FaZe Clan’s StarLadder win validated many tortured careers — and this is just the start

The Starladder i-League Season 3 Finals came at a curious time in the Counter-Strike calendar. It had been a month since FaZe Clan and Astralis faced off in the finals of IEM Katowice and two months since the ELEAGUE Major. The era of super teams had formed after the Major and after much consternation and hiccups, they all managed to find sufficient practice and form in time for Starladder. Everyone was prepared, but once the dust settled, the finals turned out to be a repeat of IEM Katowice. It was a momentous point in time. If the Danes won, they would cement the most contentious period in CS:GO history as their time. Alas, the Astralis era was not to be, as FaZe won a stunningly close series that ended in overtime on Inferno.

Few people initially guessed FaZe would be the second finalist. Dreams of raising the trophy seemed completely out of reach halfway through the group stage. Whatever form and teamwork FaZe displayed at IEM Katowice, it had all but disappeared and NIkola “NiKo” Kovac found himself in dreaded déjà vu. It was a nightmarish repeat of his days in mouz, as he carried the team out of possible elimination in a one-man show. FaZe barely squeaked into the playoffs only to face a G2 team that finally looked like the juggernaut the players’ pedigree suggested. Based on current form G2 were close to unanimous favorites. Once again, NiKo’s team appeared destined to exit in the quarterfinals.

This time the script flipped. This time NiKo didn’t need an exceptional game to give FaZe a fighting chance. This time his team carried him. Aleksi “Allu” Jalli and Håvard “rain” Nygaard played exceptional games on Inferno and Train to secure the best-of-three win against the French super team. Admittedly, FaZe lucked out in the semifinals: HellRaisers might’ve been better on this particular weekend, but upsetting North removed a formidable opponent. Even then, the best-of-three series against HellRaisers was much closer than expected, but FaZe was able to pull through.

On the opposite side of the bracket, Astralis dispatched Counter Logic Gaming in surprisingly close games and demolished Natus Vincere in the semifinals. The finals looked lopsided on paper. Astralis was firing on all cylinders and had an arguable psychological edge after beating FaZe in the previous matchup. FaZe, on the other hand, was losing a crazy amount of anti-forcebuys and anti-eco rounds even while simultaneously winning an unprecedented number of pistol rounds. The team’s communication was off and habits of over-peeking in sketchy situations cost multiple rounds per game. Against Astralis, such mistakes would easily cost FaZe the series.

Even on a theoretical level, FaZe was the underdog. History tells us the vast majority of premier CS:GO tournaments have been won by teams composed along national lines. It makes rudimentary sense if you think about what matters at the highest level. Comms and teamwork are of utmost importance, both inside and outside the game. Even if you speak the same language, that uniformity doesn’t guarantee everyone is saying the same thing. The meaning of words, phrases, and context will have subtle differences depending on individual mastery, and seconds wasted to correct your original impression is the difference between winning and losing. That little bit of conflict could be the difference in a clutch moment or build to be a pervasive flaw that loses a game.

If there was any chance for FaZe to win, it would be based off the players’ individual skills. NiKo can always be the best player in the server. If Allu is in form, he matches Nikolai “dev1ce” Reedtz  as an AWPer with higher ability to pull insane shots. Rain can be a star fragger. Fabien “Kioshima” FIey can have strong performances that have real impact on the game. As a world-class in-game leader, Finn “Karrigan”Andersen can lead, predict and adapt to what is thrown at him by other teams.

That’s precisely what happened as the series played out. Astralis won the first map 16-14by punishing the aforementioned mistakes in communication and weak antiforce buy rounds with disciplined, synchronized teamwork. On the second map, FaZe straight up crushed Astralis on Nuke. The third map was a scorcher as FaZe and Astralis took turns displaying the dominant T-side. Here the FaZe squad tightened its executes and began fighting fire with fire. Each time Astralis looked to be about to take the map away, FaZe fought back with miracle individual plays. In overtime, Astralis got the first two rounds but on the third round, NiKo shut down Xyp9x to prevent a clutch. Once FaZe switched sides, it won the next three rounds to close out the match.

