IEM Cologne 2021: Play-In Preview and the Group Stage Eight

Play-In Preview

Introduction
The purest form of Counter-Strike returns from its hibernation in what promises to be the most coveted event of the year. IEM Cologne’s prestige as a competition is recognized across the world, and showcases the rise of mighty champions and gritty underdogs. The opportunity of a lifetime awaits the sixteen challengers as they clash for eight highly prized spots in the limelight of the main event. Who will persevere through the transition from the era of online play and prosper in the return of LAN? Who will crumble as they face their most fierce adversaries yet? A brutal trial lies ahead of former champions, hopeful newcomers, and unsuspecting dark horses alike. The orchestrated chaos at IEM Cologne is just around the corner. When the dust settles, the Cathedral of Counter-Strike will open its doors to the culmination of greatness.
Evil Geniuses

Return Of Passion and Determination

Evil Geniuses faced a myriad of problems in 2021. Players like Brehze disappeared from the Top 20 player highs and the team’s fortunes collapsed. The organization fell to its lowest rank in quite some time. However, changes to the team roster have done some work in rectifying the failures of the previous season. Bringing in some Polish flair, MICHU splashed onto the scene at IEM Summer, showcasing a headstrong entry fragging game that the North American squad desperately needed. Alongside him, the prodigy of oBo was also recruited under the Evil Geniuses banner. A crisp aim and hunger for success gave the roster the drive they needed to secure an IEM Summer playoff spot. Stanislaw, now with the help of his former North American rival of daps, has the makings of a return to form at IEM Cologne. If Brehze can also coordinate with his compatriots’ form, the world of Counter-Strike will truly feel the comeback of a giant.
OG

Another Shot at the Apex

Cohesion and consistency best describe OG’s recent run at IEM Summer. Not only did Aleksib showcase gorgeous mid-round calling, but the drought of frags OG had was replenished in spades by the trio of mantuu, flameZ, and valde. An upset in the opening round of play propelled the team to an excellent result against the competitive polar bears of Virtus.Pro. They then shut down the dream run of Evil Geniuses and dug deep to defeat a misutaaa-led Vitality resurgence. Howeve, the team’s performance fell far below the mark against the final hurdle, and Gambit outclassed the OG roster to steal yet another title for the CIS organization. Some believe the international roster overperformed. Others consider the team to still have another gear left in the shifter. But if there is anything to remember about the Finnish IGL’s former team, it is to never underestimate his squad.
LDLC

More French Competition- Old and New

A band of French castaways have finally broken back into the international spotlight once again. SIXER and hAdji found themselves at a loss when their services from Envy were relinquished in 2018. The two parted ways as the French scene remained in flux for quite some time underneath the rumblings of Vitality. Meanwhile, the impressive growth of Maka from Team Heretics caught the eyes of the French veterans. Joining together with the rifler, the trio recruited the beacon of Syman Gaming, Keoz. Rounding out the roster came another prospect from the former Envy Academy lineup, Lambert. Together, the squad surfed the tides of Tier 2 Counter-Strike with varied degrees of success. Most recently though, LDLC began to hit their stride at the ESL National Championships and beat back important teams such as Endpoint, Movistar Riders, and Sprout. HAdji and Maka stood their ground and will look to take revenge upon their domestic rivals of Vitality. Earning their spot at Cologne was forged through mental fortitude unlike any other and they will most certainly need it against the behemoths that await them.
Mousesports

Proving to be a Contender

After the departure of legendary Danish IGL, karrigan, mousesports quickly sought out former Australian-Renegades player, dexter, to fill the void IGL left behind. As expected, Mousesports began their new campaign with meddling results. The team became reliant on the superstars of the team, frozen and ropz, to heave them through their earlier tournaments resulting in an inconsistent record. . However, after quite the scheduling nightmare for the organization, dexter’s crew markedly improved their teamplay and looked significantly more comfortable as a five-man lineup. They rolled through the Flashpoint 3 qualifier and defied expectations with a championship run at the main event. Not only did the young guns of ropz and frozen play an incredible tournament, but dexter also looked as confident as ever with his sneaky maneuvers. AcoR and Bymas chimed in considerably for the team and stole away an upset of a title at Flashpoint. This international lineup cannot be underestimated and will pull out all the stops to compete against the titans that wait within the Cathedral.
MIBR

