The Group Stage of the 17th ESL Pro League season is finally coming to a close, with Group D teams taking center stage in the battle for the playoffs.
All eyes will be on NaVi and Liquid, as the best CIS and NA teams will try to make progress after months of failed title runs. For the Ukrainians, the objective is to prove they can challenge for big events with Andrii “npl” Kukharskyi. On the other hand, an inconsistent Liquid needs to show signs of being a true contender. Joining them will be Guy “NertZ” Iluz’s ENCE, a withering Spirit, a new-look FORZE, NA representative ATK, the question mark of Astralis, and China’s leading team, Rare Atom.
NAVI - Reclaiming the Pro League throne
NAVI started 2023 with a new fifth main, choosing to promote academy talent npl over available Ukrainian prospects or an established IGL. The early signs were somewhat promising, as NAVI was only beaten by world #1 G2 and #2 Heroic at BLAST Premier Spring Groups and IEM Katowice. Despite recording 2-0 wins over Cloud9, Liquid, and Outsiders, however, NAVI’s ineffectiveness in the four matchups against elite teams will cast some doubt over their choice.
Now in Malta and with a couple of extra weeks of practice, the Ukrainian team will have to show more grit in their key matchups while maintaining the good level shown. If NAVI is to achieve this and challenge for the title, they need their individuals to perform. Ilya “Perfecto” Zalutskiy’s rise in the second half of 2022 helped hide Valeryi “b1t” Vakhovskiy’s worrying drop in performance, especially against top teams. In addition, npl has struggled to replicate his (already not exceptional) Academy League form, posting a 0.94 HLTV rating in the team’s 2023 outings.
Newfound confidence could be extremely important in what is shaping up to be a very competitive Group D. While on paper NaVi has already beaten the best team in the group, Liquid, Andrey “Jerry” Mekhryakov’s FORZE, Spirit, ENCE, and Astralis are all potential playoff contenders.
Liquid - Defying the odds
Despite a steady rise, Liquid has been unable to secure a title throughout late 2022 and early 2023, with silver medals at EPL Season 16 and BLAST Premier World Final. Katowice embodied both their inconsistency and their threat level, with Keith “NAF” Markovic leading the team in narrow 2-1 wins over Spirit, FaZe, and Vitality before a loss to G2.
While their results are inarguably impressive, Liquid seems incapable of contending for titles by taking the fight to the G2s and Heroics of the scene. The win over FaZe in Katowice is a good start, but the NA outfit needs to perform to that level consistently to make a statement and bring the organization its first LAN trophy since IEM Chicago 2019. All eyes are on Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, who will come into the event during his worst individual stint in years, and John “oSee” Ohm, possibly the most crucial piece of the Liquid puzzle.
Thankfully for Liquid, they were drawn to the easier side of the Group, featuring ENCE as their main rival to advance. The team will need to avoid underestimating a tricky opening matchup with Rare Atom to all but secure a playoff spot, but their handling of IHC during IEM Katowice traced a promising path to follow.
ENCE - Double or nothing
ENCE reach Malta right after announcing the signing of Israeli star NertZ, in a move which strongly reminds of Lotan “Spinx” Giladi’s jump to Tier-1. Valdemar “valde” Bjørn Vangså’s removal was foretold by ENCE’s abysmal 2023, with the organization falling in the IEM Katowice Play-In after losses to C9 and Complexity and crashing out of the IEM Rio qualifier with two easily winnable matchups against Honoris and BIG.
NertZ is tasked with revitalizing a team that unexpectedly rose to prominence in the first half of 2022, recording second-place finishes at EPL Season 15 and IEM Dallas, but was unable to recover from the loss of their star rifler. While Alvaro “SunPayus” Garcia has proven able to hang with the big boys, the keyword for ENCE should be managing expectations. The previous iteration of the roster had run over FaZe twice in their fairytale runs, taking a variety of big scalps, while the current four-man core has a single win over Vitality to show for their effort.
Playoffs should therefore be the goal for the European mixture, who start their campaign off against an ATK fielding Aleksandar “CacaNito” Kjulukoski. Despite a probable loss to Liquid, with NertZ in good form, ENCE should then be able to take down one of Spirit, Astralis, or FORZE for the fourth playoff spot.
Spirit - Isn’t it w0nderful?
Team Spirit has all the pieces needed to succeed in Tier-1 but has so far failed to put together a title-winning package. Evaluating them is quite difficult because of a lack of partnership slots, as the team’s only relevant 2023 appearance was at IEM Katowice, where they were drawn in the horribly unbalanced Group A which featured G2, FaZe, NAVI, Liquid, and Cloud9.
However, despite some competitive results, the team has been suffering when compared to their 2022 Major runs. Robert “Patsi” Isyanov has greatly disappointed, and while some of the missing firepower was matched by a resurgent Boris “magixx” Vorobiev Spirit sorely missed his impact. Similarly, Leonid “chopper” Vishnyakov’s calling in high-pressure situations has raised some doubts. However, Igor “w0nderful” Zhdanov is flourishing into a true threat on the AWP, and matching his firepower with an in-form Patsi will make Spirit a true contender.
While ESL has dealt Spirit anything but an easy hand, Group D is still more approachable than Katowice was. An opening matchup against Astralis will be a true test for the quintet, but both it and an eventual semi-final encounter with NaVi are winnable for a well-playing Spirit. If there’s a tournament for the CIS quintet to showcase their true potential, EPL might just be the one.
Rare Atom - Breaking the glass ceiling
The Chinese outfit has struggled to make a name for itself internationally, dominating the domestic scene but choking in both Major qualification runs in 2022. Their only true appearance came in July at ESL Challenger Valencia, where they defeated HUMMER and MIBR before bowing out in the semis after a competitive loss to Outsiders.
The former ViCi Gaming core is the best team in the region, and IHC’s success has opened the gates for a consistent presence in Tier-1 events. Yi “JamYoung” Yang is potentially the best individual talent Asian CS:GO ever produced, while Jinxiang “Mercury” Wang is leading a generation of talented young Chinese riflers. Malay Andrew “Kaze” Khong is potentially a weak link in such a competitive AWP scene, but he’s experienced and far from a liability. The biggest issue is Zhuo “advent” Liang, the team’s long-standing IGL, whose calling hasn’t kept up with the quickly shifting meta, as well as IHC’s and Lynn Vision’s, did.
Ultimately Rare Atom will not make the playoffs in such a competitive group, but they have the chance to impress and earn themselves further invites just as IHC did. The bare minimum objective might therefore be leaving Malta with a win, but competitiveness would be the most promising sign for the quintet’s future.