ESL Pro League S14 Group B preview
One clear favourite, three play-off spots up for grabs. Who else will quickly find their feet and seize a spot in the knockout stage?
Group B joins group A in the "tough to call" category. With only G2 coming into this event seemingly at or near their peak performance, it will be a real dog fight amongst the rest of the teams to bag the other two qualification spots available.
G2 should be coming into this group supremely confident, the only team in such excellent form coming off the back of a grand-final run at IEM Cologne. In contrast, Virtus.pro may be lacking in confidence, with results slowly slipping as the year has gone on. Complexity come into this event not only with a new roster but also a stand-in; as such expectations will be tempered.
OG on the other hand have had time for their new roster to settle, and expectations will be set high. For forZe and Sinners this is our first chance to see them at a tier-one event, just this year for the former and at all for the latter. Both will find themselves firm underdogs in any series they play that isn't against each other, but both have upset potential.
Apart from G2 being locked in as favourites, everything else is up in the air with this group and it really does feel like anyone can beat anyone. Read on to see how each team have fared this year, and how they are looking coming into ESL Pro League S14.
G2 should be chomping at the bit with ESL Pro League just around the corner. They have only been getting better and better in 2021 and ended the first half of their year with a top-two finish at the stacked IEM Cologne; this saw them rise to their peak ranking with Nikola "NiKo" Kovač as part of the roster, #3 in the world. NiKo and Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač are firing on all cylinders, and the rest of the team have settled and found a solid balance of roles. Things are looking good for Nemanja "nexa" Isaković and the boys.
It took a little while for the new-look roster to settle after adding NiKo late in 2020. The immediate successes of BLAST Premier Fall and IEM Beijing-Haidan proved to be a false dawn, as coming into 2021 G2 put up a string of underwhelming performances culminating with a seventh-eighth place finish at IEM Katowice in February. This final result signalled changes in the roster, with the faltering AWPer Kenny "kennyS" Schrub removed in favour of Audric "JaCkz" Jug, who had previously been benched to make room for star man NiKo.
The difference was almost immediate. After using the previous iteration of ESL Pro League to bed in the JaCkz version of the team G2 immediately levelled up, placing in the top four at every event they have attended since and improving all the time. This has included series wins over the top teams of this period, including Heroic, Astralis, Gambit and Virtus.pro. In fact, the only team currently occupying the top 10 that they have failed to beat this year is Natus Vincere, whom nexa's men battled valiantly on all three maps of the grand final of that memorable IEM Cologne run.
Forget the group, G2 will be seriously eyeing the ESL Pro League trophy; they are in great form and the balance of roles and chemistry in the team looks excellent. They had just better hope that they have figured out a way to beat Natus Vincere, or that someone else takes care of the CIS superstars for them.
Virtus.pro are a difficult team to quantify, and therefore it is tough to set expectations for them in this group. At times this core have seemed like world beaters, and twice they have peaked at #3 in the world rankings. But they have never managed to stay there long and have also shown the propensity for some incredibly poor showings at tournaments. Inconsistent is probably the best way to describe Virtus.pro, and it has plagued them all year.
The CIS squad kicked off 2021 by winning cs_summit 7 and placing second at the huge IEM Katowice tournament. It looked like the start of a very fruitful year, but the form quickly dried up as Virtus.pro followed these placings with lacklustre performances at ESL Pro League and Funspark ULTI, the latter of which included series losses to forZe and HAVU. With this in mind, their IEM Katowice run deserves a closer look. Their second place finish was built upon wins vs NIP, Vitality, FURIA, Astralis and Liquid, and at the time this looked like a legitimate tournament run; Astralis and Vitality were at #2 and #3 in the world at the time, and Liquid #7. Since then, however, all of the teams on that list have struggled and have slipped down the rankings, so it might be fair in retrospect to reassess Virtus.pro's Katowice run as something less than spectacular.
The rest of 2021 hasn't been great, and Virtus.pro have generally been somewhere between inconsistent and subpar. They haven't had a decent run at a tournament (barring a top-two at the CIS-only EPIC League) and have regularly dropped series to sub-top-20 opposition: teams like Akuma, 100PG and forZe. Crashing out of the most recent CIS RMR event in last place late in June was a real low point for the squad.
Their most recent tournament appearance before the break, IEM Cologne, was the perfect microcosm of Virtus.pro as a team. They started off with a loss to BIG, a team far from Counter-Strike's elite right now, only to battle back through the lower bracket and defeat BIG to qualify for the playoffs. A quarterfinal matchup with Astralis beckoned, a team most certainly there for the taking having only recently removed Nicolai "device" Reedtz and struggling with an uncertain future. Virtus.pro could not manage it however, with two close maps going 1-1 before they capitulated on the final map Inferno, 8-16. Honestly, Virtus.pro's #5 ranking seems to flatter to deceive once you examine their form this year.
They have a chance with this ESL Pro League group to start to put some doubts to rest; G2 provide them with an opportunity to show form against a strong team, and OG and Complexity are the kind of squad they should be putting to bed comfortably if they want to stay at No. 5 or better. They absolutely must make it out of this group to continue to be considered a top team in the world.
