IEM Katowice preview: The underdogs
On the tenth anniversary of this historic event, HLTV brings you the first of three previews of IEM Katowice.
IEM Katowice is now upon us, the first major LAN event of 2022, and teams from around the world have gathered in Poland for the first true litmus test of the year, mere months ahead of the upcoming PGL Antwerp Major.
Not only is Katowice an important milestone for this calendar year, the event also celebrates its ten year anniversary with the 2022 edition, having become a central pillar of the Counter-Strike calendar.
With that being said, it's time for HLTV to look forward to the tournament and bring you a series of previews cataloguing the teams in attendance and giving the all-important context and storylines that a viewer needs to enjoy an event of this magnitude the right way.
Our previews will be split into three articles, the first two tackling eight of the play-in teams each, and the final one previewing the teams directly invited to the main event.
First up we have the underdogs, the bottom eight ranked teams featuring in the play-in, a double elimination bracket that serves as a chance for lesser ranked teams to duke it out with some of the world's best for a spot in the main event. Without further ado, read on for a preview of eight of the teams that will be seeking Katowice qualification through the play-in tournament.
Fire in the belly, or dying embers?
Copenhagen Flames were one of the breakout teams of 2021, busting into the consciousness of tier-one fans in spectacular fashion with a strong showing at IEM Fall to qualify for the Major, before going on to perform even better at the PGL Major Stockholm itself. This stellar run of form saw them crack a top ten ranking, peaking at #9, and caused major organisations like Complexity to sniff around the squad.
Since the Major, things haven't gone quite so well for the Danes. They ended last year with wildly inconsistent form, winning Malta Vibes Knockout Series 4 but struggling aside from this, losing to teams like GamerLegion, TTC and BLUEJAYS in disappointing finishes in ESEA Premier and two Funspark ULTI events.
The team has also started poorly in 2022, amidst the falling through of the potential Complexity deal, with their series record currently standing at 3-4 having suffered losses at the hands of teams like Akimbo and FORZE.
You would be forgiven for wondering if motivation has been an issue, that the team may be struggling to bring the same level to tier-two online events that they did to IEM Fall and the Major, and the collapse of the Complexity move may also be playing on the minds of the players. Either way, Flames need to start performing if they are to hang on to their spot in the top 20, and a return to the LAN environment may be the perfect remedy.
The seedlings have some growing to do
Sprout were experiencing steady growth throughout 2021, rising from #67 to #20 by the end of the year, only to have their lineup fall apart in the offseason; Kamil "KEi" Pietkun decided to return to the Polish scene, whilst star rifler Josef "faveN" Baumann was picked up by BIG.
The off-season rebuild saw young talents come into the roster, in the form of Luxembourgian talent Max "Marix" Kugener who had built a solid resume with German squad CCO, and Victor "Staehr" Staehr previously of OPAA; the latter joined his ex-IGL from OPAA Danny "BERRY" Krüger, who had transitioned to a coaching role with Sprout in November of last year.
The international roster has had a solid start to 2022, picking up some solid wins over teams like 1WIN and Dignitas, with the newcomers performing well, but losses to teams like K23, Eternal Fire and BLINK suggest they still have some work to do if they want to crack tier-one.
This play-in provides an important opportunity for such a young squad, but it probably comes a tad too early in their development to expect too much from them, despite their current #20 ranking. Expect them to be competitive but fall short of making the main event.
New blood, new heights?
ENCE experienced a similar trajectory to Copenhagen Flames in 2021, except they started their rise a little bit earlier with a playoff run at ESL Pro League S14. The team seemed to grow in confidence with this showing, and by the time IEM Fall came around they really hit their stride, securing a shock second place finish at this event. They carried this form into the PGL Stockholm Major Challengers Stage, securing themselves a spot in the main event in convincing fashion.
After the Major ENCE's year ended with a whimper, as they performed poorly at both DreamHack Open November and IEM Winter, failing to make the playoffs of either event. The culmination of a busy second half of the year saw them settle at #15 in the world rankings, having peaked as high as #7 in November.
2022 has seen ENCE bring in Pavle "Maden" Bošković for Joonas "doto" Forss, adding another aggressive rifler to the already confrontational system that they bring to the table. Should the Montenegrin be able to recapture the best form of his GODSENT and FunPlus Phoenix days, ENCE will be a very dangerous prospect coming into this year.
Seeing as the Katowice play-in will be the squad's debut with Maden it is tough to predict exactly how they will do, but at the very least they should be seriously contending for a spot in the main event.
Can the Spaniards tame their wild form?
Movistar Riders came together six months ago, after the previous roster featuring Owen "smooya" Butterfield broke apart, and they almost immediately made an impact on the international stage; they went on a strong run at IEM Fall to finish fifth and qualify for the Major, where they narrowly missed out on making the Legends Stage.
