Since its inception in 2009, Ukrainian organization Natus Vincere, also known as NAVI, has always fielded a CIS-based lineup for its Counter-Strike division. This changed in July of this year when they announced the signing of Finnish In-Game Leader Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen, Lithuanian rifler Justinas "jL" Lekavicius and BLAST Paris Major star Mihai “iM” Ivan. Since then, the roster has struggled to hit the ground running despite its star-studded nature, leaving many to question the switch. As NAVI prepare to make their debut in ESL Pro League Season 18, BLIX takes a look back at their first two months together.
NAVI’s international turn: the right pieces for the wrong puzzle?
Despite many different rumors across the organization’s CS:GO tenure, NAVI moving away from a CIS-majority roster was always going to take an unexpected and radical change. That came in the form of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had profound consequences for the Kyiv-based organization, its players and the wider CIS professional scene. At that point, one of the best teams in the world and the #1 for the majority of 2021, NAVI then fielded three Russian players: Kirill “Boombl4” Mikhaylov was the first on the chopping block, as the IGL became a “high reputational risk” for the organization.
Ilya “Perfecto” Zalutskyi and Denis “electroNic” Sharipov chose to relocate and to stop representing Russia, with the second also taking on leadership roles, but the fate of the roster was sealed. However, as NAVI fell into mediocrity there was no clear path back to the top, with the potential player pool for NaVi now limited to Ukraine and Russian-speaking players in the Baltics and Central Asia. Some of the bigger names, such as Mareks “YEKINDAR” Gaļinskis and Timur “buster” Tulepov, were also under contract with Russian organizations, making a transfer even more unlikely.
With these restrictions in mind, NAVI chose not to take a look down into the rising Ukrainian tier-three scene, with names such as Vladislav “Kvem” Korol and Artem “r1nkle” Moroz impressing over the course of 2022, and instead turn their gaze towards the wider European scene. As Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostylev and Valeriy “b1t” Vakhovsky remained from the previous quintet, the organization first secured their new IGL in Aleksib, who was removed from NiP’s active roster after a disappointing nine-month stint. The pick was met with both optimism and skepticism by the community, as the Finnish captain had failed to meet expectations since his move to G2 in early 2022.
Rounding out the roster were iM and jL. The Romanian emerged as the breakout star of 2023, dominating the lower tiers and finishing the Paris Major as the second-highest-rated player, dragging GamerLegion to an unlikely final. jL on the other hand had already excelled as a rifler in 2022, and Apeks’ first international appearances allowed him to finally reach the spotlight. Most importantly all three players were already well-versed in communicating in English, coming from international rosters, and provided much-needed depth and variety to NAVI.
On paper the choices made sense also through role distribution: iM would represent the more aggressive element of the rifling trio, especially on the T sides, in the form of a more traditional entry fragger operating alongside Aleksib. jL instead focused his proactivity on the defensive side, moving as a lurker during offense in Apeks’ system and sharing that role with b1t in NAVI. The Ukrainian would therefore still be allowed to shift around the map, acting as a round closer together with s1mple. But did this preview translate to actual success on the server?
NAVI’s map pool so far
NAVI’s new lineup debuted at BLAST Premier Fall Groups, where they defeated Astralis, BIG and G2 and fell twice to Heroic, although once in a close three-map series. They then moved on to IEM Cologne, where they were convincingly sent to the lower bracket by MOUZ and eventually eliminated by Astralis after taking on OG and FaZe successfully. Last but not least, the new NAVI played at the Saudi-based Gamers8 event, securing a 2-1 over a struggling FURIA before bowing out at the hands of eventual tournament winners Vitality.
First, let’s take a look at the map pool: NAVI kept Vertigo as permaban despite the changes, therefore iM, jL and especially Aleksib had to adapt to make b1t and s1mple more comfortable. This was especially true for the new IGL and iM, who shared a permaban of Anubis across NiP and GamerLegion. The choice wasn’t truly straightforward as, outside of the aforementioned Vertigo, Anubis was NAVI’s least played map in 2023 and not one electroNic’s team particularly excelled on. Furthermore, only once had the quintet picked the map before the move to an international roster, in a 2-0 win over Heroic at EPL Season 17.
Aleksib’s home map is now Mirage, as NAVI have picked it seven out of ten times in their recent outings. While the team has a 4-3 record on the map, two of their wins were 16-14s (against G2 and BIG at BLAST) and one a 16-13 (against FURIA at Gamers8), with the only truly convincing win coming at the expense of a struggling FaZe at IEM Cologne. That was also the only case in which NAVI showcased their potential playstyle, being able to punish aggressive swings in the early stages of the T side while being happy to keep re-aggressing and team fighting on their own defensive end.
While this gives them an edge against less composed teams, such as FURIA or FaZe, Vitality completely dismantled NAVI’s offense by willingly giving up map control, especially in Mid, in exchange for damage or kills on overextending players. On the defensive end, even in the easier matchups, the aggression of the iM-jL duo on Middle was often uncoordinated and hard to trade, especially as s1mple rarely supported the action as Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut does with Lotan “Spinx” Giladi’s Short pushes. Turning the game into a brawl is of little use if it doesn’t produce man-advantage situations, and puts the two anchors, b1t and Aleksib, into unwinnable scenarios on the respective sites.
