ANGE1: "I have not left my mark on the history of CS:GO. I am still on my way. I hope I have enough time."
Veteran in-game leader Kirill "ANGE1" Karasiow has been in the top echelons of CS:GO since the game's release. He has led some of the best players and competed at the biggest stages. Yet, as he enters the final chapter of his career, much is still left to accomplish.
There is a certain duality to ANGE1's career. On the one hand, he is well-respected as an in-game leader, proving time and time again capable of creating rosters that can compete on an international scale. Examples of that were the all-star Astana Dragons roster and all the HellRaisers iterations, the early one, powered by Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, the inexperienced Czech-Slovak squad, and today's lineup, which relies on Issa "ISSAA" Murad and Özgür "woxic" Eker. Each lineup had its issues, but ANGE1 was able to make them work and get them to the big events, all the while remaining a solid fragger himself. However, as the Ukrainian reaches 29 years of age, his list of big achievements remains blank, his trophy cabinet devoid of a big IEM plate or an imposing Major trophy.
"2/10", is ANGE1's response when I ask him about how happy he is with what he has accomplished in CS:GO so far. "I have not achieved anything big", he adds, bursting into laughter before continuing in a more serious tone. "A lot of interviewers ask me, 'What was your best tournament?'. I tell them there has not been one yet. I have not won any big tournaments except a StarLadder [StarSeries V Finals] against NiP, but I don't feel that is the goal I was aiming for".
Lamenting the lack of a career-defining moment such as a Major win, or at least a Major final, ANGE1 isn't at all satisfied with his legacy so far: "I have not left my mark on the history of CS:GO, except for making good teams. And that is not my goal. I'm still on my way. I hope I have enough time". When asked if he wants to be remembered as someone like Nicolai "HUNDEN" Petersen, who has helped to develop teams and players but has had little success himself, the Ukrainian is quick to answer. "No, of course not", he says, before breaking out the classic ANGE1 smile again: "I'm a very egotistical guy, I want to win, I want to be the best—there is no other way".
The conversation with ANGE1 took place on the rooftop of the Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi, ahead of the PLG Grand Slam tournament. In the enjoyably-warm weather—despite it being a mid-December evening—, we revisited the Ukrainian's start as an in-game leader.
"The first time I led in-game was in 1.6 in the DTS lineup. It was a few years before the end of 1.6, and the lineup also had kucher, pops, xaoc and craft1k, one of the best Ukrainian 1.6 players. Basically, I had some ideas which I wanted to try, but I was never the in-game leader. And in this lineup, I tried them and they started working somehow, mostly online. I understood that my vision could work, despite most of my ideas those days being somewhat new, aggressive moves, but with elements of team play. So after that, 1.6 ended and in CS:GO I basically led right from the start, with Virtus.pro."
ANGE1 was one of the players who embraced the game quickly. "I think I was the only guy in the whole CS community that was defending CS:GO from the first day", he says, dismissing a lot of the hate the game got early on. "I felt like half of this was from nostalgia towards 1.6. They didn't judge the game properly."
"AdreN, kucher and I started playing CS:GO from the beta, together. Just playing pugs, deathmatch, we learned the game together. I remember that Source players had a very big advantage in those days and we played some pugs against WorldEdit's team, maybe it was practice already, and he wrecked us so hard.
"On Inferno, he was just pushing window and killing three guys in second mid, we had no chance just because he knew the mechanics much better than us, and we were so angry. This made us work three times more, four times more. I don't know, we played 15 hours of CS per day those days."
After mastering the mechanics of the game, team-wise, CS:GO became "very easy" for ANGE1. "Everyone was watching NiP, and they were playing without strats. Basically, they had a lot of plays, smart moves in their game, but there were no complete rounds," he states, before adding that he was more of a psychologist and the person explaining small details than an in-game leader in today's sense of the role. "So it was pretty easy, we just worked a lot, we talked a lot with each other... it was the good old days".
His initial CS:GO team, the CIS Virtus.pro lineup, was without a doubt the most successful one ANGE1 has led. They stopped NiP's LAN 87-0 LAN streak, won the aforementioned StarSeries LAN over the Swedes, and were regarded as at least a top-four team in the world in 2013. But they couldn't break past that point, and, after adding big-name players to the fold and signing for Astana Dragons, things only took a turn for worse.
"It was mostly my fault that Astana Dragons didn't work out because we kept playing the way that had worked for us in Virtus.pro. We didn't evolve. And the style had become inconsistent at a time when all other teams were evolving pretty fast. We tried to rely too much on individual skill and I worked much less than I do now and much less than I should have worked in terms of tactics and team play. That was probably the biggest mistake of my CS:GO career.
