When I first started to watch CS:GO, Nikola “NiKo” Kovac was one of the first players to catch my eye. I dove into the FPS after watching 1-v-1 games such as StarCraft, where the pure egotism of the competition was the main attraction. In those matches, it was you alone against your opponent. No one could help you, and if you lost, there were no targets to blame except yourself. So when I started to watch a 5-v-5 game, I assumed the better team won the majority of matches rather than whoever possessed the best player. For the majority of cases that was true, but a few individual players had more than enough impact to decide entire games with their skill. Exceptions like NiKo defied traditional wisdom.
His time on mousesports proved to be one trial after another. NiKo was an up-and-coming player when he joined the organization in March 2015, believing it was his big chance to show the world what he could do. His aspirations were briefly put on as hold, as he was put on the bench for two months and attended only one LAN during that time. He didn’t come off the bench until Aug. 30 of that year, but by then mouz was plagued by roster instability. Faith “gob b” Dayik was unable to get the team to work with NiKo and Johannes “nex” Maget as star players. It created a situation where Timo “Spiidi” Richter kept bouncing in and out of the roster until the team finally kicked gob b for good.
The resulting vacuum in leadership needed to be filled, and NiKo was the only one willing to do it. The suggestion was a crazy proposition at first glance. A superstar fragger directing traffic and calling out strategies would make any hardcore fan apprehensive. Specialization in roles existed for a reason. Despite his noble intentions, it created a further burden on NiKo as he shouldered one of the hardest carry runs ever seen in CS:GO. The rest of his days on mouz would be defined by a sense of inevitable disappointment. No matter how well he performed individually, the team always fell short.
Their most notorious failures came against opponents that were supposedly far above their weight class. At DreamHack Leipzig last January, mouz led 15-13 against Astralis in the winners’ match of the group stage. Mouz got into a 5-v-3 situation, but NiKo was team killed. Astralis capitalized on that error, turned the tables and forced overtime. NiKo tried to salvage the situation, but it was too much. Mouz lost the game and ended up dropping out of the group stage after losing to Dignitas.
Similarly, mouz came within a hair’s breadth of a major upset at IEM Katowice that March. Mouz played Fnatic in the decider match of the group stages: the winner advanced to the playoffs, and the loser went home. The Dennis-era Fnatic was in the midst of its legendary six tournament winning streak, and many crowned them the undisputed champions of the world. NiKo did his best to cut them down to size. He pulled out miracle round after round to try and win the game. The moment I most distinctly remember was when the score was 14-12 in Fnatic’s favor. NiKo pulled out a four-kill round to save mouz from the brink of death and parlayed that to a 15-14 lead. In the last round of the match, Fnatic picked off NiKo early, and the entire mouz team disintegrated in a flurry of bad moves. Fnatic went on to win in overtime.
At DreamHack Malmö, mouz played Godsent in another life-or-death scenario. Down 14-13 on Mirage in a 1-1 tie, NiKo and Spiidi were stuck defending their B site execute in a 2-v-5. Forced to eco that round, all hope seemed lost — at least until NiKo pulled off one of the most heroic holds in recent memory. He killed the first two with a tec9, then picked up an AK to get the next two as Godsent tried to swarm through Market. But all his hard work was in vain. He was flanked as the bomb was being planted, and Spiidi died in the ensuing pistol fight.
Those periodic episodes of individual greatness could make you believe Counter-Strike wasn’t about teamwork. One man could fight against the world and win. But eventually reality reared its ugly head as the rest of NiKo’s teammates stumbled in his stead. No matter how hard he tried, NiKo always found himself on the losing side of the equation.
Mouz management held onto hope long after detractors dismissed the roster as a decrepit failure. Although the initial lineup was fraught with problems, the organization continued to try to bolster the roster. Each move gave hope to NiKo before revealing itself as a momentary illusion. Prior to ELEAGUE Season 1, Mouz hired Aleksandar “kassad” Trifunovic as coach. His impact was immediate as the team reached the semifinals of the event. With kassad behind the scenes, the teamwork of the players seemed to have improved, and their nade usage seemed to be much more tactical. He was set to take over as the leader for the team, finally allowing NiKo to focus more on his individual play. The dream didn’t last long as Valve’s new coaching rule killed the plan. Faced with a potentially useless pickup, mouz decided not to keep kassad.