The rest of the map pool looks equally weak. NAVI picked Nuke twice, winning both times against Astralis, but lost the map when Vitality and FURIA picked it against them and against Heroic as a decider. Outside of a shaky A-site partnership of iM and jL, the CT side worked about as well as it did before the switch, but it was the offensive end that jeopardized any chance at victory for the Ukrainians. iM’s space-taking was surprisingly effective considering his little experience on the map, but Aleksib’s calls never capitalized on it and were mostly limited to waiting the clock out and pulling last-second A-site executes. This combined with dreadful utility usage, particularly on Outside crosses, further limited NAVI’s late-round options.
Inferno looked like the team’s best map at BLAST Fall, but they have only played it once since and produced an uninspiring collapse against OG on the defensive side. Overpass was experimented with at IEM Cologne, where NAVI played it three times, but it only resulted in a win against FaZe, whose CT side aggression was systematically punished by Aleskib. Lastly, the Finnish IGL was happy to let Ancient through as a deciding map against both OG and FURIA, winning both times, but suffered tough losses at the hands of MOUZ and Astralis.
A look at the stats: aggression without payoff
On the individual side, some tendencies shared across the three events must have already been cause for concern in NAVI’s camp. iM’s individual performance has been disappointing, with the Romanian recording a 0.93 HLTV rating over the course of the three events. His offensive output has drastically decreased, with his opening duel success rate dropping from an excellent 56.5% in GamerLegion’s sporadic Big Event outings to a disappointing 41.5%. This is especially worrying as the role distribution in NAVI puts even more weight on iM’s shoulders as the other players sharing opening duties are a lurking duo of jL and b1t, rather than a more standard supportive element like Nicolas “Keoz” Dgus operating alongside him.
For what concerns jL and b1t, their offensive stats showcase the shuffling of roles perfectly: the Lithuanian saw an increase in opening duel attempts since his Apeks days, although not necessarily an improvement in his success rates, while the Ukrainian has become marginally more passive. Even AWPer s1mple saw his opening duel frequency decrease, but this was realistically little more than a symptom of the more aggressive nature of NAVI’s new signings. The system is therefore working as intended on paper, but so far iM has been unable to withstand the pressure of having to operate on his own in areas like Mid on Mirage.
The CT side paints potentially a bleaker picture. iM kept most of the roles from his GamerLegion days, with a shift from Short to Connector on Mirage being the primary change, but his scene-high tendency to go for the opening fights had to take a substantial hit to make room for jL. It’s almost surreal to see NAVI’s most proactive defensive-side player is now apparently b1t, a player whose most aggressive position is Monster on Overpass, with over 24% attempts. While this might be naturally caused by iM and jL having to work with and around each other in their signature aggressive plays, it’s also important to note how on most maps, like Ancient, Overpass, Anubis and Inferno, they operate separately.
Conversely, s1mple’s opening kill attempts dropped from almost 27% in the first half of 2023 to 21%. The three-time best player in the world is now out of early-round fights in more rounds than not, which definitely influenced his recent drop in form. Ultimately, rather than being too slow to react or adapt to the opponents, NAVI struggled with their own proactivity: this was the case for iM on the Nuke A site holds against Vitality and FURIA, or in his Mid pushes against Astralis on Ancient, or jL’s aggressive positioning on the Ancient and Overpass B sites. The Ukrainians’ attempts at fighting in the early to mid-round rarely translated to actual map control and ended up being traded fairly easily.
NAVI’s EPL debut: as straightforward as it seems?
NAVI will debut in Malta against 5yclone, the former Rare Atom squad that has been dominating Chinese Counter-Strike since early 2022. Other than being a rematch, as NAVI faced the quintet in the previous season of Pro League and triumphed 2-1, this will be an interesting test for Aleksib’s men. First and foremost Zhuo “advent” Liang’s team are one of the few teams at the event with a potential 7-map map pool, as they have recently switched from an Anubis to an Ancient permaban. Furthermore, while also a competent team on Mirage and Inferno, 5yclone will be happy to pick Nuke or Overpass against the international quintet. This means NAVI will likely need to face the Chinese squad without exploiting any weak spots in their map pool.
While NAVI are still overwhelming favorites in the match, a lot will rest on Aleksib’s shoulders. 5yclone plays a high-octane aim-based playstyle, struggling on more tactical T sides but potentially shutting down the opponents’ offensive halves if not countered properly. This is especially the case on Overpass and Nuke, where the Chinese respectively dominated Liquid and pushed ENCE to the limit in their last international outings. If NAVI wants a brawl, Yi “JamYoung” Yang’s team are one of the few who will be happy to oblige. Therefore, keeping their head cool and punishing the Chinese’s setups is a must for NAVI to secure a much-needed clean start in the event.