There was a new sense of optimism and interest surrounding Complexity coming into ESL Pro League, as it will be their first tournament with new addition Patrick "es3tag" Hansen, who is joining up with his old captain from their Heroic days, Benjamin "blameF" Bremer. They have even added a new coach in the form of Luis "peacemaker" Tadeu, who also worked with both es3tag and blameF at Heroic. Whilst the supposed Juggernaut has never managed to live up to lofty expectations, fans of the team will be hopeful that es3tag can provide a more stable presence than the struggling William "RUSH" Wierzba did. They will need him and peacemaker to hit the ground running if Complexity want to recover what has been an unimpressive year.
Change was inevitable for a team that has managed no placing of note in 2021, with a win at their BLAST Spring group over Evil Geniuses, G2 and Vitality being the closest they have come to a top finish (no, winning a Spring Sweet Spring event with no top-10 team in attendance does not count). It is even difficult to find series wins against elite teams in Complexity's repertoire for 2021, the only such win coming against Natus Vincere at the previous ESL Pro League. They even have the unfortunate fact that they lost to the two favourites in this group, G2 and Virtus.pro, last time out at IEM Cologne hanging over them.
Complexity really have had a year to forget, and it will therefore be incredibly disappointing for them that their first chance with a revamped roster has been scuppered before it began, with Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke pulling out of ESL Pro League through injury. Niels Christian "NaToSaphiX" Sillassen is expected to step up to fill k0nfig's shoes, but it is not a great one-for-one swap considering the former has been an AWPer for most of his career. As such, Complexity would be forgiven for considering this event to be a free hit for the team, a chance to get es3tag embedded without too much pressure.
The additions of es3tag and peacemaker feel like they could be the final roll of the dice for Complexity, and the back half of 2021 could be the last chance for this core to justify the faith put in them by one of the few big NA-based organisations still putting money into the scene. This group offers them chances to start doing just that with Virtus.pro and OG looking very much beatable even if Complexity are playing with a stand-in. They will be hoping to at least show promising signs.
The OG core of Mateusz "mantuu" Wilczewski, Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså, and Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen, came together almost two years ago now to a considerable fanfare. Aleksib in particular was an incredibly hot property as a proven IGL, one whose kicking from ENCE had only served to illustrate how vital he was to that team. Joined by world class rifler valde and up and coming AWPer mantuu, OG's first venture into CS:GO was tipped for big things.
Somehow, it never quite came together for the original OG roster the way many predicted it would. A steady rise to #6 in the world over the year of 2020 suggested there was indeed some promise in this roster, and they ended that year with top-two placings at IEM New York and Flashpoint 2. Admittedly not among truly elite fields, but still the signs were good.
This year it very quickly came crashing down around their ears. After a quiet start to 2021, a fifth-eighth finish at cs_summit 7 and a win at the throwaway SteelSeries Invitational over FaZe, things turned sour. OG bombed out of both their BLAST Spring group and IEM Katowice without winning a single map, got knocked out of a Dreamhack Masters qualifier by world #107 VOYVODA, and limped to a 13-16th place finish at the previous ESL Pro League. This run as a whole proved too much for the squad to bear, with French veteran Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt and rifler Issa "ISSAA" Murad both removed from the team after IEM Katowice and ESL Pro League respectively. They were replaced by support rifler Nikolaj "niko" Kristensen, who made his way from a slumping Heroic, and Shahar "flameZ" Shushan, a young Israeli rifler who had been plying his trade with Endpoint.
The classic honeymoon effect took hold and things immediately improved. They first won Spring Sweet Spring 2 over then #8 in the world BIG, which served as a warmup for the new-look squad ahead of IEM Summer. They wildly outperformed all expectations at this event by making a deep run at the tournament all the way to the grand final, where they were bested by then world #1 Gambit. This was a solid showing from the team, even if they did manage to avoid any of the top four teams at the event until the grand final, a series win against Virtus.pro most certainly the highlight. Many would have thought this made OG a potential dark horse for a deep run at the biggest tournament of the year thus far, IEM Cologne. However, OG disappointingly failed to even qualify for the tournament, crashing out of the Play-in 2-0 to a Renegades squad barely flirting with a top-50 ranking at the time.
OG still have time to prove themselves with this roster, and ESL Pro League represents a perfect opportunity to start doing just that. flameZ now has a number of events and series against top teams under his belt, and both him and niko have had some tournament and practice time to settle into the squad. The balance of roles on the team looks better now, with mantuu and valde being provided more space to go and be the star players that OG need them to be to succeed on an elite level. flameZ has even put up surprisingly solid numbers for such a young player new to tier-one CS, posting an impressive 1.10 rating during their IEM Summer run. For OG, progressing in this group should be the aim, and they could even set their sights on beating both Virtus.pro and Complexity in this group; doing so would be a statement that their run at IEM Summer was more than just the pinnacle of a honeymoon phase for the team. Let us see if they can manage it.
forZe can count themselves lucky to even be at ESL Pro League. Having failed to qualify through the ESEA Premier season, they were only offered a reprieve due to Renegades being unable to attend the event. Had the Australians pulled out of the event earlier, it may not have even been forZe that got the callup, according to ESL's replacement rules. The Russian squad will be keen then to take advantage of the fortunate opportunity.
