Previewing the StarLadder i-League Invitational

The Natus Vincere team walks outside together. Kyle Grillot for ESPN

The dust has settled and eight teams are locked in for the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive StarLadder i-League Invitational taking place at the NSK "Olympic" in Kiev, Ukraine starting on May 19. The participating teams are set, but it wasn't clear even this morning as to who would be participating in this invitational as Luminosity, TyLoo, and Born of Fire have all dropped out of this tournament.

Luminosity and TyLoo were considered invited teams but because of scheduling conflicts and visa issues, both opted to drop out. Soon after, Born of Fire was invited to replace TyLoo and agreed to play, but it too had to withdraw, citing visa issues. With the merry-go-round of participating teams, the door has been opened for Godsent and Worst Players to join a "premier" level tournament, giving them a world stage to prove they can compete with the best.

The invitational is a double-elimination tournament with the eight teams seeded into a quarterfinal bracket. All matches will be best of three with the standard seven map rotation, as Nuke hasn't been put into play for this tournament. All that's left is to look at how these teams are seeded, who they'll play, and who'll get the biggest chunk of the $100,000 purse.

Five of the eight teams in this tournament are ranked in the top 20 by numerous organizations, with the top two teams being Natus Vincere seeded second and Virtus.pro seeded sixth. HellRaisers come in at 12, Godsent 14, SK Gaming at 19 while Dobry&Gaming, FLipSid3, and Worst Players come in unranked.

Looking at the initial seeding, we see that Natus Vincere and Virtus.pro have been placed on opposite sides of the bracket as the first and second seeds, while HellRaisers takes on the third seed and Godsent the fourth. No complaints here, as the seeding looks solid with potential second round matches all looking like they could go the distance in those best of threes. However, we have a great matchup in the the first quarterfinal: HellRaisers vs SK Gaming.

HellRaisers and SK Gaming have faced each other five times in 2016, with SK Gaming claiming victory in three during the CEVO Gfinity Professional Season 9 finals. SK has the round win advantage (74-54) with its last map a 16-3 stomp by SK on Cobblestone. However, HellRaisers is coming into Kiev having just made it to the finals in the DreamHack Regional Minor, which coincidentally gave it a spot in the ESL One Cologne Qualifier. This matchup has everything fans and pundits want to see. Two closely matched teams whose outcome could go either way. Look for SK to come out of this opening round match with the win, but not easily.

"This matchup has everything fans and pundits want to see. Two closely matched teams whose outcome could go either way."

Looking down the rest of the opening quarterfinal matches, Virtus.pro takes on the Worst Players, who has acquired former Team Liquid member Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev. This is a team that doesn't have much of a match ledger filled with top ranked opponents. In fact, it was swept by Copenhagen Wolves 16-3 in its only notable competition. Virtus.pro should win this opening match with no problems.

The third match in the quarterfinal bracket looks to be another contest that could be close depending on how Godsent plays, as it squares off against FlipSid3 Tactics. Godsent launched itself into credibility after taking third/fourth at the DreamHack Masters Malmo last April. Lead by Markus "Pronax" Wallsten, formerly of Fnatic, Godsent has been up and down in terms of performance. It's had significant wins over the likes of mousesports and G2, but has lost to teams that some consider second tier like ENCE and CSGL.

If past performance is the best indicator of future performance, then Godsent should win this matchup considering it recently defeated FlipSid3 2-0 last weekend in the Uprise Champions Cup Season 4.

Rounding out the quarterfinal matches is Natus Vincere against Dobry&Gaming. Natus Vincere has taken some time off lately and could be a little rusty, but it should handle Dobry&Gaming. While there might be one or two upsets in this double-elimination tournament, the top two seeds should make it to the Grand Finals. Natus Vincere and Virtus.pro are the cream of the crop in and unless a team comes out playing completely over its head, these two teams should end up battling it out for the title. That team could very well be HellRaisers.

That being said, Virtus.pro is probably hoping that it won't have to face Natus Vincere in the finals, as it's a combined 0-5 against Na'Vi in 2016. Virtus.pro dropped two best of threes to Natus Vincere in the ESL Pro League Season 3 and in the semifinals of the Counter Pit League Season 2 Finals.