The last event of CS:GO’s final summer has begun in Malta, with 32 of the best teams in the world fighting for the EPL crown.
With the transition to Counter-Strike 2 coming ever closer, the 18th season of ESL’s Pro League will be the final chance for many teams to secure a much-coveted big event title in CS:GO. Teams such as Vitality and G2 will be fighting for the title of best team in the world, while ENCE aims to secure their second LAN crown of 2023 and Heroic try to triumph in a non-BLAST LAN for the first time. Who will survive the group stage and fight it out for the trophy in Malta?
Teams: Heroic, ENCE, MOUZ, BIG, Monte, Evil Geniuses, MIBR, Rooster
Group B is led by two tournament contenders in Heroic and ENCE. The Danes are the highest-seeded team in the group, but they come into the event at the peak of a 2023 season of many ups and downs. Casper “cadiaN” Møller’s boys secured a second tier-one LAN title at BLAST Premier Spring Final, but they failed to impress outside of that run and fell to opponents well within their means, like GamerLegion, MOUZ and Astralis. While Heroic are still ever-present in playoffs, they have shown to be both upset-prone and a step behind the best teams in the world. If this is to change in Malta the Danes will need a clean start, and an opening matchup against Australian underdogs Rooster is the perfect first step.
Whoever will triumph will be facing the winner of the BIG-Monte matchup, with the German outfit recording a 2-0 win over the Ukrainians days before the tournament. Johannes “tabseN” Wodarz’s boys have had a rough start, only managing a single LAN appearance with their full roster due to tournament restrictions. Nonetheless, the few online events they have taken part in have shown Karim “Krimbo” Moussa taking another step forward and Mateusz “mantuu” Wilczewski returning to his ever-consistent self.
Monte are on the opposite end of the spectrum, as after adding Alexander “br0” Bro they have looked better in their IEM Cologne run than in their online appearances, but they remain a dangerous and unpredictable opponent, especially as Sergiy “DemQQ” Demchenko steadily improves. When the rifling department isn’t in good form, however, Monte often look toothless. This is compounded by a lack of composure in late rounds and high-pressure situations, only marginally mitigated by Volodymyr “Woro2k” Veletniuk’s AWP.
The other favorite to advance from Group B, ENCE, will start their campaign against Evil Geniuses in another apparently one-sided matchup. The international squad led by Marco “Snappi” Pfeiffer is a force to be reckoned with, recording four finals in as many LAN events after the BLAST Paris Major and taking the title at IEM Dallas. However, staying at the top will take another step from the quintet, who fell at the hand of G2 in a one-sided final in Cologne and were somewhat convincingly defeated by Vitality at Gamers8.
Evil Geniuses have, on the other hand, stopped being the tier-one scene’s laughing stock by descending into a disappointing anonymity. Paytyn “junior” Johnson’s AWP might be the only saving grace for the team, who have looked extremely shaky even in their North American appearances, with losses to M80, Forsaken and Nouns in August alone. It’s hard to imagine anything changing for EG at Pro League, but they still have a high enough skill ceiling to be dangerous against lower-ranked opponents.
Last but not least, MOUZ will be taking on the Brazilians of MIBR. The international side has only appeared in two events after signing Kamil “siuhy” Szkaradek and Jimi “Jimpphat” Salo, crashing out of IEM Cologne with losses to Vitality and Astralis but bouncing back online to take the Thunderpick World Championship - Europe crown over BIG. MIBR have similarly only appeared in European online events and the Saudi Gamers8 LAN, recording a one-sided loss to Vitality.
Our prediction: Heroic and ENCE handily secure playoff spots and meet in the Upper Final, while MOUZ edge BIG and Monte out for third place, with the Germans now favorites in the Last Chance Stage.
Teams: FaZe, NAVI, fnatic, Apeks, M80, Imperial, 5yclone, 9z
FaZe enter Group C looking for redemption after another appalling performance at Gamers8, where Finn “karrigan” Andersen’s men were eliminated by Virtus.pro in their opening matchup. The international mixture hasn’t recorded a tournament win in over five months, since the last season of Pro League and will need to pick up the slack in Malta once again. While their issues are hard to dissect, new coach Filip “NEO” Kubski had plenty of mistakes to fix, and we expect a much-improved FaZe at EPL.
Their opening-match opponents will be the South Americans of 9z, fielding some of the region’s best talents, such as David “dav1deuS” Tapia Maldonado and Franco “dgt” Garcia. The most familiar name of the quintet for many is Santino “try” Rigal, as the Argentinian AWP shocked the world at 16 years of age by dominating Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut and is currently returning to his best form. Nonetheless, 9z lacks depth in the firepower department, and their sporadic European appearances have been disappointing.
Facing the winner of this matchup will be either fnatic or Imperial. The international squad is in a similar position to MOUZ, only having appeared at IEM Cologne and Gamers8 with Christopher “dexter” Nong and Aurélien “afro” Drapier. While the quintet has shown some potential in their few matches, their only win came at the expense of a Timur “buster” Tulepov-impaired Cloud9. Similarly, Imperial’s new lineup, which features João “felps” Vasconcellos and Henrique “HEN1” Teles, only took the stage at the Cologne Play-In, falling to Monte and NiP.
