On August 23rd, 2019, ENCE shocked the CS:GO world when they announced a change in their active roster as they benched their in-game leader Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen for Miikka “suNny” Kemppi.
The move was shocking, especially in the context that they were still going to play with Aleksib at the StarLadder Berlin Major, where they got a top 8 result.
It has been two and a half months since that result, enough time to the effects of the kick on the ENCE roster and reflect on what has happened since.
The Aleksib Period
Before we can get into the aftermath of the Aleksib kick, we have to understand what the Aleksib under ENCE looked like. In the latter half of 2018, they assembled the lineup of: Aleksib, Jere “sergej” Salo, Jani “Aerial” Jussila, Sami “xseveN” Laasanen, and Aleksi “Allu” Jalli. Outside of Miikka “suNny” Kemppi, they seemed to have the best players that the Finnish scene had to offer. ENCE then grinded their way through the tier two/three scene of Counter-Strike. They had a gradual linear rise and eventually became the princes of the Tier 2 scene. This culminated in their breakout at the Katowice Major where they made a run to the finals. It was an awe-inspiring run, but hard to quantify as xseveN played far above expectations in the playoffs.
xseveN never reached those heights again, but it didn’t matter. ENCE were a top three team and they laid any doubts to rest with their results. They beat Astralis at BLAST Madrid and ended Astralis’ undefeated streak on Nuke. They got top four at CS Summit 4 and second at DreamHack Dallas.
ENCE powered their brilliant run through their system. Each of their players had fairly set roles. Allu was the AWPer, Aerial was the aggressive rifler, Aleksib the leader, sergej a strong anchor and wing player, and xseveN filled out the roles.
The ENCE machine was brilliant. They had good roles for their players and among those, Allu and sergej stood out as the stars of the squad. What made the team click though was Aleksib’s tactics and their teamplay. ENCE liked to use structured defaults and fast paced executes. By mixing these two styles together, Aleksib dictated the pace of the game on the T-side. This often led to brilliant calls in the final rounds of the half as he was able to read, predict, and counter the setups or timings that the CTs wanted to use.
ENCE’s teamplay was also notable as it was clear that the entire team was fairly coordinated with each other, especially in small man situations. They understood how to play these situations tactically as they often used map control, nade usage, and trading to get advantageous situations. A third factor was the rise of the AUG meta during this period. The ENCE lineup lacked firepower relative to big superstar names, but the AUG fortified their CT-side and closed the skill gap differential.
All of these factors made ENCE mentally sturdy. They were a hard team to put away for nearly any team as they never seemed to lose heart. Even in the cases where ENCE lost badly, it was excusable. At Cologne, they lost a bo1 to NiP and then played Vitality. Vitality had a great matchup against ENCE in the head-to-head. Liquid smashed ENCE at Chicago, but Liquid also played at their absolute peak at that event. What’s more, despite getting only 2 rounds in the first map and 3 in the second, ENCE were still mentally strong enough to keep trying and pushed the third map to a 14-16 scoreline.
For ENCE though, those results weren’t enough. On August 23rd, they made the move and replaced Aleksib for suNny.
The Aleksib Kick
The kick was one of the strangest roster moves the CS:GO community had seen since Fnatic kicked out Maikil “Golden” Selim. It was hard to wrap my head around it as the best aspects of the ENCE team seemed to flow from the in-game leader. Things like tactics, fundamentals, teamplay, and intangibles are usually correlated with the in-game leader. In ENCE’s case, we’ve seen Allu play in ENCE without Aleksib before and the team never looked this good or coordinated.
Outside of the Allu, the rest of the players had no experience at this level of competition before. While they were good players, if we evaluated them by raw skill, they were outmatched by most of the top teams at the time. They made up for that with their intangibles: tactics, teamplay, and chemistry. All of this spoke to the impact of their leadership which came from Aleksib and their coach Slaava “Twista” Rasanen.
So the decision to kick Aleksib was shocking and from the outside, only one of two possibilities existed. Either the community had vastly misjudged Aleksib’s impact as a leader or ENCE had. This disparity of opinion didn’t only exist between ENCE and the community, but also between ENCE and Aleksib himself.
After ENCE got 13-16th at ESL One Cologne, Aleksib told VPEsports in an interview, “If we change a player now, I think it would ruin our team.” A little over a month later ENCE kicked him anyway. We’ve seen some glimpses into what the other ENCE members thought of the decision. Aerial told HLTV, “With Aleksib we just tried to play default and did the same executes all over again, so that's how it's different.”
Allu was a bit more detailed as he said in a HLTV interview, “...inside the team, we kind of felt at one point that we just didn't improve anymore...I think we just reached a point where we were kind of stuck. And we don't want to be stuck, we want to be the best and that is the only reason we did this change.”
The most damning statement came from the coach, who tweeted, “Didn't want to go there at any point, but getting annoyed by everyone's assumptions. If you would know the whole story about last 4~ months it would blow your minds.”
Aleksib’s run with ENCE ended with a top 8 at StarLadder Berlin Major. Renegades (now 100 Thieves) beat them 2-0 and the entire CS:GO community was filled with photos of Aleksib sitting alone.
