Why is there no clear favorite for the Rio Major?
The IEM Rio Major is now less than two weeks away and only the BLAST Premier Fall Showdown is left to play before the scene casts its eyes towards the Brazilian spectacle. A clear picture of the state of the competition is taking shape, and yet no obvious favorite stands out from the crowd at a time when the two giants of the not-so-far-away past have stumbled in recent times. It's no longer just FaZe and Natus Vincere who dominate the conversation of who should win the next title as they had for much of the first half of the year.
Ever since the two heavyweights locked horns in one of the most memorable and nail-biting finals of all time at IEM Cologne just three months ago, only one tournament with a real champion has taken place amid the BLAST Premier Fall Groups (a glorified qualifier with six different winners) and the Major RMRs (actual qualifiers where just making it through as one of 24 teams is considered a success).
At the only "real" tournament in between, ESL Pro League Season 16, FaZe and Natus Vincere went out in the quarter-finals at the hands of two teams who didn't even go on to play in the grand final in Cloud9 and G2. Instead, Vitality and Liquid battled for the title in another best-of-five decider to remember, with the Dan "apEX" Madesclaire-led squad narrowly coming out victorious fresh off their summer signing of star Lotan "Spinx" Giladi.
And it's not like the two best teams of the year looked particularly dominant otherwise in the latter half of the season to warrant labeling the ESL Pro League playoffs a one-off. Though successful in the end, FaZe struggled at the Fall Groups and at the European RMR, sweating against opposition they were expected to brush aside with no issues as they lost a series to a new OG squad in Copenhagen and played overtimes against GamerLegion, fnatic, and Sprout in Malta. Natus Vincere looked much more convincing at the qualifiers, but their group stage campaign in Pro League offered plenty cause for concern, as Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev & co. went 2-3 — losing to a sub-top-30 team Endpoint in the process — and only advanced to the knockout stages thanks to a favorable three-way tie in the round robin.
The language coming out of the NAVI camp regarding the status of Viktor "sdy" Orudzhev is also far from confident, even if the team has remained highly competitive following the start of the 25-year-old's trial in June. Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy has repeatedly been on record saying the latest addition still needs to improve, and whether sdy will stay on remains uncertain, with his trial period now extended at least until the end of the IEM Rio Major.
Just three months ago FaZe and Natus Vincere were so far ahead in the HLTV ranking that the next team alone was nearly 500 points away, but now less than 300 points separate the No. 1 from No. 6 as of October 17. There is a new team sitting at the top in Vitality at the moment, but you would be hard-pressed to make a convincing case for apEX's team being the biggest favorite for IEM Rio. There is too little recent data to draw from other than a month-long Pro League and a plethora of matches that serve as precursors to real tournaments where there is a trophy awaiting a single champion.
In anticipation of the IEM Rio Major, this leaves the competition in an exhilarating position where it is incredibly difficult to call a clear favorite or even two — a position that it hasn't been in this close to a Major in almost six years.
Having won the previous two extremely competitive events in IEM Katowice and Pro League, FaZe were earmarked as the world's best team without a doubt heading into PGL Major Antwerp. No team other than Natus Vincere was ever in the conversation to win PGL Major Stockholm at the end of 2021. Before the StarLadder Major in 2019, Liquid had just won four events in a row and completed the Intel Grand Slam in record time. At the height of their era, Astralis hoisted the trophy at the majority of events they attended before IEM Katowice 2019 and FACEIT Major 2018. SK and FaZe were expected to duke it out for the ELEAGUE Major Boston title after having battled for months for titles and the No. 1 spot in the ranking. SK were also clear favorites ahead of PGL Major Krakow after lifting trophies at five out of six previous tournaments they competed at.
It's only when looking back at the first ELEAGUE Major at the beginning of 2017 can we find a state of the competition where there was a real discussion about more than a couple of names being far ahead of the rest. Eventual champions Astralis had ramped up leading up to the Atlanta Major off the back of the addition of Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander and had been the No. 1 team, but were far from clear-cut favorites, as the six Big Events prior had six different champions: Astralis, Ninjas in Pyjamas, Cloud9, OpTic, Dignitas, and Natus Vincere.
You can hover over team names to see historically accurate lineups.
Of course, not always did the main favorite or even one of the favorites win — such is the nature of competition and what makes it exciting. Nothing compares to the rush of seeing a big favorite fall and not knowing what can happen next and who will be the team to take the highest step of the podium.
With IEM Rio Major now around the corner, it's difficult to predict what might happen from the start and there is a serious case for any one of five teams being able to win the coveted title. Yes, FaZe and Natus Vincere's longevity make them the safest bets. Time and time again they have proven that their team knows how to win tournaments more so than anyone else on the list. But several other names enter the conversation of who could take out one of the two giants at the very least and have a real shot at going all the way from there.
Vitality sits atop the list of the biggest challengers after they finally broke their title duck with the international roster at ESL Pro League Season 16 on the back of Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut's return to a level worthy of a world's best player, seemingly peaking at just the right time.
Cloud9's chances at a Major title in Rio are well within the realms of possibilities as well. Vladislav "nafany" Gorshkov's team haven't been in title-winning form for some time and have only done it once on LAN at the tier-one level at IEM Dallas five months ago, but they have consistently been a serious thorn in the side of some of the top teams and could cause a big upset like at ESL Pro League Season 16, where they eliminated FaZe in the quarter-finals.
Liquid aren't too far behind following their run to the grand final at ESL Pro League, where they were just a few rounds away from the trophy. Their progress with Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis is undeniable, and with the Latvian now finally signing with the North American team, the last bit of uncertainty is gone just in time for the new Liquid's biggest test yet.
The question is, who will rise to the occasion? Could FaZe pull off an Astralis-esque StarLadder Major recovery and show up when it really matters, as they did at IEM Cologne despite their stumbles leading up to the end of the first season? Will the ever-present NAVI step up to the plate? Could one of the three big challengers go all the way? Or perhaps it's none of the above, and everyone will be left in shock when one of the mid-field names pulls off a Boston-like surprise in a few weeks' time. Who knows?