The case for Natus Vincere at MLG Columbus 2016

Despite Fnatic being the overwhelming favorite to win the first-ever $1 million Counter-Strike tournament next week, there is a case to be made for a couple of other squads. One of them is the ex-CIS powerhouse Natus Vincere, whose team consists of players from Ukraine, Russia and Slovakia. This article sets out to build a strong case for Na’Vi to emerge victorious on Sunday at the Nationwide Arena. Let’s take a look at what stands in their way en route to the top of the podium and a check for $500,000.

Group stage

Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovács’ team has been placed in the toughest group of MLG Columbus, with three top 10 teams – per Duncan “Thorin” Shields’ latest world ranking – and a still-improving Cloud9 competing for two playoff spots amongst the world’s best eight teams. Generally, it is a tough group for each participant, but if we take a step back and look at it objectively, it becomes clear Na’Vi is the reason why this group is so tough. Virtus.pro has been ailing recently, Cloud9 has been inconsistent at best, and while G2 has had a solid start to 2016, it does not come close to that of Na’Vi’s.

The one awkward fact is the group stage format that Valve’s events use. While I have previously shown that best-of-ones are not nearly as random as fans – and even players, to avoid pressure – make them out to be, the random map draw does affect results. Once both teams have removed two maps, there could be maps left in the pool where Na’Vi are huge favorites, reasonable favorites, and perhaps almost even money. Nothing but luck of the draw will determine which one is played, and it is a damn shame such randomness is allowed to alter legacies. But it is the world we have to deal with, and so be it.

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In the opening round, Na’Vi will face Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert’s Cloud9. The teams met twice offline in 2015, with the Americans losing the grand final of ESWC 2015 with a 2-1 scoreline but prevailing under a week later in the group stages of FACEIT Stage 3 Finals on cobblestone. However, we are six months removed from those results, and more importantly, Na’Vi has since then only gained a stronger foothold on its status as an elite team in Counter-Strike, while Cloud9 has not come close to the kind of form it showcased for a couple of brief weeks last July. In other words, there is no basis to expect Danylo Zeus Teslenko and company to falter here.

They will be challenged by a tougher opponent in the second round. Adil “ScreaM” Benrlitom’s team has not met Na’Vi under the G2 banner, but played two games online in early December — with Na’Vi prevailing in both, 16-14 on train and 16-9 on dust2 — and a best-of-three series at CEVO Professional Season 8 Finals in Columbus. The French-Belgians prevailed 2-1 over what seemed to be a hungover — methaphorically speaking — Na’Vi team just days after its second place finish at DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca, the previous major. Na’Vi dominated dust2 again but lost close games on train and cobblestone in what wound up being their worst placing in a long time.

As for MLG, Kevin “Ex6TenZ” Droolans must have done extra work ahead of the event and should be well prepared for the game, but there is no doubt their biggest priority is the opener versus Virtus.pro. If the matchups were flipped, I would have more confidence in G2. In addition, this French-Belgian team’s leader has missed the playoffs of every single major since DreamHack Winter 2013. Na’Vi is vulnerable but clearly favored.

The other, perhaps more likely, opponent for Na’Vi in the battle of first place in Group C is Virtus.pro. The two sides have a packed history with 36 head-to-head maps in 2015, but so far have only played four maps in the current calendar year, while Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski’s team has been trending down. Two maps – namely dust2 and cobblestone – took place online in ESL ESEA Pro League Season 3, with Na’Vi losing 21 rounds total in two wins. More importantly, the giants faced off for the semifinals of CounterPit Season 2 Finals, where the Poles had their so far best placing of a lackluster year. In a close series, Na’Vi prevailed, with a 16-14 win on overpass followed by a 16-12 victory on train.

The key about Na’Vi’s group is that it holds the keys to it. If Na’Vi shows up and plays as well as it has for the past nine months, there is little reason to think they might not come out on top. Winning will be key, because it will allow them – if no upsets take place in other groups – to avoid match-ups against Fnatic, Luminosity and Astralis in the opening round of the playoffs. Pit Na’Vi against anyone else in a best-of-three, especially after having a day off to prepare, and they are sizable favorites – no question about it. Upsets happen, however, and Na’Vi’s group makes them one of the top candidates for landing on the wrong side of one. They cannot afford to have an off-day in Columbus.

