Aleksi 'Aleksib' Virolainen, in-game leader (IGL) of ENCE, has redeemed the dormant or dying Finnish Counter-Strike scene. During CS:GO's history the country's only significance had come in the form of its imports, the talented and experienced few who flew the flag by working with top teams from other countries. Under Aleksib's leadership, however, ENCE rose up with four unproven players to accomplish astonishing feats and now find themselves poised to potentially become the world's best team.
You used to be beautiful
In the early days of the Counter-Strike franchise, Finland was among the key players in the global scene. While their scene lacked sponsorship opportunities early on, denying them the opportunity to attend some of the early North American CS majors, namely the CPLs, within the European scene Finland was always a viable source of solid sides. At their lowest points, Finland's finest would still be a top 10 side in the world and at their best they produced elite tier sides, even briefly boasting the best team in the world in early 2007.
Certainly, no majors were won by Finnish sides and rarely were big international tournaments of any stripe, but that spoke more to an issue of mentality as opposed to skill or depth of quality players. Names like zet0r and ruuit were rightly considered some of the very best players of their days, stars to be pitted against the likes of HeatoN and f0rest, respective to each's era. While Finland typically only had one elite level side, their talent pool allowed for at least two who would compete at a notable level of play.
Hailing from the Nordic region, Finland cannot reasonably match up to the epic accomplishments and dominance of Sweden, nor can it point to an era-defining team like Denmark's mTw.dk. Even Norway's best imports, such as elemeNt or XeqtR, have much more decorated careers and longer-lasting names than Finnish legends like mysse and natu. Nevertheless, Finland was in the mix in 1.6 and had its highs when its top teams fought the titans of CS history and ever was the country relevant, even up until near the very end of the game's competitive life-span.
Finns on the road
In CS:GO, Finland was nothing for a long time. In the early years, natu was a part of some line-ups who showed brief flashes of competence but with nothing exceptional and over a span of time in which the number of teams capable of competing at the top was significantly less than currently. Instead, Finland's relevance was maintained through the efforts of its exports.
Natu became one of the first real coaches in CS:GO, following up on the more friend-orientated relationship pita had manifested as NiP's first official coach, and helping guide NiP during their transition from revitalised world contender into solid top 10 team with decaying once-world-class components.
Under him in that edition of NiP was allu, the last remaining link from the top Finnish teams of 1.6. The last year 1.6 had been allu's arrival onto the international scene, a 19-year-old rookie learning under experienced IGL lurppis and tasked with replacing the special all-around talent naSu. In CS:GO, allu had come into his own as a player. In mousesports he was one of the best players gob b had at his disposal.
When NiP decided the fiery Maikelele was too much strife they benched the Swede and brought in the icy cool allu to take over his sniping duties and replace his "hype" style with a more serious and calm demeanour. While allu seemed a successful addition to the Ninjas, their results could not maintain at such a stellar level, where they had been contenders at every tournament prior to his addition.
NiP's slide from relevance meant there were not big international titles during allu's tenure in their team, but the Finn was able to next find a home in FaZe, a flawed project of international talents who had yet to make any kind of meaningful headway into the play-off portion of big tournaments. When karrigan finally joined allu in FaZe, the team took off and with later roster moves would eventually vy for the number one spot in the world, become a Legends status team at the major and win a big title at StarSeries S3.
The final name of note in this tale is, of course, suNny. The former mouz starter, who even featured in an ENCE line-up years ago, broke out in PENTA, an internationally-mixed line-up akin to FaZe and mouz but on a smaller scale of resources. Parlaying this into a call-up to mouz itself, suNny went from being a solid member of the team's trio of star talents, along with oskar and ropz, to legitimately establishing himself as one of the very best riflers in the world by the middle of 2018. For the first time in CS:GO, a Finnish player had one of the elite talents in the game.
That Finnish Counter-Strike history lesson is to establish the context of the world Aleksib emerged from. Finnish CS:GO was not considered a hotbed of potential talents. The assumption was that anyone good enough would either show up in FPL and find themselves an international team or be recommended by the likes of suNny and allu. The notion of an entire team of Finns rising up together to battle the world's best, eventually prove themselves consistently worthy of similar status and even go on to win international titles would have been dismissed as delusional and rightly so.
