IEM Katowice CS:GO World Championship 2021 Preview
It was at last year’s IEM Katowice that the esports world, and the world at large, first felt the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the middle of the event, ESL was told they would be unable to field a live audience just before playoffs began. With no crowd in attendance, Natus Vincere decisively swept G2 Esports 3-0 in the grand finals to claim victory.
Now, the biggest Counter-Strike tournament of 2021 so far is just around the corner. A massive field of 24 teams will compete at IEM Katowice, the World Championship for IEM Season XV. A lot is on the line at Katowice: a plethora of ESL Pro Tour and Regional Major Ranking points as well as $1 million.
The field is split into two groups. Eight teams received direct invites because of their Road to Katowice standing; six from Europe, and two from NA. The remaining sixteen teams will compete for eight main event spots in their own double-elimination bracket. The main event itself will consist of a two-group double-elimination bracket leading into a six-team playoff.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the teams in each stage that could either make some noise or falter below expectations.
While the IEM Katowice play-in stage isn’t actually using a group format, it’s really easy to break the sixteen teams into four groups of four since we know their first-round matchup. Each team just has to win their opening series, then beat the winner of the other opener in their group, and they’re qualified for the main event. Let’s look at each mini-group of the play-in stage.
BIG | Movistar Riders | C9 | Team Spirit
BIG vs Movistar Riders, and Cloud9 vs Team Spirit. How fitting it is that Movistar Riders and their new signing Owen “smooya” Butterfield get to open Katowice against his old team in BIG. Unfortunately for the Riders, BIG is in top form having just beaten every member of their BLAST Spring group to nab the top spot. Team Spirit is looking good as well after sweeping FPX to win DreamHack Open January. BIG should defeat Spirit in the second round to qualify for the main event.
Gambit | Team One | Renegades | mousesports
Gambit vs Team One, and Renegades vs mousesports. Both first-round matchups should be decisively one-sided. Team One found success in North American events in 2020, but are now facing a whole new set of competition and a young, rising roster in Gambit. While much of mousesports’ 2020 was disappointing, they looked like their old selves at cs_summit 7 and DreamHack Winter. Renegades beating them would definitely be considered an upset. Mousesports should beat Gambit in the second round, but it will definitely go to three maps.
Virtus.pro | Wisła Kraków | Complexity | NiP
Virtus.pro vs Wisła Kraków, and Complexity vs Ninjas in Pyjamas. It’s a domestic affair between VP and Wisła Kraków, and a battle of the BLAST darlings between Complexity and NiP. Wisła Kraków joins as a replacement for Iluminar Gaming, and realistically have a slim chance of beating the best team VP has fielded in years. Both Complexity and NiP look really good right now at BLAST Spring, but the return of poizon should give Complexity the overall advantage. It’s a daunting group, but I’m calling an upset; look for Complexity to beat Virtus.Pro in the second round.
OG | Fnatic | Liquid | MiBR
OG vs Fnatic, Team Liquid vs MiBR. The last set of opening round play-in matches features another handful of really good teams. OG is still seeking that roster-defining victory, and face a Fnatic team that looked great at cs_summit 7 debuting Jackinho. FalleN gets to face his old MiBR side for the first time since joining Liquid. Liquid should beat MiBR, Fnatic will continue their momentum against OG, and Liquid should advance past Fnatic.
With those four teams advancing via the winner’s play-in bracket, that leaves four teams to qualify via the lower bracket. Based on the expected results, we should see Team Spirit, Gambit, Virtus.Pro and Fnatic advance as well. But don’t sleep on teams like Ninjas in Pyjamas, OG, and who knows, maybe even Cloud9 sneaking in.
Assessing the Already Qualified Teams
The chances of all of those teams not making it to the IEM Katowice main event are slim, but they’re not zero. Wouldn’t it be wild if the likes of Team One, Renegades, and Wisła Kraków all made it to the main event? Since the play-in teams haven’t played-in yet, let’s take some time to look at all eight teams already directly qualified.
While it would be ridiculous to not consider both Astralis and Team Vitality favorites, both rosters look a little bit shaky heading into Katowice. Both teams struggled at BLAST Spring, and found themselves quickly eliminated from their respective groups. Astralis likely has the least to worry about. Three of the four maps they lost to both BIG and NiP were quite close. They reached the grand finals of the BLAST Global Final a week prior. Vitality, however, lost badly to Complexity, and the decision from coach XTQZZZ about apEX’s time off indicates there might be some growing frustration with the team. Again, Vitality is still definitely a favorite, but the most likely of the favorites to collapse quickly.
Question Marks Abound
More than half of the teams directly invited each come with a collection of question marks around them. Despite a great overall 2020, Heroic’s final two months were underwhelming. Their only series wins at cs_summit 7 came against OG and MiBR twice. FaZe will still be in their first week of competing with Twistzz, with more changes reportedly in the works. FURIA, like Team One in the play-ins, thrived against NA talent in 2020 but their recent results against international competition leave much to be desired. G2 is still seeking that breakout performance since adding NiKo. Evil Geniuses have been quiet since returning from their extended holiday break. They split their series against G2 at BLAST Spring, and beat Vitality, so maybe they’re finally waking up.
Na’Vi Looking Great
The direct invite team coming into Katowice in the best shape are the reigning champions, Natus Vincere. Had they not narrowly lost to Astralis in the semifinals, they likely would have beaten Liquid in the IEM Global Challenge finals. In their recent performance at the BLAST Global Final, they went on a tear after coincidentally losing to Liquid in the opening round. They won five straight series against Complexity, G2, Liquid, Vitality, then Astralis, obtaining revenge for both their recent losses and acquiring some fresh hardware.
IEM Katowice begins on February 16, with all eight opening round play-in series. The second round of the play-in series will take place later the same day, which will determine the first four teams to advance from the play-in stage to the main event.