Season 16 of the ESL Pro League Conference is now just days away. Sixteen teams will converge on Jönköping in Sweden and battle for the $15,000 USD prize pool but, most importantly, a spot in the EPL group stage later in September — the playoffs of which feature a whopping $835,000 USD and a chance to take on the world’s best.
It’s a special Conference stage next week as Jönköping will feature not one, not two, but three home-grown Oceanic squads vying for six group spots.
For a newly-fashioned Order, they’ll be out to make amends for the Season 15 Conference, where losses to Extra Salt and Eternal Fire saw their EPL dreams dashed.
For Encore, a chance to prove themselves after an early IEM Dallas exit, and to put the experience they’ve gained from their overseas fares to proper use.
But for our third representatives in Vertex, and their expectations ahead of their first international tournament?
“As for expectations, it’s just important that we play good Counter-Strike and we keep our composure,” said veteran Liam “malta” Schembri to Snowball Esports.
Malta and the Vertex Wolfpack qualified for the Conference with their second place finish to Renegades at ANZ Champs, and have spent the better part of a fortnight bootcamping and perfecting their brand of Counter-Strike — something they’ve had to keep changing up while at home.
“In Oceania you get used to changing how you play a ton because the team you’re against has played you a hundred times in the same situation,” said Malta.
“Honestly we’ve surprised ourselves with how well we’ve been playing [at the bootcamp].”
The three-time Major attendee and former Renegade has seen his fair share of international trips in his career.
But things have very much changed since his first outing, then with Chiefs in 2016, with the challenges of competing on the big stage for the first time a little different than before.
“I think the first time I went [overseas] with the old Chiefs line-up, we got there the day before the event, played super jetlagged with no practice and went home straight away,” Malta recalls.
“It’s been funny comparing it, because for all these players it’s their first time going internationally, and they get to bootcamp for two weeks against the best teams in the world in preparation.
“So I think the challenges have changed a lot since then, and now it’s mainly making sure we don’t have expectations going into practice and events here, other than playing the best CS that we can.
“Everyone is super motivated, so we can have super long practice days and cram a lot of learning into one day.”
Vertex has risen as a unit over the past six months. Before just a stepping stone for the region’s top sides, the Wolfpack have come into their own in 2022 since acquiring Malta, and have ascended into contention at the top of Oceania.
Their next step is taking down the frontrunners in Order and Encore—something they’re yet to do this year—but Malta believes with more practice and experience, their time will come.
“[Compared to Order/Encore] there definitely isn’t a missing piece per say — we just need time and bootcamps.
“I think Order is a level above the region, and they suffer the most from playing the same teams over and over in the region because everyone is practicing to beat them.
“It’s the sole goal of every other team in the region because they’re the gatekeepers of international trips. But they do well to stay constantly ahead tactically and obviously the players are all very strong individually.”
It’s been a recurring theme in Oceania across almost the entire history of Global Offensive. With international opportunities slim and almost always one dominant team to claim them, peers focus heavily on countering just one team — even at a detriment.
But Malta believes Vertex is past that.
“I don’t think there is anything the team is struggling with in particular, we’re just going through all the usual trials and tribulations of a team improving.
“If anything I believe we’re all finding it a lot easier to play against some teams who don’t know exactly how each other play.”
It’s been quite a comeback for Oceanic CS:GO compared to the lows that the COVID pandemic brought over the past two years.
To have four teams go international inside of a year—and three at a single event, no less—is a remarkable accomplishment for a struggling scene thousands of kilometers away from the sanctity that is Counter-Strike in Europe.
But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, with Malta believing the OCE talent pool has been stretched thin.
“I think [OCE CS:GO] is in a bit of a dip at the moment, with ex-Order splitting up and Paradox losing a big impact player [in Danny “DANNYG” Giusa].
“There are only really four other teams I would consider remotely competitive and most of the time one or more are overseas.
“In terms of organizational support, I would guess they have the same opinion as me, and outside of the teams qualifying overseas there really isn’t a lot of value for organizations unless players are willing to commit to content on the side.
“I think Grayhound was a good proof of concept that there is a market for stuff like that if people are willing to try.”
It’s not just the top flight that’s getting back on its feet. Grassroots Counter-Strike has returned in a big way in 2022 already; betting agency Rivalry jumped on board to support local organizers, and numerous events in Brisbane and Melbourne have seen massive success — with more on the way.
“I haven’t really been overly involved in grassroots events throughout my career, but back in the day I wouldn’t have started competing without [CyberGamer] LANs,” said Malta.
“Those were the events where I was noticed and picked up for the first Chiefs lineup.
“I think local events like the WanderLAN are just great to meet the community and have some fun with mates. I do have a pretty strong opinion that teams shouldn’t compete [at these LANs] with their full lineups. It just isn’t in the spirit of a local community LAN.”
Not many Aussies or Kiwis have had an opportunity to compete internationally with two different cores, but Malta joins an elite few when he takes to the server next week.
It was at Clash of Rivals Melbourne—affectionately titled WanderLAN—where Malta first officially competed with the current Vertex core, and he says his transition into the line-up has been seamless, thanks in part to captain Toby “BRACE” Barnes.
“Honestly it’s been super easy. Toby [BRACE] has a pretty clear idea of how he likes to structure the team so it’s pretty much just been working with him to integrate how I like to play and input for team-wide stuff.
“I think the biggest difference between the [Renegades and Vertex], for me, is I get to have more input with how rounds should play out here, which is important for me personally.”
No expectations, an open mind and a two-week bootcamp then for our Vertex crew’s first international outing — but we’re forgetting a very important factor.
And a big one at that. The big question, then — is Europe ready for teammate James “Roflko” Lytras?
“I’ve been around the guy for six months now and even then I’m not ready for half the shit he does.”
Vertex will open their ESL Pro League Conference account against French squad Falcons Esports on June 17 at 3:30am AEST.
Keep up with the EPL Conference via our ultimate coverage hub.