Astralis benched in-game leader Finn “karrigan” Andersen on Oct. 11. For karrigan, it was one of the worst days of his professional Counter-Strike career. It marked his failure to bring a team together under his leadership. He hadn’t abused his power, made powerful enemies within the roster, or flubbed on the strategic side. The rest of the players simply lost faith in his ability to bring them to the next level. It was an unfortunate end because karrigan did amazing work with the TSM/Astralis lineup that became one of the best teams in the world during his tenure. Sadly, all things had to end, and that move was a long time coming. As karrigan sat down on the bench, he had to wonder, “Where to now?”
On July 14, 2016 FaZe Clan played Counter Logic Gaming in the last chance bracket of ELEAGUE Season 1. It was one of the most humiliating victories I ever witnessed. FaZe had a star-studded lineup including: Havard “rain” Nygaard, Philip “aizy” Aistrup, Joakim “jkaem” Myrbostad, Fabien “kioshima” Fiey and Ricardo “fox” Pacheco.
Meanwhile, CLG had a mishmash of players in unfamiliar roles. There was Tarik “tarik” Celik, who at the time had stopped being a pro player to become a full time streamer; Stephen “Cutler” Cutler, a rifler who became the AWPer; Kenneth “koosta” Suen, who had gone from the main AWPer to a rifler; Faruk “pita” Pita, a coach stand-in; and James “hazed” Cobb, the new in-game leader. It was CLG’s first time on LAN, and the roles had barely been decided before the game. CLG was in complete disarray while FaZe had been together as a lineup for a longer period of time.
FaZe barely squeaked out a 2-1 series win with the third map going to double overtime. Whatever hopes people had for a viable international lineup were dashed. The individual players were good, but the roles, structure, comms and everything else was a mess. FaZe was no longer a team. It was CS:GO’s highest paid prison for star players. Players could get a comfortable living staying on the team, but any chances of getting results or meaningful accomplishments were dashed. It felt like the star players on the roster were counting down the days until their contracts ended so they could join a real team.
The organization itself appeared to want more as it continually upgraded players whenever possible, notably getting Aleski “allu” Jalli, a clear upgrade in the AWPer department over fox. But what FaZe truly needed was a leader. Not just any leader could do. FaZe needed someone who could unite the disparate parts and make a greater whole. Someone with the skills, respect and credibility to bind star players together. A leader who could somehow transcend differences in region, culture and language. In short, FaZe needed a figurehead to do what had never been done in Counter-Strike history.
Oct. 11, 2016 proved to be the most important day in FaZe’s CS:GO history. Karrigan had proven his mettle as one of the best in-game leaders in 2015. From the outside, it seemed the internal issues within Astralis were due to lack of confidence in karrigan, something FaZe wouldn’t have to worry about. When karrigan sat down on that bench, FaZe must have asked, “How do we get him here?”
FaZe pitched the invite to karrigan, and the idea intrigued him. It offered a new start, a bunch of star players hungry for a leader, and, most importantly, a new legacy all of his own make. No international mixed team had ever won a large tournament in Counter Strike — it just wasn’t considered feasible. The innate ability to have everyone understand each other — with comms backed by cultural understanding, backdrop and the same language — offered too many edges to give up. But if any leader could make it work, if a leader could get five different players together and make them win, he’d be making history. He’d become a pioneer.
Karrigan signed with FaZe on Oct. 19, but there was no time to waste. FaZe had to play in ELEAGUE Season 2 on Oct. 21. He only had three days to figure out the personnel, get a structure up and running, and motivate the team to hit the ground running. Juggling all of these responsibilities should have been impossible. Ignore the fact that the timeline is inherently insane: the premise of the idea was to get the players on the same page with the same structure, same system. The only thing going for karrigan was the fact that FaZe was desperate for anyone to present a solution. On an episode of Counter-Points, the analogy pitched was that it was like a master craftsmen going to the junkyard to make a Ferrari. All the parts were there, but he had to find and piece them all together.
