Five key storylines of ESL Pro League Groups C and D
The last two ESL Pro League groups are set to kick off with the last six spots in the playoffs on the line.
The first two ESL Pro League groups are now in the rearview mirror, with Heroic topping Group A and securing a spot in the Play-in, which gives access to the semi-finals, while Complexity came in second and FunPlus Phoenix edged past OG on the final day of play to take the third and final spot in the bracket stage of the tournament.
In Group B it was Ninjas in Pyjamas who came in first and earned a berth in the Play-in, having ended the group stage with a 4-1 record. The Swedes were followed by ENCE and G2, two teams that had secured playoff spots ahead of the last matchday.
Group C kicks off on Friday with two CIS teams, Natus Vincere and Gambit, as the favorites to fight for the top spot in the group, although FURIA, who have had some time to accommodate Paytyn "junior" Johnson to the roster, will hope to go toe-to-toe with the top dogs to make the next phase of the tournament. Also fighting in the group will be Cloud9, who have had a lukewarm year so far, as well as two more Brazilian squads that will be looking to cause upsets, MIBR and TeamOne.
The last group, Group D, is the more competitive of the two, with three top-five teams in the form of Astralis, Liquid and Virtus.pro, who will be joined by Evil Geniuses, fnatic and Endpoint. Here are some of the storylines to keep an eye on as the last two groups are about to start:
Gambit, VP look to cement their place among the elite
Gambit enjoyed a meteoric rise in February, becoming the surprise champions of IEM Katowice after knocking out MOUZ, G2 and Heroic in the group stage as well as their three biggest regional rivals, Natus Vincere, Spirit and Virtus.pro, in the playoffs. Having jumped 15 spots in the rankings, the young Russian roster will no longer be seen as an underdog and will surely be watched closely by their rivals. The team has no lack of ambition after taking off, however, as Gambit CEO and interim coach Konstantin "groove" Pikiner says that the goal is "to establish ourselves in the top five" in 2021.
Luckily for Gambit, several upsets would have to take place for them not to make it out of the group stage, as they have been placed into the tamer Group C, where they will face only one other top-five side, Natus Vincere, and a field of teams outside of the top 10, which should at least allow them to make the playoffs of another important event, and perhaps even with a good seeding going into the knockout stages.
Virtus.pro have not made the same steep climb as Gambit as they were already slowly but surely making their way back to the top positions in the ranking after a fall in late 2020. Dastan "dastan" Akbayev’s men have now equaled their best position in the team ranking, No.3, this time off the back of a victory in cs_summit 7 and a grand final appearance in IEM Katowice, in which Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis had a stellar performance.
Now one of the hottest names going into ESL Pro League, Virtus.pro will have a harder time in the group stage than Gambit as they will be fighting two other top-five teams in Group D, Astralis and Liquid, who will be hungry to get revenge on Dzhami "Jame" Ali and company after falling to them in their previous clashes in IEM Katowice.
NAVI, Astralis out to impose their will
Natus Vincere and Astralis sit in the top two positions in the team ranking with fewer than 15 points separating the two squads, who have swapped positions at the top twice in the last month. The CIS and the Danish outfits headline their respective Pro League groups and will both be eager to hit the ground running to try and better their 5-6th place finishes from IEM Katowice.
Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy’s men will go first, in Group C, hoping to build on what has so far been a solid start to the year. They began 2021 by winning the title in the BLAST Premier Global Final, in which they lost to Liquid in the opening match before going on a tear and beating all opposition, including Astralis in the grand final, and they then followed it up with a 3-0 record in the BLAST Premier Spring Groups to secure a spot in the season finals.
Their IEM Katowice campaign began seamlessly as well, with two early wins against Virtus.pro and FURIA, but then they lost to Liquid in the final group stage match and were knocked out by Gambit in the quarter-finals. NAVI will be relishing the chance to take revenge on the young CIS team in the Pro League group stage when they face off on March 21.
Astralis started off the year with a second place in the aforementioned BLAST Premier Global Final but struggled in their next two tournaments, the first of which was the BLAST Premier Spring Groups, in which they suffered losses to Ninjas in Pyjamas and BIG. The Danes then had a similar run to that of Natus Vincere in IEM Katowice, in which they came in 5-6th place after losing the final group stage match to Spirit and their quarter-final bout to Virtus.pro, a team they will have a chance to get even with in Group D.