Worrisome Writings on the Wall

The Brazilian RMR proved to be a great showing for MIBR. Taking first place at a competitive domestic event can always be a struggle for some teams, but the squad handled it comfortably and now sit at the top of the table for South American RMR points. The impressive showing at the RMR tells a different story than the European ventures of the team. Getting knocked out of the Spring Sweet Spring proved to be quite the shock to the Brazilian roster. While no specific player can be blamed for the catastrophic results, a resurgence must be on the cards heading into the Play-ins. Yel and boltz are now tasked with rallying a shaken MIBR and must rally forth with the same confidence that put them on the international map. Made in Brazil fight to carry their country’s pride and passion all the way to Cologne’s main event…can they bounce back from recent failure and go the distance?
Sprout

Fighting Against BIG’s Shadow

Cologne remains a goal for any pro CS:GO team. But for the Germans, it holds a special place as the pinnacle of their aspirations. Sprout is no exception to the rule. Fighting through the tumultuous Tier 2, Sprout was able to nab a spot at the Cologne Play-Ins and a chance to support their country’s brethren right at home. However, progressing forward will be one of the toughest tasks the roster has faced thus far. The challenges the team faced at IEM Summer were insurmountable and will likely pale in comparison to what awaits them. FaveN and slaxz- will have to go beyond their already maximized potential and prepare for an opportunity that may never come again. The veterans of the roster, Spiidi and denis, must put on a performance reminiscent of their glory days on mousesports to hoist the German duo to new heights. The odds are stacked against Germany’s underdogs. But like BIG’s historic run in 2018, anything is possible in Cologne.
Bad News Bears

Shakezullah’s Time to Strike

The orgless North American roster of Bad News Bears has had some great results in the ESEA Cash Cups in months past. In fact, though they came in last place in their North American RMR, they held their own against Team Liquid and forced AZR’s EXTREMUM to the brink. But IEM Cologne brings with it a new level of play and the Bears have brought on board the storied IGL, Shakezullah, to take on the international competition. The former IGL of ptr now can return to his star levels of AWPing and truly find the next gear for the squad. Jonji and Spongey have another opportunity to realize their respective Chaos and Triumph potential on the biggest stage of their careers. Swisher takes his first foray into the limelight of Counter-Strike and is tasked with taking Bad News Bears to greater heights and challenging the contenders at Cologne. The ceiling of this roster still remains to be seen and perhaps Shakezullah can channel the hungry North Americans to pull the squad over the line with scrappy fragging and a drive to win.
ViCi Gaming

Asia’s Best Return to International Competition

Asian Counter-Strike has been disconnected from international competition for over a year. The characteristic precision and poise that the region brought was thrilling to experience and stunned some of Europe’s greatest players. Consistently beating their biggest domestic rival Tyloo, ViCi Gaming has made a name for itself in Asia and is certainly the best team to represent the region. The Malaysian AWPer Kaze shocked the world when he debuted in the major cycle and has continued his dominance on the continent. Alongside the prodigal Chinese talent JamYoung, firepower is well-accounted for across the Asian roster. But no official games on European soil in over a year and international inconsistency still plagues the roster. Advent and zhokiNg are no strangers to the big stages of the world and will need to hunker down the newest prospect of Asian CS:GO. The Juggernaut waits in open arms for the shrapnel and frags to fly. Can the continental champions of Asia surprise the world once more and knock down the goliaths of Complexity?
Ninjas In Pyjamas

Going Into Cruise Control

Device’s signing has given the Swedish squad a newfound confidence. Debuting at Flashpoint 3, the Ninjas placed second behind mousesports. Although the results of IEM Summer seem mediocre, they lost to a fiery OG roster and an impressive Virtus.Pro. On the contrary, the squad eliminated Heroic from the competition in quite the emphatic fashion. In their most recent campaign, the BLAST Premier Spring Finals also proved to be an admirable finish at fourth place. The consistency NiP has shown during their online stint proves the system THREAT has put in place can be replicable in a few months’ time. Now, the superstar AWP of device and volatile REZ return to their comfort zone of the big stage. While the path for some contenders remains an arduous task, the Swedes look to go into cruise control during the Play-Ins and fight for the trophy against the greats of Counter-Strike.
FaZe Clan

