Mamoon "TeaTime" Sabri is a caster, host, and interviewer. As ESL One Cologne approaches, TeaTime takes a deep dive into four of the big hitters targeting glory in Germany. First up, it's a look at ENCE and the events that have defined their story so far
After the most dominantly one-sided competitive period CSGO had ever seen, 2019 has the leaders of the Counter-Strike world collapse into their own hubris. Astralis have fallen, and the papacy is vacant. For once, there are candidates aplenty vying for the spot, and what better place to fight for it than the Cathedral of Counter-Strike: ESL One Cologne? And so, the doors of Cologne are open to its Cardinals, to be judged on who would be worthy of wielding the sceptre.
Enter the first Cardinal of Cologne, the people’s choice: ENCE.
The Cardinals of Cologne
ESL One Cologne LAN Qualifier 2018
On March 12th, 2018, ENCE - an old-school Finnish CSGO brand - announced that they’d be reforming their team. With the announcement it was discovered that Aleksi “Allu” Jalli - the legendary Finnish player from NIP, and more recently FaZe, would be their first addition to the team. Thanks to severely underwhelming rosters in the past, this was the main reason anyone even noticed that the organization was back.
Related: ESL One Cologne 2019 schedule and brackets
Even Richard Lewis on his talk show with Thorin, couldn’t remember how to pronounce the organisation’s name at first, which says a lot about how successful the organisation had been in recent years. Cynically, the discussion both on podcast and in the community said that, Allu was looking for either an in-between before he could move to a bigger team, or just one last hurrah with a Finnish team before he retired.
It’s like he loves fucking Finland, that it’s like really stunted his ambition - Richard Lewis
Once their roster had been rounded out a month after Allu’s announcement, so began the gruelling quest to go through open qualifiers. Results were mixed, and despite making it to the closed qualifiers for Dreamhack Open Valencia, they had other - worrying - defeats against very low rung opposition. The brutality of online best-of-ones should not be underestimated. It wasn’t rare that they got caught out at the 65th-128th mark in a bracket to a no-name team without even a Liquipedia page.
The earliest closed qualifier they got invited to was a qualifier to a qualifier. GG.BET Majestic, a special LAN qualifier to ESL One Cologne 2018 rolled around. For its European qualifier, ENCE were invited. The top team would make it to the main LAN, but ENCE finished in fourth place. By sheer good fortune, North (the European invite direct into the LAN) qualified for Cologne through a separate qualifier - vacating an extra slot at the event itself.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been enough for ENCE to make it there. Both Envy and AGO were above them in the qualifier.
Somehow, the Finns' luck continued. Envy - a team that was already on the brink of ruin - announced that they couldn’t make it to the LAN qualifier. Two weeks later, the roster disbanded with the organization releasing their Counter-Strike team entirely. Now, ENCE just had AGO above them, courtesy of the team having a higher seed in the online phase.
However, AGO also could not make it - citing personal reasons. The Finnish team was admitted entry into the tournament in a near-cinematic turn of events.
The intensity of competition was significantly lowered, giving ENCE a legitimate shot. The first game rolled around - a best of one versus Spirit. Just as a few weeks earlier in an open qualifier, ENCE were blasted out of the water. In any other circumstance they’d have been out already.
Again, fortune favoured the Finns, and the lower bracket proved to be ENCE’s best friend. Now with best of threes all the way, it was smoother sailing. Avangar and Alternate Attax were both beaten with relative ease, except a few close maps. It seemed more of a problem with ENCE’s map pool than their actual play, given that they either won 16-14 or they closed it out to under ten rounds.
Finally, they met Team Spirit once again. For the (largely rookie) Finnish team, this was a match of epic proportions. ENCE had been denied a route to a major LAN twice before by them, and it was time to get revenge. The first map was as easy as it could get, with Spirit capping out at only 3 rounds on ENCE’s map pick. Again, the second map saw the shallowness of their map pool. Instead of Nuke - where ENCE were nearly rocked out by ALTERNATE aTTaX - now it was Cache, where they had to battle through double overtime to get their win.
