Coming in at 11th in our top 20 players of 2016 list is Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, the 19-year-old mousesports star hailing from Bosnia and Herzegovina. NiKo got a spot on the list due to impressive opening kills statistics, contributions in his team's round wins and overall rating.
Even though it wouldn't seem like it considering his young age, Nikola "NiKo" Kovač has been around competitive Counter-Strike for quite a while now. The Bosnian showed promise in as early as 2010, when the then 13-year-old competed in regional tournaments after plying his trade in the Kovač family's LAN cafe in Brčko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. NiKo slowly made a name for himself by attending numerous small CS 1.6 LAN center tournaments, which were at the time often held across Bosnia and the neighboring Serbia.
"I started with CS at a very young age, I don't even remember what tournament was my first, but I remember that every one of them was very grueling, that I had to stay up all day and all night to finish the competition, but I always wanted to improve and to win - it didn't matter that I was tired or didn't get enough sleep. At that time winning and improving were my only goals, those two things lead me in my "career" at the time."
"The support of my parents meant a lot and had a big impact on my career and success, they supported me in every moment, they took me to tournaments. they did everything in their power to allow me to accomplish my goals and that's why I'll be thankful to them for the rest of my life - as that is not something all parents do."
After establishing himself as a highly talented individual player, at 15 years of age NiKo got an opportunity to play alongside Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović and Luka "emi" Vuković in iNation - the best Serbian team at the time. Just as Counter-Strike 1.6 was coming to an end, NiKo attended DreamHack Bucharest 2012, but an unlucky bracket draw saw his team eliminated in the quarter-finals by fnatic, the eventual winners of the tournament.
NiKo made the switch to CS:GO early on, continuing to play with the iNation core that then added two more renowned Serbian players - Janko "YNk" Paunović and Nemanja "k1Ng0r" Bošković. After competing at events such as Mad Catz Vienna and DreamHack Bucharest 2013, NiKo's breakthrough finally came at StarLadder StarSeries VIII, where iNation were invited to replace Clan Mystic.
NiKo representing team Refused at DH Bucharest 2013
At the event, iNation were able to 2-0 Astana Dragons, an elite-level team at the time, and play competitively against AGAiN (now Virtus.pro) and Natus Vincere - with the the young NiKo standing out as the most valuable player of his team.
Unfortunately for NiKo, iNation's international aspirations came to an end shortly after StarSeries as internal issues sparked after a string of bad results in online matches. The team ended up only attending two Serbian LANs over the course of 2014, easily winning against what was mostly local opposition.
"Before I made/joined the team aimface/iNation I didn't want to play Counter-Strike, I didn't have any motivation and I didn't think I could succeed because the scene in the Balkan region was very bad, almost non-existent. Even though I got an offer to join mousesports in that period (when I wasn't playing), I didn't accept it as I couldn't imagine myself playing for an international team. I could say that I was scared about how it would work out, one of the reasons being my English and also my age at the time."
"But after returning to the scene, after seeing it grow my motivation came back as well. I played with iNation for some time and then another offer from mousesports came - this time I took it without a second thought. At that time I decided that I'll give it all and sacrifice everything I need to succeed."
After six months of total absence from the scene, NiKo resurfaced at the end of 2014 with another version of the iNation lineup - and played in various lower tier online tournaments under the tag aimface. Only a few months after coming back to action, the Bosnian accepted the offer from an international team - and joined mousesports in March of 2015.
NiKo was instantly making a difference on the server, raising eyebrows at his first LAN showing at ESEA Invite 18 Global Finals. However, his initial struggles with communicating in English and the opportunity to grab a major spot by picking up the PENTA Sports trio Denis "denis" Howell, Johannes "nex" Maget and Timo "Spiidi" Richter led to mousesports benching the Bosnian just two months after they added him to the team.
"ESEA Invite Season 18 was one of my favorite events - it was my first international event with mousesports and a tournament at which I had to play with a different mouse (Rival, because my Zowie EC-2 broke during the showmatch), but I still played to a high level."
