The 37th season of ESEA’s Premier league gets underway tomorrow. With new teams, the return of several old ones, and a spot in ESL Pro League S14 on offer, season 37 is set to be one of the most exciting seasons yet.
How does it work?
18 teams are divided into two 9-team round-robin groups. Each team will play each other once, in a best-of-3 series. After all 8 fixtures are played, the top 4 teams in each group advance to the play-offs, while the bottom 4 teams will take part in the slightly labyrinthine Relegation process. At the end of a double-elimination bracket, one team will walk away with $12,500 and a spot in the next season of ESL Pro League.
What happened last time?
The first time with the new groups format proved better for some than for others. Danes Singularity could not capitalise on a reprieve from relegation, winning only one game, while Romanian side Nexus went 0–8 having qualified for play-offs the previous year. Bulgarian side FATE, Polish line-up PACT, and CIS org Hellraisers would join them in ultimately being relegated from the top division.
At the other end of the table, it was a good time to be Polish, with three all-Polish teams qualifying for play-offs (AGO, Anonymo and Wisla Krakow). They were joined by the Germans in Sprout, the Belarussians of Nemiga, Portuguese line-up SAW and Russian line-up Winstrike Team — though the latter’s preparations were hurt when they left Winstrike, citing breach of contract. The Poles would ultimately fall short, finishing 7th-8th (Anonymo), 4th (Wisla) and 3rd (AGO), while Nemiga and Sprout would fall in the lower bracket as well.
In one of Counter-Strike’s great underdog stories, the ex-Winstrike lineup, who had only been promoted from Advanced the previous season, survived organisational dramas and losing the upper-bracket final to defeat SAW 3–1 in the grand final rematch, spurred on by new signing Forester and AWPer El1an, and secure their spot at Pro League.
Individual Team Previews
I’m going to give a quick rundown of each team: where they finished last time, any roster changes made in the off-season, and their expectations for this season — plus any fun trivia I can think of.
Last season: N/A (ESL Pro League Season 13)
BIG Clan appearing in Premier is a surprise; the German team led by tabseN has not competed in ESEA Premier since 2018 having earned an invite to ESL Pro League on the strength of their ranking for seasons 12 and 13. This also makes them significant favourites for the tournament on paper, having occupied the #1 spot on HLTV last summer, with recent victories in BLAST Spring Groups and Funspark ULTI Final showing they are still a threat to be reckoned with. Conversely, however, should they not win, there will be uproar at the team — who have been upset on a number of occasions already this year, so cannot take this competition for granted.
Last season: 2nd
SAW did everything right last season: a strong performance in league play and an undefeated run through to the grand final; but they were just overwhelmed in the last match. They have traded blows with domestic rivals Movistar Riders in Iberian competitions, coming out on top in LVP Unity Cup recently but losing in ESL Masters, while qualification to BLAST Showdown saw them go down to a strong Heroic side. Portugal’s great hope, they have finished #3 and #2 in their two seasons in Premier — can they hit #1 this time?
Last season: 4th
Wisla Krakow survived losing one of their star players in Mynio, adding PACT’s veteran Goofy and getting closer than ever to the HLTV Top 30 off the back of performances in the IEM Katowice Play-In and the Pinnacle Cup But now that young AWPer hades, who has been so crucial to their success, is also standing down, it remains to be seen whether his replacement — rumoured to be Pompa Team’s fr3nd — can step into those shoes or if this will be a tough season for the Polish side as they try to replace their star player.
Last season: 5th-6th
Belarussian side Nemiga have flirted with tier 2 success before, most notably in the tail end of last year when they reached the grand final of IEM NY CIS (losing to Virtus.Pro). But this year they have found it harder to come by, losing to ex-Winstrike and Wisla last time out. AWPer speed4k has been dropped and in his place comes ex-Spirit AWPer IDISBALANCE — on paper an immediate upgrade, and one that could yet prove to be the final piece that takes Nemiga from tier 2 contenders to challenging the bottom end of tier 1.
