The group stage of IEM Cologne concluded on Sunday, with the original sixteen participants now reduced to just six as we approach the playoffs. The much-awaited return to LAN has produced some incredible and mouth-watering action already, and we can only expect the bracket stage to raise the stakes in this upcoming extended weekend.
If there is one key piece of learning from the first week of play, it’s surely that LAN ‘hits different’. Not that it’s much of an eye-opener — we all knew it, but perhaps not everyone could recall the distinct feeling after we had been stuck online for well over a year. Some of the other revelations may not be quite as obvious, however, so we have taken a look back at how the group stage unfolded and outlined the five most important things we have learned until this point.
Some have fulfilled the predictions so far, with the three best ranked teams at the event still alive and kicking in their campaign to take the throne. Some have exceeded all expectations and found themselves punching above their weight, while others faltered under the pressure, unable to replicate successes from the online era — and that’s where we begin the five things we learned from the IEM Cologne group stage.
One is not like the other
Gambit and Heroic are undoubtedly the two teams the community was looking at as the two biggest outliers of the online era. Their meteoric rise beyond a level they had ever competed at before naturally led skeptics to doubt whether they could match up to the more established and experienced competition in a LAN environment, and during the group stage of IEM Cologne the scene looked on in anticipation to find out.
Vladislav “nafany” Gorshkov‘s team is at least in part ‘out of the woods.’ The German event has shown that the gods can bleed but left little doubt that Gambit are a world-class team and a legitimate title contender. Despite starting off each series shaky, the CIS side picked up convincing wins over mousesports and NIP and only just faltered in the G2 affair at the end in a series that rested on a knife’s edge.
What’s more, Gambit did it the exact same way they would have in the past from the comfort of their homes or bootcamps. They were able to make split-second decisions and read the game under pressure just as well as before, pulling off their (in)famous late-round rotations that come down to the last seconds without ever looking panicked, business as usual. Slow starts and some poor halves left room for improvement, but there’s no reason not to believe Gambit will be able to work out the kinks by playoffs.
Meanwhile, Heroic left a lot to be desired in their up-and-down group stage campaign. A top-half finish at a tournament as stacked as IEM Cologne is not a terrible result by any means, but considering the set of teams the Danes met they should have at least made a playoffs appearance. With hairy wins over Spirit and FURIA and losses to Astralis and FaZe — who admittedly overperformed but looked a far cry from world beaters — Casper “cadiaN” Møller‘s squad did not seem to have made significant strides since their early exit a month ago at IEM Summer.
G2 are a serious candidate
G2 have the added benefit of starting the playoffs from the semi-finals after a flawless run in Group A, in which they looked quite convincingly like the best team despite it featuring the world’s No.1 team, Gambit. The CIS squad looked like the only real contender to Nemanja “nexa” Isaković‘s team, who brushed Complexity and BIG aside before clinching their first-ever win over Dmitry “sh1ro” Sokolov & co.
The fact that G2 looked head and shoulders above everyone other than Gambit and withstood two separate comeback attempts from the Russian side bodes very well for the European combine. Typically, the team looks much shakier even when they manage deep runs and tend to suffer losses from a winning position, but that just wasn’t the case this time as instead of crumbling late and conceding some of these close affairs G2 got each of them over the line.
And while Nikola “NiKo” Kovač and Nemanja “huNter-” Kovač have been two of the best players of the tournament, they didn’t have to put up godlike performances to beat Gambit. Instead, it was François “AmaNEk” Delaunay who stepped up with a key map on the deciding Inferno, which speaks to the depth of the talent in the French-Balkan squad — something that doesn’t always show.
Now, NiKo & co. seem to have a path to the grand final laid out for them. With Gambit and Natus Vincere on the other side of the bracket as the two biggest favorites of the tournament, G2 look to break their streak of top-four finishes and maybe even go all the way after having already beaten the world’s best team once. All that stands in their way is one of Virtus.pro and Astralis — two teams G2 should be heavily favored against — before they attempt to end their title-less run dating back over a year and a half.
No AWPer, no problem: Astralis make it work with a hybrid system
Astralis showed that it is foolish to write them off completely, especially for a LAN tournament, as they sealed a playoff spot following back-to-back victories against FaZe and Heroic before they were bested by a well-oiled NAVI machine in the group’s final.
