Before the IEM Katowice 2022 finals, there was a sense of destiny in the air. Multiple teams had made massive roster changes to topple the world order. By the end of the tournament, G2 and FaZe had succeeded. On one side, G2 had defeated Na`Vi, the best team in the world. On the other side, FaZe had swept through Gambit and Heroic.
At the heads of these two respective teams were Nikola "NiKo" Kovac and Finn “Karrigan” Andersen. NiKo is one of the three greatest prodigies of CS:GO and has distinguished himself as the best rifler in the game. Karrigan is the best international leader in CS:GO and one of the two players with a legitimate claim for the greatest leader of all time.
Neither NiKo nor Karrigan had ever won a Katowice, so one of these two outstanding talents would finally add one of CS:GO's most prestigious trophies to their resume. The clash was heightened by their shared history; as five years ago, they had played together for the same trophy. Now five years later they fought each other for that honor.
Five Years Ago
Over five years ago, Karrigan and NiKo changed the game. Back then, national line-ups were standard. The idea of mixed international rosters was only a theoretical idea, rarely implemented, and always looking better on paper than in practice. Despite that reality, FaZe continued to plug away as they gathered as many international players. It never got off the ground until Astralis benched Karrigan and got Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander.
Karrigan was a natural fit for FaZe and they quickly hired him. In three days, he took FaZe to heights they had never reached before and established them as a top 10 team. To become elite though, FaZe needed a superstar. A player that could outshine the greatest superstars of the era.
NiKo was one of the three great rising prodigies of that age. He redefined the idea of how much one man could carry on his back. Jaroslaw “pasha” Jarzabkowski in a HLTV interview said NiKo, “Wanted to be the Rambo of CS.”
That ‘Rambo’ pulled out electric highlights and on his best days could challenge the Fnatic dynasty nearly by himself. However, one man cannot push the boulder up the hill alone. Eventually, he needed a better team and he joined FaZe on Feb. 9, 2017.
Changing the Game
Three weeks later, NiKo and Karrigan made their debut together at IEM Katowice 2017. Most line-ups need four to six months to become a strong team. It took Karrigan and NiKo three weeks. A testament to NiKo's skill and Karrigan's leadership. As good as the team was, Astralis beat FaZe 3-1 in the finals.
The rest is history. FaZe fought against Astralis and SK in a three-way war for global dominance in the first half of 2017. FaZe then doubled down on firepower and made the line-up to end all line-ups as they recruited Olof "olofmeister" Gustafsson and Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovacs.
For a brief moment, FaZe looked like they were going to break the game as they slaughtered everyone at ESL New York 2017 and Eleague 2017. As powerful as that line-up was, it couldn't come together in the finals. The continued close losses in big finals and roster issues eventually broke the team apart.
FaZe went into a malaise. They had roster issues, stand-ins, and could never recapture the magic they had in late 2017. Even so, Karrigan and NiKo had fundamentally changed the game. Before the two of them, mixed international line-ups in CS:GO were merely conceptual. It has now become the standard.
As for FaZe, they hoped that things would improve once olofmeister came back, but it never did. The unity in the team broke apart, they eventually switched over to NiKo to be the leader and that was essentially the end of FaZe Clan as we knew them. FaZe had to choose between NiKo or Karrigan. A choice between one of the greatest prodigies or one of the greatest leaders.FaZe chose NiKo and Karrigan had to find a new home.
The intervening years
NiKo's FaZe was largely mediocre as they could never finalize a good roster. They never solved the in-game leader problem and couldn’t unify as a team.
As for Karrigan, he was lost in the wilderness for a bit, playing for EnVyUs before being picked up by Mouz. Mouz was an up-and-coming team with a trio of young stars; Robin "ropz" Kool, David "frozen" Cernansky, and Ozgur "woxic" Eker.
Karrigan couldn't make the line-up work in a matter of days or weeks like his previous FaZe rosters. But, he proved that he was just as effective a leader in bringing up young talent as he was with established veterans. In a few months, Mouz made their first semifinals at EPL 9 and by the end of the year had become one of the elite teams in the world. With three victories at CS:GO Asia, EPL 10 Finals, CS Summit 5, and a runner-up at EPICENTER 2019.
Unfortunately, we never got to see the full potential of that line-up — their life line was cut short due to the pandemic. While online play continued, Mouz couldn't keep up the same energy and cohesion they had when they were competing at LANs. While there were a few bright spots, it was largely a decline for Karrigan's Mouz.
Conversely, NiKo had a few good placings with FaZe in mid-2020 before things broke apart. By the end, he left FaZe for G2. It started rough, but eventually, G2 became a consistent top 3-4 team during the online period.
With NiKo leaving FaZe, FaZe decided that they needed Karrigan back and in 2021, they were able to bring him back into the fold.
The Return to LAN
ESL Cologne 2021 was a huge event for everyone. It was the return to LAN competition and marked the return for both NiKo and Karrigan.
In the case of NiKo, his status as a nigh untouchable prodigy had diminished to mere superstar. At ESL Cologne, that turned around. NiKo resurrected his peak form. During the last few years of FaZe and the online period of G2, NiKo was 'merely' a superstar player.
The NiKo we saw at ESL Cologne, the Major and now, isn't just one of the best players in the world — he's one of the best in history.
As for Karrigan, the moment he got back on LAN, everything clicked again. FaZe made a deep run into the semifinals of the tournament while G2 made it to the finals. Na`Vi beat both teams and took the title.
The 2021-22 roster shuffle
Both G2 and FaZe realized they had the potential to be the best in the world. G2 had NiKo in world dominant form. To compliment him, they added on Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov as AWPer and Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen as the in-game leader.
