This Friday the eSports Championship Series' Finals finally begins for the fifth time after the two-month-long online season has come to an end. Unlike the past seasons, this one has offered many surprises in the online league stage.
The past four finals have always featured some combination of the top teams from the European and the American region battling it out for the title, but this season relatively unknown challengers have managed to qualify for the final stage of the tournament. Few, if any, could have guessed that NRG would end up at the top of the table in the American online league at the end of the season with a twelve-point margin.
Because of these upsets many of the elite teams of the world have not managed to earn a spot at this weekend's ECS Finals and as a result of this, the list of potential winners has decreased. Mousesports, SK and Na'vi, who just this weekend claimed the StarSeries title, are all absent for this event.
As a rule of thumb you should never read too much into the results of online matches in eSports, especially when it comes to Counter-Strike. Many teams seldom go all out in online matches since they don't want to show their hand when it comes to newly developed strategies that they want to save for the bigger offline tournaments.
But no team has been even close to winning the online league in such a dominant fashion that Astralis has in the far more competitive European region. The Danes won the league with a 15-point margin down to the second placed G2. That indicates how dominant they've been, even if the matches were played online.
Astralis has clearly shown during the spring that they are a strong contender to create a new era as the world's number one team after the fall of SK as the team to beat. Astralis has attended three major tournaments since April, they've won two of these and finished as runners-up in the third. All of these three tournaments consisted of a stronger field of teams than the ECS Finals and much indicates that the Danes will start the summer with yet another title within a short period of time.
The bookmakers have already acknowledged Astralis as the favourites in the tournament, but value in the bet still remains when taking into account how the opposition drastically has worsened prior to the tournament. When looking at potential contenders for the title, you first have to take a look at Faze, who many believed would be the team to fill the void which SK left behind.
Faze was also the team that beat Astralis in the grand final of IEM Sydney a month ago with 3-0 in maps. Although that score might be a bit misleading since the maps were very close. Faze has since then made changes to their roster. Xizt has now signed for Fnatic instead, leaving room for Olofmeister who was supposed to make his comeback this event.
Though news came on Sunday night that Olofmeister was still not fit to play and that Faze will be using the Norwegian player Cromen instead for the ECS Finals. That is a big step down for the international squad, both in terms of individual skill and teamplay, since they'll only have a few days of practice with him prior to the event. It will be very hard for Faze to beat the well-oiled machine that is Astralis without Xizt or Olofmeister.
Swedish Fnatic has also looked dangerous at times in 2018, but as mentioned earlier they've also made a roster change coming into ECS this weekend. Xizt has come in to the team, putting Lekr0 on the bench, which in the short term affects the teamplay negatively. Astralis and Fnatic also have the same map pool, both being good at Overpass, Mirage and Inferno.
Having the same map pool decreases the chance for the underdog to be able to steal a map. Fnatic is otherwise known to be able to win against better opposition on paper by creating chaos during the rounds, which players like JW and Flusha thrive in.
But Astralis might be the team with the most solid team cohesion in the world, making it tough for Fnatic to create that chaos, something that shows in the head-to-head statistics. The Danes has won the last eight matches in a row. In other words it feels quite unlikely that the Swedes will be able to beat them in a best of three series in the play-offs.
The last title contender Liquid, should not be able to really challenge Astralis if the Danes get rolling in the tournament. During ESL Pro League Finals a couple of weeks ago they faced each other twice in the play-off bracket, which resulted in 2-0 for Astralis with 5-1 in maps. Some of you might wonder why none of Cloud9, G2 and NRG has yet been mentioned, but Cloud9 is not the same team that won the major earlier this year and G2 just went through another French shuffle.
NRG on the other hand has been on an upward trajectory lately and even managed to get to the grand finals of StarSeries this past weekend, even if they got an easy bracket, that is impressive. But they still lack the experience and raw skill that they need to beat a team like Astralis.
Astralis should by all means win the ECS Finals this weekend and they should be more motivated than ever. They have a shot at cementing themselves as the best team in the world and create a new era within CS:GO. There's definitely value in a bet on Astralis winning the whole tournament for 13/10 odds on Bet365.