Hush or howl: NAF's road to stardom
Heading into the last big tournament of the season before the player break, ELEAGUE Premier 2018, we look back at Keith "NAF" Markovic's rise to stardom and the struggles on the road to becoming one of North America's hardest hitters.
NAF’s first posted matches on HLTV date back to when he was 16, the same age that players like Nikola "NiKo" Kovač and Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, both also born in 1997, had when they started appearing around the lower end of the top tier competitive Counter-Strike totem pole. The Canadian player’s road has been different than that of his European counterparts, however, as North America lagged behind the old continent in the early days of the game. The first half of 2018, which saw Cloud9 win a Major for the region for the first time in CS:GO history, has seen North America start to see its teams and players gain recognition at the top, with NAF being one of the players leading the charge after he posted world-beating numbers during late 2017 and the first quarter of 2018.
NAF’s steps can be traced back to 2013 and 2014 when he got picked up to play on teams with the likes of Matt "Warden" Dickens, Sam "DaZeD" Marine, and Joshua "steel" Nissan, although it was in Denial with Damian "daps" Steele and Shahzeb "ShahZaM" Khan that he seriously kicked off his career, opening his stats page with an impressive 1.18 rating over 9 maps at the ESEA Invite Season 17 Global Finals. The event in Dallas saw him post two 30-bombs and every other map with over 20 frags with the exception of one, and gave us the following highlight from Denial’s match against Titan in which the young Canadian had a +14 KDD and a personal tournament-high 1.74 rating despite his team losing the map 12-16. NAF showed then and there, despite his youth and lack of experience, that he had the potential to compete at the highest level.
That Denial team would then lose ShahZaM and Todd "anger" Williams and would pair up with Nick "nitr0" Cannella and Eric "adreN" Hoag in Liquid, where NAF got his real first chance at playing in a competitive team with serious backing, but after a couple of bad events, MLG X-Games Aspen and the ESL One Katowice 2015 Main Qualifier, he would be given his marching orders as Liquid looked towards another potential-filled youngster who would end up a teammate further down the road, Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski.
Following his exit from Liquid, NAF took the first dip in his career and joined back up with anger in Luminosity before being replaced by Jonatan "Devilwalk" Lundberg. He then ended up with daps once again in ELEVATE, where he also played with William "RUSH" Wierzba in what would become the Conquest core. During that time, however, NAF was unable to mimic the numbers of his first event with Denial and would only post a positive event at The World Championships 2015 with Canada, where he ended up with a +25 KDD and 1.17 rating. Having moved on to Conquest with Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz and ShahZaM, NAF could not live up his potential, posting three-below average ratings at three events (CEVO Season 8 Finals, iBUYPOWER Cup 2015, and ESL Pro League Season 2 Finals), even though just slightly so at them of them. That year, 2015, NAF’s inexperience playing offline showed as he posted the lowest LAN numbers (0.93 rating on average), while he shined online with a career-high 1.15 rating over 142 maps.
After the rollercoaster ride of his early days, NAF settled into the team that by now had been picked up by OpTic going into 2016. Having hovered around 10% of kills with the AWP over the previous two years, NAF had clearly been working on becoming an all-around player, wanting to do everything he could to be a reliable player for the team. “Growing up playing CS I never wanted to be that player that sticks to one thing,” he says, “I didn't want to be a dedicated AWPer or a dedicated rifler, I wanted to be a player who can clutch, be good with pistols, with rifles, with AWPs. I just want to be an all-around player like s1mple or shox or any of those guys.”
The ELEAGUE Road To Vegas match, which pitted OpTic against CSGL for a spot in the first season of ELEAGUE, kicked the year off. In sin city, NAF had a good showing and helped his team clinch a spot in the $1,400,000 tournament with a 1.36 rating over two maps. After a 3rd-4th place at the Americas Minor and 5th-6th places at the CEVO Season 9 Finals and ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals—the latter two with Oscar "mixwell" Cañellas already on the team—, NAF had his first stand-out event of the year at the MLG Regional Minor Championship for the Americas, in Columbus, where OpTic made it to the Major Qualifier in dominant fashion by winning five matches.
At the Minor, a clip in which some of the team's in-game communications were heard surfaced, raising questions about the Canadian player’s attitude, something James "hazed" Cobb would touch upon later in NAF’s career on his stream, and something mixwell also talked about when reminiscing about his time in the North American team, saying, “NAF—a player I think is one of the five best in North America, and could become one of the three best, or even the best—and I had a problem right after the first tournament as I believed he had some attitude problems. I told him that if he kept down that path I wouldn't be able to play with him because I had left my home to play CS and wasn’t there to mess around.”
