ESL Pro League Conference Preview
by Tom Coles

The first ever ESL Pro League Conference gets underway this week, with sixteen teams from all over the world competing for three spots at next year’s fifteenth season of Pro League. Combining ESL’s European Championship with ESEA’s old Global Challenge, the winners of ESL’s National Championship leagues (Champions) take on the winners of Dreamhack Opens and the runners-up from the most recent seasons of ESEA Premier (Challengers) in a stacked, double-elimination bracket. The three teams left at the end will book their ticket to Malta to take on the best teams in the world in Pro League.

For season 15, the Conference will take place online, due to continued travel difficulties for overseas teams. Future tournaments will take place on LAN, as the Global Challenge used to.

How were the teams decided?

Six spots went to the winners of Dreamhack Opens held in 2021: 2 in North America (Extra Salt and GODSENT) and 1 each in Asia, South America, Oceania and Europe (Renewal, Sharks, Renegades and MAD Lions respectively). Two spots were then awarded to the runners-up in the most recent season of ESEA Premier - Anonymo for Europe and RBG for North America (due to the actual runners-up, Extra Salt, also qualifying through DH Open).

The remaining eight spots were for winners of ESL’s National Championships, with seven qualifying directly : Australia & New Zealand (ORDER), Germany (Sprout), Poland (Wisla Krakow), Iberia (Movistar Riders), France (LDLC), Turkey (Eternal Fire) and the UK & Ireland (Endpoint). The last NC spot went to a qualifier between the winners of the Benelux Championship and the Swiss Championship, with EC Brugge winning out to take their place in the tournament.

Individual Team Previews: Challengers

MAD Lions (ESL Rank #18)

MAD Lions raised eyebrows earlier this year when they announced a 7-man roster led by former Virtus.Pro and Envy coach kuben, consisting of largely unknown young players. However, two Danes have helped to anchor the project: TMB, the only remaining player from their previous lineup, who has taken on IGL duties; and former Heroic rifler b0rup. Since b0rup’s addition, and moving to a stable 5-man roster for the European RMR event, the team has gone from strength to strength, taking upset victories over G2, Mouz and OG as they approach the HLTV top 20. Results like this show why they are the #1 seed heading into this event - and qualification for Pro League would be vindication for their approach this year.

GODSENT (ESL Rank #21)

The first of four teams who attended the PGL Stockholm Major, GODSENT are another side who weathered early poor results to impress in the second half of the year. Led by veteran TACO and talented journeyman Felps, the Brazilians qualified for the Major off the back of an impressive second place in IEM Fall - defeating Team Liquid in the process - but went out in the Challengers stage without a single victory, albeit facing a tough draw that saw them play Astralis, Spirit and ENCE. A team with a very strong chance of qualifying, though they will need to recapture the form they displayed in North America against European opposition that may prove tougher.

Renegades (ESL Rank #25)

The dominant kings of the Oceanic scene, Renegades also attended the PGL Stockholm Major, but fell in Challengers with only a single victory to their name. Renegades’ biggest enemy
in recent times has not been any team on the server, but Australian travel regulations off of it; they were due to attend Pro League Season 14, but were unable to travel and were replaced by forZe. A surprise victory over
OG earlier this year at IEM Cologne is a reminder of their potential - they will be itching to have another chance at Pro League, but they will need to overcome the tough top side of the bracket, including the likes of Extra
Salt and MAD Lions.

Extra Salt (ESL Rank #32)

Extra Salt have had a somewhat mixed year. They travelled to Europe for Funspark Ulti 2020 in April and went on a stunning run that saw them narrowly lose to BIG Clan in the final, with FaNg picking up an MVP award - and portending great things for the lineup. However, aside from a victory in Dreamhack Open and strong performances in ESEA Cash Cups, they have been unable to recapture that success - twice finishing as runners-up in ESEA Premier and failing to qualify for the PGL Major. The return of former Cloud9 rifler Ricky “floppy” Kemery is a huge signing for them - one of the first returners from competing shooter VALORANT - and they will be hoping he can make the difference and get them into Pro League at the third attempt.

YNG Sharks (ESL Rank #45)

Sharks are the other Brazilian team on the bill, and another team who made the most recent Major - albeit another team that went out winless. Consistency was the key for them, finishing 2nd in all three RMR events to defeat rivals MIBR, before taking down 9z in a close Dreamhack Open final to secure qualification for the Conference. They have also been bootcamping in Europe on and off this year, with largely middling results in smaller tournaments, but suggesting they will have a better understanding of their opposition’s playstyle than some other teams in this event. Reaching Pro League will be tough, but would represent a huge achievement for the team.

Anonymo Esports (ESL Rank #53)

Formed in late 2020, Anonymo’s “Polish superteam” has largely underperformed this year, with few deep tournament runs to their name. They were even nearly relegated from ESEA Premier after season 37, but made the most of a reprieve to finish runners-up behind domestic rivals AGO in the next. The addition of snatchie and rallen - two very talented veterans of the Polish scene - could be just the move they need to become the #1 team in Poland. However, they will need to hit the ground running, and hope that Snax can roll back the years as the team’s main caller, if they are to qualify for their first S-tier event.