Key playoff match-ups

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This part of the article will be broken down to three parts – one for each of the other elite teams, who are going to be the biggest challenges for Na’Vi. It would be unfair to suggest the likes of NiP or Virtus.pro stand no chance of winning a playoff series against them, but considering few expect them to be Na’Vi’s undoing, it makes little sense to focus on them here. Instead, we will be addressing the arguments most fans would make against the case for Na’Vi’s championship run at MLG Columbus 2016, starting with astralis.

But before that, let’s make one thing clear – that same randomness that affects the group games greatly plays a part in determining the outcome of the playoffs as well. As the series are played in best-of-three form, the map generator-part is not as all-deciding. But brackets are drawn randomly, which means even if the four elite teams top their groups, there is no way to know who plays who come semifinals. Na’Vi might have to take on Fnatic already, or it could get a pass – and getting to the grand final without facing Luminosity or Fnatic, their main opponents, would be a tremendous help to their title hopes. Now, onto the opponents:

Na’Vi have played against Astralis once offline in 2016, as well as their ESL Pro League double header online. At CounterPit Season 2 Finals, the Danes won inferno 16-12 after a heroic 12-3 terrorist half – one that you should not count on them repeating. On train, Astralis could only muster nine rounds, and on mirage Na’Vi ripped them apart with a 16-5 scoreline. Finn “karrigan” Andersen’s team does not play cobblestone, while Na’Vi will never play cache. The problem for Astralis is it’s not necessarily favored on any of the five remaining maps – at face value you must take flamie and company as favorites on at least 3-4 of them, with train leading the way.

Similarly, GuardiaN is the best player in the series – and star power often helps in high-pressure games – with flamie playing as well as device has in the past few months. In a vis-à-vis comparison, I would take Na’Vi – any day of the week – over Astralis individually. Then factor in the issues the Danes have had dealing with pressure in big games, which playing in front of a sold out crowd at the Nationwide Arena will surely not help. Finally, consider the fact Na’Vi is considered tactically one of the strongest two teams in Counter-Strike. Where is Astralis supposed to get an edge? I do not see it, which is why I think this series, even if it goes three maps, would be all Na’Vi.

The ex-CIS powerhouse has a great history with Luminosity. As perhaps the best matchup in Counter-Strike right now, the two most tactical teams in the world have battled it out three times so far in playoff series in 2016, with an additional group stage match on top. In January at SL i-League StarSeries XIV Finals, Na’Vi came up short with 16-14 and 16-9 losses on train and mirage, respectively. Less than two weeks later the tables had turned, and it was Marcelo “coldzera” David’s team who had to bail out of DreamHack Open Leipzig at the hands of Na’Vi, losing both train and cobblestone in overtime, in the grand final of the event.

Most recently, they met in the group stage of IEM Katowice, where Luminosity won mirage 16-11. Later on, they played one of the best series in Counter-Strike’s history, with Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo’s 1.49 rating performance lifting the Brazilian side over Na’Vi in a two-map thriller, with a 22-19 score on overpass and a 16-12 differential on inferno. In aggregate, these teams’ head-to-head map score in 2016 so far is 5-2 in favor of Luminosity. Looking back to the last month or so of 2015, after Lincoln “fnx” Lau and Tacio “TACO” Filho joined Luminosity, that score was 4-1. You might read into that as the Brazilians having not only caught up to, but even surpassed, Na’Vi, and I would not argue with you – even though I do not agree.

No question Na’Vi left no stone unturned in the IEM Katowice semifinal, even showcasing the now-famous triple-boosts on overpass that helped them win two key rounds in overtime. But GuardiaN was having wrist issues during the Polish tournament, leading to his worst individual showing in roughly six months. Additionally, one might fairly assume Luminosity’s crosshairs are fixated on Fnatic, whereas Na’Vi might have spent more time studying its tactical rivals after losing the previous encounter. Consider also the Brazilians’ issues closing out games deep in the playoffs – aside from the Katowice series. This is anyone’s game – though it may not even happen, given the random bracket draw, even if both teams advance to semifinals – but there is a solid case for Na’Vi here.

