Ahead of the debut of ENCE’s new roster in the ESL Pro League Season 16 groups, I had the opportunity to talk to the Finnish team’s General Manager, Niklas "Willkey" Ojalainen, about the recent slew of moves in the CS:GO division.
The whole saga began earlier this summer, at the start of the player break, after an initial report that Vitality is interested in Lotan "Spinx" Giladi. Subsequently, ENCE sold his contract to the French organization, added Valdemar "valde" Vangsa in place of the Israelian, and replaced Aleksander "hades" Miskiewicz with Alvaro "SunPayus" Garcia, the Spanish AWP star of Movistar Riders.
A former professional player and in-game leader in Rainbow Six: Siege, Willkey was kind enough to offer insight into the process behind the moves, the expectations for the new lineup, and more.
Author's note: this is a transcribed version of the interview. For the sake of readability and briefness, parts of it have been edited.
Talking about Spinx
R. Nachew, BLIX.GG: From the public's point of view, the whole series of moves was kickstarted by Vitality's interest in Spinx, which was reported at 1PV.fr. How did it go down from your perspective?
Niklas "Willkey" Ojalainen: First of all, Spinx was a core piece of our roster. We had just renewed his contract in the spring, so we had a long-term contract with him.
[Author’s note: In March, ENCE signed contract extensions with Snappi, dycha, and Spinx, which ran through 2023.]
[We] didn't want to sell him. But at the same time, we also listened to Lotan, what he thinks about the move. At first, he wasn't sure if he wanted to go or not, but then, when [his] mind moved more towards supporting the move, we took the steps to make it happen [in a way that's] sensible for us. Of course, we weren't going to sell ourselves short. We want to get the value that is [commanded] by a top five rifler in the world. You expect a certain level of compensation when you sell a player like [Spinx].
Personality-wise, he also has an atmosphere-boosting character. He was always smiling, always [improving] the mood. And if [we] lost the game, he was the quickest to let it go and concentrate on the next one. You always want to have a personality like that. It wasn't an easy decision to let him go, but at the same time, if the player wants to go and he has mentally already moved on, it is kinda hard to keep him at that point. So, we just had to make the moves to make the deal possible.
When a team has to replace a player of Spinx’s caliber, it’s quite unlikely to find someone who’s as good as him. How did knowing this factor into your decisions?
Yeah, it's a rare occasion when you get a top-five, top-ten player, so it was going to be hard to replace him.
At the same time, if something is certain in esports, it’s change. You can never feel comfortable because there's going to be change happening all the time. It's just how the ecosystem moves and how the industry is. It always changes; you cannot get too [attached] to one guy and must be ready to make the change.
We had talks with our coach, Eetu ["sAw" Saha], and the in-game leader, Marco ["Snappi" Pfeiffer], about who we might want to get. Everyone had a bit different opinion, and, of course, it's always about finding common ground. [For example,] one would [want] this guy or that guy, and the other one would [have different preferences]. It's about finding the [player] everyone would be comfortable with.
If you want to get in a young, upcoming talent that you think might [become] a top-ten player [at some point] in two years, three years. That's one way to go. Or do you someone who's already an experienced player, and [that way] you pretty much know what you're going to get.
Then, do we need to change some other piece at the same time so that if we get this guy, we know he gives us [a certain] level of play. [And this way] the big picture improves as a whole, even though we lost one [great] player. It's [like a] puzzle, and you need to be ready to change because it's rare that you can only change one piece, especially if it's your best piece.
Discussing valde and SunPayus
Obviously, valde falls on the experienced side of that spectrum. What was the process of selecting him as the replacement for Spinx?
We had a lot of names on the list [of players] we considered. And then, we [created] a shortlist from [among] those players: “OK, these are the players we're going to contact.” Some of them were already [in the process of signing] with other teams, and we didn't want to [interfere] with their signing because we weren't sure we wanted them. Then, some deals that we tried to get with other guys didn't go through.
It's always [complicated]. At the same time, you want to get the best player, but of course, you [also] want to have the best deal. So, it's a combination of what you can get with the money you [have to] spend.
It's been rumored that valde has been on the market a few times previously, but nothing came of it until now, and the Aleksib move earlier this year also took a while to get done. Was it difficult to negotiate with OG?
No, I wouldn't say [negotiating] with OG was that difficult. It's always [about] what the player wants, what the expectation for the player is, and what the reality for the organization is -- what we can pay -- [all] at the same time. So it's [about] finding common ground with the terms, but it was harder to try to get a younger talent than to get valde, in [respect] to negotiating with the other organizations. But when you're dealing with an experienced player, it's harder to negotiate with the player [compared to a] younger one.
When you get the harder path on one side, it's easier on the other [and vice versa]. So it's kinda like juggling with balls, I guess.
I think we are all happy that we ended up [with] valde in the end because he is an experienced player. He has shown in the past that he can deliver pretty stable [statistical performances] all the time. Of course, it doesn't tell the whole picture, but because he's been so consistent you pretty much know what you're going to get [with him].
