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ENCE, the consolidation of Finnish Esports

LuckyNeck 2019-04-28 05:09:13
  Finland has always been a force to be reckoned with in esports. Similarly to all the other Nordic countries, it has produced a considerable output of talent throughout the years, which has definitely not gone unnoticed. Two members of the TI8-winning OG roster, for instance, were Finnish. Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen and Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka reached the glory last summer with a roster that was initially supposed to bomb out at the very beginning of the tournament. These two DotA 2 beasts coincidentally share their nationality with two of the best players in Rainbow Six: Siege´s history. Joonas “Jnszki” Savolainen and Juhani “Kantoraketti” Toivonen are both players for G2 and, since signing with Carlos “Ocelote” Rodríguez´s organization on August last year, have already become the champions of four major international tournaments. Overwatch is another game filled with Finnish talent, and even more so its biggest league, Overwatch League. In Season 2 of Blizzard´s city-based championship, Finland is the fourth most represented country, with 9 players from the country competing in the arena each and every week. Some notable examples are Joona “Fragi” Laine, a Season 1 champion with the Philadelphia Fusion, and Timo “Taimou” Kettunen, who was a member of the legendary Team EnvyUs. Photo via: OWWC Finland Team With all of this, there is still one thing Finland lacks in order to become a total esports power, such as its fellow Nordic countries Denmark and Sweden. Myriads of articles have been written about the surprising mightiness of these two “esports paradises” over the last few years, comparing how meaningful they are within the industry to their apparently laughable size and location. Of course, the constant superstars coming out of each of them every year are part of the cause. After all, the influence of players of the caliber of Rasmus “Caps” Winther and Martin “Rekkles” Larsson should certainly not be diminished. However, it is another thing what has ultimately put these two countries on the map: the existence of a well-known brand that represents the country and, preferably, an all-national super team. In the case of Sweden, it comes from long ago. Ever since the days of Emil “HeatoN” Christensen, starting from 2005, the Ninjas in Pyjamas brand has been a staple within the Counter-Strike community. In its core, it is solely that team and the legends that were born around it, such as Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund and Patrik “F0rest” Lindberg, what has ended up shaping the whole ecosystem that Swedish esports currently is. For their part, nonetheless, Denmark has experienced an outburst in popularity far more recently than its neighbors. The reason is none other than Astralis. Photo via: Dexerto With two back-to-back Major championships in their bags and the title of GOATS surely in their pocket, the BLAST-owned organization has cemented itself as a symbol of Denmark´s competitive potential. Without them tearing their opposition apart ever since the signing of Emil “Magisk” Reif, Denmark would probably not be that big of a phenom in esports. McDonald´s, at least, would not have chosen to add CS:GO as a theme in one of their restaurants, thus creating the viral photos most fans wish could be taken in their country instead. Denmark’s prime minister would neither have given a speech about the greatness of competitive gaming at BLAST Pro Series Copenhagen if it was not for the reach of the Astralis phenom. The IEM Grand Slam first ever champions are on their way to changing esports as we know them today and, in the meantime, they have presented their country as one of the most dominant powers in competitive gaming. As much as Sweden and Denmark are already taken as powerhouses, Finland has been steadily searching for the organization that would finally consolidate them as a stalwart presence in the industry, the brand that would drive fans crazy and elevate the country status forever. A candidate for filling in that spot, however, has seemingly arisen during the past few months. ENCE, regarded by many as a low-profile organization in their beginnings, is now what every esports connoisseur thinks of whenever they hear the word “Finland”.  