Just reaching the playoffs should not be a cause for celebration, especially not for a team that has won it all, but such are the times now. 2021 has not been kind to Astralis, who lost their best player to one of their biggest regional rivals and have struggled to plug the gap.
News about coach Danny “zonic” Sørensen considering his options as he enters the final months of his contract left fans concerned, and for good reason given his role in the success that the team has enjoyed over the years. And last week’s press conference ahead of IEM Cologne raised further questions about the team’s long-term strategy and the relationship with the Astralis management after Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander stated that he didn’t envisage his side challenging for the No.1 spot in the world “for quite some time” without a dedicated AWPer to fill the void left by Nicolai “device” Reedtz.
With Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen and gla1ve sharing the AWPing duties — a system that the 28-year-old said gives him “more freedom” to operate — and Lucas “Bubzkji” Andersen more comfortable in his role, Astralis showed plenty of positive signs throughout the group stage. The way they were outclassed by NAVI on Ancient and Inferno shows that they are not quite ready to hang with the best just yet, but given how bleak and chaotic things looked ahead of the event, they have already exceeded most people’s expectations.
s1mple continues to find new ways to amaze us
When it comes to Aleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, you might be inclined to think that you have seen it all. You might think that he has hit his ceiling and that his chances of reclaiming the title of the best player in the world — the one he lost to Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut in 2019 and 2020 —, are very slim.
It’s fair to say that s1mple is out to prove his doubters wrong.
The Ukrainian star already has three MVP medals to his name in 2021 — from BLAST Premier Global Final, DreamHack Masters Spring, and the StarLadder CIS RMR —, and he looks determined to add a fourth in Cologne, where he has looked a cut above his competition.
He is leading six of the tournament’s statistical categories, including rating (1.52), kills per round (0.96), and Impact (1.74), and, with the exception of a sub-par display in the Overpass loss to Vitality, his lowest map rating is 1.29. He has also already tied the record for the most aces at a Big Event, three, and there’s still plenty of Counter-Strike left to play in the tournament.
But that’s not to say that NAVI have been a one-man show in Cologne. Denis “electronic” Sharipov is the second-highest-rated player still in the tournament and has been s1mple’s right-hand man, while Valeriy “B1T” Vakhovskiy has earned rave reviews for overcoming his first big LAN jitters and becoming a solid contributor even when facing the best players in the world. “I think we’re doing a great job and this is the best lineup I’ve ever played with,” s1mple said before the German event. The stars seem to be aligning for the CIS giants, and with the Ukrainian setting the tournament alight, it seems the only thing that can stop them at the moment is themselves.
Virtus.pro, FaZe find lifelines
IEM Cologne came at just the right time for Virtus.pro and FaZe, two sides that appeared to be on the brink of collapse ahead of the event. Both sides came around after rough starts to the tournament, winning three elimination matches in a row to earn playoff berths and silence the critics, at least for now.
Virtus.pro enjoyed a sustained period of regional and international success between October and February, going as far as to win Flashpoint 2 and finish second in IEM Katowice, but their form fizzled out a few months into 2021. A group stage exit in the StarLadder CIS RMR made fans fear the worst, but Virtus.pro proved in the group stage that they cannot be counted out, no matter what the situation, showing great mental strength in their close victories against Complexity and BIG. To beat Astralis in the playoffs, they will be hoping to get a contribution from Sanjar “SANJI” Kuliev, who is having a stinker of a tournament (0.78 rating, second-lowest overall).
Twistzz is averaging a 1.22 rating in Cologne
Monday’s 19-place jump in the rankings on the back of a couple of group stage wins shows just how far FaZe had fallen before IEM Cologne. Even with the arrivals of a revered tactician in Finn “karrigan” Andersen and a world-class aimer in Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken, the international team showed no signs of improvements and continued to bomb out of tournaments early, forcing them to call Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer — a player that has the ability to make those around him better — back from hiatus.
With the Swedish veteran in their ranks, FaZe have proved that they are indeed a team suited to play on LAN. They went through the Play-In stage unscathed and then survived three highly-demanding series against Spirit, Vitality and Heroic after having their backs against the wall following a defeat to Astralis. It’s hard to see them defeat Gambit or challenge for titles at this point — especially because the team lacks a player who can lessen the workload for Twistzz and Helvijs “broky” Saukants — but the process seems to be finally paying off for FaZe.
Luís “MIRAA” Mira contributed to this story.