MLG Columbus, an event that can easily be described as the biggest Counter-Strike tournament ever, begins in just a few hours. It's the latest of the so-called Majors, a series of tournaments sponsored by CS developer Valve.
Throughout their history, the Valve Majors have been regarded as the most prestigious events on the Counter-Strike scene, but MLG stands out for two reasons. One, it's the first Major to be played on North American soil, and two, Valve has upped their usual prize pool of $250,000 to $1 million.
16 teams are competing. Eight of them are "Legends", meaning they finished in the top 8 at the previous Major, DreamHack Cluj-Napoca, while the remaining eight are "Challengers" who've earned their spot through open qualifiers. Besides a piece of the prize pool, all these teams can look forward to significant income from sales of "stickers" - a type of virtual merchandise that players can attach to their weapons in-game, use for fantasy picks and predictions, or trade with other players.
Majors are the high points in the Counter-Strike year. This guide will tell you everything you need to know.
Where and when does it take place?
MLG Columbus is held in the MLG Arena and the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Group stage games take place Tuesday-Thursday, the first three quarterfinals are played friday, the remaining quarterfinal and the semis on Saturday, and the grand final on Sunday.
Games begin each day at 15:00 GMT/16:00 CET, with the exception of the Sunday finals - they're played at 18:00 GMT/19:00 CET. If you're wondering why the last quarterfinals is played on Saturday, it's due to the schedule slipping at the last premier Counter-Strike tournament, Intel Extreme Masters Katowice. There, the last quarterfinal was played past midnight in an empty stadium, and MLG wants to avoid a situation like that.
How is the group stage played out
The 16 teams have been drawn into four groups. Each group consist of two Legends teams, one from the previous Major's top 4 and one who finished 5-8th, alongside two Challenger teams. The groups are played as GSL-style brackets, with two teams advancing and two being eliminated.
Group games are played as Best-of-1 series. The map pool contains seven maps, and before each game teams exclude five of them, one by one. The final map is then randomly decided between the remaining two.
This way of selecting maps for group games has sparked controversy, even though it's been used at previous Majors as well. No team is equally strong across all seven maps, and the random map choice has led inferior teams to upset favourites due to the map pick turning out in their favour.
Who's in what group, and who to look out for
Ninjas in Pyjamas
Luminosity are clear favorites to move on from Group A. They're currently among the top 4 teams in the world and finished second at DreamHack Leipzig and IEM Katowice, where they fought a hard game against Fnatic. Anything less than a semifinal finish would be surprising. Luminosity have had trouble closing out big games, though, and have struggled when matches went to overtime.
Predictions for the remaining teams are more difficult. Ninjas in Pyjamas have made massive improvements since their miserable 2015 came to an end. But visa issues have thrown a spanner in their works, as newcomer pyth won't be able to make the first day of games. That leaves NiP with two options, either playing their first match with one man down, or having coach THREAT step in to take pyth's place. Neither is an attractive solution. Going 4v5 against FlipSid3 is all but a guaranteed defeat, and if THREAT steps in, they'll have to finish the tournament with him. THREAT has made miracles with NiP's tactical play, but he hasn't played a competitive game since July, and his former team had middling results throughout 2015.
That leaves Mousesports with a very real outside shot, particularly given how their star player NiKo has been on fire recently.
Fnatic is the world's best team. They've won every tournament they've participated in since bringing on Dennis to replace former in-game leader Pronax, but what's most impressive about Fnatic isn't their dominance. Rather, it's their ability to play from behind and turn around a losing game that makes them so formidable. Many teams have made Fnatic feel the pressure, but the Swedes are at their best in those moments. Their current streak is bound to break at some point, but Columbus isn't necessarily the place.
FaZe Clan was known as G2 Esports until very recently. They did well at the previous Major under that name, but they haven't performed well since joining their new organization. Legendary player RobbaN joined them as coach last month, but it's hard to tell what sort of influence he's had as the team hasn't played any tournaments since IEM Katowice in early March. They didn't make it through the group stage then.
FaZe's struggles opens a window for Team Liquid to advance. No-ones counting on their countrymen from Splyce, on the other hand.
Danish side Astralis are an obvious pick to advance from this group. They had a downward turn towards the end of 2015, but after striking out on their own with the Astralis org, their game is back on track. They're highly motivated, and they should make the semis at least. In fact, Astralis have consistently been a top 4 team for more than two years, yet that Major win still seems to elude them.
EnVyUs won the last Major, DreamHack Cluj Napoca, but they've been in free fall ever since. The team was on the ropes throughout IEM Katowice, and while they've gotten fresh blood by adding Devil since then, it remains hard to put any faith in them.
Counter Logic Gaming is regarded as the best North American team in the tournament, and if anyone can knock EnVy out of the group, it's them. Gambit Gaming is a young team, and MLG Columbus is their first premier tournament so far. Their biggest achievement so far is making it here, so their chances would be slim.
Group D is likely the hardest group of the tournament. Na'Vi is considered to be the second best team in the world, and they are sure to move on to the playoffs. The fight for finishing second in the group is an entirely different matter, though.
The formerly great Virtus.Pro are in terrible shape. Snax is playing well, but the rest of the team keeps stumbling, and they've had lackluster results and few tournament appearances this year. G2 Esports - the former Titan team - have made it to almost every Major, but always finish in the bottom 8. They crashed out of the qualifiers for DreamHack Masters Malmö earlier this month, so their game isn't on point either. Cloud9 have ben struggling since sgares left the team, but they just won the iBuyPower ahead of NA's best teams, and they're determined to once more reach the level they displayed last summer.
The fight for second place in this group is likely to be tough, which should make for good games these coming days.
Where can I watch the games
MLG Columbus will be streamed both on MLG's own website and on Twitch. You also have the option of watching the matches through GOTV directly inside the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive client, with casters, commentary and the whole shebang. If you connect your Steam account with Twitch or MLG, there's also a chance of getting random skin drops simply from watching the games.