2021 has been a very solid, if unspectacular year for Andrey "Jerry" Mekhryakov and his squad. After a shaky end to 2020 carried over into this year, Bogdan "xsepower" Chernikov and Dmitriy "facecrack" Alekseyev found themselves benched and transfer-listed in favour of Aleksandr "zorte" Zagodyrenko and Aleksandr "KENSI" Gurkin. It took a few months for this roster to settle, but once it did, forZe began to show promise as one of the stronger tier-two teams.
April was the month where things really got going. They kicked things off at FunSpark ULTI, placing ahead of teams like Evil Geniuses, Complexity and Virtus.pro, the latter two of which they beat on their way to a top-four finish. They followed this up by winning a Spring Sweet Spring event with a solid field, beating Spirit and FURIA and also finishing ahead of fnatic. Interestingly, that field also included Sinners, who accompany forZe in this group. They topped off this mini-run by finishing third in ESEA Premier S37, during which they went an impressive 8-0 in best-of-three group play, featuring a 2-1 win over BIG.
Things have cooled off somewhat since that hot streak, but Jerry & co. still have still managed reasonable, if understated, success. Most importantly they accrued enough RMR points across EPIC League and the Starladder RMR event to put them on track to qualify for the Major, with only one qualifying event left to play. Not quite as important but still a positive is the fact forZe came into the player break on a high, winning six straight series only dropping one map to win Domination League, an event attended by solid tier-two opposition.
ESL Pro League will be an exciting proposition for a forZe squad that has seen precious little play against the very best in the world this year, and they should come into this particular group with quiet confidence. They have distinguished themselves at the top of the tier-two pile, if struggling somewhat for consistency, and have already beaten fellow group B denizens Sinners and Complexity in series play this year. Considering also that both Complexity and Virtus.pro come into this event lacking in form, forZe should very much feel that they can be the surprise package in this group and secure themselves a playoff berth. Keep your eyes on the forZe boys, they might just surprise us.
ESL Pro League will be Sinners' first opportunity to showcase themselves at a tier-one event. The current home of ex-MOUZ and HellRaisers star AWPer Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný, the Czech squad have been steadily improving all year, and it will be intriguing to see how they fare against a different class of opposition than they are used to.
The core of this roster has been together for over 18 months now, and they spent the first 10 months of that time achieving little of note. They were winning small Czech tournaments and establishing themselves as the best team in their country, but they failed to make any headway at stronger regional events or qualify for international ones. The culmination of this period was a poor showing at ESEA Advanced Season 35, which saw the team crash out in 13-16th place.
The real breakthrough for this squad came with the addition of oskar in late 2020. A top-20 player in the world in both 2017 and 2018, the AWPer would prove to be the extra firepower and leadership they needed to partner the emerging carry talent of Adam "NEOFRAG" Zouhar. "They played too random, they had some tactics, but it didn't connect well and didn't make sense, so I tried to establish a structure that I think works now," oskar mused in a recent interview with HLTV. That structure seemed to have an immediate effect, and results began to improve.
By the time ESEA Advanced Season 36 came around the team had settled into a rhythm, and they went on to finish third, a great success considering the previous seasons efforts. They had yet again managed to find some improvement by the time the promotion tournament arrived a few days later, and they advanced to ESEA Premier in straight maps. Mixed performances at smaller tournaments followed, but by the time their debut season in MDL was upon them, they showed yet another staggeringly improved performance; they won the whole thing outright, with a series win over BIG late in the season topping it all off.
Just by following their route to qualify for this event, it is easy to see the huge improvement Sinners have made in such a short space of time, barely six months with oskar on the roster. Such is their development that their world ranking has risen from #79 when oskar joined to a peak of #24. NEOFRAG attributes much of this rise to an improvement in their communication: "oskar has brought experience and given us more confidence. He helped us a lot with communication — at least me, because I always talked too much, and I've calmed down since he came into the team."
This ESL Pro League will be a fantastic chance for Sinners to see just how much they have really progressed. They still achieve mixed results in smaller events, a third-fourth place finish at Pinnacle Cup II just before the break a testament to this; they lost out to Endpoint in the semi-finals of that event, a team they really should be beating if they wish to continue their progress and become a tier-one team. They will hope that the MDL win will be the spark needed to push them to the next level, but this group will likely be a stretch too far for them.
The main stumbling block will be the precious little experience the squad has, outside of oskar, against teams of this calibre. If they are to take any upset wins in this group, it will likely be off the back of monster carry performances from oskar and NEOFRAG. "Our goal is to win as many matches as we can. We know how to play these teams [from practice], so if we stay calm, we'll have a chance to go through." oskar is confident. Let's see if that confidence is justified.