StarLadder Major rookie: CR4ZY
The fifth and final team we will introduce through the Major rookie series of articles is CR4ZY, who managed their breakthrough by taking down European powerhouses at the Minor.
Unlike the rest of the StarLadder Major rookies — Syman, DreamEaters, INTZ, and forZe —, CR4ZY are fairly well known. The team has been consistently competing in European online leagues and qualifiers, as well as attending smaller LANs such as DreamHack Opens, resulting in them sitting strongly in the top 30 since January.
Despite being recognized internationally, the tournament ahead of CR4ZY is far bigger than any of the ones they have played yet. The Majors always draw in viewers who are not as up to date on teams on the outskirts of the top 10 as die-hard fans, and that is why, in this article, we will take a look at how the Serbian squad has changed over the past years and examine their chances in Berlin.
A rocky road
Tracing back to where this team started brings us back to the beginning of CS:GO. In 2013, two of the current CR4ZY members — player LETN1 and coach Luka "emi" Vuković — made the move to iNation, the best Serbian team that at different points hosted names such as Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, Janko "YNk" Paunović, and Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović. After some early success came frustrating defeats which saw iNation kick it into a lower gear, with two years passing before they would start competing at a respectable international level again.
The push that happened in 2016 coincided with huNter- joining the team. Despite being one of the standout prospects in the region, at the time huNter- was ready to call it quits with Counter-Strike, and perhaps would've done so if his slightly younger cousin NiKo hadn't convinced him otherwise. LETN1, emi, and huNter- form CR4ZY's trio that has been together since 2016, sticking it through different organizations, rosters, and ups and downs with the help of their manager, Petar "peca" Marković.
After representing Binary Dragons for a short period, the team signed for Valiance in October of 2017, finding a stable home in an organization that set sights on becoming a top 16 team and making it into the ESL Pro League. However, Valiance's peak was qualifying for DreamHack Masters Marseille in April of 2018. While participating in a Big Event was a historic achievement for a Serbian-speaking team, the inability to make it to a Minor or progress deep into the rankings wasn't cutting it.
Learn more: Valiance: A second chance for Serbian CS
Being eliminated by Windigo in the second Open Qualifier for the IEM Katowice Europe Minor was the straw that broke the camel's back. With only two more chances to make the Minor left, Valiance decided for a drastic change, left the Serbian-speaking base behind and went international. Despite some back-and-forth with Imperial, Valiance managed to quickly secure the talented core of the European side — nexa, ottoNd, and EspiranTo —, and form their new lineup.
Imperial had had a couple of impressive showings before that point, despite the instability of the roster. Winning Copenhagen Games 2018 after coming in from the BYOC qualifier and claiming the DreamHack Open Summer 2018 trophy over the likes of OpTic, North, and Renegades had put them on the map and defined nexa's redemption arc.
The Serbian rifler had been tried out by iNation as early as 2015 but had not made the cut, and had had a tough period in Renegades in 2017, showing his career-worst individual form and struggling as the in-game leader as well. It was only after the creation of MANS NOT HOT (later Imperial) that nexa was able to consistently put up big numbers, while also taking on the in-game leader role in the latter part of 2018.
EspiranTo was alongside nexa from the start of the MANS NOT HOT project and was the best player in the squad at different times - picking up the MVP award in their DreamHack win as well - while ottoNd, the team's AWPer, joined Imperial only shortly before the move to Valiance happened. With all the pieces coming together in October of 2018, CR4ZY's roster of today was formed.
Success came quickly: the team managed to go through the Europe Minor Open Qualifier #3 just days after adding the new players and, later on, earned a spot at the Minor itself by beating LDLC and Fragsters in the closed qualifier. Still playing under Valiance, the team finished off the year with solid online play and qualified for ESEA MDL, finally edging closer to the Pro League goal the organization had set at its inception.
However, their good form was not enough at the Minor itself, which, especially now looking back at it, was an extremely difficult tournament to go through. Valiance defeated mousesports twice, but was eliminated after losses to Vitality and ENCE — two teams that would establish themselves as elite in the following months.