Under Aleksib, ENCE has managed many wonders in the last 14 months or so. It all began with their shocking big international debut at ESL One Cologne, qualifying for the event and then besting NiP and mouz, losing only to Astralis and Na`Vi, two of the best teams in the entire world. When most top teams skipped StarSeries S7, ENCE pounced on the opportunity and took the title at an event featuring teams like mouz, North, OpTic and BIG, who would all have been more likely candidates to rush into the vacuum of world beaters and take the trophy.
While 2018 was about impressive debuts and early upsets, this year has been the true coming out of the ENCE line-up and Aleksib's impact on the squad. At IEM Katowice, the first major of the year, ENCE would have been celebrated merely for exceeding expectations by making it to the Legends status of the play-offs, but sergej and company went much further than that, taking down tournament favourites Team Liquid and previous finalists Na`Vi in Bo3 series play. Upon reaching the final, an unthinkable feat already, ENCE could not hold up against Astralis, but who could blame them?
Since then, ENCE has shown strong performance at two Blast Pro Series events, most notably winning the Madrid edition in spectacular fashion. Aleksib's boys not only reached the final this time, but broke Astralis' seemingly impossible 31:0 nuke LAN streak, gave them a rare series sweep loss and also ended the Danes' run of not losing two tournaments in a row since reaching world number one status. ENCE had arrived in Katowice, but now they had made a permanent home among the world's best teams.
As irrelevant had Finland had been for so many years in CS:GO, in terms of producing entire teams to compete at the international level, now the country stands behind one of the most exciting and intense sides on the circuit, capable of theoretically winning any tournament, though many more trophies are still required for the push to the absolute summit of the scene can be realised. ENCE has a more impressive resume of results over the last three months of play than Astralis, the team whose era only just ended.
Victories over Team Liquid, Na`Vi and Astralis represent the biggest scalps a team can collect in the game. Astralis were the dominant force of 2018 and are the two-time reigning major champions, fresh off arguably the best era in Counter-Strike. Team Liquid are perhaps even stronger than the stellar form of 2018, having themselves beaten Astralis and now won a number of tournament titles of their own. Na`Vi have been far more flawed than last year, but still boast the best player in the world (s1mple), possibly ever.
Quite the resume of victories for an IGL who hasn't even been competing at this level for an entire calender year.
What we have to work with
It's not as if Aleksib was given his own FaZe-esque set of talents to craft into a cohesive and effective side. The only proven piece at his disposal was allu, the man ENCE's CS:GO team had essentially been resurrected to provide a home for. Certainly, allu has been a very competent player at the international level and at times verged upon star level play, but his time in FaZe and later OpTic did not have many expecting him to be a hard carry of a team at the level ENCE now occupy.
Indeed, he has not been that kind of player and has instead contributed strong sniping form, his years of unique experiences and a strong mentality to offline play in a stage environment. All of that cannot be easily overlooked, but the point to be emphasised is that the presence of allu has not given Aleksib a super-star level player to operate around.
The other four names, Aleksib himself included, are new to the top level of competitive play in CS:GO. Stand out sergej was barely 16 upon joining ENCE around the same time as Aleksib. The young Finn has had super-star level tournament performances from time to time, but has not been a hard carry force in the vein of s1mple or NiKo. As much potential as seems clearly present within the youth's game, ENCE's epic run to the major final, for example, came with him in a relative slump.
Aerial will, understandably, being mistaken for a young player himself, due to how fresh his name is at this level, but is in fact 26 and would have been categorised as a "never was" up until recently. Nevertheless, echoing the arrival to the Danish scene of the similarly older-than-you-would-assume valde, Aerial has been a surprise performer for ENCE, even earning MVP honours in their victorious Blast campaign. Was this really a talent nobody else could identify within the Finnish scene? Perhaps, but Aleksib's use of him as an entry component and working directly with him on the T side has developed Aerial far beyond the level many could have anticipated.
XseveN is the final name rounding out ENCE's quintet and looked set to become the man singled out for replacement when the team reached the major play-offs. With mouz having failed the minor and ENCE's rise being so surprising yet exhilerating, many would have eyed xseveN as the player who should be sent to the bench to allow the team to bring in suNny, the best Finnish player, into the best Finnish team. XseveN's heroic performances in the play-offs put such thoughts to one side. Playing a supportive role, xseveN's contributions are hard to argue against, when one considers how cohesively the team has played and their string of strong finishes.
It would have seemed a certainty that suNny would have been a part of any Finnish team which could rise into the top five and especially one which could best teams like Astralis and Team Liquid and win titles of their own. Instead, Aleksib and ENCE have done it on their own, for now.
