Four key storylines of ESL Pro League Group D
The final group of ESL Pro League is upon us, and four key narratives are set to play out in Malta.
The marathon ESL Pro League group stage is set to draw to a close with Group D, and it may very well be the strongest group on paper. The very best teams of the moment, G2 and Heroic, have of course already played, but Liquid and Natus Vincere represent strong front runners, and the strength in depth of the field is impressive, with three more top-20 squads and one in the top-30 present.
There is nothing new to report with Natus Vincere. They are still a team in transition that is yet to unlock their full potential, with a superstar player falling way short of his usual level. Beyond that there are some interesting stories to explore, such as the road to recovery of the latest Astralis lineup, the debut of Guy "NertZ" Iluz on ENCE, and the need for Liquid to prove they can win an international event. Throw in some teams with potent upset potential, and Group D promises to be a bumpy ride.
|ESL Pro League Season 17|
Time to step up
Liquid have steadily grown into the year after a rocky start at the BLAST Spring Groups saw them lose three of four series played and drop down to the Showdown. IEM Katowice brought with it a 3-4th place finish and series wins against FaZe and Vitality, as well as some impactful performances out of their individuals, but we have already seen a few tournament runs of this caliber from Liquid since adding Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis. It is a level we know that Liquid can operate at, and we are reaching the point where they have to show us that they can do one better and win a big tournament.
Their recent resume suggests that they are not miles away from that goal. Their run at Katowice brought with it two losses, the first of which came against Natus Vincere. The CIS squad are certainly experiencing issues at the moment but are still a dangerous opponent, and Liquid came agonizingly close to clinching the second map in overtime to take the series to a decider. Their other loss was against G2, the undisputed best team in the world, and they got to double digits in both maps, one of those being one of G2’s best, Inferno. They beat IHC, a tricky upset team, they beat Spirit, a solid top-15 squad, and they beat Vitality and FaZe, who are both proven to be capable of winning tournaments. A very promising return indeed.
There are, however, still issues with the Liquid map pool. They can’t seem to find a reliable pick, having tried Nuke and Mirage without much success at Spring Groups, and Overpass and Anubis during Katowice with mixed results. A lack of a solid home map hinders them in the veto, and they only have a positive win rate on Mirage and Overpass so far this year. Nuke and Inferno are particular problem points, having played four and lost three on both, but at least their losses on Inferno have come against good Inferno teams (FaZe, Natus Vincere and G2), whilst the same can’t be said of their losses on Nuke. As both of these maps are likely to be key in vetoes against the current best teams in the world, Heroic and G2, Liquid will have to improve their fortunes on at least one, which is likely to be Inferno.
The biggest boon for Liquid moving forward is the form of their individuals, as Keith "NAF" Markovic, Josh "oSee" Ohm and YEKINDAR each topped their team’s scoreboard in a series victory at IEM Katowice (two for NAF), and Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski put up strong performances in two of their four wins. YEKINDAR was back to his best with his hyper-aggressive T-side antics, and oSee was a constant menace opening rounds on CT, garnering a 66% success rate from 23.1% attempts. This is the formula that needs to manifest on the server if Liquid are to succeed, and with YEKINDAR and EliGE returning to form after a poor start to the year and oSee steadily improving, we should see more of it here in Malta.
Liquid will qualify for the playoffs, that much is essentially a given. What is less certain is just how deep Liquid will make it into the playoffs, and whether or not they can mount a serious challenge for the title. Their IEM Katowice performance suggests it is possible, and considering how long we have seen Liquid teeter on the verge of being able to win events, it feels like now is the time to show that they can do it. Winning this group is the first step.
The return of the kings
ESL Pro League represents the first real chance for the latest iteration of Astralis to show us what they are capable of in a tier one LAN event. The Danish squad have taken their time preparing themselves for the rigors of the elite Counter-Strike circuit, competing in several CCT online events in an effort to bed in not only their returning star Nicolai "device" Reedtz but also youngster Christian "Buzz" Andersen, and the steady uptick in results tournament to tournament suggests this approach is paying dividends. The two events they have played with higher stakes on the line, BLAST Spring Groups and the BLAST.tv Paris Major Europe RMR qualifier, both garnered successful results, but now we get to see how Astralis fare with a trophy up for grabs.
When examining Astralis’ recent form more closely, a fairly optimistic picture emerges. The Danes have only lost a handful of series since device’s return, and these came at the hands of either elite tier one squads like Vitality and Heroic or the best of tier two like Copenhagen Flames. Since the turn of the year they haven’t lost a single series to a squad outside the top 10, and they have handily dispatched teams like Aurora and 9INE, suggesting they are very much ready to take a crack at a proper international LAN event.
device and Benjamin "blameF" Bremer have been leading the way as the star duo for Astralis, which is exactly how things should be playing out, and Buzz has settled in relatively well. The youngster’s only real struggles came in the BLAST Spring Groups, which is somewhat concerning considering the event served as Buzz’s introduction to tier one; his 0.82 rating made him the joint-lowest rated player of the tournament. You could forgive the 19-year-old’s poor T-side stats, he is often the first man into the site and used for trade kills, but his weak showings on CT were more disappointing. It was however his first appearance amongst such a strong field of teams and bearing in mind the rest of his performances have been solid, including an impressive 1.20-rated RMR qualifier, he is certainly worth giving the time to adjust.
