38 kills were not enough, as a performance worthy of one of Counter-Strike’s contemporary avatars of excellence found him defeated as a team, even if nobody in the server could match him. NiKo’s FaZe Clan had lost the second map of their ELEAGUE Premier series to FNATIC and would fail to reach top four at a big North American event. 17 months earlier, NiKo had played his last offline game for mousesports, showcasing his prodigious talent but his 36 kills proving not enough to defeat Virtus.pro, then one of the world’s very best teams, on the same mirage and also with his team failing to grind out enough T rounds. Rome falls nine times an hour, as the great orator Terence McKenna would say.
Of course, the circumstances were different in all but one key regard: NiKo displaying an otherworldly individual effort and it proving not enough by virtue of his team being unable to convert it into a victory. For the young Bosnian, that mousesports game was the last in his solo performances for the then lowly mousesports and his transfer to FaZe Clan had already been confirmed. In FaZe he would immediately be competing in big international finals and in time winning six international trophies.
Despite such success and improved team conditions, a view limited to this year has seen him denied the major, winning only two trophies – one being a Belo Horizonte event which lacked the two best teams – and forced to watch as the era of Astralis looms, Na`Vi new level threatens every team in the scene and FaZe has only just finalised a full five man line-up again.
NiKo finds himself back in the position of being forced to excel individually for his squad to have any chance to see their faces reflected back in a gold or silver cup. The grind now is mental.
“When you’re playing against a stacked deck, compete even harder. Show the world how much you’ll fight for the winners circle.”
-Pat Riley, Five time NBA Champion coach
January 28th, 2018, NiKo sits paralysed by a moment that never should have been. His FaZe Clan had been a round from winning the major he had battled to compete for over the two and a half years of his short career in teams of a notable level. Favourites to win, facing a squad they had defeated with ease in their last three series offline. Now his FaZe team are seated as Cloud9 celebrate an over-time victory at the ELEAGUE Boston major and NiKo’s destiny still eludes him and legacy remains uncemented. This was not how the final was supposed to play out.
Such is the plight of the super-star talent. As much as an FPS (First Person Shooter) like Counter-Strike may seem, to the layman, decided by headshots and thus aim, the team component and depth of meta-game understanding possible make it a game which can be cruel to even its most gifted masters. In the face of such jarring defeats, the competitor is challenged by the game and life itself to see how much more they can give. How much more than can withstand. Whether they will break.
“How bad do you want it?” reads the advertising line on NiKo’s twitter header. That’s the question he must ask himself now. In moments of frustration during games and following brutal losses, the ex-mouz man can be seen over-run with emotion and thrown from joy to despair depending on the outcome of a round. Beyond the pantomime of showmanship for the cameras, there is a real battle taking place in NiKo’s soul in such moments. One so talented is ever tortured by the question “why can’t it go the way I want?” when they are so capable and so very good at their part of the team effort.
Certainly, NiKo is not to be blamed for such displays of passion. They show his humanity and passion to succeed in the game, but if he wants to win badly enough then they are another enemy to defeated in a tense duel, much as he takes down the world’s best with his phenomenal AK. If he wants to win badly enough then the first frame of mind is not to give up, no matter how dire the circumstances may momentarily appear. Patience is hard to preach to someone delivering performances above and beyond what is expected of even the star of an international squad like FaZe, but when it is your team-mates and team collectively you are waiting on then wait you must and with a positive attitude.
Maintaing his level and striving to even increase it and his impact in the game seems like a rough ask to make of someone giving so much and so invested, but that is all that is under his direct control and acknowledging as much will free him of his torture, even as it guides him towards future ecstasy. Not that NiKo cannot help his team-mates more. He can work with them to adapt their games to his more, understand their decisions and help them understand his and even help them tap into the drive which pushes him forwards and overcomes any fear of the moment or opposition, no matter their magnitude.
The philosophy which can save NiKo from the grip of pain is not a style of play inside the game or a concept for recruiting better team-mates. Rather, it is Stoicism – an ancient Greek philosophy stemming from the third century B.C. Let’s explore how wisdom thousands of years old can ease the pain and focus the drive of Counter-Strike’s super-stars.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
Philosophy can be a abstract, but a clear example has been given for even a player of NiKo’s level, as s1mple found himself battling even more difficult moments earlier this year and has seen circumstances shift surrounding him to be elevated to championship glory. It was not enough that s1mple delivered superlative performances, such as his StarSeries Season 4 MVP run which stands as one of the most impressive individual displays of consistent form even without the trophy to gild it. No, s1mple toiled and delivered masterpieces event to event only to see Na`Vi unable to quite reach the trophy. In the past, tables would have been smashed and curses slung in Russian. There were to be no such displays this year.
The Ukrainian prodigy, who has also suffered through hard times and inferior team-mates previously, accepted his tortured lot but focused on his opportunities to win, consistently reaching top four finishes even when his team were unable to win. Na`Vi may have failed, but s1mple did not and maintaining his elite level afforded Na`Vi the chance to become champions when the right team-mates elevated their own play, adapted to his more effectively and fought through complacence with being good in order to become champions. s1mple was stoic in defeat and no excuses were given.
Even the greatest individual effort can fall in the face of not enough support or a superior team effort by the opposition. Yet that should not be cause for despair, but rather a sign of potential for the future. The stoic super-star realises that similar excellence coupled with growth within his own team ranks would clearly be enough to emerge victorious. This is something to take solace in, not despair due to the thrill of victory being further delayed.
“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”
The hard times had seemingly already been for NiKo, stuck in a mousesports team that without him would have been scrapping to even enter the top 10 rankings but with him boasted one of the world’s very best players and could threaten even the best teams here and there. NiKo was a problem for everyone in the top teams, but in his team-mates they found their solution and many times an epic performance was wasted, failing to even progress from a group stage and rarely ever in position to compete for a trophy.
