It's been a great year for young stars in Counter-Strike. Cerq and Smooya were both bright spots for NRG and BIG, respectively. Zywoo made a late run as he burst onto the pro-scene from FPL, joining Vitality and winning Dreamhack Atlanta immediately. With respect to those three talented players, no star has shone as bright as the young Finnish rifler Jere "sergej" Salo this season. Two tournament wins and two MVP awards from those wins have earned him this year's RealSport Counter-Strike Rookie of the Year award.
To anyone who wasn’t closely following Finnish esports org Havu in the second half of 2017, who were dominating the regional competition, Sergej would have seemed like just a name to make up the numbers as ENCE made their return to Counter-Strike in April of 2018. However, to veteran players of the Finnish scene who have watched him from the beginning, sergej's explosion onto Counter-Strike's world stage is no surprise. Former teammate xartE praised him for his game sense and willingness to take risks at such a young age before he eventually left for ENCE:
“He has good reads when to rotate and when not to, overall. He also likes to take ‘not so comfortable’ and risky positions and make them work for him. I think we have only seen a glimpse of his skill, but time will tell. He adapts pretty quickly when there is a tougher opponent, but he still needs more experience to be more comfortable on the server.”
That experience needed has come via a baptism of fire for the young Finn, as ENCE have been competing in Tier 1 and Tier 2 tournaments all season. It's been no sweat for sergej as he has proven repeatedly that he belongs and even excels at that level. ENCE have won both StarSeries i-League Season 6 and Dreamhack Open Winter this year to go along with 2nd place finish at Dreamhack Open Montreal and 7th-8th place finishes at ESL One Cologne and Epicenter. The two events that ENCE won are undoubtedly not events with the very top teams competing, but it's very impressive for a lineup who came together in April and featured only one household name in Allu. sergej took the MVP awards from both of those LAN victories and posted a HLTV rating of 1.15 on LAN vs Top 30 teams this year.
I think what really stands out when you watch sergej is that he seems comfortable no matter what weapon he has. He's more recently picked up the secondary-awp and he and Allu have become a deadly combination for ENCE, often stopping teams in their tracks before they even reach a bombsite. His game sense is well beyond his years, in terms of experience at the top level, and he's hardly ever caught peeking what he shouldn't or positioned incorrectly on the CT side.
The only big disappointment for sergej this year was missing out on the FaceIt London Major by coming third in the European Minor to NiP and OpTic. He will have another chance to qualify for first major when ENCE competes at the EU Minor in Katowice in January. The future is bright for many of Counter-Strike's young stars, but this has been sergej's year and he's poised to be one of the esports biggest stars for many years to come.
Is Sergej your rookie of the year? Have someone else in mind? Comment below!