lurppis’ IEM Oakland playoffs preview

This article sets the stage for the playoffs at IEM Oakland, where six teams remain fighting for a piece of the $300,000 prize purse, to be settled at Oracle Arena.

Half of the 12-team field has been eliminated at IEM Oakland, and the remaining six teams are getting ready to move over to Oracle Arena, which its resident basketball team, the Golden State Warriors, have temporarily opened up to Counter-Strike, as they are touring Eastern Conference opponents in the NBA.

Saturday’s round-of-six matches, pairing up the second place finishers from one group with the other group’s third place finishers, will take up the entire day. Sunday is scheduled for both semifinals, as well as the grand final with $125,000 on the line – with losers going home 60 percent poorer, at a mere $50,000.

The opening day of action saw Astralis top Group A over Immortals, with each boasting a 4-1 record, with G2 barely securing the third seed with three wins. Eliminated from the opening group were Natus Vincere and Liquid with 2-3 records, as well as TyLoo – which had soul-crushing losses at 19-17 to Immortals and 16-14 against Na`Vi.

On Thursday, it was FaZe who prevailed in Group B, scoring a perfect 5-0 record, a mirror image of mousesports’ elimination at 0-5. A three-way tie was avoided at the end with Cloud9 taking down Heroic, leaving each at 2-3. Instead, advancing to playoffs were SK and NiP, each of whom finished with a 3-2 record. Notably Cloud9 suffered 19-17 and 16-14 losses in their first games, barely missing the playoffs.

Now the stage has been set – both figuratively and literally – for a showdown at the Oracle Arena in front of the crowd for the IEM Oakland 2016 title, as well as the money that goes along with it. While a handful of teams are in Atlanta instead for ELEAGUE, all six remaining teams in Oakland are in the top 15 in HLTV.org’s world rankings.

Saturday, 1:45 p.m. ET: SK vs. G2

SK is the best team competing at IEM Oakland, which made them favorites going into the event. And yet they were first upset by Danish up and comers Heroic, and later were defeated by FaZe. I view them as the world’s second best team behind Virtus.pro, while HLTV.org ranks them first. Either way, they are clearly the favored side – even if the actual percentages are not greatly in their favor – in the round-of-six match against Richard “shox” Papillon’s G2.

Whereas Marcelo “coldzera” David has remained near the peak of his powers and Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo has showcased unmatchable ability on train, the rest of SK has seemingly cooled off a little bit. Neither Fernando “fer” Alvarenga nor Lincoln “fnx” Lau has put up star-like performances as they used to, and frankly SK has had to work more for their round wins. Teams understand their style better, are often better prepared for them than vice versa due to abundance of demos, and simply put, should be hungrier for wins against them, than the other way around. It is how these things go.

And yet since SK’s return to tournament play with fer, offline they have only lost best-of-three series against Virtus.pro and Cloud9. Not a bad record; in fact it is the second best in the scene. But in best-of-ones they have fallen victim to Astralis, Na`Vi, NiP, Virtus.pro, Fnatic, FaZe and Heroic, proving they are far from invincible. In terms of maps, it is more obvious where the problem lies – a vast majority of their losses have come on mirage and cobblestone; the latter of which is a long-term issue now. Luckily for SK, though, G2 does not play mirage, which will allow SK to veto cobblestone from the map pool.

G2 are in a prolonged slump, having not looked like the team that narrowly lost to SK (then Luminosity) at ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals in May, and then bested them easily in the ECS Season 1 grand final. They have sparked up at times but have been entirely unable of putting together longer stretches of the type of performance that could compete for tournament titles. Given the team’s simplistic playing style, it makes sense that their woes correlate with lack of top-tier individual play by the two stars they are so overly reliant on.

This team lives and dies with the performances of shox and Adil “ScreaM” Benrlitom, two of the biggest fan favorites in the scene, and lately there has been more dying than living. The trio of bodyy, RpK and SmithZz has not stepped up enough when their stars have not carried the team, and it remains a huge issue for a team not exactly known for tactical innovation, or even good use of the recycled tactics of other teams. G2 is the team that perhaps could most benefit from adding a full-time coach – not even necessarily in an in-game leading function, as shox is a solid mid-round caller — but one who could help them prepare adequate tactics.