"NiKo - The Balkan Prodigy" - the first HLTV fragmovie dedicated to the Bosnian star
The change saw him sit out a Major, a tournament every CS player wants to compete in, but Kovač wasn't disheartened - he used the time off well. NiKo first stood in for Kinguin at the Gaming Paradise LAN qualifier, defeating Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev's FlipSid3 twice, and then helped SK win $4,500 at IEM X Gamescom and then qualify for DreamHack London 2015.
"When I was benched, I felt betrayed and very bad. Because, even though they had their reasons, I thought I didn't deserve it as I was ready to give everything to make it work with mousesports - and I think I did just that. I don't think I disappointed anyone since I joined the team. The only one disappointed was me, it was a big personal drop but at the same time I had a lot of motivation to get back into the team and prove my worth to them."
"Standing in for both Kinguin and SK was surely helpful, I got some experience, I learned to play with someone you practically don't even know - and if I didn't do that and prove myself, I believe the whole process would be slower."
After mousesports had a disappointing showing at the Major without him - finishing last in their group - NiKo was called back to the main roster, this time to stay. With NiKo in the squad, mousesports qualified for the last Major of the year, DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca, and were close to getting to the playoffs of the event - but were edged out by G2 in the end.
NiKo continued with great performances after re-joining the mousesports roster, and did the same at the last event they attended in 2015 - CEVO Professional Season 8 Finals. At the event in Columbus, NiKo carried his team to a second-place finish with a 1.21 rating overall, only dropping off in the grand final series against Virtus.pro.
Even though the competitive year ended there, a notable change happened in mousesports before the end of 2015. Following a string of bad individual displays, mousesports decided to release their leader Fatih "gob b" Dayik, moving NiKo to the IGL role for the first time in his career - something that was planned to be just a temporary solution.
As NiKo stated in his interview at the beginning of the 2016 - the changes didn't go as planned. The team intended to move the leadership out of the game and let their coach Navid "Kapio" Javadi do the calling, but the experienced German player decided that going full-time into CS:GO wasn't worth it for him, pulling out of the team. That decision made the temporary solution of NiKo's calling a permanent one, as the young Bosnian lead mousesports for more or less the whole year.
At DreamHack Leipzig, the first event mousesports attended in 2016, the at the time still predominately German team destroyed Virtus.pro on Dust2, but couldn't close out the match against Astralis that would secure them secure them a spot in the playoffs. Instead, they faced off against dignitas in the decider and lost in two maps, going out in the group stage.
NiKo had a great individual showing at DreamHack - he was the best-rated player of his team with a 1.24 rating and 98.9 ADR, with his only bad map coming from the 16-4 stomp dignitas gave them on Cobblestone. In a way, DreamHack Leipzig foretold NiKo's 2016 - it was going to be a year of great individual performances, heartbreaking losses, and group stage exits.
mousesports bounced back by qualifying for MLG Columbus and winning Acer Predator Masters 2, doing everything one could ask of them at two events that were not taken in consideration in the top 20 rating, but still played a part in the team's overall form.
NiKo's display at IEM Katowice wasn't enough for his team to make the playoffs
At the next premier event, IEM Katowice, mousesports were placed in a tough group with fnatic, NiP, Virtus.pro and Luminosity, but it seemed that NiKo was determined to achieve more than what his team was capable of at Leipzig. The Bosnian played out of his mind at Katowice, which could be easily seen in all of his statistics - 1.44 rating, 111.6 ADR and 1.04 KPR. It goes without saying that NiKo was his team's best player with a 38% better average rating than his teammates, but that wasn't enough for mousesports to advance to the playoffs - they ended the tournament with only two wins.
"IEM Katowice was a tournament as any other, but we came there directly from the Columbus qualifier so the energy was high and everyone was motivated to play - we played only two maps over the seven days we were at the qualifier. That helped me at Katowice, if we hadn't qualified for the Major beforehand it would be harder for me as well."