"The problem with Astana Dragons was that there were really high expectations for that lineup. We played basically half a year and our results were inconsistent. They weren't that bad, we usually placed top-four at every tournament, but it was not enough for a lineup like this. It was a star lineup, we should have started winning from the beginning. And to start winning from the beginning, to be consistent, I should have had a different approach to the game. Now, when I'm looking back, I realize it so perfectly, how I should've done it. But it comes with experience, I guess."
A key part in terms of creating a successful team is "making every player satisfied", something that he has found to be "nearly impossible." He talks about the struggles that every in-game leader has to overcome as he smokes a shisha pipe - a tradition in his home country of Ukraine and here in the Middle East.
"Where did I stop? Oh, yes, it is impossible to make all players satisfied with their roles, their numbers on tab. That is why I think the perfect team is the one where every player does whatever he wants and what he wants is what the team actually needs. I think this is what Astralis have right now. Because if we tell everyone to do whatever they want, they will start doing a lot of individual stuff. But these guys [Astralis] know exactly what every player should do to win. This is, for me, the perfect approach. But to find this kind of a lineup you need a lot of work and you need to make a lot of sacrifices."
Following the end of Astana Dragons as an organization, ANGE1 and co. moved to HellRaisers. Early into that team's life cycle, the decision was made to bring in s1mple, at the time a troublesome but extremely talented youngster, to refresh the veteran-heavy lineup.
"He was a really good aimer. One of the best I have ever seen. And we needed to get some young blood in our team, so we brought him in. It was a risk, we took him while he was still banned, it was two or three months before he was to be unbanned on ESL. He was one of the guys that I had the hardest time working with. I kicked him from the team like three times, but to be honest, he is a very nice guy outside of the game. Maybe right now he such is inside the game as well, I have not played with him in a long time. But those days, he was very selfish, his passion for the game was so big that he didn't even understand what he was saying to his teammates. He didn't talk to me like this, but he talked to different teammates sometimes. And it ruined the team atmosphere.
"After the game, when you talked to him, everything was perfect, we understood each other, we knew we had one goal. But then his passion goes off again, and it was pretty hard to work with him. I was sure and I told him: "Bro, you just need to grow up. There is no other way for you to change the way you communicate with your teammates". I understood that I couldn't do anything there, only time could fix it."
That was why, despite his immeasurable talent and his great contribution to the team's top-eight finish at the DreamHack Winter 2014 Major, s1mple's time in HellRaisers only lasted about four months. ANGE1 painted a great picture of the turbulent period, saying: "We kicked him once, brought him back, kicked him again, brought him back, and the last time I don't remember [what happened]. We even wanted to bring him back the third time, but I think he had already signed with Liquid."
As the team couldn't find its footing following s1mple's departure, having mediocre results with Rustem "mou" Telepov and Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev, ANGE1 decided for a radical move, going for unproven players outside of the CIS region and changing the communication language to English. Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný, Martin "STYKO" Styk, and Patrik "Zero" Žúdel, who had mainly made a name for themselves in FPL, were the players who made the cut in the end, with Bence "DeadFox" Böröcz replacing the Czech AWPer later on.
"About the STYKO - oskar - zero lineup, at approximately that time Johnta came and it was one of the most important moments in the HellRaisers history because Johnta had his own approach, which was much more structured than my own. We tried to make our ideas work, so we went much deeper in our understanding of how things should be done in CS. Those days he wanted to have a lot of structure and I wanted to give a lot of freedom and do mid-round calls. So we had to find something in between and it kind of started working.
"Since our lineup wasn't star-based, especially compared to the previous HellRaisers lineups, I think it was the perfect combination. I understood the game much better than I had before. I understood why we needed structure, how that structure should be built. You know, a lot of people understand structure as 'every player has his own waypoint'. In those cases, it is very easy to predict what a team is doing. But if you will, firstly, make these waypoints really smart, so you are not just going five in front of A and doing an execute, when in your waypoints you include one guy taking zones, he is faking some position, pressuring... and only then do you execute, it looks much smoother. And it is really hard d to read if you build the whole idea of a strategy, your game, properly, on every map."
Working with Ivan "Johnta" Shevtsov was truly eye-opening for the in-game leader. "After one year of working like this with Johnta, after finally finding the middle ground to combine my vision with his, I understood how bad of an in-game leader I had been", ANGE1 admits. "Because I had looked at everything from only one side. A second opinion helped me a lot."
As good as working with the new coach was, switching communication to a non-native language was a strong hindrance, and remains such to this day. "In my opinion, a team that doesn't speak their native language works at only 80% of their potential. Because communication is really important, the way you talk outside of the game, when you discuss some game moments, when you explain the philosophy of the game, it is really hard," ANGE1 stresses, giving examples of his current team as well. "English is not my native language, and the same thing goes for woxic, Hobbit, ISSAA, everyone. The language is so different and the culture is so different."
