The friendship argument
Often when talking about potential roster changes in teams, friendship is brought up as one of the main concerns. But should it be?
With Robin "Fifflaren" Johansson being constantly criticized for poor performances, the argument fans often stick to in his defense is that friendship trumps everything in CS:GO, and therefore he's a vital part of NiP.
In this article we consider the importance of friendship in Counter-Strike teams, how it helps or even hurts teams, whether you can improve by removing friends, and the choice it ultimately comes down to.
Continue reading for a more thorough analysis, with examples from my career, both good and bad, and from the careers of NiP's star players Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg and Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund.
Fifflaren remains the most criticized player in CS:GO
Do you need to be friends to be successful?
This is the easiest point to tackle, so we'll start there; do players in Counter-Strike teams have to be friends outside of the game for the team to be successful? To me this causal relationship is clearly flawed as an argument. Players in the real golden five roster - the one featuring Łukasz "LUq" Wnek, Filip "NEO" Kubski, Wiktor "TaZ" Wojtas, Jakub "kuben" Gurczynski and Mariusz "Loord" Cybulski - literally punched each other during some events, yet are one of the most successful lineups of all time.
And although it ultimately led to changes, I too played with team members I didn't always get along with, for example Danny "fRoD" Montaner for my second year in Evil Geniuses. While his initial beef was with Jordan "n0thing" Gilbert in 2009, it gradually changed; during the second year of playing together, he even threatened to punch me during the grand final of ESEA Invite Season 6 Finals -- which we wound up winning. Over the next few days we also beat mousesports, BURNING and H2k, while taking a 16-1 map win versus Na`Vi in an ultimate loss. You don't need to be great friends to put up results.
Me and fRoD were friends prior to those arguments, and we are still friends now. In our case we ignored external issues for too long, and let them affect the entire team. Competition creates arguments as the pressure builds in teams, and sometimes different ways of approaching various situations can result in the same types of clashes. For example, earlier in my career it annoyed me when certain players shrugged off losses like they meant nothing, or chose to prioritize things such as watching the World Cup over preparing for a tournament.
However, my two most successful rosters - the 69N-28E team with me, my brother Niko "naSu" Kovanen, Max "ruuit" Aspe, Juuso "contE" Sajakoski and Joona "natu" Leppänen, and Evil Geniuses with fRoD, n0thing, Tyler "Storm" Wood and Ediz "goodfornothing" Basol - weren't teams built around friendships.
Though we'd have preferred to only have friends, or even just level headed individuals, on the rosters, the limited player pools in Finland and USA respectively stopped us from making changes. Few people know this, but in early 2010 fRoD was actually removed from EG for about a week, because n0thing refused to play with him -- right after we placed fourth at IEM World Championship, and won ESEA Invite Season 5 Finals.
After his removal we brainstormed for a some days but couldn't find a suitable candidate to replace our main AWPer, so we took him back and hoped things would be better. However, that didn't stop us from doing well -- in fact our best run, which included a 3rd place at Arbalet Cup Dallas and a win at MSI Beat It over fnatic, only began after that period.
In real sports the best example of friendship not trumping the game would be the early 2000's Lakers squad where Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal disliked each other so much they literally refused to pass each other the ball in the regular season. They still worked together in the playoffs, and won three championships in a row. It's not the only time either, as Bryant revealed in a recent Sports Illustrated article.
"Bryant sits back, letting the thoughts sit in the air for a moment. Then he continues. “It’s never easy, man. This s--- is hard. So when players look in the distance and see us winning championships and see us celebrating and having a good time, they think, ‘Oh, this is what leadership is, this is how you win, everyone gets along, we’re all buddy-buddy, we all hang out, blah, blah.’ ”
"Bryant shifts in his seat, leans forward. “No it’s not like that. You talk to Lamar [Odom], Adam Morrison. We were at each other’s throats every day. Challenging each other, confronting each other. That’s how it gets done. But that’s hard, because it’s uncomfortable, right? It’s uncomfortable.”
Friendship is great, and it can help a team, but it's by no means necessary in a competitive setting. It's a luxury that is great to have - and when possible, there's no reason not to go for it - but not everyone can afford it.
natu replaced a closer friend, but made 69N-28E better
How can friendship help teams?
