Top 20 players of 2017: NiKo (2)
Immense fragging, great play at big events and a high level of consistency see Nikola "NiKo" Kovač finish second on our Top 20 rankings of 2017, powered by EGB.com.
|Top 20 players of 2017: Introduction|
Nikola "NiKo" Kovač's first noted tournament was the Adepto BH Open 2011, a €10,500 Counter-Strike 1.6 LAN that was held in his home country and featured two big international names—fnatic and Natus Vincere. A 14-year-old at the time, NiKo represented eu4ia alongside more experienced regional players such as Mili "Laquila" Sivrić and Nemanja "k1Ng0r" Bošković, and helped his team to finish 5-8th after an expected loss to Rasmus "Gux" Ståhl and co.
What got NiKo in the position to play for that eu4ia mix in the first place was the talent he displayed at the plethora of small local LANs he attended before that. NiKo would continue with more of the same after Adepto BH Open, with his first breakthrough happening in the second half of 2012, when he got a call-up to the best regional team at the time, iNation.
Playing under Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović, Serbia's best in-game leader, NiKo would develop even more, displaying some of his skill at DreamHack Bucharest 2012, where his team would once again finish 5-8th after a quarter-final loss to fnatic. With CS 1.6 coming to an end, iNation would make an early switch to CS:GO and attend their first international LANs at the start of 2013. Playing for different organizations, the team would finish 9-12th at both Mad Catz Vienna and DreamHack Bucharest 2013, where NiKo proved that he was the best player on the roster.
As GamePub, the squad would have their biggest success at the StarSeries VIII Finals, where they would come in last-minute as a replacement for fnatic. NiKo stood out once again as the Serbian-based team would go on to get their first big scalp by beating Astana Dragons, finishing third in the end after competitive losses to AGAiN Na`Vi.
The good period wouldn't last long, though, as due to internal issues that reached their peak after the team lost to partyastronauts in the EMS One Katowice 2014 qualifier, iNation came to an end, and with it, NiKo would go on a hiatus from competitive Counter-Strike.
With his local scene not being on par with the great CS nations, NiKo didn't feel like he had a chance to succeed in Counter-Strike. At the time, international teams weren't really a thing, so all NiKo did for the rest of 2014 was farm local LANs with mixes consisting of his former teammates.
The growth of the Counter-Strike scene drew NiKo back at the very end of the year. He started by playing with a local squad aimface before accepting an offer to join mousesportsin April of 2015. This was the second offer NiKo received from the German organization, after turning them down in 2014, a decision in part motivated by his poor grasp of the English language.
After finally making the big jump to an international squad, NiKo had a tough period at the start of MOUZ. His performances on the server, both online and offline, were very good, which earned him new fans from around the world with each game he played. However, he would still end up benched just a month into his stay with MOUZ as the team signed the PENTA trio with Major Legend status and switched in-game communication back to German.
NiKo made the most of his time off, standing in for Kinguin at the Gaming Paradise Inhouse Qualifier, where he was the best player of the tournament, and for SK at IEM Gamescom 2015. It didn't take long for MOUZ to reverse their benching decision, bringing the youngster back into the starting roster shortly after they had bombed out of the groups at ESL One Cologne.
"As rain said as well, we wanted to play together since I stood in for Kinguin at the Gaming Paradise Qualifier. We knew each other even before that, because I had lost the qualifier for the Katowice Major to him. We've been talking ever since then. There were a few opportunities for me to join FaZe, I think it was after MLG Columbus and the ESL Cologne 2016 Major. Even before that, during the Kinguin time they tried to get me, but they didn't want to buy me out while I was on the bench of mousesports. We really wanted to play together for a very long time and I'm happy it worked out."
With his "gun for hire" period done, NiKo was back in the red jersey, providing MOUZ great fragging in the last three tournaments of the year—the DreamHack Cluj-Napoca Major Main Qualifier, the Major itself, and the CEVO Season 8 Finals. The team didn't achieve the main goal of getting to the playoffs at the Major, but made up for a portion of it with a second place at CEVO, the team's biggest success of the year.
NiKo would take on a new challenge in 2016: in-game leading. Replacing a renowned caller such as Fatih "gob b" Dayik was no easy task, but it was one that the 18-year-old thought he had to take up to improve the team.
"I liked playing Cobblestone on mousesports, but I also built the whole game around me, especially the T side, which made it more enjoyable. But I don't miss playing it nowadays, I have other maps. I don't really have a favorite right now, because we are playing all the maps, including Cobble, but we don't have time to fix two of our bad maps at the same time. We are going with Nuke right now and then we are going to focus on Cobblestone. Honestly, I just hope they are going to remove Cobblestone for Dust2."
