As the 2023 Counter-Strike season continues in Malta with the 17th Season of the ESL Pro League, BLIX.GG goes over the key storylines for each group.
After months of inconsistency and a surprise Rio Major winner, G2’s triumph at IEM Katowice earlier this February makes it so CS:GO now has a clear leading quintet once more. The Rasmus “HooXi” Nielsen-led team finds itself in Group A, debuting against an ever-present Eternal Fire as the Turkish quintet struggles to match the highs of the once Space Soldiers roster. Accompanying them in the race to the Playoffs will be Rio Major Champions Outsiders, the Russian Cloud9 quintet, William “mezii” Merriman’s Fnatic, the rising Mongolians of IHC, MIBR’s Brazilian youngsters, and EG’s struggling talent pipeline.
G2 - Consistency is key
The international quintet spearheaded by Nikola “NiKo” Kovač finds itself at the top of international CS:GO after storming to back-to-back titles at BLAST Premier World Finals and IEM Katowice. In Katowice, the roster showcased its depth of talent with Nemanja “huNter-” Kovač and Justin “jks” Savage dominating the opposition and helping G2 secure a history-second-best 21 consecutive maps streak.
Reaffirming their superiority in Malta, where G2 are the heavy favorites for the title, would leave the international quintet in the driving seat for the BLAST Major in Paris. In other words, a convincing EPL win would help them to lay the foundation for a potential era in 2023. And if the squad’s stars keep firing on all cylinders, as they have been so far in 2023, nobody will likely stop them.
The EPL Group A should be no match for HooXi’s troops, as its most threatening opponent is an Outsiders roster whose actual level is hard to assess. Keeping consistent performances up, avoiding complacency, and potentially testing less-played maps are all elements to look out for.
Outsiders - The answer lies within
The reigning Major champions, Outsiders, also had a good showing at Katowice, although their Playoff run came at the expense of a NiP in the middle of an identity crisis, a coach-fielding OG, and the inconsistent Complexity. Nonetheless, the main point of discussion for the CIS team was Aleksandr “KaiR0N-” Anashkin’s solid debut, as the youngster bowed out of the event with a 1.10 HLTV rating.
As we touched upon in our previous article on the topic, however, the Russian rifler didn’t immediately influence Outsiders’ playstyle, mostly filling David “n0rb3r7” Danielyan’s anchor roles with minimal changes. We have grown accustomed to Dzhami “Jame” Ali’s boys pulling a rabbit out of their hat to overcome the odds over the past years, but that won’t be enough to take the fight to the scene’s top rosters.
Given the Group’s composition, the team is still almost certainly Playoff-bound, but making use of KaiR0N- 's aggressiveness on the CT side could be the final step needed to challenge for event wins. Pro League will tell us whether the uninspiring implementation we saw in Katowice was Outsiders’ future or a quintet finding its footing.
Cloud9 - Nowhere to go but up
Cloud9’s debut with Timur “buster” Tulepov was nothing short of abhorrent, as the CIS outfit was sent packing from the Katowice main event after losses against Natus Vincere and IHC. Adding insult to injury, the only team Cloud9 had a winning record against in Poland, ENCE, made roster changes days after the event ended. Vladislav “nafany” Gorshkov’s side looks like a different team to the one who fought for LAN titles in 2021, incapable of competing even when fielding two of the best players in the world.
Tactically, the team’s vetoes have been unconvincing, and the squad is routinely outsmarted and out-called, even by lower-ranked opponents. Individually, Abay “H0bbit” Khassenov continues to disappoint, while buster and nafany were, respectively, the second and fifth worst players at IEM Katowice. EPL needs to be a turning point for the quintet, who cannot afford to go into the Paris Major qualification circuit with little to no time on the server.
The two Kazakh riflers are unlikely to struggle to this extent in EPL, especially as the team builds chemistry, but all the pressure is on the Russian IGL. On paper, the team is a lock-in to advance, Fnatic and IHC being the biggest rivals for the third place in the group, but Cloud9 will need to bring a different version of themselves to Malta to avoid more disappointment.
IHC - Return of the Golden Horde
The Mongolians of IHC are one of the big winners of IEM Katowice, capitalizing on a western playstyle with sprinkles of Asian aggression to record solid wins against paiN, FURIA, and Cloud9 and competitive losses against Liquid, and FaZe. The mental aspect seems to be the quintet’s weakest point, exacerbated by Bat-Enkh “kabal” Batbayar’s absence, but an open Group A marks the chance for Asia’s first big Playoff appearance since IEM Sydney 2018.
Although the tactical depth of IHC is superior to their Chinese counterpart, the similarities to the legendary 2018 TyLoo roster are more than one: Garidmagnai “bLitz” Byambasuren is leading by example as Hansel “BnTeT” Ferdinand was, Tuvshintugs “Annihilation” Nyamdorj’s flashiness brings back memories of the inconsistent Kevin “xccurate” Susanto and shades of HaoWen “somebody” Xu’s unpredictable aggression can be found in Sodybar “Techno” Munkhbold’s T sides.
However, having shown their hand in Katowice, the Mongolian quintet will certainly have to face better-prepared opponents at this event. A big part of IHC’s Playoff hopes relies on getting through their opening matchup against Outsiders unscathed, but a lower-bracket run is not an impossible feat if their level stays high.
Eternal Fire - Shoes too big to fill
The Turkish team returns for back-to-back seasons in Pro League, rebounding from Özgür "woxic" Eker’s removal in late 2022 to qualify through ESL Challenger League with a flawless record. The squad isn’t, however, the undisputed tier-two threat it once was, shining sporadically but struggling with inconsistent support to the clear star in Ismailcan “XANTARES” Dörtkardeş.
It’s hard not to compare Eternal Fire to its greatest form, the Space Soldiers roster, which qualified for the ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals by finishing above the likes of Astralis, G2, and Fnatic in the European division. Despite sharing three members with that quintet and not slacking in the firepower department, Eternal Fire’s peaks have been much shorter and lower, a sign of the fast-changing tactical environment CS:GO offers.
The Turkish outfit, however, stands little chance against a dominant G2 in their opening match, forcing them to focus on a potential Lower Bracket run. Even up against difficult odds, good calls by Engin “MAJ3R” Küpeli and a XANTARES in excellent form could give Eternal Fire a concrete chance of at least making the Last Chance Stage.
Credit Line: Image: Copyright ESL | Helena Kristiansson