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ESL: FaZe and SK primed to advance from groups

Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo is the captain of SK Gaming's champion Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team. Provided by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack

When ESL descended on the Barclays Center in New York last September for a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive event in the Big Apple, fans certainly weren't disappointed. Whether it was Virtus.pro's Janusz "Snax" Pogorzelski's ridiculous 1-vs-4 clutch or Team Liquid narrowly making it out of the group stage to represent North America, there were plenty of moments to get hyped about. When the dust settled, Natus Vincere hoisted the crown and took home the $125,000 top prize.

Here we are a year later, and it's about to happen all over again. Five of the eight teams from last year's event are back and ready to battle it out for Counter-Strike supremacy. While the group stages utilized the Swiss format last time around, ESL has decided to go with the more traditional "two-group" format this year. With stacked competition, sparks are sure to fly from the very start.

Group A: SK Gaming, Natus Vincere, Cloud9, Team EnVyUs
Advancing: Natus Vincere and SK Gaming

This group has two strong teams in SK Gaming and Natus Vincere, with the rest fighting to break into the conversation. While the latter two certainly have a chance to make some noise, the former should rule the group.

SK Gaming needs no introduction. This is a team that has won a whopping six events in 2017. The next closest team is Astralis, and they've won just two events. While it's true that their two most recent showings have been a bit subpar, it's not time to panic just yet. After all, it's not as if losses to Astralis (quarterfinals of the PGL Major Krakow) and G2 Esports (quarterfinals of DreamHack Malmo) should "harm" a given resume. This will be a perfect time for SK to get back on track.

Winners of last year's event, Na'Vi will certainly have high hopes to repeat as champions. With the recent (re)addition of former, and now current, in-game leader, Daniil "Zeus" Teslenko, the team is looking to gain a bit of their former glory that has been lost this year. Following the aforementioned ESL One win last September, Na'Vi have only managed to advance past the quarterfinals at three of the 12 major events played since then. Under Zeus' guidance, however, they should at least be in contention for a top spot.

Cloud9 and Team EnVyUs, while both solid teams, likely won't have enough to break through this group. The addition of Will "RUSH" Wierzba and Tarik "tarik" Celik has been less-than-stellar for the North American hopefuls of Cloud9. Going up against the likes of Na'Vi and SK in this group won't help matters. Team EnVyUs, meanwhile, has struggled ever since losing three of their starters back in February. Those struggles certainly won't get better here.

Group B: FaZe Clan, Astralis, Team Liquid, Virtus.pro
Advancing: FaZe Clan and Astralis

With the number of storylines rolling through this group, fans shouldn't be disappointed one bit.

First and foremost is FaZe Clan. After failing to make it out of the group stage at the PGL Major Krakow, the organization underwent major roster changes. With the additions of veteran Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer Gustafsson and legendary AWPer Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács, FaZe was poised to take the CS:GO world by storm. That optimism was put on hold throughout DreamHack Malmo, however, as FaZe Clan limped to a 9th-12th place finish. Still, history has shown that it takes months for teams with star-studded talent to gel. On the big stage in New York, FaZe should be in good shape to light things up.

When Astralis won the ELEAGUE Major in January and IEM Katowice in March, they looked like they were on top of the world. The Danish organization has simply fallen off the mark since then, as they've made it to just one more grand final in the five tournaments since then. Still, this is a team that is as dangerous as ever. This is especially true when you look at the other teams in the group.

Oh, Virtus.pro. Once known as the Polish Plow, they've resembled more of a Polish Tonka Truck at this point. After winning DreamHack Las Vegas this past February, they've bowed out of the group stages at four of their six major events. While they managed to make it to the semifinals of the PGL Major Krakow, they've still yet to inspire true confidence in fans. With the likes of Astralis and FaZe in their group, that trend likely won't change. Team Liquid, on the other hand, always seems on the verge of pushing North America into true prominence, but they never have been able to get over that hump. They could certainly surprise everyone in New York, but don't hold your breath.

Regardless of how the events of this weekend end up shaking out, sparks will be sure to fly. The action will kick off this Friday at 11 a.m. ET with SK Gaming taking on Team EnVyUs.