The group stage has come and gone. Dust settled and minds reset, the playoffs are now upon us. From the CIS uprising to legacies ready to be compounded upon, the Katowice 2021 playoffs lay teeming with storylines rearing to converge to a climactic hurrah. This week, I take a look at four storylines that I find the most intriguing to me as the playoffs for this ever-important event finally go underway. This is where the pressure builds to a deafening crescendo. This is where the greatest prey upon the fearful. This is where underdogs become legends. This is the IEM Katowice 2021 playoffs.
The Resilient Polar Bears Rematch Counter-Strike’s Greatest
At the StarLadder Major Berlin, Team Liquid, NRG, and Team Vitality all looked poised to win their first major and the playoffs looked tantalizing in its prospects. With Astralis looking mortal going into the playoff stages by scraping past CR4ZY and with AVANGAR not even in the conversation to make a deep run at Berlin, the two teams both had a chip on their shoulders to silence the storm of doubts surrounding their respective squads. On AVANGAR’s side of the bracket, the CIS squad were tasked straight away with facing one of the favorites of the tournament in Team Vitality. But the roster was up to the task, sticking it to the Frenchmen and grinding out an arduous three map series. Meanwhile, Astralis had suddenly grown in strength during their entire run in the playoffs, absolutely shocking the world by tossing aside the Grand Slam Champions of Team Liquid in a quick 2-0 fashion. They continued their reign, righted the wrongs of their group stage woes, and forced the last dark horse of the tournament remaining in NRG back to the airport in another dominant 2-0 victory. With the Danish titans awaiting AVANGAR with open arms, the bout between the two forces in the final swiftly came to an anticlimactic close and the acclaimed threepeat came to fruition. The kings of Counter-Strike reigned supreme against all odds.
Nearly a year and a half later, the two teams clash once more. With AVANGAR, now Virtus.Pro, having gathered the services of young gun YEKINDAR, winning four online titles, and most recently gaining considerable momentum fighting through the lower bracket by eliminating the red-hot NiP, one of the tournament favorites in Vitality, and the blazing team of Furia, the CIS five surely feel the most confident they have approaching the Danes. Wanting to prove to the world that they can stand the test of a pressure-filled playoff setting and win their first tier-one tournament, the squad still certainly has their work cut out for them. Astralis stand on the other side of the quarterfinal’s matchup making easy meals of mousesports and Evil Geniuses and suddenly getting shocked by the rising underdogs of Spirit. As the Danes have already secured two Katowice trophies, they will be hungry to keep stacking up the glory and continue their run against their old rivals of Team Liquid who await them in the semi-finals. Have the greatest been rattled by the CIS whirligig and fall prey to the resilient Virtus.Pro? Or will the playoff might of Astralis continue to reign supreme as the stars look to rise once more?
The Explosive CIS Derby Unleashed at Katowice
The PGL major in Krakow had just ended. Gambit, in a shocking Cinderella story, had trounced Astralis and defeated Immortals to win their first major. As all eyes were on Zeus departing to Natus Vincere once more, the bright star of Hobbit had dimmed and would continue to dim as time went on. Gambit began plunging headfirst down the rankings after winning their major, with players rotating in and out of the team like a rotating carousel. The main core of the CIS squad still could take on many of the top ten teams in the world, but nothing was the same for the roster after the departure of their in-game leader. Hobbit continued to put in the man hours to no avail and finally departed from the team to slot into the Hellraisers lineup led by ANGE1. With that lineup also coming crashing down the Kazakh was relegated to Winstrike where he had to work his way back up the CIS region once more. After a couple good placings at the RMR tournaments, Hobbit was asked to rejoin the Gambit squad under a new banner of their academy team. After the slow start the team had, they suddenly began to gel at an alarming rate by sweeping through majority of their tournaments. It had seemed that grizzled Hobbit’s leadership, forged through his hardships, had lit the fire in the bright young stars of Gambit and finally reignited his passion once more. He wanted to be feared once more. He wanted to reclaim the crown that was wrongfully stolen from him. He wanted the world to remember the name Hobbit.
On the other side of the CIS coin, Natus Vincere look to go back-to-back at Katowice. Having continuously dominated the world stage, it looked like the Russians were unstoppable. But along the journey of 2020, the cruising five came to a startling halt at the CIS RMR tournaments. The hungry dragons of Team Spirit and the fiery stars of Gambit swarmed Na’Vi time and time again and relegated the team to multiple losses across the board. With these losses, Na’Vi suddenly looked mortal once more. Nevertheless, the CIS squad shook off the dust and returned to their domination and left the woes of the RMR’s in the rearview mirror. Presently, after getting knocked down to the quarters by a brazen Team Liquid surge in the upper bracket final, Natus Vincere now are tasked with facing their hiccups of old if they want to challenge for the crown once more. With Sh1ro, Ax1Le, and Hobbit breathing down the necks of s1mple and company, and chopper’s men in Spirit lying in wait, the world-beaters have now been tasked with one mission: brawl against their countrymen for the crown that awaits them at Katowice and bring the organization its fourth trophy in Poland.
Have Liquid Cracked the North American Code?