It is a compliment of the highest order than fans have at times jokingly referred to ENCE as "ENCEstralis", highlighting the Finnish sides similarities with the mighty Astralis as teams whose tactical style controls the game, empowers their map pool and makes their players more than the mere sum of their individual parts. Their map pool showcases their unique status as a tactically-powerful side, as their strength on the normally troublesome nuke and train T sides attests.
ENCE are still not a team with a player who would be considered a top five talent in the world, with sergej perhaps cracking the top 10 for more experts. Man for man, they are not a line-up who exude raw skill or monstrous fire-power, especially in a scene with the likes of Team Liquid hanging around, yet they routinely defeat and outplace more high profile names, more decorated players and more skilled opponents.
ENCE are a team who win through their tactical control of a match and their admirable team-work, often colloquially referred to as "team-play" in Counter-Strike. ENCE also mirror Astralis in how strong their understanding of the fundamentals of the game are. They do not exhibit the wild moves of FURIA or the power fragging of FaZe. Here is a team who use core CS principles like the trade frag, map control and utility usage to repeatedly engineer victories against even the best teams in the game.
Such qualities begin with the in-game leader. Teams who explicitly commit to a tactical style and play with the controlled approach of ENCE live and die by their tactician's aptitude at preparing his troops, calling within a match and ability to read and vary his approach as a game develops. In these areas, Aleksib scores highly and can now be considered the best IGL in Counter-Strike.
Calm hand at the wheel
A primary descriptor that comes to mind when watching ENCE play is "poise". For such an inexperienced and arguably under-powered squad, the Finns do not seem rushed or brittle in their mental state. When down in a match, they continue to grind and limit the damage until a break is found and a chance to come back secured. When leading, they are not prone to wild mistakes and nervous gambles in an over-eager effort to close a match out or halt an opponent battling back. This is a team with a champion's understanding of the key rounds which decide a match, understandably very rare for a team who had not meaningfully been champions at this level before.
That mindset is more inspiring when ENCE are facing an uphill struggle in a match. When under the gun and fast facing an incoming loss, ENCE are certainly capable of being blow out, but on many an occasion they have displayed "sisu", a Finnish concept of tenacity and grit under trying circumstances. As such, it is no wonder they have fast accrued a legion of dedicated fans for their play.
Not only do such qualities eminate from the leader of a team, but can be seen in the mentality and attitude of Aleksib himself. He is a man who seems under control during his games and at home in both games in which he is comfortable with the setting of both teams but also in wild matches which veer into chaotic territory and force rapid adaptations. This is a rare quality within the lineage of Finnish Counter-Strike history.
The top Finnish 1.6 teams spoke of previously were practically always limited by their lack of poise when in control of a match and composure under the pressure of a big stage game or difficult battle. They were fantastic front runners and had teams of skilled players, some of which worked well together, but in the big moment could be reliably expected to fold. There are so many stories from the great Finnish 1.6 players of the maps they "almost won" and the times they "were so close to beating [the best teams]". Certainly many more than the tales of accomplishments which actually took place.
Stylistically, Finnish teams were practically never considered among the best tactically. They played to the strengths of their individual talents, often giving them free reign and basing the rest of the game on the whims of their best players. Finnish Counter-Strike was early on known for rushing and up-tempo play, as a result. In later years, primarily under the leadership of lurppis, the IGL who accomplished the most top finishess for the country, Finnish Counter-Strike sought to allow the best talents to coexist and simply hoped they would not combust on a personal level, as sadly was often the case.
Hence why I have singled out Aleksib as the most important and integral part of ENCE. As skilled as sergej may be, there are other young talents in the world who can showcase similar form and arguably even better, as Vitality's ZywOo is showing us. allu is a wily veteran with a sturdy mindset, but is hardly unique in the qualities he possesses. Aerial has been a relevation from the Finnish scene, but is not even always a starring presence in ENCE's wins. xseveN has exceeded all expectations, yet does record poor statistics for his performances with regularity. No, ENCE's best piece is their leader.
A strong case could be made that ENCE are the second best team in the world right now. They don't have the best star, the best veterans or the best supportive elements. They do have the best in-game leader, though. Aleksib has redeemed the Finnish scene and elevated them to heights as yet unseen and the promise of a future in which Finland is remembered as a country of winners and land of a never-say-die attitude. For fans of Finnish Counter-Strike and even ice hockey, this is reason enough to celebrate Aleksib as the redeemer of their hopes and dreams.