PGL Major Stockholm preview: Contenders
Two days separate us from the kick-off of the first Major in two years. Here's the first of our three previews of PGL Major Stockholm, presenting the eight Contenders.
Out of the 16 teams participating in the opening Swiss stage of the PGL Major, eight come as the Contenders — two from the European RMR in Copenhagen Flames and FaZe, two from the CIS in Entropiq and Virtus.pro, and one from each of North America, South America, Asia, and Oceania: GODSENT, Sharks, TYLOO, and Renegades.
These eight teams will join the eight Challengers to play for qualification to the top 16 stage of the Major, where the eight Legends status teams await. As always with the Swiss format, a simple rule of threes applies: Three wins and you're through, three losses and you're out.
In the first of three previews we will release over the next few days, we present each of the eight Contender teams and their lineups, discussing the main storylines surrounding them and their outlook ahead of the Major, as well as the goals they set for themselves in a quick comment we got from each one:
* 'Majors played' refers to the top 16 stage
Håvard "rain" Nygaard (Majors played: 12)
Helvijs "broky" Saukants (Majors played: 0)
Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken (Majors played: 4)
Finn "karrigan" Andersen (Majors played: 13)
Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer (Majors played: 15)
Viacheslav "innersh1ne" Britvin (Majors played/coached: 0)
FaZe head into the PGL Major relieved that they have even made it to this point after having had little success in the first RMR event at Flashpoint 3 and a shaky showing in the second at IEM Fall. They only managed to advance to Stockholm after the IEM group stage saw them suffer a key loss to Fiend and have to play through tiebreaker matches to lock in the 11th spot through the European RMR standings.
The final RMR result added on to what appears to be an uninspiring track record as of late from the European mix, but on closer inspection things look far from as concerning when it comes to FaZe's chances to go far at the upcoming Major. Yes, the loss to the Bulgarian side was a cause for worry when combined with wins against SKADE and DBL PONEY that were far too close for comfort, but when it comes to matches against the more known quantities, the team has been performing exceptionally well ever since FaZe had their massive resurgence at IEM Cologne at the beginning of July.
Despite being unable to go far at tournaments like ESL Pro League Season 14 and at IEM Fall, karrigan and company have won 18 out of their last 27 matches dating back to the beginning of the Cologne event, with three of the nine losses coming at the hands of the best team in the world, Natus Vincere. A few hiccups aside in their losses to far less competitive opponents Fiend and Complexity, or in OG's comeback on Inferno at IEM Fall, that is a record that is difficult to argue with and warrants placing FaZe among the favorites in the Challengers stage and within chances of making it to the Avicii Arena.
"This is the best I've felt in a team leading up to a Major, so my only expectation is winning. Of course as a team we take things step by step, but there is nothing I want more than to bring a Major home to the legends I play beside."
Another significant advantage speaking in their favor not just in the Challengers stage but the whole Major is that they will be among the most experienced rosters in Stockholm. Boasting a combined total of 44 Majors attended across four of their players, the pressure won't get to them quite as easily as to so many other teams, who have multiple rookies among their ranks, some of whom will even be attending their first big LAN. Compounding that with rain's timely uptick in performance that has seen him become more of a consistent force and on occasion a third star for the team, FaZe look like a shoo-in for a good showing at PGL Major Stockholm.
Dzhami "Jame" Ali (Majors played: 2)
Alexey "Qikert" Golubev (Majors played: 2)
Timur "buster" Tulepov (Majors played: 2)
Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis (Majors played: 0)
Evgenii "FL1T" Lebedev (Majors played: 0)
Dastan "dastan" Akbayev (Majors played/coached: 2)
Virtus.pro are one of only two teams (Astralis being the other) who have changed lineups since the last Regional Major Ranking tournament at IEM Fall, enacting a switch many had only anticipated to happen after the Major, with former FORZE member FL1T coming in to replace Sanjar "SANJI" Kuliev for the Stockholm event.
Although the timing might have come as a surprise, it had been clear for a while that something was off with Virtus.pro and that changes would be on the horizon if their form didn't improve. The CIS side has looked far from the scary level they showed at the brink of 2020 and 2021 when they brought home three consecutive smaller titles and made it to the final at IEM Katowice, more recently falling short of similar deep runs time and time again.