The Doomsday Clock Ticks Further

FaZe Clan continues to be the blockbuster organization in the Counter-Strike space but have continuously come up short in every tournament they attend. The last four events have found the organization to come in last place nearly every single time. On paper this roster should expect consistent excellence, but nothing has been the same after the signing of legendary IGL, karrigan. The roster finally concluded to bench the Brazilian superstar, coldzera, and bring the legendary olofmeister back into the fold of Counter-Strike. While the results at the BLAST Premier Spring Finals proved to be yet another poor result, the promise they showed against G2 and Natus Vincere provided a beacon of hope heading into the Cologne Play-in. FaZe is now tasked to rise to the expectations their roster demands and silence the overwhelming doubt that surrounds them. Now, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, FaZe must emerge brighter and bolder than ever before on the LAN stage that forged them.
Vitality

Surging Back to the Top

The efficacy of adding Kyojin to replace the legendary RpK was doubted by many. DreamHack Masters Spring and Flashpoint 3 proved to be an almost resounding affirmation of those doubts with the young rifler engaging in many uncomfortable plays. But XTQZZZ remained committed, and the squad finally clicked at IEM Summer. The team returned to the playoffs of an event in 2021 by sweeping the CIS Champions in stunning fashion. Although their run for a title was blocked by OG, Vitality showed promise in their gameplay and may just be peaking in form before their LAN debut at Cologne. ZywOo battled back many of his demons in their most recent outing and remains the key piece in apEX’s arsenal. Misutaaa also became a revelation in the squad. The young Frenchman boasted a marvelous 1.27 rating and clutched the French team through several seemingly impossible rounds. The French Bees now return to Cologne in hopes to pick up right where the organization left off prior to COVID-19.
BIG

Another German Miracle Run?

ESL One Cologne 2018 had one of the greatest Cinderella stories of modern-day Counter-Strike. The energy of the Cathedral vaulted BIG to supreme heights and the team gathered an unlikely second place finish in a sea of great competitors. No event has matched the crispness of their form since. A restructuring occurred when gob b departed the active lineup. LEGIJA and nex also parted ways with the organization. The void was soon filled by k1to and syrsoN during 2020 and the roster has stuck together ever since. The teamplay and peaks of BIG during the beginnings of the online era were unprecedented. TabseN had quietly amassed an intelligent game under the tutelage of gob b. SyrsoN transformed and changed up the AWPing game. 2021, however, remains a different story. The squad finds themselves at the head of an inconsistent record. Clashing for top accolades at some tournaments and crashing out at others, the Germans need to channel their peaks rather than their troughs. The Play-ins might prove to be a cakewalk for BIG, but the main event remains a dubious task. Can yet another German miracle return to the legendary Cologne?
TeamOne

Silently Gaining On the Best

The Brazilian roster of TeamOne remained on the fringes of top North American teams for quite some time. Their international outings were complete crashes and their North American Cash Cups followed suit. However, their ESEA Premier run now suggests that the Brazilian five have what it takes to play ball with the global competition that awaits them in Cologne. TeamOne found wins over the internationally successful, Extra Salt, twice to qualify for ESL Pro League Season 14. The drastic improvement in performance from pesadelo and malbsMd must be replicated at Cologne if they wish to retain their upward trajectory. The chemistry and cohesion the roster has shown remains their strongest suit and will be key to their success. The grit TeamOne has shown during the entire Premier season is also an incredibly important intangible for the challenge that awaits them. If these traits remain a part of the squad's core optempo during international battle, perhaps yet another Brazilian roster can join the ranks of FURIA and company at the apex of Counter-Strike.
Complexity

Picking Up the Pace

2021 remains a predicament for Complexity. Constantly struggling to play among each other’s company, the international roster faced plenty of issues in cohesiveness and motivation throughout a myriad of events. Yet, IEM Summer and the BLAST Spring Finals found a Complexity that seemed reinvigorated with the easing of restrictions across the globe. They not only pushed Gambit to the brink in multiple series, but also nearly eliminated a mortal G2. K0nfig hit old levels of dominance. Jks began to heat up. BlameF continued his consistency. RUSH remained a rock of importance. Poizon slowly made a comeback to his pre-injury form. The planets seem aligned for Complexity, but intangibles remain out of their reach. Now the roster looks to the LAN stage to fill in those last gaps they desperately need. Having already proven themselves in emphatic fashion during their initial debut, the Juggernaut wish to return to their dominance.
Renegades