The suNny move and a flurry of defeats
While I’ve been critical of the decision to kick Aleksib, the decision to recruit suNny deserves plaudits. SuNny was the second best player on Mouz when they had their run from 2017-2018. While he dropped off towards the end and had a hiatus from the game, he was the player that ENCE needed to take a gamble on if they wanted to get to the next level. What’s more, he could fit directly into Aleksib’s old roles. Aerial echoed this in a HLTV interview, “He has more firepower than Aleksi, and we also thought that he is going to be even better at the roles Aleksib fulfilled because we thought that Aleksib had great roles almost on every map.”
Despite the firepower upgrade, the first three tournaments were bombs. They got 5th at BLAST Moscow, lost in the Group Stages of ESL New York, and got 9-12th at DreamHack Malmo. While those were terrible losses, there are some caveats worth mentioning. The team had almost no time practice and traveled to the events back-to-back-to-back. This lack of preparation showed in their games as they played a more loose default style that relied more on individual skill.
Since then they’ve had a month break and returned to LAN play at IEM Beijing. ENCE lost in the group stages once again as they lost 100 Thieves twice and also dropped a map to VG in their bo3 series.
The most worrying thing about ENCE’s run is that they haven’t kept a modicum of the core identity of the Aleksib lineup. They’ve lost their ability to control and pace the T-side with any regularity. Their teamplay is no longer as fluid or interconnected as it once was. Their CT-sides have lost their adaptability. In their matchup against 100 Thieves for instance, they had a 11-4 T-side on Train, but were unable to read or adapt to the tactics that 100 Thieves used against them. When 100 Thieves did a fake outside, ENCE bit on it and then lost to a B hit. When ENCE played passively on the outside, 100 Thieves rocked them with an outer explosion. When ENCE played more aggressively, 100 Thieves ran them over at the B site. ENCE’s setups weren’t bad in and of themselves, but when considered in the context of reading the match, 100 Thieves outclassed them the entire way.
What’s more when, ENCE played against them again in the elimination match, ENCE decided to pick nuke instead of Train, despite their 11-4 half on the T-side. This implies that they weren’t able to figure out what adjustments to make on their CT-side or that they lost confidence in their initial pick.
Other Factors to Consider
Since the Aleksib kick, it’s been a flurry of defeats for ENCE. While it’s been disappointing, we still need to put ENCE into the context of the times. The CS:GO scene now is different from the scene when ENCE was a top 3 team. A lot of the teams made roster changes to improve their stock in the post Berlin shuffle: fnatic, EG, FURIA, Na`Vi, FaZe, and Vitality just to name a few. As that’s the case, there was never a guarantee that even if ENCE kept the same lineup that they could have gotten the same results. We don’t know what results ENCE gets in the world where they decide to keep Aleksib in the lineup.
Having said all of that, what’s telling for me is there consecutive matches against 100 Thieves. ENCE and 100 Thieves (formerly Renegades) are comparable teams when they first broke out earlier this year. Both of them were good tier 2 teams that didn’t have the breadth of talent that the other top teams possessed. Both teams rose up through a combination of tactics, teamplay, and accentuating the skill that they did have. ENCE went on to be a top 3 team in the world, but Renegades stalled out due to visa issues. Once Renegades got over those issues, they renewed their playbook and found themselves around the approximate area where they were before. A solid top 10 team angling to break into the top 5.
In effect, 100 Thieves have kept their world standing close to where ENCE were at the beginning of the year. That is why the 100 Thieves-ENCE matches were the perfect litmus test to see if ENCE had progressed with their new lineup. They hadn’t, if anything ENCE have regressed. 100 Thieves convincingly beat them in three of the four maps. The closest was Train where ENCE was unable to stop the 100 Thieves comeback.
The ENCE story hasn’t completely played out yet, but their window to prove everyone wrong is closing fast. It usually takes somewhere between 3-6 months for a new lineup to coalesce and reach their full potential. We are two and a half months into ENCE’s new lineup, but I haven’t seen any sparks of potential that makes me think that they can reach the heights they were previously at. Instead, I’ve seen a fairly basic team. They have decent enough tactics and teamplay and will go about as far as their individual skills will take them.
That is the problem though as when ENCE was under Aleksib, Aleksib elevated the team far past where the limits of their individual skills. In the Aleksib period, teamplay, tactics, and intangibles shined the most. As of now, the biggest bright spot for ENCE is sergej. If the months roll by without any improvement, the decision to kick Aleksib will become the canonical event that will define the fall of ENCE. At that point ENCE will have to re-evaluate their decision.
CS:GO competition is a wicked learning environment. You can have the right process, but still lose tournaments. You can have the wrong process and win tournaments. In those ensuing months before the Aleksib kick, what did they see that we as outsiders didn’t? Whether or not it was the right decision is something that only ENCE can answer themselves. For me though, I can’t help but look back at what Aleksib told VPEsports a month before his kick. At the time it was an innocuous statement, but as time goes on it comes off more and more as both warning and prophecy, “If we change a player now, I think it would ruin our team.”