The main thing friendship does for a team, based on my experience, is that if you have fun playing together, you will likely play more, which will lead to better results. Less whining during tournament play will also result in a better mood, and it's likely you might feel less pressure when playing with friends, or that you won't feel as down when losing.
For teams who travel extensively, it also makes the social part a lot more fun. If you have a good friend with you, traveling for twenty-some hours, sitting around at airports and killing extra days in places such as Hangzhou or Paris, won't all seem so bad. It's obvious that actually playing the matches is a miniscule part of each trip abroad for a tournament, and therefore having people you enjoy socializing with in your team will certainly make the experience of traveling a lot more fun.
Friendship can also lead to better team play, and generally trusting your teammates more in-game. You might feel more inclined to run into sites first as bait if you trust your friend to pick up the trade right after, and you won't mind taking on 'annoying' roles in strategies as much if you're at least in good company.
Is this enough to win games, though? I don't think so. Friendship can help teams who already have everything else, but friendship alone does not contain any superpowers that get instilled in teams and helps them perform above their capabilities. It's still the Counter-Strike skills on the server that decide the winners.
GeT_RiGhT wasn't a great fit socially early on in his career
Can friendship be detrimental to a team?
Based on my experience, I believe friendship can not only be helpful, but also detrimental to a team. Going as far back as my first competitive team wings, which then became Serious Gaming, we were a team made out of six friends, all of whom remain good friends to this day. After a period of nearly two years, people clearly grew complacent with how things were going, weren't ready to push each other and force others to try to improve, and no one wanted to complain about their friends.
It's understandable that you may not want to tell your good friend he isn't playing enough or that you believe he needs to put in some extra time on the CSDM server to sharpen up his aim. In situations similar to this, it can actually be detrimental to have good friends on the team. You don't want to complain about your friend, and you certainly don't want to remove him.
Another example from my career would be the removal of Toni "toNppa" Luhtapuro from 69N-28E in early 2007. I didn't want to remove him, though he was clearly the weakest player on our roster -- because he'd been playing with me for over a year, lived near me and was a good friend. However, contE forced our hand with the roster change, and it instantly made us better -- in fact, we peaked that spring and early summer with Duncan "Thorin" Shields considering us the world's best team at one point.
fnatic's 2007-2008 roster is also a good example. Carried by f0rest, that roster became the world's best overall in 2007 by being super consistent and winning enough medium-sized events, and continued winning tournaments in 2008, though by then they had grown much less consistent. That team was by all accounts a team composed of good friends, but in the end it was also a team in need of a change, and in all likelihood it was the friendships that held back the changes for as long as they did.
contE was the catalyst behind most roster changes in Finland
Can you remove friends and become more successful?
Aside from my own experience with replacing toNppa with natu and becoming more successful, a good example is the above mentioned fnatic team of 2007-2008. The team stuck with Oscar "Archi" Torgersen and Oskar "ins" Holm until the beginning of 2009, but they then added two youngsters, one of them considered socially awkward after his SK Gaming exit, and started one of the most dominant runs of all time in Counter-Strike.
In came GeT_RiGhT and Rasmus "Gux" Ståhl, and fnatic 2009 was born. Together the team ran through most of that year's events undefeated, and had probably the most dominant year by that point, topping all records for prize money. fnatic replaced good friends with more talented and hungry younger players, and it instantly paid dividends.
A few more recent examples also include both NiP stars. In early 2010 fnatic recruited Björn "THREAT" Pers - a good social fit to the team - to replace Gux. After less than satisfactory results for six months, the team undid the change, and became more successful again. At the end of that year more changes ensued, as fnatic were seemingly split into two camps with f0rest and GeT_RiGhT wanting to get rid of Harley "dsn" Örwall, while in-game leader and captain Patrik "cArn" Sättermon stuck by his long-time teammate's side.
Ultimately the now-NiP duo left fnatic to join SK Gaming, and while fnatic struggled throughout 2011 up until recruiting Gux and Michael "Friis" Jørgensen, SK Gaming did not. In SK f0rest and GeT_RiGhT teamed up with some very good players - such as Marcus "Delpan" Larsson, who has admitted to being a lousy teammate, showing up late to practice, if at all - and came within two rounds of being the best team of that year.
