With Esports Championship Series Season 2 Finals a little under a week away, some of CS:GO's best are headed to Anaheim, California, to compete for a sizable chunk of the $750,000 prize pool.
But as the last premier tournament before the ELEAGUE Major in January, there's a lot more riding on a LAN win in California.
For SK Gaming, Cloud9, Astralis and Dignitas, taking the ECS title would mean a chance to end 2016 on a much-needed high, going a long way in solidifying their own end to a whirlwind year of Counter-Strike.
Fer leaving at the end of summer put the defending world champions SK Gaming in a confusing place.
Since Cologne and their abrupt exit from ELEAGUE Season 1, the Brazilians may be the hallmark of consistent under-performances given the stature they've cultivated.
After generally cruising to the semifinals at ESL One New York and EPICENTER, it would be consecutive narrow 2-1 defeats at the hands of Virtus.pro that would mean the untimely end of their tournament runs.
Relatively unshaken by their performances, SK continued the latter half of 2016 in better form. Despite losing to Cloud9 at ESL Pro League Finals in Sao Paolo—what surely would have been the fairytale LAN win to end their year—and facing the NiP magic at IEM Oakland, SK showed that their already established level of consistency could result in finals appearances. The "but Virtus.pro wasn't there" argument has its legs, but overall, growth existed in the SK camp even if it didn't feel as cemented with a trophy.
It's reasonable to ask what the defending champions and back-to-back Major winners have to prove really—at least until the next one in January. Sure, somewhere in the last four LAN appearances they probably and likely should have taken a title. And if they did, we likely wouldn't be having this conversation.
Because going into the ELEAGUE Major, SK has lost its fear factor. Outside of stupidly dominant Train map, recent LAN results show that the gods of Brazil are no longer immortal; in reality, given the awful state of the rest of their map pool, SK are really a toss-up in most matches where they were outright favorites.
Certainly, they're still a tournament favorite anywhere they make an appearance, and a large part of the loosened grip comes from the overall unpredictable parity across competitive Counter-Strike.
But with the community clamoring around the end of an SK era, going into ECS with a stand-in for the exiting fnx, what better way to sow the seeds of doubt than in the last tournament of the year at ECS?
Finishing on Cloud Nine
After a disappointing showing at DreamHack, it was surprising to see Cloud9 re-enter the Top 5 in HLTV's power rankings. Bouncing around the Top 10 has been characteristic of the North American squad in the latter half of the year, but a respected gain after a downward trend seemed off.
Certainly, their breakout LAN win over SK — on the Brazilian's home soil, the first LAN win for North American Counter-Strike since 2015 — puts them among the world's elite; there's no question about that.
But, as has largely been the case since autimatic joined the roster in August, consistency issues have plagued Cloud9. Understandably, some of it was due to adjusting to the new roster and Stewie2k's newfound role as in-game leader. More often than not, though, C9 live and die by any one of Stewie2k, shroud and Skadoodle’s performances.
Romantic as it is, Cloud9 are looking—maybe more than any other team—to put their year’s growth front and center, their rise from the top of a much-derided region to a legitimate tournament contender.
The idyll is not far out of reach; in a field as stacked as the teams headed to Anaheim, Cloud9 has posted favorable results. In a lot of ways, C9 are no less tournament favorites than SK, Dignitas, Astralis or FaZe.
2016 may not be the year of Cloud9; that honor would surely go to one of SK, Virtus.pro or Na’Vi.
But an ECS win goes a long way in making a case for 2017.
Returning to the Stars
All things considered, things look good for Astralis.
After two roster changes motivated by a uniquely similar problem in Astralis' inability to clinch that elusive LAN win, Astralis seemingly has found a working answer.
Honeymoon period aside, gla1ve-era Astralis has—at least for now—put the Danish squad back in familiar territory. Going from quarterfinal drop-outs to their first semifinal appearance since DreamHack Summer at IEM Oakland is easy (and maybe rightfully so) with a newer, revitalized squad.
In looking at their overall play in the latter run of ECS Season 2 and IEM Oakland, this Astralis is very obviously different. They're closing out wins in dominant fashion and losing in close series. Most shocking of all, the Danes ended SK Gaming's 17-game Train streak to break their own semifinal curse at ELEAGUE.
Despite losing that grand final to the honest underdog, OpTic Gaming, you can see the improvement in the way they play. You can see it in the way they talk about each other. Whether it's gla1ve seeing immense potential in his teammates, or Dupreeh saying that the team has started to believe in each other again, a terribly addictive sense of hope seems to be bubbling up around Astralis.
In some ways, that in and of itself is a good way to close out what's been a turbulent 2016.
In more ways, what's better than to end the year with at least one title that eluded you throughout a majority of it? Doing it with a team you believe in is just the cherry on top.
Shedding the Underdog Coat
The week after EPICENTER was a strange one as Dignitas went from a team nobody had believed would be there at the end, holding the trophy on stage, to one everybody had assumed was always there.
In a lot of ways, Dignitas could be one of the most polarizing teams in CS:GO right now. People still scoff at the idea of Dignitas' Top 5 ranking. For all that people say EPICENTER put them on the map, a lot more are wondering what other LAN results give credence to such an honor.
Using what teams showed up to a LAN is a tricky metric to gauge a team's strengths, as there are too many caveats; it's why we gravitate toward Majors because they're the purest attempt at including Counter-Strike's best.
But, in talking about Dignitas' rise in the latter part of 2016, it would be entirely remiss to not acknowledge that when the Danish team did show up, it was on arguably the last big stage outside of ELEAGUE. It was surviving a Na'Vi who many believe are the next team in line to the CS:GO throne. It was reverse stomping Virtus.pro—a team who had just downed SK for the second time at LAN—on Cobblestone and Mirage to win it all in Moscow.
In truth, Dignitas is coming off of a similarly rough showing at DreamHack Winter like Cloud9 and a close elimination ELEAGUE series at the hands of SK. It was a tournament they were more than expected to win, one that definitely would have helped flesh out the Danes' resume going into the ELEAGUE Major.
It will certainly be difficult for Dignitas, as their star youngster Magisk will be staying to finish school. With a stand-in, it's hard to expect much from a team that relies so heavily on a close and quickly developed bond between the team.
But as the year comes to a close, they still find themselves with another opportunity at ECS, a chance to not only show they've arrived but silence those that continue to question if they'll stay.