Photo Credit (Daniel Ranki)
True Ninjas in Pajamas devotees might be tempted to suggest that the Swedes’ tournament win at IEM Oakland was bound to happen, however, the result should have caused some significant reckoning and recalculation for any neutral observer.
NiP have not been an elite level team in some time, yet they defeated Counter-Strike’s heir-apparent, FaZe, in a full best-five-series. It shouldn’t have been possible.
Recall that just a few weeks ago, FaZe seemed unbeatable. While their opening foray as a five at DreamHack Masters Malmö wasn’t particularly impressive, a more practiced FaZe monopolized ESL One New York and ELEAGUE Premier soon thereafter.
They only dropped 39 rounds total across seven games in New York, and didn't drop a single map at either tournament, even beating some of the world’s better teams such as Cloud9, Astralis, North, and a peaking Team Liquid on their own best picks.
They were a world apart from their peers. The star-studded roster did not just look like the new world number one, or the eventual namesake of their era, they looked transcendent, like a team that would be far more dominant than Fnatic in 2015 or SK in 2016, a NiP in a far more competitive epoch.
But now with their two most recent results, an early elimination at EPICENTER and their loss to NiP at IEM, we have to come back down to earth. While FaZe certainty should be considered the best team in the post-player break period of play, their glutinous abundance of talent shouldn’t be mistaken for an unbeatable, well-rounded roster.
First, FaZe don’t have and probably never will have a full seven map pool. If you look at FaZe’s LAN results since their formation, they only have looked extraordinarily strong on four maps:
- Record: 9-1
- wins: Na’Vi, Astralis, Liquid, North, TyLoo, Gambit, SK, Liquid, NiP
- Record: 8-1
- Wins: Cloud9, EnVyUs, Liquid, Astralis, G2, OpTic, Cloud9, NiP
- Record: 8-2
- Wins: mousesports, Gambit, renegades, Cloud9, Liquid, North, Virtus.pro
- Record: 4-1
- Wins: Virtus.pro, Astralis, TyLoo, Gambi
Now, what is great about FaZe’s four is that they are dominant on the two most popular and most contested maps in the pool at the moment alongside the more niche picks of Overpass and Cache. Looking at the bottom half of their pool, FaZe have not been very successful at all.
- Wins: None
- Record: 1-2
- Wins: EnVyUs
- Record: 2-3
- Wins: Renegades, Cloud9
The possibility of FaZe attaining the fabled full seven map pool was distorted by the pick and ban phases of ESL One New York and ELEAGUE Premier. In nearly all of their best-of-three and best-of-five series at these two tournaments, FaZe’s opponents picked right into their sweet spot. Cloud9 picked Mirage. Liquid picked Inferno and Mirage. North picked Mirage. And Astralis picked Overpass. Only EnVyUs hit a weak spot and picked Nuke though they still lost.
But it’s not like these teams had nothing better to pick. FaZe were still a burgeoning team at the time; no one could see the exact shape of their pool yet. Teams have played their cards far better at these last two tournaments. At EPICENTER, Gambit picked Train into FaZe to start off their best-of-three, while Virtus Pro picked Cobblestone in response to FaZe’s surprise first ban of Nuke, and both teams won their opening pick. And it was more of the same at IEM Oakland.
Cloud9 picked Train first this time, but still lost, while NiP picked Cobblestone and Train which they both won leading to their series and tournament clinching performance on the decider, Cache. But, of course, the breadth of a team’s map pool is reflective of their own strengths and identity as a team.
So what are FaZe missing?
Well, first of all this FaZe roster has always been an exercise in the extreme. During the player break they added two former world number one-level players in Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer Gustafsson and Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács to go along with a current near-world number one player in Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, an elite player with superstar-level peaks in Håvard "rain" Nygaard, and an experienced and accomplished in-game leader in Finn "karrigan" Andersen.
However, even though this 4-star Megazord with Karrigan at its head was eye-grabbing, even dazzling, fans and analysts never had a superlative opinion about them initially. It seemed far from assured that such a talent-dense team could properly function together.