There's no denying that SANJI was the player to cut from a performance standpoint and that FL1T will be a huge upgrade in firepower, but it's debatable whether the Uzbek player was the real problem plaguing the team in the first place. There's a lot to be said about Virtus.pro's playstyle and pacing being too predictable and one-dimensional as well, something their opponents have been able to adapt to in recent times, and it doesn't seem likely that the arrival of FL1T will have a great effect on the team's identity in such a short amount of time.
"The thing that is the most important for us is to play this Major in a way that we don't regret anything after it. This will be a new experience in some way for me, and some new experience for all of us, we had no Major for two years and we are glad that this is finally happening!"
"Imagine playing your first tournament with a new team and the tournament is the Major. I bet Evgeniy [FL1T] is hyped and so are we. We are thankful for SANJI work, but this is gonna be a new and I feel that a great chapter ahead of us."
As with all roster moves of a similar nature, when the player who most often makes sacrifices for the team is sent to the chopping block, FL1T's arrival could all too easily create clashes after Jame and company had previously always had a fall guy who would do their bidding. But just as easily, the significant firepower upgrade could be the thing that reinvigorates the team and propels them to the next level. Without having seen the new roster play, it's difficult to tell which one it'll be, but it's nonetheless going to be intriguing to watch Virtus.pro compete for the first time in the Challengers stage.
Copenhagen Flames (#14)
Rasmus "HooXi" Nielsen (Majors played: 0)
Nico "nicoodoz" Tamjidi (Majors played: 0)
Rasmus "Zyphon" Nordfoss (Majors played: 0)
Jakob "jabbi" Nygaard (Majors played: 0)
Fredrik "roeJ" Jørgensen (Majors played: 0)
Niels Christian "NaToSaphiX" Sillassen (Majors played: 0)
Daniel "dvorborg" Vorborg (Majors played/coached: 0)
Copenhagen Flames arrive in Stockholm as one of the biggest surprises to make it there. Only five months ago the core of this team was in its infancy, with the organization having decided to undergo a big overhaul again, building on a promising talent in jabbi by signing roeJ and HooXi from the disbanded MAD Lions lineup as well as former Astralis Talent player Zyphon.
The first few months went about as well as you could expect from a new lineup with some interesting talent, but it was after the world-experienced Faruk "pita" Pita arrived to coach the team in August that the Danes started to truly take off, picking up some key wins on the tier two scene to begin making a name for themselves.
Two months later at IEM Fall, a squad that had zero expectations of making it to the Major suddenly found themselves in a place where they not only qualified for the biggest tournament of their lives but did so in large part by going undefeated in a best-of-one group featuring some big names in G2, BIG, MOUZ, and FunPlus Phoenix, and went on to challenge Vitality over the course of a series.
"I think our expectations for the Major are higher than what people expect. We might be underdogs, but we know, and have shown, that we can beat anyone when we play well. We aren't set on a goal of reaching top X, but we just have the same focus as at IEM Fall: We need to give it our all in each game, don't think too much about the weight of the game, and just have the balls to make the plays that need to be made."
It has been an inspiring story so far, and it's still far from over. Although it would be hasty to expect to see the same level from Copenhagen Flames on a consistent basis going into the Major, especially now that other teams have realized that they are a legitimate threat and will make extra certain they're prepared for the matchup, the No. 3 side in Denmark have made it clear that they have the potential to pick up some upsets in Stockholm.
Igor "Forester" Bezotecheskiy (Majors played: 1)
Aleksei "El1an" Gusev (Majors played: 0)
Viktor "Lack1" Boldyrev (Majors played: 0)
Aleksei "NickelBack" Trofimov (Majors played: 0)
Vladislav "Krad" Kravchenko (Majors played: 1)
Egor "flamie" Vasilyev (Majors played: 12)
Dmitry "hooch" Bogdanov (Majors played/coached: 2)
Entropiq have been a stable presence on the European tier-two scene for months now, making it deep into tournaments like the Elisa Invitational and Malta Vibes Knockout series on a consistent basis and becoming a mainstay in the top 20 of the ranking. However, for all their success in tournaments featuring teams around or below their level, one thing still remains out of their reach so far; a deep run at a tier-one tournament.
