ECS preview: Lions, tigers and tales of redemption

OpTic Gaming won Season 2 of ELeague and looks like a heavy favorite coming into the ECS Finals. Raymond Mccrea Jones/Turner Sports

Beginning Friday, eight Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams from North America, Brazil and Europe will compete for their share of a $750,000 prize pool.

Tournament organizer FACEIT and Twitch's Esports Championship Series (ECS) Season 2 Finals event in Anaheim, California, will put the nail in the final event of the Counter-Strike leagues. The tournament will round out the year before teams head to Atlanta to compete for their spot in the first major in 2017, the ELeague major.

Spots for the Esports Championship Series finals have been earned through two online leagues, one in Europe and one in North America. While previous ECS finals events have been a wash for European teams, this weekend's event gives a boiling North America -- which has taken first in two offline events recently -- a chance at another title.

The Group A dilemma

Optic Gaming
FaZe Clan

It's no secret in Counter-Strike that offline and online performances can vary tremendously. Often times, teams that perform well offline can struggle when competing online, particularly in league matches, as opposed to offline events on the weekends. That issue has led us to Group A of the ECS Finals, which features four teams that have had decent performances online, but stellar performances offline, in the past few months.

Group A will pit North America's Cloud9 and OpTic Gaming against Europe's FaZe Clan and Astralis. The group will showcase a rematch between ELeague Season 2 finalists Astralis and OpTic Gaming on Friday. These teams both went against the odds in their ELeague playoff runs over the past weeks, with the finals series going to OpTic, an unexpected victor.

But don't discredit Cloud9 or FaZe. Since buying out Finn "karrigan" Andersen from Astralis and later moving Fabien "kioShiMa" Fiey back onto the team, FaZe has seen some of its best results, recently taking third/fourth in ELeague after a semifinal loss to OpTic. Now, karrigan will get a chance to lead his band of Europeans into battle against his former team.

As for Cloud9, the team has also seen an improvement in performance since adding former Team SoloMid player Timothy "autimatic" Ta to the lineup. In late October, the team took first at the ESL Pro League finals -- ending a 10-year drought of a North American team not winning a premiere event. But the team's shaky performances at the Americas Minor and DreamHack Winter leave much to be desired, so Cloud9 will need to fight to the death if it wants to advance out of the group.

Lions, tigers and stand-ins -- oh my!

SK Gaming
Team Dignitas
Team EnVyUs

At face value, Group B should go to SK Gaming and Team Dignitas. The former has been the best team in the world throughout 2016, and the latter has had a stellar fall. But not all is fun and games at ECS; both of those teams have stand-ins.

Team Dignitas star rifler Emil "Magiskb0Y" Reif will sit out of the event as he returns home to Denmark to complete school exams. The team will use Heroic's Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså in his place.

Meanwhile, SK Gaming benched Lincoln "fnx" Lau due to "different opinions on how to develop" the team after a rough period of performances. In his place will be former FaZe Clan Portuguese rifler Ricardo "fox" Pacheco, who has never competed with the team but speaks Portuguese, so there's no language barrier.

Those stand-ins shake up the group, with Immortals looking competitive until SK Gaming likely makes a bid for one of its players, considering both teams have swapped players back and forth in the past few years. It's likely that Immortals will make it out of this group, due to Dignitas and SK Gaming's predictable lack of coordination.

While EnVyUs will also participate in Group B, the team probably won't make it out, except if there are hard flops from disjointed versions of Team Dignitas and SK Gaming. But if DreamHack Winter is any indication of unexpected winners, EnVyUs could enjoy some kind of run.