ESL Pro League Season 16 kicked off earlier this week in Malta with Group A and there were plenty of fascinating storylines heading into the tournament.
Natus Vincere, Vitality and Ninjas In Pyjamas were touted to make it out of the group and into the playoffs, but the latter have started slowly and there have been upsets aplenty from those playing spoiler - Endpoint, Spirit and fnatic.
Thursday’s matches conclude with a fascinating match between Vitality and fnatic, and the latter are looking to continue a rebuild that is gaining serious momentum.
fnatic have been in the doldrums for several years now but the additions of nicoodoz, roeJ, mezii and FASHR seem to have made the difference.
They stormed into the group with a dominant 2-0 sweep of Ninjas In Pyjamas, dropping just 14 rounds across the series, and they gave Natus Vincere a fright in a 2-1 defeat in their second match.
In both games roeJ has been the standout man and the Dane will need to be at his best once more if they are to continue their march to the playoffs against another team who is surging back to their best.
Vitality are another team to make wholesale changes in recent months, adding former Astralis duo Magisk and dupreeh earlier in the campaign before signing ENCE superstar Spinx in the player break.
They have started the group impressively, defeating both Endpoint and Ninjas In Pyjamas without dropping a map.
Vitality have to be considered favourites, but fnatic have clear upset potential in this match and remain an unexposed force, having played just four of the seven maps in the pool regularly since this roster former.
Ninjas In Pyjamas have one of the most stable rosters in Group A, but they have not been able to build any momentum and could be vulnerable to an Endpoint side arriving with supreme confidence.
The Swedish squad managed just 14 rounds in a 2-0 defeat to fnatic to kick off their campaign and although they went close in the opening map against Vitality, they collapsed in the second and succumbed to another 2-0 loss.
They have the chance to improve their record against Spirit prior to this match, but that is no forgone conclusion and should they lose that match, they will arrive here needing to win to have any chance of qualifying for the playoffs.
The individuals of Ninjas In Pyjamas simply have not stepped up at this tournament and when one does have a good game, another fails to produce their best. Many will feel as though they can get away with that against an Endpoint side ranked just 37th in the world, but that side's 2-0 victory against Natus Vincere would suggest otherwise.
Whether you believe that is a fluke or not, the bare facts remain that if Endpoint’s individuals are able to work in harmony, they are a deadly force. Ninjas In Pyjamas are low on confidence and this game is likely to be far closer than the odds suggest.
fnatic's playoff picture will be far clearer when they take on Spirit in this match but based on what we know so far at the tournament, they have to be considered strong favourites.
As previously mentioned, they have been rejuvenated by new additions and there were plenty of positives to be taken from their defeat to Natus Vincere. Spirit seem to have stagnated and their performances at the tournament thus far do not instil much confidence.
They have the individuals to make this a close match and on the flipside, fnatic cannot afford lesser performances from nicoodoz and roeJ if they are to continue their resurgence.
As the odds suggest, this is far from a straightforward conclusion, but fnatic appeal as the most likely winners.
These sides have met on three occasions in 2022 and each time, Natus Vincere have come out as the comfortable 2-0 victors.
Vitality have been much improved at this tournament, however, and the addition of Spinx has given them the firepower they were missing to be a top-five team in the world.
Natus Vincere’s fragilities were put on display when they failed to fire in a puzzling 2-0 defeat to Endpoint and they will need to bounce back quickly if they are to throw down a serious challenge.
If there is any team who can quickly leave that behind, it is Natus Vincere, but Vitality will seldom play them at a better time and they will be acutely aware of that fact.
Both teams are almost certain to qualify, so expect a back and forth game of Counter Strike that could hinge on the famed AWP battle of s1mple and ZywOo.