ELeague's third Counter-Strike tournament, now titled "ELeague Premier" will hit its high note this week as it enters the next stage -- the playoffs.
Following the cold open of DreamHack Masters Malmö, the G2-and-North-light ESL One New York, and the four-week group stage of Turner's semi-televised league, a fully-stocked contest in the post player break era between the world's best teams can now finally commence. Starting on Tuesday afternoon and ending this Friday night on live television, eight teams will duke it out for bragging rights and the bulk of a million dollar prize pool.
Looking ahead at the best-of-three single elimination bracket, the top four spots already seem locked up. Cloud9 looked surprisingly sturdy in a weak Group C, but G2 is the obvious favorite in the first match of the week. The French "superteam" has been turning heads since the player break after it found extensive success in Malmö with more a conservative buying approach. Cloud9's more firepower-stacked squad might match up with G2's own talents in terms of firepower better than most, but C9 still doesn't seem to have synergy, tactics, or team experience compete with the French side.
Conversely, another titan of the previously era, Astralis, has struggled a good bit since the break, only making the quarterfinals in Malmö and not even making the playoffs in New York. Still, Astralis has to favored over the most recent iteration of Fnatic led by the newcomer Maikil "Golden" Selim. Fnatic's map pool has not been firmly established since falling behind Golden, while Astralis still has its pocket-Overpass pick and wide enough map pool to take out any team that's not world-class.
Moving on to Wendsday's matches, FaZe versus EnVyUs has the look of the most possible lopsided matchup with these eight teams. EnVyUs can apparently always qualify for LANs online, but it almost always finds zero success offline where it really matters. One the other hand, FaZe is coming off the most dominant premier-level LAN victory we have perhaps seen in CS:GO, winning ESL One New York with only 39 rounds lost across a seven-map undefeated run to the title. Even if Cédric "RpK" Guipouy has another very strong showing as he did in the ELeague group stage, it's hard to imagine a scenario where he overpowers FaZe's current or former superstar trio of Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács, and Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer Gustafsson.
Likewise, Heroic did very well to escape the ELeague's overly stacked group D by defeating the slumping SK in a best-of-three, but it still can't be favored over North who looked great at both DreamHack Masters Malmö and DreamHack Montreal with Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså. North simply has every advantage over Valde's former team you could think of: a wider map pool, a more talented roster, more experience, better T-sides... the list goes on.
However, if the expected four teams reach the semis, it's hard to say with much certainty who will move forward from there.
Can North avoid having another one of its playoff underperformances it has became known for? Will it prove that the roster has turned over a new leaf with Valde? Or will FaZe instead maintain its New York-level and take another step towards becoming the god-kings of Counter-Strike?
And on the other side of the bracket, can G2 beat Astralis? In the last era it seemed that Astralis was the better more consistent team, but the two teams never meet in a full best-of-three. What will happen when we finally see these two teams all-out combat? Can G2 handle the full breadth of Astralis map pool or will the slumping Danish side fall to the French team's firepower?
And if the two winner of the game's last two premier tournament winners, G2 and FaZe, do go through, who knows which one could survive that supercharged slugfest.
Recall that a year ago, the wackiness of ELeague's season two playoffs surpassed even what we saw at the PGL Major in July. Turner's tournament featured six upsets across seven best-of-three contests. Now, of course, that doesn't mean the same thing will happen again this year. But we can look through that unpredictability now in retrospect to see the hidden order that the tournament helped form.
OpTic and Astralis both surprisingly met in the finals. OpTic won, but the then-new Danish lineup demonstrated a world-class capacity that has remained mostly intact to this day, while the much more brief surge of OpTic happened to raise the stock of Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz which is just starting to pay dividends quite recently with Team Liquid. FaZe with Finn "karrigan" Andersen newly installed also had a better than expected top-four finish, perhaps hinting FaZe's rise in 2017 backed by the addition of Niko. SK's semifinals elimination was their last match with Lincoln "fnx" Lau which led to the pickup of João "felps" Vasconcellos and their eventual dominance in the middle of this year.
As we move past expectations and predictions and into the games themselves this week, new elements beyond our current comprehension may reveal themselves. Apparent randomness filtered through future data and high-resolution hindsight, could eventually become trajectory changing points of inflection.
The ELeague playoffs could foretell the rise of a new contender, the fall of a former great, or the start of a new era. Under the pressure of big stakes and high caliber competition, something illustrious and unexpected is bound to form before our eyes.