ESL Pro League S14 Group A preview
In the group of the fallen giants, who will pick themselves up and show greatness?
The end of the player break is finally approaching, and accompanying it the beginning of the ESL Pro League S14 group stage. What better way to get ourselves back in the right frame of mind for an elite CS:GO tournament than by previewing the teams coming into this event, and taking stock of some of the key questions that teams will be looking to answer coming into the second half of the year.
First up we have Group A, which kicks off Monday, August 16 at 13:30 and runs through until the last round of games which all start simultaneously on Friday, August 20 at 20:00 . The group stage for this tournament will be operating a best-of-three format, meaning we will have plenty of maps to see what form these teams are bringing after the break. Once everybody has played each other in one best-of-three, the top three teams will advance to the playoffs.
Group A is the group of fallen giants. Three of these cores have peaked at #1 in the HLTV rankings within the last 12 months, one team peaked at #6 this year, and one of the organisations previously housed a #2 team in the world. All of these teams are not at those heights right now.
Astralis and Heroic are both looking to use ESL Pro League to prove that the current iterations of the roster are truly elite, with the former having shown glimpses of resurgence before the break, whilst the latter seemed to be entering a worrying slide. Vitality have looked lost compared with the consistent top-two monster they were in 2020, but know they have a potential best-in-the-world candidate in Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, if they can just find a way to awaken that potential again. Spirit looked like a team who would ascend to giant status after a blistering start to the year, but have faltered since. ENCE, an organisation with a giant name, get their first shot at tier one since the previous ESL Pro League earlier in the year. Bad News Bears get their first shot at a proper tier one event period, in a group where upsets are not impossible.
Group A promises to be one of the toughest groups to call, with potential upsets aplenty and points to prove for everyone. Read on to see where we think each team sit right now after their showing in the first half of the year, and what we expect to see from them in this group.
Heroic: Genuine elite team, or flash in the pan?
Heroic are a team whose stock rose rapidly in the last 18 months, beginning from as low as #36 in May of 2020 to twice peaking as the world #1 in the same year, a genuinely meteoric rise. Whilst you might think this pedigree makes them a favourite for this tournament, some would suggest their peak ranking deserves a footnote attached as it came during the "online era" of CS:GO, that their form may be more of a flash in the pan than the appearance of a new titan of CS.
So far, 2021 seems to have justified those concerns overall. We have seen some incredible purple patches from the Danes, specifically a monstrous 12-series unbeaten streak that included an epic 3-2 series win over the world class Gambit squad to clinch the previous iteration of this tournament (a series that also gave us that unforgettable cadiaN clutch).
However, this run came sandwiched between stretches of underwhelming results; a run of 5-8th at Blast Premier Fall, 5-8th at Dreamhack Masters, 7-8th at IEM Global Challenge and 9-12th at IEM Katowice all lead to the removal of Johannes "b0RUP" Borup and Nikolaj "niko" Kristensen for Rasmus "sjuush" Beck and Ismail "refrezh" Ali. The previously mentioned 12-series streak followed, but we have seen disappointing showings at Flashpoint 3 and IEM Cologne since then, suggesting the honeymoon period truly is over. In fact, since Flashpoint 3, Heroic have played six series, losing four of them to Evil Geniuses, NIP, FaZe and Astralis. Their only wins have come over fellow Group A team Spirit and FURIA, and both are teams who would be considered some distance away from the absolute elite of CS:GO right now.
The player break seems to have come at a good time for Heroic, allowing them to step away after a low point in this squad's form to recharge and reinvigorate themselves. Now, here at ESL Pro League S14, we need to see Heroic give us an emphatic answer as to whether they truly are a team on the elite level. This is a group they are very much capable of winning; they have beaten Astralis, Vitality, and Spirit in series play already this year. Nothing less than advancing through this group should be considered acceptable. Can Heroic regularly produce performances like they did against Gambit in the final of the previous ESL Pro League, or will we see the slide in results continue toward another inevitable roster change? This tournament is our first chance to get some answers.
