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Photo: by Bart Oerbekke for ESL

One of the biggest stories at IEM Katowice 2019 was ENCE’s run through the Major. Coming into the Major, they were the princes of the tier 2 CS:GO scene. After their breakout performance at ESL One Cologne 2018, they consistently dominated the tier 2 LANs with two titles at StarSeries i-League Season 6 and DreamHack Winter 2018, and one second place at DreamHack Montreal. While those were good performances, their run at IEM Katowice 2019 has become the height of their achievements. In the Legends Stage of the tournament, they went down 0-2 in score, 0-1 in maps, and 0-7 in rounds on elimination game. That moment was their crucible and under the overwhelming weight of the pressure, ENCE transformed. With that growth, ENCE pulled out a miracle run at the Major as they qualiifed for playoffs, beat Liquid, beat Na`Vi, and made it to the finals of IEM Katowice 2019.

Almost no one makes the first jump

What makes the ENCE run so remarkable is the makeup of their roster. The lineup is: Aleksi “allu” Jalli, Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen, Jere “sergej” Salo, Jani “Aerial” Jussila, Sami “xseveN” Laasanen, and Slaava “Twista” Rasanen as their coach. Four out of five of these players are rookies to the major. The only people with veteran experience here are allu and Twista. Outside of that, none of the others have ever competed in the CS:GO Majors.

The majors themselves are special. There is an intangible quality to the tournament that cannot be replicated elsewhere. In the Majors, the intensity of everything increases. The viewership, the practice, and the inherent meaning of victory. For CS:GO players, the Majors represent the beginning and culmination of everything.

Winning a CS:GO major is the ultimate dream of every CS:GO competitor. As that’s the case, players and teams train every day for years to get to the point where they can compete for CS:GO’s most vaunted trophy. The major then becomes a symbol of everything a player has put into the competition: their work, their struggles, their fears, their dreams, their everything.

The majors in essence are a test of a player and team’s soul. That intensity and judgement creates a level of pressure that can affect even the most experienced stars and teams. In the case of rookies, it often outright kills them. You need look no further than this Legends Stage. NRG was one of the favorites to make it to the playoffs, but the pressure made them play worse than usual and they were eliminated 0-3. Another example is AVANGAR, a team filled with rookies from Kazakhstan who showed a lot of skill throughout the Major cycle, but in their last series against ENCE froze up and fell away. Almost no one makes the first jump.

The Crucible

In the case of ENCE, they largely cruised through the beginning phases of the Major cycle. They won the closed qualifier against LDLC and Heroic. They then went to the EU Minor where they finished first. In the Challengers Stage of the major they went 3-1. While they had done well enough to get to that point, the biggest question everyone had was if they could keep it up in the Legends Stage.

As the tournament progresses, the level of pressure amps up as the trophy looms ever closer. In the first two rounds of the Legends Stage, that pressure struck as ENCE went 0-2 against Renegades and HellRaisers. ENCE lost 13-16 on inferno against Renegades. That wasn’t too bad of a loss as Renegades have shown themselves to be a strong team throughout the tournament. The real concerning loss was against HellRaisers.

ENCE played HellRaisers on Dust2 and on the CT-side of that map, they completely broke down. For the majority of that half, HellRaisers continued to play the mid to B split and the ENCE side didn’t adapt or change things up. Individually, they all played worse than usual and their crisp teamwork seemed to be falling apart. Allu confimed this in a HLTV interview where he said,

“I think that so far at this tournament we’ve shown almost nothing of what we can do. I think we maybe put too much pressure on ourselves, which is also really stupid…I think that if we loosen up a bit, keep the good mood—which we still have even though we’ve lost a lot of these rounds which we normally shouldn’t—, we still have time to show our best face.”

After losing 0-2, ENCE were drew the highest seed in the Round 3 Elimination match against BIG Clan. BIG had been hyped up after their acquisition of Can “XANTARES” Dortkardes and even though they were using a makeshift lineup in this tournament, many people expected them to do well. BIG won the first map on Dust2 in dominant fashion as they went 16-5.

By this point, everything was going badly for ENCE. They were already on the verge of elimination. Their first game against BIG, they hardly appeared at all. On the CT-side of their map, their communication looked in shambles. In the fourth round of the game, BIG went for an A-split, but each of the A-side players were disconnected from each other and couldn’t play as a team. In the seventh round, allu went to peek for long doors, but there was no utility used to set him up. It was a rare miscue from the ENCE team that characterized how they were falling under the pressure of the moment.

To make matters worse, the second map was Train and it was ENCE’s pick. This meant that the team had to start on the T-side of Train, a map known to be CT favored. When ENCE went into the game, they probably hoped to win the pistol as that could have given them some breathing room to relax. Instead the pistol went BIG’s way. In the second round Aleksib called for a faster hit on the outer site which ENCE barely lost. By the eighth round, the score was 7-0 in BIG’s favor with the economy fully operational for BIG.

