ISSAA - Beast from the Middle East
Issa "ISSAA" Murad will soon be playing the New Challengers Stage of the Major in London, being the first player from the Middle East to do so. Before it happens, we take a look at the Jordanian's path to becoming a pro.
As it has been the case with many players, ISSAA's first exposure to Counter-Strike happened through his brother, who introduced him to the game when he was just four years old. His sibling stopped playing after a while, but ISSAA didn't grow over the game. "At that time, I couldn't stop," he recalls. "When I had school days my family would drive me to a school, but when I arrived there I would leave and go to an internet cafe. I was spending all of my time there, and all of the allowance from my family."
By the time CS:GO rolled around, ISSAA had started playing from home, and he jumped on the new version of the game right away. As he was no longer a part of the internet cafe community, and the LAN scene in Jordan wasn't really active, ISSAA was playing on ESEA by himself until he ran into some Jordanians there, Mohammad "Zerocool" Ahmad Issa Al-Adwan being the first one he met. Through him, ISSAA got in touch with other players from his country, and soon Octopus1 was created.
First international steps
The end of 2015 was nearing when Octopus1 played their first LAN event, as they qualified for the Play It Cool CS:GO Community Challenge, an amateur LAN showmatch in Stockholm, where they played against Play It Cool All-Stars. Even though it was just an exhibition tournament, playing against his idols meant a lot to ISSAA: "We were so happy, you know? It was my first official and we were so motivated and happy to play against these legends. I have always been a fan of GeT_RiGhT."
The team progressed a bit after that, making it to the closed qualifier for DreamHack Masters Malmö 2016, but ISSAA soon made the switch to Spotnet in the hopes of scaling greater heights. With the Lebanese squad, ISSAA qualified for the Asia Minor leading to PGL Major Krakow, in June 2017, but he refused to settle for just that. "To be honest, I didn't like it", says ISSAA, before opening up about his reason for eventually departing the Arab scene. "After we qualified for the Minor, I told my team that we needed to practice for the event, but some of the guys said that they did not want to do it — and we went unprepared. It was one of the main issues I had playing with Arab teams. Every time we get a chance to prove ourselves we disappear, we don't grab the chance."
Even though Spotnet didn't make a mark their the Minor, losing to Renegades by a landslide and closely to Signature, ISSAA did look good individually. He was aggressive, had crisp headshot aim, and was able to hold his own even against a seasoned team like Renegades, finishing the 16-3 loss against the Australians with a 1.15 rating. He stood out from the rest.
After the Minor, ISSAA realized that he couldn't get any further with domestic teams, that it was time to look further, even it if was risky.
"In Spotnet I was getting a salary but it wasn't a lot, I needed more than that, I needed to play in the pro scene because... you know, I'm an ambitious man. I always look forward, I have a dream. If I had stayed in the Middle East region, I would not have a future. We had different mentalities, not all of us were on the same page. I always try to work hard, I have the dream to become better and I always put the game as the first priority.
"I gave it more than just one try, after I made it to FPL I received a lot of offers to play for mixed teams, better teams than my Spotnet or Chosen5 squads, but I was declining these offers because I was trying to achieve the most I could with my Arab teams. I stayed with them for two years and I was always trying to become better with them, to practice hard, but in the end it didn't work because we don't have the same mentality. For example, I know that we could have reached tier 1 or 2, but in the other guy's head, he doesn't believe it. And then the third guy, for example, has university and he doesn't want to put the game as his first priority. Not all of us had the same dream or were on the same page." - ISSAA
Even his former teammates, Bashar "CooL" Abdulla and Mohammad "Foolz" Subhi Tawfiq Abdel-Rahman, agree that ISSAA was different from the rest. "He had really high ambitions to become a pro player from the beginning of CS:GO", remembers CooL, while Foolz adds that "he is a hard worker and a player who always learns from his own mistakes". Both agree that playing FPL got ISSAA to a level where it made sense for him to leave the local scene behind.
Going through to FPL
ISSAA had made it to FPL a long time before the Asia Minor, while the pick-up-game competition was still in its infancy. He originally tried to get there playing with people from the Middle East region, but it just wasn't working: "We were losing, people were playing for fun. We were not winning enough for me to go to Master League". Things took a turn for better after he ran into a stack of European players also grinding their way to FPL, and, after befriending them, he joined the cause. "I started to play with the Loba stack. It was me, Nikola "Lobanjica" Mijomanović, Robin "RobiNasTy" Perret, Miloš "Gigi" Racković and one more guy. I had 10 or 20 wins per day, we were really ****ing on FACEIT, no chance. We were taking it seriously, each one of us, we were trying hard to get top50 in the Master League and then make it to the FPL qualifier."