"I can say 70% of what I want, and they understand 70% of what I say. So our communication is down to maybe 50% of what it could be if we were talking in another language. And that is why international teams like ours need to work twice as hard for communication to be at 100%."
Even though the gamble on the unproven Czech and Slovak players worked better than many had expected, the first European HellRaisers team went through some hardships. The most notable issue was not being able to make a Major, losing in the offline qualifiers three times in a row. The 16-9 loss to FlipSid3 at the ESL One Cologne 2016 qualifier hurt ANGE1 the most, as he was also in a bad shape individually, finishing that game with eight kills and 21 deaths.
"It was really frustrating. Basically, that result changed my whole attitude about the game because that was when I understood that a lot of people who worked for HellRaisers depended on my attitude towards the game. It hurt me so much after those losses as some people lost their jobs in the organization because of our results.
"My approach towards the game was really bad and I changed my mind completely after this loss, when oskar left. After that, we started working five times as hard as a team and I started working four times as hard as an individual. I know that there was even a moment, a discussion, in which there was a chance that I would get kicked from HellRaisers. Because in our owner's mind, the young guys' opinion, STYKO's, bondik's, I don't remember whose exactly, was more important than mine".
"This was a revelation moment. I realized that I could lose everything just because I didn't put 100% of my effort into this team. So I came to the team, talked with them, asked them to give me three months in which I would get the roles I wanted and in which I would lead as I wanted. And it somehow started working. It was the lineup that got us into the top 10 with Deadfox, STYKO, Zero, and bondik. I had a really good year after that team talk, I had like two below-average rated tournaments out of 14 for that year. I had found my game and learned that a structured approach fits me much better as I need to think about other people's monitors much less when we have a proper structure. Of course, it is hard to go higher than top 10 with just structure, because it is very easy to read and prepare for, and at important LANs, before important games, people always prepare. So we needed to evolve, that's why we started changing roles, the roster…"
After parting ways with STYKO and Zero, HellRaisers welcomed two new unproven, young, FPL talents—woxic and ISSAA. The adaptation took some time, especially for the Jordanian, but ANGE1 once again made it work, helping them to blossom into strong players. With the two youngsters, the team managed to place top eight at the FACEIT Major, with ANGE1 securing his first Legend status in four years.
Even though the team reached some high peaks, ANGE1 is aware of their drawbacks. "I think we moved away from the structured approach too much. That is why we lack consistency right now," he says, stressing the need to bring back some structure but without losing the upsides they have now, of which the ESL Pro League run is an example: "Our potential right now is very high, we are probably the only team that challenged Astralis at the ESL Pro League [Season 8] Finals and we definitely could've beaten them, it was our game. But at the same time, we lost to a G2 lineup that was already done". He bursts into laughter once again as he expands on to the loss handed to them by the French team at their last event with Kévin "Ex6TenZ" Droolans and Edouard "SmithZz" Dubourdeaux.
"So the way we are playing right now shows our really good peak potential, but it also shows we can't be consistent like this. We need to have a proper structure to get into top 10, top 5, and then evolve the structure into the players making decisions on their own and adapting."
To get the team to work as well as it did in 2018, ANGE1 sacrificed some of his individual game, focusing more on putting his stars into the best positions to succeed. "In 2018 I spent a lot of time talking, watching other players' monitors, explaining things, asking someone to STOP FIGHTING", with the last part strongly accentuated, giving away the in-game leader's frustration with some of his teammates' ability to make decisions.
"I'm doing two times more micromanaging than I did in the STYKO lineup. And that is bad because I know that my potential is much higher than where I am right now. And I know that if we are going to have a bit more of a structured game in which I don't need to spend a lot of time micromanaging, I can be two times better. Even now I understand that I'm in a good shape, when I'm in a fight, I'm killing people and they have no chance. I felt that at ESL [Pro League Finals]. But then I am looking stats and demos and I understand that I'm just dying like a bot 30% of the time without even fighting, and that is because I'm not micromanaging myself. These are small decisions, like fighting in a moment I don't need to fight. I'm not thinking about myself and that is why I'm not having the impact I can have."
ANGE1 is certain that the problem of his individual slump is not age but the fact that he is not focusing on his own game and therefore doing mistakes. "I'm just not using the advantage of my positions and decisions right now. That is the issue."
Learning to deal with difficult, passionate players is a part of ANGE1's progression as an in-game leader. "There are not that many players of this kind. They are special ones," he says, revealing that he thinks there are similarities between s1mple and woxic, something tied to their passion. "To be honest, I don't think their emotions are too bad, it shows they care about the results in their own way. And my goal is to use these emotions the right way." While he admits he wasn't able to do so with s1mple in 2014, the case is different with the Turkish AWPer: "With woxic, I'm quite good, and, to be honest, he is a really nice guy as well. It is just the emotions that he needs to learn to control".