With more than their fair share of serendipitous events, ENCE had qualified for their first ever LAN tournament: ESL One Cologne 2018.
IEM Katowice Major 2019
The Major. Not just that, but the first major with elimination maps of best of three. No longer could there be a scenario like in 2017, where BIG played three maps of inferno to top out their group. Now, to get to the playoffs phase, you had to win at least two best-of-three’s, and at most six. Map pool was crucial, and the stage was stacked.
ENCE had already had a few good performances at various LANs, even winning one here or there. Expectations were building up on their shoulders, but not overbearing ones. They had to do more than have a few good maps versus top teams - and a few series wins over the teams in the top 10. It was no wonder that, going into the major, they were only ranked 14 on the HLTV rankings.
Expectations were high, though, as most believed that the HLTV ranking - while not entirely undeserved - was not truly indicative of where they could prove themselves to be. There were even murmurings that ENCE might be worthy of a Legends spot - the coveted top eight position which allowed you a guaranteed entry back into the next Legends phase without having to go through the gruelling Challenger portion. Not just that, but so long as you were to win at least one map next major, yet another appearance would be guaranteed.
A top-eight at the Major would nearly guarantee participation in the next two biggest Counter-Strike tournaments over the entirety of a calendar year. A notch had been marked for them to grow to, and their fans - like doting parents - would be coming back after each map to see whether or not ENCE would make it.
There have been very few instances in which the CSGO world rallied around an underdog team who had taken so few scalps. A little-known pop group from Finland - The Verkkars - released a track right before the major titled “EZ4ENCE”, and the people’s choice was clear. Even Valve eventually got on board, with the perfectly timed music kit release starring the song as the MVP music.
Despite breezing past the Challengers stage, dropping only one series to Renegades, they had yet to play any of the more difficult contenders. Fnatic, Vitality, NRG and Tyloo were names they hadn’t faced at all, and their win over G2 had been just a best-of-one.
Legends stage came around. Those who lived by the best-of-ones would come to die by them.
With the assorted riff-raff of Tier 2 now out, the only teams remaining were those that had had a map pool, star players, and knew how to compete against the true contenders for the title. It would soon be seen whether ENCE were to grow to their notch. Renegades and Hellraisers took away the first best-of-ones immediately. Down 0-2, ENCE were put into what would have been a near impossible situation in years past.
Their first BO3 against BIG began. Although BIG fielded what was effectively a stand-in side, the first map was a devastating 16-5 loss in favour of the German side. Gob B’s tactics had come out on top, and many started bracing themselves for what seemed to be an inevitable elimination, with BIG up 14-10 in the second map as well. The Finns though persevered through a display of tenacity that later people would come to associate with them. XseveN, the player who most people had chalked down as likely to be replaced by suNny, went berserk.
Off the back of a comeback that they perhaps shouldn’t have been able to achieve, clutches that they definitely shouldn’t have won, and six rounds in a row versus a veteran IGL, the Finns were back in business. The rest of their path was not without tremors, but they were able to overcome both a struggling G2, and a promising Avangar – picking up maps that would have surprised some observers.
And so ENCE reached the quarter-finals, and were drawn against the undisputed second best team in the world: Liquid.
They had done their job. Nothing more was expected of them. How could Liquid possibly lose when they weren’t in a grand final nor against Astralis? Finnish they might have been, but finished they were not. ENCE kicked the door in and broke into Liquid’s wheelhouse, and Allu choked them out of the quarters.
Mirage went the way of ENCE, but Liquid started their own pick - Inferno - off with a 15-8 lead. Allu - ever so emotionless - continued to flare up. With a 36-18 performance in the end and near 100 ADR, numbers ridiculous even before you consider him as an AWP player, he managed to help bring it to overtime with AleksiB - going on to win the game. ENCE had defeated Liquid, 2-0.
