The 2016 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive season is about to kick into gear. The next seven weeks will see a whopping three premier event with prizepools of $250,000 or more. First off is the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice, Poland, taking place this weekend.
Katowice has become a modern classic for the CS:GO scene. Last year's event, dubbed ESL One Katowice 2015, was the first CS:GO tournament to break the 1 million viewer mark. This year's event is slightly different, though. In both 2015 and 2014, Katowice were Valve-endorsed Majors (that's Major with a capital M), meaning the game studio put up the entire prize pool, but also set out most of the rules for how the tournament played out. And as great as the Majors are, the group stages can often feel a bit flat and hasty.
But while IEM Katowice is certainly a major tournament, it isn't a Major. That lets ESL set the format themselves, and what they've come up with is a great one.
Date: March 2 to March 5
Prize pool: $250,000 dollars in total
Where to watch it: Official ESL CS:GO Twitch stream
Schedule: Group stages Wednesday and Thursday. Quarter finals and semifinals Friday. Finals Saturday.
Format: Two groups of six teams. All teams in a group play each other in a Bo1 round-robin format. Group winners advance to semis, second and third place to quarterfinals. Quarters and semis are played as Bo3, with the finals being Bo5.
Group A: Fnatic, Na'Vi, Luminosity Gaming, Ninjas in Pyjamas, mousesports, The MongolZ
Groub B: EnVyUs, Astralis, Virtus.Pro, FaZe Clan, E-Frag Esports Club, Tempo Storm
Teams to look out for
The undisputed favourite going in to Katowice is Fnatic. When Markus "pronax" Wallsten left the team late last year, it marked the end of an era, arguably one of the must successful ones in the game. But Fnatic shows no signs of slowing down. Since the addition of Dennis "dennis" Edman, the Swedes have won every tournament they've attended.
Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer is back in his usual great shape, and Jesper "JW" Wecksell cast off any notion of being in a slump with consistently sick AWP performances at ESL Expo Barcelona. Fnatic is the best team in Counter-Strike right now, and the team to beat at Katowice.
If Fnatic is the top contender, Natus Vincere and Luminosity Gaming are the other favorites to make it out of group A. Most rankings have Na'vi as the second best team in the world currently, and they've been a consistent elite team since last summer. They've still to win a major-class event, though, and that makes them hungry.
Luminosity, on the other hand, has shown a massive improvement in form over the past few months. They've gone from being a team that could manage a top eight finish at Majors to one that regularly makes it to the finals at premier offline events. Both them and Na'Vi have thrived on a more tactical play-style than the looser and individual-driven style that most other elite teams live by, and that could make the difference. Between them and Fnatic, we likely have both finalists for Katowice.
Other teams are coming to Katowice with a lot to prove. The second half of 2015 was miserable for Ninjas in Pyjamas, and many expected the team to collapse completely and part ways at the end of the year. That didn't happen, and instead they replaced a single player by bringing in Jacob "pyth" Mourujärvi in favor of Aleksi "allu" Jalli. Whether that fixed their problems remains to be seen, but the Ninjas will be looking to kick off their year right in Katowice.
French side EnVyUs were on top of the world after winning the last Major, DreamHack Cluj-Napoca, but they've been on a downward trend ever since. Word is that the players are lacking the attitude and mental drive to bring home the big wins. Or to put it another way, they have a leadership problem, and there's not a lot to indicate that they've fixed it in time for this tournament.
Danish team Astralis struggled towards the end of last year under the Team SoloMid banner. But unlike EnVy, they seemed to have worked out whatever issues were troubling them. We can't say whether it's because they're now playing for themselves and an organization that they co-own, but they put up a strong performance at ESL Expo Barcelona. There, they both beat their countrymen from Dignitas (who've been on a meteoric rise in form recently) and their nemesies from EnVyUs, who used to have the Danes all figured out in the past.
Finally, Katowice is the home turf of Virtus.Pro, who historically puts in very strong performances at this event. They could certainly do with another one of those this weekend, as they've been looking exceedingly shaky in the past months. They flunked out at DreamHack Leipzig, and have put up very unimpressive showings at most other recent premier events. But Katowice is special to Virtus.Pro. They won the 2014 Major there after practicing like madmen, so we're keeping our fingers crossed that pull a similar effort this year.
The Intel Extreme Master World Championship in Katowice kicks off Wednesday, with the first games scheduled to begin at 11:00 GMT / 12:00 CET. You can follow the games live on the Official Twitch stream.