In 2015, a small overlooked event called Gfinity: Champion of Champions just happened to have the top four Counter-Strike teams in the world at the time: EnVyUs, Fnatic, Virtus.Pro, and Ninjas in Pyjamas. Although the field was small, the prevailing thought went, every match would be spectacular as only the best of the best were assembled (with the exception of TSM who could not attend and therefore NiP took their place). In a similar fashion, EPICENTER 2017 boasts an exclusive field with only eight teams in attendance compared to the 16 (or more) typical of larger events. But the quality of the teams more than makes up for it. The six invited teams are Astralis, G2 Esports, Gambit, North, SK Gaming and Virtus.Pro. The final two spots will be played on LAN as four teams duke it out in the wild cards: among them are FaZe Clan and Team Liquid. Welcome to the stage where the champion of champions will be crowned.
Titles won (2017): ELEAGUE Major, IEM Katowice
Second: StarLadder Kiev, ELeague CS:GO Premier
Top 4: DreamHack Las Vegas, IEM Sydney, ECS Season 3, Kraków Major
Astralis was the undisputed best team early in 2017 and has remained the most consistent team throughout the entire year. This team has made the playoffs in every tournament it’s attended except one. ESL One New York where it was placed in the group of death with FaZe and Liquid. Astralis finished top four in every other major tournament except DreamHack Malmo. This is the most diverse tactical team on the planet, which means it will always have a chance to defeat any other team as long as individual skill doesn’t overshadow teamwork and preparation. Yet a noticeable decline in skill has been Astralis’ recent bane. The other top teams in the world are stacked with talent, so Astralis has to go the extra mile to push them over the edge. In its most recent tournament, the ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier, Astralis took second place and showed its teamwork and tactics are still among the best in the world, if not No. 1.
Players to watch:
If Astralis wins, it must come off the form of star players Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz and Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjaerbye. Dev1ce is the most intelligent AWPer in the world and I’d argue the AWPer with the best chance to mitigate Kenny “kennyS” Schrub. He is the point of the spear, and his play style is a methodical, intricate work of art. Kjaerbye has been in a slump for months now but when he was at his best, his explosive streaky aim often demolished opponents and elevated Astralis’ tactics from strong to nearly unstoppable.
Titles: DreamHack Tours, ESL Pro League Season 5, DreamHack Malmö
Top 4: DreamHack Austin
The strongest French team ranks among the most skilled lineups in the world. For most of 2017, G2 has been snidely dismissed as inconsistent, a continual work in progress. That was largely due to economic management; incessant force buying often killed momentum and turned typical gun rounds into risky endeavors. After a loss at the Kraków Major where that tendency finally got G2 killed in the group stages, the team changed its approach, which has helped stabilize CT sides. On top of that, regular eco rounds remain incredibly dangerous. If there was one identifiable weakness, it’s that G2 hasn’t fully tapped into the potential of Richard “shox” Papillon. He is still impactful, but nowhere close to the star player who shone so brilliantly in 2016. G2 also reverted on its evolution at the ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier when it lost to Cloud9. In that game, the team went back to force-buying. So I have no idea what to think, but this at the very least increases the volatility and consistency of the team.
Player to watch:
kennyS has the best AWP in the world. Although I’ve made the case dev1ce can defeat kennyS, when compared against the entire field, kennyS is by far the more dominant AWPer. He can play all ranges (it’s impossible to catch him out) and he can have impact in all situations throughout the round. He reads the game incredibly well and when combined with his movement, he creates positions that lets him get off unanswered picks time after time. Simultaneously, his awe-inspiring skill is such that even in dead positions he can still make something happen.
Current lineup results: TBD
Top 4: DreamHack Malmö
Titles: Kraków Major, DreamHack Austin
Second: CS Summit
The Kraków Major winners haven’t dropped off nearly as hard as their most ardent critics predicted when Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko left the squad. The team still showed good form at its only subsequent event in Malmö so I expect a similar showing here. Gambit has already fundamentally changed as a team as it has transitioned from a tactical style to a loose one, and its map pool has changed accordingly as the team has embraced Cache and Mirage. Despite being one of the weaker teams at EPICENTER, Gambit’s overall spread of talent is still strong. It is still early in this lineup’s life, so let’s see if it can match what happened with Zeus.
