Valiance - A second chance for Serbian CS
With Valiance set to attend their first big international event this week, we take a look at the team, its history, and how their story developed over time.
Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, one of the best players in the world, Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović, a prominent coaching figure, and Janko "YNk" Paunović, a leading analyst, were all a part of the same team at the start of CS:GO. Under iNation, the trio made their first breakthrough, and even though the squad represented organizations such as Refuse and GamePub at different LANs, the iNation name, which was essentially just a tag with no backing, gained notoriety and became a synonym for the best team in the region.
There was, of course, more to that team than the pieces that are currently well known internationally. After a few quiet years, the supporting cast in iNation's early CS:GO success would go on to creating their own story—now as Valiance.
Passing on the mantle
One player has been present through all of the iterations of the team. Luka "emi" Vuković was 19 years old when he played his first CS:GO HLTV match for iNation, slotting alongside the three aforementioned players and Nemanja "k1Ng0r" Bošković. Now 24, emi has never stepped outside of this slowly evolving core of players or played for a different team.
Joining the squad before the end of 2013 were two more current Valiance members, as YNk stepped down and kassad shifted towards a coaching position. The first one was Nestor "LETN1" Tanić, someone very close to emi: the duo hail from the same town on the outskirts of Belgrade, Pančevo, and had been playing together for the majority of CS 1.6. The second one was Anel "NENO" Ceković, who was a part of ENTiTY in 1.6, attending big tournaments such as WCG 2010, SEC 2011 and GameGune 2012 with the regionally acclaimed Macedonian squad.
With LETN1 and NENO and under the GamePub name, the team had their biggest success, beating Astana Dragons, a highly ranked team at the time, in a BO3 series, to place third at StarSeries Season VIII. However, the main talking point back then wasn't the team as a whole, but the heroics of the young Bosnian NiKo, who outperformed some of the game's legends in Kiev.
Despite a lot of effort put in, the team was unable to even come close to a feat of that magnitude again, which led to them disbanding early into 2014, following a streak of failed qualifiers.
"After the old iNation lineup fell apart, me and LETN1 became inactive. I focused on my studies and didn't play CS competitively, I just did it for fun, and also attended some LAN tournaments in Serbia. That's how it was more or less until 2016, when I thought about getting back." - emi
In 2016, while NiKo and YNk were already making strides internationally, emi, LETN1 and kassad banded together once more, set to take CS seriously and breakthrough. Slotting in the AWP position was Đorđe "DJOXiC" Niciforović, who had been playing with the core—in their rare appearances—since 2015, while Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač, who was talked into returning to CS:GO by his cousin NiKo, earned a spot in the side a bit later. After kassad, often criticized for his individual level, once again took a step back to a managerial position, iNation tried to play with a foreign player—Viktor "flash" Tamás Bea—but that didn't work out either.
"We first changed flash (flash) for nexa (Nemanja "nexa" Isaković) because we wanted to communicate purely in our language. It was difficult to communicate in Serbian between the four of us and then English with flash, the communication wasn't the best. After that, nexa went to Renegades, so we decided to try playing with NENO, he was the most experienced and the best option we had." - LETN1
"At that time, we tried a few different lineups until we found one that had what it takes to compete professionally. Obviously, bringing in NENO elevated us to a new level." - emi
For NENO, the offer to return to iNation came at the ideal moment, as almost a year had passed since he had parted ways from his last serious team, the Spanish-Balkan crossover x6tence, and his desire to compete was growing strong.
"I wasn't serious about CS in 2016, but I didn't take a break, I was playing for fun the whole time. At the end of 2016, I decided to invest in a stronger PC and better internet to try streaming and search for a good team. At the perfect time, iNation contacted me and asked me to join the team, they presented me a good project with people at the helm that are capable of making a big thing out of it. Of course, I accepted the offer." - NENO
But at this point, kassad, the main man behind of iNation, was already out of the picture, leaving Serbia to join Renegades as the coach. Someone had to step in to ensure the legacy of the team was continued, and it was Petar "peca" Marković, a well-known figure in the region with international experience, who took over as the team's manager.