If ENCE were going to comeback, they had to do it now. With their backs against the wall, on the hard side of train, and against a fully equipped CT-side. At that moment ENCE stood up. They grinded their way back into the game.

“We went all the way under pressure. 0-2 in games, 0-1 in maps, and then 0-7 in rounds. Someone goes ‘Is this enough?’ Yeah, it is, let’s start playing.” – Twista from ENCE documentary, The Road to IEM KATOWICE

Everything started to click back into place. Aleksib called for fast inner hits that ENCE executed on which netted them victories in the 8th and 9th round. In the 10th round, they took control of B halls and ivy. They then did a B wrap that worked out beautifully and broke the CT-side economy.

ENCE had survived their crucible. From that point on, ENCE looked revitalized as they went 7-8 in the half and won out the map 16-14. From that point on, ENCE looked to be a new team and their confidence was restored. In the fourth round, ENCE played against G2. What was amazing about this series was that ENCE’s faith in themselves hadn’t shaken despite the close brush with elimination.

In the map veto, ENCE let Dust2 through the ban phase. This was surprising for two reasons. ENCE had just lost twice on Dust2 to HellRaisers and BIG. However they believed they were strong on that particular map and wanted to show that strength.

“I hope we will play it[Dust2] against G2 tomorrow—no mindfuck—to show that we are not this bad.” –  Allu in an interview with HLTV

ENCE went to overtime where they beat G219-17 and then closed the series on Mirage. ENCE then stamped their ticket into the playoffs by defeating AVANGAR in the fifth round of the Legends Stage.

Apotheosis

ENCE then faced off against one of the big favorites of the tournament, Team Liquid. By the end of 2018, Liquid had solidified their spot as the second best team in the world. While the roster had changed, with Jake “Stewie2K” Yip filling the vacated spot of Epitacio “TACO” de Melo, Liquid were still among the favorites to win the tournament. Especially as many pundits commented that Stewie2K had the wildcard playstyle that Liquid needed to push them over the edge against Astralis.

Pound-for-pound, the Liquid roster was one of the most skilled in all of CS:GO. The only current roster that matches up to them in that regard is FaZe. Outside of that, Liquid was considered to be among the best when it came to tactics, structure, and team play. If we’re looking at experience, Liquid was light years ahead. While the roster was different, the core players on the Liquid roster were battling for international trophies at the biggest LAN events in 2018 while ENCE were grinding their way through the tier 2 scene. Stewie2K had won ELeague Boston Major while ENCE had fallen under the pressure and collapsed at the EU Minor for the FACEIT Major. In terms of form at the tournament, Liquid cruised through the Legends Stage 3-0 while ENCE struggled to survive as they went 3-2.

Liquid looked to be the heavy favorites going into the match and that’s how the first six rounds looked on Mirage. Things had started off well for ENCE as they won the pistol. Going into the third round though ENCE lost against the eco. In the fourth round, ENCE did a good execute on the A-site that looked to win as they got into a 5v3 post plant position, only for Stewie2k to push the smoke and get a 3k. In the sixth, they ran it again and got it into a 5v4 situation, only for Liquid to once again win the retake.

So many of the rounds were close, but each time it edged Liquid’s way. If ENCE had been the same team they were before the Legends Stage started, they would have fallen apart. There is nothing more tilting than having an advantageous situation that looks to be a win and have it taken away at the last moment.

But ENCE weren’t the same team. The crucible in the Legends Stage had forged their mental strength and they persevered. Aleksib continued to call a good half and the ENCE players ended up winning the half 8-7. Even when Keith “NAF” Markovic won a miracle ace on the CT-side, ENCE kept their cool, continued to play their game, and closed out the map 16-11.

The second map of the series went to Inferno. This was another map where ENCE’s mental strength pulled through. Liquid had a dominant T-side on the first half going 10-5 and in the second half were able to get to 15-8. At that point, Aleksib had run out of ideas and started to call for defaults every round. With seven match points left, ENCE rallied back and pushed the game all the way to overtime where they were able to 19-16. Allu in particular had a dominant performance as he went 36-18 and had 26 AWP kills through the game.

If there was a single round that encapsulated the dynamic between ENCE and Liquid, it was the fifth round of the match. Liquid’s had secured the A-site in a 3v3 post plant situation. ENCE had already lost the site and were setting up to get exit kills. XseveN made a push through aps and hears Stewie2k running. This causes a chain reaction across the map as xseveN comms that Liquid are leaving the site. ENCE go for the retake with pristine team play as comms as they dissect a momentary weakness from Liquid.

In a moment when all looked lost, ENCE kept their cool and made an impossible comeback off the back of their team play and comms. It was a miracle victory that shocked the world. ENCE were then forced to do it a second time as they faced off against Na`Vi in the semifinals.

