Five key storylines of IEM Katowice Play-In
With 16 teams looking to brawl their way to the main stage of the $1 million IEM Katowice, what are the crucial narratives fans should look out for?
The 2021 edition of IEM Katowice is the first one to feature a massive play-in tournament, which effectively makes the championship a two-week affair with a total of 24 teams in the competition. The coronavirus pandemic has stopped ESL from holding the event on LAN and in front of the Spodek arena crowd, with teams and fans contending with online action once more.
The IEM Katowice Play-In will see 16 teams from all over the world duke it out in a double-elimination bracket, where two wins are needed to secure a spot in the main event, and two losses will result in elimination. BIG, Virtus.pro, and Liquid are among the highest-ranked teams at the tournament, but with BO1 opening matches, a few hungry underdogs in attendance, and 11 squads within the top 20 battling for eight spots in the group stage, some big names will surely end the tournament disappointed.
The initial matchups of the tournament are as follows:
Without further ado, let's take a look at five key storylines of the IEM Katowice 2021 Play-In:
Can dexter make mousesports fans forget karrigan?
MOUZ have lost an iconic player, forcing them to fill the void with an exciting, yet unproven talent. This is a situation in which the German organisation has found itself multiple times in the past.
Selling Nikola "NiKo" Kovač to FaZe in 2017 spelled doom for MOUZ, but their next lineup, starring Robin "ropz" Kool, Miikka "suNny" Kemppi, and Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný, ended up being much better that NiKosports ever was. When the latter two players, as well as Martin "STYKO" Styk, were deemed surplus in 2019, the organization rebuilt around Finn "karrigan" Andersen, ropz, and Chris "chrisJ" de Jong, again lifting trophies and peaking at No.2 in the world rankings.
MOUZ have put the lineup in the hands of Christopher "dexter" Nong, an Australian in-game leader whose individual level has made him stand out, even though he has lacked the opportunity to play European opposition regularly. Over nearly four years with Grayhound and Renegades, his team constantly grew, going from top four in their region to No.16 in the world.
The rise was halted by the pandemic, which kept Renegades away from top-tier competition, but they still showed dominance in Oceania by winning nine consecutive events. dexter's 1.24 rating for the year, coupled with his team's respectable level, makes him a reasonable gamble for MOUZ, but filling the shoes of a legendary in-game leader will be no easy task.
dexter has to adapt to the European meta quickly and hit the ground running if he wants to earn the respect of his more accomplished teammates, especially as his inaugural match for MOUZ will be against none other than his old team, Renegades. The competition in Europe is tougher than ever, and a misstep in Katowice could be a hit to the team's confidence.
Spirit, Gambit look to join the elite
Is 2021 the year of CIS Counter-Strike? With Natus Vincere at the summit and Virtus.pro rounding out the top 5 in the world, things are already looking great. But Spirit and Gambit could make this year truly historic for the region.
Going back to 2020, Spirit displayed their potential by reaching the 13th place in the rankings, doing great in CIS Regional Major Ranking events, and contending against the best internationally in tournaments such as ESL Pro League. With Nikolay "mir" Bityukov rediscovering his Vega Squadron form and pushing the team forward, the Russian squad managed a couple of significant upsets but tapered off towards the end of the year.
A star AWPer like Abdul "degster" Gasanov was seemingly the missing piece in the team as Spirit won their first event with the former Espada player, DreamHack Open January. Victories over BIG and FunPlus Phoenix show that they are moving in the right direction, with IEM Katowice the tournament in which they can stake their claim as more than just a team with upset potential as they look to break into the top 10.
Gambit are in a similar situation, climbing out of obscurity in the second half of 2020 following an intense playing schedule, and entering the top 20 after acquiring Abay "Hobbit" Khasenov. With the Major winner providing experience to the young squad, they managed to earn a playoff berth in DreamHack Masters Winter, proving that they can transfer their play from lower-tier tournaments to the biggest ones.
With a number of new rosters and some teams in questionable form in the IEM Katowice Play-in, the two CIS sides have a strong opportunity to put their foot down and finally become a part of the elite.
Are Complexity and NIP truly back?
NIP started the year off slowly with a 5-8th place finish in cs_summit 7, beating only Dignitas while falling to Cloud9 and Virtus.pro, unable to win a map in either series against the CIS giants. After numerous early eliminations from events in late 2020, the middling run in the BTS tournament ended up prompting the removal of Simon "twist" Eliasson from the starting five.
