Is this fnatic team a legitimate world #1? Will Na`Vi resume their winning ways? Can Lions.swe be the best Swedish team when the dust has settled? Can EG or redCode upset the rest?
The favourites (Na`Vi, fnatic and Lions.swe)
fnatic is the hardest team in this entire group to predict for despite the fact they are the IEM V European Champions and defeated mTw and Na`Vi at the last major event. I genuinely feel like fnatic could win this group out right and they could also end up in the 4th spot and not make the playoffs. I think it's unlikely they won't make it out of the group but not so unlikely it's not worth mentioning that possibility. Whenever there's even a chance the best team at the last event might not make it out of the group stage it's worth talking about.
So what are my reservations about the European Champions? Well the most significant is that everything seemed to go right for them in Kiev. In the group stage they seemed to surprise everyone with their level and cArn seemed to rediscover the kind of individual form we haven't seen from him in many years. Xizt had the tournament of his life, literally, and seemingly could not lose a 1vX. Not to mention that he was contributing quick multikills over and over in the final. dsn also had some really good rounds and elevated his individual level of play. Delpan was able to struggle early while his team-mates were on fire and then take over to put up big numbers during the playoff run to push fnatic through. Finally Pita managed to resurrect his complimentary play from the late 2009 MYM era.
Losing a single additional round to Lions would have seen fnatic face a much tougher road to the finals which would have gone through mTw, FX and then likely Na`Vi in the finals itself. Instead fnatic won their group, on round difference, and got to play an underwhelming Na`Vi for a shot at the final. That same Na`Vi team managed to lose their home map, train, in standard train fashion with a bad T side leaving them no breathing room on the CT side. In the finals fnatic were firmly on the ropes with Delpan rescuing their tournament thanks to his 1v1 win against minet in overtime on train. That round ended up being as much about minet's reaction to the situation as it was about Delpan's clutch ability to win it.
A single missed AWP shot in that scenario would have fairly drastically altered the way we'd be talking about fnatic right now. Instead of asking if there were potentially the best team in the world likely we'd be talking about mTw as the clear cut #1s, especially with the Danes' impressive win over FX, and instead saying that fnatic impressed us with their performance but still had something to figure out before they could win.
My doubts about fnatic can all be linked to what I listed going right for them in Kiev. I haven't seen cArn and dsn both play at that individual level for a sustained period at a single event in the better part of a decade so I can't imagine it will happen again. Xizt had one of the best individual tournaments we've seen in a long time so either he is legitimately going to go down as a neo/f0rest/markeloff type or we can expect his performance to be less spectacular from here on out. Certainly it's hard to see him winning too many 1vX with 1hp while he spams a deagle and the other guy misses every single bullet.
Pita was one of the MYM players who completely disappeared after the team's two good placings and being the best player in RAGE is not the same as playing at a high level in an elite team so there are question marks about how big of a role he will play in this team. Finally Delpan needs to either improve his consistency or hope his low moments coincide with performances by other players who can cover for him to keep the team in the tournament. We saw at WEM the significant Delpan playing well has on a team as when he was on his game SK looked headed for the title but when he struggled in the final the team seemed to lose ground quickly. All in all there are a lot of unproven and uncertain factors surrounding this fnatic team.
They were certainly impressive, surprising and on fire in Kiev. I don't know how much of what propelled them to that title you can rely on though. Perhaps it's best if I list the things I think you can expect from this potential #1. I think you can expect that Delpan will play well and will have some big games in which he is the X factor. I've watched Delpan's game most closely of everyone in MYM since I've always felt like he was the driving force behind that team's success. He has proven to me that he is legitimately an elite player, even if he doesn't always show up to the same degree as the very top 3-4 do at the moment.
I think you can also rely on Xizt to play well, he showed back in H2k he was the best player in their team and while I would bet against a repeat performance of Kiev in terms of his numbers and impact I would expect him to be fnatic's best or second best player in every game. I expect dsn to be good, though not at his Kiev level, because dsn has always seemed to bring his best when the team needs it most. Until 2009 he was the team's second best player consistently and had periods where he looked like one of the top 2-3 AWPers in the world. After Gux left he was one of the players who stepped up his game and kept fnatic among the best. As a result I expect dsn to be good and to be a backbone of fnatic's wins here.
cArn and Pita are the biggest question marks individually. I think Pita's strength is in being a teamplayer and he relies upon other players to play well to allow his contributions to have more effect on the game. cArn had his moment in the group stage in Kiev but in big games against the best teams here I don't expect the same level. When you add all of that up I think it comes to a much less explosive performance from fnatic. Right now I feel like they should make it out of the group but I'm too hesistant to say they can win the group because every single match they play will be a tough one for them in terms of style I feel so it's a tall order to ask them to win four and outright top the group. Even if they are to win four I have a hard time figuring out which of the best teams they will get their wins over.
