While we need to wait roughly a month longer for the next Counter-Strike: Global Offensive major, MLG Columbus, next week's IEM Katowice will be more important than any tournament of the past three months, meaning all 12 teams will do their best to show up in top form. This article takes a look at the key storylines going into the first $250,000 event of 2016.
Can anyone stop fnatic?
The previous fnatic roster, led by Markus "pronax" Wallsten, had arguably the most impressive run of any Counter-Strike team in the history of the franchise. Yet after a couple of weaker showings, the squad parted ways with its in-game leader, and brought in Dennis "dennis" Edman, former LGB teammate of fnatic's two brightest stars.
Since Edman joined, the team has won every tournament it has attended, racking some $350,000 in prize money in just five events. So far fnatic have proved they can outplay every team in the scene, and rarely make enough mistakes to allow others a chance. Yet they have shown weakness by losing multiple maps to EnVyUs, and nearly dropping a game to dignitas at ESL Barcelona.
Fnatic boast the world's best player in Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer, and what they lack in leadership they make up for in pure talent. Beating them through skill does not seem like a viable option, unless you are EnVyUs, which is why the likeliest candidates for upsets are the tactical teams: Natus Vincere, Luminosity and dignitas.
However, even if they go into every playoff series as favorites, simple mathematics say they will eventually lose one. It may not be in Katowice -- though a single best-of-one loss in groups may mean they would need three series wins to win the title -- but I would bet they do not win more than one of the next three big events.
Is the new NiP good enough to contend for titles?
The performance of Ninjas in Pyjamas at IEM Katowice will by no means be the definitive answer to their long-term potential as a team, but it is going to be their offline debut with Jacob "pyth" Mourujarvi playing and Bjorn "THREAT" Pers coaching. With months of misery nearly forgotten in the NiP camp, it is going to be extremely important for the team to start off on the right foot and gain some confidence going into MLG Columbus.
Online, NiP has had mixed results, but some of the games were played very soon after Pers returned from overseas and started full-time coaching. In addition, considering how vastly experts expect NiP to alter their traditionally very free-wheeling style of play, it is not unlikely that they would have a couple of aces up their sleeves, to be revealed when they are actually playing with glory on the line. Do not expect an entirely new NiP, but Pers is known for having tricky tactics others have not considered.
To make it to the playoffs in Katowice, NiP would need to make top three in a group with fnatic, Na`Vi, Luminosity and mousesports. In other words, for perhaps the first time in history, NiP are favored to go out in the group stage. Making it out of the groups would be impressive, and an indication the 2016 NiP team might be able to contend for titles. But the pressure is on, and odds are, for once, stacked against them.
How will the meta-game evolve?
Often the direction that teams take is massively influenced by the outcomes of big tournaments. While Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has seen a loose, skill-based playing style reign supreme since the game came out, the tactical play of the likes of Na`Vi, Luminosity, and most recently dignitas, has also proved to be effective enough to challenge anyone -- including the teams they cannot match on an individual level.
With fnatic dominating the competitive landscape, a chess-like approach to Counter-Strike is yet to bag a big international tournament. But odds say it will have done that by the time DreamHack Malmo -- the third $250,000 tournament in the next seven weeks -- has finished. Once that happens, some challengers will certainly start copying plays from the more tactical sides, and the meta-game of Counter-Strike will further evolve to a more tactical style of play. Unless fnatic, EnVyUs or Virtus.pro win -- and nothing may change.
Will Luminosity or Na`Vi finally prevail and win it all?
Will one of the two most tactical Counter-Strike teams finally put it all together and get over the hump? Both have made the grand final of large tournaments in the past -- including ones with an identical prize purse of $250,000 -- and are now looking to add an actual tournament win to their legacies. And Katowice may be their best chance at it yet.
Every incremental success the two tactical teams have had has added to their experience, and the only team against which one would still consider both of them underdogs is fnatic. As a result, they should have spent some extra time studying fnatic's play, and figuring out ways to beat them -- as any competitor would. They are skilled and tactical enough to beat others when in top shape, and should be armed with new tricks with only fnatic in mind.
I am not sure if either will win in Katowice, but I am willing to bet one of them will have won a tournament by the time IEM Katowice, MLG Columbus and DreamHack Malmo are all over. Their tactical prowess should take them to the semifinals -- unless Na`Vi's group stage struggles rear their ugly head -- and from there on out, the chess masters of each team will determine how far they will go, with an added push from each team's respective star players.