In January 2016, the whole stack was placed high enough to reach the FPL qualifier, but the Jordanian was the first one to make it through and get a chance to play with the likes of Robin "flusha" Rönnquist, Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt and Wiktor "TaZ" Wojtas on a daily basis. "I would say that it wasn't hard for me to get in FPL", ISSAA says thinking back on the qualification process that took others several months. "I did my best, worked hard and went through the first time."
It only took ISSAA a couple of months to get his first prize winnings in FPL, placing fourth in May, but more important were the exposure and the experience. Always displaying a positive mindset, giving his best in terms of communication and being open to feedback allowed him to grow as a player in ways he couldn't just by playing in Middle Eastern teams. "I really played well in FPL and a lot of pros were recommending me to good teams. Players like JW and NBK helped me a lot and I always took their advice. It helped me a lot individually."
The big switch
Going back to 2017 and the time after the Asia Minor, ISSAA was left with a dilemma: "I had the option stay with Spotnet and get a salary, or leave to Gux & Friends, where there was no salary but better teammates." After turning down the offer a couple of times, he finally said yes to Gux & Friends in July 2017, joining Özgür "woxic" Eker, with whom he already had a good relationship from FPL. "woxic and I were like a duo, we were always either at the top of the scoreboard or not playing well together."
Gux & Friends was the first team ISSAA played in that didn't revolve around him. He was no longer in-game leading and he wasn't the superstar who could do whatever he wanted, which had been the case in Chosen5 and Spotnet. Playing with experienced Nordic players such as Rasmus "Gux" Ståhl, Michael "Friis" Jørgensen and Alexander "SKYTTEN" Carlsson, ISSAA learned the basics of operating within a system, and because of that, became a lot more patient and calculated than he used to be. ISSAA felt that the adaptation took a toll on his performance: "I would say that my gameplay, my stats, decreased because of the roles I was given and because I was not playing with the same freedom I had before". But he understood that it was a necessary process, and in all honesty, he was far from bad. The numbers speak for themselves: 1.17 rating over nine maps in MDL S25, 1.18 rating over 7 maps in the CBE 2017 Qualifier and 1.70 rating on the two maps he played in the Legend Series, in which he was the team's standout player alongside woxic.
After only a month with Gux & Friends, his first big offer came knocking as HellRaisers wanted to pick him up, together with woxic. From the outside, it was a no-brainer: a much better team than Gux & Friends and a salaried job. But going pro had its cost. "I was in university, studying law, and I was in my final year when HellRaisers contacted me. I had a choice of either putting my studies on hold, without knowing until when, or continuing them." Due to strict attendance policies, there was no middle ground: "In my university, if you don't attend classes for seven days, they will kick you out for the semester". ISSAA wanted to chase his dream, putting his education on hold and joining HellRaisers, but the decision wasn't looked upon fondly by his family.
"Here in Jordan, in the Middle East, it is important for you to get a degree. My family thought I was ruining my life, that I didn't know what I was doing, so they all stopped talking to me until I got signed by HR and started getting a salary. I showed that to my family and they started to believe. In the Middle East, if you tell anyone that you are playing computer games, they will laugh at you. They don't respect it and they see it as something hilarious. That is why when I told my family that I would stop my university to play for a team, they didn't agree with it and they stopped supporting me and talking to me. Now, they are all watching my games, always cheering for me, and soon, I hope they will travel to a tournament I will attend." - ISSAA
Unfortunately, his signing didn't come soon enough for ISSAA to share it with his childhood friend, whom he had met back in his internet cafe days of CS. "A guy called dupstylez taught me DOTA and CS and I grew up with him, he was always cheering for me. After I joined FPL he told me 'Someday I'll see you in a top team!". He was like my biggest brother". dupstylez, who was also known in the CS:GO scene as a skins trader, tragically died in an airplane crash during his last pilot training session, in October 2016. "That was the worst thing I have heard in my life, it really broke my heart and I couldn't believe it when I got the phone call." Now, ISSAA uses his friend's name, dupstylez, as the nametag on his knife, still having him by his side through the wild ride of being a professional Counter-Strike player.
