IEM Rio Major profile: Sprout
Sprout surprised with a Cinderella run at the European RMR to earn a spot in the Major's Legends Stage, but will the youthful squad hold its own when the pressure is highest?
The new Sprout, which came together during the summer break with the additions of Ismail "refrezh" Ali and Rasmus "Zyphon" Nordfoss, has made tremendous progress in a short amount of time under the leadership of the newly signed former Heroic player. Expectations were low at the latest Europe RMR in Malta for Danny "BERRY" Krüger's men, but three wins against Spirit, forZe and B8, alongside a single 1-2 loss to FaZe, put the European combine straight through to IEM Rio's Legend Stage ahead of a field of more renowned teams.
Sprout's history dates back to 2017, with Kevin "kRYSTAL" Amend’s Seed roster, and the organization's Major legacy dates back to the following year, when they played their only Major to date, ELEAGUE Boston Major. The European squad, with a German core made up of kRYSTAL, Timo "Spiidi" Richter and Denis "denis" Howell, did not make it through to the Legends Stage in Boston, winning only one match against Space Soldiers in the Challengers Stage before being eliminated.
Things were up and down for Sprout from there on out up until late 2019, as they fielded several different rosters before starting to display dominance over the local German scene. They have since won the ESL Meisterschaft title six consecutive times, but despite preeminence in the national circuit they never replicated the success of their local rivals, BIG, at Majors or other international events.
Sprout last had a German majority roster in 2021 after going back-and-forth between German and European squads, right before they brought on Rasmus "raalz" Steensborg and BERRY as the IGL and coach duo. They have since brought on young players with little experience to build a roster around, which is something that refrezh took note of when talking about BERRY after qualifying for the Major. "Even my teammate now, Staehr, he found him from nothing and you can see where he is now. I have a lot of respect for BERRY, and we trust each other."
Sprout didn't cut their German roots completely, fielding local subs to play ESL Meisterschaft, where a three-man German core is needed, and maintaining Fritz "slaxz-" Dietrich on as a reliable main AWPer. Outside of Germany they are quickly earning a reputation as a tier two side that often punches upwards, qualifying for ESL Pro League Season 15 and the IEM Cologne Play-in, but they are yet to make a deep run in these international tournaments.
Building around young stars
Victor "Staehr" Staehr, the 18-year-old Dane, has been on the roster a few months longer than the other newcomers, having joined the team at the beginning of the year. The second youngster that Sprout brought on was Laurențiu "lauNX" Țârlea, the Romanian rising star who replaced the outgoing Max "Marix" Kugener. The 17-year-old rifler proved his worth to such an extent that after his first few months with Sprout, in which he averaged a 1.12 rating, ENCE came knocking to express interest in him when Lotan "Spinx" Giladi left to Vitality.
The third under-20 player to join Sprout is Zyphon, 18, who came up in Copenhagen Flames and has already competed at two Majors. The first time at PGL Stockholm, where CPH Flames even upset FaZe in a dominant display only to fall to both Heroic and Ninjas in Pyjamas, barely missing a top eight placing. Zyphon was then the best performing player on his team at PGL Antwerp, picking up where he left off in Stockholm as he and his squad reached the stage at the Sportpaleis with a 2-0 win over Imperial.
When the project came to end he was not sought after by an established organization like fnatic, G2 or Heroic, where his teammates landed, and was given a spot next to refrezh on Sprout. Zyphon is a young player, like Staehr and lauNX, but unlike his neophyte teammates he came into the squad with top tier experience already under his belt.
refrezh takes the reins
Sprout needed someone experienced to lead the young, developing players, and refrezh was signed to do just that. The move came as a surprise, however, as the Dane had been a core part of Heroic for over a year, gaining plenty of experience at the highest level, but he was by no means an IGL. Speculation surrounded his ability to lead, but for Sprout it was a chance to bring tier one experience to an organization that is yet to break into the top echelons.
He may not have been an IGL before, but refrezh had competed in the two most recent Majors following the coronavirus pandemic with Heroic, gaining a wealth of experience in the process. He reached the semi-finals at PGL Stockholm and landed in the top eight at PGL Antwerp, once again playing on stage in front of a crowd of thousands. The highs and lows of competing not only at a Major, but on a stage in front of a crowd, are not something that can be taught, and having refrezh at the helm provides that much needed experience.
Interest was piqued the moment this Sprout quintet played together under refrezh. Their first performance as a team came at the open qualifier for the RMRs, where they won every single match that came their way, taking down MOUZ, ECSTATIC and Falcons to confirm their place in Malta. The team’s form then continued as they placed second at SteelSeries Nova Cup DACH Fall 2022, falling only to Sangal in the final.
An unexpected Major qualification
Despite early success as a roster Sprout was still an underdog coming into the RMR, as they hadn’t proven themselves against any solid tier one opponents on LAN and there were doubts over what level refrezh could call at. Their run started with a tough OT win against forZe followed up by a clean comeback victory over Spirit in which they were very clearly the underdog. Sprout then fell to FaZe in the 2-0 pool, but they showed their fight by taking two of the three maps to OT. They finally beat B8 2-1 with a convincing display of Inferno to qualify for the Major.
Reaching the Legends Stage was a true underdog story, with refrezh even saying that "it’s insane to reach the Major in such a small amount of time." One large reason that the qualification to the second stage of the Major is so extraordinary is the team's average age of 20.6 years, which makes them the second youngest team to qualify for the Major behind Spirit's 20.5.
Sprout's feats have not gone unnoticed, and just like lauNX aroused interest from ENCE during the summer break, Astralis offered to trade Asger "Farlig" Jensen for Staehr after failing to qualify for the Major. Attention for the young Dane was well warranted, as he had been at the head of the team’s efforts to make their way into the Major, putting up a 1.10 rating during the RMR. Sprout sent a simple message in return: "No, thanks."
IEM Rio Major Expectations
Expectations are not overly high for Sprout going into IEM Rio. refrezh and company went into the RMR as underdogs and now they come into the Major as underdogs, especially since they will be skipping the Challengers Stage and start competing immediately among the top 16 teams — new territory for an organization that has been battling to get out of tier two since last attending a Major with a completely different team in 2018.
This will be the first-ever attendance at a Major for three of the players, and jitters are likely to play a part in front of the enthusiastic Brazilian crowd. Both Zyphon and refrezh have made deep runs in previous Majors, so Sprout does have upset potential, but the youngsters will need to hold their own and continue to perform at a high level in a completely new setting. If the stars align and refrezh and BERRY can continue to make the strategy work and slaxz- remains a steady presence with the AWP to complement the prowess of the team's riflers, Sprout could follow in the footsteps of Spirit's PGL Antwerp miracle run and cause an uproar, further making a case for young rosters filled with undiscovered talent.
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