In CS:GO, there are three players who align themselves closer to that of a deity than professional video game player: Coldzera, s1mple, and NiKo. Sure, there are demonically talented international superstars like rain, and fer who might rival this holy trinity on an individual level. But in terms of pedigree, tournament-to-tournament dominance, and romanticised aura, no others can contest with those three. There is a different feel around the crosshair and nametag of these ‘Gods’ of CS when they’re put in the biggest moments. They’ve been doing the impossible at such a high-level for so long that we not only sense but expect them to make it over any obstacle or challenge
When we see someone like NiKo in a tough 1v2 clutch it’s like watching a big Hollywood action movie that has the hero gets knocked down by the villain and put on the verge of losing. Our hero is in danger and it’s a tense moment, but it’s an expectant tensity. We’re fearful, yet confidently optimistic because we know that the hero is going to somehow transcend the chaos, overcome adversity and win. We’ve seen enough action movies to know there’s a happy ending; we internalise it, knowing the hero needs to, and will, rise against the obstacle.
Coldzera, NiKo, and s1mple have defied the odds in more impressive and public a fashion than any of their peers to the point that we’re always mindful and expectant of history repeating itself - even in the toughest moments.
In this sense, NiKo’s performance in the ELEAGUE Boston Major grand finals bought about a lot of criticism. In the eyes of some of FaZe’s bettors and fans, in the third map, the climax of the series and a space in which their hero should step-up and dominate, their hero tripped and fell. NiKo had his lowest three rated maps of the tournament over the course of the grand finals. He wasn’t the worst player on FaZe individually, but he was a far-cry from the stunning high-pressure performances we’ve seen in the past. It should be worth understanding why.
NiKo is lauded as one of the best players of all time for two main reasons. The most recognisable and talked about being his aim. And the second, less focussed on, but equally important aspect being his versatility. NiKo can do it all as an individual player. On both sides of the map, in any role, with any gun and against any player, NiKo, in the broadest sense of the word is dominant. In FaZe, this incredibly wide and deep skill set has been laser focussed on being their superstar rifler in indispensable positions. Whether it be anchoring the small site on Overpass and Inferno or opening up a round from palace on Mirage, NiKo’s play often forms the basis on which FaZe build rounds and close games.
The FaZe system, by both natural player styles and design, facilitates NiKo to regularly take unpressured, straight duels against enemies while also giving him the freedom to open up tough spots. In these standard duels where it’s predominantly about positioning and crosshair movement, NiKo absolutely dominates with the most clinical rifling ability in the world. In-form, NiKo’s first-bullet aim tears through even the most proficient duellers and can be utilised on a rifle or pistol, making him dangerous in every round.
That’s not to say NiKo is simply the biggest aim-star in a game that glorifies the one-tap though. Where the real prowess of NiKo’s individual style comes from is in how naturally flawless movement and positioning come to him as a seamless extension in these straight duels. NiKo’s shoulder-peeking and decisions on positioning in clutches and fights come straight out of a CS textbook yet to be written. When you can add his peak level of aim on top of these often overlooked, yet top-of-the-food-chain fundamentals, you get a player who regularly posts the highest amount of headshots, clutches, and damage per round of any tournament in a team of apex predators who usually do the same.
Peak performance NiKo is almost impossible to stop in this sense. It’s impossible to invest all your resources to shutting him down as the rest of FaZe will punish the cracks that emerge from being so invested in one element. Even NiKo playing at his standard level is extraordinarily difficult to shut-down for the average team. As SK had shown before the Major though, with the right mix of ideas and individual performances, it’s definitely doable.
Out of all the teams NiKo’s played on LAN since the player break and in the lead-up to the major, he’s played SK on the most maps yet has his lowest K/D ratio against them and the second lowest rating. The web of influencing factors that contribute to stats like this is impossibly difficult to fully understand, especially when you add in intangibles like mentality. To boil down SK’s ‘formula for success’ against NiKo and FaZe would be disingenuous to the sheer complexity of a truly top-tier rivalry like FaZe-SK. There are, however, some broad stylistic patterns that emerge from the SK match-up that clearly affect NiKo’s game in-particular that also were seen in the C9 series.
