Preview: A fierce fight dawns for 2023’s first trophy at IEM Katowice
BLAST Premier Spring Groups warmed teams and fans up for 2023, now IEM Katowice will provide the first Big Event champion of the year.
With a new year in CS:GO comes a fresh chance for teams to shake up the hierarchy. A new opportunity for squads to realise their ambitions, capitalise on the work they did in the off-season and stake a claim as one of the elite squads of the moment. There is no better time to do it than now considering the state of the professional scene and the update that dropped right at the end of last year — IEM Katowice is the first real chance for teams to start making the case that they are the best in the world.
There is a meta shift still underway following the nerfs to the M4A1-S and AWP and the introduction of a new map, Anubis. Squads that have their finger on the pulse and have adapted the best will find themselves ahead of the competition, and many teams who will feature in Katowice got the chance to warm up for the event at the BLAST Premier Spring Groups. Some of those teams impressed, some drew doubts as to their potential moving forwards, and some thoroughly disappointed. Plenty of big names did not feature at all at BLAST and Katowice is their first chance to show us what they are capable of.
A shifting meta
Some monumental balance changes took place right at the end of last year and whilst we got a glimpse of the newly rebalanced M4A1-S, AWP, and the new map Anubis at last year’s BLAST Premier World Final, these early moments of 2023 are where we really see how the changes have shaken out. A healthy split between the silenced and unsilenced variants of the M4 took hold for BLAST, however the top performing riflers at the event preferred the non-silenced option, so it will be interesting to see if preferences continue to shift as the year continues.
Anubis sightings were few and far between at BLAST Spring Groups, the map only being played four times out of a total of 61. Alongside Vertigo, Anubis was by far the least played map in the pool, and it will be interesting to see if the general trend of getting two of Inferno, Overpass and Mirage in virtually every series holds; Ancient continues to be a map many teams shy away from and Nuke is something of a specialist pick. Some teams have spoken about playing all seven maps, Rasmus “sjuush” Beck doing so on Heroic’s behalf, and Liquid seemed to be actively experimenting with the idea during BLAST as they swapped their bans up throughout the event and played Nuke, their previous perma-ban, twice. It didn’t go well for the North American side, and whether or not anyone will actually manage to master the full pool seems unlikely, but Katowice will give us further evidence as to whether or not this can occur.
The early birds
G2 picked up where they left off at the end of last year, backing up their BLAST Premier World Final victory by marching through Spring Groups without dropping a map. They got better as the event wore on, besting BIG and then triumphing in a relatively tight series against Natus Vincere before much more comfortably dispatching the CIS squad the second time around. Nikola “NiKo” Kovač was in superlative form, Ilya “m0NESY” Osipov and Nemanja “huNter-” Kovač looked solid, but perhaps most tellingly G2 got a solid overall performance out of Justin “jks” Savage. G2’s best finishes with this squad have come in events where the Australian has thrived, and if they can keep him firing, that will be the key difference maker. G2 will no doubt be one of the favorites in Poland, a title that they most certainly deserve, but their trophy chances will come down to whether or not they can keep jks contributing.
The best team of last year, FaZe, had to battle through their first outing of the year without Håvard “rain” Nygaard and Robert “RobbaN” Dahlström, but they did so with aplomb by winning all three of the series they played at BLAST. Admittedly, they did not face the stiffest of opposition, taking down Complexity and then OG twice, but they beat what was put in front of them and generally looked good doing so. Helvijs “broky” Saukants and Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken were both in excellent shape, putting in the kind of performances that earned them sixth and 11th place, respectively, on the HLTV top 20 players of 2022. Robin “ropz” Kool was a tad quieter overall but still produced some stand out maps, and even stand-in Patrick “es3tag” Hansen found moments to shine.
This seemed like a FaZe back in prime form. Their star trio was firing on all cylinders, the entire squad was capable of producing high-impact moments, and Finn “karrigan” Andersen was calling some fantastic T sides, resulting in the best offensive round win percentage of the entire BLAST Group stage. Whether or not FaZe will carry on in the same vein with rain back amongst their number is tough to say and the Norwegian once again has to face up to the idea that FaZe could do better without him, much like post-Katowice last year. FaZe will be needing a strong performance out of the gate to put any doubts around their veteran rifler to bed. What is without doubt is the fact that the four full time members of the squad that played in Copenhagen did so admirably, and they will be one of the teams to beat in Poland.
As for Vitality, they displayed a flash of their potential brilliance soon after adding Lotan “Spinx” Giladi last year, winning EPL 16, only to end the season with a string of underwhelming results. BLAST Premier Spring Groups brought with it another brief flash of brilliance with Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut and Spinx getting the heavy lifting done as Vitality won three series to qualify for the Spring Finals. Their map pool was not fully tested — they won twice on Overpass, twice on Vertigo, and once apiece on Mirage and Inferno —, and their opening victory over Astralis was a tad laboured. As is the Vitality modus operandi, ZywOo was heavily relied upon, but it was still a positive performance from Vitality. Each player performed well in their role and maybe now is the time for them to truly become the superteam they were heralded as when the Danes joined their ranks last year. In any case, the odds of getting one or two of G2, FaZe and Vitality in the grand final in Poland seem high.
