As the inaugural season of ELeague heads into its tenth and final week, the intensity is certainly not letting up. Here's a look at the two teams going head-to-head in the first semifinal of ELeague's Season 1 playoffs on July 29: Fnatic, the Swedish world champions who have won six tournaments with this roster, and the Eastern European juggernaut Natus Vincere (Na`Vi), whose inability to win grand finals has seen it finish as runner-ups numerous times in 2016.
Fnatic's unpredictability is a result of its style, which relies heavily on teamwork, communication and individual skill. When its players peak simultaneously, it can be impossible to beat, as was the case when the current lineup as of late 2015 won its first six tournaments straight. As the team is not heavily dependent on terrain-specific practice, it has the ability to play just about any map; nuke is its veto since inferno was swapped out. However, with its form seemingly not where it used to be -- taking fourth at ESL One Cologne, for example -- it has far less to fall back on if plan A does not work.
Where Fnatic really shines is its players and its synergy. Throughout 2015 until his injury sidelined him around Major League Gaming Columbus earlier this year, Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer Gustafsson was considered the world's best player. In-game leader Robin "flusha" Rönnquist is tied for best-ever performance at the majors in rating, and has the best overall rating across all majors. I'm unsure anyone else in the scene has Jesper "JW" Wecksell's explosiveness, and Dennis "dennis" Edman is the world's best pistol player. Add in Freddy "KRiMZ" Johansson, the world's most overqualified role player, and Viktor "vuggo" Jendeby's experienced coaching, and Fnatic's dominance starts to make a lot of sense.
But since olofmeister's return to ELeague in June after a two month hiatus, the team has not been winning. It has done well, recording two top four finishes at the Esports Championship Series (ECS) Season 1 Finals and ESL One Cologne, but this team is not used to merely reaching top four. With respect to the upcoming semifinal match, this Fnatic roster has never lost to Na`Vi, although there was a narrow 3-2 win at ESL Pro Series Season 2 finals in December 2015. As usual, olofmeister and company enter as favorites, but will their performance in Atlanta trump their streak of semifinal exits?
If Fnatic are the prototype superstar team with high individual skill and few set tactics, Na`Vi are not too far from being the polar opposite. Na`Vi are a very structured team, led by former member Sergey "starix" Ishchuk as a coach and the in-game leader, with a playing style that relies heavily on map control and playing the numbers. A well-oiled Na`Vi looks like an unstoppable machine, but unfortunately for the fans, team centerpiece Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács has not yet fully recovered from his injury. The team is built around GuardiaN, whose AWP helps it take over areas of the map, and without him at times the machine breaks down.
In an identical storyline to his Fnatic counterpart, Na`Vi's superstar GuardiaN, considered runner-up to olofmeister's title as the world's best, has not fully recovered from his injury. Egor "flamie" Vasilyev can partly cover for him, and other teammates Ioann "Edward" Sukhariev and Denis "seized" Kostin are firing on all cylinders, but with Zeus often struggling in the fragging department, the margin for error is much smaller than for its opponents. Furthermore, GuardiaN's sniping is the one area of the game where Na`Vi boast a clear advantage, but only if he is playing well.
Fnatic hardly ever enter the map veto process as underdogs, but Na`Vi may be able to take the advantage this time. Na`Vi will need to veto cache versus Fnatic, and will get to play either overpass, if Fnatic are no longer traumatized from a 16-2 loss to G2 Esports at the ECS Season 1 finals, or train, another map Na`Vi are incredibly strong on. Like Fnatic, Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko's team is generally very good on cobblestone and very much capable on all other maps; nuke, a map that is very unlikely to get picked here, is an obvious question mark. If Na`Vi can force Fnatic to veto nuke, and steer the series to train, mirage, overpass and cobblestone, it could almost be called the favorite. These teams share similar map pools, and that is what makes the matchup so intriguing. We'll certainly see fireworks as the ten players join the server on Friday.
This squad has not defeated Fnatic's current lineup before, but things change. No longer is Fnatic the world-conquering juggernauts everyone fears, and teams have found weak spots in its armor. This is likely the weakest Na`Vi has ever seen Fnatic, but it, too, is far from its peak. Friday night could end up in a slugfest, with just a tiny bit of extra preparation or drive propelling the victorious team to the finish line.