ENCE deserved the international spotlight in the aftershock of their top eight finish at ESL One Cologne 2018. They didn’t make playoffs, but took big scalps in Bo3 series against Mousesports, NiP, and a single map off of Na`Vi in-place of fragging before a crowd. When you consider their largely nondescript, regionally oriented starting point prior to Cologne, the results largely speak for themselves. The communities hype around the Fins is easily justified. Whether or not though, they can force the world’s eyes to remain on their play in the weeks, and months after Cologne, is up for debate.
With the wind of their Cologne victories at their back, ENCE headed into the EU FACEIT London Minor a fortnight later with an understandable confidence. Undoubtedly, sticker concepts were quietly brooding in their minds as they surveyed the relatively weak field of competition. In-spite of their terrific form at Cologne however, (or maybe, because of it) ENCE would end up collapsing under their own expectations. They would handily lose to NiP, a team they easily beat at Cologne, and Optic in consecutive Bo3’s, resulting in a failure to qualify for the major and exposing many elements of the side.
Only in losses does one see the true character of a team.
It was not so much that they lost, but rather, dissolved against the pressure of the moment. It’s a classic trope of a team with the make of ENCE’s. They come out of nowhere with terrific play one event, having to over-perform to achieve and build into series. They then conceptualise that overperformance as their mean and fail spectacularly when this disillusioned benchmark isn’t hit. Or at least, so it felt as an outsider watching their series against Optic and NiP. Their tight T-sides that saw a cohesive performance from all in Cologne was massively contrasted by the lack-lustre play of their entries throughout the EU Minor. Where aleksib, Aerial and xseveN were confidently taking duels against elite players one tournament, they were floundering and struggling to find momentum against lower-tiered EU sides the next. While their Dust II T-side play still seems immaculate, the wonderful cohesion and fluid teamplay we saw in Cologne was worryingly absent on key battleground maps like Inferno at the Minor.
Based on the contrasting play between Cologne and the Minor, it seems the performance of Aerial and, especially, aleksib, is crucial in enabling their T-side ideas to take hold. Both of their losses to Optic and NiP weren’t necessarily the result of being out-played on the mini-map, but rather, bullied in the micro. The executioners of their death at the Minor aren’t entities which hinge on intensive strategising or complex team structures. It’s not a game of chess as much as it is a boxing match. Both Optic and NiP will pressure you man-for-man first, and worry about building advantages with tactics second. The dominant score-lines with two 16:2 results in both series, shows ENCE’s failure to match Optic or NiP individually when paired with the eye-test.
This is a crucial element when evaluating ENCE’s trajectory and potential. They play a terrifically textbook style of CS that will sticky the bed-sheets of the most seasoned analyst. But this is all for nought if the horsepower - the engine of the team in aleksib/aerial/xseveN - can’t ignite against the more brutish, scrappy play of lower tiered EU play. This is an unfortunate reality, especially when talking about a team that is built more on structure than individual skill. It seems almost unfair they can get so easily pushed around in-spite of the amount of thought put into the finer details of their game.
But such is CS.
With ENCE’s game revolving so much around tight utility usage, set mid-round plays, cohesion and tactics, it’s very hard for them to regress back to a looser approach to grind wins. Their primary star in Sergej is given a lot of resources to succeed, but isn’t the type of player who can open up a game with forward pressure and punchy opening kills. He definitely can, and does do both these things for ENCE. But where he shines brightest is in how he manipulates and subverts the expectations from enemies, not putting unrelenting pressure on them. As a result, ENCE need their forward fraggers to show-up if the team wants to as well. They lack firepower as is, the last thing they need is to pressure sergej into more aggressive roles just to make-up for the flexibility of those around him.
The promise of ENCE though, lies in the structure that sometimes goes missing when individuals aren’t up-to-scratch. While individual form comes and goes, the key for consistent success generally is within the success of the system. And ENCE’s system, as we saw in Cologne, has a high ceiling for upsets should their key pieces of firepower allow it. We generally see teams at ENCE’s level struggling with the inverse of their current situation; too many guns but not clear channels to consistently find advantages with them.
Whether or not ENCE will be able to escape and consistently transcend the issues around their roster will come down to the strength of their entries moving forward and fleshing out of structure through individual skill. Many sides would wish this problem on themselves and ENCE, in many ways should be grateful they found a harmonious system in the first place. But simply being close to becoming a good team doesn’t mean you will. ENCE could learn this the hard way.