"kassad contacted me at the end of 2016, shortly after he got the offer to join Renegades. iNation was our most successful and most decorated CS:GO team, and it needed someone who is willing to put in his time and effort to secure these guys, who have a lot of talent, the necessary conditions to play the game and succeed in it. kassad passed on the mantle to me and the guys took me in very well since we had known each other for years." - peca
The squad was set by the end of January: emi, LETN1, DJOXiC, huNter-, NENO, with peca as the manager. The drawn-out shuffle period took a toll on the team's ranking, though, so iNation found themselves at their lowest point, sitting at 105th.
The struggles of going "pro"
As is normal for a team of their stature, iNation had to earn their stripes via low-level online competitions, in their example the Binary Dragons cups. Over three editions of the tournament and about three months, the Serbia-based team managed to climb to a top 50 ranking, which impressed the Binary Dragons management enough to sign them to their organization—and send them to the Copenhagen Games 2017 BYOC a few days later.
"We had searched for a home for a long time. We had had different offers from different sides of the world, both individually for our players and for the whole team. Still, we waited for the right offer, which could give our players the freedom to leave all of their other responsibilities behind and focus on the game 100%. Binary Dragons was the organization that offered us what we needed at that moment, so we accepted it and we were more than happy. "
"That was the first really professional contract a team from the Adria region ever signed, the players could finally focus on what they do the best— play the game. That was the moment we went full time, even though it was still hard to change the habits of people and having them adapt to the fact that they now had a professional contract and a real job." - peca
At Copenhagen Games, making the main part of the tournament ended up being an unreachable goal, Binary Dragons fell short to Defusekids, a Benelux mix, in the last round of the BYOC qualifier. Some of Binary Dragons' weak points were exposed there, most notably their susceptibility to force-buys and a lack of composure in clutches.
Binary Dragons continued their online grind after that, but still found time to cruise to two domestic LAN victories and finish second at the regional ESL SEC S5, losing to Outlaws in the grand final. After floating around the 50th place in the HLTV.org rankings for a couple of months, Binary Dragons finally made a step forward by qualifying for DreamHack Open Atlanta 2017 at the start of June.
"There was a lot of pressure in the first few months under Binary Dragons. We had signed a professional contract and we expected to get everything we had in writing. In reality, it wasn't that great, so we still weren't able to focus on the game 100% . There were ups and downs, but the run that we had at the start of our professional careers was satisfactory, since we managed to qualify for DreamHack Atlanta in the end as the best team in the open and closed qualifiers.
"We didn't have any big issues in the team, the atmosphere was good, it was just hard to get used to how things were. The support from the organization was just a fraction of what was promised, which was one of the reasons we felt a lot of pressure and had some bad results." - peca
After having everything settled in over the summer break, Binary Dragons had a strong Minor Qualifier campaign, making it to the deciding match after eliminating HellRaisers earlier on. Against GODSENT, their lack of experience was noticeable as they struggled to deal with the Swedes' style and lacked composure in the late round situations:
"We were ready for that Minor, we were a step away from it, but GODSENT is a team that uses a style we have issues against. They are strong individually and they like to do crazy things around the map, they are all over the place. The state of the team back then was fine, but we weren't able to find a solution for that game style. As time passes, we are more and more ready to cope with teams like that." - NENO
Not long after the Minor Qualifier had ended, Binary Dragons signed for a new organization, the neighbouring Croatia-based Valiance, whose owners presented an ambitious plan: reach a top 16 ranking and qualify for ESL Pro League. Now, finally, the team had the backing they needed to give all of their focus to CS:GO.
"Things definitely changed when we signed for Valiance, they are our first real, professional organization, they are available for anything we need, finally allowing us to fully commit to the game. The people behind the project are true professionals, they help fix our problems, both inside and outside of the game. Right at the start, they got us a sports psychologist whose work affected the way the players act and perform positively. I hope the cooperation with Valiance will be a lasting one, they have shown that they are capable of supporting us, and we are growing together." - peca
Under the new name, emi and co. secured the title at the Vip Adria League Finals in November, adding yet another domestic LAN victory to their list, but couldn't do the same at the more competitive Esport Balkan League Finals a month later, where they were edged by Windigo 16-11, 16-13.