To replace the outgoing player, the Swedes called up 17-year-old Erik "ztr" Gustafsson from their newly-minted farm team ahead of BLAST Premier Spring Groups, in which they were expected to tank out with the brand new and less experienced formation as they had been placed in a tough group with two top-five teams. But the Ninjas surprised everyone with clean sweeps against Astralis and BIG to secure a spot in the BLAST Premier Spring Final, and although they eventually fell to the German squad in their final series, they left the
door open to continue building upon their early success with the youngster.
Complexity had been on a similar run of poor form since late 2020, which got exacerbated when Valentin "poizon" Vasilev was sidelined for two months after undergoing emergency surgery. The international squad finished last in their three events with Otto "ottoNd" Sihvo and Jakob "JUGi" Hansen as stand-ins, but they immediately bucked the trend upon the Bulgarian AWPer’s return in the BLAST Premier Spring Groups, beating Vitality, G2 and Evil Geniuses to top Group B undefeated.
The revitalized NIP and Complexity squads will be eager to prove that their recent results are not just happenstance when they face off against each other in the first round of the IEM Katowice Play-In, with the winner of that match expected to be gunning against a red-hot Virtus.pro for a spot in the main competition.
Cloud9, MIBR feel the heat
The highly-hyped 'Colossus' is still figuring itself out while hovering around the No.20 position in the world rankings following a tumultuous first few months of existence that ended up with star AWPer Özgür "woxic" Eker and coach Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović departing the team. Despite the turbulence, the squad showed that they are ready to match their rivals punch for punch after signing the lauded North American youngster Erick "Xeppaa" Bach and Australian coach Chris "Elmapuddy" Tebbit, brawling their way through five three-map series in cs_summit 7, their only event of the year so far, in which they tallied wins against MIBR and NIP while suffering losses to FURIA and fnatic in what ended up being a quarter-final finish for the renewed quintet.
To qualify for IEM Katowice, Alex "ALEX" McMeekin’s men will have to step it up as they have been pitted against Spirit in the first round, a team that were ranked in their vicinity at the beginning of the year but who have since moved up to No.16 following the addition of rising star degster to the lineup.
Gustavo "yel" Knittel and company hold a 1-5 record after their first two events under the MIBR banner, finishing 9-10th place in cs_summit 7 and last in their BLAST Premier Spring group. Their sole victory came against a depleted FaZe in their last match before benching Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye, but not all of the Brazilian squad’s losses were hopeless as they have shown they are capable of taking maps from top teams like Heroic and Natus Vincere.
The former BOOM roster is still adapting to the difference between Brazil, where they smashed all opposition for a year, and Europe, according to chelo, but they will have to show an improved version if they want to have a shot at reaching the IEM Katowice main event, as taking a map here or there won’t suffice in one of the most stacked segments of the bracket, in which they will be fighting Liquid, fnatic and OG.
Liquid eager to bounce back from BLAST disappointment
Liquid took a beating from FaZe in their first match against former teammate Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken in the BLAST Premier Spring Groups. They then got a single victory against MIBR, but it was no consolation as they flopped out of Group C in third place after once again losing to FaZe, which means they will have to go through the BLAST Premier Spring Showdown. Despite the setback, the North American squad should be elated that their first IEM Katowice Play-In rivals are none other than MIBR, the team they flew past in the BLAST group stage (16-6 on Vertigo and 16-9 on Inferno), although they’ll have to be careful as rematches can give the underdog a leg up if they play their cards correctly.
Ranked fifth in the world, Liquid are favorites to make it through the bracket and clinch a spot in the main tournament, but match-ups against fnatic and OG can end up with disastrous results if Jake "Stewie2K" Yip's troops don’t tread lightly. Earlier victories against Natus Vincere and Evil Geniuses in the BLAST Premier Global Final are reassuring, but Liquid will have to make sure they don’t rest on their laurels in such a stacked segment of the bracket.
Looking ahead, a forthright qualification through the play-in would send a strong message that Liquid are back on track, and it could do wonders for the team’s morale ahead of the more competitive main event, especially after the high-profile signing of Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo at the beginning of the year, but an early elimination in the Play-in would cast doubt over the direction in which the team is moving.
Lucas Aznar Miles contributed to this story.