This is the first of a two-part series previewing the 16 participants of MLG Columbus, the first ever $1 million Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament, which runs from Tuesday, March 29 through Sunday, April 3. While the second part focuses on "The Legends" -- a term used by Valve to describe the teams that qualified via their performances at the previous major -- the first will shine a spotlight on "The Challengers," the eight teams that made it through the qualifier in late February.
MLG Columbus - Full Group Stage draw
mousesports (chrisJ, denis, nex, NiKo, Spiidi - enkay J, Kapio)
The Germans, who were fifth in the power rankings heading into MLG Columbus, are set to face world No. 2 Luminosity in the opening round. Although a best-of-one series is a favorable format for any underdog and Luminosity's loss at the iBUYPOWER Invitational showed some weakness, only an incredibly individual effort from NiKo could give them a chance to upset the Brazilians. Luminosity is too complete a team, too consistent and too skilled, to get upset in its most important tournament to date.
The rest of the group, however, is manageable. mousesports are clear favorites over FlipSid3, and they easily bested Ninjas in Pyjamas in IEM Katowice's group stage. The Ninjas have improved significantly since that match, though, and it is unclear whether nex can play as well as he did in that game. Still, mousesports are, at the very least, 40-60 underdogs to make the playoffs at a major for the first time in the organization's CS:GO history. That is not a bad place to be, and if the team doesn't get outplayed too badly by NiP's coach and in-game leader threat, they are favorites to go through in second place.
G2 Esports (Ex6TenZ, RpK, ScreaM, shox, SmithZz)
Ex6TenZ's team has, by far, the hardest group at MLG Columbus. It is somewhat ironic, considering the French-Belgian team has not made the playoffs at a major since DreamHack Winter 2013, despite being favoured to do so at every single one they have attended. It is a brutal record and one that will inevitably weigh on these players' careers when they are judged years from now. Both shox and SmithZz found success in EnVyUs, whereas the rest of the players have had painful careers with a wealth of promise but lack of delivery. Next week is a chance to start fresh.
A few things are working in G2's favor. They have been improving steadily so far in 2016, with shox recently having his best individual game in roughly nine months. At the same time, two of their competitors for a playoff spot in group D -- Cloud9 and Virtus.pro -- have been struggling. In fact, both are likely in the worst shape they have been in a few years. The window is once again open, but with the tumultuous history of G2, it is hard to favor their chances in any coin-flip scenario.
Team Liquid (adreN, EliGE, Hiko, nitr0, s1mple - Jame^s)
Liquid's problem is that Valve's far-from-rational rules prohibit koosta, the player they recruited from Selfless to replace adreN, from playing with the team at MLG Columbus. As such, the team will be traveling to Columbus with a handicap: having to play with a former teammate who no longer plays for the team. Although adreN perked up at the qualifier and had his best offline showing to date in CS:GO, this team would be legitimately exciting with their real roster, but we will not get to see that team in action properly until DreamHack Malmo three weeks after the action has wrapped up in Columbus.
At MLG, Liquid actually have a chance to make it out of the group stage and are all but guaranteed to win a game against SPLYCE. But having a chance and pulling off the W are two very different things, and despite their recent struggles, FaZe are still favorites against any Liquid team and even more so without its sniper present. Hiko and s1mple are one of the better duos around, and they could pull North America back into the playoffs after a drought that has lasted longer than the average fan of 2016 has followed Counter-Strike.
Cloud9 (fREAKAZOiD, n0thing, shroud, Skadoodle, Stewie2K - Irukandji)
Cloud9 has had more than its share of issues since adding Stewie2K to replace the departing sg@res. Although the team is definitely a more skilled unit now, their successful July 2015 was based almost solely on the leadership of sg@res and his ability to read his opponents, make adjustments and seemingly make perfect calls on the fly. n0thing clearly has not been ready to lead this team, and Cloud9 has now enlisted the services of Irukandji, who led some of the better North America teams in the latter days of Counter-Strike 1.6. He is a smart guy, and he should be able to help Cloud9. The question is: How much can he help?
Skadoodle's team is in the group of death at MLG Columbus, and that does not bode well for them. It would take a near-miracle to upset Na`Vi in the opening round, though Virtus.pro and G2 are both better matchups for them. Given the high skill ceiling of this team, it's hard to count them out in a best-of-one format, especially with G2's history and Virtus.pro's recent play. But at the majors, you tend to side with the established and experienced names, and unfortunately for North American fans, Cloud9 cannot match the Europeans of group D in that regard.
