As the ESL Pro League Season 18 playoffs will see another team reach glory in Malta, BLIX goes over the leading candidates for the coveted trophy as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s time comes to a close.
NAVI’s new international experiment has failed to hit the ground running over the last few months, scoring a win over G2 at the BLAST Premier Fall Groups before missing the playoffs with a top-eight finish at IEM Cologne and getting dominated by Vitality at Gamers8. While some have tried to downplay the mediocrity of these results, especially in light of the struggles of transitioning to an entirely new system under Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen, this is still the team that fields three-time HLTV #1 player of the year Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev.
Nonetheless, NAVI seems to have turned its fortunes around in Malta, securing their place in the quarter-finals with a clean run to the first spot in Group C. The Ukrainian organization first edged out the Chinese quintet of 5yclone in two contested maps before dispatching Apeks, Justinas “jL” Lekavicius’ former teammates, without breaking a sweat. Their first real test came in the group finals, where they met a still-struggling FaZe: the result was another strong 2-0, with Finn “karrigan” Andersen’s team blown out on Anubis and narrowly defeated by a robust Nuke T side.
NAVI sports the second-highest T-side win rate in the entirety of EPL Season 18 with 61.6%, narrowly trailing ENCE and establishing themselves as a real contender. The team’s best performer on offensive halves has unexpectedly been Valeriy “b1t” Vakhovskiy, with the Ukrainian sitting on a tournament fifth-highest 1.35 offensive half rating and impressing as a more passive lurking element. Even new signing Mihai “iM” Ivan has managed to make a much-needed step-up, still stumbling on his aggressive T-side plays but establishing himself as the team’s best CT side performer with a 1.42 rating, far from his 0.98 at IEM Cologne.
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While NAVI looks poised for their first big-event top-four with the new lineup, it would also be unwise to assume all of the team’s issues have been fixed overnight. The Ukrainians will debut in the quarter-finals, facing the Astralis/Eternal Fire - BIG matchup winner. While NAVI might have dodged more prominent names like Virtus.pro and MOUZ, the bracket won’t be a walk in the park: despite not being in peak form, Astralis eliminated the international team back at IEM Cologne, preventing them from reaching the playoffs, while BIG 2-0d Heroic and Eternal Fire eliminated both Cloud9 and Liquid in Malta.
While far from the clear favorites for the title, NAVI has shown a new side of themselves at EPL, with solid and focused T-sides, improving their shakiness in the Summer events. A lot of pressure will be on iM and jL’s shoulders, as contenders like Vitality, G2, and ENCE will not give the duo the same respect and wiggle-room as the likes of 5yclone and Apeks have done. Still, with b1t in MVP form and s1mple’s X-factor always looming in the shadows, NAVI can hang with the big dogs.
G2 arrived in Malta as part of the three-team group at the top of the scene alongside Vitality and ENCE. The team had started 2023 as a genuinely dominant force but eventually withered away and collapsed at the BLAST Paris Major, Nikola “NiKo” Kovač’s last chance at a CS:GO Major. The team returned to its peak after the Summer break, taking the IEM Cologne title over ENCE and establishing itself as a potential era-defining squad. However, Rasmus “HooXi” Nielsen’s squad was then brought back to earth by Vitality in Saudi Arabia, as the international quintet narrowly beat G2 and went on to secure the title at Gamers8.
In Malta, the team secured a quarter-final spot by triumphing in Group D. However, the result hides the team’s ever-present shakiness. G2 first dropped 12-5 and 15-11 leads over Lynn Vision on Anubis, with Justin “jks” Savage’s impactful CT side saving them from falling a map to a team in their first-ever international event. HooXi was wholly outclassed by Dzhami “Jame” Ali’s Virtus.pro on his map pick of Inferno but still recovered to dominate Mirage and Ancient. Lastly, G2 found themselves down 0-1 and 10-15 to surprise package Complexity in the group final, miraculously recovering as the Americans failed to close the game against a half-buy to win in three maps.