Na`Vi are not the team they were in 2010. I don't say that because they can't be that team or because the changing of one number on the calender means their reign is over. Instead I say it because that's what their performance in Kiev warrants. Even as 2010 closed out you could see the signs that Na`Vi were no longer at peak form and were more in danger of no longer being champions.
That WEM tournament was significant for me as I could accept them losing to FX on train, since I felt like FX had the one style which was a decent counter to Na`Vi's phenomenal train play, but the loss to SK on train and the fashion in which it happened seemed like a turning point for me. Not only did they lose their best map, one which had been a lock for them in every major series, but they lost it almost without putting up any resistance. They managed to reestablish themselves with their DreamHack Winter win but even so cracks had appeared and the great teams in Counter-Strike quickly learn how to exploit weaknesses.
I still feel like Na`Vi can be the best team in the world, and can even win this tournament, I just don't feel like they can dominate in the same way in 2011. The rise of FX is significant because stylistically I think FX have great chances every time they play against Na`Vi, so running into them in bracket play will always be a risk for the Ukrainians and that may cost them some titles. mTw's changes, essentially forced by Na`Vi's 2010 in my opinion, also have me questioning whether the Na`Vi-mTw will be so one-sided, I really suspect it has evened up significantly. All across the board the matchups are less favourable for Na`Vi than they were a year before.
What's good for Na`Vi is that they still have all their pieces in tact and on form I still feel like they're a good enough team with their specific strengths to win titles this year. I just don't think it's going to be with consistency. One of the key things to remember about 2010 is that Na`Vi not only won the events they were on fire at but also won events where they had to put the pieces together mid-tournament and scrape through some games until they could ignite that fire. The complextion of the field of elite teams this year means that I only see Na`Vi winning titles at events where they have all their cylinders firing.
This team is capable of winning this group and in terms of matchups, despite some things I've heard about their practice results, I think they have the best chance overall to do so but I don't think that chance is itself large. Compared to fnatic and Lions it's just ever so slightly better. Right now it feels like Na`Vi not only need to rediscover their own confidence but also pay their dues again and work their way back on top. The biggest matchup of this group for Na`Vi in my eyes will be against Lions because if they lose to Lions then I'm going to have a hard time believing their form is at a level to allow them to win the tournament.
I go back and forth on Lions with each passing moment's thought I give to them. Sometimes I feel like this is the team in this group with the most potential for variance in where they place and other times I feel like I know exactly what level to expect from Lions. Allow me to explain in greater depth. When I saw Lions defeat Na`Vi in Kiev and then tie up fnatic I felt like they ended up placing at the bottom of their potential range of placings. Coming second ended up meaning they had to face mTw in the first round of the playoffs and that always felt like a terrible matchup in terms of styles for the Swedes.
If they'd won a single additional round against fnatic Lions would have topped their group and gotten directly into the top 4. Not only that but they'd have faced Na`Vi in the semi-final and I think that would have been a really close series given how Na`Vi was playing. So the swing goes from placing to 5th-6th to placing guaranteed at least 4th and with the potential to even break top 2.
On the other hand I have this feeling like I do know Lions level and it's too generous to give them the benefit of the doubt on all of these matters. Lions feel like the team who are gatekeepers for the elite teams right now. If you beat Lions in a series you can safely assume you're an elite team. I do see Lions as being capable of upsetting the elite teams in a series but it seems like they couldn't be considered favourites against any of them except fnatic, who I'd put them 50-50 against right now, and I could see them pushing Na`Vi.
My biggest question is whether or not Lions is maxed out yet. Their team has some great pieces but it also has some which promise more than they ever seen to give. kHRYSTAL and FYRR73 seem to consistently tease at being better players than their record of consistency can attest to. Until they actually break out and put up big performances game after game though I can't elevate Lions in my internal rankings. threat was legitimately criticised during his time in fnatic I think but more for his individual skill than his tactical abilities. I think in Lions we've seen that with the right team-mates his approach to the strategical side of things is valid and yields results.