Astralis: The final months of a true juggernaut, or will Lucky revive them?
Astralis come into this tournament as a team in flux. They have just recently seen star player, face of the franchise and consistent top three player in the world Nicolai "device" Reedtz leave the team. Rumours are flying that Danny "zonic" Sørensen is looking to leave too, and may take players with him. Prospective replacement coach, Nicolai "HUNDEN" Petersen, has become embroiled in controversy over leaking strats and thus the team may be forced to turn elsewhere.
Not only has 2021 brought trouble off the server, it has also seen trouble on it. Underwhelming result after underwhelming result was the story of most of the first half of Astralis' year, culminating in a woeful 9-12th place finish at IEM Summer and slipping to #10 in the world rankings. This is only the second time in five years that this core has been ranked so low, with the other occasion being when Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth and Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander took time away from the team.
It is against this troubling backdrop that young Danish AWPer Philip "Lucky" Ewald has joined the team. One of the hottest prospects in the Danish scene, the 18-year-old has impressed as of late, averaging a 1.13 rating in 2021. It would be fair to say that the current Astralis situation is a tough one to arrive in with your first tier-one team; he replaces one of the best players of all time, in a difficult period of form for the team, where the expectations are world #1 or bust. On the other hand Astralis were in desperate need of an AWPer, and this was admitted by gla1ve himself just prior to IEM Cologne. Even if he improves the team simply by virtue of allowing Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen and gla1ve to leave the big green gun alone, Lucky's move will be a success.
At the last tournament before the break, IEM Cologne, gla1ve and co. had already made the new signing's job seem a little easier. They had conjured a mini-resurgence, scoring series wins over FaZe, Heroic and Virtus.pro on the way to a top-four finish. Their only losses came in three maps against both finalists Natus Vincere and G2, and they ran the latter close on the final map of that series, narrowly missing out on a grand final spot with a 16-14 loss on Inferno.
Astralis will feel that their IEM Cologne performance showed that they can still be a dangerous team, one that is on an upswing in results, and they will be quietly confident of getting themselves out of this group at ESL Pro League S14. The Cologne run included a 2-0 win over Heroic, the other favourite in the group, and teams like Spirit and Vitality are in worse form than them. gla1ve recently signing a new deal with the org will also help give a sense of stability to a roster whose future is still in question.
The big question for Astralis will be this: just how much is Lucky actually going to play at this ESL Pro League? It seems a lot to ask of an 18-year-old with no tier-one experience to slot straight into the team and perform as a primary AWPer, and for comparison Lucas "Bubzkji" Andersen was used only on specific maps when he joined the team as Astralis' first experiment with a six-man roster. However according to the Astralis Director of Sports, Kasper Hvidt, Lucky will be expected to "be an active part of the roster from day one". How big a part of it remains to be seen.
Will nagging doubts over the future of the team continue to plague them, or will Astralis power their way through this group and beyond to once again prove their longevity as a top team in CS? Either way, we may be looking at the beginning of a last hurrah for one of the greatest cores to ever grace this game.
Vitality: Will they stabilise and awaken the sleeping beast?
There are some interesting parallels between the recent fortunes of Vitality and another team in this group, Astralis. Like Astralis, Vitality came into 2021 looking good, sitting as the comfortable #2 team in the world. Both teams were operating with a six-man roster and both teams were home to a top-three player in the world, Vitality's ZywOo coming into the year off the back of taking the #1 spot on HLTV's top 20 of 2020. Both teams even suffered similar struggles early in the year. The French squad however most certainly do not come into this group as one of the favourites.
Whilst one can make excuses for Vitality, particularly the fact that Valve gutted the concept of a six-man roster earlier in the year (a concept that Vitality was easily making the best use of compared to the rest of the scene), cracks were already beginning to appear. Nabil "Nivera" Benrlitom was down from a 1.19 rating in 2020 to 0.93, against a backdrop of Vitality beginning the year with early exits at BLAST Spring Premier Groups and IEM Katowice as well as ZywOo not quite hitting the heights everyone knows he is capable of. By April, they slid as low as #13 in the world.
