ESL One Cologne 2015 is set to be the best Major yet
It’s only a matter of weeks now till the next Counter-Strike Major, ESL One Cologne 2015, and I personally am stoked to watch some amazing Counter-Strike, see some of the best teams in action, effectively stand by as eSports history is written, and most of all, hopefully getting a package drop for some easy $$$(yup, 3 Majors for me now and still no drop, Volvo pls). Now, I am aware that there is a tendency for every new Major to be hailed as the best, but I genuinely believe that in terms of competition at the highest level, Cologne 2015 is going to be the most interesting to the Counter-Strike fan.
Thanks to Redditor /u/RusticDusty who created this image
One reason that this Major is set to be interesting is the sheer number of teams going into the event that are performing well. Fnatic at the moment are typical Fnatic, arguably the best team in the world at this point in time, and capable of beating pretty much any other team in a best-of-3 series. However, TSM are looking strong, uncharacteristically faltering recently at Acer Predator Masters and failing to best the refreshed Envyus lineup at IEM Gamescom, but winning Faceit Stage 2 Finals before that, and for the majority of this year have been the kryptonite to Fnatic’s success, beating them earlier in the year in several offline series. Na’Vi are currently ranked #2 in Duncan “Thorin” Shields’ world rankings, and who am I to disagree with our lord and savior Thorin? All jokes aside, the Ukrainian outfit has been on the rise in the past months, winning Starseries 13 over Envyus and ESWC over Cloud 9, winning and taking maps off of other top teams on the way. Speaking of Cloud 9, shroud, Skadoodle and co have definitely been one of the hottest teams of late, making the finals of ESL ESEA Pro League, ESWC and Faceit Stage 2 Finals consecutively, beating Envyus(the now outdated roster, mind) in two best-of-3 series and a single map, trumping Fnatic 2-0 in a semi-final, as well as playing them close in four maps in a best-of-five grand final previously. The fact that there are a total of four teams that are favoured(or otherwise in with a decent chance) of winning in Fnatic, TSM, Na’Vi and Cloud 9, means that we have a potential situation where all four teams in the semi-finals could be favourites, which is not true of some of the other Majors in the past(remember ESL One Cologne where the semi-finals was NiP vs LDLC and Fnatic vs Dignitas?). This is excluding potential unknowns or upset teams, like Virtus Pro(who have just won an event with Na’Vi and Cloud 9, two of the favourites here, in attendance) or Envyus and their new roster(who have again, just won an event while beating TSM in 4 maps). As such, this Major is going to have arguably the most competitive field of any similar tournament, with a total of 6 teams out of 16 capable of taking the entire event, if not at least making a top four finish. This means that two out of these teams are going to be disappointed, which further adds to the scope for analysis of the event, doubtless opening up many discussions after the event of which teams did well and which teams maybe didn’t quite achieve what they hoped for or were capable of. I’d argue that the most interesting events are the ones where there is a lot to discuss, dissect and analyze afterwards, or the ones that offer the most “food for thought” per se.
However, on the other hand, out of these six teams who are expected to make it far, all have some sort of issue that prevents them from being head and shoulders above the rest. Fnatic have not played since their shocking elimination from Faceit Stage 2 LAN Finals, TSM left the Acer Predator Masters in last place and then were humiliated by Envyus at IEM Gamescom, losing 4 maps to the newly formed French lineup. Speaking of Envyus, the French team had a good showing at IEM Gamescom, but is still an untested new lineup, and as such we don’t really have anything to go on short of one small tournament with only one other big team in attendance, and a format that, while being hugely entertaining and a well-needed break from the norm before the major, wasn’t really designed to make for a highly competitive showcase of the best Counter-Strike. Cloud 9 similarly, while making 3 grand finals in a row, failed to win all three, losing to Fnatic, TSM and Na’Vi, before losing a best-of-3 to Gob B’s mousesports at CEVO LAN. Na’Vi have similarly fallen off a little, losing a best-of-5 final to Virtus Pro at said CEVO tournament. The Poles of Virtus Pro, however, have not been the most consistent of late, making a top four at ESL ESEA Pro League before losing in shocking fashion to Kinguin at the group stage of Faceit Stage 2. This is another reason that Cologne 2015 is set to be interesting; while there are many teams who could conceivably take the title, similarly each of these teams has skeletons in their metaphorical cupboards that mean none of them truly manage to pull ahead of the pack.
