One for the future: sergej
The third instalment of our "One for the future" series, which tackles young players to follow and featured ZywOo and CeRq in its first two iterations, focuses on Jere "sergej" Salo this time, the 15-year-old Finn playing for HAVU, and the youngest of the three players examined so far.
At the tender age of 15, Jere "sergej" Salo is already on—and has been for a while—more than just one"young players to watch" list amongst the likes of Martin "stavn" Lund, Ludvig "Brollan" Brolin, or David "frozen" Čerňanský, to mention some of the more notorious ones. His international debut came at SL i-League Invitational Shanghai when HAVU got lucky and took Space Soldiers’s place, the team they had lost to in the last round of the qualifier, due to scheduling conflicts.
The event didn’t go well for HAVU as they went out after two matches, although luckily all bouts were best-of-threes, so sergej & co. got to play five maps with plenty of overtimes, rendering the dozen hour flights worthwhile. By far the most inexperienced team at the event, with Otto "ottoNd" Sihvo and Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen also being prospects without much to go from, HAVU showed their lack of focus in crucial moments and ended up losing three of the five maps in overtime—two of them being Train and Overpass, by far sergej’s weakest maps.
In hindsight, it could be said that Shanghai was the normal beginning in a young player’s career: starting out as an underdog, going out early in an event with some particularly tough losses that can in large part be put down to inexperience, and going home with demos to watch that will help find and polish errors for similar situations in the future. But what led to this 15-year-old being in Shanghai other than Space Soldiers’s misfortune?
sergej bought CS:GO when it first came out, although he wasn’t particularly attracted to it and dropped it for a year before some of his friends asked him to pick it back up and play with them. First casually, and slowly getting more competitive, in 2015 sergej followed a path that many young players today take—the same route that propelled William "draken" Sundin and Fredrik "REZ" Sterner’s careers after they made it to the first EU Minor at the PGL Studios in Bucharest with CG—, making a team to play FACEIT cups and similar online tournaments.
Online, sergej is a King of Nordic graduate, a system that has also seen the likes of Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke, Jakob "JUGi" Hansen, and REZ, to name a few, go through its ranks before landing their first big contracts. sergej played seasons 4, 5, and 6, the first two with him as the best and second best rated player, respectively. As far as LANs go, his first ones were local BYOCs.
Joonas "LOKO" Juuso, who played at LanTrek 2017 with Jussi "gstus" Perälä’ FR34KSHOW and was a early teammate of sergej’s in 5CORE.RED, the team the youngster broke through with locally, shares the following about their early days:
"If I remember correctly, I actually met him in a matchmaking game through my friends, that’s when I saw him play for the first time. We started playing together somewhere around 2015, just a bunch of friends playing tournaments such as ESL cups and casual FACEIT tournaments, for fun. That’s where it all started for us.
"I didn’t believe him at first when he told me how young he was when we started playing together, he was really mature for his age. There wasn’t any difference between his and the rest of the team’s attitude. He performed really well in 5CORE and he kept on getting better and better, which led to him becoming our star player. Eventually we couldn’t keep up with his rapid progression in skill."
What sergej considers his first breakthrough came at Vectorama, in 2016, when 5CORE.RED made it out of groups for the first time in a non-BYOC tournament. They finished second in Group B behind Aleksi "allu" Jalli’s and Miikka "suNny" Kemppi’s ENCE, for whom his would-be teammate Mikko "xartE" Välimaa was also playing at the time. At Vectorama, sergej also faced Findictus, which fielded his current HAVU teammates ottoNd Aleksib. sergej lost to his future teammates, but a milestone had been reached: non-BYOC playoffs at a national tournament.
Although sergej sees Vectorama as the first notable achievement of his young career, a couple months before, at LanTrek 2016, sergej was already being scouted by Matt Wright, NYYRIKKI’s current manager and a longtime figure in the Finnish Counter-Strike scene, who was in charge of SkitLite at the time.
"sergej caught our attention at LanTrek 2016, in Tampere, when he has playing for a team called 5CORE.RED at the non-BYOC event. His team literally came out of nowhere to qualify for that event and when they played the tournament he was a really standout player for his team. It blew everyone's mind that a 13 or 14-year-old was managing to pull off these insane clutches against good teams. That was the first glimpse anyone really got of him.
"The summer following LanTrek, ENCE approached us and bought arvid out of his contract. This left us with some pretty big boots to fill in the team and we had tried a few different guys. I had a talk with rEplan, who was essentially on the job of finding arvid’s replacement, and we discussed the possibility of giving sergej a trial, although we both thought it wouldn’t really work because he was so young. Our opinions changed instantly when we saw what he was capable of on the server, so we gave him the nod and his first contract as a player."
