Intel Extreme Masters Season XVI marks the long-awaited return of LAN events for CS:GO esports, and its playoff stage promises to be among the most exciting matches we’ve seen so far this year. The six remaining teams are all ready to make a splash and there are good arguments to be made for each of their respective title tilts – but who’s going to be the best of the bunch?

IEM Cologne 2021 schedule

  • Play-in: July 6-7
  • Group stage: July 8-11
  • Playoffs: July 16-18

IEM Cologne 2021 group stage results

  • Group A winner: G2
  • Qualifying spots: Gambit, VP
  • Group B winner: Natus Vincere
  • Qualifying spots: Astralis, FaZe Clan

Storylines from the group stage

NA CS still stumbles

Evil Geniuses and Bad News Bears both failed to make it into the main event, and Team Liquid only got the one match win over mousesports in incredibly close fashion before they went out in the second round of the lower bracket. It goes to show that North American Counter-Strike is still very far away from its heady days and the region still has a lot of ground to make up on its Western European and CIS competitors.

Smaller regions were really damaged by the online era

The catastrophic showings of teams like Vici Gaming and Team One show just how bad it is to lack the ability to go up against the elite of the elite for a sustained period of time. The difference in playstyles and quality was almost cringeworthy to watch at time, and the teams in question weren’t at fault at all considering the circumstances: ping considerations in the pandemic-enforced online era meant that teams from China and South America had literally no chance to go up against the top dogs in any competition, and the growing differences between regions doesn’t help in terms of storylines and expanding global CS fandom.

Most play-in teams failed to make deep runs

The standings show that FaZe are the only team to make it from the playoffs from the play-in stage, making it further than NiP, Team Vitality, BIG and mousesports in a field of crowded talent. It suggests that there’s merit to the idea that karrigan and his men will perform better on LAN than they ever could online, though they will still need to push past the number one team in the world for a truly impressive performance in Cologne.

Onliners exposed?

By the same token, Vitality and Heroic have clearly underperformed here both in terms of results and the quality of gameplay shown, suggesting they may take longer than the rest of the crowd to adapt to the rigors of LAN play. Though Gambit clearly made the grand leap forward, they seem to be the only ones from the top dogs of the online era to do so.

Predictions for the playoffs: G2, Na’Vi to the final

IEM Summer 2021 winners Gambit have proven their mettle on LAN so far, answering criticism over them being “just onliners” in pretty spectacular fashion so far. Still, they begin the playoffs stage from the quarterfinals with a tough matchup against FaZe, where they are clearly seen as the favorites once you factor in the betting odds. The winner will go up against a brutally effective Na’Vi in the semis: though the CIS side dropped a match in every of their matches so far, s1mple and electronic seem incredibly dialed in and they have to be seen as favorites for the tournament at this stage.

The second quarterfinal will pit Astralis against, two sides that have been on a very different trajectory during the online era. The Danish world-beaters lost their strongest player in the form of device and have stumbled through many of the events of 2021 so far, with further upheaval suggested by rumors related to the org and their contractual situation. Meanwhile, VP thrived in the online era as part of the CIS trifecta before falling off hard over the last couple of months.

Recent form and performances suggest Astralis are the favorites here, though G2 in the semis seems like a bridge too far for either of these teams. A potential Na’VI-G2 grand final featuring NiKo and s1mple in top form sounds like a mouth-watering prospect: no doubt these two players and their supporting cast would put it all on the line for the first big title after the end of the online era.

Photo credit: HLTV