Ninjas in Pyjamas could fail to make it to the finals of a Major for the first time
Another aspect of the state of competitive Counter-Strike at the moment which could make 2015 the most interesting Major yet is the fact that there are some significant storylines that are set to be broken. Storylines are important in eSports; they add much needed context to discussion, can completely devalue a team’s achievements or cause a relatively small event to be regarded as sensational. They make or break teams’ brands and reputations. However the at the upcoming Major certain storylines and trends are either going to be ended, or if they aren’t ended it’ll be through exceptional circumstances, so either way this is going to be good for the eSports fan. One such storyline is the fact that Ninjas in Pyjamas, a team with an absolutely huge following and valuable brand especially within its native Sweden, have prior to Cologne 2015, never failed to make the grand final of a Counter-Strike Global Offensive Major. However, for the first two, Dreamhack Winter 2013 and EMS One Katowice 2014, they were heavily favoured, and yet still only managed second. For the next one in the timeline, ESL One Cologne, they were only just beginning a dip in form, were gifted an easy group(containing Team Wolf, Epsilon and Hellraisers) in which they still lost a map, attained overall an easier run to the final(facing Cloud 9 followed by Team LDLC), and only narrowly reached the final through several 16-14 map wins based off of huge clutch plays. The same applies for Dreamhack Winter 2014, where they were drawn in a relatively easy group(containing the second best team in the world Team LDLC[note: they had changed roster since the previous major and the core of this team is now known as Envyus] but at the same time ESC and Planetkey) and ended up missing out on playing Fnatic in the round of 8 since Hellraisers upset them in the groups, so HR ended up facing NiP in Fnatic’s place. They then faced Virtus Pro in the semis, mounting a huge comeback in the first map(from being on match point on CT side Nuke, taking it to Overtime and then winning), losing Cache but then absolutely shutting the Poles down on Inferno, winning the first half 14-1 on the CT side and then closing it out 16-8, thus making their fourth Major final. For ESL One Katowice they were not particularly favoured, yet managed series wins over TSM(who would later on in the year become a top 2 team) and Envyus.
So, Ninjas in Pyjamas haven’t always had it easy, yet it’s something of a running joke that they always get an easier run to the finals than other teams, which is largely true. However, as mentioned above, there are already 6 teams at this event that are capable of winning it or making the final, all of whom are playing significantly better Counter-Strike than NiP and have been for many months now. First of all, even though it appears their group is one they should easily be making it out of, due to the format changes(I’ll further elaborate on these later on) there is a very real possibility that they won’t, especially considering that NiP famously struggle in group stages. Even if they do make it out of the group stage, at some point they will have to face one of the 6 teams I mentioned above, if not in the round of 8 then definitely in the semi-finals. This is barring some extremely lucky combination of upsets, favourable draws and a huge helping of #nipmagic. While the first and last of those things often occurs, the probability of all 3 happening at the same time is very low.
