As Counter-Strike returns to Cologne for its yearly visit at the much-coveted IEM Event, BLIX goes over the key storylines for the event’s Play-In stage.
The IEM Cologne Play-In marked the true start of the second half of the 2023 CS:GO season, with the best teams from each region congregating in the German city to fight for the first big title after the player break. While the tournament favorites would start the event from the Group Stage, sixteen hopefuls would fight it out for the chance to join them, including rebuilding giants like Astralis, MOUZ, FURIA and Liquid. With the event now well underway, who came out on top of the first post-shuffle big event?
MOUZ were one of many teams to come into IEM Cologne with a revamped roster, fielding rising IGL star Kamil “siuhy” Szkaradek and talented Finnish rifler Jimi “Jimpphat” Salo. The culmination of coach Dennis “sycrone” Nielsen’s rebuild meant four of the five players, with the exception of David “frozen” Čerňanský, came through the organization’s academy team, MOUZ NXT. A great mix of rising and experienced young players, the quintet was expected to shine despite potential role clashes on the T side.
The German organization did not disappoint at their self-proclaimed home event, defeating a surprisingly red-hot TheMongolZ side in a heavily contested Nuke affair, not in small part thanks to Ádám “torzsi” Torzsás’ 50 kills. The international side then dispatched Hampus “hampus” Poser’s NiP with a quick 2-0 to make the main event, as frozen once again kept up his stellar 2023 form, to convincingly secure a spot in the main event.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for MOUZ, however, as Dorian “xertioN” Berman failed to make an impact on the notoriously hard Nuke T side, even going 2-11 in their second matchup, and TheMongolZ often exploited Jimpphat’s tenuous Ramp holds. However, siuhy’s calling and his usefulness as an extra mid-round aggressor led to clean and effective offensive halves. Even more promising, the Polish IGL seems to have taken torszi to a new level, as he won every opening duel he took in Cologne and ended the Play-In as the highest-rated player.
Loser: North America
Two teams made the Cologne Play-In through the North American ESL Ranking in Team Liquid, sporting a European majority roster and Complexity, who were called in as a last-minute replacement for paiN. Starting with the latter, the Texas-based organization came into the event after showing some promise at BLAST Fall Groups, but they were unable to win a single map on German soil, recording an Overtime loss to fnatic and a disappointing 0-2 at the hands of OG.
Most criticism will be directed towards South African captain Johnny “JT” Theodosiou, whose lackluster individual performance cannot be justified by his IGL duties, but Michael “Grim” Wince is still unable to provide a consistent rifling threat as he did in his promising start to 2023. It was, however, a weak offensive stratbook that condemned CoL to a last-place exit, especially as they routinely failed to convert man advantage situations in round wins, with clear difficulties in integrating Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski.
Liquid’s woes were more unexpected, as the Mareks “YEKINDAR” Galinskis-led roster had taken the scalps of FaZe and G2 at BLAST Fall Groups despite none of its stars consistently showing up. While Keith “NAF” Markovic excelled, Liquid were battered by a resurgent Astralis on Ancient before narrowly eliminating a stand-in weakened in three maps. It wasn’t to be, however, as the Poles of 9INE put up dominant CT sides on both Vertigo and Overpass to steal the decider match away from Liquid.
The team’s issues seemed to be primarily individual, as Bulgarian newcomer Aleks “Rainwaker” Petrov still needs time to adapt to a new system and roles, and Josh “oSee” Ohm, whose AWPing had progressively become more reliable in recent months, produced his worst tournament performance since January. If Liquid can find a positive to take away from Cologne, it’s that his new leadership duties don’t seem to have affected YEKINDAR too heavily.
The aptly named Mongolians of TheMongolZ came into the event with no expectations, having recently replaced their two star players with unproven talent in Usukhbayar “910” Banzragch and 16-year-old Ayush “Mzinho” Batbold. Having even recorded losses to local rivals in their few online appearances, TheMongolZ looked far from the quintet who upset FURIA to qualify for IEM Katowice in January., but Garidmagnai “bLitZ” Byambasuren proved once again to be developing into a high-level caller.
Through solid T-side protocols and individual heroics by the new sniper 910 the Mongolians took the fight to MOUZ in their opening matchup, showing resilience in high-pressure situations but eventually falling 16-19. The promising signs turned into reality in their lower bracket run, as they dominated Into the Breach on both Mirage and Ancient before 2-0ing the Brazilians of FURIA and securing their spot in the main event, saving two map points on Inferno in the process.
While far from a tournament contender, TheMongolZ miraculously emerged improved from a shuffle which saw them replace internationally proven talents with inconsistent local prospects. bLitZ’s calling desethatrves a good chunk of the praise, especially in the form of controlled aggression and proactiveness on the CT side, something the old quintet often lacked. The spotlight will, however, be on Sodyabar “Techno” Munkhbold, who evidently embraced his new role as the team’s main star and found much-needed consistency.
The second and last team eliminated by the Mongolians were FURIA, who came into the event with a new quintet but with high expectations, as Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo was expected to unlock the full potential of Kaike “KSCERATO” Cerato and Yuri “yuurih” Santos. The two-time Major champion was brought in to add much-needed structure to a team that always stood out for its loose and aggressive gameplan, a double-edged sword that often led FURIA to squander golden opportunities in international events.
The Brazilians quickly dispatched the Australians of Grayhound, despite a stellar Declan “Vexite” Portelli performance, but were subsequently sent to the lower bracket by Monte. While FURIA looked impressive on Overpass, conceding a fatal 10-round streak to the Ukrainian-majority side on Mirage allowed them to take control of the game, and FalleN’s quintet was completely outclassed on Ancient. The following loss against TheMongolZ, a game in which FURIA were heavy favorites, left little to be happy about.
FURIA is potentially the biggest loser from this event, as interviews have shown that a lot of time is still needed to implement a proper system. Andrei “arT” Piovezan opened up about a “FURIA” and an “Imperial” soul coexisting within the new lineup in an interview with HLTV.org, with the IGLs apparently trying to share calling duties. Furthermore, Kaike “KSCERATO” Cerato has evidently been affected by the team’s tactical struggles, recording his second-worst LAN rating after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last but not least are OG, who came into the event with little to no expectations amidst widespread criticism by the community and experts for constructing an uninspired, star-less lineup. While Romanian sniper Iulian “regali” Harjău is one of the hottest European up-and-comers, the acquisitions of Nils “k1to” Gruhne from BIG and Dion “FASHR” Derksen from fnatic left much to be desired in terms of firepower. The team however found its footing under returning IGL Nemanja “nexa” Isaković, the real centerpiece of the project.
OG started their tournament on the wrong foot, with an opening loss to 9INE coming after the international quintet squandered a 13-8 lead on the CT side of Overpass. FASHR, who languished at the bottom of the scoreboard, quickly recovered to become the difference maker against Complexity, pairing up with a solid showing from Regali. The decider match secured OG’s spot in this list, as they dominated a solid Apeks side who came into the match after great performances from Aleksandar “CacaNito” Kjulukoski.
The key to OG’s run was FASHR’s relentless CT side pressure, an aspect which he didn’t showcase in his fnatic days, which was the key to getting the international quintet into man-advantage situations. The Dutch rifler struggled significantly on the T side alongside nexa, but Maciej “F1KU” Miklas produced potentially his most solid performance in the OG jersey and often picked up the slack. Even if accompanied by lackluster individual performances, the Serbian IGL’s impact was felt from the start and represented a significant improvement from the Nikolaj “Niko” Kristensen era.