IEM Katowice preview: The Play-In contenders
Ahead of the start of the IEM Katowice Play-In, we take a look at the form and storylines of the eight highest-ranked teams who should be the primary contenders to advance to the main event.
The first big LAN event of 2022 kicks off in just under 12 hours with its Play-In stage, where 16 teams will duke it out in a double-elimination bracket in hopes of attaining one of the eight spots on offer in IEM Katowice's main event.
Despite a handful of teams being dealt early blows as they are either forced to field substitutes or have needed to pull out of the event entirely due to positive COVID-19 tests, anticipation for the $1,000,000 event in Poland has built to a crescendo.
Not only will IEM Katowice offer the first chance to witness some of the superteams assembled during the off-season on LAN for the first time, but it will also mark the return of a crowd to the Spodek Arena for the first time since 2019 as the event celebrates its tenth anniversary.
As we prepare for the Play-In stage to kick off, HLTV.org has prepared three previews that take a look at some of the key storylines of each of the teams competing in the event, where we gauge their form and recap some of the changes they have made in recent months.
With the first preview already tackling the storylines of the underdogs attending the event, it's time to take a look at the eight teams who are favorites to advance from the Play-In to the main stage.
No device, no problem?
Ninjas in Pyjamas enter the IEM Katowice Play-In as the highest-ranked team among the first crop of 16, still fielding Love "phzy" Smidebrant in place of Nicolai "device" Reedtz. The majority-Swedish side ended 2021 in downtrodden form for a team that initially had lofty expectations following the addition of the Danish superstar, exiting BLAST Premier Fall and World Finals in last place. A 5-8th finish at PGL Major Stockholm and a runner-up placement at IEM Winter — where phzy first stepped in — helped to alleviate the team's struggles a little, but even so, the results were a far cry from where the team were at earlier in the year, peaking at No. 2 in the world rankings.
With device remaining sidelined into the new year, Ninjas in Pyjamas continued to utilize the Young Ninjas member for the BLAST Premier Spring Groups, where they were able to score a handful of victories but success still ended up eluding them. Despite opening the event with a pair of wins over BIG and scoring an upset over Natus Vincere in the gauntlet bracket, Hampus "hampus" Poser' men were unable to qualify for the Spring Final after they were eliminated in 7-9th place, coming out on the losing end of matches against G2, OG, and in a rematch versus NAVI.
Heading into the Katowice Play-In though, Ninjas in Pyjamas remain sure-fire favorites to at the very least make the main stage of the event, with anything short of that being much more than a simple disappointment. Where they fall when they reach the top sixteen stage is entirely a question of the bracket draw and how the team holds up on LAN with phzy — although with the kind of teams they'll have to contend with, sneaking into playoffs still looks unlikely for the Swedish side.
Lost in the stars
It's plain as day at this point that Astralis have had a fall from grace from the heights of years past, and the depths of that plummet only became more evident as 2021 drew on. From a team that were consistently in position to take home titles to one that had to recover from the loss of device, intermittent changes to their roster, and couldn't consistently make the top four of events let alone win them, it's been a wild spiral downward for the once-dominant Danish squad.
It seemed that hope was on the horizon as last year neared its end, the refreshing faces of Benjamin "blameF" Bremer and Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke arriving to offer an upside to a team that was about to bid farewell to two of it's most tenured legends. An inspired showing from k0nfig in particular — who had all eyes upon him as he returned to active play from a wrist injury — as well as blameF marked a solid start to the lineup's time together at the BLAST Premier Fall Final, where they managed to finish in third place with the home crowd's support behind them, but the team have failed to replicate that level ever since.
Early exits from IEM Winter, BLAST World Final, Funspark ULTI Finals, and BLAST Premier Spring Groups marked both a dismal end to 2021 and an unremarkable start to 2022, not helped by a drop off in individual level from k0nfig and a swapping of roles as Philip "Lucky" Ewald traded AWPing duties with Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander back-and-forth.
