IEM Cologne: No clear favorite going into the season finale
Cologne this year will be one of the most open races for the title in recent memory, with five teams posing legitimate claims to be favorites.
IEM Cologne is one of the most celebrated moments in the Counter-Strike calendar, with many of the best tournaments ever held in CS:GO taking place under its banner, and it has the added spice of being a season-ending event — one that has the potential to make or break teams heading into the summer break.
This year's edition will host a plethora of fascinating storylines, whether it be FaZe's quest to end their fantastic season on a high rather than a whimper, Natus Vincere's resurgence with Denis "electroNic" Sharipov as in-game leader, or ENCE's quest for the LAN title that will rubber-stamp their place amongst the elite.
FaZe seek strong end to the season to keep their throne
FaZe started the year having finally gotten their man in Robin "ropz" Kool, and the impact was immediate. IEM Katowice was a roaring success despite needing to utilise Justin "jks" Savage in place of first ropz and then later Håvard "rain" Nygaard, they followed that up with a dominant Pro League win to put to bed any concerns about rain returning to the lineup, and the Major victory capped what was a spectacular run of tournaments.
Since then, form has waned. Potentially this could be due to some degree of burnout, and the team themselves have repeatedly mentioned issues with finding adequate practice time, but either way FaZe have been far from the imperious force they were at the beginning of the season, with Dallas and BLAST Premier Spring Final not even producing top four finishes. The latter ended with a chastising 32-7 defeat across the series by Natus Vincere.
rain has most certainly dipped in form compared to the early part of the season, particularly the Major, but the fact his apparent hot streak has cooled is unsurprising; it would have been unrealistic to expect him to maintain a patch of career-best form that had appeared out of nowhere. Most concerning has been the form of Helvijs "broky" Saukants, who had posted a team-leading 1.18 rating for the year before IEM Dallas, but during their failed Dallas and Lisbon campaigns he produced 1.06 and 1.07 rated performances, with significantly reduced impact as well.
Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken has stepped up significantly to take up some of the slack, with 1.20 ratings over Dallas and Roobet Cup, but broky returning to a 1.21 rating for Roobet Cup was most certainly a key factor in the team’s return to form. FaZe would not have bagged second place in that event without the Latvian's recovery, and that result should give them some confidence heading into the season closer, which Finn "karrigan" Andersen emphasized the importance of during a recent post-game interview.
Despite not being as dominant as at the start of the year FaZe will still arrive in Cologne as the favorites in the eyes of many, and whether or not they can take the title ahead of the likes of ENCE and, specifically, Natus Vincere, will come down to the form of their individuals. If we see the trio of Twistzz, ropz and broky in prime form, it is likely that FaZe cap their fine season with a win in Germany.
Can NAVI reestablish themselves as the team to beat going into the break?
The CIS giants have suffered from plenty of turmoil and controversy in recent months, the invasion of Ukraine and the fall of Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov providing a less than ideal backdrop for CS excellence. Despite this somehow Natus Vincere have managed to maintain their position as an elite team, taking a top-four in Katowice and top-two at the Major.
The big talking point for Natus Vincere recently had been the switching of star rifler electroNic to IGL, which seemed a somewhat risky decision especially considering it also resulted in him switching from the anchor positions he thrived in on CT and the lurk roles he relished as T. Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy once again proved himself ahead of the curve as the switch worked flawlessly, with Natus Vincere returning to something like their imperious 2021 form in their dominant victory at BLAST Premier Spring Finals.
Viktor "sdy" Orudzhev came in as a stand-in for the aforementioned event and did nothing spectacular, but he didn’t have to when his teammates Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, electroNic and Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy were all at the peak of their powers in Lisbon. According to his new partners in crime he is humble and willing to learn, and also willing to fill the spots required of him rather than taking his preferred positions and roles. These qualities, combined with the fact he won his first event with the team, have given sdy another chance to impress in Cologne.
To many, the Natus Vincere that won in Lisbon looked like they could be more potent than their 2021 peak, having adopted a style based heavily on reads and mid-round calling, moving away from many of the set-rounds they had in their arsenal in 2021. With electroNic still fragging, and in fact posting his peak event for the year having just taken up the leadership reins, as well as b1t and s1mple displaying some of their best form, Natus Vincere may find themselves the favorites for this event.
BLAST may well have been a honeymoon event for this new-look Natus Vincere, and a larger sample size is needed before declaring electroNic an unqualified success as a caller, but there is no doubt that the best team of 2021 will once again strike fear into the hearts of all they play in Cologne. If the Natus Vincere that won BLAST turns up again in Germany, FaZe will be hard pressed to take the tournament victory they so desperately covet.
ENCE have been consistently good, but can they be champions?
ENCE were looking like the most consistent team at the top since Katowice, except perhaps for FaZe, but they have wobbled since Lotan "Spinx" Giladi returned from his absence in Dallas. Regardless it has been a stellar start to 2022 for the European squad, the addition of Pavle "Maden" Bošković propelling them from a top-15 team in the ascension to a legitimate member of the elite, going deep in every event they have taken part in this year since the aforementioned IEM Katowice.
