ATLANTA -- It has been nearly seven months since the 16 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams gathered to compete for a prize pool of $1 million. A lot has changed since July, with the best team in the world, SK Gaming, falling flat and making roster changes since they dominated 2016 by winning both major tournaments.
Now, the final eight here in Atlanta will compete starting Friday in the ELeague Major for their share of the prize pool -- a whopping $500,000 -- and the title of best team in the world, which is currently vacant.
For Natus Vincere, a long-standing team which has gunned for that title for years, they'll look to do what they've never done before: win a major. The bi-annual accolade has evaded them, coming close on numerous occasions but losing out in the playoffs, yet to reach the top of the heap.
But Natus Vincere is off to a good start to hit their goal.
During the first four days of the tournament, before the teams and organizer Turner Sports move to the Fox Theatre, the team went undefeated, something matched only by eastern Europe peer Virtus.Pro. Na`Vi allowed their opponents to take a total of only 12 rounds across three games, a fantastic feat. And to top it off, the final game of their streak was against SK Gaming, who, despite using a stand-in, later qualified for the playoffs and look to win their third major in a row.
"We were pretty confident that we could beat any team at this event," Natus Vincere AWPer Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács told ESPN following the victory over SK Gaming. "We played a lot of others [in scrimmages] and we were so confident to do [go undefeated in groups.]
"I think the competition will always be higher and higher. There are always new players and new teams to shine. The past 10-15 events, they've all had different champions, so the competition is pretty high and we don't know what will happen this year."
To prepare for the event, GuardiaN says the team spent time together during a bootcamp, a common move before heading into a large tournament with so much on the line.
"It's hard to say [if we could win the major and take the top spot], but we had a long boot camp and we did our best to prepare as good as we can," he says. "We did everything to come here and win this major. It could be our time, but time will show."
Expanding on the topic, teammate Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev said, "Yeah, we played a lot of hours and had like 21 practice days with 10 days of boot camp. We played a lot of deathmatch and a lot of two-on-two between us, and we practiced a lot on our teamwork and team spirit before this tournament."
In the break between the two majors, Na`Vi showed what they were capable of. The team took first at ESL One New York, one of the larger North American events in the 2016 calendar year. The win, which netted them $125,000 and a sharp-looking trophy, showed that their roster changes in August had paid off -- they replaced long-standing member Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko with s1mple.
But following that event, the team failed to take first at any other competition. S1mple says it was a result of not being able to prepare properly following their trip to the United States.
"After we won ESL One New York, we didn't have a lot of time to practice for the next tournament like [IEM Oakland] or Epicenter, so we failed a little bit," he said. "But after the 2016 year, we had great practice weeks so we're prepared for this tournament."
The preparation certainly proved worthwhile as they took a top seed going into the playoffs. However, Na`Vi has been pinned against Astralis, a fellow tournament favorite that is on track to take home their first major as well.
"I think SK, Astralis and Virtus.Pro are going to show great results because those teams have great experience," s1mple said. "SK won two majors in a row, Virtus.Pro have played together for a long time, and Astralis, we didn't even play against them in scrimmages because they cancelled. Everyone has a great chance at this major."
If Na`Vi is to win this tournament, having s1mple on their squad may be the way to do so. The standout 19-year-old hasn't competed in every major, but during his time on North America's Team Liquid, he competed in two and they were some of the most memorable moments of his career. From a miracle run to the ESL One Cologne finals in July and a semifinal finish at MLG Columbus, s1mple's ability to win in clutch positions is matched by only a few.
"My first major was at DreamHack Winter 2014 and [my team HellRaisers] had a quarterfinal finish, then at MLG Columbus with Liquid, we had a semifinal finish, and at ESL Cologne, my third major, we made it to the final," s1mple says. "I hope with my team, Natus Vincere, we're going to show everyone that we're playing great and that we're a great team."
S1mple says that moving forward, the team needs to focus on keeping the right mindset if they want to win large tournaments and eventually take home a title.
"The most important [thing] is team spirit and teamwork, then you should have strong [regime]," he said. "You should practice, every player should practice as much every day. The last one is communication. If you communicate really well and you have team spirit, you can win in any situation, like 2-on-5 or 3-on-5 with your team."
"I hope [we can win the major]."