Counter Logic Gaming (Cutler, FugLy, hazed, jdm64, tarik - pita)
CLG started 2016 with a best-of-three win over G2. However, much like dignitas' early success against Virtus.pro and the Frenchmen (and knowing what we know now), it likely needs to be discounted when reflecting upon the poor shape of affairs on the team at the time. CLG is a solid team, though, with three players capable of putting up star performances, though they've never done so at the same time, and a European coach in pita, who also leads the team in game and has helped it overcome the problems it could not kick in the FNS days of the roster.
Cutler's team barely qualified for MLG Columbus after getting upset by SPLYCE in the opening round of the qualifier. To make matters worse, they are facing a tough group. Considering that by the time the action begins in Columbus, they will have known their group for more than two weeks, they should be more than ready. CLG has beaten EnVyUs before, and the Frenchmen are still vulnerable, despite adding DEVIL to replace kioShiMa. Gambit will be dangerous, but CLG has a rare chance to pull off a best-of-one upset that would put a North American team through to the playoffs. CLG isn't favored to, but the odds aren't stacked too heavily against them, which is their best scenario so far at a major.
FlipSid3 Tactics (B1ad3, bondik, markeloff, Shara, WorldEdit - John7a)
Many have said that FlipSid3's goal for more than a year has been to merely qualify for the Valve-backed major events in order to keep cashing in on the sticker money. Although only the team and those close to it can know whether those claims have any merit, it would make sense, at least on some level. FlipSid3 hardly ever scores upsets against better teams, but they are also fairly consistent in not giving up series to those below them on the totem pole of Counter-Strike royalty.
s1mple's explosiveness helped the team upset NiP at ESWC in the summer, but he and his skills are long gone though markeloff's flirting with the idea of going back to AWPing is a delicious thought to any fan who remembers the world's most dominant sniper from Counter-Strike 1.6. Still, FlipSid3 cannot match the Swedes' skill set and should not pose much of a threat in that matchup. Interestingly, though, B1ad3's team could cause trouble for mousesports if the German-based team shows any hesitance, as they have at this major in the past. Gambling odds would reflect that FlipSid3 is one of the teams most likely to go out in last place -- and in this instance, those odds would likely be correct.
Gambit (AdreN, Dosia, hooch, mou, wayLander)
Gambit surprised many with its stellar play in the MLG Columbus qualifier. Several team members have enjoyed success in the past, with Dosia and AdreN notably having been part of the initial CIS-based Virtus.pro team that was the first to defeat NiP, thereby ending its 87-0 run in 2013. mou played for HellRaisers for a while, and hooch is a seasoned veteran with more than a decade-long career playing Counter-Strike 1.6, the game's previous iteration. The team's youngster, wayLander, has showed promise at multiple offline events.
Unfortunately for CIS, Gambit are in a tough group. They will face off with an elite team in astralis in the opening round. Gambit's second game will be against either EnVyUs, a previously elite side, or CLG, a North American team whose inconsistency will give Dosia's team a chance. But this time, the task at hand looks like it will prove too great to overcome, with all three other teams in group C having more results in the short tenure of this Gambit roster and stretching well before its conception. Do not count Gambit out of grabbing one upset win, but I would be shocked to see them in the playoffs.
SPLYCE (abE, arya, DAVEY, jasonR, Professor_Chaos)
The Cinderella story of the offline qualifier for this major, SPLYCE is, on paper, the weakest team in attendance, and they're going up against the world's best team, fnatic, which has won six straight tournaments since adding dennis in the opening round of group B. That is bad news, and while DAVEY and company's wins over CLG and Polish Vexed were impressive last month, there is little hope for such a strong showing this time around.
SPLYCE are simply outmatched this time, but MLG Columbus will nonetheless prove to be a valuable learning experience for this young team. You can only get better by playing against the very best, and in Ohio, they will get a chance to do just that, as they will face the world's best team. I do not think SPLYCE can realistically take down either Liquid or FaZe -- both will be too well-prepared for this event -- and they should likely exit their group in last place.
The second part of this preview series is set for Friday and will focus on the eight teams that qualified directly for MLG Columbus by placing in the top eight at the previous major, DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca. MLG Columbus begins March 29, and the playoffs will take place at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, in front of a sold-out audience.