The biggest factor in constricting, and shutting-down NiKo is in how sides pressure and deny him the unpressured duels and straight engagements he so superbly excels in. Unlike sides who are often forced onto the back foot by FaZe’s forward movement and the constant threat of snowball, SK often flips the scenario, forcing FaZe to be the ones responding. SK have an infamous philosophy for map control and looking for many simultaneous openings off the default that forces teams to respond to pressure across the board and isolate players.
On CT-side Mirage, NiKo has to deal with incessant mid and connector pressure from the likes of fer and Coldzera, always threatening to push the bottom/top connector smoke and take the surprise duel. On CT-side Inferno, top banana, while NiKo is anchoring, SK often like to play an extremely late rotation game, forcing NiKo to find round-defining kills in the dying seconds of a round and become isolated on-site with no resources. SK are constantly spreading apart defences and forcing their enemies into uncomfortable spots where strong individual play under the pump is required.
NiKo, generally speaking, can deal with the pressure of the scenario, but he’s not the type to transcend it like Coldzera or s1mple on a normal day. NiKo needs his peak level of aim and form in order to thrive in these conditions, the swarming, space-denying flood of talented SK players demands the absolute best from their opponents. While NiKo’s fundamental base remains world-class in these games, allowing him to boast a solid rating and performance, he needs that extra factor to truly dominate; something that has remained aloof in a handful of FaZe’s performances. The Brazilians are a crucible and you need to be in your peak form to break out of it.
C9 is a team who mirrors this SK approach in many ways. The North American’s won crucial rounds against NiKo and FaZe as a whole by being comfortable turning up the tempo, looking for swarming duels and fast map control. They were confidently trading and taking spots on the map that most teams would be hesitant to peek into against a side as Mike Tyson-esque as FaZe. What’s more, C9 was playing at the individual level of FaZe as well, on both scopes of the game FaZe were forced into a scrappy, high-pressure series.
From tarik pushing seemingly every corner of the map with incredible individual form and skadoodle locking out entire swaths of the map from range, FaZe had to do battle for map control and elevate their individual stars to win. NiKo, in this sense, was being pressured successfully on the macro while also having to truly perform and rise in the intensive micro; a tough task, and one he faltered in.
When FaZe get matched man-for-man and are on the back foot, they either have to look to Karrigan’s calls to manoeuvre their way into winning positions or seize the big clutches and dominate the enemies stars with aim. With Karrigan’s calling crumbling under the pressure of the moment, it was Guardian and olofm’s individual performances that were so crucial to pushing FaZe nearly over the line. NiKo was the one who seemingly didn’t answer the call but needed to the most.
NiKo definitely failed to enter that transcendental, one-tapping truly apex NiKo state in the biggest series of his career so far, but it was against a layered set of factors designed for him not to get there. NiKo played well, as the greatest players of all-time tend to always do, but he didn’t rise above the peak of individual form C9 put in front of him. In this way, the performance was as much a praise on the nullifying factors C9 employed onto NiKo as it is a criticism on NiKo for not dealing with them
This series shouldn’t shatter your illusion of NiKo as the hero of FaZe and turn you into a naysayer. Rather, it should highlight that just like all archetypal figures, NiKo is flawed and operating in a flawed system. But it’s not about blaming the IGL, the opposition’s playstyle or his own need for space and resources in duels. The triumph of NiKo’s career will be the day that he manages to out-perform these flaws, as he has in the past, but at the right time and on the biggest stage CS:GO has to offer. January 28th in Boston just was not one of those days, but that doesn’t mean those rare opportunities for legacy defining, heroic performances will disappear; especially, not for NiKo.
Photo Credit: ELEAGUE
For additional material, check out Max's video breakdown of "How to Beat NiKo and Pressure CS Superstars"