The loose style heavy on playmaking employed by ENCE has seen them win many fans as well as games, and the emergence of Spinx as a world class player has also contributed heavily to their impressive early season form. A poor showing at BLAST Premier Spring Final was largely down to the underperformances of Paweł "dycha" Dycha and Spinx, who went from producing star numbers to struggling to go +1.00 in rating, and Olek "hades" Miskiewicz stepping up was not enough to pick up all of the slack. ENCE’s style is predicated on their individuals producing, and so when their individuals struggle a number of holes appear in the game of Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer and company.
There is still something of a question mark hanging around ENCE, whether their early season form was merely a hot streak brought about by the addition of Maden and that their level may now be plateauing at something closer to a true reflection of their abilities as a squad. That remains to be seen, but they are still one of the favourites for this event due to their sheer consistency early in the year, and it would be foolish to write them off when they are so desperate for their first tournament win.
Cloud9 are eying a repeat of their IEM Dallas run in the cathedral
We all know the story with Cloud9 — dominant in the first half of 2021, however they could not quite hit the same peaks when LAN returned and they have been striving to build that experience ever since. This year however they made an important step by winning IEM Dallas, a big LAN event with the best teams in attendance.
Dmitry "sh1ro" Sokolov and Sergey "Ax1Le" Rykhtorov are superstar-level performers so far in 2022, while Abay "HObbit" Khassenov is experienced and still provides big games when they are most needed, whilst Timofey "interz" Yakushin and Vladislav "nafany" Gorshkov provide support and create space for their stars. Grumbles have surfaced this year about the somewhat simplistic, if methodical, approach that Cloud9 have to the game; they rarely utilize complex utility sets and favor instead clearing the map with defaults and jiggle peeks, relying on mechanics and trading to set themselves up for success. It’s arguable that the meta somewhat favors this approach, and in any case Cloud9 have made it work well for them in recent weeks.
There will be some people who put a small asterisk next to the Dallas win, as FaZe seemed to be short of top form and ENCE attended with a stand-in, and there was no Natus Vincere present, but Cloud9 are still certainly a dangerous team when they are in this kind of form. The Russian squad reminded us all of their quality with the victory in Dallas, and another trophy here in Germany would see the squad finally deliver on the promise they showed in early 2021.
BIG to try and keep magic alive with k1to at home in Cologne
BIG have bounced around just outside the top 10 this year, during which time they have swapped out Nils "k1to" Gruhne for Karim "Krimbo" Moussa, brought Fatih "gob b" Dayik back from their Valorant division, and had to deal with bringing k1to back as a stand-in several times, including in their recent Roobet Cup victory.
It is tough to gauge exactly where BIG are at considering their ever-shuffling roster, but the Roobet Cup victory displayed the peak of what the Germans can do when they are firing on all cylinders, particularly their star AWPer Florian "syrsoN" Rische who picked up an MVP award for his monumental efforts. Outside of that Johannes "tabseN" Wodarz and company have struggled for meaningful results whilst still showing flashes of their potential brilliance, namely their excellent showing at the PGL Europe RMR A.
The pride of Germany have two major arguments in their favor when discussing them as a potential Cologne winner: they took home the Roobet Cup, albeit online and without Natus Vincere in attendance, and they are on home soil. It would be prudent to remember what BIG managed to do during ESL One Cologne 2018 where they rode that home-field advantage all the way to a top-two finish. In what may be a blessing in disguise, they will also be playing in Cologne with the same lineup that won Roobet Cup as Josef "faveN" Baumann is still struggling with illness.
Make no mistake, BIG will be a menacing opponent for any who face them in Cologne, and the desire the team will have to succeed and at the very least make it to play in front of a home crowd will be immense.
Will the dark horses bring their canter to a gallop?
There are a number of teams that could fall into the category of dark horse, some more legitimate than others. These teams are likely to cause some damage, will have a good chance of making playoffs, but will probably fail to make top four.
FURIA would have, at one time, been considered the most legitimate contender here, having grown event on event with André "drop" Abreu and Rafael "saffee" Costa in the lineup. However, their woeful showing during the ESL Challenger Valencia event and an early exit from the Roobet Cup have followed their top-four run in Dallas, placing serious doubts over them heading into Cologne.
Heroic might have been alongside FURIA when discussing serious dark horses, however it remains to be seen how they will be affected by the addition of Jakob "jabbi" Nygaard. It seems likely this will be an upgrade in the long run, having removed the perennial LAN underperformer Ismail "refrezh" Ali in favor of a player that has posted solid statistics in the two most recent Majors, but whether or not they will be ready to challenge a title in the short term is a mystery.
Vitality and G2 both produced performances in Lisbon that were more promising than they have managed all year, or at least since Katowice in the case of G2, but both teams still suffer from issues. Vitality their self-professed communication problems and in the case of G2 the troubling propensity to collapse out of nowhere, but with stars like Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov and Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut in good form these two squads will be a dangerous threat to any they play.
Ninjas in Pyjamas and Spirit are the hardest to gauge. Ninjas in Pyjamas had managed little of note since adding Ludvig "Brollan" Brolin until they won the Global Esports Tour Dubai event, however that tournament hosted a fairly weak field with the Swedes the only top-ten team in attendance. Spirit would have excited many in the wake of their staggering run to the top four of the PGL Major Antwerp, however they lost a key piece in the form of Abdul "degster" Gasanov since that event, and are now bedding in a ludicrously young AWPer in the form of Ihor "w0nderful" Zhdanov, which may take time.