Now the worst argument I hear as counter to the friends versus talent lineup is that replacing an average skilled friend with a skilled douchebag won't work, often citing some team who has seemingly done that and failed. But why does the person you recruit have to be a douchebag for him to be more skilled? Why can't you add another good guy, such as natu in 69N-28E's case, who happens to fit the team as well?
Surely it won't help any team to add a super toxic player in the player's shoes who acts like the glue in the team. That's obvious. But you can replace a good guy, and even the glue, with another decent guy. There's no reason to assume no other good players exist, especially when considering the huge player pool of Sweden, in NiP's case.
Gux might not have been as good of a guy as Archi, but he made fnatic better
What about NiP?
As we started this piece off with mentioning Fifflaren and NiP; how does this all tie back into NiP? Well, first of all, their star players f0rest and GeT_RiGhT have a history of making roster changes at the cost of friendship whenever they stopped winning. That time is not now, as NiP remain the world's best, but don't fool yourself into thinking they would simply allow themselves to go out of contention for the world best spot if their levels dropped off enough that the current roster simply wouldn't cut it.
It's always surprised me how GeT_RiGhT can be so accepting of his teammates. He is probably the hardest working Counter-Strike player alive, despite being the best. In sports, super competitive and hard-working players such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan were frustrated if they felt their teammates weren't putting in enough work. So how does GeT_RiGhT avoid that feeling?
Here is a guy who has been considered the best player in the world for nearly two years now, with a teammate who has only regressed in that same time period. Usually playing full-time on a real salary with better players, and against top level competition, helps you improve. However, if you've watched Fifflaren play extensively, or looked at his stats, you can see that he has actually worsened.
By all accounts in 2012 he was a valuable part of NiP's success and even contributed in the fragging department. From there on out it's been downhill, an evolution to which we see no end. His highest rating in an international tournament in 2014 is 0.96, and three out of eight times he has finished with a rating of sub-0.74.
To me it seems Fifflaren has a good mind for Counter-Strike, and with his extensive knowledge of NiP and its personnel, he could probably become the best coach there is in Counter-Strike. He could remain a part of the team in a supportive role, similar to Jonatan "Devilwalk" Lundberg in fnatic, and continue contributing with his intangibles while making room for a more skilled player.
One of the arguments against this is that f0rest would retire if Fifflaren quit. Considering him saying in an interview a few years ago that he hadn't graduated upper secondary school (i.e. high school) and he clearly enjoys the gamer life, it's hard to imagine that happening. Especially if Fifflaren stayed on as a coach -- a role he would seem like a great fit for, having been with NiP since the get-go and contributed in the strategical department.
It may not be worth taking a chance on a new player yet, as NiP still remain the world's best. However, their round record at ESL One Cologne was negative - 144 rounds won to 147 lost - which shows how unsustainable their current play is. If they drop out of contention for world's best, taking a chance on change wouldn't be impossible.
All this being said, I fully understand why they won't do it until they absolutely have to. But you're fooling yourself if you think no one in NiP would have thought about it, had they crashed out in the group stage, or the quarter-finals of ESL One Cologne.
NiP's winning formula doesn't seem sustainable
Friendship versus winning
Needless to say, it's not all so black and white. There's a case to be made for having fun, and there's definitely tons of people who would rather be top five in the world with good friends, than the world's best if that meant playing with people they didn't enjoy playing with. There's nothing wrong with that -- and that's important to remember. If a team decides that them sticking together is more important than the potential upside of better results, that's fine.
Not everyone is as competitive of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, but for the hardest working players competitiveness is usually a strong trait. It's not easy putting in tons of work only to see your teammates slacking and having a good time, or even putting in tons of work only to think you as a team could be better with a different player. What it really comes down to - and this is the case for new players starting teams as well - is that you need five players who have a similar mindset, similar motivations and similar goals for the team.
A team won't be successful in the long run if players on it want different things. If two players want to play day and night to win, and three others would prefer to take it easy and see how far talent takes them, it's bound to end badly once you give that combination enough time. It's not easy to find five people who are on the same page, and if you do, it just might be worth keeping them. Unless you want to win at any cost.
Some prefer putting up with difficult personalities if it helps them win
This was just a brief look at the different factors surrounding friendship in competitive Counter-Strike teams. It doesn't cover everything, and there are no absolute or correct answers.
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