Under the SkitLite banner, sergej kept growing, first with the lineup that included Ville "rEplan" Ijäs, Simo "Leaf" Mykkänen, Joel "joel b" Borgström, and Mikael "ociriz" Karkinen, and then with a mix of players which included the likes of Jani "Aerial" Jussila and Joonas "aune" Rantala after the former lineup had been bought out by ENCE, leaving sergej behind due to his age.
Internationally, sergej hadn’t quite broken out yet, having only played a few online qualifiers and local LANs, but there was already a lot of buzz about a Finnish youngster causing a commotion in the local circuit by the time I traveled to Tampere earlier this year to learn about the scene while attending LanTrek.
I sat through the first day of the event talking to players, managers, coaches, admins, and all of the cogs that make offline CS work, in order to learn about the ailments of yet another underdeveloped scene (my favorite pastime), but it was the second day I was anxiously awaiting as that was when SkitLite was due to play their first group stage matches. I was excited to see this kid who had been described as the team’s "little wizard" by Wright, who went on to call him their little version of Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev while standing behind him during the warmup ahead of their first match.
I quickly saw why Wright made that analogy, and realized that despite it being on the local level and against lesser opponents, the calm with which sergej played and the temperance and precision in everything he did, his movement—both mental and mechanical—, his aim, and his decision making, were indeed enough to garner all of that praise. Where the analogy failed to hold, perhaps, is that s1mple is all temper and bravado, perhaps even more so at younger ages, while sergej is extremely calm and calculating. As Wright recounts from his experience:
"Jere was honestly one of the easiest players I’ve managed in my 8 years of doing this. He kept himself motivated and just has a chilled-out vibe about him, which is why I think he’s so consistent as he very rarely loses his cool in difficult situations. On top of that he is really mature for his age and it has helped greatly with the age gap that he will face in pretty much every team."
After their first day, SkitLite won their two first matches, against sergej’s ex-teammates, ENCE, and a team that seemed to be on the rise but eventually fizzled out, Rynnäkköviikset, both by 11-16 scorelines. It was in the semifinal—which sergej & co. played against the core of the current HAVU, Aleksib, Jesse "KHRN" Grandell, and xartE—that the youngster really shone, as Wright recalls:
"He dropped 35 kills on Mirage, which was great to see, as people didn’t rate him because he hadn’t played against many big-name opponents in the past.
"This was pretty much where he managed to get his opportunity in HAVU, I believe, as Aleksib and co. were blown away with his ability after that game. I’ll never forget getting into the car to go back to our hotel after the tournament had ended. KIPSIk, aune, and I just looked at each other and laughed because we couldn’t believe how good he was."
A conversation with rEplan while walking down the halls of the Tampereen Messu- ja Urheilukeskus, where the event was taking place, the day he lost to his former teammate went in similar fashion as he replied "he’s f**king good, isn’t he?" with the massive grin of someone who has seen something particularly unique after I mentioned how pleasantly surprised I had been after watching the youngster.
Although his team lost two maps to ENCORE, and then lost to Jesse "zehN" Linjala and suNny’s ajuri in the third place decider, sergej ended up as the fourth highest rated player in the tournament, third if counting players with five or more maps, behind the aforementioned suNny and tournament surprise-player Ville "wils0n" Järvi—who had a standout performance there but has since been unable to break through or create a buzz with his current team, Conquer.
Unsure about SkitLite’s potential and having lost motivation after LanTrek, ENCORE's change to HAVU and with Taneli "disturbed" Veikkola stepping down, the youngster was finally given a chance to practice and stand-in for the team that took the #1 place in Finland from iGame.com, who were slowly disintegrating. "I heard about sergej for the first time at the end of last year and I had also played against him at local LANs," says xartE, sergej’s teammate in HAVU. "I noticed that he was putting up some big numbers against other Finns. When we realized that disturbed didn't have time to play as much as we wanted, we asked him if he would like to join our roster."
With sergej on the team, HAVU went on a four-tournament win streak, which got increased to six after the inclusion of ottoNd, who joined in lieu of Timo "REFLEX" Rintala, closing any debate concerning which quintet was the best in Finland. On the best team in Finland, and as the word-of-mouth spread, sergej was invited to join FPL. "I definitely didn’t expect to be invited to FPL, but it felt nice that people wanted me in," he says, "It has gone well, I like everyone there."
Great watchlist for 2018— Milos Nedeljkovic (@Faceit_Mikey) December 19, 2017
Young players (<22y) with highest W/R in FPL #CSGO
🇫🇮 @sergejcsgo - 71%
🇹🇷 @XANTAREScsgo - 64%
🇫🇮 @jOELZcsgo - 61%
🇷🇸 @NEXACS - 61%
🇫🇷 @zywoo_csgo - 61%
🇱🇹 @nukkye1 - 60%
🇺🇦 @Vitya_somedy - 60%
🇩🇰 @dev1ce - 60%
🇪🇪 @ropzicle - 58%
After losing to Space Soldiers in the final of the European Qualifier for SL i-League Invitational Shanghai, HAVU got a lucky break as the Turkish team had to pull out of the event because of a scheduling conflict with the Minor. This prompted the tournament organizers to invite HAVU to Shanghai, where sergej would have first international LAN experience.
