In 2018, ESL One Cologne was full of surprises for the fans. Of course, the main story ended up being BIG’s unbelievable run to the finals, as the local invitees defied all possible expectations. However, they were not the only underdogs. In the Astralis versus Natus Vincere semifinals, the CIS organization was expected to finally bomb out of the playoffs.
The Danish side was amidst the most dominant era that the CS:GO scene had ever seen, and Cologne seemed to be nothing but another step in their path towards everlasting glory. Astralis had already defeated NaVi in Marseille a few months prior, and the outcome of the match-up in Cologne was likely to be the same. In the end, though, that was not what ended up happening.
NaVi was also amidst its very particular era. Both StarSeries & i-League CS:GO Season 5 and CS:GO Asia Championships trophies had just fallen into their hands, and, in Cologne, they had the chance of reaching a three-tournament win streak—that is exactly what they did. In the best-of-three series against Astralis, in which they won in close fashion after 16-13 victories in Overpass and Inferno in the first and third maps, Denis “electronic”
Sharipov went completely
In the finals, they steamrolled BIG, the national hope, and were suddenly crowned champions, something very few would have expected just before the tournament played out. Electronic then said a sentence which would go on to be quite controversial: “I could be better than s1mple.”
At the time, the team did not pay attention to it. They were just happy, covered in confetti, and feeling—as all ESL One Cologne champions do—like the best team in the whole world.
One whole year has passed since, however, and now they are up against the challenging task of validating their previous ESL One Cologne champions title. The whole competitive scene has completely changed during this time, and the obstacles they will have to overcome are completely different from those they overcame in 2018. Astralis is not at the top anymore, but there are now a bunch of new challengers that were completely unheard-of the last time the Lanxess Arena hosted a Counter-Strike match.
The Lanxess Arena during ESL One Cologne 2018. Photo via: ESL.
FURIA Esports, Team Vitality, Mousesports… They will all be vying for the trophy in Cologne, and they are all rosters that NaVi is not used to playing against yet whatsoever. Moreover, the eternal nemesis of the Russian-Ukrainian organization, Team Liquid, are now the best team in the world, and they are not looking to stop their current winning streak.
The competitive landscape is not the only thing that has changed, however, but the NaVi team itself is also nothing like the one who got to raise the trophy in July 2018. Being a two-time Cologne champion is not easy at all, as history has already demonstrated. If they want to make such a feat become reality this year, a lot of things will have to go in the favor of NaVi once they arrive in Germany to defend their title.
Changes are necessary, but not easy
Coming into 2019, everybody knew that NaVi needed a change. They were good
, that cannot be denied, but their performance did not depend on a consistent tactical system. Rather, it went according to the form of the players at the time of playing. Even if Oleksandr “s1mple”
Kostyliev, the best player to ever touch the game, shone as he did, for instance, at the StarLadder & i-League StarSeries Season 4, it was not enough to always secure them the win.
Instead, it was electronic and Egor “flamie”
Vasilyev that also had to step up to the plate in order for NaVi to become a rightful contender. Danylo “Zeus”
Teslenko, the in-game leader, and Ioann “Edward”
Shukariev were most of the time irrelevant when it came to statistics, fans and analysts alike arguing that they were the ones holding the team back. The latter, although a superstar many years ago when CS:GO did not even exist, had long turned into an overall mediocre player.
The former, for his part, had a completely different profile. Despite leading with an iron fist, he did not rely on tactics or a well-thought system to win matches. Rather, his style was loose, the kind of style that is most of the time reduced by memes to “s1mple, go kill.”
His players had grown tired of it, and, somewhat, he had too. Being already 31 years old, he announced that he would be retiring in 2019, but he did not specify when. Until the day he retires, he will most likely stay in NaVi.
Natus Vincere started the year struggling to win any tournament of significance, thus, all eyes were on Edward. Finally, on May 29, the CIS-based organization loaned him to Winstrike in exchange for Kirill “Boombl4”
Mikhailov. Although incredibly positive at first glance since it finally ended with NaVi’s stagnation, the change left many questions to be answered in the heads of multiple community figures. Sure, trying out a new player was better than nothing, but was Boombl4 really the most suitable addition?
