ESL Pro League Season 13 will run between March 8 and April 11 with 24 of the world’s best teams in contention. The tournament will kick off with the group stage, featuring four six-team groups and a round-robin format, with the top three sides of each group advancing to the playoffs. The second and third-placed sides in each group will go to the Round of 12, while the top seeds will face off in a play-in, with the winners going to the semi-finals and the losers to the quarter-finals.
ESL had originally hoped to have the playoffs held at a studio in Malta, marking a transition back to LAN, but travel restrictions and quarantine regulations in Europe have forced the tournament organiser to scrap those plans.
The group stage will be played progressively, with Group A taking place between March 8 and 12, and Group B following right after, between March 13 and 18, setting up a packed schedule full of top contenders clashing, many of whom are still looking to prove themselves after underwhelming starts to 2021 or trying to stabilize following roster changes. Below are some of the storylines to explore as the first two groups get under way:
Roster changes aplenty
Three teams are coming into Group A with fresh starting lineups: FunPlus Phoenix have brought in Miikka “suNny” Kemppi as a stand-in and in-game leader, Heroic are playing their first proper event with Ismail “refrezh” Ali and Rasmus “sjuush” Beck, and OG are expected to continue to field Nikolaj “niko” Kristensen, who was picked up ahead of the DreamHack Masters Spring qualifier.
If early results are anything to go by, Heroic seem to be adapting well to the new players as they made it through the DreamHack Masters Spring qualifier by beating VOYVODA and Cloud9 without dropping a map, although the team’s first big test will only come now.
suNny will be returning to the servers for the first time this year with FunPlus Phoenix to try to take the European team to the next level after they showed great potential in smaller tournaments with Chris “chrisJ” de Jong as a stand-in, finishing second in DreamHack Open January — losing only to Evil Geniuses and Spirit — and beating Gambit in the Snow Sweet Snow 1 grand final. Right now, there are more questions than answers about FPX, and fans should be feeling somewhat apprehensive to see the keys to the team handed to someone who might not be here for the long haul.
OG, who recently removed Nathan “NBK-” Schmitt from the starting five after plateauing and failing to make progress for several months, have taken a steep drop in the ranking and are sitting in 17th place. They will nonetheless be gunning to finish top three in their group and prove they are a playoff contender, although a recent thrashing at the hands of Complexity and an upset by VOYVODA in the DreamHack Masters Spring qualifier certainly shook the squad’s confidence.
Possibly the most notorious of all of the changes ahead of the upcoming Pro League season was made in Group B by G2, who benched Kenny “kennyS” Schrub after four years of the French sniper starting for the squad. The striking move came after a slew of barely average or below average performances by the AWPer and middling results for the team, who decided to bring Audric “JaCkz” Jug back to the starting lineup.
ESL Pro League will be an interesting evaluation of how the Franco-Bosnian squad want to proceed in the future as a role shuffle has taken place following kennyS’ departure — with Nikola “NiKo” Kovač now set to take the ‘Big Green’ when necessary. The team’s coach, Damien “maLeK” Marcel, believes the switch will add “more flexibility within our game and the current meta,” but such a meaningful change could also bring with it equally large growing pains in the short term.
Can Complexity find a way to get the best out of jks?
Complexity peaked at No.5 in the world ranking last year after winning BLAST Premier Spring Europe, but not long after Owen “oBo” Schlatter departed the squad, they began to slide down the rankings until finally settling for Justin “jks” Savage as their new fifth. The Australian took a leap away from his countrymen for the first time in a high-profile move, but strong results have been hard to come by as Complexity have yet to find how to make the most of their firepower-heavy roster — possibly in part due to Valentin “poizon” Vasilev‘s absence for almost two months halting the team’s progress.
The Bulgarian AWPer’s return in the BLAST Premier Spring Groups gave Complexity the boost they needed as they picked up 2-0 series wins against Vitality, G2 and Evil Geniuses. It looked like they had finally found their way, but the IEM Katowice Play-In followed and Complexity’s struggles returned as they went out in 9-12th place, missing out on a spot in the main stage. Once again, jks wasn’t at his best with a 0.92 rating, showing there is still something stopping the two-time top 20 player of the year from playing to his full potential.
Complexity will go up against a group of teams that have either had struggles of their own or faced recent roster changes, which could be a good measuring stick to gauge where they stand as they continue to try to find a winning combination. If taking past performances into consideration, that could mean getting jks comfortable and firing on all cylinders as the team seem to reap their best results every time the Australian puts on solid performances — like in IEM Beijing-Haidian last year and in the BLAST Premier Spring group stage this year.
First real test for FaZe and mouz under new leadership
FaZe and mousesports were both talking points last month when they changed in-game leaders on the eve of IEM Katowice, Finn “karrigan” Andersen going back to FaZe and mousesports importing Christopher “dexter” Nong, but they were thrown into a stacked event without time to set a plan in motion. mousesports made their debut in the Play-In stage and FaZe in the main tournament, with neither team managing to go deep.
FaZe will be looking to give a better account of themselves after the return of karrigan, and although the Danish tactician has said that his plan is for the team to continue to develop until the Major comes around, the star-studded roster will no doubt want to prove that they are once again a top contender and a team to be feared, which hasn’t always been the case in the last year.
mousesports made it through the IEM Katowice Play-In, edging past Renegades, beating Complexity and taking a map off of the tournament’s champions, Gambit, but in the main tournament, they lost four straight maps — albeit to two of the strongest competitors at the tournament, Astralis and Gambit —, making it a bittersweet debut.
Having played their last official match on February 19, mousesports have had some time to tackle some of the issues dexter has identified in his first few weeks on the job. He should now be more settled into his new life in Europe and have a better grasp of how he wants to run his playbook.
Vitality look ahead after turbulent month
Vitality, a top-three team in 2020, started off the year with a third-place finish in the BLAST Premier Global Final, narrowly missing out on a grand final appearance after losing to the top two teams of the previous year and of that tournament, Astralis and Natus Vincere. Despite the solid start, internal problems at the beginning of February put a damper on the French squad’s efforts as Dan “apEX” Madesclaire ended up on the sidelines following their opening BLAST Premier Spring Groups match, a 0-2 loss to Complexity, and the team bombed out in last place without their IGL, losing 1-2 to Evil Geniuses.
apEX returned to the starting five ahead of IEM Katowice, but Vitality failed to take off despite winning their opening match against OG, going on to lose against Liquid and Virtus.pro in what ended up being a 9-12th place finish. The instability in February also affected the team’s star player, Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut, who was well below his usual numbers. A few weeks with no tournament play may have given Vitality just enough time to refocus and work out the kinks before their opening match against FaZe in Group B.
Which side of NIP will we see?
NIP got off to a flying start after bringing in Erik “ztr” Gustafsson at the beginning of February, securing a spot in the BLAST Premier Spring Finals and going through the IEM Katowice Play-In with a 2-0 record. The Ninjas did so by beating several high-profile squads, taking down both BIG and Astralis in the BLAST tournament, and Complexity and Virtus.pro in the ESL competition, unexpected results after picking up a 17-year-old player without experience at a high level.
Hampus “hampus” Poser’s charges weren’t able to keep the results up after the Play-In, however, and were taken out swiftly in the main tournament, in which they lost their opening series to FURIA 0-2 before being knocked out by Virtus.pro, once again without being able to win a map in the series.
One month into their time with ztr in the starting five, NIP will now have the chance to measure where they stand and how far they have come since parting ways with Simon “twist” Eliasson as the Swedes will face five teams with plenty of firepower in Group B and they will have to finish at least better than three of them to secure a spot in the next round of play.