HAVU lost the first match to Renegades—who went on to win the tournament—, 2-0, with a particularly rough overtime loss on Overpass. sergej’s rating was 1.21 after both maps, the best in his team. The second and last match in Shanghai, against Flash, didn’t go as well for the youngster, as his team lost two maps that went to overtime after taking their pick, Cache, 16-1.
At IeSF, a tournament in which HAVU were, on paper, the team to win it, the Finns choked, bombing out in the quarterfinals to Alexander "SKYTTEN" Carlsson’s duttdutt, even though the trio of Aleksib, ottoNd, and sergej, all ended in the top 5 best rated players of the event thanks to a good showing in the group stage against mostly lesser teams.
With the rise of Robin "ropz" Kool, who signed with MOUZ one month after LanTrek, and players crossing borders more frequently, like Tsvetelin "CeRq" Dimitrov, who is now in North America with NRG, interest in young talents to watch has started to rise and is prompting people to dig for the new up-and-comers. Alas, sergej’s name has started to pop up more frequently in the lists of rising stars, and has been mentioned by both players and pundits as someone who could possibly make the jump out of Finland soon should he want to.
sergej closed out 2017, the year that saw him go from playing his first events with a real team to his international debut on LAN facing top 20 teams, with a 1.24 rating (1.25 on LAN)—the best in Finland—, and as the star player for the best team in his country. At 15, it’s hard to see how he isn’t setting himself up for a bright future.
"He can definitely become one of the best players in the world if he stays motivated. Seeing him progress this fast and him being so young, you can’t really tell just how skillful he could become," says his ex-teammate LOKO. And Matt Wright agrees, adding that, "if he keeps grinding the way that he does now, I have no doubt in my mind that he will be the best player in the world someday. I wouldn’t be surprised if a tier 1 team makes a move for him when he turns 16, either, I think they would be stupid not to!"
But what makes sergej such an interesting player to follow is his extreme versatility. During his tenure in SkitLite he was the team’s main AWPer, and as the star was also an initiator, playmaker, and closer depending on what was called for. With HAVU, he is now back to rifling, and is taking on tough roles head-on, as his teammate xartE explains:
"He has good reads when to rotate and when not to, overall. He also likes to take 'not so comfortable' and risky positions and make them work for him. I think we have only seen a glimpse of his skill, but time will tell. He adapts pretty quickly when there is a tougher opponent, but he still needs more experience to be more comfortable on the server."
Besides his natural ability to play with both the AWP and rifle on a whim, sergej is also adaptable and can perform different tasks depending on what is needed of him as he is multifaceted and can be the team’s entry as well as solve clutch situations late in the rounds, according to xartE.
So what makes sergej a player to watch in 2018? For the most part, it’s his ability to be a disciplined player while also being very versatile. It isn’t common to see someone as young as sergej who can shine playing different roles—some requiring more sacrifice than others—, and still maintain high ratings consistently.
While a lot of players with high ratings who stand taller than their peers commonly have long highlight reels, sergej’s play is actually quite conservative, and many important multikill rounds of his seem rather mundane more than superhuman feats, and although he played with a lot of freedom and his teammates played around him and for him at the beginning of his career, it has been his cold, calculated play that has allowed him to put up big numbers. Saving the distances, his calm demeanour and patience in the server, especially since having picked up the rifle with HAVU, are somewhat reminiscent of Håvard "rain" Nygaard.
Despite his ability to entry when needed thanks to decent first-bullet aim, sergej’s greatest strength on the Terrorist side lies in his ability to trade, play late rounds, and close out clutch situations, while on the CT side his patience is his greatest asset. sergej is usually an A site player, but often holds areas of the map by himself, becoming an anchor player akin to a Epitacio "TACO" de Melo or Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, waiting for teammates to rotate and repositioning as necessary.
While one may not remember a sergej flick—although when they do happen, they’re memorable—, especially with the more structured and fundamental CS of HAVU, his positional play will often have enemy players gravitate towards his crosshair as if it were a magnet. This ability to play on his own also allows for him to take lurking or map control positions on the Terrorist side when needed.
When rounds don’t get too chaotic, sergej is also quite a good decision maker, particularly on the CT side where he can abuse angles, and, although he is a good rotator, usually that is when he gets into most trouble and in situations that are harder for him to win—although by virtue of how the game works, unless one is particularly good at catching players out of position, this is the norm, particularly for youngsters who don’t have as many tricks in the bag as their more experienced peers.
All in all, it is his solid, fundamental, calculated CS, tied with an ability to play several roles and weapons well that makes sergej an exciting talent to keep an eye out for, and with a fair amount of local LAN experience and having dipped his toes in international waters, the young Finn is well ahead of the curve for his age.