One of the first big Counter-Strike events every year is IEM Katowice. Taking place in Katowice, Poland since 2014, the event is always one of the largest Counter-Strike events of the year and one of the best places for teams to cement their status at the top tiers of the game as they compete for what is now a $400,000 first place prize.
Since it’s one of the first events of the year, following the break that tends to occur at the end of the calendar year for Counter-Strike, it’s often one of the first tournaments to establish which teams will be heading the table going into the next season. Natus Vincere, commonly known as Navi, won it last year in a dominant 3-0 fashion over G2 in the finals where they gave up just 19 rounds in three maps.
Now, we’re halfway through the event, which is being played virtually this year due to COVID-19. The event started on the 18th following play-ins on the 16th and 17th which put eight teams into the main event.
The eight, which included teams like Team Liquid, Spirit, Virtus Pro and BIG, were then joined by eight teams who had already qualified through the Road to Katowice, which included teams like Navi, Astralis and FaZe Clan.
The group stage included two different groups, A and B, which were randomly drawn to include four play-ins teams and four who qualified off points. They played a double-elimination bracket, where the top three from each group would move on to the playoffs and the top team from each group would be given a bye into the semifinals.
It’s a routine system that typically results in the same thing: Teams like Astralis and Navi claim the higher seeds in their groups, sometimes replaced or joined by a team like Team Liquid that is always capable of just popping off, and the others are teams like Liquid or Mousesports or FaZe Clan, solid teams that are typically just slightly lower than the top.
The double-elimination, entirely best-of-three based format doesn’t lend itself super well to upsets, because a team not only must win one game to win a series, but they must win two. That historically makes it impossible for an underdog team to just have a map that they are really good at, play that one map, and win the series based off of that.
In addition, the double-elimination nature of the bracket means that even if a good team is beaten, they have a chance to return and make finals weekend anyway, despite having dropped a game. Good teams don’t tend to lose twice, as the history of Counter-Strike has shown us with teams like Navi, who have made impressively long lower bracket runs.
And yet in Katowice over the weekend, we saw upsets. Yes, Navi, Astralis and Liquid all made the top six, but they’re joined by Team Spirit, Gambit, and Virtus Pro, three teams from the CIS region which includes Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and other countries in that region. Navi is also from the CIS, meaning that they have four times the teams that North America or Europe have in this final.
Beyond that, looking at the paths these teams took to get to the playoffs only further shows off their improbable runs. Spirit beat G2, Heroic and Astralis, the best team in history, in order to advance. Their last map against Astralis in that 2-1 victory, Dust2, was a 16 to 1 victory for the CIS squad, one of the worst losses Astralis has suffered and to a team who was not supposed to be this good.
Then there’s Gambit, with their newer star player Sh1ro, who spent time on Gambit Youngsters, their secondary team, in the past. After a first round loss to Evil Geniuses 2-0, the young lineup eliminated Mousesports, Heroic and G2 en route to a spot in the quarterfinals where they’ll be playing against their fellow CIS representatives in Navi.
The third underdog CIS team to make the top six, Virtus Pro, also went to the lower bracket in the first round following a loss to Navi. One of the legendary teams of Counter-Strike, though they are now playing with an entirely different lineup than that legacy squad, Virtus Pro eliminated Ninjas in Pajamas, Vitality and FURIA to claim the final quarterfinals slot where they’ll get the very rough task of playing against Astralis in the first round.
The resurgence by the CIS teams is mirrored only by the failures of the European ones to show up. OG, Vitality, FaZe, Heroic, G2 and BIG all went out in the group stage, and even the legendary Astralis aren’t through the semifinals and will have to play on Friday. Now, with the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals all taking place from Friday to Sunday, the question will be if the CIS teams continue their dominant streak and if one of them will win the trophy and begin what might be a season of dominance for the region which, for the last few years, has been held up on the shoulders of Navi.