With MOUZ surprisingly securing the last Counter-Strike: Global Offensive big event crown, BLIX takes a look back at the Maltese event to find the main takeaways for the tier-one scene.
MOUZ’s academy strategy pays off
MOUZ came into ESL Pro League Season 18 on one of the longest tier-one LAN title droughts, with their last trophy coming all the way back at EPL Season 10 in December of 2019. Almost four years later, and with David “frozen” Čerňanský as the only surviving member of that Chris “ChrisJ” de Jong-led team, the German organization managed to complete an unlikely run to the title in Malta, which also stands as the culmination of a youth-based approach to team-building which saw four of the five players transition from the team’s academy roster, MOUZ NXT, to the main quintet.
A prime example of team effort, MOUZ’s run saw AWPer Ádám “torzsi” Torzsás dominate the playoffs and secure his first MVP medal, while Dorian “xertioN” Berman produced his best-ever big event performance in Malta. frozen was once again the team’s leading performer, having now developed into one of the most impactful lurkers in the tier-one scene, but the spotlight was mainly on Jimi “Jimpphat” Salo, MOUZ’s latest recruit, who impressed throughout the event and has shown incredible consistency, especially considering this was his second tier-one LAN appearance.
While the individual performances were impressive on their own, MOUZ’s ability to recover from a slow start in the group stage raised even more eyebrows. The international lineup lost to MIBR in their opening matchup and had to recover in the Lower Bracket, where they also beat Heroic, before going on a rampage through the playoffs and taking down FURIA, FaZe, G2, ENCE and NAVI, only dropping two maps in the process. Now, the team built by coach Dennis “sycrone” Nielsen will have to approach the transition to Counter-Strike 2 with the added pressure of establishing themselves as title contenders, and proving the EPL result wasn’t a flash in the pan.
Vitality and G2 drop the ball
If MOUZ’s story was one of unexpected success, G2 and Vitality found themselves on the other end of the spectrum, as both contenders failed to impress in the playoffs and quickly bowed out of the event. G2 had come out of the Summer break rejuvenated, taking the title at IEM Cologne and a top-four finish at Gamers8, while Vitality produced the opposite results, even looking nigh-unstoppable in Saudi Arabia after adding former OG rifler Shahar “flameZ” Shushan. The two teams made quick work of their group-stage opponents, although Rasmus “HooXi” Nielsen’s side already looked shaky against Complexity.
Despite the likes of Ilya “m0nesy” Osipov, Lotan “Spinx” Giladi and Emil “Magisk” Reif performing at an impressive level, the playoffs told a completely different story. G2 failed to stop MOUZ’s run to the title, narrowly securing Ancient but eventually falling 1-2 to the international side, while Vitality’s collapse was even more egregious, with the team crashing out of the event after a 0-2 loss at the hands of Monte. While both results could be ruled out as one-offs for the teams, who remain the leading forces in the tier-one scene alongside ENCE, flameZ’s poor form at the event and G2’s reliance on individuals are still worrying signs.
While G2’s success, even if sporadic, has allowed HooXi to escape much of the scrutiny he was subjected to in his first few months with the team, the quintet is becoming more and more dependent on Nikola “NiKo” Kovač and m0nesy to close matches, with the duo’s individual prowess instrumental in saving five match points against Complexity. Meanwhile, Vitality’s decision to drop Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen looked like the winning one after the Summer break, but it will still take time to integrate flameZ into the system. Neither team can, however, afford to fall behind their competitors in CS2, with HooXi and Dan “apEX” Madesclaire hoping this will be little more than a stumble.
Heroic’s (un)predictable collapse
Once possibly the scene’s most consistent performers, Heroic have continuously fallen at the final hurdles in 2023, taking multiple second-places and top-four finishes. Even if they still produced a high level of CS, the Danish side was naturally affected by their repeated failures to secure big event trophies, especially after a historic collapse from a map up against GamerLegion in the BLAST Paris Major semifinals. This meant even more disappointing showings at IEM Cologne and Gamers8, as the team’s protocols faltered and they were overtaken by ENCE as the scene’s consistent contender.