NiKo had an incredible output despite the burden of IGLing on his back, but still wasn't able to lead MOUZ to success and good placings. He was by far the best player of the team in the first couple of events of 2016, but hit a new level at IEM Katowice, where he scored a 1.51 rating over five maps, famously dropping 42 kills in a memorable game against fnatic.
NiKo's second Major was MLG Columbus 2016, where he had another memorable game, scoring 52 kills in his team's overtime win over FlipSid3, but MOUZ went out in groups due to a defeat to NIP, who were playing with Björn "THREAT" Pers. At that event, NiKo showed both the heights he could reach and the issues he still had to overcome. One of those issues was performing in big matchesas he went missing in the deciding match against the Swedes.
Still, great individual LAN showings would continue as the year went on, but the best period for him and for the team happened when kassad, NiKo's former in-game leader, joined MOUZ as a coach. With the coaching rules that were in place at the time, the Serbian was able to have a big impact on the squad, which went on to finish 3rd-4th in the first season of ELEAGUE and qualify for the ESL One Cologne Major. However, with another Major failure around the corner and the Valve coaching restrictions coming into play, kassad's time in MOUZ would soon come to an end.
The team would shuffle the roster towards the end of the year, bringing in Christian "loWel" Garcia Antoran, with whom they would be able to advance from group stages a couple of times before the end of the year, but they weren't able to make a mark in the playoffs.
Over the course of 2016, NiKo was able to show that he was a world-class talent, finishing 11th in our ranking. However, he still lacked in some aspects. His drive to win often led to frustrations when things didn't go right, while the pressure to carry his team in the playoffs and big games got to him, resulting in the Bosnian being just a good player in those games, compared to a superstar in the groups.
MOUZ had some decent results since adding loWel, so going into the first tournament of the year, the ELEAGUE Major 2017, NiKo was surely hoping to put a stop to his negative Major streak. It didn't happen, however, as MOUZ went out with a 1-3 record with losses to some solid teams: Na`Vi, fnatic and Liquid.
Following that result, NiKo seemed determined to improve the team by making further changes to the roster. Chris "chrisJ" de Jong ended on the bench, Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný was recalled, but, only a few days later, news of FaZe buying him out emerged.
"Back then, when I was on mousesports in January, I had no idea that I was going to get a chance to play for FaZe since they were having good results. It only came up as an opportunity because aizy wanted to leave the team and join North.
"About mouz, I really wanted to stay in mouz, build something special with that team, and the organization wanted to build around me as well. Replacing chris—I just didn't want to have two AWPers on the team. Basically, I brought oskar back because he is a huge talent, obviously, and he was really willing to give everything after we replaced him."
Even though the deal was made before DreamHack Las Masters Vegas, NiKo was set to play out that tournament with MOUZ. Almost as if he were giving a farewell gift to the German organisation, NiKo had a brilliant tournament, powering MOUZ to a first-place group stage finish and a 5-8th overall with a 1.48 rated, 106.4 ADR performance—the best event he had played in his career to that point.
"I would say that we just played the same way we usually did at DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, but everyone played pretty well at that event, that's why we made it out of the groups. Sadly, we couldn't win against Virtus.pro in the quarter-finals. That event was a really chill one, I enjoyed playing it and that's why I was at my best. And I really wanted to prove that I deserved a spot on FaZe."
"I didn't feel any additional pressure because of the buyout, I just wanted to join FaZe and play with the players on that team, I had wanted to join that team for a very long time. I knew what I was going to get from the squad, I had to deliver and I knew I was going to do it. After wanting to join for so long, it was great to actually do it."
NiKo hit the ground running with FaZe, helping his squad to a top-two finish at IEM Katowice 2017. In the first grand final of his career, NiKo took on Astralis—who were fresh off a Major win and a top-four placing in Vegas—, and put up good numbers, but his side got edged out 3-1 in the end.
"Basically, at IEM Katowice 2017 and SL i-League StarSeries S3 we played the same game as we played at ESL One New York and at ELEAGUE Premier, which is to say we played the game that really fits us the best and that's why it was working, we adapted to the game really fast. That's why Katowice was a good event for us, even though I think we could've even won it. But Astralis were at their best at the time. Still, it was my first grand final ever, playing on an international scene, so it was a great experience anyway."
After a rocky group stage in Kiev, FaZe took out G2 and HellRaisers in the playoffs to set up a grand-final rematch with Astralis. This time around, it was the Finn "karrigan" Andersen-led team who would end up on top, with NiKo's contributions making him the MVP in his first international tournament win.
The Bosnian won the award for his great consistency throughout the event and an average rating of 1.21, the highest on his team, even though it was Fabien "kioShiMa" Fiey who kicked into a higher gear in the grand final, when NiKo fell off a notch.