Beyond the aforementioned meetings, the two teams met at ESL One Cologne, where SK bested G2, and at EPICENTER: Moscow, where G2 fell short 2-1 after a 16-0 thrashing on train. G2’s issue in this match-up is they cannot avoid train because they do not play mirage, which puts them down 1-0 to start. SK has improved on dust2, but remains vulnerable, as is the case on both overpass and cobblestone – the former thanks to G2’s strength, and the latter due to SK’s weakness on it.

SK are favorites to beat G2, especially given their presumed 1-0 starting point after train. A prime G2 with shox and ScreaM firing on all cylinders, with the rest of the team chiming in – as for example bodyy did in the grand final of ECS Season 2 Finals on dust2 – is capable of upsetting SK. But it does not seem like a realistic ask, and as such, SK should be expected to cruise through to yet another top four finish, in Northern California.

Prediction: SK 2:1 G2

Photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack

Photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack

Saturday, 5:45 p.m. ET: NiP vs. Immortals

IEM Oakland is NiP’s first tournament since Jacob “pyth” Mourujärvi returned from his prolonged hiatus from the game, thanks to a nagging wrist-related injury. In his absence, the Ninjas put up solid results with the help of former member Maikel “Maikelele” Bill, whose aggressive sniping provided the kind of spark NiP has frankly missed in the past years. The Swedes’ 3-2 record in the IEM group stage was not particularly impressive, with the only match they won that they were not clear favorites in coming in against Cloud9, who had a weak showing in Oakland.

It is impossible to gauge the level of play for current NiP, other than to say their most important player and one of the all-time greats in Counter-Strike, Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund, has been stepping up in the past months, with three strong showings at SL i-League StarSeries Season 2 Finals, ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals, and ELEAGUE’s group stage. He has not played very well at IEM, with Patrick “f0rest” Lindberg instead stealing the spotlight away, but is one of the truly rare players whose level of play often rises with the importance of matches. It is said about many, but it rarely holds true.

Their opponents are Immortals, the Brazilian side who took a risk in the summer, after besting this very NiP lineup in the grand final of DreamHack Summer in mid-June, by replacing Gustavo “SHOOWTiME” Goncalves with Wilton “zews” Prado. The experiment with zews – former coach of SK – leading the team as a player had mixed results but ended abruptly following group stage exits at ELEAGUE and ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals. Early signs with his replacement Lucas “steel” Lopes are great, with IMT having secured a win at iBUYPOWER Masters, and a second seed at IEM Oakland’s group A.

Immortals destroyed G2, beat Liquid 16-14 and clinched overtime victories over Na`Vi and TyLoo for their 4-1 record. At iBUYPOWER Masters in Southern California, they bested FaZe in a comeback win powered by HEN1’s carry-performance, and then won a series – which had hardly any meaning, acting more so as a show match than anything else – over Cloud9 in the grand final. So far they have been able to win all the close games, but if they suddenly find themselves a few rounds worse off, their record will crater. Such small is the margin with which they have racked their impressive record with steel.

In June, when IMT took down NiP with SHOOWTiME still on the roster, they did so in two maps, with cache being NiP’s pick and mirage the Brazilian side’s. IMT will again veto nuke in the series, and NiP should be willing to roll the dice on cache. Beyond that it is hard to have a read on the Swedes with pyth back in the roster, given limited sample size. I expect HEN1’s team to pick mirage, and third map could conceivably end up being train – a map each team likes to play. On those, NiP has a small edge in my opinion, but IMT is less than the margin for error away.

For IMT to win the series, HEN1 will need to continue playing like a superstar, and they need João felps Vasconcellos to step back up to his old level. Since a lackluster showing in Sao Paulo for ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals – around the time felps was rumored to be joining SK in fnx’s stead – he has not played well offline. As for NiP, they simply need things to go according to plan, with f0rest or GeT_RiGhT being the best player on the server, and they are all-but guaranteed to advance. This will be the new-look Immortals team’s biggest test yet.

