IEM Katowice: Biggest talking points so far
An action-packed week that saw 92 maps played across the play-in and group stage of IEM Katowice 2021 gave us a number of interesting results, highlights, and storylines. But what are the biggest talking points of the tournament so far?
Before the playoff stage kicks off on Friday 26 the with quarter-final matches - pitting Gambit against Natus Vincere, and Virtus.pro against Astralis - we explored the exciting prospect of CIS Counter-Strike in 2021, what is holding G2 back, whether or not Astralis are really using a six-man roster, OG's struggles, and how Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo has rejuvenated Liquid.
CIS teams are here to stay
Natus Vincere's presence in the final stage of IEM Katowice was highly expected, but the same cannot be said for Virtus.pro, Spirit, or Gambit. The CIS will be represented by four of the six teams in the playoffs, making this year's IEM Katowice a historic tournament for the region.
Coming out of nowhere and doing well at big events is nothing new for teams from the region. FlipSid3, Vega Squadron, and Quantum Bellator Fire practically built their reputation on such upsets. But this time, it's a different ball game. Not only have these teams made deeper runs, but they have done so at the same time and by outclassing their opponents.
Going into IEM Katowice, Natus Vincere were ranked first in the world, Virtus.pro were just inside the top five, Spirit were 16th, and Gambit were 19th. NAVI and VP were clearly on a higher level, but Spirit's DreamHack Open January win and Gambit's steady rise throughout 2020 had put the pair on everyone's radar and given their opponents enough demos to see what they are all about.
Unlike FlipSid3, Vega Squadron, and Quantum Bellator Fire, who were nowhere to be seen ahead of a Major, none of the CIS squads in IEM Katowice were out of the spotlight before their deep runs last week. Their opponents had no excuses not to prepare for them, no reason to underestimate them going into a match. There was no surprise factor, no secret preparation period that allowed Spirit to almost beat Astralis 16-0, Gambit to send G2 packing, or Virtus.pro to make a run through the lower bracket without a map lost against NIP, Vitality, and FURIA.
The teams' combination of great tactical ability and immense individual skill from players such as Dmitry "sh1ro" Sokolov, Abdul "degster" Gasanov, and Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis makes these three CIS sides threats that don't seem to be going away soon, joining a class that was previously exclusive to Natus Vincere. On Monday, Spirit climbed to seventh place in the world rankings, becoming the third CIS side in the top 10, and depending on the outcome of the playoffs, Gambit could increase that number to four after the tournament is concluded.
Will we ever see the G2 we were promised?
When they broke up the French core and introduced Balkan duo Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač and Nemanja "nexa" Isaković to the team back in 2019, G2's thinking was clear: With Vitality having snatched domestic prodigy Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, the only way to the top was through an international roster. The team reached the No.1 spot in the world at the start of the online era in 2020, and to continue to hit such heights, acquired arguably the biggest prodigy not called ZywOo or Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev - Nikola "NiKo" Kovač.
But with a five-time top 20 player of the year and the holder of seven MVP medals, G2 have come no closer to becoming that dominant, world-beating force they aim to be. Why?
Before anyone jumps to conclusions that NiKo's addition has made no difference at all, it is worth pointing out that G2 had an atrocious record in the final weeks before the roster change, winning just two of the 14 series played before the Bosnian's arrival at the end of October. With some good initial results, the French-Balkan mixture bounced back from No.13 in the world to No.7, but the performances since then have shown how far they still are from the goal of becoming an international powerhouse.
The individual form of G2's players is an apparent issue. Over the 49 maps that the lineup has played together, NiKo has averaged a respectable 1.15 rating, but the rest of the team hasn't been up to the task. huNter- sits on a 1.05 rating, but with strong performances at the last two events, IEM Katowice and BLAST Spring Groups, he looks to have left his poor period in the past. nexa (0.97 rating in the same period) and François "AmaNEk" Delaunay (0.96), have not impressed individually, but they aren't the sort of players who are judged primarily on the number of kills they put on the board.
What about Kenny "kennyS" Schrub then? The legendary sniper is barely outfragging the two support players on the side (1.02 rating), while he's also the second-least aggressive player on the team (17.6% opening kill attempts). In the period that he has played with NiKo and AmaNEk, he has had just one event that can be considered good, DreamHack Masters Winter in December (1.08), failing to go above a 1.01 rating in the other five. All these statistics put him way below the level you would expect from a world-class AWPer.