Learning the ropes
ISSAA joined HellRaisers on trial alongside woxic, but while the Turkish player immediately impressed and soon got a permanent contract, ISSAA struggled to adapt and at one point looked like he could get cut from the team.
"In the first week, when we played more freestyle to see the basic skills of the new players, he was good. But after we started to bring in some structure, he began to have problems. Some things weren’t working well for him, but I saw that he had great potential and we just needed more time. During his downswing period, our management asked us to consider other options to try out, but I insisted that we needed more time and ANGE1 agreed on that. Luckily for us, it was the right decision and barely a week later we understood that this kid was the guy we were looking for." - Ivan "Johnta" Shevtsov, HellRaisers' coach
Two of the reasons Kirill "ANGE1" Karasiow decided to give him more time were his work ethic and eagerness to work on all aspects of the game, something that isn't usual with players who don't have a lot of team experience: "ISSAA is probably the most hard-working guy that I have ever played with, he works a lot on his aim, but also always wants to discuss something to make us win. So it is a pleasure to work with him, despite the fact that he is not that experienced and that, in some moments, he gets too emotional."
In HellRaisers, on the T-side, ISSAA describes himself as a lurker, but his coach Johnta is not a fan of the term: "I don’t like the term 'lurk' because people think about it the wrong way, I would rather use the term 'playmaker'. He works a zone, plays with timings, takes information and creates space for the team and future actions. Considering his great ability to make entry kills, he fits this role pretty well". The Ukrainian tactician also praises ISSAA's progress in understanding the macro game, adding that, with more experience, "he could be a secondary-caller and do more initiations for his teammates".
While ISSAA does, for example, play the classic lurk position of A apartments on Inferno, rarely giving up a kill to the opposing team in the process of gaining map control, he doesn't operate in a baity manner, instead fairly often being the one to initiate the action, doing that with a high degree of success. He is also the go-to entry guy in some set strats, such as Monster or A halls explosions, but with his very strong dueling ability, he can make some of those "suicide missions" work as well. And all of that can be seen in his stats, where he has the second best entry kill ratio after woxic (who leads by a large margin, though), and is the second best player overall with a 1.16 LAN rating in 2018, again trailing the Turkish AWPer.
"When I joined HR I played a completely different brand of CS, I'm going to be completely honest. It was a new experience, I got to know the meaning of being a professional. Everything changed, my gameplay, the way I should think, my communication. Everything completely. Johnta worked on me and woxic from zero. I cannot thank him enough, he started with me and woxic, taught us about the game and the way we should think, improved our communication, our gameplay. woxic and I were more loose-style players, because of FPL, and from that point we started looking at the game in a different way." - ISSAA
ISSAA's first big event with HellRaisers was the ESL Pro League S6 Finals, where they made it to the playoffs after beating big names — fnatic, Liquid, and Astralis — a big feat, even though the latter two teams were using stand-ins. "It was one of the best feelings in the world for me and woxic because we managed to get to the LAN and half-prove ourselves to people," ISSAA remembers. "At that time we managed to beat some really good teams, so it was a really good feeling and a big experience for us"
A fiery spirit
Early into 2018, ISSAA was set to attend StarSeries i-League S4 with HellRaisers, but couldn't arrive in Kiev in time due to visa issues. He was able to arrive on the third day, after his team had lost the first two games of the Swiss system playing with a last-minute stand-in, Kevin "HS" Tarn. After being 0-2 down, the international squad turned it around with ISSAA and made it 2-2 before facing Renegades in the game that decided who would go to the playoffs. A risky Nuke pick backfired and saw HellRaisers lose the series, finishing 9-11th.
Still, StarSeries i-League S4 will be remembered as the event where ISSAA's passion was brought to the light. His loud celebrations after each round won and high-fives that his teammates were struggling to handle were a talking point on the stream. "When he is mad, he is playing better in my opinion," woxic says. "When he is feeling the game, no one can stay in front of him". The Jordanian's confidence brushes off on others as well, Johnta observed: "When he feels a game and is hitting his shots, he hypes players up really well, which takes our mental state to the next level." Where there are high highs, there are usually low lows, but Johnta doesn't feel like ISSAA's bad games are any different from the average player. "Like any other player, he has some moments when he doesn't feel great and the game is not going well. There are a lot of factors which can affect him and he is trying to understand those better, so he can learn how to deal with it."
HellRaisers' next LAN was Bets.net Masters in April, where the team was able to pick up their first trophy since winning the small FCDB Cup in November of 2017. The Bets.net Masters wasn't a big tournament either, but the international squad beat the best-ranked team at the event twice to be crowned champions, securing a 2-0 and a 2-1 over North.
