The StarLadder Berlin Major 2019's Champions Stage is finally within sights, with the lion's share of $1,000,000 up for grabs in the latest Counter-Strike: Global Offensive major tournament.
The eight participants have survived two stages with Swiss-system brackets and have therefore endured tense situations on the way -- be it five overtimes or narrow escapes in the Swiss format's final rounds. Some of them have carried momentum from previous tournaments, whereas others rounded into shape during the event.
ENCE: Aleksib's last run
ENCE's all-Finnish lineup has made a mark in the StarLadder event in what may be the last run of in-game leader Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen, to be replaced by Miikka "suNny" Kemppi once the major ends. During his tenure, the team evolved at a steady pace during 2018 to eventually round into shape in 2019. Their upward trajectory since IEM Katowice has put them on the map. However, Team Vitality and Team Liquid have stopped their rise in various tournaments: DreamHack Dallas, IEM Chicago, cs_summit 4 and ESL One: Cologne.
ENCE's path at the StarLadder Berlin major has been smooth, to a degree where Team Vitality's Alex "ALEX" McMeekin noted how different they were from their past selves. Whether that change will be enough to sustain them in a best-of-three against Renegades remains to be seen; should that be the case, they might face Team Vitality and even the score.
NRG Esports: a milestone in the tarik era
Entry fragger Tarik "tarik" Celik is all NRG Esports needed to cement themselves in the Top 8 worldwide. Indeed, since his arrival, NRG finished in the top four of nine out of 11 tournaments. In fact, one of their non-top four placement was asserted their credibility on the world stage: a top six finish in the ESL One: Cologne where they finished 5-6 after losing to a streaking Team Vitality.
However, due to their absence from previous majors, NRG Esports had to climb all the way from the StarLadder Minor qualifiers for the American region. As such, their marathon run since July 17 has left little opportunities for breaks. In the process, they beat powerhouses Team Liquid and Astralis, the latter in a breathtaking series.
Their path to the top will not be easy; clashes against Natus Vincere and, eventually, either Team Liquid or Astralis await them. But they have the caliber to succeed.
Astralis: fallen no longer?
Since Emil "Magisk" Reif joined Astralis in 2018, the team became nearly unstoppable, with their defeats being more noteworthy than their numerous major tournament victories. However, their winning ways halted after April 2019 as, citing burnout concerns, they skipped major tournaments up until the Esports Championship Series Season 7 finals. That decision relatively harmed them short-term, but the Berlin Major may be where they will find their groove back.
Already, the team spotted issues with their T-side calls against NRG Esports in Nuke, a matter they can iron out. They will need more than that to edge a rusty but still devastating Team Liquid in the quarterfinals. Whether they will pass the baton in a multiple-overtime series loss or return to the top off sneaky plays (like the bomb plant that caused grief to G2 Esports) will be known on Sep. 6.
Team Vitality: French CS:GO's last bastion in Berlin
Team Vitality's steady improvement in 2019 lacked the Legend status, a status they worked hard to obtain. Indeed, the strongest French lineup (at the time of writing) has endured two Swiss brackets: in the Challenger stage, they narrowly qualified over Australia's Greyhound Gaming; however, they fared better in the New Legends stage, finishing fifth.
The team has steadily improved since British player Alex "ALEX" McMeekin arrived, with Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbault's growth as a player captivating the community. However, their T-side play has been a source of discomfort according to ALEX, a matter they would be hard-pressed to solve if they wish to reach the finals and potentially face Team Liquid in a remake of the ESL One: Cologne final.
AVANGAR: CIS's Cinderella blue shell
AVANGAR's presence in the Top 8 is surprising on paper, but they earned their qualification. Indeed, they showed solid form in best-of-1 performances against Renegades (on Vertigo) and Team Liquid (on Overpass), then a tense 2-1 victory over G2 Esports with good T-side play on Inferno and devastating CT rounds on Overpass. In their G2 series, Timur "buster" Tulepov put an exclamation point with a Knife frag to contest a defuse - that's how well the event has gone so far.
AVANGAR's qualification comes seemingly out of nowhere, as they do not come close to reigning supreme in the CIS region. However, unlike fellow CIS teams forZe and Winstrike Team, they have developed a habit of showing up in major tournaments -- with a particularly deep run at EPICENTER 2018. Their qualification to the Champions stage guarantees their presence in the 2020 Spring Major, and a chance at turning competitive CS:GO upside down - if they can survive Team Vitality.
Team Liquid: Shaking off the rust
Team Liquid have done more than inherit Astralis's mantle as the top dogs: they kept it despite the latter's return, and despite strong opposition. To the exception of the North American ECS and IEM Katowice (where they still did well), they have prevailed in the tournaments they played since Jacky "Stewie2K" Yip joined them. However, their break before the Berlin major may have hurt them, as Keith "NAF" Markovic highlighted in an interview on HLTV.
Indeed, with a diminished form, AVANGAR and NRG Esports prevailed over them in the single-game rounds of the Swiss bracket, forcing them to dig deep to survive -- deep enough to survive mousesports in overtime victories. Do not expect Astralis to give them any respite if they are still rusty, as the winner of that bout would become an instant favourite to win the Major -- unless Na'Vi decide otherwise.
Natus Vincere: Nervous, but serene
Spearheaded by CS:GO great Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, Natus Vincere's sensational play has made waves throughout 2018, with a marquee win at the 2018 ESL One: Cologne. Upon reaching bracket stages of the tournaments they participate in, or when their tournament life is on the line, they become an extremely dangerous foe -- just ask CR4ZY, who suffered their wrath in the final game of a 2-1 defeat.
Their Berlin Major run has been shaky, as nervousness bested them in bo1s during the initial Swiss rounds. However, despite community perception, they hold a mental edge against their Champions Stage opponents, NRG Esports. Indeed, if their scrimmage results aren't enough, their previous confrontations do give them an edge with a 6-1 overall score (2-0 since tarik's arrival at NRG). Should they avoid Mirage, they may well score another top four finish, if not better.
Renegades: well-rested marathon runners
A recurring sight in top 8s of major tournaments, Renegades have otherwise been overlooked as inconsistencies caused the community to carry little expectations. However, their break in the end of 2018 and Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović's entry as a coach have reinvigorated the squad; so did their boot camp before the StarLadder Berlin Major.
As a result of kassad and in-game leader Aaron "AZR" Ward's collaboration, Renegades' play has improved as they have grown less predictable than they previously were. However, their inconsistencies have led them to play the biggest amount of rounds out of any team in the major's Top 8, with several close games, overtimes and best-of-3s played for survival's sake. Against NRG, they may not survive -- but do not blame them for pushing them to the brink and sparing no effort.