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Natus Vincere’s hibernation is almost over, with plenty of questions to be answered

The last time Natus Vincere played on LAN, the team failed to get out of the group stages of IEM Oakland. It has been nearly two months since that failure, two long months to fix the problems plaguing Na’Vi and show what it can really do at a Major. Na’Vi is a complex puzzle, one that Sergey “starix” Ischuk must find a way to solve if he wants Na’Vi to reclaim its status among the top two or three in the world.

After falling short at the ESL One Cologne Major and losing in the semifinals of ELEAGUE Season 1, Na’Vi took bold action to nip the problem in the bud. The team removed Danylo Zeus Teslenko and replaced him with Oleksandr s1mple Kostyliev. It was an incredible and shocking move on multiple fronts. Although Na’Vi was performing subpar compared to its potential, the swiftness of the roster change seemed unwarranted. Na’Vi was still an elite team and continued to place highly in every tournament it attended; hell, they won two premiers earlier in the year. Zeus had been part of the organization for years, and his removal was hard to swallow for fans.

Regardless of indignation, you’d be hard-pressed to say Na’Vi came out poorly. Post-swap, it had all of the parts of a championship team. The new roster consisted of s1mple, Denis seized Kostin, Ladislav GuardiaN Kovács, Ioann “Edward” Sukhariev, and Egor flamie Vasilyev.

In exchange for losing Zeus, Na’Vi received the hottest player in the world. S1mple’s raw talent is second to none. He can do it all. He can pistol, rifle and AWP flawlessly. He has one of the best deagles in the world, and his individual impact on the game is insane. He has elevated every team he’s joined to heights never before imagined. All of that is backed by an insane determination to practice and continue being the best.

All that talent has included a downside, though. GuardiaN called s1mple a wild beast, and the term is apt. S1mple has the wildest emotional outbursts of any player in the world. His rage and fury overtakes all senses because for s1mple, winning is all that matters. This has made him extremely tough to work with. Stories of his arguments with Luis peacemaker Tadeu on Team Liquid make it sound more like two rams battering skulls rather than two teammates arguing about the game. He is a prodigy that can pull off moves no one else could, but he’s also one of the hardest players in the world to manage.

Besides him there is GuardiaN, one of the best AWPers in the world. Although his form never recovered from last spring’s wrist injury, he retains glimpses of what he used to be, most prominently in the third map of the ESL One New York finals. Flamie is Na’Vi’s third star, and much like s1mple, he’s incredibly explosive and emotional in and out of the game. At his very best, he can single-handedly win a series; at his worst, he becomes tilted and unable to recompose himself mid-match. His consistency has improved once starix became coach, but neither Flamie nor GuardiaN have recovered their full form and have struggled in recent tournaments. Edward was previously labeled a role player, but in the first half year in 2016, he became a consistent rifler. Thanks to his newfound skill, Na’Vi initially excelled in spite of GuardiaN’s injury. Since s1mple joined, his individual game has suffered.

The last player on Na`Vi is seized, a great support player who played third star to GuardiaN and flamie before s1mple arrived. He was great at filling the gaps and taking on hard roles. Occasionally, he carried the game whenever the other two stars were not performing well. He is the best support player on the team, but sadly he was also saddled with in-game leading duties once Valve’s coaching decision was enforced. His performance dropped like an anchor, and now he is a shade of his former self.

“We are a team that kind of ‘abused’ the coach because we built our game on starix’s tactics before, and he was the in-game leader during the game,”Na’Vi’s manager  Evgeniy “Ugin” Erofeev said after IEM Oakland. “For us, it’s really complicated to change this. We need to change everything, I think.”

As a whole, this team possesses unparalleled firepower. If Na’Vi can get GuardiaN, flamie and s1mple rolling all at the same time, no team can match them head-to-head. We saw it happen in their second LAN together at ESL One New York. Na’Vi rolled Team Liquid, Virtus.Pro and SK Gaming in the group stages, then beat Liquid and VP in the playoffs to win the tournament. It was an incredible performance that demonstrated what Na’Vi can do in top form.

But if ESL New York showcased Na’Vi at its best, then IEM Oakland showcased the worst. In its final LAN of 2016, Na’Vi had its worst result all year. At least the team’s group stage exit at Starladder in September could be excused as a symptom of growing pains, as the new roster hadn’t been together for a substantial period of time. At IEM Oakland, there was no excuse. Na’Vi went out in the group stages of the round robin and had nothing to show for it. By the time all was said and done, s1mple started to question his place on the team, and it was fair to wonder if the Zeus lineup was better.

I asked SK Gaming’s Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo, possibly the world’s best in-game leader, about his opinion of Na`Vi. He said: “The problem was they were already a great team with zeus filling roles. Once s1mple came in, the roles changed and none of it is working. They need to rebuild the entire team identity.”

In essence, Na’Vi’s issue was they were playing too similarly to their old style: a lot of map control leading to a precise execute that runs down the clock. Without starix’s guiding hand in-game, it all seemed to fall apart. In addition to that, their map pool is a mess the only two maps Na’Vi seems to be comfortable on is Mirage and Overpass. Overpass has been their best map fpr the  Na`Vi squad going 10-0 since s1mple joined the squad.

Na’Vi faces several pressing questions leading up to the ELEAGUE Major. Can starix reshape the team identity to accommodate s1mple? Or will he force them to play the old style out of pragmatic necessity? Will seized be able to return to form while juggling the responsibilities of in-game leadership? Can Na’Vi find a way to integrate Edward, GuardiaN, flamie and s1mple into a cohesive unit?

No outsider can make an educated guess because they haven’t played any official matches in months. No doubt their debut at the Major will be awaited with feverish anticipation. Either starix and seized find a way to get this team working together and animate the superstar CIS team that currently exists on paper, or clashing egos and confused roles will result in Na’Vi imploding. We’ll know soon enough.

Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE

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