Heading into Katowice, Astralis will need to showcase much better form than they have in the last few months, and hope for renewed vigor from k0nfig as well as a step up in performance from Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, who has struggled to find the same impact in the team's events this year. While securing a ticket to the main event through the Play-In seems likely for gla1ve's crew just based on prospective matchups, a deep run against some of the top teams in the world who currently look in hot form is decidedly less so, and a playoff appearance would most definitely come as a surprise after lackluster form in recent months.
FaZe on the ropes
FaZe have been struck by tragedy ahead of Katowice as their latest star addition Robin "ropz" Kool tested positive for COVID just before the event, leaving them to turn to Justin "jks" Savage as a substitute for at the very least the first few days of the event.
Coming in as one of the teams who were expected to make a deep run after they impressed at the BLAST Premier Spring Groups, FaZe will need to survive without their superstar in tow, wading through both the Play-In and early stage of the main event before ropz is able to return on February 19. jks is perhaps the best-case scenario for a replacement that the team could have hoped for on such short notice though, and it's likely that they'll have no problem making it through the Play-In given the caliber of the team as a whole.
If they are able to survive until ropz returns, FaZe will be one of the primary teams contending for a spot in the playoffs, but whether they can do so with a stand-in against the likes of Virtus.pro, Natus Vincere, and G2 is a question that will hang over their heads for the first five days of the event.
As one of the few teams attending Katowice to have not made any roster changes in the last year, Entropiq's position as an ever-consistent force among the top crop of teams remains steady. Aleksei "El1an" Gusev has already proven he's the real deal and can deliver for his team in high-stakes matches, and with Igor "Forester" Bezotecheskiy and Vladislav "Krad" Kravchenko stepping up alongside him, Entropiq are assuredly set to surpass the Play-In stage in Poland.
After steadily climbing the rankings throughout 2021, the Russian side impressed at PGL Major Stockholm, narrowly missing out on playoffs despite securing wins over Heroic, Gambit, and Liquid. Following their elimination in Sweden, Dmitry "hooch" Bogdanov's troops continued to demonstrate their ability to compete against the best teams as they closed out the year and carried their form into 2022, finishing as the runner-ups to Gambit at V4 Future Sports Festival and scoring subsequent second place finishes in ESEA Premier Season 39 Europe and Funspark ULTI Finals.
For Entropiq, Katowice now offers the opportunity to again take on a wealth of teams and prove they can overcome the barrier they hit at the Major. As one of the most tenured five-man lineups in attendance, the team's experience together could very well pay off against some of the larger names, and while a path through the Play-In should be a shoe-in, Entropiq's true test awaits in the main stage.
With only six spots in the playoffs on offer, it'll require tenacity and an elevated level of play from Entropiq to surpass some of the names above them, but it's not entirely out of the question that they could edge out a spot and make it to the arena.
Can small changes lead to BIG results?
In 2021, you wouldn't be remiss to count BIG out from contending for a deep spot in big tournaments like Katowice. The German side spent much of the year struggling to recover from the loss of Ismailcan "XANTARES" Dörtkardeş for a number of months, and even prior to the Turkish player's departure, they were unable to find the form they'd had in parts of 2020. Nicklas "gade" Gade, who came in to replace XANTARES, just wasn't the piece the team needed, and that became even more clear toward the end of the year as they were unable to beat the likes of Copenhagen Flames, ENCE, and MOUZ at the Major, and were also eliminated from the BLAST Premier Fall Final and IEM Winter 2021 early into the tournaments.
Coming into 2022, changes were required, and it was to Sprout star Josef "faveN" Baumann that the team turned, once again becoming an all-German lineup. In their first event together, Funspark ULTI Finals, they finished in third place after falling to Entropiq and Gambit, but the BLAST Premier Spring Groups were a distinct improvement as they managed to qualify for the Spring FInal off the back of a stellar showing from Florian "syrsoN" Rische, who only just managed to get approval to play in the tournament after recovering from a medical procedure.
