Finland's ENCE were riding a dream rise for most of 2019. After shocking the world and two of its best teams, taking down Team Liquid and Na`Vi at the IEM Katowice major, they overcame a brief stumble at StarSeries to prove themselves a truly elite tier side. Killing the Astralis era, ending the Danes' unbeatable fortress of nuke and racking up deep finishes thrust them as high as world number twos in the rankings.
Now, though, ENCE face the difficult proposition of a rapidly changing scene, bad omens in recent nerfs and the possibility of falling back to being merely a very good team and no longer a contender for every title at every event. Becoming the best looks to be too hard for ENCE.
ENCE began 2019 as a team far from contention for big trophies. They had won a StarSeries late the previous year which was offset by its depleted field, lacking most of the big names, but other than that they had only their initial miracle run in Cologne to boast about. Clearly, they were a team with some potential and who had shown great progress to even come close to a top 10 ranking, starting out as a bunch of nobodies surrounding an allu whose contract seemed more like a retainer to keep him in the Finnish scene than a legitimate chance to further his decorated career.
IEM XIII Katowice, the 14th CS:GO major, was the glitch in the matrix that changed everything for ENCE. Paired up with the very same Team Liquid line-up in the quarter-final which is now the dominant force in the game, but back then still had questions surrounding the addition of Stewie, practically nobody gave ENCE a chance. Team Liquid's core had made countless big finals, their roster was too stacked with skill and their style looked primed to bust open the more controlled tactical pace of ENCE. ENCE swept the North Americans and sent the a shockwave through the scene.
Repeating their feat in the semi-final, facing a Na`Vi side featuring the best player in the world - s1mple - and who had been in the final of the previous major, they were against facing a seemingly loaded deck. Again, it was the Finns who emerged victorious and passed through to the final of the major, where a dominant Astralis ended their Cinderella run.
It was easy to write ENCE's run off as a fluke, especially since Team Liquid were still developing their new line-up's chemistry and Na`Vi were famously apt to drop off as a team in big games and rely upon s1mple to find a telephone booth and turn into Superman - something he did with alarming regularity but didn't help him this time around. Add to that some stand-out performances from xseveN, a support player in the team and a literal "Who?" name to most casual fans, and expecting ENCE to quickly regress to the mean of being merely a decent team seemed only fair.
Impressive form in the Bo1s at Blast Pro Series São Paulo, where the format largely denied them a spot in the final, showed ENCE were not a mere blip on the radar. Losing to a very shaky Vitality line-up, yet to change IGLs, at StarSeries right after was a concern, but falling to a superhuman effort from Na`Vi's stars in the play-offs, with the CIS squad going on to win the tournament, made their 5th-8th finish a little ungenerous for the Nordic side.
Rather than fall further, Aleksib's boys rose to their peak, winning Blast Pro Series Madrid and drawing a close to the Astralis era. Not only did they end Astralis' unimaginable 31 game unbeaten streak on nuke, the home map and impenetrable fortress of the Danish dynasty, but they swept them 2:0, an incredibly rare occurance during Astralis' era, and cracked their feat of never losing two tournaments in a row after having reached the top spot. Astralis had played their own part in the demise of their dominance, but ENCE had been the reverse grim reapers ushering their souls from Counter-Strike heaven back down to the mortal realm.
At cs_summit 4, the same month, ENCE managed a solid top four finish at an event which was nowhere near topping the ranks as far as prestige goes but featured some of the world's best teams. Losing to Vitality again was far less embarrassing, as the French side would parlay this very tournament run into their own status as one of the world's best and most dangerous teams. A week later, ENCE reached another big final, coming in second to Team Liquid at Dreamhack Masters Dallas, but a Team Liquid who had hit face-melting form that has yet to subside at the time of writing.
Over a course of five international offline events, ENCE had earned their status as one of the game's best and won over many fans with their feel-good underdog narrative, strong tactical play, under-rated team-play and stoic grit in the face of difficult challenges. Were this a Hollywood kid's movie, they would no doubt go on to win the major, defeating Team Liquid in the final and then having allu dead-pan staring into the camera and saying "had to be done." Life is not plotted by screenwriters, though, and the last nearly two months has seen ENCE shown signs of weakness that are cause for alarm.
At ESL One Cologne, arguably the best event of the calender - though obviously unable, as yet, to overcame the prestige of a major, ENCE seemed a lock for a deep finish, but finish dead last. Losing to Vitality in the elimination match was no shame, as Vitality are one of the few teams better than them and had also been upset and thus arrived at that unlikely match-up, where so many other teams would merely have been fodder for ENCE, but that doomed match with the French came due to being upset in the opening Bo1 by Heroic.
At IEM XIV Chicago, ENCE finished second in a field featuring both Team Liquid and Vitality, the top two teams in the game, but did not end up facing Vitality at all and were utterly crushed by Team Liquid. The Bo5 final was far from a chance to show they could challenge CS:GO's new kings and more like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals, with the Finns playing the part of the latter and cast as the unlucky fall guys to be styled upon. Despite the first two maps being two of ENCE's top four, win-rate-wise, allu and company needed 52 rounds of play to win their 10th. Even a close inferno third map could not stop the seemingly inevitable sweep and brought the humiliating debacle to a merciful end.