Renewal (ESL Rank #66)

The Mongolians of Team Renewal are perhaps not the Asian team you would expect, but their run at Dreamhack Open June - which saw them win the tournament without dropping a single map - was highly impressive. Outside of that win, results have been fairly middling, with only a win in the MESA Pro Series and a runner-up in Funspark Ulti Asia Season 3 really standing out - and those carry the caveat that many of the region’s big hitters were not present. They will, however, be looking to play in a variety of competitions during their time in Europe - and will hopefully return to Asia an improved team, whether they secure a return ticket to Malta or not.

RBG Esports (ESL Rank #71)

RBG were not supposed to be here, after finishing 3rd in ESEA Premier, but were given the opportunity as Extra Salt already had a spot from Dreamhack Open. Led by Walco, HexT and wiz, the team has been a consistent top 6 team in North America this year, but outside a win in the most recent ESEA Cash Cup (helped by many of their rivals being in Europe), they have struggled against the region’s top teams. No doubt this will be a great opportunity for them to play against tough opposition and improve, but qualification for Pro League would be an underdog story to end all underdog stories.

Individual Team Previews: Champions

Movistar Riders (ESL Rank #20)

Movistar Riders shocked the Counter-Strike scene when they announced they were benching star UK AWPer Smooya and veteran IGL steel to return to having an all-Spanish team - but it has certainly paid off for them. A stunning run to 5th place at IEM Fall made them the first all-Spanish team ever to make a Major and while they were unable to make the Legends stage, it was only a defeat to eventual semi-finalists Heroic that put them out of the competition. Those results have taken them into the top 20 teams in the world, and as 2nd seeds, they will be among the favourites to make Pro League - which would help them to cement their place among the world’s top teams.

Eternal Fire (ESL Rank #38)

It has been a troubled start for the “Turkish superteam” led by XANTARES. Initial poor results, such as failing to make IEM Fall, saw them part ways with ISSAA, their original fifth, while AWPer woxic taking on IGL duties was greeted with skepticism from many in the community. However, a recent upturn in form - including a run to the final of REPUBLEAGUE TIPOS Season 2 alongside domestic success in the Turkey Championship - suggests that they may have found form at exactly the right time. If they are to justify the hype behind their creation, victory here would be a great first step.

ORDER (ESL Rank #40)

Another team benefitting from others’ success, ORDER finished as runners-up in both the most recent season of ESEA Premier and the ESL ANZ Champs - but due to LookingForOrg already being qualified for Pro League through the former, ORDER were given the spot through the latter. They have consistently played second-fiddle to Renegades domestically - second in the RMR rankings, losers in the Pro League Play-In for season 14 - and, if they are to join Pro League at the second time of asking, they will need to pull something special out of the bag for their first international competition in nearly two years.

LDLC (ESL Rank #51)

One of CS’s most decorated organisations, it is surprising to see LDLC competing in the middle tier of Europe. The lineup spearheaded by Maka and hAdji briefly flirted with the top 30 earlier this year after reaching the IEM Cologne Play-In with victories over Endpoint and Sprout, but outside of that, have only a 4th place finish in ESEA Premier Season 37 to really shout about, even if they have at least come out on top of the domestic rivalry with DBL PONEY. Rank outsiders to make the main event in the tough top half of the bracket.

Endpoint CeX (ESL Rank #54)

Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back UK champions Endpoint have had an up-and-down year, mostly from losing players to bigger organisations. They competed in ESL Pro League Season
13 in March, and peaked at 22nd in the world over the summer, but were relegated from ESEA Premier. Now fielding Israeli FPL star Nertz alongside Jordanian hot prospect BOROS, they won their first tournament together - the ALL IN Series showmatch - and will be looking to rediscover the form that took them to Pro League this time last year.

Sprout (ESL Rank #58)

Another team that has maintained domestic superiority but struggled internationally, Sprout have won the last five Meisterschaft titles, but 2021 has not been kind to them elsewhere, as they moved to an all-German roster and then back to an international one, adding first Danish veteran Raalz and most recently Polish prospect KEi. With only 5 HLTV fixtures under their belt so far, the jury is still out on the new line-up - although it should be noted they have secured five victories in that time. If they can unlock the form KEi showed at AVEZ and Anonymo, they could yet return to the top level.

Wisla ALL IN (ESL Rank #68)

Wisla have become a great case study for organisations over the last year, as while they have lost three players, they have replaced all with sensible - in some cases better - replacements. Even losing star AWPer hades to ENCE was not a problem, as Markos went from stand-in to star in his stead, while Goofy has been a consistently high-rated player since replacing mynio earlier in the year, allowing them to win out the most recent Polish domestic championship. However, on the international stage, they have lagged behind the likes of AGO and Anonymo, with few deep runs outside of ESEA Premier. They will need to make a step up if they are to come out on top here.

EC Brugge (Not Ranked)

EClub Brugge’s Belgian/Polish lineup dominated the Benelux championship, taking the title without dropping a single map. Since star rifler ritchiEE left for an (unsuccessful) trial at GORILLAZ in August, however, they have made very little impact outside of the domestic scene, only achieving victories in minor events such as the PolyPlay Cup. The lowest-ranked seeds in the event, they have ritchiEE back, at least - but will he be able to take the team to that next level, especially with a tough opening match-up against MAD Lions?