THE RISE TO PROMINENCE

Photo via: HLTV ENCE was initially founded in 2013. The start of the current concept of ENCE, however, took place on March 12th, 2018. That day, two major announcements came out. First, a partnership with Lahti Pelicans, a well-known Finnish hockey club, which would help support the organization's future commitments. Second, but not least, a two-year contract with world-class CS:GO player Aleksi “allu” Jalli. This was not the first time that the legendary Finnish AWPer had tried to take ENCE to the highest level. His previous stay with the organization, however, had only lasted for seven months in which the team had not managed to accomplish any notable achievements. Two years had passed since, however, and after having gone back to the highest echelons of the CS:GO world for a bit more than a year, he now felt prepared enough. The task he was given was the same. Assuming the leadership of a roster of young and inexperienced Finnish players and trying to make the most of it. At the time, he probably did not know how that was going to end up turning the CS.GO paradigm upside down. Understandably, the project took some time to warm up. By the end of the year, however, they were already seen as a dangerous tier 2 team, capable of shaking things up if they had a good day. Photo via: ESL Turns out, most of the players they had picked up were surprisingly good. Jere “sergej” Salo was hailed by the community as a rising superstar because of his firepower capacity, but the rest of his teammates did not fall behind, raising eyebrows at almost every tournament they attended. Back on June, their run for top eight at ESL One Cologne 2018 had already inspired some fear in most top team’s hearts, as the Finns had somehow managed to take maps from Ninjas in Pyjamas, mousesports and even Natus Vincere in their ultimately unsuccessful campaign to the quarterfinals. That time, however, their feat would be completely eclipsed by BIG. The local squad ended up coming out in second place in front of their home crowd and, thus, taking all the spotlight for themselves. Regardless, it would not be long until ENCE stroke back. Sure, they dropped out of the FACEIT Major London qualifiers, only one match short of getting to play in the most important tournament of the season. However, Allu and co. would quickly regain confidence with back-to-back finals appearances at DreamHack Open Montreal and StarSeries & i-League CS:GO Season 6, the latter of which they ended up winning against the crème de la crème of tier 2 competitors. ENCE’s Counter-Strike roster seemed to be warming up the engines in order to be able to stand up against the Astralis´s and Liquids of the world in the near future. The start of ENCE’s history as the representative of Finnish esports, however, was not going to be caused by that team´s promising prospect. Rather, it was the only player in the organization´s StarCraft 2 division who would first write their name in history. Photo via: ESL Joona “Serral” Sotala had signed with ENCE back in 2016, at a time when he was still just a regular European player fighting it out in the online qualifiers in seek for reaching new heights. Since then, however, his rise had been unstoppable. In 2018, he had far exceeded his past self, and developed into the most talented and dominant SC2 professional Europe had ever seen. Not only did he win all the four WCS events held in the west throughout the year, but also the GSL vs the World tournament, which featured some of the greatest Korean players of all time. Despite having proven to be talented enough as to defeat literally anybody who stood in his way, though, things were supposed to be different heading into WCS Global Finals. Sure, Serral was a pretty okay player, but there was no way he surpassed the Korean battalion when it came to the most relevant tournament of them all. At least, no one ever had. Serral, however, was not going to leave the tournament without making history first. In an incredible show-off, he only allowed himself to lose a single map before defeating Kim “Stats” Dae-yeob in a 4-2 finals affair to raise the trophy. As he celebrated his triumph on stage, a once in a lifetime event had unfolded. A non-Korean player had won the World Championship at last and, believe it or not, he seemed ready to do it again. This was the first time ENCE was involved in a truly paradigm-changing moment in esports, but the most important part of the process to become the global representatives of competitive gaming in Finland was still to be done. Photo via: ESL Serral´s feat, however, seemed to ignite even more fire into the CS:GO squad, who were now willing to finally have a break-out performance that paired their level and legacy to their teammate´s. That performance they dreamed of was not far away at all. Having closed the year with another victory at DreamHack Open Winter, the Finnish quintet seemed to enter 2019 in full force. They soon demonstrated so, as they topped the IEM Katowice Europe Minor Championship with no difficulty, getting their first ever ticket to compete in a Major, the biannual tournament everything related to CS gravitates around. Once in Katowice for the Challengers stage, however, premises were not optimal for the Finns. Sure, they were still expected to qualify for the main tournament, which they easily did, but ENCE was poised to have a hard time when it came to fighting for the playoffs. Initially, this proved to be an accurate prediction. Following losses against the Aussies of Renegades and Hellraisers, they were forced to win three Bo3 series in a row in order to avoid elimination. However, reminding us of Cloud9´s championship run at the ELEAGUE Major Boston one year prior, that is exactly what they did. Photo via: ENCE BIG was not able to withstand the avalanche the Finnish roster represented, and neither were G2 and AVANGAR. Just like that, climbing back like nothing after having apparently fallen through the highest of precipices, ENCE were now one of the eight best teams in the world. In all likelihood, they were not considered as such; yet, at that moment—in that tournament— they fully embraced the “A-tier team” moniker, and they showed the rest of the world what five Finns and their Finnish coach can actually get to do. ENCE´s run seemed to be over as soon as the quarterfinals matches were announced. They would have to go against Team Liquid, a team which was considered one of the main favorites at the time, and, should they surpass them by any chance of nature, either the CIS powerhouse Natus Vincere or FaZe Clan, the so-dubbed “superteam”, awaited in the next stage, ready to crush their dreams once and for all. Nothing further from reality, however. In part due to what could be called an “overperformance” from Sami “xSeven” Laasanen, who averaged a 1.07 rating throughout the playoffs, ENCE upset Liquid in a 2-0 series right before ending NaVi´s chances in a close 2-1 affair. It seemed easy for Allu and the guys, but the rest of the Counter-Strike community was, simply put, amazed. Two of the best teams in the whole world were just gone, and all because of a group of rebellious Finnish guys who refused to give up on their dream of conquering the Major trophy. After all, what other option was there available except loving them? Photo via: ESL The EZ4ENCE meme went more viral than ever, as it finally had a fair level of truthness attached to it. When the day of the final arrived, Counter-Strike as a whole was there watching, anxious to see what the Finns were actually capable of doing. Astralis and their dominance, or their quest for the title of the best team in CS: GO´s history did not seem to matter as much. As ENCE entered the arena, the “EZ4ENCE” song playing in the background and fans overblown with compliments and support for all the players in the team, the brand solidified as the de facto representation of Finnish esports. It did not matter that they were not able to overthrow the champions of Astralis or not even close to doing so. Regardless of the result, regardless of the image they gave on stage that day was a celebration, of Counter-Strike of course but, over all things, of ENCE.  