What about EnVyUs and astralis, the other realistic contenders?
EnVyUs has been downright disappointing since winning DreamHack Cluj-Napoca, and their situation does not seem to be improving. Reportedly, some of their players have been struggling with drive since the major, but if that problem were to fix itself, you would have expected it to do so by now; it has been months, after all, and they surely had a break for the holidays. It is unclear if this team will ever be able to fix its issues.
And yet we all jump at the opportunity to watch EnVyUs take on any of the other elite teams, because their peak as a team, when all of their players are at the top of their game individually, is so incredibly high. When Vincent "Happy" Schopenhauer's troops are playing their best, it seems no one can match them. They also have defeated this new fnatic squad more often than not (though fnatic remains undefeated in tournaments). Either way, they are a team to watch, because they may break out any moment.
On the other hand, astralis has been slowly improving after an atrocious end to 2015. They finished above EnVyUs at ESL Barcelona, but without ever actually beating the French due to the odd, king of the hill-type format. The team has a superstar player in Nicolai "device" Reedtz, and they are somewhat of a mixture between the tactical sides Na`Vi and Luminosity, and the skill-heavy teams fnatic and EnVyUs. At their peak, it seemed as if they had best of both worlds.
The Danes are bound to break through with a strong performance soon, and it is only a question of when it will happen. Regardless of what some fans say, they are a legitimate contender, and capable of beating anyone they might face. It also does not hurt that they are in the easier group -- they only need to defeat FaZe to make the playoffs. Finn "karrigan" Andersen's team might again disappoint, but unlike most participants they can actually win. And that is why they are interesting to watch.
Virtus.pro come in as underdogs on their home soil -- can they shock everyone?
Virtus.pro arrived at the top of the scene by winning EMS One Katowice 2014 -- this same event two years ago, when it was backed by Valve. Prior to that, the Poles had not been considered a near-elite level team, and had scored only occasional top finishes at tournaments. And in seemingly a blink of an eye, everything changed as their players leveled up and became the world-beaters they are today, even while they struggle with consistency.
Much like astralis, Virtus.pro's playing style can be dubbed as somewhat of a mixture between tactical and skill-focused play. They are not overly tactical, yet their players are not skilled enough to rely on pure aim. As a result, they rely on teamwork and communication, both of which get massively affected by the amount of preparation they put in -- and what could be more motivating than an event on your home soil, for a team as proud of their country as the Poles?
Janusz "Snax" Pogorzelski is the team's only star-level player, but practically any of the other players can take over for a game. For a deep playoff run, Virtus.pro will need the others to give Pogorzelski some real help. That part also correlates with preparation, and while we cannot know how much Filip "NEO" Kubski's team is practicing in the final weeks, given their horrible start to 2016, you expect the answer to be a lot. Do not be surprised if Virtus.pro, all of a sudden, look much better than before. Again.
Can any of the underdogs make a name for themselves?
IEM Katowice will have only 12 teams, which means fewer underdogs. In addition, fewer teams will make the playoffs than usual -- only six teams will make the quarterfinals, with group winners advancing directly to the semifinals. But each team is guaranteed five matches, a 150 percent increase over the usual minimum of two-and-out. That means more chances to prove your worth as a team, even if for nothing but ruining someone else's tournament.
This will be especially valuable for the least experienced teams, such as E-Frag, TheMongolz and Tempo Storm. But FaZe and mousesports, neither of whom has done much in the recent months, also benefit from it, because for teams capable of upsetting elite squads at times, more chances are always welcome. Neither is expected to make the playoffs, so the pressure is off -- and that is another thing working in their favor.
Who will break through individually?
The large $250,000 tournaments are often coming-out parties for up-and-coming players. They may have had strong performances online, or even at medium-sized tournaments, but they will not be considered stars before they have delivered at the big events. Odds say someone will do just that at Katowice, especially considering the large groups that will guarantee every team five maps of play -- thus making it easier for newcomers to adjust to the pressure.
Someone to keep an eye on is Tempo Storm's Brazilian AWP star Henrique "hen1" Teles, who has been wrecking North American teams in online play. Some of FaZe's near-forgotten players also may resurface at any moment to join Philip "aizy" Aistrup at the top of the scoreboard. Other notables include NiP's new recruit Mourujarvi, and mousesports' Johannes "nex" Maget, who has struggled for a while now. The point is, no one can know what will happen ahead of time. But expect some unexpected faces to turn heads next week.