They ended last year hovering around the top-20 and achieving inconsistent results, underwhelming finishes at V4 Future Sports Festival balanced out by performances such as their successful ESL Conference campaign. They also affirmed their status as the strongest team in the Iberian scene during this time by winning ESL Masters Spain over SAW.
2022 began in disappointing fashion for Riders as they failed to make the playoffs of the recent ESL Challenger event, falling to underdogs 9z, who are currently sat at #46 in the world. They will be hoping to bounce back here in Katowice and find a consistency that has evaded them since their breakout performance at IEM Fall, or questions might set in about whether or not the roster has hit its ceiling.
Pride of Poland on the rise?
Wisla Krakow were a solid but entirely unspectacular tier-two team in 2021, generally dominating the Polish scene but struggling to make impressions amongst stronger fields in international events. This led to changes being made over the off-season, with Kamil "Sobol" Sobolewski and Michał "snatchie" Rudzki coming into the lineup.
The changes seem to have kicked Wisla on to the next level as 2022 has brought with it a marked improvement in results, with the team already matching their previous peak world ranking off the back of an impressive showing at Pinnacle Winter Series 1; they placed top-four at this event, beating MOUZ NXT and most impressively FURIA along the way.
This play-in comes at a perfect time for the Poles, as they are in a good run of form and have the chance to test the ceiling of their new roster. They will be an unknown quantity for many of the tier-one opposition in attendance and this fact will work to their advantage. Whilst facing Ninjas in Pyjamas is a tough ask in their opening game, even if the Swedes are fielding a stand-in, do not be surprised if Wisla make a good go of qualifying for the main event.
Stand-in? Pressure off
2021 was awful for MOUZ, bar the miraculous Flashpoint 3 win mid-way through the year. The lineup struggled to mesh, with Christopher "dexter" Nong and Frederik "acoR" Gyldstrand performing particularly poorly on an individual level, and they bombed out early at most of the events they attended.
Unsurprisingly this meant they could not hold on to their prize asset in the off-season, and Robin "ropz" Kool made his way over to FaZe. The German organisation sought to rebuild, also ditching acoR, and brought in French legend Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt and highly touted academy AWPer Ádám "torzsi" Torzsás. The lineup certainly seems to have taken a hit in terms of firepower, and a lot of pressure will be placed on the young trio of torzsi, David "frozen" Čerňanský and Aurimas "Bymas" Pipiras to get the heavy lifting done.
Despite losing one of the best players in the world, there is still a realm of possibility in which this version of MOUZ can outperform last year's roster, even if that is setting the bar fairly low. The balance of roles seems good on paper, and if NBK- can provide some of the leadership that was lacking in 2021, there is no reason to think that frozen and torzsi can't provide the fragging needed.
Unfortunately for the international squad they will be attending Katowice without their full lineup, with academy player Jon "JDC" de Castro replacing the COVID-hit Bymas. A tough first round matchup against GODSENT would have been a stern test even with the full roster, and as such the expectations will be somewhat pared back; it would at least be good to see torzsi and frozen hit the ground running in the fragging department. If they do, then maybe this team can challenge for a main event spot.
Can the Brazilians build on BLAST promise?
The current iteration of MIBR came together late last year after the previous roster failed to qualify for the PGL Stockholm Major, with Raphael "exit" Lacerda and Marcelo "chelo" Cespedes remaining to team up with the core of the Bravos roster in the form of Jhonatan "JOTA" Willian, Matheus "Tuurtle" Anhaia and Adriano "WOOD7" Cerato.
The team started things off brightly by winning ESEA Advanced and placing second at the CBCS Finals 2021, solidifying their status as one of the best teams in South America, and most recently attended the BLAST Spring Groups, where they took a shock map win against Natus Vincere and beat Complexity 2-0; this was done with a stand-in, Breno "brnz4n" Poletto of MIBR Academy, who actually was their best performing player at the event.
There were flashes of promise shown at BLAST by this MIBR roster, but it is not yet clear if they will be good enough to compete at a tier-one level. The Katowice play-in will be an excellent chance to continue answering that question, although much like with Sprout, this may be a touch too early in the roster's life for the team to be competing at their peak. Expect MIBR to fall short, even if they are facing a struggling Astralis in their first round match.
Time to do more than just dominate the region
Renegades have spent the past couple of years utterly dominating the Oceanic region without ever making a dent at any international competition. The best they have managed was a couple of map wins at the PGL Major Stockholm Challengers Stage, and their most recent endeavour was an 0-2 exit at the ESL Pro League Conference at the end of 2021.
They haven't played an official since that Conference failure, but there has been a significant change in the team as Liam "malta" Schembri, a member of the team for two years, has left the squad and been replaced by Jay "Liazz" Tregillgas; the ex-EXTREMUM player brings some vital tier-one experience to the team.
Despite bringing in someone with a decent amount of experience in the form of Liazz, it is hard to envision a world in which Renegades have done enough to address their shortcomings, especially without any officials to really test their mettle. They will be a long shot to make the main event, especially considering they reside in what is probably the toughest bracket.