The closest they have come to that was in their recent showing in the IEM Fall RMR, where El1an and company were competitive when facing teams such as Natus Vincere, Spirit, and Virtus.pro, with only a crushing loss to Gambit (in which they won just four rounds across a series) tainting an otherwise solid top-three finish among some serious competition.
Beyond that, however, Entropiq have been close to taking maps off some of the bigger teams like Ninjas in Pyjamas and Liquid when they had their first chance to play at the top level at ESL Pro League Season 14, but with a couple of narrow maps slipping through their fingers, the only wins they have picked up against top 20 teams outside of their region came against FURIA and ENCE.
"Of course for most on the team it's a new experience, but I think that the only problems that can happen are the ones in our heads. They can be caused by overestimating the importance of the event. Our goal is to reach the playoffs and to show ourselves to the world so that everyone hears about a team named Entropiq."
With that in consideration, Entropiq should be considered a middle of the pack team in the Challengers stage that will be somewhere on the brink of qualification for the top 16. For them to become anything more than that, El1an — previously a monstrous presence with the AWP and by far the team's brightest star — needs to step up again after falling off in recent times, so that he can pull his team over the finish line when they face some of the better teams in attendance.
Epitacio "TACO" de Melo (Majors played: 8)
João "felps" Vasconcellos (Majors played: 3)
Bruno "b4rtiN" Câmara (Majors played: 0)
Eduardo "dumau" Wolkmer (Majors played: 0)
Bruno "latto" Rebelatto (Majors played: 0)
Olavo "chucky" Napoleão (Majors played/coached: 0)
One of four Brazilian teams about to make an appearance in Stockholm, GODSENT have had an impressive run as of late. Though early days saw the TACO-led lineup struggle for results when they first started to compete in Europe at the beginning of 2021, the lineup around the two-time Major winner have found their stride at the best possible time.
A DreamHack Open September victory over in North America set off a successful streak for the Brazilian squad, who have since locked in a spot at IEM Winter by topping the NA closed qualifier over teams like Extra Salt and FURIA and guaranteed themselves Major qualification at IEM Fall, beating Liquid on the way to a runners-up finish.
A team without a primary AWPer, GODSENT have been interesting to follow during this run, as their approach to the sniper rifle — which any one of four players pick up depending on the situation — makes them stand out from the crowd. Albeit facing mostly North American competition, given their success as of late it doesn't look like it's been a real issue for them, and in fact it seems to be allowing for a lot of versatility in the roster instead.
"I believe if we play the way we played against Liquid for example at this RMR, I think we have chances to surprise and maybe get to the top 8. I don't know, anything can happen in my mind, to be honest. Of course, winning the whole thing would be maybe delusional (laughs), but I have to believe and I have to fight for it. But I think the goal that would make me satisfied and happy about it would be top 8. Being top 8 would be already 'my god, that's a dream for me.'"
An intriguing piece of this lineup is felps, who is thriving thanks to the freedom he is given in the role he has always seemingly been born for as somewhat of a loose cannon, unlike in MIBR and SK. With him at the forefront and the three youngsters in dumau, b4rtiN, and latto all having their moments shining for the team at times, GODSENT might just be a dark horse to look out for in the Challengers stage despite being among the least experienced against top competition as a team.
Liam "malta" Schembri (Majors played: 0)
Alistair "aliStair" Johnston (Majors played: 0)
Joshua "INS" Potter (Majors played: 0)
Jordan "Hatz" Bajic (Majors played: 0)
Simon "Sico" Williams (Majors played: 0)
David "Kingfisher" Kingsford (Majors played/coached: 0)
Coming from the Oceania region, Renegades were realistically always the only team playing Down Under that deserved the single Major spot on offer in their RMR series, as they have won quite literally every single tournament they played there since the pandemic began over the course of more than a year and a half.
The level of sheer dominance of INS's team in their home region has only been exacerbated by the fact that they were the only ones from their region to make the occasional trip to Europe for some of the biggest event on the calendar such as IEM Katowice, IEM Cologne, and ESL Pro League, further distancing themselves from their regional rivals on the back of the experiences.