It is an incredible feat to pull off one miracle upset in a Major, but ENCE were about to do it a second time. Liquid were the number 2 ranked team in the world and Na`Vi were the third. Where Liquid were caught off by surprise, Na`Vi would be prepared. Na`Vi was another team that had cruised through the tournament. It was another david vs goliath match, sepcially as Na`Vi had Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, the best player in the world.

Once again, the ENCE’s determination shined through. The first map was on Train. In that map, Aleksib called a masterclass on the T-side. Throughout the half, aleksib had called for A splits. Each execute either netted ENCE a round or ground down the CT-side economy. As the half wore on, Na`Vi started to adapt their positions more and more.

In the 13th round, Aleksib’s constant outer hits culminated for this moment. If ENCE won the 13th round, Na`Vi’s economy would be broken. If ENCE won, they’d get two easy rounds to close the half and end on 7-8, a good half given that train is CT-sided. ENCE once again called for an execute on the A site, but this time they completely ignored ivy. Na`Vi on the other hand had been conditioned to leave a player to guard that area. This meant that when ENCE hit the outer site, they’d likely only face two A players. ENCE overwhelmed Na`Vi, won the round, broke the economy and ended the half 7-8.

Na`Vi then rallied on their T-side and went up 14-10. Instead of capitulating, ENCE rose up to the challenge. They were able to play their best despite the pressure and found ways to shut down the Na`Vi defense. In the end ENCE won the map 16-14. They were then summarily executed on Dust2 as Na`Vi won 16-3.

Instead of being downtrodden, ENCE once again showed the level of mental strength that had come to characterize them since surviving the Legends Stage. They went head-to-head against Na`Vi on Mirage in one of the all-time great maps of CS:GO Major history. Aleksib called a half that was able to exploit Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko’s weak individual form in critical rounds. That was thwarted however as s1mple went absolutely god mode.

That was the entire dynamic of the third map. ENCE were playing fundamentally better counter-strike through their teamplay and tactics. S1mple though was on another plane of existence. His level of play reaching heights that almost no one else could match. What was most shocking of all though was that it wasn’t sergej, Aerial, or allu who stopped the prodigy, but rather xseveN. XseveN was the man who came up huge for ENCE the entire half and was able to stop s1mple from dragging his team across the finish line. ENCE won the match 16-14 and the series 2-1.

The End of the Run

All fairy tales must come to an end. The clock strikes midnight, the carriage turns into a pumpkin, and Astralis arrive on the scene. ENCE had pulled off two of the biggest upsets in CS:GO Major history as they took out Liquid 2-0 and Na`Vi 2-1. However, Astralis were the final bosses of the Major.

Unlike Liquid or Na`Vi, they have no weaknesses. ENCE managed to defeat both teams by dragging them into a game where they had the slight advantages. Against Liquid, they used their superior teamplay, mental fortitude, and a superior AWPer in Allu to close out that series. Against Na`Vi, their structure, teamplay, and tactics came to the fore as they barely eliminated them 2-1. Against Astralis, there were no slight advantages where ENCE could take the victory.

That was how the Major Finals played out. While ENCE put up a fight on Train, Astralis’ quality shone through and they were beaten 11-16. Astralis then trounced them on Inferno 16-4.

Moving Forward

IEM Katowice 2019 Major has been the height of all the ENCE players. Allu has made it to the finals of a CS:GO Major before, but this was far more meaningful. Last time he had to join an already established team in NiP. This time, he helped created the Finnish team and was a large reason as to why they’ve come so far. For Aleksib, he has filled the void that Finnish Counter-Strike has needed for so long, as he has become one of the best in-game leaders in the world. His tactical calling often made the difference against some of the best teams in the world.

Sergej and Aerial have been the two rifling stars that have powered the Finnish engine. Sergej has been designated as one of the rising prodigies in the scene and at the age of 17 has now played in the first Major finals of his career. Aerial has been a fantastic entry player for the team and his stellar performance against Na`Vi powered them into the finals. Finally, xseveN gave the best tournament performance of his career as he made massive impact throughout the playoffs, most notably winning the critical 1v1 against s1mple that clinched their spot in the finals.

While ENCE’s tournament run ended in the finals, they made a run that no one will forget. They started at the bottom as they fought their way through the qualifiers and made it all the way to the Legends Stage. From there they went 0-2 and then lost the first map against BIG. On the second map, they went 0-7 and then rallied everything they had to force a comeback. Day after day, series after series, ENCE became a stronger and stronger force. They made it out of the Legends Stage 3-2, beat Liquid 2-0, and then beat Na`Vi 2-1. This will go down as one of the greatest underdog runs of CS:GO Major history. Now it will be up to ENCE to see if they can pull this off consistently. If they can, we will see Finland rise as one of the new world powers in CS:GO 2019.

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