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Adapt or die: Empire is back in Sweden after November’s group stage disappointment

Team Empire is one of the tournament's big unknowns.

Image via Ubisoft

Closed-minded. Resistant to change. Easy to read. These are terms used to define the current roster of Team Empire, a team that doesn’t want to change or seems unable to.

It’s been a long while since the last time we saw the Russian cyborgs slapping their opponents with the ease of stealing candy from a child. Believe it or not, Empire’s golden age was three years ago, when the roster finished in second at the SI 2019 and won the Pro League Season 9. 

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. 

Team Empire’s last encouraging result at an international competition was seven months ago, at the Mexico Major. Although that’s a good result, if you read it between the lines, you realize that things could have gone differently. 

The Russians were drawn in TSM’s group, who was forced to play with Owen “Pojoman” Mitura instead of Bryan “Merc” Wrzek due to COVID-19 complications. Two of the only three Empire regulation wins in that stage of the event were against the North American side. 

Danila “dan” Dontsov and Artur “ShepparD” Ipatov also carried the Russian team throughout the very first six games of the event, narrowly avoiding another group stage disaster. The Russian duo kept the team alive as they were pivotal in the overtime win against Invictus Gaming, and the first and second win against TSM. Despite losing both matches against Liquid, both players were the only ones to register positive ratings against the Brazilians, with dan being the best in their game on Consulate and ShepparD leading the charge two days later.

 Later on, the rest of the names in the squad would get back on track, which was key for the team at reaching the very last game of the event.

Last but surely not least, the Russians reached Mexico’s Grand Final thanks to map ban stages. Empire played all of its group stage games in Consulate (4) or Clubhouse (2), two of its flagship maps. The quarter-final match against SSG was played in Kafe (another of Empire’s best maps, 7-4) and Clubhouse (8-7), while the semi-final game against BDS was played in Kafe, Coastline, and Consulate. The Frenchmen’s mistake was possibly banning Villa instead of Consulate, which would eventually end in a Russian win. 

After all of that, Team Empire lost the Mexico Major Grand Final against Team oNe by 3-2 – with the Russians winning in Clubhouse and Consulate, and losing in Chalet, Villa, and Coastline, which was the tightest map of the series (8-6). 

Empire’s players are aware of how evenly matched they were. “If BDS had won against us, they would have won the Major,” said dan in a pre-Sweden Major interview with SiegeGG.

Empire’s map pool was reduced to three clear maps (Clubhouse, Coastline, Kafe) after the Mexico Major, when Consulate was removed from the professional map pool as Bank was added instead. Since then, the Russians have played seven times on Bank, winning just two.  

In Sweden, we started noticing how Villa was slowly being introduced to the Russians’ map pool. The Italian map was picked in three of its six group stage games, with the rest being played on Coastline (2) and Oregon. Unluckily for the team, the adaptation was not good enough and the roster couldn’t make the final bracket.

A month later, Empire used the European League Finals as a practice field for the Six Invitational. A 2-0 victory over Natus Vincere (Oregon and Coastline) was followed by a 0-3 loss to BDS (Coastline, Chalet, and Kafe). 

“We are struggling in our map pool, both in the Russian Major League and in the Sweden Major, we have to choose between Oregon, Bank, Chalet, and Villa, and now we are preparing for the Six Invitational, with our second goal being the EUL,” said Danil “JoyStiCK” Gabov in post-match interview with the host and caster Ghassan “Milosh” Finge.

Overall, Team Empire is a big unknown. The Russians have been practicing and adapting to other maps after realizing that the roster must adapt to recent times. 

Looking at the current map pool, Chalet will possibly be the team’s most banned map, as they have only played it two times at T1 events. From there, if the team succeeds at integrating Villa in its map pool, alongside improving its performances on Oregon, we could be in front of the cyborgs’ resurrection. One that could bring us back to 2019. 

Individually, we are talking of one of the most experienced and skilled teams in the venue. Adaptation is key, and while time has passed, the team’s mindset has been the same. The historical quality is there, but it’s do-or-die time for Empire. 

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