The miraculously hard-fought win took every ounce of skill, determination and clutch all the FaZe members had. Their run was shaky throughout the entire tournament, even moreso when you realize that FaZe won 16 of its 18 pistol rounds. This was the first, and likely the last, time we’ll ever see such dominance in that area.

It is fitting that they broke that record as this victory was a first for most of the players. Thanks to a lack of players in his national scene, NiKo spent years languishing on lesser mix teams despite being one of the best players in the world. This was his first Tier 1 tournament win. NiKo could still very well be playing for a Tier 2 team in mouz if ScreaM hadn’t declined an offer from FaZe after the ELEAGUEeague Major. Rain’s story runs similar to NiKo: he never won a Tier 1 event throughout his CS:GO career despite being considered a star player.

Allu’s story was more tortured. Once upon a time it seemed like a guarantee that he would earn such a trophy. He was on the 2015 NiP lineup that went to five tournament finals — and somehow lost all of them. His consecutive failures seemed to sap some essential part of his confidence. After NiP, Allu joined ENCE but was never the heralded star player again. It wasn’t until he joined FaZe that Allu rediscovered his gusto, and he has finally tasted victory after so many attempts.

Kioshima was formerly praised as one of the most promising up-and-comers from the French scene. Yet he ended a reject from EnVyUs and was seemingly doomed to mediocrity for the rest of his career. After EnVyUs won a Major, the team hit a huge slump. Kioshima was the easy target as his form degraded ever since the roster move happened. He was dubbed “The Problem,” which has since become a meme. The thing is Kioshima was a problem, but only one among many. That is what makes Kioshima’s comeback all the better. He fell from grace and was kicked out because he wasn’t able to perform or be a good enough teammate for his old squad. On FaZe, he takes many of the hard roles to help others while becoming an integral part of the system. This dedication and selflessness culminated in his first premier tournament victory since leaving EnVyUs. Perhaps more importantly for Kioshima, he did what he always loved doing best: getting revenge on someone. This time it was against Astralis for the loss at IEM Katowice.

For Karrigan, this victory must be especially sweet. He has never held a public grudge toward his old teammates for benching and ultimately removing him from the squad. From all we can see, he seems genuinely happy that his old teammates have found such wild success. He knows better than anyone the amount of effort and heartache the Astralis players have endured. Still, there must have been a twinge of melancholy as he watched his old teammate lift that Major trophy. But the kick has spurred Karrigan to new goals and new heights. It took him three days to give FaZe its best result in 2016. It took him one week with NiKo to get to the finals of a Tier 1 tournament. It took him a month to defeat his old teammates in the finals of Starladder Kiev. With such a rise in the face of tremendous obstacles, Karrigan has secured his place as one of CS:GO’s all-time great leaders.

In an interview with Thorin, Karrigan said he believed FaZe could be trailblazers. In the past, CS:GO was predominantly won by making the best possible lineups within national lines. FaZe is a completely different animal as it has five players from five different countries. No one in the history of CS:GO has ever succeeded leading a lineup like this to the top — until now.

That is the story of FaZe, the story of its players. They were all good or exceptional in their own ways, but for one reason or another either found themselves out of the top teams in their region or had no top teams. Together they have achieved more than they could have apart. NiKo, Rain and Allu won their first premier tournament victory; Kioshima won his first premier tournament in over a year;. Karrigan waited even longer than that for this release. But now they’ve done the impossible. They are the first team to win a premier tournament made up of five players from five different countries. They are the third team in the era of super teams to win a premier tournament after Astralis and VP. And now they can challenge anyone to be the best team in the world. As players, this was a victory long in the making. As a team, they have just begun.

Slingshot senior columnist. StarCraft and CS:GO expert who pushes narratives over numbers.

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