Riding the Highs of Oceania

Dominance down under leaves the Renegades at peak confidence heading into IEM Cologne. Riding the heights of qualifying for ESL Pro League Season 14, winning their Premier Season, and their Oceanic RMR, the Aussies have another chance at redeeming a fallen international reputation. The squad did not have the best showings during the last season of Pro League and could not qualify for the 2020 edition of IEM Katowice either. But potential still remains on the horizon for the Australians. INS continues to run rampant across Australia, Hatz enforces a strong sidekick to INS, Sico’s AWP became a guardian angel across both sides of the game, and aliStair’s potential to take over games remains sky high. Pieces of Australian greatness have always remained within the region, but their promise has never truly been realized. Now the Renegades have a prime opportunity to strike back against the world and enter the den of Cologne with a brazen Aussie flair.
Team Spirit

Finding Their Footing

The Russians of Spirit have done extremely well in their own domestic region but have recently struggled against top international competition. A lot of it can be attributed to the honeymoon period ending and the younger players of Spirit finding trouble in key moments. Degster had a flying debut at IEM Katowice and shot up in status almost instantly. Though recently, his form has considerably dropped. Magixx also suffers a similar fate to his young teammate after an originally impressive slew of tournaments. IEM Cologne will become their tallest task to climb yet. The veterans, chopper, mir, and sdy have been stoic for the youngsters to develop and may very well take care of business in the Play-ins. But if the rifle-AWP duo arrives on the German stage, the world must be terrified of the dragons’ true return and what may follow in the main event to come.

Group Stage Eight

Introduction
Atop the summit of Counter-Strike remains eight skillful and determined teams from around the globe. They are the teams who undividedly turn their attention to the first true trophy of 2021. IEM Cologne remains the pinnacle of greatness and only one can remain victorious. Find out which one of these top dogs can scrap their way, tooth and nail, into the history books as the world’s champion...or fall short under the pressure-laden spotlight that awaits them.
Team Liquid

North America’s Storied Champions

The name of Team Liquid rings out as a beacon of hope for North American Counter-Strike. The core of the organization became IEM Grand Slam Champions and won the 2019 edition of ESL One Cologne. Their LAN-play was feared by the world and the only team that was ever able to stop the squad was Astralis. In 2021, Liquid has had plenty of bumps in the road but have most recently come out on top. Their North American RMR campaign saw the team conquer their domestic rivals of FURIA twice in order to claim top accolades. Although the team did find success within their region, questions on improvement still shrouded the organization. Team Liquid decided to part ways with moses and returned to the services of adreN as their coach. It seems as though running pieces of their roster that worked incredibly well on the LAN setting seem to be of utmost priority. Whether or not this risk can create fruits of success remains to be seen, but the North American champions can simply not be underestimated in their comfort zone.
Heroic

Compounding on Danish Success

The online era was a splendid time for the Heroic men. Taking home three different titles, slotting in two new players with ease, and now stepping past the shadow of Astralis, the Danish roster has had a world of success. However, bumps in the road towards the latter end of the era has called into question the longevity of this star-studded lineup. Getting stunned at IEM Summer by Evil Geniuses and NiP definitely left a bad aftertaste for the team. Their proactive playstyle also begs the question if they are as effective on LAN as they were during the period of online play. Although the team surely has the chops to defend last year’s European Cologne victory, the LAN inexperience of some of the newest additions will also haunt the squad before they clash in the main event. Question marks aside, Heroic has had almost one full month to go back to the drawing board prior to IEM Cologne. CadiaN’s crew will now have the best opportunity to quell the storm surrounding their squad and claim true international glory.
Furia

A Complete Brazilian Return

The American experiment of recruiting the services of junior, has failed. FURIA has constantly come up short in big time matches where the most important gun can completely turn the tides of battle. The organization continues to search for the magic formula of players who can finally cement titles for the squad. Slotting back honda into the starting five, arT believes that his extremely aggressive playstyle with the AWP is the true key to swinging open the door to success. The onus now rests upon the young honda as he is now thrust into his toughest tribulation as soon as he reenters the roster. Having to live up to the caliber of KSCERATO, VINI, and yuurih is quite the difficult task, but the Brazilian has certainly shown signs of brilliance during his debut. The potential to win championships has always swirled around FURIA. On the other hand, their volatility forces the roster into the most unlikely letdowns. If the Panthers can tame their volatility in Cologne, the Brazilian dark horses will certainly emerge.
G2 ESports

