By the end of 2018, it was clear that FaZe had hit a cul-de-sac. They had pushed their style and limits to its extremes, but in end they never reached the heights that they had aspired to. Even though they had an all star lineup of: Finn “karrigan” Andersen, Nikola “NiKo” Kovac, Havard “Rain” Nygaard, Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs, and Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer, it still wasn’t enough. The best teams in the world were no longer being defined by the best players, but rather by the best systems. By the end of 2018, the two teams with the best two systems had proven themselves to be the best in the world: Astralis and Liquid. Going into 2019, they seek to change that as they have hired Janko “YNk” Paunovic as their now coach. For FaZe, YNk could be the piece they need in setting up a system that could combat the likes of Astralis and Liquid going forward.
To understand why, we first need to look at what made FaZe so successful and why it fell apart in 2018. The team had built an international squad of players from the get-go when they entered the CS:GO space and they slowly tried to recruit better and better talent as time went on. However, the team went nowhere as there was no coherent direction or leading figure that could make it all work. Then Karrigan was benched on Astralis and FaZe were able to hire him.
From that point on FaZe had a coherent system. It was run between two figures: Karrigan and their coach Robert “RobbaN” Dahlstrom. Karrigan was the largest voice in the squad and the team followed his vision of the game with RobbaN playing a secondary voice to Karrigan. It worked as both had similar philosophies towards the game and the partnership worked in tandem. They improved the team immediately from LAN to LAN, event to event, until they became one of the best teams in CS:GO.
Then we get to 2018. It started off well, but FaZe got rocked in multiple finals where they were the favorites. They lost to teams like NiP, Fnatic, and most famously Cloud9 at the Major. The team then faced even more problems as olofmeister took time off and the team had to play with stand-ins for a time. First Richard “Xizt” Landstrom and later Jorgen “cromen” Robertsen. In both cases, the team did surprisingly well as they got multiple top place finishes and titles (most notably beating Astralis at IEM Sydney). This was even more surprising as we later found out that the team had barely been practicing.
After olofmeister came back into the roster, the team started to have issues. First the team started to lose faith in Karrigan’s calling as NiKo took over the in-game leadership at the FACEIT Major for a brief stint, before fully taking it over soon after. For FaZe in 2018, this was the biggest issue that they had to face. The partnership between Karrigan and NiKo had fallen apart and so the team had a choice to make as to how they wanted to move forward. With the changing power dynamic, the old system was no longer tenable as Karrigan had lost the confidence of the players.
So there were two choices at this point for FaZe. They could either back Karrigan and his system and remove NiKo or back NiKo and lose their system and in-game leader. It was a slow choice as they first tried to have Karrigan be the support player and NiKo be the in-game leader, but by the end, it was clear. They had chosen NiKo.
While I’m critical of this move, it is one that I understand. Both Karrigan and NiKo are two of the best players in their specific roles. Karrigan will go down as one of the all-time greatest in-game leaders in CS:GO and easily the best leader to have run an international squad. NiKo is part of the group I have dubbed the Generation of Miracle. He along with Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev and Marcelo “Coldzera” David are all generational talents, players of such prodigious ability that all of them will be in the conversation of the greatest player to have ever touched CS:GO and all three will end up defining CS:GO history one way or another.
NiKo is a franchise player, someone that could define a team for an entire generation. Just like olofmeister did back when he played for Fnatic or how Coldzera defines MIBR now. That is likely why FaZe decided they had to side with NiKo. However that choice left a dead end. Like I said previously, Karrigan is one of the best in-game leaders in the world and there is no good answer for what kind of player they could replace him with. For now, they’ve settled on Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev. A legendary veteran of the scene who has multiple intangibles as a player. He’s versatile, incredibly clutch, and was a good secondary caller for Gambit back when they won the Major. As for siding with NiKo, FaZe essentially put their fate in the star player’s hands. This is a typical decision that many orgs have done in the past in CS:GO as they’ve let players dictate the course of their team’s future. Perhaps it could have worked too if this was at any other time in CS:GO history other than this.
But the reality is that in this era, FaZe live under the shade of Astralis. While the system of having the players decide how the team should be built and run had worked in the past, if 2018 showed us anything, it was that having a strong system can elevate a well-assembled team to even greater heights. Both Astralis and Liquid had built up entire systems around their teams with their coaches as the centerpieces, Danny “zonic” Sorensen for Astralis and Wilton “zews” Prado for Liquid. With their old system defunct, they needed to find someone else that could implement a direction and culture within the team.
