With Esports Championship Series Season 2 Finals this weekend, some of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive'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 OpTic, EnVyUs, FaZe Clan and Immortals, taking the ECS title would mean a chance to prove that 2017 will be different, that their young or rebuilt roster is something to consider in the new year.
A Win They'll Notice
When OpTic Gaming won Northern Arena Montreal, it's not unreasonable to believe many didn't notice.
It was a tournament many considered to be smaller in the greater competitive scene. They won it all by beating a G2 that looked like a shell of their former selves at the beginning of 2016. And the entire event will likely be remembered for the caster-player criticism debate that sparked after G2's main AWPer Smithzz was the butt of too many jokes on the live broadcast.
Now, it's hard to ignore them.
Coming off the back of an ELEAGUE Season 2 win, OpTic sit center stage going into ECS and 2017.
People will relish in their victory—another North American team winning it all surrounded by some of CS:GO's undeniable top teams. People will discredit it, saying they were in an easier side of the bracket, where the defending champions Virtus.pro were knocked out early.
But people are talking about OpTic; they've entered the conversation (just as many other teams have this year) for the greater health of competitive Counter-Strike. Aside from being a marker of regional improvement, OpTic's stunning win at ELEAGUE makes it clear that parity has been reached in CS:GO.
And for a team that was often an afterthought in group and knockout stages (even to a degree in online qualifiers) to become champions, it's safe to say OpTic has started their 2017 story already.
Why not make the claims to titles indelible with a win at ECS?
The Looming Shuffle
It's been a weird year for French Counter-Strike.
While G2 soared, stumbled and ultimately fell, EnVyUS has been looking for something that worked. DEVIL didn't work out, so they brought on SIXER. And while the immediate effect looks a bit better, it's hard to shake off the inevitable truth behind the French scene.
The shuffle is happening.
When both of the two top French teams are struggling to put up any sort of positive results, it'd be crazy not to believe things will change.
Contracts will end after the Major, and the roster moves will begin after that. Strong showings at the Major for either G2 or EnVyUs could lessen the blow, but in all likelihood, we'll still see changes.
Results at ECS Finals will be a chance EnVyUs to assert themselves. Since both teams crashed out of ELEAGUE Season 2 and the defending ECS Season 1 champions—none other than G2—failed to qualify, EnVyUs are primed for a chance to show that their organization and their talent is working the most.
EnVyUs find themselves with the chance to show that they are the team maybe worth building around; KennyS should maybe headline a new EnVyUs lineup, rather than the standout star leaving the organization for greener G2 pastures.
Calling ECS Finals a tryout feels a bit unfair. But when the chance of a roster shuffle not happening is as slim as it seems among France's teams, every LAN appearance is tinged with that sentiment.
Problem No More
FaZe, true to their namesake, are going through a new phase.
When the Astralis in-game leader karrigan made his move to FaZe, people wondered what the rest of his story looked like in competitive Counter-Strike. Headed into a "problematic" roster, it was hard to believe you'd expect a lot from the new roster. What's more, it would be even harder to believe that his known shotcalling ability wasn't shrouded in layers of self-doubt, given his Astralis exit was in large part due to his teammates' (conscious or subconscious) decision to stop listening to his calls.
Things weren't amazing at the start. Online qualifiers left little to inspire, and their first LAN together at ESL Pro League Finals was a bust for all intents and purposes.
And once again, FaZe found themselves facing a problem—this time with jkaem, dropping him for the previously benched kio to return to the squad. The exhausting cycle seemed like it was beginning again. But somewhere along the line, things just started to click.
A solid appearance at the iBUYPOWER Masters was followed by an even more impressive group stage at Intel Extreme Masters Oakland. Among SK Gaming, Cloud9 and NiP, FaZe shocked everyone by flawlessly topping Group B—not dropping one map in the day-long group stage to clinch a semifinal berth.
NiP's magic later was too much for FaZe at Oakland, and they would drop out in said semifinal. But despite missing out on a title, the entire LAN felt like a roaring success going into ELEAGUE playoffs, where they would lose to the champions, OpTic Gaming.
In specifically turning toward karrigan's short tenure at FaZe, it's hard to miss how—now after many trades and splits—the ex-Team SoloMid and Astralis core has gone on to improve in the scene. In each of their own ways, they're succeeding in breaking the curse that's plagued them for years. Cajunb's done it with Dignitas, and the three remaining members have under gla1ve's guidance.
It makes you wonder how much it's on karrigan's mind as he heads to Anaheim with a new squad in the last tournament of the year.
Fear This Brazil
Since joining the Immortals organization, the Brazilian squad has amassed one of the more impressive 2016 resumes among younger rosters.
After former SK Gaming coach zews made his move to Immortals, strong play and a honeymoon period saw the Brazilians take Northern Arena over Cloud9. Outside of that win and relatively solid online showings, the team had problems translating their young, malleable firepower into significant LAN showings.
As is typically the case, Immortals found the answer in replacing an old one—dropping zews in favor of more young talent in steel.
And again, this saw Immortals pick up some immediate results. Funnily enough, they bested a red-hot Cloud9 on the back of a huge ESL Pro League Finals win at iBUYPOWER Masters. Following that LAN win, Immortals joined fellow Brazilians SK at IEM Oakland, where they comfortably qualified for the knockout stage in a group with Astralis, G2, Team Liquid and Na'Vi.
But the latter half of 2016 was typically cyclical for Immortals. Just as quickly as they showed up on a large LAN stage, Immortals crashed out at the hands of NiP in a comfortable 2-0 win for the eventual IEM Oakland champions.
With a roster brimming with some of Brazilian's best young talent waiting for a chance to shine, another LAN win would go a long way in a team not only looking for results, but an identity. Brazil, at this point, is synonymous with SK Gaming—the true "selecao" (Brazilian national team) of Counter-Strike.
The relationship seems like a healthy one where both teams regularly try to prop the other up, for the greater good of their country's general esports scene. And though they largely stepped out of the shadow in their own right, the comparison is still too readily viable as one of two top Brazilian teams. What's more, with fnx's departure from SK Gaming and felps the target their fellow countrymen are eyeing, it's hard to see the comparison going away anytime soon.
An ECS win goes a long way in ending it all in 2017, and it's not out of the question given the weakened teams headed into it.