Group A: Astralis, Cloud9, FaZe, OpTic
If you're looking for the Group of Death at ECS, see Group A.
This group may be home to some of the most interesting teams in Counter-Strike right now, and you could make the argument for any team to get through to the semifinals.
So let's start with the likely favorite in Astralis. After picking up gla1ve, the team looks completely new and, what's more, like an outright contender for the tournament. In a competitive Counter-Strike scene where the playing field has largely been leveled, Astralis has slowly started to consistently bubble to the top.
But they were stopped at ELEAGUE at the hands of the Season 2 champions, OpTic. That win alone makes OpTic a big target coming into the last tournament of 2016. But if we extend the scope a bit further—perhaps to their Northern Arena Montreal win—you'll see a budding North American squad that (at this moment in time) easily looks like the region's best, dethroning fellow group members Cloud9.
Speaking of Cloud9, the other NA squad might be the weakest team of the bunch, based on recent results. The team has largely struggled to show up after its huge ESL Pro League final win at LANs. More specifically, their group stage showings at recent tournaments since have been hit or miss. When it comes down to it, the pattern speaks for itself, and you have to believe that the recent Cloud9 will more likely show up than their bombastic counterparts from months ago.
To round out the group, we have FaZe Clan. While you'd be remiss to count them entirely out, their form has been a bit too inconsistent to actually gauge their relative strength. Some days, they look like solid, outright contenders for any LAN they show up at. Other days, they look confused and lost. And while they certainly shouldn't be dismissed at ECS, once again, you have to favor the teams with the most capacity for consistency at LANs.
Prediction: Astralis, OpTic
Group B: SK, Immortals, EnVyUs, Dignitas
If this group were for any other tournament, you'd be safe in betting on SK Gaming and Dignitas.
But as the two top-five teams head to Anaheim in Group B, they each do so with a new player tagging along. SK made changes to its two-time Major-winning roster, benching fnx in favor of ex-FaZe Clan rifler fox, and Dignitas will use Heroic's valde as a stand-in for Magisk as he finishes school exams.
With two stand-ins for the obvious favorites, the makeup of the group changes a bit.
Dignitas seems to be most affected, though. Magisk's recent form has been nothing short of impressive (with the SSG, stellar even). Dignitas is also a team whose rise to the upper echelon of CS:GO's elite has been on the back of a strong team identity and core chemistry. With one cog out of place, even if it's with a fellow Dane in valde, Dignitas likely know they're headed to California weakened.
SK, on the other hand, replaced the current under-performing lurker in fnx with new Portuguese blood in fox. Granted, a stand-in with little to no practice as a squad is never a good situation. But since SK was operating at a higher level with fnx, it wouldn't be outrageous to think they could perform at a relatively similar level with fox. Precedent does exist, though, for SK featuring a stand-in; when fer left due to injury in August, SK definitely suffered.
This all looks good for EnVyUs, or it would if the French squad weren't reeling. Under the pressure of a roster shuffle looming over their heads, it's hard to see EnVyUs making a splash in the ECS group stages. What's more, their recent results show pretty consistent subpar performances, so there's very little to boost their case.
But consider Immortals: a team unfazed by roster changes on the back of good showings at the Americas Major Qualifiers and a quarterfinal appearance at IEM Oakland. When you do that, Immortals begins to stand out by a lot. They look the most complete headed to Anaheim, and they're likely even contenders for the title.
Prediction: Immortals, SK