THE PRESENT AND FUTURE: MAINTAINING THE LEGACY

Photo via: ESL The ENCE roster is now taken as a solid contender in almost any tournament they go to. Most importantly, they seem to be a consistent force, erasing the possibility of IEM Katowice being a mere one-off. After their success at the Major in Poland, they ended up in 3rd place at BLAST Pro Series: São Paulo (not qualifying for the finals due to the controversial “round differential” metric) and then fell to Oleksandr “S1mple” Kostyliev and his peers of Na’Vi in the round of 8 at StarSeries & i-League CS:GO Season 7, following a close three-game affair. For its part, Serral is currently recovering from a slow start to the year, which made him show an uncharacteristically bad form for what the fans are used to. In his case, this involves not having bombed out of a single international tournament before reaching at least the quarterfinals. Like it or not, Serral is held to Serral standards. Despite all this, however, there seems to be no doubt that he will be on point for whenever the truly meaningful part of the season requires him. With this bright future ahead of them, ENCE now have to make sure that this sudden, although totally deserved, wave of success and recognition does not disperse too soon. They have to keep this golden age of theirs away from becoming “the year in which ENCE did well” and, rather, turn it into “the first year in which ENCE did well”. They are now the face of Finnish competitive gaming, the brand that has finally put their country face to face with the likes of Denmark and Sweden, thus giving it a place in the utopian land that the Nordic countries seem to be, at least to the eyes of esports enthusiasts. Photo via: PEL Esports Now, their mission is to expand until they become a stable household name in the esports world and, if possible, even further. Thus far, they do not seem to be struggling too much with it. Financial-wise, multiple partnerships have been announced since the rise to prominence of the Finnish organization took place, the most notable of which has been the deal with Korea´s biggest conglomerate, Samsung. Going into the purely competitive side of things, the Finns seem to be experts at scouting national talent. The best example of this is none other than their latest acquisition, the team o1ne PUBG roster. ENCE signed them for competing under their banner at European PUBG league, PEL 2019 Phase 1. Initially, fans had no particular confidence on the roster showing any kind of prowess, as their only feat the four Finnish youths had accomplished so far was actually qualifying for PEL itself. However, they almost went on to miraculously decimate their opponents one by one in their path to hoisting the trophy and qualifying for FACEIT Global Summit, which they did with no hesitation whatsoever. Currently, ENCE is the face of Finland´s esports scene. After everything they have gone through this past year, they have solidified themselves as the team that has propelled the name of their country to stardom. Now, they have to make sure to keep it up there, which will involve tons of hard work and sacrifices. With what they have been capable of achieving so far, however, Finnish fans have nothing to worry about. Watch out, because we may only be witnessing the birth of a truly legendary organization. Featured image courtesy of ESL
Lucas "LuckyNeck" Chillerón is a vivid esports fan who loves following as many competitive scenes as he can in order to write articles about them. If there is anything you would like to discuss with him or let him know, you can do it at @lucprd.
 

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