Gux is a player who can, and I think will, bring more to the table for Lions. The way Gux has changed as a player has been fascinating to observe. In the 2009 fnatic lineup he seemed to be the most versatile player in the world as he filled in every gap and picked up the slack from the other players to make that team at times unbeatable. Never before has there been a player on a team who was only required to be the third best player and yet could entry frag well, win 1vX rounds consistently and played with the confidence of the best player in the world.
You really saw what Gux was capable of when he left fnatic though and that's when I think his transformation became complete. A mixture of his drive to show fnatic what they had lost and his own realisation that not only did he feel like the best player in the world but was capable of playing like it took him from the third best player overall on fnatic to by far the best in SK. In SK Gux was so good his play alone basically demanded that everyone be centered around him and when it was SK had moments where they could beat the best. What you saw from Gux in SK was one of the best individual players in the world testing his limits and stretching out to see where his boundaries lay.
When Gux went back to fnatic it was not a mistake on his part or an error on fnatic's to bring him back into the fold but rather a case of the right player at the wrong time for the Swedes. Gux went back to his previous role within the team and was certainly capable of fulfilling it but the problem was that the team itself had changed. No longer was GeT_RiGhT playing the same style of CS that he had been in 2009. f0rest was still the best player in the team but now his impact on games was different. Tactically the team was a mess too and they alternated between a bizarre slowed down style which saw them throw away a lot of terrorist rounds and trying to revert to the fast paced arcade style which had worked in 2009 but proved much less effective in 2010.
The point to be made by recounting my own personal perspective on Gux over the last two years is that if he can get comfortable in Lions then the sky is the limit for what he can do individually. Gux is very capable of becoming one of the top 5 individual players in the world on a consistent basis in my opinion. If he can manage that then the demand on what FYRR73 and kHRYSTAL must do becomes less. That's a lot of weight to bear but I'm also certain Gux has the confidence level to bear it, this is a player who is not only very good but believes he can be better than he currently is. That's an extremely potent mix in Counter-Strike when it comes from the right place.
Right now I look at the matchups and part of me feels like Lions have an ok chance of winning the group, a really good chance of coming second and I would feel confident in saying they will progress one way or another.
The rest (SK, EG and redCode)
Group B is truly a killer group and I think it's actually even better than Group A at the last IEM World Championship, which at the time I thought was the most ridiculous ever. That group at least had teams which on paper had huge names but some of whom were underperforming. This group I genuinely feel is beyond ridiculous and is a very strong case to suggest the way these groups are drawn needs to be changed. If SK had their full lineup you'd genuinely have had three favourites for the entire tournament (Na`Vi, fnatic and SK) along with two dangerous dark horses (Lions and redCode) and then one team who have the potential to upset basically the entire group in EG.
Missing allen for this event is big in two key ways for SK I think. Firstly I actually think it might be a positive for them at this specific event because it eases a lot of the pressure on their shoulders which was noticeable going into the European Finals and which I think was smothering them to some degree. I think having the freedom of knowing you're bringing someone in last minute not only makes it feel like it doesn't count as much if you do place poorly but it also means everyone in the team can have more freedom in-game to do different things knowing that they can't stick to one rigid game plan in the same way as a team who have refined their game for three weeks solid can.
The other way it's big is that it could mess everything up for SK in a multitude of ways. What if dennis fits well and the team places top 4? Does that signal allen's exit or do they stick with allen and then face doubts internally if the original lineup then can't match or exceed that performance of the one with the stand-in? How about if dennis can't instantly click and suddenly the entire team is more a disparate group of individual players than an actual team? In the group of death to end all groups of death in CS now isn't the time you want to be without a single breather of a game to figure things out.
For SK everything must go right for them to get out of this group stage in my opinion. It's not even that I think allen's level is different to dennis' but more that I had things I wanted to see SK prove to me even with their real lineup before I could be certain they were an elite team. Now, with such a late change, I feel like this team could place second in the group on a great day or place as low as 5th on another kind of day. If ever there were a time f0rest and GeT_RiGhT needed to play great CS this is it.
