The third time was the charm for Aleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev, who finally broke his duck at Majors after leading NAVI to victory at PGL Major Stockholm. The title had been a long time coming for the Ukrainian, even though his place on the pantheon of Counter-Strike greats was never really in question.
For s1mple, the wait for a Major title must have felt like a lifetime.
Twice he had come close to winning a Major, with Liquid at ESL One Cologne 2016 and with NAVI at FACEIT Major 2018, only to end up on the losing side, battered and bruised after thrashings in the final by SK Gaming and Astralis, respectively.
This time around, s1mple would not let history repeat itself.
With the trophy firmly in his sight, s1mple followed up his man-of-the-match performance against Gambit with another masterclass in the best-of-three final against a combative G2 side.
The first time G2 threatened to pull away, s1mple picked up four quick kills with the AWP on the B site on Ancient. As he looked at the camera, he gestured to calm everyone down. He was not going to be denied his glory. Not tonight.
After a relatively easy first game, Nuke was a much harder affair, but s1mple and his NAVI team held their nerve beautifully to come back from 15-10 down before winning in double overtime.
As he got up from his seat and hugged his teammates, s1mple, who finished the Major with a record 1.47 rating, couldn’t hold back the tears.
Years of struggles
For many years, a Major title was an elusive target for s1mple. He was unsettled in North America during his brief tenure with Liquid, prompting a return home to play for the biggest team in the CIS region in search of success.
After a shaky start with NAVI, the trophies began to flow, but the team often peaked at the wrong time and alternated between impressive moments and unseemly ones. At the Majors, NAVI were found lacking, even when s1mple was in pristine form, which only added to his frustration.
As the years went by and s1mple continued to get titles under his belt and cement his legacy, would he come to be remembered as a king without a crown?
In March 2018, just weeks after a semi-final exit at ELEAGUE Major Boston, s1mple flirted with the idea of leaving NAVI and joining the core of SK’s Brazilian lineup. Who knows what sort of parallel universe we would live in right now had that move come to fruition, but s1mple eventually ended the suspense and pledged his future to the organization. “It is not the time to leave the team, with all the goals that we set,” he wrote on his VK page. “My journey is not finished yet.”
s1mple dug deep and kept finding new ways to push himself, ending 2018 as the best player in the world despite Astralis’ stranglehold on titles that year. Around that time, another rivalry began to brew as a certain Mathieu ‘ZywOo’ Herbaut came into the fray, ready to challenge s1mple for the throne.
The Frenchman’s meteoric rise was another bitter pill for s1mple, who had to watch as the Vitality star beat him to the title of the best player in the world, in back-to-back years no less. All the while NAVI continued their tendency to blow hot and cold, enjoying some incredible highs but also enduring some crushing lows.
As we approached the end of 2020, NAVI realized that something had to change. They promoted Valeriy ‘B1T’ Vakhovskiy from the academy team and began to utilize him as part of a six-man setup before eventually handing him a permanent spot in the starting lineup.
From strength to strength
It was one little change that made a world’s difference. The 18-year-old, despite having little top-flight experience, boasts skills and confidence well beyond his years, showing no stage fright, even in his first appearance at the finals of a major tournament with a crowd.
Since adding B1T, NAVI have been a class above the rest, and now they have a Major trophy to add to the IEM Cologne title and the $1 million Intel Grand Slam cheque they won in recent months. And the scariest part is, for the majority of the tournament, they didn’t even need s1mple to be at his best to win matches.
This is the collective strength of the new-look NAVI, where there are no weak links and everyone is pulling in the exact same direction.
NAVI are a much happier place now than in the past, when s1mple often looked isolated from the rest of the group, especially when things went sour. Now, he truly feels a sense of belonging, and he was more than happy to share the glory as he took the stage.
“We just said that we need to believe in ourselves and we were going to win,” an emotional s1mple said after the match. “We made the comeback [on Nuke], and at 15-15, I told my teammates that the comeback was not finished, and we just kept fighting.
“I’m so proud of my team. Look at them! F**king champions!”
A new era is dawning in Counter-Strike, and competitors will be gunning for NAVI’s scalp when making changes in the weeks and months to come.
As he reflected on the challenges that he has faced over the years, s1mple admitted that he was glad that he decided, back in 2018, to stay with NAVI. The job was not yet done at the time, and he knew it.
More than five years on from that grand final in Cologne, s1mple can finally stop agonizing over the stinging defeats and the times he was so close to the dream, and yet so far away. He can now cross another accomplishment off his list, though he will certainly want to add more Majors to his collection.
The wait is over. The king of Counter-Strike has finally claimed his crown.