As the CSGO season begins, all eyes remain on NAVI - Dexerto
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As the CSGO season begins, all eyes remain on NAVI

Published: 28/Jan/2022 10:51 Updated: 28/Jan/2022 10:53

by Luís Mira

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After a long break, the CS:GO season is back, and many teams will debut their new rosters. What can we expect from the pretenders to NAVI’s throne?

With the BLAST Premier Spring Groups officially kicking off the Counter-Strike season, one topical question lingers: Can anyone take the crown from NAVI?

The CIS giants were the dominant force in the scene in 2021, sweeping trophies and individual awards, and setting a new record for the most prize money won in a single calendar year. It will be hard for anyone to top what NAVI did last year, when they won all four LAN events they attended – including the Major –, an Intel Grand Slam, and a handful of online competitions.

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There is a perfect blend of experience and youth in NAVI’s team, which has an average age of 22.4 years – the joint-second-youngest in the top 10 of HLTV’s world rankings at the moment. Aleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev and Denis ‘electroNic’ Sharipov have been playing at the highest level for so long that sometimes it’s easy to forget that they’re only 24 and 23 years old, respectively.

João Ferreira/Dexerto
S1mple reached a new level of greatness in 2021 and secured eight MVP medals

All of NAVI’s players have plenty of great years ahead of them, so there’s no reason – bar an injury or a deterioration of the relationship between the players – that this formula cannot continue to bear fruit.

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And if for some reason things go awry, NAVI have the most efficient producer of young talent in their academy project. Success stories like those of Valerii ‘b1t’ Vakhovskyi and Ilya ‘m0NESY’ Osipov, sold to G2 Esports for a reported fee of $600,000, make everyone think that NAVI are covered for every possible scenario, that even the slightest deviation from their master plan will be dealt with swiftly and strongly.

The envy of all teams, NAVI enter the 2022 season a good couple of levels above everyone else. There were a handful of power moves in the offseason in an attempt to knock NAVI off the perch this year. But will anyone succeed?

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The heavy hitters

The new season will begin not with an arena or a studio event, but with an online tournament. It’s a less-than-perfect scenario, given the thrills and excitement that fans and players experienced in the second half of 2021 for the first time in what felt like forever. But for the new teams – and there are many of them -, this can actually work in their favor as they will have the chance to shake off the rust in a lower pressure environment before the stakes get higher.

On paper, FaZe are probably the biggest threat to NAVI at the moment. Robin ‘ropz’ Kool offers a huge firepower upgrade over Olof ‘olofmeister’ Kajbjer and the ability to seamlessly plug-and-play right away. Finn ‘karrigan’ Andersen has already worked with the Estonian star in the past and knows how to get the best out of him – something that could set FaZe apart from teams like G2 and Vitality at this early stage.

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Karrigan giving a thumbs up to the Eleague crowd in Boston
ELeague
With only one player change, FaZe might come out as the biggest winner of the offseason

It could be that Vitality will take a while to find their rhythm as it is not easy to get everything harmonized after going through such radical changes. Their ceiling is now much higher with the additions of Major-winning talent in Peter ‘dupreeh’ Rasmussen, Emil ‘Magisk’ Reif, and head coach Danny ‘zonic’ Sørensen, but it’s impossible not to feel that this tournament will come too soon for them.

G2 have their own issues to address, most importantly the weight of responsibility on m0NESY’s shoulders. At just 16, the Russian AWPer is still very much wet behind the ears and has never played at this level, yet he is now expected to be a difference-maker in a team that has been designed with one purpose: Win a Major.

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Luckily for m0NESY, he won’t need to hit s1mple-esque levels right off the bat, provided that Nikola ‘NiKo’ Kovač continues to put up stellar numbers. For now, the Russian youngster can simply be an upgrade over François ‘AMANEK’ Delaunay and a reliable AWPer who can unlock defenses and hold down bombsites on his own.

With Aleksi ‘Aleksib’ Virolainen having only recently joined the team and Rémy ‘XTQZZZ’ Quoniam still getting to grips with the job and the task of communicating with his troops in English, G2 might look a bit rough around the edges in the first few tournaments.