It's easy to build upon something that is consistent. A funny story: there was a time when we wouldn't have even had a tryout with valde, but when we [held one], he showed with his professionalism and his experience that he's the guy [we want].
Was it due to him taking time off recently or something else entirely?
I can't speak for someone else, as I don't know what he [thought when he took a break]. But I guess when you've played so long for OG and North, and you had the success in North, you were one of the best players at that time. And then you were in OG, and you didn't really get results, even though you played together for a long time. And then you went to the bench and stayed on the bench for a considerable amount [of time], and no one bought you out... [It gives you] time to think and clear [your mind] and [figure out] what you want to do as a player.
We interviewed him, and he convinced us that he is at a point in his career where he knows that now is the time to put [in] 100% to CS because the CS careers are short in general, so either you [dedicate] 100% or you quit. That's it. [I suspect] during this time off he [realized] that this is the time to put in 100% and really focus on CS.
There was a short period of time when the rumors about valde and SunPayus had surfaced, and Spinx wasn't traded yet. During it, some fans wondered if the team could keep Spinx, at least until Rio, and form a superteam of sorts. How realistic was this scenario? Is it something ENCE considered?
Yeah, it was because changing hades and changing Spinx were separate things. We were already talking about [replacing] hades [when] Vitality came [and said] they wanted to buy Spinx.
So it was like: first, we were thinking about the hades situation; and then the Spinx situation arose. At the same time, there are not that many AWPers on the market who are experienced and good players. So, it wasn't that easy to [figure out] what we're going to do with hades, and it wasn't clear whether we're going to [replace] him or not. There were other players on the market as well, other than Alvaro, but they already had deals going in other directions as well. And of course, if you're a player and [you have] multiple teams that are trying to [acquire] you, then you are more or less trying to get the biggest check you can, or you want to get to a specific situation that's the best for your career.
We didn't get the right feel [from] the other guys that they would want to come to our team. Whereas when we talked with Alvaro [and his] agent, [we got the impression] that he really wanted to come to [ENCE]. So, when someone wants to [play for] your team and they see [it] as a good opportunity for their career, it's the player you want to get because he has the motivation to put in the time and the hard work to succeed with your team.
How did SunPayus' playstyle influence the decision to sign him?
The main reason we wanted to get him was because of what he said in interviews. He [said he] was a guy who wanted to take matters into his own hands. He wants to make calls, to make plays. Since the AWP is such a key piece in [a CS:GO] team and he needs to have an impact on the server, we wanted to get an AWPer who wants to make plays, to be vocal, [to say] “Hey, I want to take B. Flash for me. One, two, three, let's go!” We heard this from Alvaro he's a guy who wants to make these plays in the mid-round.
Of course, you also need the IGL [during all stages of the round], but it's always good to have the AWP player who wants to take the initiative in the middle of the round to open up a site or if he's on CT to get the cheesy picks [and create] 5v4 situations. So, we felt like Alvaro would be the style of an AWPer that [we need].
Now that you're done with the moves, and we're entering another major cycle, what are the expectations of the new team?
We expect to remain in the top ten. Hopefully, we can keep climbing up higher, but when you've been #2 in the world, it's kinda hard to get to the #1 spot. It means you pretty much have to win the tournaments. We haven't won a tournament in a long time, so that's what we want to [accomplish].
But [replacing] two players is quite a big change, in general. So it's not going to be like snap your fingers and you get the results. [The team] needs the time to practice, get everyone on the same page because [it's] two players who've both had different styles of play, different opinions. It's not just those two adjusting to [the team]. You also have to adjust to how they see the game, so it will take time to get the results, but in the end, you always expect to get better results.
We are expecting to win a tournament. Is it going to be this autumn or the next spring? We don't know yet, but that's the main goal. And, in the bigger picture, if you don't want to be the best in the world, why are you in the sport?
Between the original Finnish team and this international roster, ENCE has been pretty successful in CS. Still, you guys don't have the huge budget of some other organizations, and it has to play a part in your decision-making. How difficult has it been to explain to fans that you're still trying to create a good, winning lineup, even though you lost Spinx?
When you lose your best-rated player, it's always hard to justify that we're still going for the rank one, but at the same time, it's [about the role]. The role that Spinx [played in] was a role that was given to him, so it's not like he magically was the best player in the world. In a way, he also got the positions to do that. Of course, he [made the most of] the opportunity and [posted] the numbers. Now, we need to [create the same] opportunity for other guys.
I hope [fans believe we're still trying to win]. And if they don't, I hope we can prove them wrong.
Any predictions for ENCE's ESL Pro League group?
Well, of course, I expect us to go through. We've done it in the past, and I wouldn't expect anything else. There will be a time we don't go through; that's a reality. It might happen if [the team] has bad luck or [a poor] start, but I believe in our guys 100%. So, we are going through!
Is there something else you'd like to say as a closing statement?
I'd like to thank all of our supporters and fans, and let's keep grinding. Hopefully, we can keep the ENCE logo high on the rankings. That's what we all are aiming for.