Although Renegades had to give up on attending the latest season of Pro League because of travel restrictions in Australia, their showings from when they got the chance to compete against the world's best teams have been much better than you'd expect from a team who has been stuck in a far less competitive region for close to two years.
"There are definitely some huge names in the Challengers stage that we'll have to face, but it's really difficult to compare yourself to teams that have been at the top end of the game for so long. it's just an added pressure that's not necessary. We're confident and back ourselves. I believe as long as we play the Counter-Strike we know we have in us, we can make it to the Legends stage."
The last time the Aussies traveled to the Old Continent for IEM Cologne, they took home a series victory against OG and grabbed a map off eventual champions Natus Vincere. Given that opportunities like this come few and far between for them, those are some massive scalps that make them a legitimate threat in the Challengers stage and give them an edge over the likes of Sharks and TYLOO.
Jhonatan "jnt" Silva (Majors played: 0)
Fillipe "pancc" Martins (Majors played: 0)
Antonio "realz1n" Oliveira (Majors played: 0)
Romeu "zevy" Rocco (Majors played: 0)
Lucas "Lucaozy" Neves (Majors played: 0)
Hélder "coachi" Sancho (Majors played/coached: 0)
Coming as the winning team from the South American Regional Major Ranking, Sharks enter PGL Major Stockholm as one of the two biggest underdogs. Though the team has some experience from second to third-tier European competitions, they haven't had much success in them, often falling out of the early stages of tournaments such as Snow Sweet Snow and Pinnacle Cup.
Instead, most of the Brazilians' successes come from their home region, where they have consistently placed at the top, finishing runners-up at each of their three RMR events and winning DreamHack Open September while facing the other main teams competing in South America such as Bravos, MIBR and 9z on a consistent basis.
"Our goals are always focused on improving the processes. We'll start against MOUZ and we want to beat them and take it one step at a time. There are teams we feel our game plan works pretty well and some others that our playstyle does not fit that much, I think we can surprise a lot of the big teams if the draws are good to us in terms of fitting our playstyle, not really about how good the other team is.
We don't have any goal set in terms of getting out of first stage or second stage or winning the whole thing, we will play every opponent aiming to win."
For Sharks, this is an opportunity of a lifetime, the first outing at a tier-one competition for every member of the lineup bar the in-game leader and elder of the team, jnt, who is now in his fourth year of playing under the organization's banner. As such, expectations should be tempered for the lowest-ranked of the four Brazilian teams in attendance and directed more towards the team garnering some much-needed experience and some exposure from competing at a Major event.
YuLun "Summer" Cai (Majors played: 0)
HaoWen "somebody" Xu (Majors played: 1)
YuanZhang "Attacker" Sheng (Majors played: 0)
Zhenghao "DANK1NG" Lv (Majors played: 0)
Kelun "SLOWLY" Sun (Majors played: 0)
QiFang "Karsa" Su (Majors played/coached: 0)
Not quite in the same boat as Sharks but a huge underdog nonetheless, enter TYLOO: Asia's biggest hope and their best team for years. Much like Renegades who have mostly been stowed away over in Oceania, the Chinese squad haven't been able to get the same opportunities during the pandemic as they used to, and have remained in their region ever since they had their last European outing at ESL Pro League Season 11 a year and a half ago.
At the height of the team's abilities, a previous iteration of the current TYLOO lineup featuring the core of Summer, somebody, and Attacker used to be a tiresome opponent because of their aggressive and erratic style, and it took a top team off-guard here and there when the Chinese roster had the chance to play at the tier one events. And that identity hasn't much changed since then despite the fact that two players have.
However, barring the surprise factor, there is little else that speaks in TYLOO's favor. A team consistently competing against Asian opposition — which is in an even worse state these days than it was before the pandemic struck — for such a long time with zero exposure to the world's best will have a very difficult time facing most of the other Contenders and every Challenger.
Nonetheless, it'll be exciting to see the Chinese play after so long, especially after they've added two new names who we hadn't seen play outside of Asia before in DANK1NG and SLOWLY. Formerly from EHOME, the duo has seemingly integrated well with the long-standing core, with the former becoming one of TYLOO's best performers this year so far.