The Intel Grand Slam Champions. The greatest lineup North America had ever produced. The legacy of North American Counter-Strike. What could be said about Team Liquid that had not already been said? There is no denying that the team had a period of dominance during a span of four events or so where they capped off their run with a win at BLAST Los Angeles, but where was their era? Being heavy favorites going into the StarLadder Major in Berlin, a new pressure had been brought upon Team Liquid. This pressure, unbeknownst to them, would continue to plague the North Americans throughout that year and would then bleed into the coming one as well. Their group stage proved to be quite the difficulty after falling to both NRG and AVANGAR, promptly being relegated to the 1-2 bracket of the swiss system. After an extremely labored affair against a woxic-led mousesports, the favorites scraped into the playoffs only to be met with a sudden faceoff against their demons in Astralis. The match heard round the world went underway as the Danes shocked the Berlin stage with an incredibly unorthodox map veto and absolutely dismantled Team Liquid to a shocking quarterfinal exit. From this point on, the roster never battled back the same ever again. Event after event, the lineup continued to lose their cool in pressured situations and fell short of too many titles. Online play did not favor the Americans either after FURIA and Evil Geniuses had the team’s number consistently. With no avenues left, the greatest North American lineup came to an end with coach adreN parting ways with the organization and legendary in-game leader nitr0 departing to new horizons in Valorant.
A new task was upon the organization and decided that the prodigy of Grim paired with the wisdom of former commentator moses would be the key for the roster to return to their former heights of glory. After moving to Europe to compete with the best however, the team continued to fall short of any meaningful placings or titles whatsoever. Tasked with yet another cut, the organization said goodbye to longstanding rifler Twistzz and recruited the legendary Brazilian AWP’er and IGL, FalleN. Performing subpar in their first two outings, it felt as though Team Liquid had run out of options and that their nosedive through the world rankings would continue on. The roster and Katowice had other plans. After a shaky opening match against new look MIBR, the North Americans righted the ship against the international lineup of OG. Continuing their upper-bracket momentum, the team surged through to the finals defeating both Karrigan’s FaZe Clan and one of the favorites of the tournament in Team Vitality. Qualifying for the playoffs, the roster looked like it had reached its natural conclusion in the group stage by having to face off against the world number ones of Natus Vincere. Bucking all the trends the North Americans had shown in previous iterations, the team dug into the series and resiliently triumphed over the world’s best 16-14 on Overpass, 7-16 on Dust II, and 22-19 on Inferno. The hope of North America now has their first true shot at achieving top accolades at Katowice with an immediate semifinal berth. With Stewie2K showing glimpses of his former self, EliGE and NAF showing MVP-caliber performances, and FalleN arising from his slumber, do the horses have what it takes to take home the trophy that they have hunted for years? Watch as the hungry Team Liquid face off against their deadly rivals in Astralis or perhaps a surprise matchup against the constricting CIS lineup of Virtus.Pro.
The Outcasts of CIS Rise to the Top
At many iterations of the major cycle, Vega Squadron looked like an explosive new CIS roster that would prove to the world that there was room for another team from the region that could bring the heat to international tournaments. Chopper and mir constantly stood out as the stars of the team regardless of the inconsistent showings from the team at other international events and soon the world began to take notice. Gambit stole away mir to fill the space that Zeus had left with his departure to Na’Vi and absolutely decimated the promise of the youngster. With the roster completely mishandling the roles in which mir shined on Vega Squadron, the worry that the Russian had lost his potential grew louder and louder. Meanwhile, chopper remained on Vega Squadron and attempted to make the best of his multiple new rosters, all of which fell flat at all levels of the Counter-Strike scene. Exhausting all his options with the organization, chopper finally departed the team to undergo a redevelopment of another sleeping CIS underdog, Team Spirit. Along with the long-standing player somedieyoung, the two worked their way up the rungs of the region and began to make a name for themselves in the tier-two scene. Wanting to go the extra distance, the organization then let go of some prominent veterans COLDYY1 and S0tF1k and pivoted to redefining mir and unproven talent magixx. Team Spirit had a considerable squad with good looks at ESL Pro League Season 11 and many RMR tournaments, yet the organization took an even larger gamble than the events prior.
With six-man rosters being all the craze in the last year, Team Vitality successfully showed the world in the potential it entailed and Astralis showed the world in how flawed the concept could really be. Team Spirit believed they had the ability to follow the footsteps of the former and loaned out prodigies patsi and degster from Espada. After the team saw that degster molded into the squad the best by absolutely demolishing through DreamHack Open January 2021, the organization swiftly decided on the five moving into Katowice. Facing a new level of difficulty, the Russians took it on the chin and began rampaging through the event with victories over NiKo’s G2 and 2020’s breakout Danish squad Heroic. Qualifying for their first tier-1 playoff berth in the roster’s brief history, the squad clashed against the regimented Astralis in the upper-bracket final. Although Spirit had an abysmal map veto, mir and chopper took center stage and absolutely ripped the game away from the Danes and trounced through Dust II, handing the titans one of their biggest losses ever 16-1. Now locking in a semifinal spot at the IEM Katowice playoffs, the CIS squad are poised to potentially snag the prestigious trophy away from the likes of the worlds best. The veteran leadership of mir, chopper and sdy paired with the explosive potential of magixx and degster have created a terrifyingly dangerous roster and there is no doubt that all five teams remaining in the bracket are dreading to go up against such a red-hot roster. The dragons’ final test lies in themselves. Can they ascend to the crown at Katowice? Or will the cracks of the new roster begin to show just at the finish line?