As IEM Katowice reaches the play-off stage, four of the teams left standing come from a specific region with a dedicated player base. However, this same region has a history of underachievement, occasionally interspersed with periods of total domination.
The Commonwealth of Independent States, also knows as the CIS, has been one of the most devoted Counter-Strike regions for decades. Yet, they have rarely been able to put together elite teams, unlike their counterparts in Sweden.
In 2002, a Russian team named M19 won the third major in Counter-Strike 1.6. They won against a relatively weak field of opponents. The CIS would then go on a major title drought of 8 years before Natus Vincere (Na’Vi) rose to power. This rise to power was devastating. The Ukrainian giants won 4 majors in a row on the back of superstars Yehor Vadymovych “markeloff” Markelov and Ioann “Edward” Sukhariev.
In CS:GO, the story has been similar. It took a long time for any CIS teams to truly establish themselves, as the region’s stars were very reluctant to transition over to the new game. Even then, the success they found was limited. Na’Vi were consistently one of the top 5 teams in the world but repeatedly failed at the majors. Gambit’s major run in 2017 is one of the most unlikely stories in Esports. It was a combination of a weak bracket and over-performing individuals that led to their success.
The CIS region’s primary limiting factor in CS:GO was a shallow pool of competitive teams. Besides Na’Vi, there were no CIS teams consistently in the top 20. Major winners Gambit spent barely more than a year in the top 20 before falling off again. Even the rise of Aleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev, arguably the best player to ever touch the game, couldn’t prevent the CIS region from under-performing.
However, all of the CIS’ woes seem to be coming to an end in 2021. Earlier this month, I pointed out that the CIS region was a dragon about to awaken. Whilst my observation was correct, the time period I put forth was way off. Instead of awakening over the course of 6-8 months, it has only taken them 4 weeks.
These four teams responsible for this great awakening are the same four qualified for the play-offs at IEM Katowice 2021. Team Spirit, Gambit, Virtus.Pro & Na’Vi.
Maybe the most surprising team on the list is Spirit. They have evolved from being a solid second-tier side into a dark horse to win the online era’s most competitive event. They did this in the space of a month.
The organisation’s journey to this point started with them tearing down their roster in 2019, with only Victor “somedieyoung” Orudzhev (sdy) surviving the purge. The new and improved team slowly rose through the ranks, entering the top 20 in April of 2020 then plateauing. They remained on this plateau for the rest of the year. If the team wanted to extend beyond 15th – 20th, they would need more fire-power. That’s exactly what they got when they signed Robert “Patsi” Isyanov as a sixth man and, more importantly, Abdulkhalik “degster” Gasanov on the AWP.
Whilst Patsi has been primarily sitting on the bench, degster has quickly become one of the stars of this young team, making magic happen with the big green gun. With their new acquisitions, they won Dreamhack Open January 2021. This wasn’t quite an elite tier event. Nevertheless, defeating BIG in the semis and their dominant victory in the Grand Final show that they were ready to take the next step.
Thankfully for us, we didn’t have to wait long to see Team Spirit take that step. The IEM Katowice play-in showed that the Dreamhack event wasn’t a fluke. They beat Cloud9 then defeated BIG again in a best of three. They swept through the Katowice Group stage like a wildfire, taking down G2, Heroic and Astralis in back-to-back-to-back best of three series.
Team Spirit’s semi-final bound roster is:
Victor “somedieyoung” Orudzhev, 23, Rifler
Most players who survive roster overhauls provide value beyond raw fragging numbers, and sdy is no exception. He is a bastion of solid performances who rarely tops the scoreboard. However, it’s clear that Team Spirit would not have the same success without him.
Leonid “chopper” Vishnyakov, 24, Rifler & IGL
The team’s heart and mind, chopper’s skills as a bombsite anchor are as valuable as his gutsy Terrorist side calls.
Nikolay “mir” Bityukov, 25, Rifler
As one of the team’s stars and a part of the entry unit, mir finds huge impact on Team Spirit while not being afraid to put his life on the line.
Boris “magixx” Vorobiev, 17, Rifler
He’s not even legally an adult yet, but magixx’s performances as a 17-year-old have already gained him the respect of his more experienced peers. Time will mature his performances. He will become a more consistent closer for this roster, which is a terrifying prospect.
Abdulkhalik “degster” Gasanov, 19, AWPer
Degster has been competing against the elite for less than a month, but he already has the arrogance of a super-star. Watching him chew gum as his sniper chews up opponents is an incredibly satisfying sight! I hope it becomes a fixture of many more events to come.