Searching For a Championship Gear

G2’s European roster has been ruthless in the Counter-Strike circuit. Constant top 4 placings, world-class players, and a deep cohesion, it seems like a lock that the organization will find success in Cologne. Yet, trophies elude them. G2 now find themselves in a predicament. When the going gets tough, the pressure crumbles the squad, and the championship gear vanishes before them. It comes down to the superstar signing of NiKo to refocus and find the same sort of domination that FaZe forged so well. The LAN stage was the very breeding ground of success for the Bosnian and Cologne may very well be a true return to glory. G2’s greatest enemies remain true at the final hurdles but can also find themselves to be their greatest assets. Their possibilities remain endless. But only one remains in their sights…pure victory and the IEM Cologne championship firmly in European hands.
Astralis

Searching for their First IEM Cologne

The most decorated Counter-Strike core of all time have been stunted after the loss of device. Astralis has shown flashes of greatness throughout their last few campaigns but still lack the killer firepower to break back into the semifinals or finals that they were known for achieving. Flashpoint 3 found the Danes out fragged by mousesports and outclassed by their Heroic counterparts. IEM Summer also did not go as planned, losing to both maden’s FPX and the new kings in Gambit. The AWPing problem continues to plague the Danish roster as dupreeh and Bubzkji still have not decided on a concrete set of roles. The Cologne title has always eluded the core of Astralis and this year will be one of the most difficult editions yet. CIS titans, international superstars, and European greatness guard the championship. However, time in and time out Astralis has defied all odds and stunned the world when their backs are against the wall. Perhaps gla1ve’s crew still has more fight left in them yet.
Natus Vincere

The Undertaker’s Return

The two sides of the Natus Vincere coin have haunted their fans throughout the online era. Smashing through one tournament and crashing out of the next, the CIS squad increasingly lacked consistency. One thing remains constant, the s1mple factor. Regardless of whether the team can produce results, the Ukranian will always put on a show for the world. IEM Cologne is the event for the superstar to finally return to his hunting ground. One championship has already been claimed by the organization. Can another join the ranks of the Natus Vincere trophy cabinet? Their win conditions lie within the more untamed factors of the fiery squad. Electronic remains a shadow of his elite rifling status and B1t needs just a little more time to completely acclimate himself. If the CIS powerhouse wishes to nab yet another title, s1mple needs sidekicks he can count on. When their cohesion clicks, no team can touch their greatness.
Gambit Esports

Translating Online Era Dominance

The dominant and most consistent force of the online era must be Gambit. Their dedication to the craft of Counter-Strike finally shone through this year and have all eyes on them heading into IEM Cologne. Ax1le and Hobbit remain the deadliest duo of riflers the year has to offer. Sh1ro continues to develop his passively consistent AWP presence. Interz and nafany lift these CIS pieces to unbelievable heights while simultaneously being outstanding individuals in their own right. The chemistry the team has built over the course of the last year has the rumblings of an era building slowly. But in order for their greatness to be truly legitimized, IEM Cologne must be their utmost priority. There is no doubt that Gambit remains the favorites heading into the first LAN of 2021. The world-beaters now must do it again in the toughest climate yet. For as statured as the team has been throughout the online era, failu re is not an option.
Virtus.Pro

Replicating the Form of Old

Major finalists, IEM Katowice finalists, and cs_summit champions, Virtus.Pro have shown dominance when they are in form. But most recently, the CIS roster has fallen flat. The team was eliminated from the second CIS RMR in the group stage alone. They barely eked out a playoff berth at IEM Summer, and their first RMR was also quite the turbulent tale. Virtus.Pro’s then deep map pool has now dried up with only Inferno and Dust 2 to truly rely on. Ancient emerging into the pool is also cause for concern. Regardless of these red flags, the Polar Bears always show up in the biggest tournaments when it counts. Jame continues to put up his outstanding numbers, but in order for the cogs to click, YEKINDAR remains the lynchpin. Simply put, his success translates to the team’s success. The bright lights of Cologne shine on the young Latvian at his first LAN and has quite the heavy load on his shoulders. Buster and qikert should certainly lighten his tasks with their exceptional aim, but if they are to repeat Katowice’s marvelous form, it must be a YEKINDAR led resurgence.

Learn more about the IEM Cologne 2021 and watch matches live between July 6 - 18 at Twitch

Article written by Anirudh 'Paladin' Ajay - @DatPaladin