While have had far more success than initially imagined, their tactical potency and quality of team play was perhaps overstated or overestimated in the wake of their two tournament wins. Most of their success has largely built upon skill and their strength on the CT-side.
If you look at all of FaZe’s most impressive single map victories, they are almost all due to CT-side shutdowns. When FaZe beat Liquid on Inferno, they won a flawless 15 straight rounds on the defense. Versus Astralis on Overpass, the long-time dominant force on that map, FaZe won a colossal 12 on the CT-side. Likewise, Cloud9 were an emerging force on Train even looking like a possible world leader on it, before their T-side too was crushed 11-4 by FaZe.
Going further, FaZe’s strength on the CT-side seems specific even in itself. Unlike a team like Gambit whose defensives work because of a good combination of skill, coordination, and the ability to win retakes, FaZe’s success depends much more on skill and raw aggression. It appears that Guardian is allowed to take whatever peak or duel he wants with the AWP, while Rain, Niko, and Olofmeister likewise seem to have a lot the freedom to make aggressive pushes as riflers. For instance, Rain has noticeably and frequently had success taking battles on Overpass in the bathrooms area or in other forward A-positions.
While these sorts of plays have the obvious drawback of possibly falling flat on their face, FaZe is more free to take these risks than most teams due to their large reserves of firepower. In a recent article, Stuchiu even compared FaZe’s CT-side to the mythical Hydra. Killing one monster only makes more appear. And in an October interview with Slingshot, Karrigan himself said, “Any time someone dies and we fall 4-v-5, everyone just knows someone will kill two guys.”
But on the other side of the game, the picture isn’t nearly as rosy. On the T-side, FaZe only really seems consistently effective on their leading maps. In the bottom half of the pool they can often look fairly bland or mediocre, rarely winning rounds through creative executes or surprising rotations, and sometimes struggling to get anything done at all. This even extends to Cache where they visibly struggled versus NiP (FaZe won the T-pistol and the subsequent two anti-ecos before losing seven of the next eight rounds) and Astralis (FaZe’s poor 3-12 T-side had to be bailed out by a 13-2 CT-side).
Even on the maps where they do well, their overall effectiveness on the T-side is largely buoyed by their raw skill. They have an unparalleled ability to either open up rounds via one-on-one duels and can win Desert Eagle or other pistol based force buys, which can cover up their inadequacies elsewhere.
Given these qualities, in a broad sense, it is understandable why FaZe’s map pool is the way it is. Mirage is a map that allows for plenty of duals on either side of the map, and Overpass is likewise amenable for early CT aggression. Cobblestone, their usual first-ban, conversely has often been criticized as being a map where the CTs have very limited means to aggress on the Ts, and the very tactical Train has hardly been a FaZe favorite.
Now, again, all of this doesn’t make them a bad team. You can still be a great team with an extreme strength in one area and middling strengths in others. In fact, they probably should be considered the best team in the world at the moment until we see more from SK with Ricardo "boltz" Prass.
However, the specter of doubt that now lingers over the mixed team’s legacy-to-be is not there solely because these holes in their play have now become apparent. Recall that the post-Pronax Fnatic roster of late 2015 and early 2016 won six straight tournaments while being a very stylized team, the ultimate “loose,” firepower-centric end of the spectrum.
What’s more concerning is that if you look at their actions and their approach up till now, it seems that FaZe themselves don’t accept or understand their own limitations, looking more Icarus than Hydra. They often try to play like an ideal well-rounded team, despite persistent suggestions otherwise. Why do they bother even trying to have a seven map pool? Why are they chasing after such an impossibly lofty perch in history’s hierarchy?
Maybe they should try to abuse their lockdown CT-sides and give more practice and priority to a map like Nuke. Maybe their Cache T-sides should be more about straight attacks and brute force a la 2015 Fnatic rather than defaults and late round pushes. And maybe Cobblestone should be more of a permaban and locked away completely.
FaZe’s perfectionism could be a straightjacket that only grows tighter as they struggle towards the impossibility of their purpose. They are specialists not superhumans, and perhaps if they accept that they will be able to extend their reach further upwards and achieve a greater greatness in the end.
Photo courtesy of DreamHack and Adela Sznajder