An inescapable fact of ENCE's rise was that it came during height of the AUG's strength. The CT weapon had dominated the defensive side of the game, and often the offensive side in terms of match-ups, for many top teams over that time span, but ENCE were a side who clearly thrived with the weapon. As a team lacking in raw fire-power, relative to the elite company of their peers, ENCE utilised the weapon effectively with intelligent CT cross-fires and set-ups and relied upon their strong internal chemistry to collaborate and shut down rushes.
Some may point out that ENCE made their name from strong T side play on maps like train and nuke, but as a team often played close by the top teams - a logical byproduct of being on the wrong side of the skill match-up - those monster T sides relied upon the AUG and the team's aptitude with it to close out otherwise contested games. The difference is perhaps best evidenced by the play of xseveN, the hero of their Katowice run.
Where the Support player might have gotten two kills with the AUG and held his position, now he is more likely to secure a single kill and do damage to a second enemy before dying, whether he has the AUG or M4A4 equipped. Small edges like that can be everything when your team is already near-maxed out in its other strengths and needs what it can from its players in terms of kills on the board.
A look at the timing of their recent results implies the impact of the AUG nerf. The first big offline event they attended since the nerf, on the 18th of June, was ESL One Cologne, where they floundered and were flushed in last place. As previously referenced, the next event was IEM Chicago and saw them play easier opponents and then get dunked on by seemingly every Team Liquid member in the final. Billy Batson found his power word less effective when it mattered most.
Along with the AUG nerf, there has been the rise of Vitality, a side which have had ENCE in their pocket for some time head-to-head, and Team Liquid leaving the solar system in terms of fragging power. Contrasted against their peers at the top, ENCE look a team lacking the raw skill to allow their tactics and team-play to push them over the line to big titles.
It has been very rare for a team to ascend to the elite status of being a favourite to win titles at every event they attend without also being home to one of the top five players in the world. Team Liquid has EliGE and Twistzz battling each other for MVP awards and Vitality has the superlative ZywOo, who is engaged in his own 'battle of the best' with Na`Vi's s1mple for the status of best solo carry in the game. Then there's the matter of device, who has continued to output impressive performances even with Astralis' drop-off.
Put up against these titans, sergej, ENCE's best, cannot be relied upon to be the best player in the server. The young Finn clearly possesses talent and great potential, but he is far more inconsistent in super-star carry performances than the names already mentioned.
Losing the individual star battle would not be the end of the world if ENCE had a strong all-around squad in this regard, akin to Astralis' dominance over the 2018 circuit despite s1mple being clearly stronger than device. Not only is sergej no device, at this point in his career, but expanding out and looking at the overall squad one sees a distinct lack of big fraggers.
Consider the model of a team's "big three", the three players best suited to be stars and carry the load on the scoreboard. ENCE's would be sergej, their young phenom; allu, the grizzled veteran still capable of strong LAN performances; and Aerial, who earned MVP honours at Blast Pro Series Madrid. Team Liquid could literally take any three players and best the output of the Finns and thus their 'on paper' best trio of EliGE, Twistzz and NAF practically laps ENCE in terms of fire-power. The aforementioned Astralis have seen a dip in individual form, but most I know would have their money on the trio of device, dupreeh and magisk to out-frag ENCE's finest.
In all facets, ENCE are out-gunned, seemingly, in a post-AUG-nerf world. Now, clearly that is not the end of the team. Their fundamental strengths have not gone anywhere and they should still be a dark horse team at upcoming events, but their time as world number twos and consistent favourites looks to be fading out entirely. Their position is reminiscient of the mousesports and FNATIC line-ups of early 2018, who won events and rose to the top portion of the rankings, only to then fall back into being merely good or very good teams but not championship material in the following months, lacking just enough in the key areas required of a champion.
Factors here outlined aside, ENCE has to contend with the returning form of Astralis; Na`Vi's new line-up developing with Boombl4; and MiBR and FaZe both hinting at big roster moves in the coming months. Room at the top looks to get more contested and someone will end up squeezed out.
ENCE are still a team with a strong internal chemistry which can help them match "on paper" skilled teams like MiBR, FaZe and NiP. Their mindset puts them ahead of many teams with more experienced players but who crumble facing a tough task or slow start. Tactically, they might even be the best team in the game, at least two months ago, and a core principle of Counter-Strike is that positioning can beat aiming when well executed.
What ENCE can't do is increase their fire-power 5-10% overnight, the seeming reverse of the nerf's impact, at least without a roster move. As such, many will look to the major as a fork in the road where the Finns must decide whether they will again embrace the uphill struggle or gamble, as teams like TL and NRG have done in recent history, with a skill upgrade by securing the services of suNny, their country's best player last year. For now, winning looks too hard for ENCE, as much as aficionados of the tactical side of the game may wish otherwise.