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Woe betide FaZe Clan: The NiKo experiment

Photo Credit: (DreamHack)

Nikola “NiKo” Kovac is one of the greatest Counter-Strike players ever to touch the game. His aim, positioning and overall mechanics along with his amazing clutching ability and intelligent game-sense have placed him amongst the game’s greats. The 22-year-old Bosnian’s pro career, spanning from iNation with current coach Janko “YNk” Paunovic as his captain, to mousesports and then to FaZe, is young yet rich. At the FACEIT Major's group stage, FaZe were one map away from elimination. The young NiKo made a fatal mistake; he performed a mutiny. A move which destroyed the most expensive international roster of all time. FaZe succumbed to the will of one of the best in the world at the cost of the team and now require drastic changes for any success.

Any team that is led by Finn “karrigan” Andersen is privileged. Most Counter-Strike players could only dream of playing under such a decorated captain. However, NiKo undermined him and took leadership and control of FaZe Clan. The former captain failed to stand up in newer, unnatural supportive positions and the team has not clicked whatsoever. Victory at EPICENTER 2018 proved to be a short-term high, and a red herring for hoped future success. Overall, poor results followed NiKo’s leadership coup, and the Bosnian booted karrigan consequentially. This was what would spell the death knell for FaZe, as in losing such an experienced, excellent leader, they lost their order, direction and structure.

The early stages of 2019

Unable to find an adequate replacement before the iBUYPOWER Masters and having turned to YNk for coaching, NiKo added the 29-year-old former Major MVP Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev on a stand-in basis. The new lineup, with Kovac at the wheel, kicked off 2019 with a shoddy showing at the iBUYPOWER Masters, getting eliminated from the group stage after two losses to the North American side of Ghost Gaming. Beating the dead-in-the-water Luminosity lineup was little consolation for a team with title-winning aspirations. After a long hiatus over Christmas and the New Year, along with a bootcamp to prepare for the forthcoming Major, NiKo had the chance to solidify his FaZe lineup for 2019. He failed.

That being said, the roster next ended up at the four-team ELEAGUE Invitational, and wound up victors. Against a new-look BIG that would suffer as 2019 wore on, Cloud9 with rookie stand-in Jordan “Zellsis” Montemurro and coL with Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert and Ricky “Rickeh” Mulholland filling in, FaZe relied on merit and individual skill as they scraped past Cloud9 in the final. ELEAGUE practically handed FaZe the tournament on a silver platter, and they took it.

At the Major itself, FaZe were 1-2 after beating HellRaisers but falling to AVANGAR and Renegades. Best-of-three victories against coL and Cloud9 put them back into Legends status, but this did not reflect their overall performance. The teams they faced en route to the quarter-finals were effective minnows, apart from Renegades who have marched into 2019 with confidence. Relying on the disputable seeding system to put them into the quarter-finals is not a characteristic of FaZe Clan, who just one year earlier had strolled into the final under karrigan’s leadership. In the quarterfinals Na'Vi drubbed FaZe, and rightfully so, as despite NiKo’s continued individual heroics the team still lacked structure, order and direction.

FaZe receive the benefit of the doubt for BLAST Pro Series Sao Paulo. Against top teams in Astralis, ENCE and Liquid, and a solid NiP, defeats are understandable. Victory over hometown heroes MIBR, who bowed out 0-5 in the round robin, marked a bittersweet 5th place at the event.

Most recently, FaZe travelled to Shanghai for StarSeries i-League S7. They had a lucky draw for their first two games, as they took down the Brazilian underdogs in paiN 2-0 and then disposed of ViCi with the same scoreline. They cracked under pressure, though, and crashed out 2-3 after defeats to ENCE, Renegades and finally North leaving the writing on the wall; NiKo's in-game leadership is destroying FaZe Clan.