More near misses and tough losses followed for Valiance, with breakthrough opportunities within reach but never seized. Valiance secured the second seed in the ECS S7 Pinnacle Cup, but only managed to play one week of the tournament due to scheduling issues, losing to the eventual LAN winner, Vitality. The squad attended four small LAN events, but couldn't take a win at any of the DreamHack stops in Rio, Jonköping, or Tours, with their only LAN victory coming from the United Masters League Finals. In the closed qualifiers for Big events such as DreamHack Masters Dallas and ESL One New York, they couldn't get past G2, who took them down in key matches twice.
Not making a Big event for the whole year was rough, but even worse than that was how Valiance's ESEA MDL season played out. They finished the regular season undefeated, 17-0, but an uninspired performance against Spirit saw them eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, ending their Pro League hopes early. In an interview at the Minor, nexa admitted that spending a month on the road and then going straight into that match had been a mistake, but it was one they had to get over quickly because the second Minor of the year was coming up fast.
A do or die moment
The StarLadder Europe Minor was described as a do or die moment by the team in our recent interview. Another failure to advance — even if it was a near miss or loss to a very strong opponent — and who knows if the roster would stick together. The goals the organization had put forward back in 2017 were not being met, despite bigger investments and new players being acquired. The change to CR4ZY was a part of the push to make the brand more attractive and appealing to the audience, but there is nothing that facilitates that better than good results. On the other hand, it is no secret that some players from the team would be valuable to other international squads, with huNter- being someone that different European teams were ready to splash the cash for.
But the scenario that played out was a different one. CR4ZY edged out Sprout and defeated NoChance to get to the playoffs, before suffering a clean 2-0 defeat to North. Everything was on the line when they faced fnatic, a team featuring multiple Major winners, an organization that had never failed to attend a Major in CS:GO. But this time, CR4ZY stepped up to the task. ottoNd, who has often been criticised for his inconsistency, had one of his great games against the Swedes, while the whole squad was on point against North in the rematch, outclassing Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså and co. 16-7, 16-6.
Celebrations started as soon as the final kill of the match was made. CR4ZY placed second at the Europe Minor and secured a place in the New Challengers stage, with all five of their players getting their first stickers. As a majorly-Serbian team, they are also the first team not only from their country, but the whole region to accomplish such a task. CR4ZY had finally got over the hurdle and shown the potential of their players, something that they had struggled to display in key moments in the past.
Star player – huNter-
If you have browsed through the stats section of HLTV.org in the past few years, it is very likely that you have seen the name huNter- pop up. He has been fragging out ever since he linked up with iNation in 2016, averaging a 1.15 career rating.
His great individual skill and the ability to turn around rounds by himself made him the natural choice to be the star player, not only on CR4ZY, but on all of the teams and rosters that came before this one. However, he is not the same type of a star he used to be in the Serbian-speaking Valiance days, in which he had a lot of room to work with and things were being set up around his plays. After the addition of the former Imperial members, who brought in a lot more firepower, there was no need to focus on huNter- as much, and instead, he has become a bit more of a team player. For example, the famous "huNter play" where he would get boosted into the window on Mirage early in the round is now rarely used by CR4ZY, who opt for fewer hero-plays and less risky strats.
But being slightly more team-oriented doesn't mean huNter-'s performances have dipped. He is still the best-rated player in the team and, if anything, he is only more impactful than he used to be because his openings are more often capitalized on by his teammates. Talking about his stats in 2019, he is the best CR4ZY player in five key categories: rating (1.24), impact (1.32), ADR (88.1), KPR (0.80), and opening kill rating (1.16).
Unlike other Major rookie teams, CR4ZY also have a solid second star in nexa, who trails huNter- with a 1.19 rating and an 80.6 ADR but has a higher KAST. The difference in the output of the two players is even smaller when we filter down to matches between teams in the Top 20 (tied at 1.20 rating), or Top20+LAN (1.16 huNter-, 1.15 nexa). But important to note is how much both of them are ahead of the rest of the squad: ottoNd, EspiranTo, and LETN1 are all sitting on a rating of 1.02 or lower when only matches within the Top 20 on LAN are taken into consideration.