Instead, mouz tried to get NiKo some help in the form of another star player. Tomas “oskar” Stastny was another hard carry player from a Tier 2 team. On HellRaisers, he had the troublesome duty of compensating for the bad form of 2-3 players (which happened quite often). Among all the players in the world, he was the one who could empathize with NiKo’s troubles most.
With the two of them finally teaming up, it seemed possible that mouz could go beyond the quarterfinals. Instead, oskar benched himself due to personal issues, leaving NiKo to hold the torch alone again. When we look back at NiKo’s time on mouz, the two brightest spots in his team were Chris “ChrisJ” de Jong and Christian “loWel” Antoran. Both were skilled players who performed well under pressure, but when compared to the best in the world it was clear, mouz was outmatched. NiKo, frustrated with his inability to carry the team, tried the opposite approach of leadership where he tried to enable his teammates. His teammates’ performance did improve, but they couldn’t match the sheer firepower of NiKo going at it alone. Mouz was more cohesive as a team, but it no longer had the X-factor that could take the team across the line.
The tragic thing was mouz was the best scenario possible for NiKo at the time. Being from Bosnia, a nation without a large player pool, he didn’t have many options in terms of teams. The top Counter-Strike teams and organizations are naturally nationalistic in the way they form rosters and replace players. The communication and synergy between players of the same language and culture allows teamwork to ferment quicker. This meant NiKo was always going to be locked out of the best teams in the world as those teams generally recruit the best up-and-comers within their own scenes. He could have moved to NA or joined a mixed nationality team, but the buyout in his contract was high and mixed teams have a sketchy history. It seemed NiKo would be consigned to mouz until his contract was up.
How fortunate it was that FaZe Clan rose up at the end of 2016. Once Finn “karrigan” Andersen joined the lineup, it became a serious threat. By the early part of this year, FaZe was looking for a new star player to come into the lineup. For NiKo, it was a golden opportunity, especially as FaZe was one of the few organizations with the liquidity willing to pay for the contract buyout. The signing was one of the biggest roster moves of the year, and FaZe became a potential championship contender.
For NiKo, he finally got a taste of freedom. He no longer felt responsible for carrying an entire team on his back. He wasn’t required to be the in-game leader, with karrigan aptly handling the reins. He remained the superstar player, but he could depend on his teammates to contribute whenever he didn’t sound off. He had other star players in Halvard “rain” Nygaard, Aleski “allu” Jalli and Fabien “kioshima” Fiey. Rain is the most consistent of the bunch and has taken the star role, allu serves as the primary AWPer of the team, and kioShiMa is a supportive element who can swing games when he has a strong performance. The entire team is led under karrigan, one of the best leaders in the world and an impactful fragger in his own right. There is no dead weight holding him down.
NiKo is now on a team where he can shine without worrying about the consequences of a bad showing. He has everything he could ask for: other stars to lighten the load, a trustworthy leader, a great AWPer and strong support players. In return, NiKo will try his damndest to help the team get across the finish line in every tournament it enters. You could see this determination in the third game of the ECS Season 3 Finals, where it became a trial of mental strength and endurance. Down 13-2 at the half, NiKo and allu went insane in order to tie the map and send it to overtime.
One year ago, NiKo seemed condemned to a career of mediocrity. Trapped on a troubled team with nowhere to go, he was doomed to draw comparisons to faded stars like Tracy McGrady: his skill and ambition exceeded his surroundings. Today we see him on one of the best teams in the world, a team that has been in the finals of every tournament it has entered since he joined the lineup. Before, NiKo’s potential was shackled to sublime rounds and plays that eventually ended in close losses early in a tournament. Now we see NiKo fighting for supremacy against the best the world has to offer, in one of the most competitive eras of CS:GO. Before NiKo had no hope, no chance to ever challenge for a title. Now he has the hope, the team and a chance to win a Major.
Cover photo by Helena Kristiansson/ESL, eslgaming.com