Players to watch:
If this lineup will go anywhere, it will be on the core trio of Abay “HObbit” Khassenov, Rustem “mou” Telepov, and Bektiyar “fitch” Bahytov. Although Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev was Gambit’s best player and the MVP of the Krakow Major, he has taken up the in-game leadership role. This has already started to erode his play as he isn’t nearly as impactful as he once was, and I don’t expect him to reclaim his place as the wrecking ball of the squad. HObbit has consistently been strong, mou seems to have gotten better in the last two of his three LAN events (wasn’t impressive at ESG Tours), and Fitch has shown surprisingly quick adaptation from what little we’ve seen. All three will need to turn up for Gambit to go far.
Titles: DreamHack Montreal
Second: DreamHack Malmö
Second: ESL Pro League Season 5
Top 4: DreamHack Las Vegas, ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier
For almost all of 2017, North was the gifted child who squandered their inheritance. Relative to the skill level of what I expected, North always underwhelmed. This team should have contended for championships alongside Astralis and SK. In the end, it never panned out as the loss of Ruben “RUBINO” Villarroel mortally hurt the overall structure and teamplay of the squad. At the same time, Philip “aizy” Aistrup never fulfilled the role as a star player and Emil “Magisk” Reif’s individual performance suffered as time passed. There was simply too much aggression on the CT sides; the T sides gradually become more loose as time went on, and North failed to employ Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen’s tactical acumen. All of that was exacerbated by North’s strange map pick/ban strategy. North was a consistent team throughout 2017, but when you looked at the tools at the team’s disposal, the results felt underwhelming.
The recruitment of Valdemar “valde” Bjorn has been a revelation. He has shored up a lot of the problems from a teamplay/structure standpoint and has upped the firepower. With his contribution, North finally looks ready to take on the next step and become champions. Its recent run at ELEAGUE showed some promise as the T-side was the most effective against FaZe among all of the teams that FaZe has played with its new lineup.
Players to watch:
Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke is the best Danish player in CS:GO right now. He is operating at a superstar level and his baseline play has continued to increase over time despite North’s underwhelming results throughout the year. He supercharges MSL’s tactics with his monstrous mechanics and is the centerpiece of the team.
Titles: CS Summit, IEM Sydney, DreamHack Summer, ECS Season 3, ESL One Cologne
Second: DreamHack Las Vegas
Third: ESG Tour Mykonos
Top 4: ESL Pro League Season 5, ESL One New York
SK looked like safe bets to win Kraków. In the runup to that event, SK had won six out of seven LANs, losing only ESL Pro League Season 5 to G2. As a team. SK possessed perhaps the most skilled lineup in the world, but an ascendent Astralis defeated SK at the quarterfinals at Kraków. Even though SK lost, I thought the Brazilians would pick it right up after the August player break. Instead, SK hit an inexplicable slump. While I can’t explain why it happened, I can explain how its troubles are manifesting in-game. SK lost Inferno as a strong map and forced role changes that have enervated the entire CT side. The overall teamplay has gone to hell and this has especially shown in the performance of Joao “felps” Vasconcellos. Once the strong stable third star for the team, he completely lost whatever magic he had since coming back.
This internal turmoil has made SK inconsistent. Whereas before this team was playing incredible Counter-Strike tournament after tournament, map after map, you’re now no longer sure which SK shows up. You can get the gritty bastards that fought Liquid tooth and nail at ELEAGUE, or you can get that shabby squad that lost to Heroic later in the same day.
Players to watch:
The player under the limelight would felps, but it’s unclear if he’s even going to play with the team in this event. In either case, whether SK fixes its problems or not, Marcelo “Coldzera” David is still a god. He can nearly single-handedly win maps for SK if the team is not back in a groove.
Among all of the teams, Virtus.Pro stands out like a sore thumb. Not because of excellence, but a lack of it.
VP is mired in the worst slump of its history. This was a team I once praised as the final defenders of the gate, the team all of the greats must eventually defeat if they desired to get such an acclaimed title. Those days are no more. Ironically it came about the same way as Virtus.Pro usually gets out of slumps: a role change. For whatever reason, after IEM Katowice, Filip “NEO” Kubski gave up the in-game leadership role to Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski. The change destroyed Snax’s form and the overall teamplay was never as good as it once was, despite the tactics being sound. Now Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas has recently taken up the in-game leadership role and Snax is back to being an undisturbed player. I think it’s too little, too late. It will take a long time for Snax to rebuild his game back to superstar level, when his style of play was impactful on every part of the round on both sides. But a part of me hopes that the longest standing lineup in esports history will find what made it great.
Player to watch:
While both Jaroslaw “pashabiceps” Jarzabkowski and Pawel “byali” Bieliński have been good for the team throughout the slump, neither of them is Snax. Either Snax steps up or this team is a zombie.
As for the wild card qualifier, two teams stand far above the rest.
