Let's take a look at the four quarterfinal matches of ELeague Season 2, where eight teams will be vying for four spots in the semifinals and a piece of the $1.1 million purse.
ELeague's second season featured 16 teams -- as opposed to 24 in the inaugural season -- split into four groups:
Group A: mousesports prevailed over FaZe, with Cloud9 and Immortals sent packing.
Group B: Virtus.pro took down NiP for the top seed. G2 -- who also shared a group with the Ninjas in the first season -- were eliminated, together with Echo Fox, who won just six rounds across three maps played.
Group C: Astralis delivered the group stage's biggest surprise by upsetting SK, who then knocked out Na'Vi. ALTERNATE aTTaX left Atlanta with zero victories to their name, losing to Astralis and Na'Vi.
Group D: Dignitas took the group and OpTic defeated both EnVyUs and Fnatic -- who were playing with their coach -- to clinch a playoffs spot.
SK Gaming versus Dignitas (Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET)
It is unfortunate that these two sides must meet already in the quarterfinals, given their recent play probably should have warranted placings on the opposite sides of the bracket. SK Gaming have returned to consensus world No. 1 by both HLTV.org's and Thorin's world ranking, while their Danish opponents are ranked fourth and third, respectively.
SK lost to Virtus.pro in the semis of ESL One New York and EPICENTER: Moscow, and then to Cloud9 and NiP in the grand finals of ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals and IEM Oakland. They also advanced from group C at ELeague Season 2, knocking out Na`Vi but losing to Astralis.
The Danish side's grand achievement is their win at EPICENTER: Moscow, and they also topped group D of ELeague. Prior to EPICENTER, they won two smaller events, and since then they were demolished at the ESL Pro League Finals and thoroughly disappointed at DreamHack Winter.
Tactically speaking, these are probably the top two teams right now in the world, and at peak skill, they might not trail anyone. Their sole matchup so far was in the group stage in Sao Paulo, where SK easily bested Dignitas 16-7 on Cobblestone, a map deemed the home of Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen, the longtime Dignitas in-game leader.
Still, this series is far from over.
SK decided to veto Nuke over their longtime veto choice, Cache, at IEM Oakland. The Danes are strong on Nuke, but rarely play Cache. On the other hand, their veto is Train, the map SK are unbeatable on right now. Unless MSL's team has prepared for Cache, they will likely go for Mirage, a map SK has had issues on in the recent past.
On the other side, SK may want to give Cobblestone a go again, given their win in Brazil. Any of the remaining maps will provide a good finish to the series, but it basically comes down to this: Dignitas' youth and skill versus SK's experience and teamwork. The disadvantage SK faces is lack of Train, but given time to prepare, they can win anyway. What a series.
Prediction: SK > Dignitas 2-1
Astralis versus NiP (Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. ET)
The cores of these teams have a long history of matches in the playoffs of big tournaments, and ELeague should prove no different. In 2016, NiP knocked Astralis out in three best-of-three series, with Nicolai "device" Reedtz boasting a 1-5 map record online. In other words, the Swedish powerhouse, who won IEM Oakland, have had the Danish side's number this year. Given the best-of-three nature of those online matches, they effectively have three wins offline, another two online and one draw. For those not keeping count at home, that means Astralis have not beaten NiP in 2016, online or offline.
NiP returned with Jacob "pyth" Mourujarvi two weeks ago after attending a number of events with Mikail "Maikelele" Bill in his stead, during the former's injury. The Swedes have attended three tournaments in 2016 after a roster change, and won each of them (IEM Katowice not considered due to coach Bjorn "threat" Pers being unable to help in advance). That novelty will have worn off by the time ELeague begins, but does it matter? NiP have won three large tournaments in 2016, including two in the past three months. But Astralis are trending upward, besting SK in ELeague's group stage and barely losing to them in the IEM Oakland semifinal. The tide could turn in Turner studios.
When SK bullied Astralis by vetoing Nuke instead of Cache, the Danes let the world know they had not prepared for the latter. That does not hurt here, though, as it remains NiP's best map, but they also do not play Cobblestone, a good map for Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund's team. NiP will pick Cobblestone -- and almost definitely win it -- meaning they only need one more win. Their veto will be Mirage, and with Astralis likely vetoing Nuke out, the series should be decided on Train, a strong map for both.
The decider will be Fireworks, but after NiP's grind in California, they are slight favorites. Astralis will not be under heavy pressure, and that can only help their case.
Prediction: NiP > Astralis 2-1
mousesports versus OpTic (Thursday, 2 p.m. ET)
What on earth happened here? Nikola "NiKo" Kovac's mousesports stole Group A over Cloud9 and Immortals in best-of-ones, and now find themselves facing OpTic, the North American team who survived Group D versus a Fnatic team playing with their coach in star player Dennis "dennis" Edman's stead. And yet mousesports are not necessarily even favored to win this matchup, given their recent 0-5 performance at IEM Oakland.
One of these teams will be making top four at ELeague Season 2, and will act as yet another example in a future article of mine explaining why random seeding going into playoffs should not be tolerated any longer.
The two sides met at ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals in Sao Paulo, where Oscar "mixwell" Canellas's OpTic fell short 10-16 on Cache, with Tarik "tarik" Celik having a horrible showing for the North American side. The problem in predicting this series is neither team has made it far enough in recent tournaments to be properly analyzed in-depth. OpTic had perhaps been more consistent, but with lower peaks. On the other hand, mousesports's peak level is head and shoulders above what we have seen from OpTic so far. In addition, NiKo is fresh off of his career's second-worst offline showing, surely prompting the Bosnian to show up to Atlanta in top shape. That alone can be enough to swing the series.
If OpTic win, they can officially be considered a dangerous team to the top 10 sides, but a loss makes them vulnerable to falling back into relative obscurity.
Prediction: mousesports > OpTic 2-1
Virtus.pro versus FaZe (Thursday, 2 p.m. ET)
The Polish side were ranked No. 1 in the world until SK's top two placing at IEM Oakland bumped the Brazilians above them (they're also the defending ELeague Season 1 champions). In addition, they topped their ELeague group and won both DreamHack Open Bucharest while placing second at both ESL One New York and EPICENTER: Moscow. In comparison, FaZe only has promises and flashes of top-tier play, having just finished top four at IEM Oakland with a perfect 5-0 record in group B, featuring wins over names like SK, NiP and Cloud9. They have indeed shown promise, but this series is a tough task nonetheless.
Whereas most teams have been attending events every week in recent months, Virtus.pro have actually turned down a last-minute spot at ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals in Brazil, and withdrew from IEM Oakland. They should be better prepared for ELeague playoffs than FaZe, who were just in California for nearly two weeks, and only have about a week at home before traveling back to the United States for their date with the Poles. Now adding that together, Virtus.pro have better results, have had some time to breathe and should be better practiced, so where do you go if you want to reason a way for FaZe to win this series?
Filip "NEO" Kubski's side do not play Dust2, and the international team boasting players from four different European nations will veto Cobblestone. Of the remaining maps, I would favor the Polish side on every single one -- though the margins are not so large that FaZe could not steal a map, or even win -- if the Poles are not playing well. FaZe are a good team under karrigan, and trending up, but they need more time to practice. Meanwhile, ELeague is exactly the kind of event Virtus.pro normally thrive at.
This should be a routine win for Virtus.pro, all things considered, though there have been bigger upsets in 2016.
Prediction: Virtus.pro > FaZe 2-0