Lastly I'll be keenly watching face's performance at this tournament because I think it has implications beyond just CeBit. In all of the SK lineups since he officially joined he has been one of the key motors which powered the team to its wins. I used to half-jokingly say to lurppis that Gux winning 1vX rounds in fnatic in 2009 put them over the top to win games while face had to win 1vX rounds just to keep SK in games. In the past lineups face always looked the most comfortable of everyone and was capable of playing at a high level even in their losses. In this new SK lineup I want to see if that's still the case or whether the addition of the other superstar players has altered his role and his ability to play it.
As things stand right now I think the real battle is between SK, Lions and fnatic over who will miss the playoffs. For now I give the edge to the latter teams over a very much unproven SK.
WeMade FOX were one of my favourite teams to watch in all of Counter-Strike and I'm a huge fan of both solo's skills and glow's style. Which is not to say I ever thought they were amongst the elite teams. For me WeMade FOX, and eSTRO as they were called before, were the ultimate dark horse team. Talented and capable enough of upsetting any elite team and making a deep run to the top 3 but also not nearly consistent enough or resilient enough to win major titles. That made them both delightful and frustrating to watch.
I don't even think their victory at WEM was as huge as the weight of the moment might have seemed. Sure they did come through and beat the big names and win themselves a title finally but it wasn't the same as beating a string of elite teams in BoX to win a major, that step up still evades them as of right now. The reason this is important to note is that redCode are a team who took a risk and changed up their lineup and as it stands right now I have no idea what the impact will be.
On paper I see the name enemy and I remember an incredible player from 2005-2006 who was without a doubt one of the top 3 South Korean players and could play big against most teams in the world. My question is does that enemy still exist right now and will he show up to CeBit? enemy is coming off his mandatory military service and that could easily have meant no Counter-Strike for as much as an entire year or more. The difference that can make to a player is one the Finnish scene knows about only too well. Until Power Gaming's return in 2010 no top Finnish player had ever returned from military service to play at an elite level again. Even players like plastE, the best Finnish player when he left, and contE have a way to go before they truly regain their peak levels.
If the gamble pays off and enemy can be a great player again then there is a case to be made that redCode could be even more dangerous than before and upset big names even more frequently. Whether as a team they'll actually become more consistent and step up to being one of the elite teams is a big stretch right now, we don't even know how well the composition of this team will work now since it has so many individual players. There's also the case that the gamble might work but with enemy and the team only flourishing a few months down the line.
It's important to separate intuition from wishful thinking in my opinion so I'll describe redCode's chances based on that distinction. My intuition tells me this team is probably going to finish 4th or 5th in Group B and that they'll lose to the teams they should lose to overall with maybe one nice upset win on the right map. Wishful thinking tells me they'll transform into a more dangerous side and grab multiple upsets to squeak out of the group in third. Never bet your money or reputation on wishful thinking folks.
I'll come right out at the beginning of this part of the preview and tell you that:
a) I thought people often overrated the old EG.
b) I thought lurppis was an enormous part of why EG was bordering on becoming an elite team at times in 2010.
c) lurppis is an acquaintance of mine.
Now that we've gotten those points out of the way I can attempt to objectively assess EG's chances. I have to say I really don't expect much from this team. I feel like the jump from lurppis to irukandji turns EG from dark horses bordering on becoming an elite team to just a good American team. I think EG is now more comparable to the American coL teams than it is to the EG side from late 2009 to 2010. As a result I expect something similar in terms of results from this team. I expect that they will play a style Americans often call "randy" or random and by increasing the variance they'll get occasional good results thanks to their players taking risks and hitting their shots.
I don't think that's ever going to be a good approach to getting consistent top placings though, I think it doesn't work enough times in a row to let you be a great team. If EG plays a more considered and strategical style, like the past EG teams, then I think that's actually going to be less effective now than it was and that they'll have problems falling apart when they face significant resistance from the big teams.
At this event I expect EG to either finish second from bottom, if redCode turns out not to be that dangerous, or bottom outright. It's not even that I don't see them upsetting anyone, but more that even if they do I don't think they're going to manage more than two, which may well end up being what you need to get out of a group like this.
SK Gaming will be on location at the IEM V World Championship to provide up-to-the minute coverage.
@Thooorin on twitter.
2001-2002 Pro-cybernews (Editor-in-Chief)
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2010 e-Stars Seoul (SK Gaming)
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