Not much improved for the Frenchmen until IEM Summer, where they scored a solid top-four finish amongst a field including teams like G2, Virtus.pro, Astralis, Heroic, and Spirit. The latter three all accompany Vitality in the group, and they outplaced them all at said tournament. By this point the boys in black and yellow had benched the underperforming Cédric "RpK" Guipouy for the relatively unknown Jayson "Kyojin" Nguyen Van and considering IEM Summer was only his third event with the team, they would have hoped this was a positive sign of things to come. An early exit from IEM Cologne at the hands of Natus Vincere and FaZe prevented any attempts to come into the player break on a high. A tough draw no doubt, facing the best team in the world in the form of Natus Vincere and a resurgent FaZe, but still a disappointing finish.
Coming into ESL Pro League S14, Vitality should be satisfied with seeing signs of improvement after a turbulent first half of the year. Their six-man roster had to be reshuffled, long-standing stalwart RpK was removed from the team, and they haven't quite been able to tease the best form out of ZywOo consistently. In fact ZywOo has had his only sub-1 rating since joining tier-one CS during this period, at BLAST Spring Showdown, posting a 0.83. If they can start to find a way to facilitate the beast that is ZywOo more consistently, and if Kyojin has consolidated the experience he gained before the player break, there is no reason to think that Vitality can't make it out of this group. Can they go much further? If the year so far is anything to go by, they will be hard pushed to do so.
Spirit: A new CIS powerhouse, or pretenders to the throne?
Spirit come into ESL Pro League as an interesting prospect. They are a team hailing from the CIS region that has attracted a considerable amount of hype for years, but it wasn't until 2021 that they really began to live up to that hype internationally.
Having hovered around the #20 spot in the world rankings for some time, the addition of Abdul "degster" Gasanov signalled a dramatic rise in fortunes; immediately after his addition in January, Spirit stormed to a victory at a Dreamhack Open featuring then world #4 BIG. They followed this impressive result with an even more unlikely run, finishing top-four at the stacked IEM Katowice, scoring series wins over G2, Heroic, and Astralis, outplacing teams like Natus Vincere and FaZe in the process. It seemed CS:GO had welcomed a new CIS team to the upper echelons, with Spirit rising to #6 in the world rankings.
Since then, the degster iteration of Spirit have struggled to live up to the early promise. A string of solid results at smaller tournaments like a win at Pinnacle Cup 2 comes mixed in with some disappointing early exits at events, the most recent of which saw them immediately dumped out of IEM Cologne in 13-16th place. In general Spirit have not threatened deep runs at tier one tournaments since Katowice, and that will be disappointing for a squad that looked so dangerous and showed so much promise earlier in the year. This patchy form has seen them slowly slip out of the world top 10.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Spirit have been unable to recapture the form of early in the year, and why they wouldn't be able do so in this event. They are a team that is most definitely more than the sum of its parts, and no single player can be easily singled out as the reason for their losses or wins; whilst degster and Nikolay "mir" Bityukov tend to do the bulk of the fragging, they can expect regular high-impact rounds from Viktor "sdy" Orudzhev and Boris "magixx" Vorobiev also. It could be suggested that a heavy schedule might be something that affected the squad, although their schedule is comparable to a team like Gambit, who have been far more consistent.
In any case Spirit will be hoping that the player break came at the right time for them, and that a rested team can use this ESL Pro League group to stake a claim as a solid top 10 contender. Whilst not quite the sleeping giants that other teams in this group can claim to be, they haven't awoken the fire that carried them to such impressive results at the start of 2021. They will hope to ignite that fire again here and may feel the supposed "favourites" in this group are right there for the taking.
ENCE: Can they take a rare chance to prove they belong in tier one?
The name, if not this specific roster, is a fallen giant. At one time, the name ENCE would automatically have been added to the list of pre-tournament favourites for an ESL Pro League. Now, the current iteration of the squad isn't even occupying a spot inside the top 20 and they find themselves rarely gracing anyone's predictions as a pre-tournament favourite.