Last season: 7th-8th
Apeks were last season’s surprise package. Having joined ESEA Premier by picking up Swedish twins FREDDyFROG and Relaxa along with their league spot, they defied the odds to take a play-off place helped by young FPL talent (and fellow Swede) Kreaz. Will they be able to replicate that success? It won’t be easy, with big teams around them, but having taken down HAVU at the Elisa Invitational Spring, anything is possible.
Last season: 9th-10th
It wasn’t that long ago that ForZe were on the verge of the HLTV top 10 and considered one of the best CIS teams outside NaVi, but while the rise of the CIS region has been one of 2021’s storylines so far, ForZe are not really in that conversation, having struggled for consistency last year. With xsepower and facecrack benched from the long-running lineup, ex-ETHEREAL players Kensi and zorte were added, with little success found until a run to 3rd place at the recent Funspark Ulti Europe Final, where they took down Complexity and Virtus.Pro. If they can prove that last season’s mid-table finish was a one-off - and that Funspark wasn't a fluke - they have every chance to push onwards.
Last season: 9th-10th
The once-great French organisation reaching mid-table last season almost seemed like an achievement. Picking up Maka from Heretics and allowing SIXER to secondary AWP instead of IGL Lambert proved to be a shrewd move that saw LDLC win domestic competition the Championnat National recently. But they have been eclipsed on the international stage by countrymen DBL PONEY, a side containing two of their former players, and one has to wonder if these middling results are really enough for an org with such history in the scene.
Last season: 12th
German organisation Alternate ATTAX combine experience (ScrunK and kRYSTAL) with young talent (PANIX, Prosus and Krimbo, formerly of BIG Academy). There were questions last season over the role of ScrunK and kRYSTAL — both former coaches-turned-IGLs — and whether the team truly has enough firepower to compete in Premier and above; these questions have only intensified after they needed the Relegation play-off to survive through to this season. If they can survive again they can be satisfied — and with their youngsters improving all the time, there may be more yet to come.
Last season: 2nd in Advanced
Another side with a passionate national fanbase — the Kosovan boys of BLINK had a tough route here. They were swept by Izako Boars in the Advanced final and it looked like they had missed their chance when they lost to Alternate ATTAX in Relegation. But they were granted a reprieve to bring the division up to 18 teams, which means FPL players juanflatroo and sinnopsyy can continue to lead their countrymen. They have achieved decent if unspectacular results on the international stage so far — but just being here is a triumph in and of itself, anything that follows is just a bonus.
Last season: n/a (ESL Pro League S13)
Endpoint return to ESEA Premier after a successful Pro League campaign that saw them defeat Fnatic and Evil Geniuses and only lose to top-tier opposition that included Virtus.Pro and Astralis. Two line-up changes have happened since then: one enforced (Thomas replaces FlameZ who joined OG) and one voluntary (Mezii signed to replace robiin). The return to a UK core has shown very encouraging signs, particularly on Overpass (now affectionately called “Meziipass” by fans) but they will need to ensure they can compete across the map pool to succeed in the Bo3 format.
Last season: 3rd
AGO made big changes at the start of the year, adding snatchie, rallen and reatz to youngster F1KU and long-time IGL Furlan. They have achieved strong results including last season’s 3rd place and a runner-up finish in Snow Sweet Snow 2 that saw them defeat Ninjas in Pyjamas. But they have struggled to consistently hit those heights, getting knocked down in recent qualifiers and in the Funspark ULTI Regional Series which saw them drop out of the HLTV top 30 again. They will need to reproduce their best form consistently if they want to return to Pro League.
Last season: 5th-6th
As with AGO Sprout made changes in January - adding slaxz and Kressy for Dycha and snatchie - but have stuck with their line-up since. Returning to an all-German lineup brought them success in European Development Championship 2, while they have also qualified for the first European RMR event, Flashpoint 3. However, a shock early exit at Snow Sweet Snow 3 suggests there are still teething problems holding this lineup back. If Sprout are to finally take their chance to reach Pro League, they will need to eliminate those.