Even though he played great in four of the five maps at the event, the deciding match against fnatic on Dust2 was the definite standout performance from NiKo. Playing against the team that won five tournaments in a row at that point- and with a pre-injury, in-form Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer on the opposing team - NiKo was able to carry mousesports, allowing them to come back from a 5-10 CT side and push the game into overtime. In the end, it was a 19-17 victory for the Swedes and a group exit for mousesports, despite NiKo's remarkable 42-kill, 114.3 ADR display.
"In the match against fnatic I was very angry and motivated to play as good as I could because we previously lost a match to Luminosity - which we should have never lost. If I remember correctly, there was still a chance for us to move on to the playoffs, so I gave more than my 100% to get us the win."
The group draw of MLG Columbus matched mousesports with Luminosity, FlipSid3 and NiP, and this was once again a good tournament for NiKo - but not his team. Out of the five maps played, the Bosnian was above averagely rated in four of them once again, but this time his one weak showing came in the deciding map of the best-of-three against NiP. Even though the Swedes were using their coach Björn "THREAT" Pers as a stand in, mousesports weren't able to defeat them with NiKo having a below average match - something that became a norm over the course of the year.
mousesports surprised many as they finally made it out of the groups at DreamHack Masters Malmö by defeating two teams that had success at MLG Columbus - Luminosity and Liquid. Even though their run ended in the quarter-finals by the hand of GODSENT, mousesports finally made progress, and despite NiKo being the main source of firepower once again, other players such as nex and Spiidi were chipping in too - which can be seen in the slightly lower difference between NiKo's rating and his team's average than at previous tournaments.
"DreamHack Masters Malmo is in my memory because of the defeat to GODSENT in the quarterfinals, and one round in particular. When we were eco on Mirage at 13-14, I went short with a Tec-9 in a 2v5 and killed four, but we managed to lose the 2v1. I was under a lot of pressure during that round and the rounds after it, because if I managed to win that round - who know what could've happened in the rest of the tournament."
mousesports had a better showing at DH Malmö, finally making it out of the groups
NiKo and co. qualified for the second Major with three straight wins at the ESL One Cologne Qualifier and got placed in a group with Virtus.pro, Envy and Liquid. Even though the Major wasn't as individually good for the 19-year-old as previous tournaments in 2016, NiKo was still the best rated player of his team in what ended up being another group stage exit, with a 2-0 loss to Liquid sealing the deal for the German outfit.
The first part of the year was brought to an end with ELEAGUE Season 1 - even though mousesports didn't have a brilliant performance in the group stage, map wins over Natus Vincere and FlipSid3 secured them a spot at the Last Chance Qualifier where they beat G2 (with Simon "Fuks" Florysiak instead of Cédric "RpK" Guipouy) and FaZe to make it to the main part of the tournament. NiKo was the crucial player in all of mousesports' map wins in the qualifier, and was once again key in the quarter-final 2-0 win over Astralis that landed them another showdown with Virtus.pro.
NiKo wasn't able to carry on his earlier form into the televised semi-final against the Poles, but the tournament was a success for both him and his team - a $70,000 cheque for mousesports' highest finish of the year and an EVP award for NiKo.
"ELEAGUE Season 1 was the first tournament for which I was away from home for over 20 days, so it meant a lot to me to play well. Along with that, it was one of the best run tournaments ever, and it was during the summer in Atlanta."
ELEAGUE Season 1 was the last event of the first half of the year, but also the last in the string of six tournaments in which NiKo was the best player in his team - sometimes by far.
"NiKo - The Balkan Prodigy 2" is a collection of highlights from his time in mouz
Following ELEAGUE Season 1, mousesports released their coach kassad, NiKo's IGL from the iNation days who was with mousesports in Cologne and during their run at ELEAGUE. With good results behind the partnership, many Counter-Strike fans were mistified with the decision:
"Kassad didn't fit with some of the players in the team, I'm not sure if it was a mentality issue or something else. I was against removing him from the team as it meant a lot to me to have someone by my side who I've known for a long time and with whom I can talk in my language, but it was a team decision in the end."
In the summer break, mousesports replaced nex with Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný - but that was a short lived change as the Czech sniper was soon replaced by the young Spanish rifler Christian "loWel" Garcia Antoran. The addition of loWel, together with Chris "chrisJ" de Jong's rise in form lead to a slightly different composition of mousesports in the second half of the year - even though NiKo was still the main star, they now had three strong players capable of stepping up at different times.