In the past, this used to be the in-game leader, but there are no good candidates for FaZe on the market right now. However, FaZe could start building that system in a coach. This was likely what FaZe wanted to do in the middle of 2018 when NiKo took the in-game leadership role, but they could find no suitable choices at that time. The coaching role in CS:GO is one of the most highly sought after positions by CS:GO orgs, but the scene is in a transitionary period where coaches are just starting out. As that is the case, almost nobody has the experience to do it. At the same time, the typical in-game leaders who could potentially do it still have better opportunities whether that’s being part of the broadcast or playing CS:GO on a lower level.
As it stands then, coaches and orgs are in a weird catch-22. If an organization wants a coach, they will have to take a gamble on someone that has little to no experience. That in turn means that should a problem arise between a coach and the players, that the orgs will likely back the players. The players have the larger brands, the bigger voices, and dictate a lot of the roster moves in CS:GO. Orgs in this situation almost always side with the players in this instance and once that happens, any respect that the players had for the coach’s decisions is lost. It then becomes a vicious cycle. There are no coaches that an org would give power to, so they get an rookie coach. The rookie coach in turn can’t gain the experience to become a good coach because the org backs the player. The players in turn, could kick out the coach if they have a disagreement with them and then the org is back to square one.
Eventually, an organization will have to take a leap of faith and believe in the coach and the system they have built around them. While Zonic and zews are the biggest success stories in CS:GO, the best example of an organization siding with their coach over their players comes from League of Legends. The CEO of Cloud9, Jack Etienne backed his League of Legends coach, Bok “Reapered” Han-guy against his players. On June 13th, the two of them published a video on the Cloud9 youtube channel explaining that they had benched star players from the starting lineup: Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen, Andy “Smoothie” Ta, and Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi.
For YNk, this was part of the problem with his coaching at MIBR. He explained in an HLTV interview that, “You don’t have any real power behind you. You don’t have any punishments you can impose on players where they would know that, if they don’t listen to you or they don’t do what you tell them to, there are going to be some consequences. Right now, there are no consequences.”
The case of MIBR was unique though as the core of the team already had a preset identity in terms of how they did things and had found massive success in doing so. In that team, it was likely impossible for YNk to come in like a commander and start demanding wholesale changes. He had to try to convince them on a personal level to change and see his point of view. It seems that it worked to a certain degree as MIBR was a better team with better results after YNk joined compared to what they were before he joined the team. However, they were able to get the services of zews, who is widely regarded as one of the two best coaches in the entire game. Thus, they let YNk go.
This was the perfect opportunity for FaZe to pick YNk up for multiple reasons. YNk already has a connection with NiKo as the two of them had played together in the early days of CS:GO back when they were both in iNation where YNk was the in-game leader. YNk already has NiKo’s respect and that could be one of the keys to helping FaZe steer the org in the right direction.
After all, NiKo is the centerpiece of the entire team. He is the superstar among superstars so the team needs someone that can enable him or get him to buy into the system. In the case of YNk, he can do either. If NiKo is serious about becoming a full-time in-game leader, YNk has the tactical knowledge to teach him, back him up, and craft a tactical style for the team. If FaZe decide to get a new in-game leader, YNk can be the bridge between NiKo and whatever leader FaZe get in that scenario.
Another reason that getting YNk as coach will likely be beneficial for FaZe is that he could be the start-up piece to them building a system around the team. If FaZe want to compete with Astralis and Liquid for the top spots in the world, then having the best players in the world is no longer enough. They also need a comparable system to match. YNk is as good of a bet as any. He’s already shown some success with the MIBR squad. He has the rapport with NiKo already. Finally, he’s already made it clear in multiple interviews that he wanted to instill a culture within MIBR when he first joined. While he wasn’t able to push for it to the fullest extent he could, with FaZe that could be different.
It all depends on the amount of leverage FaZe has given YNk in terms of the coaching role. How much say does he have in the direction of the team, it’s culture, or his ability to get players to do what he wants. In the CS:GO scene now, coaches can only convince players to do what they want, there are no enforceable ways to get them to do what the coach wants. That is a problem that hasn’t been fully solved in CS:GO, so we’ll have to see how FaZe and YNk deal with it going forward.
While I’ve explained why I think YNk will benefit the FaZe roster greatly, at the end of the day this isn’t a surety. While the MIBR stint was good, that only lasted for a few months. We still have yet to how good YNk will be as a coach. However, for FaZe this is the right move whether YNk succeeds or fails. So long as they have given him the proper tools to do his job, either one of two things happens. Either he succeeds, in which case everything is fine. If they fail, then they learn the hard lessons they need and make better choices the next time. As it is, teams like Astralis and Liquid are already far ahead of the pack in terms of a system and for FaZe, this is a move they must do in order to catch up to their rivals.