Written by: Richard Lewis
You might expect the team that convinced Shaquille O’Neal to invest in them to put in powerhouse performances on the Counter-Strike circuit. However, despite promise, time and significant investment, the team has had more in common with Shaq’s season with the Cleveland Cavaliers than his glittering spell with the LA Lakers. Their failure to improve is a mystery to me, mostly because I know it’s not due to a lack of trying.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with the NRG team in their Las Vegas house and saw that they certainly putting the work in. A lot of team houses I’ve been in have either been glorified frat houses or some throwback to the Dickensian days of “the workhouse,” but this was neither of those. Regimented and disciplined when it came to practice schedules, with ample relaxation and team bonding out of it, I was skeptical that the team could have an impact on the North American scene, and left convinced they would improve beyond their local rivals.
At the time, their results were mostly competitive, with a long list of close losses against teams they shouldn’t have been able to match. They were held back by a few factors. Most notably, they always seemed to struggle on pistol rounds, criminally overpowered in the current ruleset in my opinion, which often saw them giving their opponent six rounds for free. They also had zero confidence in their in-game communication, constantly peeking in after plant positions to gain information they had already been told. They would lose so many 1v3 situations it was almost unbelievable. Also, they were trying to develop two inexperienced players in the form of Justin "Just9n" Ortiz and Samuel "SileNt" Portillo, and you could see what was holding them back. These were problems I expected them to conquer.
There were some limitations that were always going to be part of their team make-up. The veteran in-game leader Fatih "gob b" Dayik, a true genius when it comes to the game, is never going to be a reliable scoring presence. I watched him dedicate hours and hours of death match practice, but for all his intelligence and charisma, he’ll never be the complete player at this late stage in his career. Their AWPer, Peter "ptr" Gurney, is a feast or famine player. When he goes off, he can be unplayable and easy one of the region’s top snipers. When he doesn’t, his absence would be felt in any team, but especially in this one. Nikola "LEGIJA" Ninic struggled to find consistency as well, along with a role within a team still trying to integrate two up-and-comers. Even with these idiosyncrasies, I believed they were just behind the elite level North American squads. Don’t forget, this is the team that beat EnvyUs in a best of three with a stand-in at the Croatian Counter-Pit event, with all credit for that victory evaporating due to the EnvyUs slump.
Despite the fact that I believed there was no better mentor for a young player to learn from than Dayik, something never clicked and both the American players were dropped to the substitute bench after one offline event together. The subsequent changes were upgrades to the roster. I’d never been a fan of Jacob "FugLy" Medina’s style, but it was inarguable that he was a fairly solid player. The acquisition of Johannes "tabseN" Wodarz was the real coup. I’d been vocal about recommending him as an addition for mousesports, who were struggling with their own inability to find form, and he was too good to be without a team. Finally stepping away from the German scene, which is in terminal decline, I had no doubts he would be a big star.
They came to ELeague with little preparation and it showed. It was the same old story: some close defeats harvested from competitive performances. Notably, they pushed Astralis close, though the Danes were without their in-game leader due to a late visa, and took a map off CLG. Even though they were humbled by SK Gaming, you could see there was something to work with. The team didn’t seem too disappointed and they got back to the business of practicing, confident that what would come next would see them realize their potential.
Two months later, they returned to competition and it’s hard to see where that work went. If anything they seem to have gone backwards. Their Starladder qualifier campaign was an attritional slog. It started with a narrow series win over Selfless, followed by a defeat against Cloud9 that ran the gamut, including a 16-1 crushing on train, a map that they picked. Then, they kicked off their ESL Pro Series campaign only managing thirteen rounds in two maps against Immortals. At the time of writing this, their last outing saw them manhandled by Cloud9 in another tournament losing 2-0. The numbers read like this; since the roster change they have only won four maps from eighteen played and that’s with a two-month period to fine tune.
Even with context, those numbers don’t make for great reading and in isolation they look even worse. Eighteen maps aren’t a lot for any line-up to play before decisions are made about the future, but understand that the core of this team has been together since January. That’s not bad going in the ever-changing world of CS. It’s also true that opportunities for development are going to be limited if things continue. How can you make it to international events if you can’t win qualifiers? A lack of tournament involvement is a sure way to stagnate.
Whether this is fair or not, their next few appearances will decide the long-term future of the team. It’s a time when teams across North America are shuffling and no-one can really be sure who has the best deal. In a time when new rosters are forming, a team that has had the benefits of a prolonged period of practice should be relishing the opportunity to catch teams starting over.
It’d be a shame if they weren’t able to find the winning formula in time. As a team, they are model professionals, hard workers and gracious in defeat. The cynics will tell you it’s easy to be gracious when you’ve had this much practice at losing. We’ll see if the new formula brings new energy.