"Astralis were the best team back then, and they had replaced karrigan, so we had extra motivation to beat them. After losing in Katowice, the drive to beat them just got even higher. We kind of knew that we could've won in Katowice if we had done some things differently—and we did it in Kiev and that's why we won. I even think we had the upper hand in Katowice, but we couldn't find the right things to do since we were a new team. But in Kiev, with a bit more practice, we managed to win. I think we haven't lost to their lineup on LAN since then."
At that point, it seemed that the rivalry between the Danish and the Dane-led European mixture would be the biggest one of 2017, but FaZe's victory over Astralis in the playoffs of IEM Sydney saw the balance tip FaZe's way, and a new rivalry emerged —the one with SK.
NiKo stood out in the semi-final against Astralis, scoring a 1.30 rating over three maps, but his side would go down in the finals, 3-1, against the Brazilian powerhouse, who had just started getting back on their feet. At the next event, the ECS Season 3 finals, the two teams would once again meet in the grand final. There, SK once again edged it out, but this time it was even closer, with Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and co. winning by the thinnest of margins—two maps claimed in overtime.
"In Sydney I would say that they were just a better team, but I feel that if we had won the ECS final—which we should have, in my opinion—, everything would have gone differently. Especially for karrigan, because he has not won against them for a long time. If he had won that one, I think that it would have swung things in our favor, the whole matchup we had, it would be much easier for us to play against SK right now."
The two teams met for a third time at ESL One Cologne, after FaZe had again had a bit of a struggle in the Swiss system group stage. This time, FaZe versus SK would happen in the semi-final, but the outcome would be the same—a victory for the Brazilians.
Over the course of those three tournaments, NiKo won three EVP awards and was the best-rated player of his team at each of them. The Bosnian had some strong showings that powered his team through tough matches and was very consistent too, as he practically didn't have a below-average rated map except when he played against SK.
Even though things were going great for him individually, some issues on the team started to surface - issues that would eventually result in player changes.
"We did not discuss any changes until ESL One Cologne was over. After that event, people started fighting in the team, arguing, I think that's the biggest reason that caused the changes."
After going out in the group stage of the past four Majors with MOUZ, NiKo's team was not only favored to make it to the playoffs this time, but also one of the favorites to go all the way. The event didn't go as planned, though, and the superstar team crashed out with a 0-3 record, something that was below everyone's expectations. NiKo did put up a good effort, with his 1.12 rating being the second best of the team behind Håvard "rain" Nygaard—marking it the first time the Bosnian wasn't the best player of his team at an event in 2017.
"Obviously, if we had won, or at least reached the final of the Major we would not have changed. But I think that, if had we lost in the semis or in the quarter-finals, we would still have made the moves because some people couldn't play together, that was the biggest reason we changed the roster.
"I had never been really favoured to make it to the playoffs, but I still feel like I could have gone that far at least once. The last Major was the hardest for me because we were favorites to at least make the final that time. So if I don't make it to the playoffs this time, I don't know if I'm ever going to. (laughs)"
It was always going to take some time for FaZe to work out how to play with Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer and Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács. After going out in the groups of DreamHack Masters Malmö and a short bootcamp, the European Mixture started their streak of consecutive map wins. The first tournament the new FaZe roster claimed was ESL One New York in September.
At an event that featured the cream of the crop, NiKo went on to have the best showing of his career and the best one anyone had in 2017. The numbers he had at the event seem ridiculous: 1.37 was his lowest map rating and his best was a 2.13 show in the grand final. He also had six clutches, a 103.2 ADR, an 86.8% KAST and a 1.70 average rating over seven maps.
"Obviously we didn't expect to play as well as we did because we had failed in Malmö. However, although result-wise it seemed really easy, even if we were winning 10-5 or 11-4, whatever the score was, we never really stopped fighting to win as much as possible. I think we were just really motivated to prove that we are not just a superstar team, that we want to work with each other, that we want to make something new, we want to make the international scene grow. So yeah, New York was an amazing event for us, I don't know if anyone will ever match what we did there."
After claiming his second MVP of the year in the Big Apple, NiKo and his team went on to win another event, ELEAGUE Premier, once again without dropping a map. This time, however, rain was the main star of the team, while NiKo settled for an EVP.
At the end of October, FaZe flew out to St. Petersburg for EPICENTER, where their unbeaten map record of 17-0 would be stopped by Gambit, while their playoff aspirations would be shut down by Virtus.pro and none other than SK. Even though his team didn't make a big mark at the event, NiKo was once again a force to be reckoned with, winning four clutches, contributing consistently with 71.8% KAST and scoring a 1.19 rating.
The 20-year-old was hitting his stride right from the start of IEM Oakland, as his 1.50 rated showing helped FaZe edge out G2 in the opener. After breezing past Cloud9 in the semi-final, the European mixture was all but set to win another title, as SK, their kryptonite, had been upset by NIP. However, the Swedish side was the better one over five maps, leaving FaZe without a title that would have moved them one step closer to the $1,000,000 Intel Grand Slam reward.