Ears perked up, but surely that couldn’t happen again? NaVi, the third best team in the world, was right around the corner. Surely ENCE couldn’t defeat the best player in the world and his rabble of CIS players? xseveN was back in the playoffs. Where history had dictated repeatedly that rookies were the ones to crumble under the pressure of a stage, xseveN had not read the same books as the rest of the world. Both he and Aerial were unstoppable - even out fragging S1mple on maps which went to the full thirty rounds. A single map loss, and that too on one of their weaker maps. ENCE were in the finals.
Astralis, though, were another beast. There was no upset to be had here. The Danes were gods among men - divine, and untouchable. ENCE came second at their first major appearance with four rookies in the line-up, losing out to Astralis in the grand final, 2-0.
Europe Minor: London 2018
With a performance at ESL One Cologne right behind them, where they’d finished well beyond expectations just shy of a playoffs position, ENCE now had more than just Allu fans - they’d began to gather their own cult following. Several impressive performances had boosted their resume, with Mousesports and NIP having fallen in their path.
Not only that, but Na'Vi, who had finally been able to get a win in one of the more prestigious tournaments, almost had their run interrupted by ENCE. ENCE didn’t just take a map off of them in the best of three, they even came close to coming back from a 6-14 deficit down and defeating them 2-0 to make it to the playoffs. If not for two dramatic rounds where they faltered, ENCE would have made it to the quarterfinals of ESL One Cologne. When the dust settled, they had still made top 8 - given how ESL’s playoff system works. Given that BIG made it all the way to the finals, valid speculation was made that ENCE could have found themselves in the semis at least.
Two weeks passed. Enough time for other teams to study their demos, but more than enough time for ENCE to use what they’d learned from such a massive tournament to upgrade their own play before the next tournament. The next hurdle came in the form of the European minor, where ENCE would have to make it to the top two spots if they wanted a chance to compete at London’s major later on that year.
After looking as clean as they had, top two at the minor shouldn’t have been particularly difficult. The only real opposition came in the form of Ninjas In Pyjamas, and an OpTic Gaming who themselves hadn’t looked too impressive either. The Ninjas had already faced defeat against the Finns at Cologne, and OpTic had recently even lost to Imperial and Space soldiers in best-of-three’s at LANs. Despite having some significant star power in Konfig and Jugi, Snappi had yet to activate them to the level which people believed they belonged to.
It should have been a clean win for them. What transpired was completely different.
The very first playoff game was against Sprout - a team with a handful of Danish players with no repute, and a rejected Denis and Spiidi from the Nikosports days. It was as much of a layup as they could possibly have gotten, and the results showed that as well. An easy 2-0 was theirs for the taking, putting them against OpTic.
The catastrophe began. The first map went as it should have - clean and easy. Immediately after, they got walloped. A 16-2 loss on Mirage, with their highest rated player getting a measly 0.76 performance. Even for the unshakeable Finns, this had to worry them. When the third map came around, even that went by the wayside in the most peculiar fashion.
ENCE finished their first half - the T side of Inferno - up 9-6 despite a pistol round loss, and OpTic taking the first gun round to make it five for them. This looked like a done deal already - with none of the players caring at all about how their previous map had gone, and xseveN delivering an awe-inspiring performance even if Allu was a little quiet. Allu’s silence became unbearable come CT side though. They only got two rounds, both of which came down to retake scenarios - a testament to how weak everyone save two players were in that game. ENCE were knocked down to the lower bracket.
The lower bracket had them reunited with the Ninjas. This was a series they had played out, against the exact same players, for incredibly high stakes, just two weeks ago at Cologne resulting in a clean victory for them. You wouldn’t be able to tell from how it went.
Forest and GeT_RiGhT were revived. The carry performance seen from the two of them was nothing short of glorious. As much as ENCE capitulated in the OpTic match, this game was truly out of their own control. Like creatures of myths and legends, NIP had gone too many years without being in attendance at a major. The kraken had awakened. GeT_RiGhT had a map which probably even made s1mple message to ask for his config, and Forest was not far behind even then.
ENCE could not make the major.