Slept through their alarm
Two teams many would have been expecting to take up places in the battle for world No. 1 this year are Heroic and Natus Vincere, but they are two squads that were not quite up to speed at BLAST. Heroic suffered series defeats to Vitality and more disappointingly Evil Geniuses, although Casper “cadiaN” Møller and company did redeem the defeat to EG by besting them in the consolidation final of their group. Natus Vincere couldn’t take a map off G2 in two attempts and squeaked past Complexity in a very hotly contested series to barely qualify for the Spring Final. Heroic may be suffering from the fact that Martin “stavn” Lund took a break at the end of last year, missing the BLAST Premier World Final, and Natus Vincere are obviously still trying to bed in Andrii “npl” Kukharskyi, so these teams could be afforded the Spring Groups as a warmup event.
Heroic are certainly the team better poised to improve and mount a serious title challenge in Poland, and the fact stavn’s level of play ramped up steadily throughout the BLAST Spring Groups was a positive sign for the Danes. Natus Vincere should be short of what is needed to target a trophy in Katowice as they simply need more time with npl, and will likely have to settle for a playoff berth at best.
Liquid may well have produced the most disappointing showing of the BLAST Spring Groups, finishing in joint-last place having managed a single series victory against Complexity. Their apparent attempt to sport a seven-map pool, evidenced by their flexible approach to bans and willingness to play previous perma-ban Nuke, backfired horribly. Compounding their difficulties in the veto, the star duo of Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski and Mareks “YEKINDAR” Gaļinskis were well short of their best form. As was the case for Natus Vincere and Heroic, Spring Groups could be scratched off as a preparatory event, one used to get back into the swing of official matches more than anything else, but Katowice needs to see some movement in the right direction for Liquid before it starts to feel like they have hit a wall in their recent YEKINDAR-inspired improvement.
Another squad who underwhelmed in Copenhagen was Ninjas in Pyjamas, but the European combine had roster troubles serving as an excuse, with Hampus “hampus” Poser dropping out of the event after playing two series. As such Ninjas in Pyjamas’s negative results after that fact can be forgiven. Regardless, they showed glimpses that suggested the new lineup holds promise with Daniil “headtr1ck” Valitov and Fredrik “REZ” Sterner producing some highlight moments. The shaky form of Ludvig “Brollan” Brolin will be something of a concern, however, as will the necessity of incorporating yet another new player into their team — the explosive character that is Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke.
There are some ways in which k0nfig seems a fitting replacement for hampus, since they are both players of an aggressive mold, but the former is more of an opening man whilst the latter tends to activate later in rounds. It seems that some rearranging of roles will need to take place, which could see Ninjas in Pyjamas struggle to be up to speed in Katowice. Alternatively, the arrival of k0nfig may free up Brollan as the young Swede took 27.4% of Ninjas in Pyjamas’s opening attempts at BLAST, and this may well explain his lack of overall contribution in the fragging department. Be as it may, Ninjas in Pyjamas will be praying to see a proof of concept for the new roster in Katowice or else they will once again be left lamenting their revolving door of players in recent times.
Late to breakfast
There are plenty of potentially top-tier squads who will debut for the year in Katowice: Teams that won LAN events last year, competed for the top world ranking, or otherwise proved themselves to be in and around the elite. The biggest name in this category is Outsiders, reigning Major champions and former No. 1 team in the world. Dzhami “Jame” Ali and his squad shocked the scene by making a bold change to their roster for this year, breaking up the lineup that just won a Major by swapping out David “n0rb3r7” Danielyan for highly-touted youngster Aleksandr “KaiR0N-” Anashkin. They will be keen to hit the ground running to avoid the doubts that will inevitably surface should this change not bear immediate fruit, and eyes will already be firmly fixed on the team to see if they can prove that their Major victory was more than just a fluke.
Cloud9 won IEM Dallas last year, had two players in the top five of the HLTV top 20 players of the year, yet did not manage to end the year in the top five of the world rankings and still are a team short of fulfilling the considerable potential they displayed during the online era. Changes felt inevitable considering the length of their plateau in performance and the squad opted to swap Timofey “interz” Yakushin for Timur “buster” Tulepov in the quest to return to the top. Whether or not trading out your most supportive player is a recipe for success remains to be seen, there is some doubt regarding that point within the community, but what cannot be argued is that interz was the team’s worst player statistically in 2022. This is Cloud9’s first chance to show they have found the right recipe moving forward and it is about time the team produced results worthy of the performances of their star duo, Dmitry “sh1ro” Sokolov and Sergey “Ax1Le” Rykhtorov.
Finally there are a flurry of squads that do not quite measure up to the pedigree of Outsiders and Cloud9 but are still exciting names that could do damage at an event like IEM Katowice. MOUZ and FURIA make their first appearances of 2023 after making top-four at the IEM Rio Major and solidifying themselves as top 10 sides. Neither made any changes to their rosters in the off-season, and thus will be expecting to hit the ground running and show progression from their level late last year. Spirit will be present in Katowice and hoping their young guns have continued to develop, ENCE have the first chance to show if Marco “Snappi” Pfeiffer has really brought the European mix together in the off-season, and fnatic may well build upon their trophy-winning Elisa Masters Espoo campaign at the end of last year. There are plenty of dangerous squads in attendance in Katowice, now it is time to see who can live up to their billing — or exceed it.
For more information on the first Big Event LAN of the year, check out our IEM Katowice viewer’s guide.