It was the summer of 2015 in Cologne when the first ever ESL ESEA Pro League finals were held. Back then, Europe was on another level in CS:GO, even sparking discussion among fans as to whether both regions deserved an equal amount of spots at the finals. The event later turned out to be an upset-crazy one, with the old Team SoloMid squad going out in the group stage, Cloud9 and Counter Logic Gaming representing North America with deep runs into the playoffs and Fnatic ultimately winning it all – the one thing that wasn’t considered an upset. Now the second finals event in Burbank is almost here. Europe looks strong once more, but the region shouldn’t be overconfident – can the Europeans defend their title?
Between championships and group stages
The last ESL ESEA Pro League finals in Cologne had an unlikely storyline emerge on the first day of the event. With the dominance of the European squads back then, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that TSM and Fnatic would just walk through their two North American rivals and secure a spot in the playoff bracket with ease. Everything was turned on its head when CLG and the old Keyd Stars roster delivered the two biggest upsets of the event, beating the two European juggernauts 16-12. In the grand scheme of things, that meant one of the North American teams was to clinch the top seed from Group B, subsequently also securing themselves a top four spot after the group stages. It also set up a fight for tournament life for the two favorite European squads Fnatic and TSM – a clash that became an instant classic. Just as everyone would have expected, the game went down to the wire, seeing olofmeister and KRIMZ on one side along with cajunb and Xyp9x on the other stepping up their game and trying to will themselves into the playoffs. The end results of 16-14 shattered the hopes and dreams of the Danish team while keeping Swedish ambitions alive and well, which ultimately resulted in them hoisting the trophy.
Now, half a year later, this storyline cannot happen in the group stage due to the European standings. The former TSM team, now named ?, didn’t leave anything to chance this time, securing themselves the best possible spot to make a deep run. Throughout the regular season the Danes were eyeing for the top spot in the European standings, giving away only four best of ones in the process. A tremendous result of 18-4 with a round score differential of +127 is head and shoulders above the competition in either division, making ? the true top seed for this tournament hands down.
Whether that will translate into a tournament victory is obviously uncertain at this point given the ups and downs the Danish roster is going through in tournaments on a regular basis. For a long time, the squad was regarded as one of the top teams in the upper echelon of the CS:GO scene – and yet sometimes they can’t quite deliver in the clutch. However, their most recent tournament performances have given every fan of the squad hope. A second place at Intel Extreme Masters San Jose, a good performance ending with third/fourth place at DreamHack Winter 2015 stopped only by the uncontrollable hype train that was Luminosity Gaming – it’s looking good for device and co.
The only team that is probably even hotter heading into the event? Fnatic, of course. For more than a year now that sentence has been true. For more than a year, the Fnatic organization has kept their squad competitive, gathering major championships and other tournament trophies in the process. That undeniable consistency is unrivaled in today’s CS:GO scene.
Most recently, though, the roster stability that Fnatic had over everyone else but the old TSM squad has crumbled a bit, with the Swedish team having made changes to their lineup for the first time since adding KRIMZ and olofmeister in the summer of 2014. Now the departure of their long-time IGL pronax is leading to internal changes as well. With flusha taking over the leadership role and new member dennis continuing the wild fragging we are used to seeing him do for Gamers2, the Fnatic spirit hasn’t really wobbled one bit. It didn’t seem like the team lost anything in transition or that an adjustment period was needed at all.
A second place in the standings for the ESL ESEA Pro League means the squad could avoid the former TSM lineup in the groups, a DreamHack Winter 2015 win means they are traveling to Burbank with momentum – which was backed up by adding the Fragbite Masters Season 5 title to their resume at the start of December. Fnatic seems to be the team to beat at the moment. They bounced back in the most amazing and impressive ways after their early defeat at DreamHack Cluj, ruining their dream of the major hat trick. They can start the quest for that hat trick in 2016 fresh and rejuvenated, but now it’s about ending the year 2015 with a bang – and a second ESL ESEA Pro League title.
Major champs and San Jose heroes
So the European division is not only sending two of their best and most consistent teams with Fnatic and ?, but they are also sending two of their hottest teams at the moment. Both EnVyUs and Na’Vi have been on a tear lately, especially the Ukrainian organization. For a while now the expectations of the squad have been high and their ambitions in the stars – despite never making it that far in big tournaments.
They always were – and still are – a force to be reckoned with, especially with Guardian wielding his AWP. Then, late this year, Na’Vi finally managed to go where they should have been all along – the grand finals of a major. Ever since their triumph at ESWC in July 2015, the CS:GO world knew that the yellow brand meant business in Counter-Strike again. Then the major circuit made a stop closer to their backyard in Cluj, Romania, where the Na’Vi boys gave it their all. Throughout the tournament there was the smell and taste of upset in the air, especially once the tournament went from the group stage to the playoffs and into the big arena in Cluj. That’s when Fnatic’s dream of a major hat trick died, that’s when VP got shocked by Gamers2, that’s when NiP went back in time and clutched against Team SoloMid. In that environment, the Na’Vi run through the playoffs and into the grand finals seems like a nuisance, but them playing their hearts out and sweeping Luminosity and NiP on the way to the big dance against EnVyUs was a spectacular sight to see.
The best news for excited Na’Vi fans came after that in San Jose – the validation that the run wasn’t just a fluke or some once-in-a-lifetime moment for the squad but actually a sustainable result. They went to San Jose for the Intel Extreme Masters spectacle as a dark horse, they left as champions. In California, no one was safe from Zeus, Guardian, Edward, seized and Flamie as they swept through the entire bracket – not a single map defeat, two wins against hometown heroes North America, the crowning victory over European star team TSM. Na’Vi had ascended into the top-tier division of CS:GO teams once and for all, clinching a big title in front of a big crowd at the SAP Center.
Hoisting checks in front of a massive audience is also something the EnVyUs squad has experience with. With every member of the team having at least one major title to their name, they are one of the best in the business on paper. The triumph in Cluj was only the latest chapter of the return of EnVyUs to the big time after they struggled somewhat throughout 2015. At ESL One Cologne, they had already shown that they had what it takes to hang with every team in their path. At DreamHack Cluj, they succeeded and followed through on that claim – beating big dogs Fnatic in the quarterfinals was only the beginning, but a beginning that gave them the mental boost they needed to conquer the tournament. Dominating Swedish all-star time on the deciding map on Cache especially gave them momentum in massive amounts. A tough comeback victory against G2 later, the grand finals was reached and Na’Vi was the only team left standing to keep them away from their destiny.
After that massive triumph, though, the team seemed to fall back into old patterns of being complacent or not trying hard enough any more. A fourth place finish after the regular season in the ESL ESEA Pro League was enough to get them to Burbank for the finals event – a fourth place they earned with victories in the deciding weeks over SK Gaming, HellRaisers, TSM and mousesports. So it was all good, right? Not really, as their DreamHack Winter 2015 turned a great end to the year into a disappointment. Out in the group stage, only one map win against Luminosity Gaming, defeated by NiP on Mirage. The team that looked like world beaters in Cologne and Cluj suddenly shrunk together and couldn’t even pull through on some of their signature maps like Inferno.
Now the DreamHack Winter chapter is over and the team travels from the cold weather in Sweden to the sunny beaches of Burbank. Can they rebound from their DreamHack Winter performance and find back to the form they displayed at the last two majors? The ESL ESEA Pro League finals will tell.