The team only recorded one win in Malta, 2-0ing the Australians of Rooster, before crashing out of the event with a single map to their name in losses against MOUZ, BIG and Monte. The stats paint an extremely bleak picture, with the rifling duo of Jakob “jabbi” Nygaard and René “TeSeS” Madsen frequently in the negatives and AWPer-IGL Casper “cadiaN” Møller a liability both on the Big Green and as a caller. Cracks had been showing since the start of the year, especially in high-pressure situations, but Heroic’s image as a well-oiled machine that could steamroll weaker opposition crumbled in the hot European Summer.
Read More: Heroic bench cadiaN
The team’s downfall over the last three months was so significant it required immediate changes, and those came in the form of cadiaN being removed from the active lineup, with the IGL claiming he “wanted some changes and some people wanted a different way” in an interview with Dexerto. The Danish organization now finds itself needing to replace its long-time captain and sniper in a transfer market, which presents few options and even fewer opportunities and will likely need to accept a compromise on either of the two roles. Whether the team will be able to perform in Counter-Strike 2 without its face and brain, or it will get picked apart by international and local rivals, remains to be seen.
North America keeps faltering
The 18th Season of ESL Pro League also underscored the struggles of North American Counter-Strike, as the region only produced a single playoff team in Complexity. Even Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski’s side, who are admittedly still finding their footing after adding the former Liquid rifler, fell at the first hurdle despite looking strong in the group stage, with a 1-2 loss at the hands of Monte ending their event. The star rifler was actually CoL’s main liability in Malta, as both Michael “Grim” Wince and especially Ricky “floppy” Kemery played key roles in the team’s wins over 9INE and Cloud9.
The other two North American sides, M80 and Evil Geniuses, produced even less inspired performances. The former failed to record a single map win in non-impossible matchups against Apeks, 5yclone and 9z, while the latter were surprisingly competitive against MOUZ and took MIBR to the limit, but only thanks to Jadan “HexT” Postma. NA’s lack of success is even more perplexing when compared to its closest neighbor, South America, which had four representatives at the Maltese event but saw both FURIA and 9z reach the playoffs, with MIBR falling in their last group match against Monte.
While the state of North American CS has already been talked about extensively, ESL Pro League S18 was a fitting end to three years of post-COVID disappointment for the region. From Liquid’s repeated failures to build another winning roster from the pieces at their disposal and Evil Geniuses’ well-intentioned but still horribly realized Blueprint Project to the various rosters that sporadically appeared at international events only to collapse without the support of an organization, NA seems at the end of its rope. CS2 might be able to revitalize the region through the promise of a more open circuit alone, especially as competitors falter, but will the player base respond?
NAVI finds their groove
NAVI reached Malta after an up-and-down three months with their new Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen-led international roster, which saw them take some important scalps but also suffer disappointing losses. IEM Cologne saw the squad fail to reach the playoffs after a narrow loss to Astralis, while in Gamers8 the team was unable to compete with Vitality’s firepower after taking down FURIA in their opening match. The most worrying aspect was the undeniable drop in performance by the new signings, Mihai “iM” Ivan and Justinas “jL” Lekavicius, who had come in as some of the best-rising riflers in the tier-two scene.
This changed almost overnight at EPL Season 18, with NAVI first taking their group by storm, recording a 6-0 map record with wins over 5yclone, Apeks and FaZe. While Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostilyev’s side had an easier side of the bracket, NAVI also kept up this form in the playoffs, making quick work of both Eternal Fire and Monte before ultimately falling at the hands of MOUZ in the Grand Finals. A lot of the credit has to go to Aleksib and coach Andrey “B1ad3” Gorodenskiy, whose work was probably instrumental in allowing the team to fix their lackluster map pool in the weeks leading up to the event.
s1mple was predictably the team’s best performer, but a resurgent Valeriy “b1t” Vakhovskiy was very close behind, recording his best event in almost a year and a half and slotting in perfectly in his lurking roles. Even iM showed remarkable signs of improvement, especially on the CT sides, allowing NAVI’s proactive setups to shine. The players will still be disappointed by the end of their run, as they were never even in contention against MOUZ, but such an improvement in a very short time is nothing short of impressive. If NAVI can keep evolving and ironing out their mistakes while transitioning into CS2, little can stop s1mple’s team from becoming a real contender.