The CIS scene’s rulers for about over a decade, Na’Vi are finally starting to look like the team they were supposed to be when Denis ‘electronic’ Sharipov signed back in late 2017. They had had several moments when they looked like they were about to become the very best in the world before falling off again. Hopefully, on this occasion, they will remain on top.
Na’Vi started 2020 by winning the BLAST Premier: Global Final 2020 over Astralis. They then went unbeaten in their BLAST Premier Spring Group. They opened their account at IEM Katowice with a decisive victory over VP, surprising their regional rivals on Dust 2 before closing the series out on Train. Furia was the next to challenge them. Unfortunately for Furia, s1mple relishes a challenge, so they were laid to rest in only two maps.
The group stage’s final game, against Team Liquid, would decide whether Na’Vi would head to the quarter or the semi-finals. The first two maps went to the team that picked them, as you would expect, even though Liquid required all thirty rounds close out Overpass. The decider was Inferno, and it turned out to be the best map of the tournament so far.
S1mple was, unexpectedly, the worst performing player on Na’Vi during Inferno, which explains why Na’Vi weren’t able to close out the map in regulation. The other factor which led to this double-overtime was absolutely incredible performances from the starring riflers on Team Liquid. The two teams exchanged clutches and multi-kills like the game was a matter of literal life and death. After 11 rounds of absolute carnage, Team Liquid came out victorious thanks to Keith ‘NAF’ Markovic’s, Jonathan ‘EliGE’ Jablonowski and Michael ‘Grim’ Wince herculean efforts.
With this defeat, Na’Vi are headed to the quarter-finals with a gauntlet of CIS opponents awaiting them.
The roster taking on this task are:
Denis ‘electronic’ Sharipov, 22, Rifler
A rifler who is just as comfortable in the entry-unit as he is in a post plant, electronic’s work is focused on getting round winning multi-kills no matter what situation he finds himself in.
Kirill ‘Boombl4’ Mikhailov, 22, Rifler & IGL
An IGL who loves to lead from the front, Boombl4 uses his mind as much as he uses the “W” key. When his mind and his mechanics combine to find openings, Na’Vi are a force to be reckoned with.
Ilya ‘Perfecto’ Zalutskiy, 21, Rifler
On a team that has been famed for it’s volatile and explosive characters, Perfecto is a refreshing dose of consistency. He gets it done game after game without needing the spotlight to shine on him.
Aleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev, 23, AWPer
I don’t care where the HLTV rankings put him; s1mple has been the best player in the world since 2017 and still is to this day. No matter the opposition, no matter how terrible his supporting cast, s1mple puts up ungodly numbers with freakish consistency. If the four other men on the server can hold up their end of the bargain, Na’Vi will win this event hands down.
Egor ‘flamie’ Vasilyev, 23, Rifler
Underwhelming would be putting it generously when it comes to my opinion of flamie. Flamie is supposed to be the team’s closer, just as he was once “supposed” to become a superstar, but he puts up numbers closer to those of a support player.
Valeriy ‘B1T’ Vakhovskiy, 18, Rifler
B1t is a young, highly skilled player who has been recently promoted to the first team. He is still adjusting to this new level of play and only plays on Inferno right now, but the early signs are encouraging.
Whilst Team Spirit has seemingly risen to the top from out of nowhere, Gambit has been slowly but steadily climbing the rankings since being promoted from Gambit Youngsters to simply Gambit. Their ascent has been accompanied by a perennial stream of doubters who pointed to the team’s inexperience and lack of proven stars.
In response to these doubters, Gambit has outclassed all of their competition in tier 2 play, lifting themselves head and shoulders, and then some, above their peers. This persistent achievement led to them receiving an invite to the IEM Katowice Play-In, a step-up in difficulty they relished.
Team One put up meagre resistance – Gambit were a class above them, and it showed in Team One’s futile T-side. The map ended 16-5, and Gambit moved swiftly onwards. In their best of three, they would face mousesports. With a new IGL and very little time to prepare, mousesports could only match Gambit on Dust 2, their firepower carrying them to a 16-11 victory. The next two maps went comfortably to Gambit, who looked far better prepared. They executed their T-sides like a well-oiled machine, taking the series 2-1.
The group stage at IEM Katowice would be the toughest competition this Gambit side had ever faced. They lost their opener to Evil Geniuses, which forced them to go through the lower bracket. Every match from that point onwards was win or go home.
A rematch with mousesports was Gambit’s first obstacle in the lower bracket. This time they prevailed on Dust 2, which inevitably led to a resounding 2-0 victory for the CIS squad. Their next opponents were the number six team in the world, Heroic. The two sides exchanged tightly contested victories on each others map picks, leaving Mirage to decide their fates.
“Big-time players make big-time plays.”