A year-and-a-half ago, ANGE1 had an exciting possibility, to join Natus Vincere as the in-game leader, which would reunite him with s1mple. But the two organizations couldn't agree on a deal, and the Black&Yellow brought back Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko instead. ANGE1 prefaces his thoughts on the matter with positive words about his current team. "To be honest, I don't think that my players right now are much worse than Na`Vi players, really. woxic, ISSAA, Hobbit, Deadfox — they are all very good in their roles". However, he admits that playing for Natus Vincere did appeal to him, mainly because it would eliminate the language barrier.
"The main reason why I almost joined Na`Vi those days was, firstly, because it was a Russian speaking team. I could use all of my potential as an in-game leader there. And secondly, they already had invites to all the tier 1 tournaments and that would make things five times easier. You don't need to play qualifiers every day, you need to just prepare for the big tournaments. So you save your strats, you don't show them online, you don't show your good maps to your opponents... It would be much easier to become tier one from the point where Na`Vi was those days. It is much harder from the point HellRaisers is at right now."
When the deal fell through, ANGE1 didn't get discouraged, unlike when a similar move had been thwarted last-minute during the 1.6 days. "I just felt that I couldn't use all of my potential in CS 1.6 because there were days when I could have gone to Na`Vi as well. It almost happened twice, but at the last second, there was always something... like this time, basically."
After those disappointments, ANGE1 quit Counter-Strike for about two years and worked different jobs, but the call of competition was too strong. "I realized that all this office stuff was not for me at all. I needed some competition. All of my life I have been a competitive player, first it was sports, football, tennis, after that it was CS." He remembers thinking that maybe when he was 30 or 35 he would come to terms with retirement, but with the way he speaks about Counter-Strike, it doesn't seem like the fire will go out soon.
As the discussion deviates to out-of-game matters, the topic switches to annoyances and public misconceptions, of which ANGE1 admits he doesn't have a lot. "Some time ago, a lot of people were saying that I was partying all the time. To be honest, I was partying a lot in the Astana Dragons days, early HellRaisers", he says, before the conversation is shortly derailed as we remember his drunk stream with Yegor "markeloff" Markelov. "I didn't care at all, I was just having fun. The job wasn't the thing it is now, I was just good at CS." But after realizing that his approach to the game was "completely wrong", he started taking it more seriously. "I changed this more than two years ago and I'm not sure if people know about it. But, other than that, I have not read many comments that have annoyed me a lot."
There is not much ground to make misconceptions when it comes to ANGE1, who thinks he is the same privately as he is in front of a camera, a straight-to-the-point guy cracking jokes every chance he gets, mainly at his own expense. "I don't understand why people have the need to be different [than what they are usually]. I don't see a reason why I should be different. I'm OK with who I am."
And who is ANGE1? He is someone who wore the same doughnut-themed socks day after day at the tournament where I first met him, the PGL Minor leading up to the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major. He described them as his "lucky socks", but now plays it off as a joke, saying he doesn't believe in superstitions, which are common amongst athletes. "But I started believing in karma. If you do something wrong, it will come back to you later. If you talk sh*t about someone he will f*cking wreck you the next game. Trust me, I have tested it a lot of times", he says, chuckling, "And my teammates are still doing it!"
"You know when you are playing some team, they have a guy who is not really expected to get frags and you talk bad about him? He is going to have the game of his life, 35 kills every map against you. I don't want to say names [laughs], it wouldn't be nice, but every time the guy has 30+ frags against us. I'm trying to teach my guys; 'Boys, just don't talk about it, don't sh*t talk [laughs]. I know it builds their confidence and it is kind of okay, when I was young I was the same, exactly the same as these guys, woxic, s1mple... Trust me, I was very toxic in some ways and I trash talked a lot."
As the interview neared its end, we notice players from other teams passing by and heading for the welcoming party, as well some of them leaving shortly after as they realize that alcoholic drinks aren't covered at the bar. We are still at the rooftop bar of a five-star hotel enveloped by an F1 race track, thousands of miles from home, a day before a $100,000 tournament kicks off. Conversations can take weird turns in settings like this.
"Back then, in 1.6, I thought I needed to grow up," he says. "And I did, I got a job. But then I started playing CS:GO and I downgraded again, you know? [laughs] Living like this again, tournaments, travel…
-"So you can't be a real grown-up if you are playing CS, is that what you are trying to say?"
"Yes, you can't be completely grown up if you are playing CS. It is 100% true. You can ask anyone. Maybe someone is going to lie and say 'yes', but trust me, everyone playing CS is a little kid. We are all little kids."
Of course, ending the interview with a self-deprecating joke. And a laugh.