This new roster had it's debut at the ELEAGUE Season 2 group stage, where they defeated Immortals and Cloud9 to move on to the playoffs. They flew directly to Brazil for the ESL Pro League Season 4 Finals after that, where they went 4-0 in the group stage by defeating Liquid, OpTic, Immortals and EnVyUs. The first place finish in the group allowed them to go directly to the semi-final, but they were stopped there by the eventual winners - Cloud9.
With loWel in the lineup, we saw a different mousesports team
NiKo once again performed very well over the period, finishing ESL Pro League with a 1.10 rating (second best in his team), but he had his worst showing of the year right after that - at IEM Oakland. At another five-map round-robin group stage tournament, NiKo had only two good maps and was overall below average in most categories except impact - showing that he still did contribute to the team in terms of entry frags and multi-kill rounds.
The year ended with another frustrating showing for NiKo in the playoffs of ELEAGUE Season 2 - his team was eliminated by OpTic in a match in which the Bosnian struggled to make an impact, finishing the series with a -13 K-D difference and 54.9 ADR.
"I'm not sure what the problem is in big matches, I still don't have a lot of experience or a lot of big tournaments played - and as a team we didn't manage to do much at the ones we did play at. So I won't be trying to think about it as a problem in my game, but rather just try to give more and perform better at the next event."
It was a rough year for NiKo and mousesports as a team, so we asked the young player about his biggest regrets of 2016:
"IEM Katowice was statistically my best event, but I have that event as one of my worst memories of the year because of tough losses where I gave my all but it wasn't enough. We lost to Luminosity 16-14 on Cobblestone after having a 14-8 lead, despite having a lead in many rounds, and lost to fnatic in overtime. It was very disappointing for my team and me."
After achieving his first HLTV top 20 appearance, how does NiKo feel about his personal growth over the course of 2016 and what is he aiming for in 2017?
"Honestly, I didn't expect that I'd finish this high in the ranking due to not achieving much with my team, so I must say that I'm surprised with how it ended up - but I promise that I'll finish even higher next year. I'll try to stabilize my role as much as I can, improve even more as an IGL but still do my job in terms of fragging. I will also try to control my emotions during important games because that leads to me losing focus - and I believe it does the same to my teammates as well."
"My goals will alway be the same - that my team is the best in the world - and I'll keep on working until I achieve that. I don't know when that will happen, but I know that it will. That will be my goal for 2017 as well."
Why is he the 11th best player of 2016?
Over the course of the year, NiKo has built a strong case for him to be considered as one of the best individual players in the world, as his statistics show as well. Kovač impressed with a 1.15 LAN rating (4th overall), he is the most impactful player in terms of multi-kills and opening frags with a 1.14 impact rating (1st) and has dealt the most average damage per round - 89.5 ADR (1st).
Adding to that, he is a high volume fragger with 0.80 kills per round (2nd) and a good part of those kills are first kills - NiKo averages 0.17 opening kills per round - another category in which he is ranked first overall.
NiKo was key in mousesports wins, averaging 118 ADR in rounds that his team won (1st), and that was especially apparent in his EVP worthy performance at ELEAGUE Season 1.
Even though his numbers are very impressive, especially considering a lot of them come from big events, there are drawbacks to his year overall. The most obvious one is that most of his good performances were in group stage matches, while his rating in big playoff games drops to an under-average 0.97 - making him the worst big game player out of the top 20 of 2016.
On the flipside of NiKo's high impact is his low level of round-to-round consistency - he ended the year with a kill, assist, survive or traded death in only 68.7% of the rounds, making him the top 20 player with the highest number of rounds in which he didn't have contribution at all.
The final point that stopped him from ranking higher in 2016 is his lack of personal awards - with only one EVP, he wasn't able to break into the top 10 players of this year.
Hmmm, maybe ropz, who I met in FPL. I'm not sure he will be in the top 20 next year, but I do think he has potential to be there, he just needs some time and an opportunity.