Group D is a daunting prospect, even if Astralis have been performing well. Natus Vincere and Liquid will certainly be favorites should they clash with the Danes, and ENCE, FORZE and Spirit will fancy their chances. Assuming Natus Vincere and Liquid take first and second between them in the group, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander and company should be competing for the two other spots up for grabs. Astralis have put in the leg work to prepare themselves thoroughly for this event, it is now time for them to prove that they can manifest the positive signs into tangible results.
Is NertZ the answer?
The last 18 months or so have been a wild ride for ENCE. They came out of nowhere to storm to the pinnacle of tier one at the start of 2022, making multiple runs to the finals of Big Events and peaking at No. 2 in the world rankings. The loss of Lotan "Spinx" Giladi in the mid-season player break was a dire blow, and they have spent the time since trying to pick up the pieces and climb back to the previous heights they have hit. Their latest attempt at finding a solution? NertZ.
2023 hasn’t started too well for the international lineup, but realistically we didn’t get to see much of ENCE. They aren’t a BLAST partner team, so they missed out on Spring Groups and were knocked out of the IEM Katowice Play-In, and the only other events they have featured in were the IEM Rio closed qualifier and CCT Central Europe Malta Finals. Such were their failures in previous events that Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså had already been ejected from the team by the time the CCT Finals came around, and they managed to take a thoroughly respectable top-three finish with academy player Henri "HENU" Ylilehto standing-in. valde’s more considered approach to the game never quite meshed with the relatively aggressive style ENCE employ, and so it is understandable ENCE opted for a different path.
NertZ, valde’s replacement, is the latest in a long line of Endpoint finds to make their way into a tier one squad, and he comes with some impressive stats to his name. He sported a 1.11 rating over a healthy 119 maps in 2022, and regularly posted stand-out event performances like his 1.30-rated ESL Premiership Autumn showing. His most recent tier one outing came at ESL Pro League Season 16 and considering Endpoint came joint-last, his 1.19 rating was mightily impressive. He is also touted to be a more aggressive player, something that Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer mentioned in an interview during the CCT Central Europe Malta Finals, and this should fit better in the ENCE system.
It is probably too early to expect to see the final form of this ENCE roster at ESL Pro League, but they have had enough preparation time to at least mount a serious charge for the playoffs. They reside in a tough group but should nonetheless be capable of beating teams like Spirit and Astralis, who will most likely be battling for the third and fourth playoff berths on offer. If nothing else it would be refreshing to see an improved version of ENCE, as they have been steadily sliding down the world rankings for some time now.
The underdogs snapping at heels
Group D may very well be the strongest on paper, and we have already seen some surprising underdog runs in the other groups, like those of Movistar Riders and 00NATION. As such it is very possible another unfancied team will make it through to the playoffs, and this group has several with a chance.
FORZE, headed by their leader Andrey "Jerry" Mekhryakov, regularly pop up and surprise at international events, usually with much revamped lineups. A previous roster made a splash at ESL Pro League Season 14, making a surprise run to the playoffs, but the current core first impressed in the PGL Major Antwerp cycle, making it to the Challengers Stage and narrowly missing out on a Legends Stage berth. Fast forward to 2023 and the lineup is slightly revamped once again, with ex-Entropiq rifler Vladislav "Krad" Kravchenko and 18-year-old talent Evgeny "r3salt" Frolov involved, and FORZE are back on the upswing. Jerry has a penchant for taking young rosters and developing them into solid top-20 squads, but this time he has a little bit more experience backing things up. The raw talent of players like Aleksandr "shalfey" Marenov and Aleksandr "zorte" Zagodyrenko makes them dangerous in any series, and as a relatively unknown quantity they have a fighting chance to surprise one of the favorites in this group.
ATK are going to be an unpredictable entity for many, as they have played precious little CS in Europe and have been playing with Aleksandar "CacaNito" Kjulukoski as their fifth. A bizarre move on the surface, it nonetheless displays some ambition as the Macedonian rifler has been terrorizing tier two for some time now, producing an impressive 1.19 rating over 2022. The change has yet to bear fruit, ATK participated in BetBoom Playlist Urbanistic and Elisa Invitational Winter recently and lost all four series played, but with those reps under their belts they will be hoping to harness their new firepower in Malta.
Rare Atom have been the dominant side in the Asian domestic scene in recent months, despite the presence of IHC at many events: they bested the Mongolians 2-0 in ESL Pro League Conference Asia. Considering how well IHC have done in international events recently, it would not be a surprise to see Rare Atom pick up a win in Malta. The biggest issue with that assertion is that Rare Atom live up to their name and are an elusive sight in international tournaments, their only such showing coming at ESL Challenger Valencia 2022. They nabbed a top-four placing at that event and beat a then-top 20 MIBR in the process, but we are over nine months on from that performance, so it is tough to draw any relevant conclusions from it. Asian CS likes to pop up with an upset from time to time however, and underestimating Rare Atom could be deadly for many of the teams in Group D.