Coming up next was DreamHack Tours, and ISSAA was oozing with confidence off the back of the good result. "I feel like this is going to be a really good event for us guys" ISSAA remembers saying to his teammates, as well as claiming that he would be the MVP of the tournament. But the opening match turned out to be a disaster. ISSAA's first round of the tournament was promptly ended by an accidental headshot from ANGE1, and it all went downhill from there. They lost the game to Envy, who were not even in great form at all, 16-3.
"I don't think you will get the MVP after this match" is what Amiran "aMi" Rehviashvili, HellRaisers' analyst, jokingly said to the Jordanian after the opening game, but ISSAA wasn't going to leave it at that. After bouncing back with a thrashing of Imperial, where he had a +33 KDD in a series that lasted just 40 rounds, ISSAA had 1.50+ rated series against Envy and GODSENT, leading his team to the grand final, where they met North. Statistically, he stood out there once again, finishing with a 1.16 rating for the series and as the top fragger of his side, but watching him play, it was noticeable that he wasn't hitting some shots that he had easily been nailing. It wasn't the same level of performance he had enjoyed throughout the tournament, and it certainly wasn't enough to help his team beat the Danes.
Still, DreamHack Open Tours was the first event ISSAA outperformed woxic at in 2018, and with North's victory being a product of a team effort more so than of an individual standing out, the Jordanian was awarded his first MVP award, a big personal achievement.
HellRaisers attended four more events before the player break, or three if we discount the mid-vacation IEM Shanghai where they played without their star player woxic. Throughout what was a rough period for the squad, ISSAA was an important contributing factor, always finishing with an above average rating and as the second-highest rated player of the squad, trailing the Turkish AWPer. But overall, there was nothing to brag about, with his showings at the CIS Minor, which he finished with a 1.37 rating, being the only thing standing out in the second part of the season.
Trying to examine ISSAA's ups and downs, the first thing that comes to mind is that he could be struggling to deal with the pressure to perform: in a grand final, on stage, or against a big team. Those factors can get to young and inexperienced players such as ISSAA, but his coach doesn't think he has issues with any of that, instead putting the fault on team dynamics that can negatively affect a player's individual level. "It is usually something inside our team, when we’re not in good form or when there are some things that bring our confidence down, that he might be not on point" Johnta explained, expanding on the ways they try to counter it: "When that happens, we try to rethink team-game details that can influence his positioning, timings and team moves, so he can have good impact even when he doesn't feel his aim. This happens very rarely, to be honest."
And a lot of ISSAA's game does revolve around his aim. He seems to be most comfortable when taking pure 50-50 duels, initiating on his own, without a lot of support. His aiming style — based on a combination of fairly good crosshair placement and an ability to do swift micro-adjustments — leads to a large number of headshots and sees him win duels more often than not. Examining stats from 2018 on LAN, ISSAA is ranked third in the world in both categories regarding headshots, with 0.46 headshots per round and a 59.7% headshot percentage. That's why it is not surprising that he is a fan of using the AK-47 (50.7% of his kills), and that he is a dangerous player to face in pistol rounds and force buys, when he is wielding the Deagle. On the flipside, he rarely uses the AWP, which only helps boost his headshot-related statistics.
Being the first player from his region to reach the Major qualifier, securing an MVP and winning a couple of smaller tournaments in his first twelve months of professional play: ISSAA, who is still only 21, has had a good rookie year. But there is still a lot he wishes to accomplish.
"There are still a lot of steps [ahead]. I come up with a goal and I try to reach it. After that goal is reached, I look for something bigger. That is how I feel I reached this. First, my goal was to get to FPL, then to play in some international team, to prove myself... I always take it step by step.
"My dream is not finished. I have a dream of becoming a top 20 player in the world and I have another dream, to reach the Major. Besides that, I also want our team to at least enter the top 10." - ISSAA
What will it take to reach those goals and dreams, how much can he still improve and what does he needs to work on? For ISSAA, there is no limit.
"There are no limits to the things I should to do improve. Even if my communication is good, it could always be better. I have to work on everything.
"Regardless of how good you get, there are always some pieces that you can add to be even better. In CS, you will always make mistakes, your performance will always depend on your mentality and your mood, you need to fix more than one thing. I don't think there is a limit, I feel that I'm good but that I always can improve, and I'll try to do whatever it takes to be the best." - ISSAA