The last tournament of this size for the ENCE squad was the previous ESL Pro League, where they made it out of their group at the expense of FaZe, MOUZ and Vitality. They immediately exited the playoffs at the hands of Virtus.pro. Other than this outing, we have not really had the opportunity to see ENCE at a tier-one event. Indeed, they have struggled to qualify for another tier-one event, with the qualifiers for Nordic Masters Blast, IEM Summer and Flashpoint 3 all bearing no fruit.
We have seen plenty of them at tier-two/three events, and the signs have not been particularly promising; they have regularly found themselves outplaced and beaten in series by teams like SKADE, Nordavind and HAVU. The latter of those three is an all-Finnish lineup counting Jani "Aerial" Jussila and Sami "xseveN" Laasanen among their number, members of the previous ENCE core which reached the dizzying heights of #2 in the world. There is a shred of irony in this, considering ENCE went international with their line-up following the collapse of that previous core.
ENCE can claim to have experienced some upheaval in that time, much like many of the other teams in this group, with star AWPer Aleksi "allu" Jalli being benched in May after three years with the org. This may buy the current roster some more time, the core of which has spent six months and over 100 maps together by now.
You would think that ESL Pro League S14 needs to be the start of an upturn in results for the international squad if they have any ambitions of even threatening to take a top 10 spot in the world by the end of the year. Unfortunately, making it out of this group will likely be a tough ask.
Bad News Bears: Will they make the most of the chance to impress?
NA CS is not what it once was. Huge organisations have been pulling out throughout the last 18 months, previously strong teams have struggled to find any form, and murmurs of a "dying scene" rumble throughout social media. The boys in Bad News Bears have used this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to rise to the top of NA, but now find themselves in desperate need of an organisation's support and resources to get to the next level.
The name Bad News Bears has been attached to several different rosters over the last couple of years, but one constant was always Peter "ptr" Gurney. The NA AWPer, whose experience in CS:GO extends back to 2015 when he was dragging CLG to map wins vs then top team in the world LDLC, founded the original Bad News Bears in early 2019. That roster was a mixture of fresh NA talent (we all remember that Tyson "TenZ" Ngo started in CS:GO, right?) and names that had been floating around the scene for a while, and they spent their days competing in qualifiers and smaller NA tournaments. That version of the team only lasted a handful of months, and the same was true of the iteration ptr put together in 2020. It wasn't until this year, when he linked up with Jonathan "Jonji" Carey, Gabe "Spongey" Greiner and Michael "Swisher" Schmid, that Bad News Bears seemed to find some stability.
That core has now spent the last six months farming tier-two/three events in NA, and have a litany of Cash Cup titles to their name. Whilst they have had precious few chances to test themselves against NA's very best, Liquid being the only top team they have played in an official match, they have generally traded series with the best of the rest in NA (teams like GODSENT, paiN and Extra Salt). It will be encouraging for Bad News Bears then that the only time they have played a top team in the form of Liquid, they ran them reasonably close in a three map series at cs_summit 8. It will be less encouraging that they were immediately sent crashing out of the tournament after that, losing 0-2 to EXTREMUM. They also struggled at the IEM Cologne play-in, the only other event they have attended with tier-one teams, crashing out in straight maps to MOUZ and LDLC.
Coming into ESL Pro League, expectations should realistically be modest for this roster. ptr has now left the team, they have only recently acquired a stand-in in the form of Paytyn "junior" Johnson on loan from FURIA, and they have virtually zero experience playing amongst fields of this calibre. Even with the recent addition of experienced NA IGL Alan "Shakezullah" Hardeman in place of the struggling Nick "alter" Jackson, Bad News Bears will be fighting an uphill battle. The problem for the boys in Bad News Bears is that right now, every tournament counts. They have said themselves that they are playing to try and find themselves an org, and there is only so long a roster can sustain itself on the money from Cash Cups and other smaller NA tournaments. Let's hope they can use ESL Pro League as a chance to impress, and get the support that they need.