Another storyline that could potentially meet its end in Cologne is the fact that the French team Titan have never gotten past the group stages of a Major tournament, at least under their current organization. Despite being, at times, regarded as the very best team in the world, Titan have always fallen at the first hurdle. Their first major with the Titan org was EMS One Katowice 2014, where they were drawn in a group with Hellraisers, mousesports and Virtus Pro. They beat mouz in the opener before losing to VP, who ended up being the dominant winners of the entire tournament, only dropping one map on the way. They then however lost to Hellraisers in the elimination match, a disappointing end to what was a promising tournament run. At the next major, ESL One Cologne 2014, their group consisted of Cloud 9, Team Dignitas(the core of which is now known as TSM) and Vox Eminor. The French/Belgian squad lost their first map in upset fashion to Cloud 9, letting a 15-10 lead slip on the CT side of Dust 2 and establishing the first step of the North American’s team legendary run in the tournament. They then went on to play Vox Eminor, smashing the Australian minnows 16-1, before themselves being humiliated 16-1 by Dignitas and again, failing to secure a round of 8 placing and being sent home in devastating fashion, failing to close out one map from 15 rounds while losing the last only picking up a single round for all their efforts. They did not compete at Dreamhack Winter 2014 due to disqualification when one of their players, Hovik “KQLY” Tovmassian was VAC banned. Then at ESL One Katowice 2015 they were again knocked out in a disappointing fashion. Their group consisted of Envyus, Penta Sports and LGB eSports. After losing a close game to Envyus in their opening match, they then faced Penta sports, who shockingly eliminated the team yet again, winning 16-4. and thus disallowing Ex6tenz’s men a shot at a round of 8 match. Looking at Cologne 2015’s group draws, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the pattern is set to continue. Titan is in Group C with Fnatic(current champions from the last major, widely considered best team in the world right now, only team to win a Major twice) and Na’Vi(Thorin’s second-ranked team, certainly better than Titan currently on paper) whereas Titan themselves have just undergone a roster swap where they have lost their two best players, KennyS and ApeX, and gotten in return their former players Smithzz, a decent player but not as good an AWPer as KennyS, and Shox, a player who has the potential to be the best player in any given matchup and has been the top player in the world in Counter-Strike for a brief period, but in recent times has failed to show this tendency to any consistent degree. Now, in the normal, GSL-style group format used in the Majors, Titan would have to be able to win two maps against any one of Fnatic or Na’Vi. But due to the new format(I will explain this later on), even if they lost their first map to Na’Vi, they have a chance of making it to the round of 8 through being redrawn against a weaker team and then another less strong team after that.
These two storylines are probably the most well-known, but there are many more that I could mention as examples that are set to change at the next Major; I could mention the fact that no North American team has made it past the round of 8 at a Major since EMS One Katowice 2014, whereas this time most would favor Cloud 9 to make it deep into the playoffs, if not to the final. I could bring up the point that Na’Vi has never made it to the finals of a Major, as have TSM, whereas at Cologne both are favoured at least to a moderate degree to make it to the finals. Suffice to say that this Major could be significant in terms of where it leaves perceptions and histories of certain teams.
One reason this Major could be very interesting indeed, that I alluded to above, is the new format. I will preface this part by saying that I, as do a large part of the community, fail to fully understand what ESL has proposed here, as they didn’t provide anything by way of example and used somewhat vague wording. Nevertheless, I shall try my best to express what I understand by their statement regarding the new format. The official announcement was:
“At the end of the first day, after all four groups have been played out up to and including the winners’ match with the elimination match and decider match still to be played out, the groups will be redrawn, with the quarterfinals to be seeded to ensure that teams won’t end up facing a team they’ve already fought until they reach the grand finals.”
What this means is that, after the winners of each group have been decided, and these teams have already made their way to the round of 8, the remaining groups(each containing three teams remember) will be shuffled so that instead of facing teams from their original group, both the losers of the initial matches and the loser of the winner’s match from each group will face a new team instead. This means that, as I stated above, certain storylines which before seemed set to continue are now in jeopardy, and more importantly, the results of each group past the winning team are no longer a foregone conclusion. I’ll use group C as an example. Whereas in the conventional system, Titan would have to beat either Fnatic or Na’Vi at least once to qualify, which most would agree is a long shot, in the new system they can lose to Na’Vi and instead of then playing eBettle(presuming they don’t manage to upset Fnatic) followed by the loser of Fnatic and Na’vi, they can either lose to Na’Vi and then be redrawn against someone else, or somehow beat them and then not have to play Fnatic, the best team in the world at the moment, but instead another team from another group. This is the situation for all teams, and so we cannot draw any meaningful conclusions from the groups aside from the winners, which is fairly clear cut anyway. As such there is a chance that teams that would otherwise be fancied to make it out of groups can be upset, and likewise a chance that teams otherwise relegated to being eliminated can somehow make it out, or at least attain a more feasible chance of doing so.
As such I reckon that Cologne 2015 is going to be the closest and most interesting Major yet. Of course, I could just be plain wrong, and it could just be a Fnatic-NiP final for the third time now, with Titan and Cloud 9 not making it out of groups. Who knows?
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