Question marks and sentimentality

The Nordic duo of NIP and Astralis both head into the BLAST event with dark clouds hanging over their heads, albeit for very different reasons. The Ninjas will play their second full tournament without Nicolai ‘device’ Reedtz – who remains sidelined for an unknown period of time -, with academy player Love ‘phzy’ Smidebrant filling in for the Dane. 2021 was already a rough year for the Ninjas, and without ‘Mr. Consistency’ to bail them out, it’s hard to see them having the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the big boys.

And Astralis, after a promising first tournament with Kristian ‘k0nfig’ Wienecke and Benjamin ‘blameF’ Bremer, have been nothing short of underwhelming. They wrapped up 2021 with a 9th-12th place at IEM Winter and a 5th-6th place at the BLAST Premier World Final, and began 2022 with a 5th-6th place in the Funspark ULTI 2021 Finals.

It has proven difficult for Lukas ‘gla1ve’ Rossander to get the best out of his pieces, and if the slump continues, the clock will be ticking on Philip ‘Lucky’ Ewald, who is seemingly back to AWPing duties. The lack of clarity about the roles in the team and the handling of the AWP like it’s a hot potato raise some serious concerns about their prospects of success.

Astralis
Astralis have had a bumpy time since adding k0nfig and blameF

And then there are the North American teams. The region took quite the beating in 2020 and 2021 with an exodus of talent and organizations amid the rise of Valorant and the global health crisis. Things seem to be on the up again, in part because of the support pledged by the Louvre Agreement teams, but some of the region’s offseason moves made were fuelled by nostalgia and longing.

The worst offender was EG, who decided to bring back the core of Cloud9’s Boston Major-winning lineup, made up of Jake ‘Stewie2K’ Yip, William ‘RUSH’ Wierzba, and Timothy ‘⁠autimatic⁠’ Ta. It seems nigh impossible to see three players in the autumn of their careers, and who couldn’t keep the Cloud9 team functioning four years ago after the region’s biggest achievement, suddenly deliver success to a team whose star players, Vincent ‘Brehze’ Cayonte and Tsvetelin ‘CeRq’ Dimitrov, are going through a slump.

Liquid brought back a familiar face in Nick ‘nitr0’ Cannella, who, like autimatic, is returning to CS:GO after a Valorant stint, in the hopes that he can once again guide the team to the top. It is a move that evokes memories of better times, but can ‘Captain America’ get up to speed quickly enough to avoid a poor start to the year? And can Josh ‘oSee’ Ohm live up to the hype after years farming stats in North America?

Much to everyone’s surprise, it was Complexity who lucked out. After watching the team fail to qualify for the Major, the organization decided it was time to wipe the slate clean and pulled the plug on the ‘Juggernaut’ project. They now have a well-rounded, NA-based squad with the core of the Extra Salt team plus Paytyn ‘junior’ Johnson and Michael ‘Grim’ Wince, two players eager to prove themselves after a bittersweet year. They are one of the potential dark horses for the BLAST tournament along with BIG, who strengthened their team with Josef ‘faveN’ Baumann but may still be one roster move away from being an elite contender.

Getting the new season underway

It’s quite likely that we won’t be seeing a NAVI team at full strength in the BLAST Premier Spring Groups. They ended the 2021 season running on fumes, showing clear signs of fatigue after a long and demanding year. At the BLAST Premier World Final, they began their campaign with a defeat to a ‘dead’ Team Liquid before, and while they went on to win the tournament, it was not as clear cut as some of their other title runs.

NAVI can afford to approach this test with a more relaxed attitude given the nature of the tournament, which basically serves as a qualifier for the Spring Finals, and the fact that it won’t be held on LAN, where their true strength lies. With no trophy at stake, they might want to save their strength and focus for IEM Katowice, the first real challenge of 2022, safe in the knowledge that even their B-game will be enough to get the job done.

The buzz that comes with the start of a new season is back. There will be no great conclusions drawn from this tournament, no accurate measurements of where each team stands, and even though Counter-Strike might not always be of the highest quality, the excitement is guaranteed. After a busy offseason that restored some semblance of normality, it is clear that some teams want to do more than just make up the numbers and play second fiddle to NAVI. But some of the moves still provide more questions than answers.

For all we know, this is still NAVI’s world.