NiKo can be thankful to have endured such torture, for there are talents in this world who have found their path to the top much shorter and less strenuous. Their pain has merely been delayed to a future date and when it arrives they will be equally confused and frustrated, but from the arguably more disturbing position of considering success something they have already attained and expect to experience at all times. NiKo has been through the hardest times and now his burden seems much lighter even as his FaZe Clan fail to establish themselves as the world number ones they seemed destined, nay are demanded – by virtue of their line-up of future hall of famers and past championships – to be.
The stoic super-star acknowledges his hard-ships as markers of personal growth and character building on his quest for ultimate success.
“He is most powerful who has power over himself.”
NiKo’s emotions are a natural default for the human animal, but that does not mean they cannot be transcended or transmuted. Just as he is detatched from the result of a single kill in an unfolding clutch, so he is advised to see defeat as a harsh but effective form of feedback from the game. Not today, but try again tomorrow and do not give up. A hard lesson to be taught again and again, but one which cannot be denied, lest all is lost. This is the pain that teaches.
NiKo can do little to make his opponents perform less effectively, in the context of his powerful performances in the server, and developing his team-mates is not a task undertaken lightly, but he can strive to perfect his own reaction to hard times and transmute defeat into an even more powerful will to win.
Win or lose, the stoic super-star thinks not of the outcome but of the moment and its circumstances. With these team-mates, in this match and against this opponent, what is the correct play here? How do I again afford my team an opportunity to prevail? Where is victory hidden even in the most dire battle? These are the questions that change difficulty into challenge.
“Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”
The stoic super-star does not deny his experience or emotional state, but allows it to pass without taking him along with it. When a difficult moment arrives he lets it go on without carrying it as baggage into the next round, the next match and the next tournament. The time to win may not be now, no matter how much he may wish otherwise, but returning again and again to the point of glory and without losing the zeal of a would-be champion, the stoic super-star knows sooner or later he will be rewarded with victory.
By finding the centre within himself where calmness prevails, the stoic super-star focuses on creating victories, not being distracted by losses or battered by unfair circumstances. He is the cliff and the results are the waves which break around him. Win or lose, he strives to deliver his best and accepts that not everything is in his hands to decide.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent – no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
When we look back at the career of NiKo we will gain much insight by asking the players in SK Gaming and Astralis, teams which have denied him glory on many notable occasions, what made him so devastating a player. These are the individuals who know most of all what he was capable of in a server. Who had to adapt their game plan to the possibility of him taking over a match, killing everything and seeming unplayable. Who know what it took to overcome such a seemingly indomitable individual force and scrape the rounds necessary to win and lift the trophy in spite of him.
Let us hope that after they relay their tales of successful occasions on which they prevailed against NiKo and his teams that they must acknowledge his greatness further in explaining how he became an even greater player, a path to success s1mple has shown us works as much as it seems ridiculous and unacceptable to demand of any one man. Then the world will know how great NiKo was and what it took to match his ability in Counter-Strike.
The stoic sees the hardest victory as the one most pleasing to attain. Even as Astralis have won most of the big tournaments over the last five months and in stunningly dominant form, do not people question if they have truly been tested, in the way that NiP, FNATIC and SK Gaming were in their eras? There will be no questions for the stoic super-star, as he sees his tough times as the suitably tense first act of his career, ensuring his break-through and accomplishment will be that much greater when it comes.
Dirk Nowitzki is forever cemented as a great player in the sport of basketball not just for his hall of fame level numbers and long career of consistency. No, he is revered because he did not lose patience and move from team to team or despair in heart-break, such as losing the 2006 finals as a favourite or being eliminated in the first round the following year after 69 regular season wins. The defining moment of his career came as he carried a Mavericks team who had no business competing for the title through to the 2011 Larry O’Brien trophy in spite of their flaws as a team and the overwhelming talent and star power of opponents like the Thunder and Heat. That was a championship earned like a samurai and onlookers acknowledge it as superior, in the context of his career, to those earned by stars whose teams are stacked with talent, such as this year’s Golden State Warriors.
For a Counter-Strike comparison, recall shox’s burden in an under-powered G2 in 2016, with most of France’s top talents on rivals nV, a team he had been ejected from. Forced to take on the mantle of in-game leader himself, how much more satisfying do you imagine his victory at ECS S1, beating out the FNATIC and SK teams which had dominated the standings that year, was in light of the difficult path which led there? How much more epic would his victory at ESL ProLeague S3 have been, when he delivered a performance comparable to s1mple’s at StarSeries, if he had prevailed over a Luminosity which was in the midst of their era? Where the ordinary man sees near insurmountable adversity, the stoic super-star sees the greatest challenge.
“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb
GeT_RiGhT, olofmeister, shox, kennyS and coldzera – Counter-Strike’s greatest individuals – have all known these pains. They too have all seen even their major winning sides unable to convert rounds into map wins and big match opportunities into trophies. Did they falter? Were they taken hostage by excuses and made bitter? Or did they battle on regardless and put themselves again in position to win, no matter the cost? It is time for NiKo to become initiated into that class of greatness and become the legend his talent hints he can be.
The stoic super-star cannot win all the time, but by controlling that which he has power over – his mind – he finds the strength to give himself the chance to win many times. NiKo has not yet won a major, but he has the ability to win many majors still to come, exceed any opponent contending with him and change the narrative surrounding his career forever. He can be thankful to now be in a team where he has the chance to win. As they say in his native tongue:
“Gvožde se kuje dok je vruce.”
-English equivalent: Strike the iron while its hot.