"IEM Oakland was the event that we had to win in terms of the Intel Grand Slam. That's why we felt that we had to win against NiP and that, I think, was one of the issues and reasons why we lost. We just knew that we had to win it no matter what. Obviously, NiP were playing really good CS in Oakland and REZ had the event of his life I think, at least so far. I don't know what went wrong that time, we choked I would say."
With a missed chance in Oakland behind them, FaZe returned to Europe and played at BLAST Pro Series Copenhagen, a tournament with a fresh format, to say the least. With only the top two teams advancing to the playoffs, which were essentially the grand final, FaZe's and NiKo's slow start hurt them, resulting in a group stage finish despite NiKo's 1.35 rated EVP performance.
Even though FaZe didn't get to challenge SK for the title at BLAST, they would get a chance to do that soon afterwards, at the ESL Pro League Season 6 Finals. Both teams plowed through their groups and semi-final matches, setting up the dream title decider. Comparing it to his level throughout the year, NiKo was underwhelming in that final, finishing three out of four maps in the red as SK claimed another victory over the European team.
"Pro League was a really tough loss for us, losing to SK. We feel that we never play our CS when we play SK. I don't know why, but we always have so much pressure playing against them right now, we want to beat them so much that we get frustrated whenever we lose some stupid round. And playing against SK, they are a team that is winning these crazy rounds with FalleN and coldzera. That's our biggest issue against them. If we are able to fix that, I think we will be able to overcome them."
FaZe finished the year at the ECS Season 4 Finals, a tournament that the 20-year-old started with a record-breaking 40-kill regulation game against Liquid. After destroying Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski and co., NiKo had a strong game against Cloud9 as well (1.52 rating over two maps), but cooled off a bit later on, which allowed rain to claim the MVP title, while the Bosnian settled for a EVP after a hard-fought grand final win over MOUZ.
In 2017, NiKo showed a big improvement in terms of playoff games and overall consistency, with practically his only issue being FalleN's side. Despite that, NiKo doesn't want to go into antistrating them, but continue playing his own game—which seems to work against everyone else.
"Talking about demos, antistrating SK, that's not my job. I think that is something karrigan and RobbaN are going to work on, but, other than that, I think we will try to fix our mentality against them, I think that's our biggest issue."
"If just we win against multiple times against SK I think I can even move forward in terms of ranking. We are just focused on winning against SK right now, I don't think we have any issue beating any other team right now. We know what we are capable of and we are just trying to beat SK, that's it."
Why is NiKo the second best player of 2017?
From 16 tournament played during the year, NiKo won two MVP awards and 10 EVP awards, which makes him the most decorated player of 2017's Big events. NiKo didn't pick up an individual award at only four events he attended, securing at least an EVP every time his side made it to the playoffs.
Out of all those showings, the ESL One New York one was the most impressive. With a 1.70 rated tournament, NiKo had the best big event performance out of any player in 2017, helping his side lift the trophy without dropping a map.
The Bosnian's yearly 1.23 offline rating comes exclusively from big events, which makes him the second-best player in that regard, and, unlike in 2016, when he struggled to keep up in the bracket stage, in 2017 NiKo was also exquisite in the playoffs of big events —with a 1.20 rating, he is the second best player of the year in that category.
"I just felt more confident now that I'm playing in FaZe, meaning that I have a team behind me, I don't need to call for the team or think about what they are doing or how they are doing it, I know that they are going to do their job while I'm doing my job. And, obviously, going into the first events and having a good start, that helped me a lot to boost my confidence and I just kept going from there. That's where it all started and now I'm just trying to play as I usually do." - NiKo about putting up better numbers in playoffs.
NiKo didn't only have high peaks, but also a consistently high baseline. In 2017, he had a rating of 1.05 or more at every event he played, a rating above 1.00 in 78% of the maps he played (second best at big events), and a kill, assist, survive, or traded death in 73.4% of the round played (third best).
Something that he has been known for ever since he joined the top tier CS:GO competition is his immense fragging, and NiKo was one of the best in that department in 2017 as well. He was the third-best player in terms of KPR at 0.81, second best in terms of ADR at 87.0, and third-best in terms of Impact with a 1.28 rating—which was a result of his tendency to get multi-kills (rated second at 21.2%) and clutch rounds (ranked sixth with 44 clutches). NiKo also showed that he is a balanced player, averaging a rating above 1.20 on both the CT and the T sides.
When we asked NiKo to name a player he thinks could join the Top 20 list in its next iteration, he picked out his cousin Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač who is currently playing Valiance, alongside some of NiKo's early-career teammates.
"Everyone is saying frozen, but I'm going to go with my cousin huNter. I believe he has the talent to become one of the best players in the world, but maybe it will take better players on his team, or a better team. I think he just need to get the right opportunity, take it, and he can get where I am right now."