Karrigan didn’t build a Ferrari in optimal condition, but he got the car working well enough to get out of its ELEAGUE group in second place. In a blink of an eye, karrigan gave FaZe its single best result in 2016. A flurry of top placings followed as Karrigan continued to improve the inner workings and cut off any elements that caused drag. He was unable to get jkaem to work and brought in kioshima as a supportive element to the team. FaZe expanded its map pool, fixed comms and continued to go from event from event with constant improvement. By the end of 2016. FaZe was firmly entrenched as a top 10 team, just outside of the championship contenders. But it needed one last piece to turn the car into a speed demon. FaZe needed the superstar player, someone who could face the very best in the world and win. Someone who was ambitious, hard-working and had the skill to compete, but wasn’t on any of the normal national teams.
In short, FaZe needed Nikola “NiKo” Kovac.
Two days before Niko officially joined FaZe, the team and Niko were at the same tournament in DreamHack Las Vegas. There, FaZe saw the awe-inspiring power of NiKo in full force as he put on one of the best performances of the tournament.
NiKo joined FaZe on Feb. 19. Once again, Karrigan was put under a severe time constraint. The team had a little more than one week before IEM Katowice, one week to integrate a new player from a different country into a system he never played. Given the logistics of traveling and getting together, the team had three days practice time. Once again, karrigan had three days. And yet, at that tournament, karrigan succeeded as FaZe made it to the finals only to lose to Astralis. This team had something real, something potent, but karrigan had yet to make his mark on history. A championship still seemed out of reach.
One month later, he found a way to overcome that hurdle. FaZe won StarLadder Kiev over Astralis in one of the best finals of the year. For the entire team, it was a culmination of everything they they had searched for. For Rain, it was his first ever Tier 1 victory. For Allu, it was his eighth finals appearance and the first he ever won. Kioshima had redeemed himself. He had proven that he could change, that he was no longer the problem but the solution. For NiKo, it was his first major victory. He showed he could overcome the multitude of frustrations he suffered on mousesports and win titles. For karrigan, it was his rebirth. He beat Astralis, his former team that kicked him months earlier and stopped him in Katowice, with a new squad composed of star players who had nowhere else to go.
The results didn’t stop. FaZe was able to get to the finals of its next two events at IEM Sydney and ECS Season 3. At IEM Sydney, the team was soundly beaten by a newly resurgent SK Gaming. They rematched at the ECS Season 3 finals, and FaZe fought to the bitter end, losing 2-1. But the losses did not reflect poorly on FaZe. The team’s composure and tenacity was a sight to behold. It was an incredible transformation compared to what the players used to look like. When kioshima was on EnVyUs, he seemed drained of all motivation, clueless as to what purpose he served on the team. Rain and allu looked despondent in the earlier incarnations of FaZe, as if they had no reason to play except collecting paychecks. NiKo futilely raged as he sought for ways to make Mouz work, only to wind up with nothing.
Now together, they became something more. Every map was fought until the bitter end. FaZe won Mirage in a close affair 16-11; on Inferno, they were unable to close it out and lost in overtime. On Train, they fell behind 13-2 by the end of the first half, but clawed back and forced overtime before being overtaken. Although FaZe didn’t snatch the title this time, the team displayed the grit and innovation that defines a top team. Add to that an unerring streak of consistency: ever since making this five man lineup, they have been in every finals of every tournament they have attended.
Against traditional wisdom and the pressures of time, karrigan did the impossible. His mad dream of turning a mixed nationality team, particularly one fraught with inertia and pessimism about the future, into a title contender has become reality. Consider how remarkable it is that FaZe exists in an era of super teams, where the elite are difficult than ever to beat. Those teams, composed of famous talent and storied legacies, should be competing to break the parity era. For the first time in history, a team composed of players from five countries has solidified its spot as one of the top three teams in the world. Although the team has lost three of its four finals, FaZe is still in the running for best team in the world.
In three days, karrigan earned FaZe its best result in 2016. One week after acquiring NiKo, he led his team to its first international final. In five months, he has led this team to four finals in four tournaments. Karrigan has not only saved his reputation as a leader, he raised it. Although he couldn’t lead Astralis to the championship it sought, he did it on FaZe with five players from five different countries. He has created history. He is one of the world’s best in-game leaders and he means to prove it again as the team enters ESL One Cologne and the PGL Krakow Major among the favorites.
Cover photo by Patrick Strack/ESL, eslgaming.com