Written by: John “Osmium” Hiles
Friday night at 10:00 EST, the Ninjas in Pyjamas and Virtus.Pro will face off in the last quarterfinals match of the first season of ELeague. While it has been a long time since either of these teams have been the best team in the world, neither have lost their hunger to once again be crowned champions. Tonight they face off yet again for a chance to play on the big stage for a minimum $50,000 prize. However, this is neither the first time these teams have played for such an opportunity nor was it the first time they’ve faced each other. In all eras of Global Offensive the Poles and Swedes have maintained a fierce rivalry whose inception predates the game itself.
For the Counter Strike professional scene, the duos of GeT_RiGhT and f0rest(the legendary Swedish superstars), and Neo and TaZ (The core of the Polish “Golden Five”) have competed at the highest level for over ten years now. Calling either of these pairs veterans is akin to addressing a U.S. President as “mister”. But over the years as metagames, great players, and great teams have come and gone, those four remain; each player an integral component to both their respective teams and their countries as a whole.
In the modern era, these duos continue to fight for championships, neither content to sail off into the sunset or fade into obscurity--despite the impressive legacies they would leave behind. Instead they continue to lead their teams to victory, albeit each in their own unique ways.
The Polish Powerhouse
Still despite being some of the most experienced players in the game, their team's identity share little in common. Since the start of GO, Neo and TaZ have taken a step back from their roles as star players in 1.6, and they’ve made room for the young up and comers to take center stage. While Neo once carried his team to victory--hailed by many as the greatest of all time -- he now plays more for his team, taking up positions and roles that his teammates don’t want. TaZ meanwhile tends to play more of a leadership role either through explicitly ingame leading or by keeping the team focused on their play. Rounding out the “old guard” is Pasha, the player brought in to replace one of the original golden five members. Pasha’s role in his team both in 1.6 and GO has been fragging oriented, and he is known for his aggressive risk taking playstyle.
Snax and Byali first broke out as international stars at the second major, EMS One Katowice 2014, during VP’s dominant run, only dropping a single map in the tournament. Despite being the youngest on the team they still boast years of experience competing at the top level. A true testament to the longevity of the polish side.
At different points in time all five members of VP have spent time as top level players. Neo and Taz’s glory days being primarily in CS 1.6 and early GO, Pasha’s superstar level play during the year of 2014, Byali’s impressive impact as an entry fragger(at EMS One Katowice, VP won 100% of the rounds Byali got the first kill), and Snax’s consistency--predicated on his freakishly intelligent positional play.
While each player’s skill level has fluctuated over the years, one constant aspect of Virtus.Pro’s identity has been their frighteningly clean bombsite takes. While the roles of each player have changed over the years(For example how TaZ, Neo, and Snax all take turns ingame leading) very little has changed in the team’s approach to the game.
Their signature T side executes were always characterized by a rare brilliance few teams ever posses. This natural chemistry, built up from years of playing together, enables the Poles to hit ridiculously high levels of play. This state, lovingly dubbed the “Virtus.Plow”, is characterized by pixel perfect teamwork. When the poles get into the zone, they maul their opponents by hitting incredibly precise timing windows that leave the other team totally disoriented. Someone will take a duel and pick off one of the polish members then to be instantly annihilated by another who was carefully positioned to avenge their death. Then with exceptional speed the Poles reposition to do the same to the rest of their opponents. This killer instinct comes from all five players having seen nearly every scenario in the game hundreds of times before.
The fatal flaw of this approach is the sheer difficulty of getting all five members of Virtus.Pro on the same page. If one player misses their window then the team briefly becomes mortal, and exceptionally skilled teams capitalize on these mistakes and get the better of them. As such VP are a very inconsistent team, having tournaments where they look unstoppable, and having weeks where they look lost in the server. Still the Poles know what they are capable of, and they never stop fighting. It only takes one big play to reinvigorate the group and get them back into a series. Any team who wants to defeat Virtus.Pro will have to dig deep to break them, they never go down easily.
Despite being in the biggest slump of their entire career at the start of 2016, even going so far as to be relegated from the ESL ESEA Pro League, Virtus have clawed their way back into the global spotlight by securing semifinals finishes in the last two majors. Their lineup has faced intense scrutiny in the past seven months, and the community by in large wonders how much time the older players Neo and TaZ have left in them. The Poles are looking to silence the doubters here at ELeague, proving they can still compete with the best; because if they can’t maybe they will have to start wondering how much longer changing roles will fix their struggles.
The Swedish Giants
It is a testament to how great of players they are, that asking them when their glory days were, GeT_RiGhT and f0rest could name several different eras of Counter Strike history. CS:GO fans in particular will likely remember 2012 where the Ninjas infamously went 87-0 in offline maps, one of the most dominant runs in the history of esports as a whole. Since then the team has fallen from those staggering heights but they still hold a respectable position in the world today. After horrendous 2015 where the Ninjas went months at a time without Bo3 victories over top 10 ranked teams, the Swedes have finally gotten back up and are once again contending for titles.
Four of the players from that original 87-0 lineup still play in the team today, but the similarities between the NiP of old and the NiP of today end there. The core of Friberg, Xizt, GeT_RiGhT and f0rest in the old NiP, played a loose free form style with simple but well executed tactics. Their game was an almost cookie cutter formula where Friberg and f0rest would tear open bombsites with solid entryfragging and GeT_RiGhT and Xizt would close out rounds. Their fifth player (whoever it might have been at the time) would proceed to fill in the gaps of the team as best as they could to varying degrees of success. As luck would have it from 2012-2014 this was an extremely effective formula leading to NiP making the finals of every major until the sixth, ESL One Cologne 2015.
Unfortunately as the team’s firepower dropped off and other teams improved significantly, their winning formula lost its potency. Teams like Fnatic, EnVyUs, Astralis(known then as TeamSoloMid), and Natus Vincere all surpassed the Ninjas in nearly every way. With declining results, rumors of players leaving, and controversy surrounding the organization, NiP were a dead team walking towards the end of 2015. At the very end of the year it was announced that the Finnish AWPer Allu would be leaving the team. Many suspected that was the end but to the community’s surprise the core 4 resigned with the organization. Yet another “twist” in the narrative was the signing of Pyth to round out NiP’s roster for 2015, a player with no experience at the top level. Finally it was announced that THREAT would be brought in as a coach for the team.
If there was ever a case for Coaching in esports it is the impact THREAT had on NiP. The Ninjas had used coaches in the past but it had never been particularly effective. Back then nobody told the team that went 87-0 how to approach the game. Perhaps it was the tough 2015 they had or the fact THREAT was well respected by the Swedes for his excellent tactical mind back in 1.6; but at long last, the Ninjas bought into this new rigid system. At their first LAN of the year, IEM Katowice 2016 the team managed to score a map win versus SK(then Luminosity) and play Na’Vi and Fnatic close 16-13 and 16-13 respectively. After a bump in the road at the MLG major(Pyth not being able to attend due to VISA issues) the Ninjas proceeded to win the next tournament Dreamhack Malmo. Their first international LAN win in over a year.
Despite their resurgence at the start of the year the team has seemingly lost its momentum after a 7-8th finish at the FaceIt ECS finals and a group stage exit at ESL One Cologne 2016. The ELeague finals will determine the trajectory of the Ninjas moving forward. This match is their chance to prove that they are still on the rise, and that their victory at Malmo was not a miracle run.