestic rival, with the two sides having faced off on numerous occasions. Most recently, it was HUNDEN's men who came out on top, both in the IEM Katowice Closed Qualifier — which resulted in MAD Lions earning a spot at the prestigious event — and at DreamHack Open Leipzig. Back when they were playing under Tricked, they also managed to take down some tier-one teams and secure a win at V4 Future Sports Festival, a higher peak than Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer's men have achieved in recent times.
Looking at the rankings, Heroic are still two spots ahead of MAD Lions, but another good result from HUNDEN's troops could bridge the 32-point gap and push them through. However, the low likelihood of either team grabbing the title in London means that the battle for the second spot in Denmark shouldn't be settled at this event.
Can Virtus.pro stop the rot?
Group stage exits at all five of their last events, with rock-bottom finishes at three of those, are more than a worrying sight for Virtus.pro.
The struggles started before the team even made the switch to the new organization, back at StarSeries i-League Season 8, when they were still representing AVANGAR. Since that event at the end of October (and not including the WESG Central Asia LAN), Dzhami "Jame" Ali's side have won only six maps and lost 16. At their first LAN of the year, DreamHack Open Leipzig, Virtus.pro averaged just 6.33 rounds per map, suffering disappointing defeats to BIG and Cloud9.
While it was unrealistic to expect this team to consistently reach the heights that they hit at the StarLadder Major, their poor form — which will see them drop out of the top 20 soon if nothing changes — is still hard to explain. After Leipzig, the team's coach Dastan "dastan" Akbayev was concerned with the direction in which they were heading, saying he has "no words or justifications" and that the team will be making "cardinal decisions after serious talks". What that entails is currently unclear, but some sort of a shakeup is necessary for the team to return to their old level. With their star trio of Jame, Alexey "Qikert" Golubev, and Timur "buster" Tulepov all underperforming, an uptick in form is needed - or changes will be inevitable.