Can the signing of Aleksandr “KaiR0N-” Anashkin elevate the Outsiders' core to a title-contending level, or will the Rio Major be remembered as nothing but a fluke?
The Russian-Kazakh quintet of Outsiders will be debuting at IEM Katowice with their new signing, less than two months after a disappointing showing at the BLAST Premier World Final saw them replace David “n0rb3r7” Danielyan. The aim of the change is clear: bringing the core of Dzhami “Jame” Ali and Alexey “Qikert” Golubev back into title contention after two years of mediocrity.
The Virtus.pro organization, which still employs the Outsiders players, has smartly recognized that the Rio Major triumph was an outlier and found in KaiR0N- the solution to the team’s issues. Even long-time coach Dastan "dastan" Akbayev seems to recognize the importance of the move, calling the new recruit “the new young YEKINDAR”. But does the Russian rifler have what’s needed to elevate his team to a superior level they’ve been chasing for the past three years?
Outsiders’ unexpected highs and disappointing lows
For Outsiders, the signing represents another step in the complete overhaul of the original Virtus.pro roster which began in mid-2020. As the team failed to meet expectations set by a second place at the StarLadder Major in Berlin, finishing in last place in four out of five LANs at the start of the year, the postponement of the IEM Rio Major due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to the announcement of highly rated rifler Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis.
The removal of Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev for the hyper-aggressive Latvian gave the team’s game plan another sorely needed dimension. The team took a couple of months to settle in but rapidly improved in the second half of 2020. With YEKINDAR as its spearhead, Virtus.pro triumphed at IEM New York CIS, 2-0ing NAVI twice in the process, went flawless in Flashpoint 2 and beat Gambit to the DreamHack Open December title.
As 2021 rolled around VP remained in title contention for most of the season, winning another trophy at cs_summit 7 in their debut. However, the team couldn’t keep up with the ever-rising Gambit and NAVI, who elevated their playstyle and dominated most big events. The keyword for Sanjar “SANJI” Kuliev’s team was a disappointment, as VP were unable to put together deep runs outside of second place at IEM Katowice. Playoff exits at EPL Season 13, IEM Summer and IEM Cologne meant other missed opportunities, which led the organization to make an unexpected change.
Days before the PGL Major in Stockholm, VP replaced SANJI with long-time forZe star Evgenii "FL1T" Lebedev, calling it a temporary change with the aim to achieve the best possible result in Sweden. The result was much the same, with the team narrowly qualifying for the playoffs before losing to Heroic in a tight quarterfinal. The quintet then reached the semifinals of IEM Winter, their final event of 2021, but couldn’t capitalize on Gambit’s elimination and fell to eventual winners Vitality.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine would mean the end of the roster, which crashed out of Pro League and the PGL Major in Antwerp among rumors of internal turmoil. YEKINDAR and Timur “buster” Tulepov were benched and replaced by n0rb3r7 and Petr “fame” Bolyshev, leading to the birth of the IEM Rio-winning quintet. Predictably, the team established itself as a lower-tier contender by triumphing at ESL Challenger Rotterdam, but crashed out of two of the three big events it attended in last place, unable to keep up with the best international quintets.
Versatility and aggressiveness: KaiR0N-’s present and future
KaiR0N- has showcased his prowess on the rifle over the course of 2022, a year he started as a member of Spirit Academy as he allegedly failed his main-roster trial because of a role overlap with Robert “Patsi” Isyanov. The young Russian did not disappoint, ending the third season of WePlay Academy League as the fourth highest-rated player and leading the event in opening kills per round. The good form continued in INDE IRAE and Aurora, the latter bringing KaiR0N- to the IEM Rio RMR after a successful qualification campaign. His performances on LAN would be disappointing, as Aurora finished the event in last place, but that was to be expected as the young roster was anything but a contender.
With this context, can KaiR0N- be this quintet’s YEKINDAR and revitalize a roster apparently incapable of challenging for big titles? The similarities don’t stop at the transfer itself, as KaiR0N- is an aggressive T and CT side playmaker in the same vein as the Latvian star or MOUZ’s Dorian “xertioN” Berman. This tendency is confirmed by stats, as Anashkin took opening duels in 29.1% of T-side rounds in 2022, only trailing Vladislav “nafany” Gorshkov, YEKINDAR and Patsi in the CIS region. The Outsiders roster had sorely missed such a consistently aggressive presence, especially as n0rb3r7 converted his T-side team-leading 25.3% opening kill attempts less than 40% of the time.
If KaiR0N- can definitely expand Outsiders’ playbook by acting as a punishing space creator, his CT side roles will be even more interesting to assess. In part due to Dzhami “Jame” Ali’s passive AWP style, Outsiders lack variety and proactivity on their defensive halves, usually relying on FL1T and fame for information-taking or early-round plays. Unfortunately for the Russian outfit, as seen in other teams with snipers not known for their aggressiveness, such as Dmitry “sh1ro” Sokolov in C9 or Helvijs “broky” Saukants in FaZe, a strong rifling presence is needed to avoid opposing teams collapsing onto sites undisturbed.
In Outsiders’ opening match against fnatic, KaiR0N- mostly replaced n0rb3r7 in his anchor roles, usually reserved for a team’s more supportive elements. Although he has shown promise in his B-site Mirage holds, it’s still unknown if other spots will be progressively transferred to Qikert, the team’s worst-performing member. However, with the inclusion of a playmaker like KaiR0N- allowing them to survive more frequently into the late round, fame and FL1T have also shown the potential to flourish more and transform into consistent Tier-1 threats.
Paris calling: Outsiders’ baby steps
Katowice is however not necessarily an important benchmark for the team, as much as n0rb3r7 is theoretically waiting in the wings for a return to the active roster. As Virtus.pro CEO Nikolai Petrossian admitted in the announcement of KaiR0N-’s signing, “the team needed changes that would allow us to stay true to our playstyle, while not letting opponents adapt”. Even with the winter break helping Outsiders get into shape, it’s unthinkable for the young Russian to adapt to his new team and roles immediately, especially as Katowice is his first outing in Tier-1 Counter-Strike.
The real benchmark for Outsiders will therefore be the 17th season of ESL Pro League, starting on February 22nd. The team was drawn in Group A alongside Cloud9, G2 and fnatic, with a variety of lesser-rated opponents leaving them as one of the favorites for the playoff spots. A solid result at the event would mean Outsiders have picked up steam in time for the BLAST Paris Major RMR tournaments, where qualification is a non-negotiable goal, and completed a successful playstyle restructuring before the Major itself.
Still, Katowice can provide some important information on the state of the quintet. It will be interesting to see how Outsiders’ map pool is influenced by the new signing, especially as Anubis is now a stable presence among elite teams. Positive signs are already there as the team looked wildly unprepared on Mirage in their last outing at BLAST Premier World Finals but recovered to dominate fnatic in their opening matchup. The team fell 1-2 at the hands of the international quintet, even after defeating it twice in their title-winning IEM Rio campaign, but Outsiders has shown an impressive level when its stars fired on all cylinders.