Watching Nikola "NiKo" Kovač play Counter-Strike is an absolute marvel. His raw ability to single-handedly take over a game is comparable only to other all-time legends. It is because of this skill that many analysts have questioned NiKo as a long-term solution for the in-game leader position he took over from Finn "karrigan" Andersen. These questions centered on whether NiKo could maintain his standout all-star levels while also having to focus on play calling. Now, as Janko "YNk" Paunović and Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev will join the squad for the next major and knowing NiKo will remain the in-game leader moving forward, it becomes necessary to look at NiKo's value to FaZe as a leader, and how well he is performing in the position.
Looking at NiKo's individual statistics during his tenure as the FaZe IGL, it's clear that the new role has not hindered his individual performances much, if at all. NiKo ended the London major with a 1.19 rating, the highest of any IGL at the tournament, with the next closest being legendary IGL Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo at 1.17. Astoundingly, NiKo has maintained a 1.21 rating over the last three months at big events with FaZe according to HLTV, making him the second highest rated player in the game over these months.
To put these ratings into context, the only player with a higher rating than NiKo during these last three months is Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, who is finishing up one of the most dominant individual years in Counter-Strike history. Despite the inter-team issues that FaZe have been facing over the past few months, NiKo has taken over the captain's position and returned the team to relevance on the international stage, all while remaining in top form, and putting up team-leading (and world-leading) numbers.
Perhaps traditional counter strike logic dictates you don't want your best player having to focus on both top fragging and focusing on the tactical direction of the rounds. The argument falls flat when presented with the above statistics, NiKo has both improved his team's placings AND maintained form since taking up the role. His aptitude for the position is clear, and he is definitively showing his value to the team beyond headshots.
Performing as a team
Looking at some of FaZe's tournaments placings prior to NiKo taking over the leadership position, we see where the struggling for FaZe began:
1st at ESL one Belo Horizonte 20183-4th at ESL one Cologne 20187-8th at ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier 20185-8th at DreamHack Masters Stockholm 2018
This all leads directly up to the nightmare 0-2 start FaZe had at the major in London, where NiKo finally took over in-game leadership of the team. A downward trend was clear before this role change took place.
Now look at FaZe's performance after NiKo took over:
1st EPICENTER 20184th BLAST Pro Series Copenhagen 20183-4th IEM Chicago 20185th BLAST Pro Series Lisbon 2018
Niko led the team to their first event win in four months at his second full tournament as the IGL and maintained placings around the top four for the rest of the year. While top four placings might fall short of the expectations made for this FaZe Can when formed, it's clear that rescue was necessary, and a top four placing is a positive swing when compared to the prior top eights.
Players and Playstyles
FaZe is a team that appears perfectly suited for NiKo's style as an IGL. They are a team filled with incredible individual playmakers, players that can find their stride on a "loose" system that allows them to look for openings mid-round and exploit them.
Olof "Olofmeister" Gustafsson is still playing his best Counter-Strike when allowed to play on the outer edges of a map, finding his own way and working the map in his classic lurking style. Havard "Rain" Nygaard is a truly special entry player, one of the best at opening up areas of a map, allowing room for his teammates to follow up with big plays. Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács' abilities hardly need explanation, he's one of the greatest AWPers to ever play the game and using his demos you could run a masterclass on how to use your teammate's aggression to set yourself up for frags.
These are the talents that excel in loosely run systems. The best showcase of NiKo's calling style was at EPICENTER 2018, where FaZe absolutely dismantled Na'Vi in the grand finals 16-12 and 16-3 on Mirage and Dust2, respectively. The Mirage win came off the back of fast pushing terrorist rounds, allowing Rain to open up portions of the map that FaZe was looking to control while Olof worked the periphery of the map. NiKo used this room to blast off to a 1.25 rating (and Rain to an absurd 1.82 rating on dust2!)
Another solid display of NiKo's calling style in effect was at IEM Chicago 2018, where FaZe took down Astralis 2-0 in the upper bracket. Again, we see wins off of information pushes off of Rain and Olof, asserting map control with individual playmaking. The information plays from Olof and Rain allowed NiKo to outcall the best IGL in the world, besting Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander in overtime on Inferno. While growing pains were clear in the series, it proved that FaZe could take on the best in the world in as a team with NiKo at the helm. The system is there, and NiKo has shown that he can maximize the potential of his teammates, though not yet with consistency.
So where are the weaknesses?
Problems still exist for FaZe, even with the new lineup, as they still have a complete lack of a map pool and some puzzling map picks/bans. Over the last three months, FaZe has been outstanding on Mirage, maintaining a 60% win rate at big events. Outside of Mirage, the only map with above a 50% win rate is Train, which they have played just three times in those months. YNk will need to work hard with the team to nail down a map pool as that is by far the easiest FaZe weakness to exploit. Finding a map pool that exists outside of just Mirage will be the most important improvement the team can make before the major.
The individual performances of FaZe players (other than NiKo) have been inconsistent at best over the last three months. Rain, for example, has fallen well short of the player he was in late 2017 and early 2018. He has not found the consistency that allowed him to place 4th in the HLTV top 20 players of 2017. Olof has had similar inconsistency issues, often unable to find the lurk timings that made him famous, forcing him to take a more entry/support role when he can't find his groove.
More work will need to go into keeping these players in form consistently if FaZe wants to continue their upward momentum. Once NiKo, working with YNk and AdreN, finds a gameplan that allows these players to perform consistently, FaZe will undoubtedly see success come again.
NiKo has proven that he is a more than capable in-game leader. He turned around a struggling all-star lineup at the 11th hour, and transitioned that into an upwards trajectory for the remainder of the year. It's evident that NiKo has the skillset and the talent to become an impactful leader, and recent trials of the new coach YNk and AdreN as their 5th, both former IGLs, should help him grow into the role.
It's hard to argue against NiKo's results, he's proven to have an immediate aptitude for the IGL role, all while maintaining some of the best fragging statistics in the game. With these results contextualized, it's looking as though it may be time to more seriously consider NiKo as a true IGL. He is showing the world that FaZe doesn't need to "solve the IGL issue". They may have already solved it.
Do you believe NiKo is capable of being a top tier fragging IGL? Comment below!