Nikola “NiKo” Kovac is one of the greatest prodigies that CS:GO has ever produced. His mechanics, game sense, and ability is only comparable to the all-time greats of CS:GO history. His rise to power helped trail blaze the viability of international lineups, but he now faces the biggest challenge of his career - himself.
NiKo vs the World
To understand NiKo, we need to look at his rise to power as it was unlike any in CS:GO history. NiKo first made international acclaim when he joined Mouz. The lineup was colloquially called NiKosports as NiKo was the focal point of the entire team. He was a solo hard carry comparable to Kenny “KennyS” Schrub in the past, or Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev and Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut in the present.
During that time period, NiKo was electrifying as he hard-carried his team to results far above their pay-grade. The moment that sticks out to me the most was the group stages of IEM Katowice 2016. In the final match of the group, Mouz played against Fnatic. Fnatic were the best team and most skilled line-up during that time period. NiKo took them to the absolute brink as the game went into overtime before Fnatic could close out that Mouz squad. Jaroslaw “pasha” Jarzabkowski put it best in a HLTV interview at DreamHack Vegas where he said, “NiKo wants to be the Rambo of Counter-Strike.”
That descriptor, broadly speaking was correct. NiKo played on Mouz from 2015 to early 2017. Mouz’s best periods was when NiKo went full Rambo and tried to solo-carry his team to victory as a superstar in-game leader who called around his own individual skill. The descriptor falls apart when you look at mouz in the latter-half of 2016. During that period, NiKo tried a different approach where he tried to enable his teammates rather than himself.
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Overall though, I characterize NiKo’s mouz period as him vs the world. Outside of Chris “chrisJ” de Jong, there were no consistent elements in the team that NiKo could rely upon to help him reach the success equivalent to the talent and skill he showed on the server. By the time FaZe came knocking, NiKo was ready to let someone else take the lead.
The Rise and Fall of FaZe
On February 2017, NiKo joined the FaZe project. At the time, the lineup consisted of: NiKo, Havard “rain” Nygaard, Finn “Karrigan” Andersen, Aleksi “Allu” Jalli, and Fabien “kioShiMa” Fiey. In some ways, this line-up was one of the most influential in CS:GO history. People had tried international line-ups before, but had never mixed this many nations together. This FaZe squad became a top three team in the world and stopped Astralis from establishing a mini-era in early 2017.
During this period, the team got 2nd at IEM Katowice. They won StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 3, got 2nd at IEM Sydney, 2nd at ECS Season 3 Finals, and top four at ESL One Cologne 2017. NiKo was the superstar that could be the best player in the world on any given day. Rain was the secondary star who had a versatile and all-around skill set. Allu was the stable, low resource AWPer. KioShiMa was the passive supportive player. Karrigan was the leader who brought it all together to make it greater than the sum of its parts.
The team blew up after they failed at the PGL Krakow Major. They bombed out of the tournament with a 15-16th placing. Soon after, the team went for the all-star FaZe lineup. They replaced Allu and KioShiMa with Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs and Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer. This lineup was the final evolutionary path of what FaZe represented.
Up to that point, FaZe had slowly and consistently upgraded their roster with better and better players. Once Karrigan joined, the FaZe project jumpstarted from a collection of disparate mercenaries to a top 10 team in the world. Karrigan created the system and once NiKo joined, FaZe had the firepower to contest the best in the world. As an international squad, FaZe always had the inherent disadvantage of being five players from five different cultures. They couldn’t mimic the structured tactical style of Astralis, or the awe-inspiring teamplay of SK or Fnatic.
Instead they had to double-down on firepower and the All-Star lineup of FaZe was the ultimate culmination of that ideal. With NiKo, Rain, GuardiaN, and olofmeister, the firepower looked like it was enough to break the game. For a short time, they nearly did. They smashed ESL One New York and ELeague Premier 2017. Soon after though, cracks started to form as they started to lose tight close finals. They lost to NiP at Oakland and ESL Proleague 6 Finals to SK. The big shocker was the loss at ELeague Boston Major. In the finals of that tournament, Cloud9 outplayed FaZe and took the Major 2-1. FaZe then had another heartbreaker at IEM Katowice 2018. Fnatic beat FaZe in the finals of the tournament 3-2, with Robin “flusha” Ronnquist resurrecting his 2014 form. Both finals seemed to break FaZe’s mentality. Karrigan recalled their effects in a HLTV interview.
“Those two [IEM Katowice and ELeague boston] losses were very tough for me and for the team, we didn't recover from them and it caused Olof to take a break, which in turn made us have to play with stand-ins. I would say those two losses set the tone for FaZe in 2018.”
Soon after, olofmeister took a break. The team had different fifths rotating in such as Jorgen “cromen” Robertsen and Richard “Xizt” Landstrom. The team still had good results during this period with victories at IEM Sydney and ESL Belo Horizonte, but they couldn’t make any progress as they waited for olofmeister.
Once olofmeister came back, the team started to break apart. The strangest thing about the team though was that they didn’t revert to the original system that had made them so strong before. Instead of an individual loose system captained by Karrigan, FaZe opted to introduce more structure into the squad. There were two reasons why FaZe made that move. First, they hadn’t reached the success they wanted with the loose individual style in their honeymoon phase. Secondly, Astralis had become the dominant team of the era through a structured approach.
