Liquid are gunning for a Grand Slam as Astralis must adapt to a new reality: celebrations in the Cathedral of Counter-Strike were always a huge event, but the peculiarities of this year made ESL One Cologne by far the biggest non-major LAN event of 2019. A strong format with strong sides and pristine production, the showdowns in the Lanxess-Arena will likely answer most of the lingering questions about the real power levels of the various elite teams.
While many were quietly debating whether Liquid were “true” number ones, the North American side quickly picked up three events in the Intel Grand Slam circuit. Now they have a chance to do one better than Astralis by taking down the Season 2 title in just five events, potentially winning every single one since the major. No one could have envisioned this at the start of the year and pulling this off would truly cement Liquid as one of the all-time best squads of the game.
In the end, daps’ farewell tour at the ESL One Pro League Season 9 Finals turned out to be a much stronger showing than anyone would have expected from NRG, putting a lot of pressure on stanislaw to hit the ground running after a contentious takeover in the IGL role. Similarly, Na’Vi face a lot of questions and high expectations, returning to Cologne as the title holders off the back of a long-overdue roster move. Shipping out Edward was a must for a team harboring elite aspirations, and s1mple always has that impeccable carry potential, but a lot will depend on how well Boombl4 will be able to adapt to his new surroundings at their first LAN event together if they want to even come close to defending their crown. MiBR also have a lot of question marks circling around them, and this event will show whether the addition of LUCAS1 is good enough by itself to revitalize their setup.
Is the hype real for these two sides? The young Brazilians gained a lot of fans and plaudits with their fearless style of Counter-Strike, but their surprisingly smooth rise in 2019 hit its first snag at Moche XL Esports 2019 after an unexpected loss to Team GamerLegion. Their opponents now have specific demos to study and it remains to be seen how much of their success was due to a combination of an unfamiliar style and being underestimated by the big boys. ENCE and Vitality cemented their status off the back of strong tactical play: it remains to be seen whether the same works for an ultra-aggressive approach as well.
As for mousesports, they go from strength to strength under karrigan, posting strong wins against lower-rated sides like HellRaisers and Luminosity while also managing a clean takedown of FaZe Clan. They’ve also put up a decent fight against Liquid, though it was clear they’re still underdogs against the true elite sides. The young core of the side means this project is pretty much future-proofed, and they can be considered dark horses for ESL One Cologne 2019.
The temporary nature of NEO’s addition makes any discussion about FaZe Clan somewhat meaningless. They are doing okay, no more, no less, treading water with various playoff showings before getting swiftly dispatched at the business end of tournaments. For a team comprised of elite individuals, this cannot be considered good enough – problem is, many fans and seemingly some of the players seem to think it actually is.
Meanwhile, Fnatic’s back-to-back LAN finals are looking more and more like a false dawn with each passing event: the beginning of the year already saw them miss out on the major’s main stage and suffering an embarrassing 16-0 loss on Inferno at the WESG 2018 Finals, and it seems like the same concerns are rearing their ugly head once again. Whether it’s Xizt’s leadership, worse individual performances or simply a lack of depth, there’s little to suggest that this lineup can find any sort of consistency this far into their life cycle.
Read more: Why are Fnatic so maddeningly inconsistent?
Looking back at 2018’s Cologne event throws the staggering changes that took place since into sharp relief. BIG went from finalists at a prestigious LAN to confused also-rans. Renegades had a brief flirtation with the top five but were swiftly rejected for better-looking boys. The tournament will also bookend an important chapter for ENCE who put in their first breakout performance at Cologne last year. For Vitality, a team that didn’t even exist at the time of our last visit to the Cathedral of Counter-Strike, this is their big chance to truly cement themselves as an elite side, capping off an impressive streak of lower-tier wins at Charleroi Esports and cs_summit 4 plus a more prestigious win at the ECS Season 7 finals. Perhaps most importantly, Astralis are no longer atop the world, having to adapt to a new reality where they are very much mortal – we’re past the point where a single tournament win would instantly restore them to “best team” status, no matter how dominant it may be, and if they continue to play at the level they’ve showed at Montpellier, even a playoff finish is a dicey proposition.