The CIS scene has always been known for producing players with high amounts of natural talent. Recently, there seem to be more promising prospects than ever wandering around tier-two Russian online tournaments. Some of them had even gotten to play at the major and awed the world with their unexpected mastery of the mechanical aspects of the game. Team Spirit, Vega Squadron or Avangar seemed like perfect breeding grounds for future NaVi talent. Even the leftovers of the last iteration of Gambit could be rendered suitable for stepping into Edward’s shoes.
If there was a team that Natus Vincere would not want to draw players from, though, it was Winstrike. Under the Quantum Bellator Fire banner, the squad had made it all the way to the playoffs of the ELEAGUE Boston Major more than a year ago. Ever since then, however, no matter the numerous changes they underwent, they had not managed to accomplish any other notable feat, even struggling to acquire notoriety within the CIS scene. Boombl4 was a decent rifler, but he was not the up-and-coming prodigy that Natus Vincere needed in order to turn their fate upside down.
Some argued, taking into account his past as an in-game leader, that Zeus would teach him everything he needed to learn before becoming the new captain of NaVi once the Ukrainian legend retired later on in the year. Regardless of how well the movement ended up panning out, this did not solve too many problems. What would NaVi opt to do in the meantime, when both players were still sharing a spot in the team? Would s1mple have to keep putting up one stellar performance after another if the team were to keep placing high in tournaments? NaVi has finally listened to the community and has made some changes. Even then, though, the new NaVi does not have to be, initially, better than the old one. Indeed, it does not appear that way.
A month in the shadows raises uncertainty coming into Cologne
After announcing the acquisition of Boombl4, Natus Vincere went into a month of June in which they did not play a single official match. They were not present at any of the big tournaments that took place during the sixth month of 2019, and the consequences that this will have on their future performances are still up in the air.
Being somewhat of a new line-up as it was, they probably needed some time to mesh together and turn into a proper team. To some, however, a whole month seems excessive. Due to their high status within the international scene, getting good practice has most likely not been too much of an issue for them, moreover when their rivals are probably keen to learn their new playstyle and, in turn, how to counter it. Still, certain doubts arise.
Nobody has seen them play on stage yet, which may grant them a surprise factor that they can utilize to their advantage. Being the new roster’s first ever LAN, however, might also bring along a handful of problems. Even though it is only one player that has changed, inexperience and communication issues could very well set the new NaVi behind its rivals in Cologne. They will play together for the first time, but the so-called honeymoon effect is already gone. After all, they have already been training for a whole month.
Most of their rivals, in contrast, have used June to hone their strategies at several international tournaments such as the ECS Season 7 Finals in London and the ESL Pro League Season 9 Finals in Montpellier. Even Astralis, harshly criticized at the beginning of the year for not attending enough tournaments nor the right ones, are now totally back in the flow of competition. Whether it will take some time for NaVi to adapt is yet to be seen, but their inactivity is definitely another hurdle that they will have to overcome if they want to make a statement and raise the trophy in Cologne for the second consecutive year.
Looking at the tournament itself, NaVi will most likely drop to the lower bracket as soon as the action plays out. Finn “karrigan”
Andersen’s Mousesports have lately been on the rise, and, paired up with Natus Vincere’s fame of being fairly consistent slow-starters, they will be a strenuous opponent for the CIS guys in the first round. Should NaVi have to fight for a spot in the playoffs all the way from the lower bracket of their group, fans would probably render them completely unable to win the whole tournament.
That is, however, exactly what they did last year. They failed to G2 Esports in the first round only to not lose another match in the entirety of the event.
Natus Vincere is a surprise package coming into Cologne. Initially, it may seem like it will contain nothing but upsetting performances. But, what if s1mple gifts us another brutal performance from start to finish? What if electron1c does what he said a year ago and becomes even better than the Ukrainian prodigy? What if Boombl4 is, after all, the player that they actually needed?
With Natus Vincere, a miracle may always happen, no matter how low odds their winning chances may appear. Casually, the Lanxess Arena is not only the cathedral of Counter-Strike but also the perfect stadium for a miracle to take place. Will NaVi end up revalidating the previous year’s title against all odds? The answer at the forefront is no, but in the end, only Cologne will tell.
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.