I am sure Dmitry ‘sh1ro’ Sokolov has a Russian variant of this motto tattooed somewhere on his body. Everything he tried in that deciding map came off, topping the scoreboard and making up for his pedestrian map 1 performance. He won multiple clutches for Gambit, including two 1v2s to absolutely crush Heroic’s spirits. The prodigy had become a virtuoso.
Their final matchup in the group stage was against the misfiring G2. Whilst they had made it this far, many were unconvinced by G2’s ability to perform. They would be proven right, as Gambit completely outclassed another “top 10” opponent to take the series 2-0.
The Gambit side that will be competing in Friday’s first quarter-final is:
Timofey ‘interz’ Yakushin, 20, Rifler
Interz is the lowest rated player on the team but, in many ways, one of the most important. If there is a position nobody wants to play, interz plays it. If there is a flash that needs throwing, interz throws it. He does precisely what his IGL needs him to do, and that sacrifice of personal glory brings immense value to his team.
Dmitry ‘sh1ro’ Sokolov, 19, AWPer
The only thing more impressive than sh1ro’s performances is the consistency with which he puts them up. The 19-year-old plays with a maturity that confounds the mind when put in the context of his age, and it suggests that he may not have even reached his ceiling as a player yet.
Vladislav ‘nafany’ Gorshkov, 19, Rifler & IGL
Playing entry is a burden large enough for most young players to begin to falter. Being the IGL adds the pressure of thinking for five on top of that. Yet nafany has combined the pressures of the two roles to allow his star players to thrive – a sign of a truly great leader in the making.
Abay ‘Hobbit’ Khasenov, 26, Rifler
The oldest member of the team, and the only one who was a part of the major winning side in 2017, Hobbit brings a much needed veteran presence to this highly skilled group of youngsters. Returning to Gambit has rejuvenated his career, the Kazakh rifler finding career-best form alongside this new team.
Sergey ‘Ax1Le’ Rykhtorov, 18, Rifler
On a team littered with young talents, Ax1le is the youngest and one of the most intriguing. Solid aim and a good feel for the game allow Ax1le to find impact in mid to late-round situations, exploiting the advantages created by nafany or the opening picks found by sh1ro.
I have already waxed poetic about many aspects of this Virtus.Pro (VP) side in a recent article, so I’ll keep this one relatively brief.
VP came into the IEM Katowice Play-In as one of the favourites to go through without seeing the lower bracket, but this was not an expectation they lived up to. After dispatching Wisla Krakow, they were upset by the new look NiP in straight maps. Using the embarrassment of their defeat as fuel, VP slaughtered Renegades 16-9 16-3 and progressed to the Group Stage.
The fact that VP came through the lower bracket to make it out of their group is misleading. After all, the only maps they lost were to Na’Vi, who came into this event as the number one team in the world. After the opening round defeat, they swept through every opponent like a tsunami, comfortably avenging their Play-In loss to NiP before eliminating Vitality and Furia.
VP enter the quarter-finals of IEM Katowice with a mammoth task set before them, needing to defeat Astralis and the on-fire Team Liquid to make it to the grand final on Sunday.
Attempting to achieve this feat for the CIS squad will be:
Dzhami ‘Jame’ Ali, 22, AWPer & IGL
As the IGL and AWPer of the team, Jame is constantly playing a chess game with his opposition, choosing where and when to strike with great care. It is a game he excels at thanks to his willingness to make decisions that few others would be able to make, choosing to save weapons rather than take unnecessary risks.
Mareks ‘YEKINDAR’ Gaļinskis, 21, Rifler
The perfect counter-balance to Jame’s more passive tendencies, YEKINDAR is an explosive playmaker whose role seems to be to demolish the opposing team’s morale as much as it is to be the entry fragger. When VP look dominant, it is often thanks to the impact of this Latvian wrecking ball.
Timur ‘buster’ Tulepov, 21, Rifler
Playing a role somewhat resembling a lurker, buster is one of the hardest players to put the finger on in this team. He is rarely the first to die, making the most of his ability to close rounds out on the T-side. If the bomb is planted and you haven’t seen buster yet, start checking behind you.
Alexey ‘qikert’ Golubev, 22, Rifler
His facial expressions alone make qikert one of my favourite players to watch. The work he does often goes unnoticed, usually throwing utility that allows YEKINDAR to find his round winning multi-kills. This, combined with his impressive aim, makes him one of the more exciting POVs to follow.
Sanjar ‘SANJI’ Kuliev, 23, Rifler
The best support player in the world. There is no contest. Not only does he take inferior weapons to allow the stars to shine, but he also plays some of the most challenging positions on the map, taking aggro and anchoring sites. Without SANJI, VP falls apart.