Outside of his fragging, huNter- is also valuable for his tactical input, especially on Nuke, where he takes over the in-game leading from the team's main caller, nexa. The Serbian is likely to perform well in both the tactical and the mechanical parts of the game as he is a stable player that rarely goes missing (80.4% maps with 1+ rating in 2019), with CR4ZY's destiny at the Major perhaps more dependent on how some of the more inconsistent members of the team will do in Berlin.
Five questions with nexa
You were on the verge of breaking through and qualifying for big events a couple of times this year but suffered some heartbreaking defeats in the end. What was the defining factor that allowed you to make it over the hurdle at the Berlin Minor? Was there something different this time around?
We always had some issues closing out games, both Valiance before we merged and Imperial as well, I think the main part we were missing was experience. You know, all of our players are young and new to the high tier scene and it just took some time to realize how to properly deal with the pressure and keep performing until the end. The difference this time was that everyone knew that if we did not step up and get to our goal we probably never would. This was in a way a final test for us and I would say we passed it with flying colors.
After your final match in Berlin, huNter- said that you were probably not aware what you had accomplished by beating North and fnatic in BO3s. Has that feeling sunk in now? How did beating such established teams reflect on your squad?
We had no idea who we beat to get there, all we knew and all that was in our heads was that we were at the Major. The feeling sunk in a few days later and we realized we denied fnatic a Major appearance for the first time, we beat North, who had had some great results in previous events against top tier opposition, and both by 2-0 scorelines, no less. This was a huge confidence boost for us and it still is. It gave us even more motivation to work harder and just keep growing and improving as a team.
How has the preparation for the Major gone? You were one of the most active teams before the break, have you managed to recharge your batteries and practice as much as you wanted?
Immediately after qualifying for the Major we took a short break since we had been preparing for it for about four months without any rest. Everyone went their own way and did their own thing, whatever they wanted, we recharged our batteries, went back to practice and then went on another bootcamp at the Kinguin performance center. I'm more than happy with how much practice we got before the Major and I think we are as ready as we'll ever be.
While you are the seventh highest-ranked team at the first stage (and eight squads go through), it seems like a large part of the community sees CR4ZY as outsiders. As Major rookies, do you feel like underdogs? Do you think teams will be underestimating you in Berlin?
I love being the underdog, I don't know if teams will underestimate us or not but if they do, we'll make sure they regret it. I think the community sees us as outsiders since we have not really had any tier 1 event showings, we have never actually qualified or had any significant impact on the scene apart from this Major. But no one in this team feels like an underdog and we are ready to go toe-to-toe with any team that comes our way.
While getting to this point was a big achievement if you don't advance to the Legends stage and secure at least one win there, you will once again return to the gruesome Europe Minor for the next Major cycle. How much pressure is on you to have a fairly deep run at your first Major?
There is no pressure right now, we set our goal at the beginning of the year to qualify for the Major and we have done it. Now it's just about seeing how deep we can actually go and test our limits. Of course, I would prefer not to go back to the Minor again but I'm sure if it happens we will just qualify from it again.
As the highest-ranked and most experienced StarLadder Major rookie, CR4ZY will be aiming to do a more then their counterparts such as Syman and INTZ. Looking at the New Challengers stage, they should be one of the eight teams to advance as there are only a couple of squads that look to be in a different league, such as Vitality and perhaps mousesports. Against the rest of the field, CR4ZY either have a fighting chance or a significant upper hand against, with their first opponent Grayhound sitting in between the two mentioned categories.
Getting to the Legends stage and securing at least one win there — in order to avoid the next Minor —, is where the bar is set for CR4ZY. huNter- and nexa will be at the helm of that attempt, but they will need the rest of the squad to chip in to reach that goal. ottoNd's hot-and-cold AWPing and EspiranTo's unpredictable form are the two things that could spell danger for CR4ZY, as well as their proficiency to mess up in key moments. However, if things start rolling as they did at the Minor against fnatic and North, CR4ZY will be the underdog that does a lot of damage at this Major.