In my column last week, I discussed the rise of tier-two CIS teams at the IEM Katowice tournament’s play-ins and group stages. Three underdog lineups, all from the CIS which includes countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan, all made it to the playoff stage of the tournament with impressive wins over Western favorites like mousesports and Astralis.
However, questions still remained over whether or not those relatively impressive performances would translate into the bracket stage of the competition. Historically, most underdog runs in Counter-Strike haven’t made it far into the playoffs, and almost never have ended in victories at major tournaments for the underdogs.
And yet, over the weekend, the dominance of Gambit, Spirit and Virtus.Pro did not cease. It started in Friday’s Quarterfinals, as Gambit faced off against Natus Vincere, also known as Navi, while Virtus.Pro battled the ever intimidating Astralis. Spirit, meanwhile, didn’t have to play after getting through to the semifinals on a bye with their victory over Astralis in the first stage of the tournament.
The battle of the CIS was far less climactic than many people thought it would be. Gambit was clean and methodical as they dispatched Navi 16-12 on Overpass and 16-6 on Train. Sh1ro carried throughout the series, getting a 1.45 rating and a +17 k/d. On the other side, Navi was lackluster; star player S1mple barely managed an even k/d ratio and he was the only player on his team without more deaths than kills.
On the other side of the bracket, Astralis faced their second CIS team of the tournament in Virtus.Pro, who had already been on an upward trajectory but who were not expected to be nearly as good as they were. Virtus.Pro was bolstered by incredible performances by their newer players like Yekindar, who dominated in the semifinal with a 1.37 rating and a 75/57 k/d.
That series was a lot closer than the first quarterfinal. VP squeezed out a 16-10 victory on the first map, their pick of Overpass, but Astralis bounced back on Train with a 16-12 victory off the back of a game in which four of their five players had over 1.1 ratings while just Buster managed a rating of higher than one for VP.
That took them to a tiebreaking third map of Inferno. Yekindar continued his impressive tournament performance with a 1.45 rating and a 29/19 k/d en route to a 16-11 victory, but he was heavily supported by his teammates. Everyone but Sanji had a rating of one or better, and even Sanji’s .8 was far from the worst rating imaginable. It wasn’t even the worst rating in this game; on the other side of the server Xyp9x only managed a .58 and a 10/21 k/d.
The CIS dominance continued into the semifinals, where Spirit faced off against Gambit and Virtus.Pro faced off against Team Liquid, which also had a bye through round one. The Spirit-Gambit matchup meant two things in the context of this incredible run by the underdog teams: one of them would have to go home, but one of them was also guaranteed to make it to the Grand Finals on Sunday.
Neither Semifinal match was incredibly close, despite the fact that all four teams who were in the semifinals were impressive going into those series. Gambit won convincingly over Spirit in back-to-back maps, on the back of impressive team coordination and Ax1Le popping off on both maps to end the series with a 1.32 rating. Despite their victory over Astralis the week before, Spirit struggled to keep up and found themselves unable to recover on the second map, OVerpass, after a 3-12 start put them severely in trouble. They tried to bounce back and ended the map at 13-16, but it wasn’t enough to stop Gambit from surging towards the Finals.
On the other side of the bracket, Team Liquid didn’t fare all that much better. Virtus.Pro beat them 2-0, riding high on a 1.59 rating and 50/23 k/d from Jame and a 1.5 with a 49/31 k/d from Yekindar. Team Liquid struggled; the highest rating any of them managed was .96 from Naf, while Stewie struggled at the bottom of the standings with a .64.
That set the stage for the Grand Finals to be two underdog teams with players from Latvia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and from Russia. The first major tournament of the year will also serve as a launchpad for these underdog teams who hadn’t necessarily proved themselves against tier-one opposition.
Gambit and Virtus.Pro faced off on Sunday in a best-of-five grand final and, rather unsurprisingly given their dominance on Saturday, Gambit seized victory. It was the first real win for the organization, and for Hobbit, the only remaining member from their major-winning run in 2017, since they won the PGL Major in Krakow. They won smaller tournaments, including a Dreamhack Open late last year over Team Spirit, but this was the big one, the victory over tier-one opposition that no one can doubt.
Hobbit showed up alongside his entire team in the Finals; every single member of Gambit ended the series with a positive k/d ratio and nafany, the only member under a 1.0 rating, had a .99. Nineteen-year-old Sh1ro ended the tournament by claiming an MVP award. He tied S1mple for the most clutches in a single tier-one tournament with an insane nineteen, and he ended the tournament with a +111 k/d ratio.
Now, the question is how these teams will translate this performance into more impressive performances throughout the season. Gambit and Virtus.Pro are slated to be in the ESL Pro League Season 13 that begins on the 8th, where they’ll get to prove if they can continue to dominate with the likes of Astralis, Navi and Vitality.