Astralis and the illusion of a six-man roster
The 22-year-old former MAD Lions player had impact when he arrived on the team, helping them reach the playoffs of ESL One Cologne, but since the return of Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander at the start of September, he has featured in just eight out of the 128 maps that the team have played. Even when we look at his total for the seven months in the black and red jersey, he has accrued just 16 maps, barely eclipsing what Niels Christian "NaToSaphiX" Sillassen had as a stand-in for Complexity last year (13 maps), or what Erik "ztr" Gustafsson has recorded for NIP in February alone (13 maps).
All of Bubzkji's recent showings came from one map, Nuke, where he replaced Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth and slotted in as the ramp player. Aside from some early success, the experiment didn't work well for him or the team, seeing them move away from their former home map. This year, Astralis haven't picked Nuke a single time, going so far as to ban it on multiple occasions. To make things worse, the last time they did play it, as mousesports' pick at the start of IEM Katowice, Bubzkji didn't feature.
While some will say Bubzkji's performances on Nuke justify him being slotted out (0.89 average rating, 50% winrate), if Astralis really had a six-man roster, wouldn't he be given a chance to show his worth somewhere else? Using an aggressive rifler as a replacement for Xyp9x is less than ideal anyway, so why not try him as a substitute for a different player on another map?
There is still a chance that Bubzkji could show up in the playoffs, but the likely scenario is that Astralis will stick to the five-man lineup on which their legacy has been built. It's hard to blame them for not putting someone like gla1ve, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen, or Emil "Magisk" Reif on the bench to make space for Bubzkji, but that is past the point.
With Vitality and Natus Vincere using their six players actively, Astralis can't continue down this road and pretend that they are doing the same. Either give Bubzkji more playing time or admit that he is a backup player who will get time exclusively when one of the main five wants to take a break.
Have OG reached their limit?
One of the longest-standing rosters in the top 30, OG have gone 14 months without a roster change - or a trophy win. What is next for the international squad?
Building a team from scratch is no easy task, and it doesn't take looking further than Cloud9's latest attempt to see how things can go so wrong, so fast. OG deserve praise for what they managed to achieve in their first year in Counter-Strike as they peaked at No.6 in the world rankings at the end of 2020 following second-place finishes in Flashpoint 2 and IEM New York, and a victory in their BLAST Premier Fall group.
But the team have fallen into another hole in 2021. A string of poor results, including a 5-8th place finish at cs_summit, only beating Dignitas, a last-place finish in the BLAST Premier Groups without a single map won, and an early exit from IEM Katowice, have sounded the alarm for OG.
Considering their peak happened when most teams were falling off due to end-of-year burnout and that, even in those conditions, OG weren't able to lift a trophy, the criticism levelled at the team seems valid. Competition has made moves and upgraded over the break, and getting into the top 10 again, let alone challenge for titles, is only getting harder.
In a recent episode of HLTV Confirmed, Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen admitted that he thinks their playbook is really deep and that "the only thing that it takes [for OG to reach the next level] is for us to get headshots". The team seem to have reached the limit of what this roster can offer, and if firepower is their biggest issue, upgrading that department should be one of the easiest tasks in Counter-Strike at the moment.
Vintage FalleN revitalizes Liquid
After an up-and-down start, FalleN and Liquid seem to have found common ground. The initial decision to keep the Brazilian veteran away from the in-game leader role came as a surprise to many, but he was handed the keys to the castle just two tournaments into his tenure following a disappointing team showing in the BLAST Premier Groups.
Initially, FalleN wasn't inspiring on an individual level, but since picking up the in-game leader role, he seems to have found his comfort zone again. Averaging a 1.07 rating across the Play-In and the group stage of IEM Katowice, all the while being very hard to kill (0.60 deaths per round), FalleN has been crucial to revitalizing Liquid.
The Brazilian played his best map on Nuke, one that he usually avoided with his teams in the past, posting an incredible 2.11 rating against FaZe. While he didn't flourish in the final match against Natus Vincere, his team managed to pull through and secure at minimum a top-four finish at the $1 million tournament.
The North American side have shown strength on maps such as Mirage, Vertigo and Nuke, and have been able to get the most out of their two stars, Keith "NAF" Markovic and Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski. If that trend continues and FalleN is still able to put up respectable numbers as the main sniper, Liquid could again be the dangerous squad we have been missing since the start of the online era.