On the other hand, daps came out to NAF’s defense telling HLTV.org that, while “he did have attitude issues, so do most players, even myself. I wouldn’t say NAF’s attitude is any worse than that of the normal competitive person who wants to win and shows frustration like a lot of players do,” and that what NAF never did “was talk sh*t to his teammates or down to them, so this big deal or focus on his attitude is blown way out of proportion because I have played with people with way worse attitudes than him.”
Despite the words mixwell had for his former teammate about certain aspects of his character during some of his developmental years, when in conversation with him he often looks back fondly at how easy it is to play with NAF, noting that the Canadian has a very good sense of the game and is one of the best to play off of his teammates, going on to say that when paired with other smart players, NAF can have incredible impact, both directly and indirectly.
After the ESL One Cologne 2016 Major, where OpTic went out in last place after two defeats in the group stage, NAF and his teammates ended up 5-6th and 5-8th at Northern Arena in Toronto and ESL One New York—where Tarik "tarik" Celik had his debut—without making much noise. OpTic bounced back by winning Northern Arena Montreal over G2, but what really changed everything for the team was their first big event victory at ELEAGUE Season 2 in one of the greatest dark horse runs in CS:GO history, beating Kenny "kennyS" Schrub’s Envy, FaZe, and Astralis, all teams ahead of them on the rankings. NAF ended the event with a team-high 1.29 rating—including a 1.77 rating in the grand final's decider map against Astralis where he posted 34 frags and 113 ADR in 27 rounds—which made him part of one of the most contested MVP runs awarded despite not getting the medal in the end.
OpTic went on to take second place at ECS Season 2—where Astralis got their revenge—, reaching their highest position in the ranking, No.2 in the world. After a disappointing last place at DreamHack Winter, OpTic then qualified for the Major again with NAF posting a 1.25 rating at the Main Qualifier. The turn of the year started slowly for OpTic, who were once again unable to make it out of the group stage at the Major, but things then took a grim turn for NAF & co. as stanislaw left the team. Without the figure of an in-game leader, OpTic spiralled out of control. Unable to find someone to take the reins, NAF tried to add another skill to his repertoire, becoming the team’s caller, and while he may have gained some extra insight and experience, the team had a terrible showing at DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, going out 9th-12th with Spencer "Hiko" Martin on board.
NAF had a great run in his team’s 3rd-4th place at IEM Sydney, with a 1.31 rating over seven maps, but OpTic coasted through the year playing with Hiko, hazed, and Jason "jasonR" Ruchelski while trying to find a stable fifth. During the period which saw him and his team flail like a broken sail, NAF’s stats ebbed and flowed, but only once dropped below 1.07 (at the ECS Season 3 finals in which OpTic came in last), which shows that, when left to his own devices, NAF has the potential to put up good numbers in adverse situations.
After ESL One Cologne 2017 came the player break, and after the player break came the dissolution of OpTic. tarik and RUSH made their way to Cloud9 and mixwell put together a European team to compete in OpTic, leaving NAF without a home. Once again, the Canadian player had to climb down the ladder and make what could be considered a lateral move at best, joining Renegades.
Theoretically, NAF was going to be brought on as one more player to fit into the system, as Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović said after NAF was confirmed to join the team, “Well, NAF is practically the perfect player we need to fill the role we've been missing since February, or at least April, when we got Nifty to be the main AWP. We were missing someone who could be a defensive player, who would get some impact frags and play a semi-support role. We will still work on having a better structure regarding roles when we actually start practicing everything after ELEAGUE.” The reality ended up being different, as NAF joined Renegades and he had his worst event of the year right off the bat at ELEAGUE, where he ended up with a 0.75 rating as Renegades finished last place.
NAF’s second event went much better than the first, as he once again ended in the green with a 1.08 rating, albeit at the much smaller DreamHack Open Denver. There, Noah "Nifty" Francis kept the same narrative as kassad had before the team had played with the Canadian, saying that “NAF brings a lot of experience, of course, and a high skill ceiling. We are still trying to create a good connection between everyone, and fit him into the team. I think it was very important when we started playing together that we weren't going to fit ourselves around him, it is all about implementing him into our team.”
What would come next would be a complete change in the team's dynamic, as NAF would go on to carry Renegades to first-place finishes at the Asia Minor leading up to the ELEAGUE Boston Major with an incredible 1.49 rating and +78 KDD. More impressively, NAF then kept up the pace to take Renegades to a first place at the SL i-League Shanghai Invitational, once again posting a tournament-leading 1.29 rating, which earned him his first ever MVP medal for his performance. The streak continued at iBUYPOWER Masters 2017, where NAF’s 1.36 rating helped his team land a second place. At IEM Oakland, the team’s performance dipped, as they went out in 7-8th place with a 2-3 record in the group stage, but that didn’t stop NAF from being the best-rated player at the tournament (1.34).