Last season: 7th-8th
New to the Counter-Strike scene this year, Anonymo’s Polish “superteam” have been turning heads recently. Taking ex-Virtus.Pro legend Snax, adding KEI and Kylar from last year’s AVEZ roster, along with innocent (MAD Lions/Illuminar) and mynio (Wisla), Anonymo have also just secured qualification for Flashpoint 3 — however, it’s fair to say more is expected of this talented (not to mention expensive) roster who have had little luck in tier 2 tournaments otherwise. A deeper run into the play-offs this time is a must for this team.
Last season: 11th
GamerLegion’s international lineup survived by the skin of their teeth for 3 seasons (including beating Alternate ATTAX in last season’s Pre-Relegation game), but following struggles in the opening part of the year, the decision was taken to bench UK players Adam9130 and dobbo, returning to a Swedish core with the addition of Isak from Lilmix and IM from Nexus. Decent results for the lineup so far but with such big changes I would expect their focus is the short-term and survival again.
Last season: 13th-14th
The Turks of Sangal have a devoted and passionate fanbase, and it’s not hard to see why with the ex-Space Soldiers core of MAJ3R, paz and Ngin, but the experienced roster have hit a brick wall recently. Once close to breaking into the HLTV top 30, results have stalled, and with FPL star ImoRR stepping down to focus on his health, it will take a Herculean effort from the Turkish lineup - supported by Austrian S3NSEY - to live to fight another day in Premier.
Last season: 1st in Advanced
Izako Boars’ promotion means we will once again have four Polish teams in the top division, after they stormed past BLINK in the Grand Final of Advanced without dropping a map. The Boars have done well since adding STOMP and mono at the beginning of the year, both on the domestic and international stage; however it has been a case of “close but no cigar” in open qualifiers for Flashpoint and IEM Summer, while their best finish at Snow Sweet Snow was play-offs in the first event. Mono has been having some health issues too recently, which have seen the team play with ex-Virtus.Pro and AVEZ rifler Byali as a stand-in. Potential is there but the pieces will need to align for them.
Last season: 3rd in Advanced
SINNERS pulled off what could be considered a coup last year — adding ex-mousesports and Hellraisers AWPer oskar, one of the most experienced Czech players in the scene, to their young lineup. The transfer — and resultant grind in tier 2 tournaments — has very much paid off, with oskar looking invigorated and the team rising to a peak of #22 in the HLTV rankings at the start of the year. With youngster NEOFRAG putting up a 1.24 average rating in the last 3 months alongside Oskar’s exploits with the AWP, the Czechs are a serious threat to be reckoned with.
Last season: 5th in Advanced
Movistar Riders have a unique distinction as the only team except Endpoint competing in Premier with a UK player in their lineup, with AWPer Smooya joining at the beginning of the year. The Riders, previously stuck in Advanced following their relegation after season 34, have been boosted by his presence, including a stint in the HLTV top 30, an appearance at the IEM Katowice Play-In and even taking down last season's runners-up SAW in the ESL Masters Spain. If this continues they will stay up easily - and could even prove to be dark horses in the play-off race.
Some fun trivia about the upcoming season:
21 nationalities are represented across the players competing in Season 37. The most common is Poland (20) followed by Germany (14) and Sweden (7), while 6 countries (Netherlands, Brazil, Norway, Belgium, Slovakia, Romania) boast only a single representative.
The highest ranked team is BIG Clan (#6 HLTV), 19 places above the second-highest, forZe (#25). The lowest ranked team is GamerLegion (#84), with the 18 teams having an average ranking of 42.9.
Only 4 teams (Endpoint, Wisla Krakow, Sangal and GamerLegion) have made roster moves since the end of last season.
2 organisations are competing in ESEA Premier for the first time (Blink and SINNERS) while 5 orgs have previously competed in ESL Pro League (BIG, forze, AGO, Endpoint and LDLC)
And for a little bit of fun…my predicted play-offs teams are Endpoint (obviously), Sprout, Anonymo, Movistar Riders, BIG, SAW, forZe, and Nemiga.
But anything can happen in Counter-Strike… here’s hoping it does.