The final boss of Counter-Strike, Fnatic is the greatest team of all time – even if it is hard to draw the line between the pronax-led roster of late 2014 and most of 2015, and this new roster with Dennis “dennis” Edman that has devoured the competition since early November, but has yet to attend a single major. Either way, this core is as good as it gets – or ever has gotten – and is expected to not only be their challengers’ final opponent in the grand final, but win the entire event, too. In a way, it would be almost unfair if the ultimate champions of the first $1 million event – if it’s not Fnatic – get to avoid them. To be the best, you have to beat the best.

Na’Vi have played the dennis-Fnatic only a couple of times, with perhaps the most interesting matchup having taken place in mid-December at ESL ESEA Pro League Season 2 Finals. Na’Vi lost the first two maps of the series – Fnatic’s pick inferno, and Na’Vi’s pick dust2 – with identical scores of 16-14. Na’Vi outdid Fnatic 16-6 on mirage and clawed its way back into the game on train after a horrendous 10-5 defensive half to win 16-14 and tie the series at 2-2. The decider wound up being anti-climactic, with Fnatic pulling off a comfortable 16-6 win on cobblestone. However, GuardiaN was rendered largely irrelevant in the series, and could have been the difference-maker had he played as well as he recently has.

Their series at SL i-League StarSeries XIV Finals wound up being such a one-sided affair there is little point in talking about it. Fnatic won 2-0 overall on dust2 and cobblestone, losing merely 10 rounds in total. olofmeister led his team to a 16-10 win on dust2 in the group stage of IEM Katowice as well, making sure the Swedes would be considered heavy favorites in any future match-up, given their flawless 3-0 record so far in 2016 with a cumulative score of 48-20, leaving few questions without an answer. So why, then, could Na’Vi prevail at MLG Columbus, when they have not been able to do so in the past?

In the past couple of weeks, GuardiaN has made his case for being considered the world’s best player over his rival Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer from Fnatic. Individually, players seldom win maps, let alone entire series, but the best players tend to come out on top, more often than not. flamie was an MVP candidate in their December loss, and actually was the clear MVP of Na’Vi’s championship campaign at DreamHack Open Leipzig. He has improved immensely, having a 1.12 rating in the past three months, and giving his team much needed firepower. His fellow Russian Denis “seized” Kostin perked up at CounterPit Season 2 Finals, playing his best offline Counter-Strike since July, and the oldest Na’Vi members bring routine at the majors.

Tactically Na’Vi is superior to Fnatic – there is no question about it. They may not be able to match the Swedes in pure teamwork, but they should find a way to surprise the three-time major champions with some tactical aces up their sleeves. You should also not underestimate the effect of added pressure on all of these majors at the most-important to-date event in Counter-Strike history. And all of that pressure is on Fnatic, in any matchup at the event, because they are such overwhelming favorites to win it all. Add the amount of homework each contender must have done on the Black and Orange prior to this event, and while it is still blue skies in Fnatic-land, it is not impossible to imagine some clouds arriving next week.

Conclusion

Are Na’Vi all of a sudden the favorites to win MLG Columbus 2016? No, of course not. But as I explained in a very similar article last July ahead of Na’Vi’s ESWC championship, there is a universe out there where they not only can win, but have a good chance of doing so. As a very tactics-oriented team, I would expect Na’Vi to come into any major with extra preparation on their opponents, having already in advance figured out specific ways to try to beat them. Same can be said for many others, but few have the track record of Zeus and Sergey “starix” Ischuk when it comes down to the execution.

Much like any major championship run, Na’Vi’s will be riddled with challenges, and few end up prevailing without losing a map on the way. Sometimes it happens in the group stage. Other times, teams win each playoff series in a nail-biting way with 2-1 scores throughout the bracket. At the end of the day, this is a results oriented sport, and in two months few will remember such mundane details. For now, the preparation has been put in, and the case for Na’Vi has been made. All that remains is for Edward, flamie, GuardiaN, seized and Zeus to execute, with starix leading the way in his combined role of coach and in-game leader. Tune in Tuesday to see what happens, as Na’Vi takes on Cloud9 to begin their run at MLG Columbus 2016.

Photos by Carlton Beener/ESL, eslgaming.com

Former professional Counter-Strike player whose team was ranked the world's best in 2007, and who led Evil Geniuses for two years. Since retiring, he has been an active member of the media.

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