Titles: ESL One New York, ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier
With KioShiMa and allu:
Titles: StarLadder Kiev
Second: ECS Season 3, IEM Katowice, IEM Sydney
Top 4: ESL One Cologne
Dubbed the most expensive team in CS:GO, this lineup is disgusting. I’m almost certain this breaks federal law in the United States as no one team should host this much firepower. Just naming the players fills someone with a sense of simultaneous awe and disgust: Havard “rain” Nygaard, Finn “karrigan” Andersen, Nikola “NiKo” Kovacs, Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs, Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer. Rain is the best Norwegian player and an incredible player in his own right, and someone who has reached another level recently; Karrigan is one of the all-time great Danish leaders in CS:GO and once upon a time was a star of his own team. NiKo was once one of the all-time great prodigies of CS:GO and now ranks among the best players. GuardiaN, one of the all-time great AWPers of CS:GO, seems revitalized ever since he joined FaZe. Olofmeister, once the best player in the world on Fnatic, drank the same water from the Fountain of Youth and looks like he’s transported back to early 2016.
You’d think with this many stars, the teamplay or tactics would be off to accommodate all the conflicting egos. Instead they’ve seamlessly reforged the team into a cohesive unit. The CT sides use simple setups that rely on skill with Rain, olofmeister and GuardiaN all taking aggressive priority. FaZe is fearless when it comes to taking these aggressive openings each player has complete confidence in the entire team to make a play even in down man situations. Their T-sides are based on standard simple CS that emphasizes the skill of their players, but it’s well coordinated and it has the mind of Karrigan behind it, who can read a situation and adapt to either mid-round or between rounds. The only weakness is that they FaZe has shown an instability in antiecos. But this is bolstered by the fact that its forcebuys are out of this world, but the players have the discipline to take ecos when they know it is the correct choice.
DreamHack Malmö was their only off tournament, coming right before they destroyed ESL NY like a tsunami. They then did the same at ELEAGUE. Absolutely disgusting. I can’t state it enough. I fully expect the team to move on to the main event.
Players to watch:
Even in a star-studded roster like this, there is one player who stands above the rest. NiKo is a generational talent like Coldzera, but really this team is so disgusting that any of them could be (and have been) stars or superstars. Have I said how disgusting this team is yet?
Second: ESL One New York, ESG Tours,
Top 4: ESL Pro League Season 5
For a long time, Liquid was the team that only existed on paper. The name value was amazing: Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Joshua “jdm64” Marzano, Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz, and Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken. Nitr0 and EliGE had both had times in the past where they were crowned the best player in NA; EliGE has been the best NA player in 2017. Jdm64 earned the title of the best AWP in NA when he was the star player of CLG. Stanislaw was the leader of one of the most successful runs in NA history with OpTic. Twistzz was a rising star whose potential beamed once he joined Liquid.
But it wasn’t until the offseason that everything changed for Liquid. The players realized something needed to change if they wanted to ascend to the next level. Nitr0 looked around the team and realized that every player on the roster was incredible. Thus he decided to take on the leadership and entry-fragger role himself. It was a critical change as it was a role in which he was excellent, but one he never embraced fully as he lacked confidence in his old teammates to follow up.
Now he did. It freed up stanislaw to take on the old lurker role he used to play on OpTic. That in turn put Twistzz into an entry position, which took full advantage of his incredible first shot accuracy. One domino changed the entire configuration of the team and since coming back from the break, they’ve been incredible. This is the best CS we’ve ever seen Liquid play and the array of skill, tactics, and teamwork on display indicate a level of consistency unwitnessed in North American Counter-Strike. This got them to the finals of both ESG Tours and ESL One New York. Although Liquid fell at ELEAGUE, it took the combined efforts of SK and Astralis to put them away. This team will eventually win a Tier 1 tournament. It’s only a matter of time.
Players to watch:
The winning formula of the team is generally EliGE, Twistzz, and one more going off. If Twistzz is going off, that means the T-sides of Liquid are wrecking face as he breaks into sites. EliGE is a versatile player, but he seems to have shifted closer to a closer for the team and wins tightly contested rounds that can change the game.
Beyond them, anyone from the other three can push them over the line. Whoever shows up on the day shifts how the team wins the match. If Jdm is going off, Liquid dominates the CT-side. If stanislaw is on, his lurk plays create mass confusion on both sides of the map. If nitr0 is having a stellar game, he can sometimes single-handedly win a T-side by himself despite low stats.
EPICENTER could not have come at a better time. We have now gathered all of the best teams in the world in a single place: Astralis, G2, Gambit, North, SK, FaZe, and Team Liquid. What happens when the champions collide? We’re about to find out.