The Golden Five couldn't have hit a peak in performance at a better time. After a difficult and combatant bracket at DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, Virtus.Pro return home to Katowice, Poland for this week's Intel Extreme Masters World Championship.
The event, which will see 12 of the best Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams from around the world, kicks off on Wednesday. The event marks the third large showing of the world's top teams in 2017 following the ELeague Atlanta Major in January and DreamHack Masters Las Vegas in mid-February.
The March kickoff for one of the largest growing esports has its 12 teams divided into two groups of six, with the top three of each group making it out. The first seed of each group receives a boost into the semifinals, making their chances of a grand final appearance higher.
Although the event isn't a Valve-sponsored major as it was two years ago (under the ESL One banner), it may as well be. The competition is stacked and while its $250,000 prize pool doesn't remotely compare, the event's prestige is more than notable.
Home Crowd Advantage
Oftentimes, home crowd advantage isn't a discussion in esports; there are multiple teams that hail from the same country. North America has Cloud9, OpTic Gaming, Team Liquid and others. Sweden has Fnatic, Ninjas in Pyjamas and Godsent. France, Team EnVyUs and G2 Esports.
But in Poland, there is only one team worth discussing when it comes to major tournaments: Virtus.Pro.
The longest standing lineup in Counter-Strike recently won DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, defeating the likes of mousesports, Astralis and SK Gaming, the latter which is in its group for this event. And furthermore, if last year's 2016 IEM Katowice showing was any indication, the Polish crowd support is unmatched; the crowd was noticeably smaller after VP's elimination.
Mixing this advantage with their recent strong performances, a premier tournament win and runner-up at a major, Virtus.Pro comes into Katowice on Wednesday with a significant fan boost to their already impressive recent performances.
While this isn't by design, the group imbalance at this year's Intel Extreme Masters Katowice is pretty apparent.
Group A has a clear favorite: ELeague Major winner Astralis. The Danes, while taking third-fourth in Vegas, are more than competitive and stand tall against a group that houses a struggling Ninjas in Pyjamas, old-turned-new Fnatic and a FaZe Clan with Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, who has only been with the lineup for a few weeks.
Meanwhile, Group B is the opposite. This group features Virtus.Pro and SK Gaming, the two finalists from DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, as well as North and Natus Vincere, both of which are competitive at a high level and will make this group extremely interesting.
Group B isn't exactly the group of death but seeing one of those four teams fall to the wayside, when they could easily make it out of Group A in second or third, is disappointing. And not to discredit Cloud9 and Heroic's highs, but neither should advance in such a stacked group.
Astralis should lead this group with ease. Their not-so-recent addition of Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander and their sports psychologist led them to overcoming their choking issues and allowed them to close out the ELeague Major in a tight series against Virtus.Pro.
Their largest competition will come from Fnatic, FaZe Clan and Ninjas in Pyjamas. Matches between these three teams will be more important for who takes the second and third seeds for playoffs, with Fnatic and FaZe Clan looking like favorites.
The only issue with both teams is player changes. FaZe Clan's addition of NiKo theoretically makes them a powerhouse, but adding such high firepower will take a lot of management and practice to maximize the use of his skill. Meanwhile, Fnatic returned to the lineup that won majors in 2015, but much of that team looks different from two years ago.
Ninjas in Pyjamas could contend, but the likelihood that they will, after being in the dumps, isn't as high as seeing the other two advance.
As for the two teams from the western hemisphere in this group, Immortals and OpTic Gaming, both should win a game or two, but their chances of advancing seem slim. OpTic's loss of in-game leader Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz is a big hit to the team that once competed against Astralis for titles.
While Immortals were the winner of the Americas Minor in December, they lack data against international teams since switching former SK Gaming Lincoln "fnx" Lau for João "felps" Vasconcellos. It's a hard call for the second best team from Brazil, and they doesn't look hopeful against Europe's contenders in this group.
It's not easy to predict since the playoffs will be shuffled, but Virtus.Pro or Astralis seem like a sure bet, especially if SK Gaming gets pitted against one of the two teams in the semifinals (which they most likely will).
With the home advantage and clearly something working after DreamHack Masters, Virtus.Pro is my prediction. The team of Polish five won their first and only major in Katowice in 2014 and while a lot has changed (except their lineup), it's hard to imagine a world where their stellar performances don't continue to convert, especially in front of a favorable crowd.