The leading team in the bottom half of the group is NAVI, the Ukrainian organization having struggled in their first outings with an international roster. Both Justinas “jL” Lekavicius and Mihai “iM” Ivan have not been able to replicate their incredible pre-NAVI performances so far, and Oleksandr “s1mple” Kosyliev’s 1.14 HLTV rating is far from the standards we’ve come to expect from the Ukrainian superstar. The team needs a strong showing in Malta, otherwise Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen might rapidly find himself at the center of new waves of criticism.
Their opponents will be the leading Chinese team, now known as 5yclone. Led by veteran Zhuo “advent” Liang, 5yclone have been the best team in Asia on paper for the last two years, routinely failing to convert this quality into qualifier triumphs. Still, the team took home a 2-0 win against Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella’s Liquid and stole maps from NAVI and BIG in their sporadic international appearances. With the high-octane trio of Qianhao “Moseyuh” Chen, Yi “JamYoung” Yang and Jingxiang “Mercury” Wang, an upset is always on the cards.
Finally, Apeks will be taking on M80. The European mix emerged as one of the winners of the off-season, replacing jL with the talented Aleksandar “CacaNito” Kjulukoski, but they failed to perform at a high level after the break. Dominating the IEM Sydney Closed Qualifier could be the start of something new for the team, which still holds four-fifths of the Paris Major semi-finalist quintet. Their opponents in M80 have on the other hand impressed in their short time together, with a 10-1 record in NA in the last month thanks to an exceptional Mario “malbsMd” Samayoa. With former Copenhagen Flames member Marcus “maNkz” Kjeldsen at the helm, M80 can be a scary team to cross paths with.
Our prediction: FaZe secure the top spot while NAVI and Apeks fight for second place. While fnatic are clear favorites, watch out for both M80 and 5yclone in the Last Chance Bracket.
Teams: G2, Cloud9, Virtus.pro, Liquid, 9INE, Complexity, Lynn Vision, Eternal Fire
Group D’s first matchup will see Cloud9 facing off against Eternal Fire, with the Russian-Kazakh side aiming to challenge for a tournament win. The marquee signings of Denis “electroNic” Sharipov and Ilya “Perfecto” Zalutskiy have turned C9 into a true juggernaut, with a top-six finish at IEM Cologne in their first, troubled appearance. However, now that Sergey “Ax1le” Rykhtorov is back in the starting lineup, and the team has had time to gel, there will be no excuses for one-sided losses like the one the team suffered at the hand of ENCE in Gamers8.
Their opening day foes will be Eternal Fire, the Turkish quintet now once again sporting AWPer Özgür “woxic” Eker. The team’s star, Ismailcan “XANTARES” Dörtkardeş, is still one of the most mechanically gifted players in the entirety of the professional scene, and the Turkish rifler is recording a 1.27 HLTV rating for the second straight year. Unfortunately, while all players, bar Ali “Wicadia” Haydar Yalçin, are extremely experienced, the team still takes a step backward in LAN environments.
Complexity will arrive in Malta as one of the great question marks of the event, as Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonoswki’s signing has evidently not helped fix the team’s underlying issues. CoL recorded a single series win against NiP in their two LAN appearances so far and have even looked vulnerable in their domestic appearances. Their opponents, the Polish side of 9INE, have instead routinely failed to break through the tier-two barrier despite good showings and plenty of opportunities. After missing out on IEM Sydney twice in two days, the team will need to reset and come into EPL with the right mindset to tackle a tough group.
Taking the mantle of clear favorites in the bottom half of the group are G2, who will be hoping to show that IEM Cologne was not a flash in the pan. The Rasmus “HooXi” Nielsen-led quintet already tasted dominance at IEM Katowice but subsequently fell into inconsistency. While Nikola “NiKo” Kovač showed no signs of slowing down at Gamers8, ending the event as the second-highest-rated player, G2 still showed some cracks and avoided elimination at the hands of both 9INE and VP. They will need to find their footing quickly in Group D, as a single series loss might mean facing multiple contenders in the playoffs.
Their opponents are the least experienced team in the event, the Chinese side of Lynn Vision. They had a single international appearance at BLAST Premier Fall Showdown in 2021 when a 16-year-old Lizhi “Starry” Ye shone in a 1-2 loss to G2. Lynn Vision will face the same opponent in Malta with Starry now a leading rifler in the Asian scene, accompanied by high-impact IGL Zhe “Westmelon” Niu, a former star rifler who took on leadership duties earlier this year with great success.
The last matchup will see Liquid take on Virtus.Pro. The international mixture has a 1-3 series record in their last two LANs, showing that the transition to an English-speaking team won’t be straightforward for Robert “Patsi” Isyanov and Aleks “Rainwaker” Petrov. Keith “NAF” Markovic and Josh “oSee” Ohm are reliable performers, but Liquid needs all five members to contribute to hang with the big dogs. They will take on an on-the-rise Virtus.pro team, who will field their full quintet in Malta as David “n0rb3r7” Danielyan recovers from his injury. The team looked revitalized by Nikolay “mir” Bityukov’s addition, and with a strong core and their trademark passiveness, they can take down any team in the world.
Our prediction: G2 secure the top spot over Cloud9, Virtus.pro are clear favorites for third place, while 9INE edges out Liquid in the Last Chance Bracket.