NAF showed no sign of slowing down when 2018 came around, and despite Renegades failing to secure Legend status at the ELEAGUE Major in their first event of the year, NAF still managed to put up star numbers with a 1.20 rating over 6 maps, the team’s highest by far. For a star to be born, a gaseous nebula must collapse, and after becoming the star and putting up great numbers, some of Renegades’ players didn’t seem too displeased by NAF leaving the team after receiving a succulent offer from Liquid, as expressed by Nifty, who admitted that the team had ended up playing for and around NAF instead of him becoming a part of the system in a video interview with Duncan “Thorin” Shields. Aaron "AZR" Ward similarly said "I don't think [losing NAF] was the biggest blow, I think what Keith brought to us was a lot of firepower, but other than that, I think it was mutual on both ends. I think some parts of our game weren't gelling well with Keith and vice versa, so I think we were both pretty happy with the outcome in the end."
Back on an upwards trajectory, NAF kept putting up absolutely stunning numbers from the get-go, posting three events with over 1.20 rating. The first of the three was at cs_summit 2 where he had a 1.23 rating (1.30 in the final against Cloud9), and was top 5 in several categories including KDD (+50), over 50% of rounds with at least one kill, six clutches, and 46 opening frags, which earned him the second MVP medal of his career.
NAF followed cs_summit 2 with a third place finish at StarSeries Season 4, where Liquid beat the likes of his ex-team Renegades, MOUZ, FaZe, or SK. With another 1.23 rating and +70 KDD, NAF was named one of the tournament EVPs. The Canadian all-arounder kept the streak going in Katowice, where he helped Liquid make another semi-final run posting a 1.20 rating through 11 maps to earn another EVP, making it one MVP and two EVPs in his first three tournaments with his new team.
NAF’s next three events were a little bit more discreet, as Liquid bombed out of DreamHack Masters Marseille following Epitacio "TACO" de Melo’s incorporation in the system, although the Canadian still managed to have a 1.06 rating despite them losing four out of seven maps in France. At the ESL Pro League Season 7 Finals, Liquid’s stars all split duties, with EliGE, NAF and Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken all playing well and putting up good numbers for a runner-up finish. There, NAF was once again awarded an EVP for his performance in a deep run by Liquid. The North American side then flew to Kiev for StarSeries i-League Season 5, and once again the three stars had good showings in their quarter-final run despite the team being able to make it deep in the playoffs.
NAF’s last big event individually to date was the ECS Season 5 Finals, where he and EliGE propelled Liquid into a second place finish—the second final since he had joined the team—, and where he earned his fourth EVP of the year. With a 1.30 rating and 7 out of 8 maps over average, NAF showed that he still has it and that his ceiling is very high. After that, Liquid flew to Brazil to play in Belo Horizonte, where Liquid were one of the home crowd favorites. The team got a decent 3rd-4th place, but nitr0 was already feeling they were getting stale and needed to revamp their map pool after not having enough practice, leading to a dip in form from the whole team.
The last tournament to date came in Cologne, where Liquid bombed out after losses to BIG and North in what is NAF’s lowest-rated tournament of the year with 1.01 rating over three maps. There, NAF admitted that, despite his rise to stardom and Liquid’s great runs after his arrival, the success had not been without its hardships, saying that “even on Liquid I'm having a hard time finding my place within the group of players. It's really difficult. I had a really different feeling playing with the OpTic guys than I did with Renegades and Liquid. It's maybe because I was in OpTic for so long. It's a weird process that I'm still going through, but I'm trying my best to be the friendly teammate and the good guy as much as possible.”
The dichotomy between NAF in and out of the game and the relationship he maintains with his teammates has been following him since his early days. Despite his now star status, especially when considering he was posting Top 5 numbers early in the year and is now in the running to be high up on the boards in the top 20 player of the year ranking, the ghost of fitting into a structure still haunts him. Being an adaptable all-arounder—what he strived to be early on in his career—may become a double-edged sword as he decides what type of player he wants to be, the quiet support player who sacrifices himself or the superstar who gets set up to carry his team on his shoulders and plays lights out in tense situations using all of the tools in his arsenal. While the latter may come with the glitz and glamour of much fanfare, it can also cause internal strife, while the former is the opposite, earning love from teammates but becoming what Engin "MAJ3R" Küpeli has coined as a “shadow player,” who exists outside of the spotlight.
Stars in close orbit impact each other’s evolution, and in the cluster that is Liquid with EliGE, Twistzz, and NAF, it remains to be seen if they will be able to keep growing into becoming a steady big tournament contender, if NAF will be able to find the balance to keep posting great numbers and settle at his peak, or if he will have to fade into the background and remain the player who can mould to anything and play the roles one is expected to as an adaptable player.