Naturally, it wasn’t all bad news for the international quintet: HooXi impressed in their opening matchup and led the team in kills, jks, and Nemanja “huNter-” Kovač stepped up when needed most, and NiKo almost single-handedly kept G2 in the game against Complexity, fulfilling his role as the team’s star. The last player not yet mentioned, Ilya “m0nesy” Osipov, is sitting at an impressive 1.3 average rating over eight maps, with a level of consistency he hadn’t always found over the last few months. Furthermore, while their shakiness on Anubis and Inferno is worrying, G2 looked excellent on Ancient and Mirage.
The map-pool issues will need to be fixed in time for the playoffs, as G2 has been placed in the bottom quarter of the bracket, facing the winner of the MOUZ/FURIA - FaZe matchup. MOUZ didn’t look inspired, even dropping a series to MIBR, but they still 2-0d Heroic in Malta and NAVI in Cologne. FURIA struggled to make it out of the group stage, but Kaike “KSCERATO” Cerato sits on a tournament third-highest 1.38 average rating. Lastly, FaZe’s best days are long gone, but they still comfortably made the playoffs and have one of the highest ceilings in the entire scene.
A projected semi-final against ENCE will still probably not worry HooXi, as G2 efficiently handled Marco “Snappi” Pfeiffer’s team in the IEM Cologne grand final. Still, the playoffs will mark a new challenge for the international contender, as fixing a broken map pool is much more complex than helping an inconsistent teammate perform, especially in the short term.
The reigning Major champions arrived in Malta after a dominant showing with recruit Shahar “flameZ” Shushan. The Israeli rifler settled perfectly in Dan “apEX” Madesclaire’s system, with Vitality, first securing a top-four finish at IEM Cologne and then demolishing NAVI, G2, and ENCE on their way to the Gamers8 title in Saudi Arabia. Saying the firepower upgrade was sizable would be an understatement. Vitality took another step forward from contention to potential dominance and freed up Lotan “Spinx” Giladi.
In practical terms, Vitality was untouchable in their EPL Group, handily securing first place and a quarter-final spot. Not only did the French organization dispatch mix team ORKS, a struggling NiP, and an impressive Movistar Riders without dropping a map, but they did so, only allowing their opponents 13, 12, and 17 total rounds, respectively. While the group was the least competitive on paper, with seeded teams like Astralis and FURIA suffering from their inconsistency and falling to the lower bracket, Vitality would have probably swept them without any issues.
Where to start with the positives? Vitality won over 80% of their CT-side rounds in Malta, securing the first kill in most rounds and winning from a 4v5 situation 65% of the time. Even when they concede the opening frag, Vitality’s trading, protocols, and individual ceiling are so strong that they still consistently win rounds. Spinx leads the tournament’s MVP race with a staggering 1.49 HLTV rating, with ZywOo in fourth place (1.37) and Emil “Magisk” Reif in ninth (1.28). The Israeli star has produced a series of stunning T-side performances, securing a 71.4% opening kill success rate on over 20% attempts.
However, these performances have masked the few cracks in Vitality’s game, which emerge on their offensive halves. Despite excelling, flameZ has been having a disappointing event. The entry rifler wins his opening duels in less than 25% of rounds despite being his team’s most frequent aggressor. Better opponents might be able to punish his space-taking plays without immediately giving up a trade, leaving Vitality into man-disadvantage situations they realistically cannot recover from as often as they’ve been doing. While it’s been impressive to see them succeed so convincingly despite this lack of impact from flameZ, this is likely unsustainable.
Still, Vitality will also have the bracket on their side. Facing the winner of a matchup between tournament Cinderella-story Complexity and Monte or fnatic, Vitality will probably have the easiest quarter-final out of all seeded teams. Furthermore, the French organization is on NAVI’s side of the playoffs. While s1mple’s squad has impressed enough at the event to appear on this list, they’re still far from a top-level contender and have only mustered thirteen rounds in their match against Vitality at Gamers8.
Ultimately, Vitality has the highest ceiling out of all the teams taking part in the event and can completely shut down their opponents through individual talent alone. If flameZ takes another step forward in the playoffs, rendering Vitality’s T-side strategies even more effective, it’s hard to imagine anyone stopping them in Malta. As it currently stands, the crown is theirs to take.