Astralis will have to go up against a stronger set of teams than Natus Vincere in the group stage as they will have to face two elite sides as well as a couple of teams that could turn up and surprise on any given day in fnatic and Evil Geniuses, with only Endpoint as the big underdogs. Despite that, the Danes are one of the top contenders to take Group D, if not the very favorites, and will be relying on their strong foundations to shine through in the round-robin stage to earn the right to compete in the Play-in for a spot in the tournament's semi-finals.
Can the North Americans show up big in Group D?
Evil Geniuses are coming into ESL Pro League with a new look after Ethan "Ethan" Arnold made a move to VALORANT and Owen "oBo" Schlatter was brought in to take his place. The 17-year-old had been without a team since departing Complexity during the previous season of Pro League last September, so his current form is unknown, but he had no lack of strong showings during his time with the Dallas-based organisation, and if he can play up to that standard it could go a long way in helping EG perform after they lost a star player.
Following a group stage exit in IEM Katowice, Evil Geniuses will be hoping that the new roster will be able to put forth a solid effort to be in the running to make the next stage of competition, although it will be a tall order as they share the group with three top-five teams, Astralis, Liquid and Virtus.pro.
Liquid, one of the three favourites to make it out of Group D alive, will have much to prove after a 3rd-4th place finish in DreamHack Open North America, a tournament they were meant to win but in which they went out in the semi-finals after a surprise defeat to paiN. That result does have a caveat as Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo had to play from Europe due to visa issues, and it is possible that the players simply weren't as focused during the small stateside event as they normally are when competing together from their training facility in Utrecht.
Be as it may, there are only two North American squads in ESL Pro League and they have both been placed in Group D, where they will have to prove themselves to make sure that the region is represented in the playoffs. Evil Geniuses will want to show up and give a good account of themselves after losing one of their longest-standing members, while Liquid will want to prove that their DreamHack Open disaster was just a bump in the road and that they are back in business to follow up on their IEM Katowice semi-final run with another strong showing on European soil.
Brazilians to brawl in Group C
FURIA, TeamOne and MIBR have all been seeded into Group C, but only Andrei "arT" Piovezan's side are tipped to contend for a playoff spot in a group that also has world No.1 Natus Vincere and IEM Katowice champions Gambit.
FURIA will be looking at ESL Pro League as a chance to pick up the pace in a year that has so far been quite slow for them as they finished cs_summit in 5-8th place and IEM Katowice in 7-8th. A bright note from the latter event was the incorporation of junior, who proved his worth in the team’s victories against Ninjas in Pyjamas and FaZe, showing that he can synergize with the Brazilian squad. Having now had more time to adjust after adding the North American sniper to their ranks, FURIA could prove to be an admirable opponent in the fight for a top-three finish in the group stage.
MIBR and TeamOne have had a rougher time in their European escapades, with no outstanding tournament placements to date, although out of the two, MIBR have managed to squeeze in a few upsets, taking a 2-1 win against FaZe in cs_summit 7 and a 2-0 success against fnatic in the IEM Katowice Play-In. Gustavo "yel" Knittel's side shouldn’t be written off, although they will be fighting against a field that is stronger on paper, with the exception of TeamOne, and the round-robin format tends to lessen the impact of upsets.
Will fnatic contend for a playoff spot ?
fnatic got off to a flying start right after signing Jack "Jackinho" Ström Mattsson at the beginning of the year, reaching the grand final in their first event, cs_summit 7. Even though the tournament wasn’t incredibly stacked, the Swedes still had to beat Complexity, OG, Cloud9 and Heroic to make it to the tournament decider, in which they lost to the red-hot Virtus.pro.
The big disappointment came in their following tournament, the IEM Katowice Play-In, in which the team fell to OG in the opening best-of-one before slipping big time in the lower bracket, losing a two-map series to MIBR without showing much brilliance. fnatic's fans will hope that the team have had enough time to work out some of their kinks in order to become a strong contestant in a group that should be tricky to navigate.