BLAST Pro Series Madrid 2019
Despite their major performance earlier in the year, ENCE hadn’t made many waves since. Perhaps it could be attributed to a lack of tournaments, but the few where they had been seen had stopped shy of showing them as the elite team that fans hope for in a major finalist.
The wave they’d been riding had been slowly subsiding, with speculation still circling around various communities that perhaps acquisition of sunNy would be a better choice for an immediate skill upgrade. It was no longer as clear as it had once seemed, but discussion had not finished yet.
Starseries & i-League Season 7 had not ended as well as they’d have liked either. Losing a best-of-three to Vitality, the French team that people still had reason to believe was largely a one-man army, they came to have a rematch of the major semi-finals against NaVi. This time around, NaVi was able to close things out more cleanly in a 1-2 fashion, eliminating them in the top eight. BLAST Pro Sao Paulo was not much better, with the team failing to reach the finals.
Along came Madrid. Astralis were still very much considered on top of the world then, with their Nuke streak untouched. ENCE had arrived in the grand finals - the only best-of-three series in the tournament - to face off versus the Danish overlords having lost a game to them in the group stage.
The game already had the makings of a classic that could be remembered in years to come.
In major fashion, Astralis let through train for the Finns - believing that they could win regardless of comfort. ENCE, forced into banning the new map Vertigo, let Nuke through for Astralis. The 31-0 streak was given a chance to rival and equal the NiP legacy of 32 straight map wins. Time would freeze, as it seemed that the only way ENCE might win would be on Dust 2 in the deciding map - even if Astralis had excelled on it in the past.
The third map would not come.
Astralis had been so dominant on Nuke, that the last time they had lost it on LAN had been on the 17th of December 2017. Of their 31 straight map wins, not a single one had gone to overtime. In those wins, only one team had ever managed to make it to 14 rounds, and that was Liquid - who themselves could have been the candidate of one of the greatest teams to ever play CSGO had it not been for Astralis.
It was done. The Nuke streak was gone - and Aerial, who had been one of the names played around with as a potential victim of sunNy’s addition, delivered an MVP performance. Not only did Astralis lose, they didn’t even make double digit rounds, something that had only ever happened four times since Astralis had adopted their current core.
With their streak shattered, destiny dictated, and it was ENCE’s fate to dethrone the Danes. Train was taken away by them shortly, throwing a tank of gasoline into the flames being fanned by fans, analysts, and by the numbers, on how BLAST had ended the greatest legacy we’d ever see.
What did it mean for ENCE? They had proven that they were elite.
ESL One Cologne 2019
A new rivalry had been born, between Team Liquid and ENCE in the wake of Dreamhack Dallas. ENCE once again placed second. After defeating Liquid at the Major, maps had been traded back and forth between them at CS_Summit, and Liquid had struck back to reach a 2-1 victory that seemed to be anyone’s game.
Another notch had been marked in Liquid’s Intel Grand Slam at ESL Pro League, where ENCE themselves could not make it. Although ENCE had been the ones to dethrone Astralis, they had only served to create a stairway to the top that Liquid tread before them. Not being at Pro League or ECS had meant that ENCE had the chance to sit on the side-lines and watch as each team fought hard and long.
ESL One Cologne would have a best-of-five grand final, with map pool king. Thanks to Liquid revealing their entire map pool, and officially making themselves the number one team in the world, ENCE hope to stop them before they can define the era.
The Finns have been doubted every step of the way. From being called Allu’s victory lap, to being praised for making top 8 at Cologne last year, to now being told that even if they are an elite team, they’re not likely to become a team that holds the papacy - one that can start their era off with the greatest Counter-Strike event of the calendar. ENCE will be prepared.
ENCE will have the sceptre within their grasp. ENCE will not have been scouted for over a month. Everything has been laid out, and everything can be achieved. The cathedral awaits, and ENCE have been nothing if not faithful.
But even for ENCE, the papacy will never be easy.
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Pictures: Copyright Bart Oerbekke, Adela Sznajder, Damian Gatkiewicz / ESL / Blast Pro Series