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Dark horses primed for 'New Legends' phase of ELeague Major

Coming hot off the "New Challengers" phase of the ELeague Major, Jacky "Stewie2K" Yip and Cloud9 will have to bring their A-game. Helena Kristiansson/Provided by ESL

The ELeague Major "New Legends" phase begins Jan. 19 in Atlanta, with nine new teams rising to the occasion from the "New Challenger" stage to take on the seven returning teams from the last major. With the recent recovery of Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz from Astralis and the absence of Ricardo "boltz" Prass from the SK lineup, no major has had as wide open of a field as this one.

FaZe may be coming in as the favorites -- with Astralis and SK Gaming surefire contenders for the title -- but there's no telling what teams will bring to the table on game day. With FaZe having squandered opportunities (losing to Ninjas in Pyjamas at the Intel Extreme Masters Oakland being one such case), teams that would normally be considered "dark horses" have turned into serious contenders. With that said, here are some teams you shouldn't overlook this time around.

Cloud9

C9 looked excellent in the past few tournaments, especially in the New Challengers phase of the Major. During the ELeague Major qualifiers, the North American squad rolled through its opponents with ease. It was a dominant display against the Top 15 to 10 range of teams, but that's nothing new for this team.

The goal during the New Legends phase will be to finally beat SK, Astralis or FaZe -- ideally, it would be all three. While the team posted strong finishes at the Esports Championship Series, IEM Oakland and ELeague Premier, it hasn't beat any of the top three teams listed above in a Best of 3 series. With boltz out of the SK lineup for the Major and dev1ce's recent return, there is no better time for Cloud9 to take the next step and prove it belongs among the best teams in the world.

Na`vi

The addition of Denis "electronic" Sharipov has injected life into a Na`vi lineup that had been stale for over a year. The rookie has played well, and his addition hasn't detracted from superstar Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev's form either. With a fresh lineup, one of the best players in the world under the leadership of the reigning champion Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko, Na`vi has the chance to win it all. After a year of disappointments and a shaky qualifier, expectations are quite low -- but low expectations pave way for high ceilings and unlocked potential and Na`vi is the perfect dark horse team to watch.

Fnatic

Certainly the least exciting of all these teams, Fnatic has made great strides to improve. With back-to-back semifinals at the EPL and ECS, the Swedes have proven that they can take care of the weaker teams. But much like C9, the team has yet to defeat a world class team.

The difference is Fnatic has three legendary players, including the Major monster Robin "flusha" Rönnquist. Now relieved of his duties in the in-game leader role, flusha returned to form; he's hit his stride in the last few events of the year. If he can carry that performance into the Major and emulate the flusha of old, it may be just what Fnatic needs to defeat some of these teams.

Mousesports

The New Challengers stage of the ELeague Major was a bit of a scare for mousesports, as it fell from 2-0 to 2-2, on the brink of elimination. Nevertheless, the mixed team will be heading to Boston, where Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný and company hope to build on its end-of-year success. After a Top 2 finish at the ECS finals -- nearly taking down FaZe -- mousesports will prove that fighting in championship matches is where they belong. With superstar firepower in oskar and a talented team to support him, there's no question that mousesports can contend with the world's best. The team's belligerent aggression can overwhelm even world class teams, yet it's their mid-round calls that lose them matches.

To win this tournament, mousesports will have to play to its strengths in order to hide its weaknesses: there is no need for clutch mid-round calls if there is no one left standing by the minute-mark. Fast, explosive and brimming with talent, mousesports could surprise many teams at this tournament.