G2 had badly needed an AWPer through the 2021 period. As for Aleksib, he had proven himself as a remarkable leader during his tenure with ENCE. As well as showing pretty good form in OG. Along with Nemanja "huNter-" Kovac and Audric "JaCkz" Jug, G2 had the right mix of star power, role players, and tactics needed to take the world.
As for FaZe, they had been slowly building up their roster over years. The two mainstays from the NiKo lines were: Havard “rain” Nygaard and Helvijs "broky" Saukants.
Rain was the longest-tenured veteran. A former star player that played the hard entry now, but could still take over games. FaZe recruited broky in 2019 and since then he has slowly become a star AWPer and has shined his brightest under the most recent iteration of FaZe.
FaZe had also gotten two superstar riflers along the way: Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken and Robin “ropz” Kool. Twistzz had joined the team in early 2021 after leaving Liquid and Ropz joined the team in early 2022. The roster had everything that Karrigan needed to succeed.
IEM Katowice 2022
Strangely enough, we never got to see the roster in full force as they had no time to practice and had stand-in issues at IEM Katowice 2022. For a large part of the tournament Justin “jks” Savage had to play as a stand-in. In the early stages he stood in for Ropz and in the play-offs, stood in for Rain.
Even with those problems, FaZe went on a tear as they went through the play-in stages with ease and made it out of groups with wins over Liquid and Fnatic and one close loss to Na`Vi 1-2. FaZe then went on to beat Gambit 2-1 and Heroic 2-0 to make it to the finals. G2 got caught off in the first round as they dropped 1-2 to Fnatic, but made a loser's bracket run out of group stages and into the finals with series victories over Liquid, FURIA, Astralis, Virtus.Pro, and Na`Vi 2-0.
FaZe and G2 had toppled the old order. G2 had beaten Na`Vi in the semifinals while FaZe had beaten two of the elite teams in 2021: Gambit and Heroic.
G2 had brilliant firepower with the combination of NiKo, m0NESY and huNter-. The firepower combined with Aleksib's style of calling and tactics made them competitive in every match.
As for FaZe, they also put on a showcase of their brilliant overall skill and Karrigan's leadership. Each player has a wide and varied skill set and Karrigan was able to improvise, adjust, and exploit advantageous matchups and styles.
As Twistzz described it in a HLTV interview, “I think what karrigan is doing with us, and the team itself is showing how wide the skill level is on this team, that everyone can do anything on the team and do it exceptionally well.”
Face-Off at the Finals
The finals was an epic battle that could have ended 3-0 in either direction. In the end, FaZe clutched it out on all three maps. There was no singular point or round in the series or maps that decided the match. One small slip one way or another could have decided the entire thing. If I had to choose something though, it comes down to the two titular players of this article: NiKo and Karrigan. Or rather, their respective strengths.
NiKo is a prodigy, one of the generation of miracles, and the superstar among superstars during his FaZe days. He is so great that the only player better is Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, the consensus GOAT of CS:GO. Even then, I saw NiKo take on that s1mple with Denis "electronic" Sharipov in the Stockholm Major finals and nearly beat that duo by himself. NiKo didn't reach those heights at Katowice this year.
On the other hand of the equation was Karrigan. Karrigan pulled out everything that makes him one of the greatest leaders. He adjusted on the fly, figured out how to use his stand-ins, threw out his playbook on Mirage and found solutions in the moment. He knew how to enable his players to the best of their ability.
The decisive factor was that NiKo played below his level as a superstar, while Karrigan played up to his level as an all-time leader. In the end, FaZe won the finals in one of the closest 3-0's in CS:GO history.
At the end of the series, my mind couldn't help but wander back to the question, what is more important, the leader or the prodigy?
The Leader or the Prodigy?
The natural inclination is to favor the leader since FaZe did win. However, it isn't nearly as clear-cut as that. G2 could have easily won if any player on FaZe hadn't delivered the performance they did.
Karrigan has had the best track record of getting players into form, but he can't guarantee it. If we re-ran the entire finals again, we could be sitting here talking about G2 3-0ing FaZe instead of the other way around.
NiKo did badly in FaZe without Karrigan, while Karrigan shined on Mouz. NiKo did well once he moved over to G2, while Karrigan struggled with Mouz and FaZe during the online period. It’s only now that both players are on teams reaching their peak form at the same time.
In the end, there’s no obvious answer. Either player can be a core pillar in creating a world-beater. It depends entirely on the players a squad has to complement them.
While that question doesn't have an answer, it did make me wonder what could have been.
What if NiKo and Karrigan had stuck together? Could they have continued being consistently elite for the last three years? Could they have built a dynasty?
After all, NiKo can carry any team deep into a tournament. Karrigan has consistently taken rosters to overperform in LAN competitions. NiKo’s game sense and mechanics is rivaled by few others in history. Karrigan’s ability to motivate and enable his players is second to none. NiKo is the best rifler ever. Karrigan is the best at using stand-ins and winning map vetoes. NiKo’s highlights are legendary. Karrigan has an unmatched resume when it comes to leading different types of players from around the world; and making it work far better and far faster than anyone else.
Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic. We saw what happened in the end after all. But a part of me wonders if that partnership could have produced even more. While we can't say what they could have done together, we can say what they can do apart.
Five years ago, Karrigan and NiKo stormed IEM Katowice to topple the hegemony of national teams. Astralis beat them, but in the end, they changed the game. Five years later, the two of them met once again at IEM Katowice — this time on opposite sides of the field. Now the question is; what is more important, the leader or the prodigy? That question will be writ large now that G2 and FaZe, and NiKo and Karrigan, are in a position to fight for the top of the world.