With the turn of the year, Valiance found themselves floating on the edge of the top 30 ranking, but unable to make the needed step forward. The Serbian squad was playing teams such as Heroic, Windigo and eXtatus online often, making it into latter stages of qualifiers for tournaments such as cs_summit 2, IEM Katowice 2018, and ECS Season 5, but a big result was still lacking—it seemed that the team had reached its peak.
An injection of fresh blood
After two months of mediocre results, Valiance started dipping in the rankings, but it was a 5-8th finish at the Play2Live Cryptomasters LAN in Minsk that was the final straw for the lineup, which had been together for over a year at that point. AWPer DJOXiC, who had dipped in form, found himself on the chopping block.
"We started stagnating, stopped improving, and after giving the lineup a lot of time—we had been together for over a year—we reached a level we couldn't move past. I don't think that anyone likes lineup changes, but we realized that we needed a new talent, some new motivation in the team. We gave Impulse a chance, and now, that is paying off." - NENO
Despite the team's issues, it wasn't expected that Valiance would make a change, and it was even less expected that they would pick up such a "green" player like Aleksa "Impulse" Stankić. Most of the regional players always felt like the 'iNation core' was unreachable to players outside of their clique, a group of players who had proved themselves a long time ago, mostly all the way back to CS 1.6.
That feeling was shared by Impulse, a youngster who, almost out of nowhere, had broken out domestically in 2017. His rise happened under k1Ng0r's tutelage while he was wielding the AWP for RESISTANCE. After that team came to an end due to internal issues, Impulse moved on to the next best thing—Squared—where he earned a salary for the first time in his career. By the end of the year, the 21-year-old was topping the scoreboard for his team consistently, both against domestic and European opposition, showing that he had outgrown the level of CS played in the region.
"I think that about halfway through my stay in RESISTANCE I started to put in more effort, started thinking more about what I do while playing, that is when I improved most. After that, practicing against weaker teams started becoming more and more tiresome, it was apparent that my rate of improvement had slowed down, and with that, I looked for a way out of our region—considering the stories that circulated about Valiance at the time.
"To be honest, I also thought that the 'iNation core' was a closed circle. If I even had an inkling that they would be doing a lineup change, I probably would not have signed a contract with x6tence." - Impulse
The AWPer signed for the international squad x6tence White at the end of January, but would end up joining Valiance only a month later, first as a trial player and then on a permanent basis. Despite his lack of international and even limited local experience, NENO didn't see Impulse's signing as a risky move:
"We watched his matches, we saw that he was talented, and we heard that he was willing to work hard, which was the most important thing for us, so we didn't feel like we were taking a big risk by adding him. Impulse is a very good sniper and, with little more experience, no team will have an easy time dealing with him." - NENO
The mentality change and openness to a new player, to fresh blood, was just what Valiance needed. With their new AWPer, whose rapid fire rate immediately catches one's eye, they climbed from a 62nd ranking back to the brink of a top 30 placing in a little over a month. During that run, they managed another achievement: to be the first team from the Adria region to qualify for a big tournament, DreamHack Masters Marseille.
"Impulse brought the new motivation every team gets when they change a player. I, as the in-game leader, put in more time to make our game even better and also to perform well as a player so I have a lot of impact by playing, not just by calling. Other players worked on improving in their roles, they took them to a new level, and that will only get better when we get experience from tournaments such as DreamHack Masters Marseille." - NENO
After qualifying for Marseille, there was no time for celebration, as just days later the squad was in Denmark, playing the BYOC tournament at Copenhagen Games. Valiance was a more seasoned team than at last year's tournament, and displayed that by making it past the likes of Epsilon and NOREG to qualify for the main event. Their anti-eco play had become sharper against teams of this level, fewer mistakes were made and a sense of calmness was present in their clutches—that weren't slipping out of their hands as they had in 2017.
In the main tournament, Valiance got placed in a group with North, Windigo, and Quantum Bellator Fire. The Russian squad seemed beatable, but North was the favorite to win the event while Windigo, even though are seemingly close to Valiance in the ranking, had been picking up victories over them consistently for quite a while. Making the playoffs was going to be a tough task, especially considering how drawn out the BYOC tournament had been.