Prediction: NiP 2:1 Immortals

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Photo by Adela Snazjder/DreamHack

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET: FaZe vs. NiP/Immortals

Following an entire year of disappointing results, FaZe recruited Finn “karrigan” Andersen from Astralis’ bench last month and made the playoffs of ELEAGUE with wins over Cloud9 and Immortals. The team had a forgettable showing in Brazil, where they only beat Dignitas and NRG en route to a group stage exit. Then one of the team’s longest standing members, Joakim “jkaem” Myrbostad, decided to leave the team, leading to the return of former EnVyUs player and major champion Fabien “kioShiMa” Fiey, who has provided a further spark to their play.

FaZe’s showing at iBUYPOWER Masters was poor, as they dropped a 15-9 lead to Immortals and barely beat the Australian Renegades team in the deciding game, but in their defense they have barely had time to practice since the roster move. Of course that reason, no matter how valid, does not help them at IEM Oakland – but they still managed to secure the best record in the entire group stage, finishing on top of Group B at 5-0 with wins over the likes of SK, Cloud9 and NiP. Not bad for a team who a month ago had not made playoffs all year. But the sample size remains too small to really decide how good this team is, given the recent roster move.

The team starring Havard “rain” Nygaard obviously beat NiP in the group stage, in a convincing fashion. As for this roster’s history with the Brazilian side, they were unable to close out a match last week. And yet my expectation is that should NiP go through the round-of-six match, FaZe are likelier to be sent packing than in case HEN1’s team make it out to Oracle Arena on Sunday. FaZe’s key strength is their map pool, but there is a chance their game may not be deep enough to survive the added analysis of playoff opponents. In any case, FaZe has a legitimate chance – and could be considered favorites – to make the grand final of a large tournament. Who would have thought that two months ago?

Prediction: NiP 2:1 FaZe, OR FaZe 2:1 Immortals

Photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack

Photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack

Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET: Astralis vs. SK/G2

Although it has only been a month or so since Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander joined the team from Heroic to replace karrigan, Astralis have – based on their recent veto patterns – already practiced enough maps to have a deep enough pool to adjust their vetoes heavily based on their opponents. It is a great strength in a best-of-one setting, but unfortunately does not bode as well in the playoffs. In a best-of-one, getting rid of your weakest maps and the opponent’s strongest puts you on somewhat even ground, where two relatively leveled teams should be able to battle. But that no longer holds in a best-of-three series.

The Danish side’s success at Oracle Arena on Sunday will require strong play from their celebrated trio of device, dupreeh and Kjaerbye. So far device has been the No. 1 player in Oakland, finishing the group stage with a borderline ridiculous 1.42 rating, including 0.90 kills per round, 87.2 ADR and a 1.66 K/D ratio. While the others have been far behind so far, everyone on Astralis has played well – not one player is below-1.03 rating, and each of dupreeh and Kjaerbye has put up three monster performances in their first five games.

Astralis are most likely to face SK, the team who they bested on overpass at ELEAGUE last week, for a rematch in a playoff series format. Vetoes should be cache and train – zonic’s team would be crazy to leave train in, despite their win over Na`Vi on it in Group A – but it gets much more interesting thereafter. SK has not been particularly strong on cobblestone, but for Astralis the map might evoke nightmares – while still giving benefit of the doubt to gla1ve. The Danes may go for overpass, the map they beat SK on previously, and decider could well be dust2, given the demoralizing loss device’s side suffered on nuke against G2. This is a winnable series for Kjaerbye and company, but they do go in as underdogs due to either cobblestone or train’s presence in the map pool.

As for the potential game against G2, I have device’s team winning in a series. Big part of Astralis getting shut down was clever passive play by SmithZz in the nuke game in group A, but they would be wise to that now and able to adapt. Astralis should go for train after G2 has removed mirage, while I would expect gla1ve to veto cobblestone, and settle on playing dust2. There is not enough data, especially given G2’s inconsistent play, to make a solid prediction – it would be anyone’s series. My stance is Astralis’s win on overpass gives them a slight edge, as device’s teams have always been strong on dust2, which is G2’s bread and butter. Call other maps tie, so train gives the edge to the team hoping to head #ToTheStars.

Prediction: SK 2:0 Astralis, OR Astralis 2:1 G2

Cover photo by Helena Kristiansson/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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