The crux of FaZe’s issue

A mixed start to 2019 had undertones of worry. Winning at ELEAGUE was a bright note, but against inferior competition, it was FaZe’s event to lose. They bombed out in Los Angeles, relied on seeding in Katowice, faced tough competition in Sao Paulo, and choked in Shanghai. NiKo’s in-game leadership has been so damaging for FaZe, because deeper than said results, the Bosnian has the reins; and that’s the true crux of the issue.

Some organisations take complete control over roster moves, famous examples including North. Others give the entire team power over the lineup, arguably the fairest yet perhaps the least efficient method. Then comes FaZe, whose lineup is completely in the grasp of NiKo. Whether it be because of his vast buyout, undebatable quality inside of the game, or confident personality, the Bosnian holds all the cards.

Yes, NiKo is a poor in-game leader. Yes, the team has suffered hugely because of their lack of structure, order and direction, even with a new coach in the form of YNk, but even more worryingly, NiKo is totally in control of FaZe’s Counter-Strike division. Any roster move he wants to make, such as adding his friend and former in-game leader as the coach, is his to make. Neglecting to add an in-game leader ahead of 2019’s season, so he can continue the practice in blind confidence, speaks volumes as to the hubris that plagues NiKo.

How can FaZe allow themselves to be in his hands? The team is a shadow of their former selves that karrigan led, with poor in-game leadership from NiKo driving FaZe into the doldrums. The lineup requires drastic changes.

A future in doubt

The international lineup of FaZe faces only one choice to save their team. NiKo has to go. He has infected the team with his hubris and confidence, caused trauma near the end of Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs and Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer’s careers, and ruined the team. He is the star player and carry of FaZe though. As such, further changes should follow to compensate. It is not as if the organisation are short of pocket, and so revitalisation in the form of multiple, expensive options is a must.

FaZe is the Manchester City, the Real Madrid, the PSG of Counter-Strike. They can poach talent from other organisations to push themselves upwards, using vast sums of money. It is with this in mind that Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev is a must for this lineup. The best player ever to touch Counter-Strike, the Ukranian superstar is comfortable as an AWPer and a rifler, and capable of excellent performances level and above those of NiKo. He should replace AdreN, and return to rifling until the sorry day that the legendary GuardiaN retires. Past issues between the current FaZe AWPer and the young superstar would be swept under the rug, as s1mple is a new player and person now, ready for rescue from NaVi.

In terms of NiKo’s replacement, an in-game leader is what the team is clamouring for. There are only two realistic options that could cut it in FaZe: GamerLegion’s Kevin "Ex6TenZ" Droolans and mousesports' Chris "chrisJ" De Jong. Both are seasoned leaders, Ex6TenZ a Major champion and chrisJ the face of mousesports. Droolans is a structured in-game leader yet one who struggled for G2 in 2018, though he has been at the helm of many legendary teams such as Titan and VeryGames. He has recently turned to international teams, in the mix known as Uruguay which signed with GamerLegion. ChrisJ is a veteran player, with a wealth of experience in international teams and a lot of history in-game leading mousesports. The rifler, with the capacity to AWP as a hybrid player, has had his captaincy revoked by karrigan. The new iteration of Mouz has lost its Major spot so already removed its core, and thus chrisJ's spot is not entrenched in the organisation.

Both are credible options. Ex6TenZ offers great experience at a high level, and has the history and structure behind him to build up FaZe. However, he has only played in international lineups recently for GamerLegion, and so his lack of practice in English-speaking communications renders him a weak choice for FaZe. Thus, chrisJ must come calling. With the ability to add AWPing capabilities to the team, as well as being on a high-performing mousesports in 2018, and his good English communications secure his usefulness over Ex6TenZ.

FaZe are a deeply flawed Counter-Strike team, under an overconfident in-game leader who massively overstates his own leadership quality in the form of NiKo, and one who relies on and gives power to him. This needs to change, for FaZe’s potential rescue. Add chrisJ, and perhaps sign s1mple, then witness the international lineup become one of the most interesting teams to watch as 2019 wears on. After all, who knows what would happen at StarLadder Berlin, the second Major of the year?

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