Heading into Katowice, syrsoN will need to continue delivering big numbers for BIG and faveN will need to showcase his worth if the team hopes to succeed against some of the supersquads in the event. Much like the teams mentioned above, the German side should have little trouble in advancing through the Play-In, but will likely face a difficult test in the main event as their firepower pales in comparison to the likes of Natus Vincere, Vitality, and G2.
Was BLAST a fluke, or are OG the real deal now?
A leadership change has seemingly revitalized what had been a limping OG for a majority of the last year, the swap of Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen and Nemanja "nexa" Isaković so far benefiting both teams as the Serbian in-game leader put up numbers and led his team to a successful BLAST Premier Spring Groups campaign.
However, the teams they faced left much to be desired — an Astralis who have been faltering, MIBR playing with a stand-in, and an Ninjas in Pyjamas lacking device — and it's hard to gauge a team this early into their time together, especially given the lack of results over the previous year despite housing the same pieces.
For OG, Katowice very much presents the chance to prove that their BLAST result was not a simple one-off, although even if results come through here, talk of a honeymoon period will likely persist for at least another month. Still, dispeling that conversation begins with finding early wins, and making an impression in Katowice would be a convincing point in their favor should they manage to upset some of the more favored sides in the top sixteen stage.
Can TACO's project continue the success they started to find at the end of 2021?
GODSENT have been a Brazilian team slowly on the rise in recent months, a project led by Epitacio "TACO" de Melo and Ricardo "dead" Sinigaglia as they look to help raise a new generation of Brazilian talent. After managing to make it to the Challengers Stage of PGL Major Stockholm, GODSENT continued to keep their name in the limelight at the end of the year, qualifying for ESL Pro League Season 15 via the Conference stage before heading to Sweden for IEM Winter. There, they managed to beat Heroic and BIG en route to a playoff berth, but were ultimately unable to overcome Ninjas in Pyjamas, falling in a three-map series to end their year.
The steady improvement in results and consistent performances against international competition makes GODSENT an exciting prospect when they head to a tournament like Katowice, with questions surrounding whether they can reproduce the sort of results they had at IEM Winter.
With FaZe, MOUZ, and Sprout in their Play-In bracket, it seems unlikely that TACO's side can advance directly through the upper bracket, but a chance to move through to the main stage via the lower bracket is a very real possibility given the struggles MOUZ have had in recent months, and Sprout still recovering from the loss of faveN. From there though, it'll be a story of how many scalps GODSENT can take with them before bowing out, as a playoff berth is extremely unlikely with the caliber of teams they would have to move past.
UK CS on the rise again
It finally seemed like UK CS was making a return after fnatic added Owen "smooya" Butterfield, joining Alex "ALEX" McMeekin and William "mezii" Merriman alongside the two remaining members of the former Swedish roster, Ludvig "Brollan" Brolin and Freddy "KRIMZ" Johansson. After a dismal year, a complete revamp of the lineup was much needed, and the change was immediately paying off as fnatic quickly began to tear apart the competition in their last events of 2021.
After winning DreamHack Open November and REPUBLEAGUE TIPOS Season 2, fnatic turned their attention to IEM Winter, where they suffered an opening loss to Gambit before beating ENCE and BIG in their subsequent matches. However, a rematch against Gambit would bring their tournament run to an end in heartbreaking fashion, bringing fnatic's year to an end.
As 2022 got underway, fnatic looked a little flat in their Funspark and Pinnacle Winter Series appearances, falling to BIG, Astralis, and Apeks as they were eliminated early on. Now turning their attention to Katowice, fnatic find themselves in a similar position to a handful of other teams as they need to recover from a slow start to the year. With a match against Copenhagen Flames kicking off their run in the Play-In, fnatic face a difficult test as their opponent also very much wants prove they are capable of much more than what their recent results show.