EPL Conference Preview; Three teams enter, two leave for Malta
In late December, ESL made significant changes to the ESL Pro League Conference structure while also expanding the ESL Pro League system in place.
Amongst the most dramatic changes, this season is the removal of the Conference LAN prior to Pro League. As ESL explained, starting with ESL Pro League S18, the Conference stage will no longer exist, with five weeks of Pro League competition taking place instead of six. However, with the removal of the league, there will be 32 spots in ESL Pro League and double-elimination groups with a last-chance bracket. North America now receives two additional non-partner slots, in which three teams are currently fighting for.
Now, based on the qualifying winners of certain events around the world, 23 teams should have earned berths to the Conference Stage of ESL Pro League. However, compared to years past when ESL would have each team compete on LAN against one another for spots, they will now be regionalized and played out online with automatic berths per region.
There are three teams participating in the upcoming online version of ESL Pro League Conference S17; ATK, Nouns, and MIBR. Each of the aforementioned teams are participating after they either won, or were runner-up to a prior winner, in seasons 41, 42, and 43 of ECL in NA during 2022. Given the seeding of the event, ATK only need to win once to guarantee themselves a Top 2 spot while Nouns and MIBR have to win at least two.
What is interesting heading into the start of tonight's tournament is that not a single team has retained all five starting members of their league-winning roster. ATK elected to remove Ian "motm" Hardy in place of Jonathan "djay" Dallal, the former EG White player that was benched and later removed for Khizar "Momo" Rehman. However, in a weird twist of fate, Rhys "Fadey" Armstrong is due to have surgery and will be unable to play, so motm will be stepping back in for his former squad.
Nouns, who finished second in ESL Challenger League S42, earned the spot in NA Conference as ATK once again took 1st place. That squad, which featured NA's brightest up-and-coming star Jeorge "jeorgesnorts" Endicott, now has to grappled with his absence after he was finally, officially, announced by Evil Geniuses as their newest EG Black member despite playing for the squad in Season 43. Additionally, the squad parted with NA bad-boy Danny "cxzi" Strzelczyk and Dominick "JazzPimp" Dimpfel with Bobby "stamina" Eitrem and Christopher "cJ" Jones, taking their places respectively.
Finally, MIBR, who only just won ECL S43 in a lower-bracket run victory over EG Black, have seen their roster get picked apart over the course of the last year with standouts Marcelo "chelo" Cespedes and Jhonatan "JOTA" Willian, the latter of which just transferred this week to Imperial. To replace JOTA is young MIBR Academy lad Felipe "insani" Yuji. He is just arriving to Mexico to join up with the rest of the squad.
Each of these rosters has changed, in some ways a little, and in some ways a lot. ATK will be struggling with an unexpected change happening just days before the tournament, while MIBR has expected JOTA's departure for a bit more time. The only roster that has had some sense of familiarity will be Nouns as they have had the same roster since December 9th.
The first matchup tomorrow will see Nouns face off against MIBR at 09:00PM, with ATK earning a bye into the second Upper Round. The two have, surprisingly, only played one another one time in league play when the two came together in the playoffs of Season 42. MIBR unceremoniously had to drop the first map due to a scheduling conflict and would eventually lose the second map and would later be eliminated from playoffs by, coincidentally, ATK.
Without much history between the two, it's hard to say how well the match will inevitably pan out. MIBR will certainly be on the back foot in the contest as their new addition in insani is only arriving to join the team today - leaving him little time to adjust to a new playbook, roles, and style of play. However, given the quality of the rest of the squad, you shouldn't count them out just yet. MIBR is coming off a strong ECL S43 playoff campaign with victories over EG Black, team oNe, and ATK. Nouns can be confident in themselves and their map pool which just might be stronger than the Brazilians at the moment due to their recent changes.
As for ATK, they will face off against the winner of MIBR v. Nouns tomorrow thanks to their victory in ECL S41 giving them the bye. Since April, ATK have dominated the Nouns/Gaimin Gladiators roster winning nine of the last twelve contests. However, Nouns have slowly started to even their matchup history going 2-3 in the last five battles. With a revamped squad on Nouns and a surgery-addled side in ATK, this one might be more even than we think.
And when looking at MIBR and ATK, it has simply been ATK all day. The South African organization has only dropped three maps across five matches, which includes Cash Cups, league play, and Major qualifiers. However, MIBR did pull out as the victor in the latest S43 playoff match thanks to an otherworldly JOTA performance where he posted a 1.29 Rating, 89.3 ADR, and a 74.2% KAST. Without their emphatic rifler, with MIBR be able to have any sort of luck against a depleted ATK? Probably.
ESL Pro League NA Conference S17 is surely set to be a blood-bath with no team as the clear favorites in this week's event. Nouns remain the strongest on paper thanks to their month-long roster in comparison to an MIBR that just lost their best player and an ATK that has to bring back motm with Fadey out due to surgery. The matches kick off tonight with MIBR and Nouns duking it out in a BO3 at 09:00PM.