While it made some theoretical sense, it made no sense for the composition of the players they had. Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo commented on FaZe in a Reflections video with Duncan “Thorin” Shields,
“The way FaZe played, it was about strong individual plays and being relentless about what they were doing, but not too organized. What happened in the long run, I had the feeling that they started to organize themselves more to achieve more. This hurt them in the end. By organizing more, you’re taking away all those brilliant plays, all those gaps they always take, all those fights they always win. They look more organized, but they don’t look as good as they did before.”
This also marked the time when Karrigan was losing the confidence of his teammates. They moved him to a support role and then benched him. This ushered in the year of nothing.
The Year of Nothing
The best way to summarize what happened to FaZe post-Karrigan benching is a quote from GuardiaN. In a HLTV interview, GuardiaN summarized the past year as, “I think we just wasted one year of playing.”
From the outside, looking in, it’s hard to dispute his statement. From FaZe’s standpoint, it made sense to kick Karrigan when they did. He had lost the confidence of the players and something needed to change. The problem was that FaZe had no idea where they wanted to go after removing karrigan.
They tried Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev for a few months, but that didn’t work out. After AdreN, FaZe trialed Filip “NEO” Kubski, but that fell through as well. Throughout this period, FaZe were getting diminishing results as time went on. Their only notable results were victories at ELeague Invitational, BLAST Miami, a top four at DreamHack Dallas, and 2nd at BLAST Los Angeles. They then bombed out of the StarLadder Berlin Major.
Since the Major they have made more change to the team as they kicked out GuardiaN and got Marcelo “coldzera” David and Helvijs “broky” Saukants.
NiKo vs Himself
There are a few things that stand out in NiKo’s rise to power. The first is that he is largely a self-made man. He is unlike most other superstar players of the modern day. KennyS and ZywOo grew up playing in the French scene. Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz played in Denmark. S1mple played in the CIS scene until his own personality was so off-setting he had take a temporary detour to NA. Olofmeister was born and bred in the Swedish scene. Coldzera rose up through Brazil and joined FalleN in LG/SK. Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski and Vincent “Brehze” Cayonte have played their whole careers in the NA scene.
Each of those superstars had a support system of veterans, teammates, or coaches around them to help them grow into the players they eventually became. That support system inoculated them with wisdom from the past. How a certain region of players view the game, how to be a better teammate, how to play fundamental CS, how to build rosters, and so on.
NiKo doesn’t have a comparable in that aspect. In his case, he must learn through experience. When he was on Mouz he tried to solo hard carry and when that didn’t work, he tried to enable his teammates. When he joined FaZe, he largely did his job when the team was successful. However once the team hit hard times, he went back to the same solution he had used in the past. To do it himself. That is why he took on the in-game leading role from the end of 2018-2019. Once that didn’t work, he tried to revert the team back by having NEO be the in-game leader for a few months. That didn’t work either, so FaZe kicked NEO as well.
When I look at FaZe’s problems in the last year, they largely stem from NiKo trying to find success. When Karrigan was no longer working as in-game leader, there were two potential decisions that he could have made. He could have sided with Karrigan and removed some of the other star players or kick Karrigan. FaZe decided to remove Karrigan.
NiKo then tried to take responsibility for that action by being the in-game leader in the interim as FaZe looked for someone else. FaZe tried NEO for a time as in-game leader, but that never went anywhere, so once again, we find NiKo as the in-game leader.
When you look at the FaZe situation, NiKo is at the center of it all. He is the sun that the FaZe universe revolves around. Where he goes, they go. In that sense, FaZe’s entire success will be the conflict that NiKo must have with himself. For only NiKo can change NiKo.
NiKo learned how to be a superstar player on Mouz. on FaZe, he learned how to translate that skillset onto the highest levels of the international stage. Now he needs to understand what it means to build a championship contender and his role in it. In the past year, NiKo still hasn’t figured out if it is better for him to be the superstar or for him to be the leader. In the case of the former, he needs to figure out which leader he needs to ally himself to enable himself and the team. If it is the ladder, then he needs to figure out what type of players and style of play fit him the best as a leader.
NiKo right now is in a similar place to where s1mple was in 2016-2017 or where Richard “shox” Papillon was in 2017. Both of those players were also at crossroads during that period. S1mple needed to learn how to be a good team-mate and he eventually realized that there was more to Counter-Strike than just being the best in the world. That he had to inspire and work with his teammates to get the best out of them. Shox may be the more fitting example as he had all of the players he needed to succeed at the highest level, but he refused to accept the fact that he wasn’t meant to be the in-game leader and the French dream-team fell apart.
Now seems to be the perfect time. Rain told HLTV that NiKo is set on being the in-game leader. So we will eventually get out answer one way or another. This is also the perfect time as there are no more excuses. Olofmeister isn’t on hiatus. The current FaZe roster has all of the talent it could possibly need with NiKo, Rain, Coldzera, olofmeister, and broky. NiKo’s battle is no longer with the world, it is with himself. He needs to figure out what it means to make a championship team and what his role is within it. If he can, anything is possible.