Valiance took on North first and not only put up a fight, but pushed the Danes to the edge in front of their home crowd. Valiance played with no respect right from the pistol round, when they pushed middle on Inferno as Counter-Terrorists, and were in the driving seat during the majority of the map, despite regularly finding themselves on the losing side of clutches.
After taking Inferno, Valiance fell flat on Cobblestone, a map that has historically been an issue for them, moving to the decider—Nuke. NENO's team showed good team play and an understanding of how to play the map, but unlike in the BYOC, they cracked under pressure in late stages of rounds, time after time. After a poor CT half, Valiance were looking to bring it back on the T side, but ultimately lost to a USP-S stack in yard which stopped their comeback attempt and allowed North to take the series with a 16-12 win.
Quantum Bellator Fire wasn't a big challenge for Valiance, who then played Windigo for a place in the playoffs. On two fairly contested maps, the Bulgarians were the better side, with Kamen "bubble" Kostadinov's and Teodor "SPELLAN" Nikolov's aggressive play and entries being the biggest issue for Valiance.
A bar raised too high
NENO has drilled his squad well, building a system in which one can clearly see there is a set goal in each round, Valiance almost never look lost or bereft of ideas. On the Terrorist side, they like to mix in a fair share of contact plays, which are led by their entry fragger, emi. Even though he isn't the most prolific player in terms of first kills, there is always someone coming after him to get the trade frag—which can be seen in emi's Death Traded statistic from Copenhagen Games 2018, where he was the most traded player at 28,5%. The longevity of the squad' core, and especially the years-long partnership between emi and the second player in, LETN1, surely help in this regard.
Impulse will most often be accompanying the entry duo with the AWP, while NENO calls the shots as he is taking control of a peripheral part of the map. The team's leader is also a strong clutch player, often showing up in the final stages of the map to drag Valiance across the finish line, either by a securing big entry or a by solving a post-plant.
huNter- is Valiance's best-rated player overall, but still, he is not the hyper-carry player NiKo was in the past—since this team's inception, the fragging has always been fairly balanced out among the five players. huNter- is also set up to score well: having more passive roles in most of the tactics, coming in later in the rounds and doing the cleanup. However, as the team's star, he is also allowed freedom to do solo plays, such as walking up A ramp on Cobblestone or making João "felps" Vasconcellos-like moves in window on Mirage. Even though the Bosnian can pull those sorts of plays off, often times they will be out of tune with his team, who won't be in a position to capitalize on the eventual sneaky kill.
Valiance's main issues remain anti-ecos and clutches. An improvement has been apparent over the last year, but, when pressure is high, they still lack the presence of mind to close out these advantageous rounds, which can lead to the game spiralling out of control.
"We sometimes have issues when we lose a round that should've been ours, that can rattle us, but I think that we are progressing in that regard. We are not allowing those situations to affect us mentaly, we are able to focus on the next round and leave what happened behind." - NENO
"When we started working with Valiance's sports psychologist at the end of 2017, his first task was to deal with what happens in the minds of our players after we lose rounds we shouldn't have lost. The situation is improving, but there is still a lot of work to be done." - peca
This week in Marseille, Valiance will be pushed to the limits. Yes, since adding Impulse, they have shown that they can compete with teams outside of the top 10, such as North and Heroic, but the level of competition at DreamHack Masters will be much higher. Placed in a group with mousesports, SK, and NiP, the Balkan boys will have no easy matchup, and it is more than likely that these teams will employ a no-respect, all-aggressive style that Valiance can sometimes struggle to cope with.
The task ahead seems insurmountable, the bar raised too high, but perhaps the 'Balkan mentality'—often-cited as the cause of disbands and lack of success in the region—, will work out in their favor this time.
"The 'Balkan mentality' is something that definitely exists. You simply can't change some ways of thinking, they are a part of our DNA. We are Balkan people, we love success and simply can't cope with defeat—or the fact that someone could actually be better than us. And we are also very stubborn, we will do anything to show the world who we are, where we come from and what we want to achieve." - peca