From Adria with love - the remarkable rise of Maden
Since adding Maden to their squad, GODSENT have been on a consistent upward trajectory. The European squad rose from 36th in the world in September 2019 to their peak rank of 16th within six months, winning a LAN and securing three top-four placings along the way. The Montenegrin talent has averaged a team-high 1.11 rating, 1.22 Impact and 0.74 Kills per Round, dispelling doubts about his effectiveness at the highest level.
Just a year ago, Maden was playing for a top-200 team, and it is fair to say that he was a no-namer on the international stage. Today, he is a key player in a top-20 squad that participated in ESL Pro League S11 Europe and will take part in the ESL One: Road to Rio event next. How?
Maden registered his first HLTV appearance in August 2016, representing Montenegro in The World Championships European Qualifier after getting acquainted with Miloš "Gigi" Racković and Nikola "Lobanjica" Mijomanović, veteran players from his country. The latter recalls being frustrated with Maden's focus on solo plays, though he says that the youngster already "felt the game even with so little experience."
Maden began making a name for himself as a skilled player in the region but didn't particularly stand out from a number of similar youngsters who were grinding their way in PUG platforms and regional online competitions. Mario "Mariuchii" Grdović, who shared a team with Maden for a short period, admitted that there were more promising players around: "I would be lying if I said we all saw the potential. The truth is he was your typical talented youngster, even somewhat of a hothead at the time, which would sometimes affect his performance".
Lobanjica adds that while Maden didn't display toxic behavior, he would sometimes "tilt" if things went wrong. Mentality has always been an issue for players and teams from the Adria region, and the 30-year-old says that the older players are the ones to blame for it. "That kind of behavior is something he saw from me and Gigi," he says. "As a young player, you see us doing it and then, of course, you do that to the next guy you play with". This created negative habits which Maden later had to overcome in order to reach the next level. "I was tilting a lot when I was younger," Maden admits. "I said to myself that if I wanted to make something out of CS, I had to start thinking positively and work on fixing my attitude."
Looking at it from the outside, between 2016 and the second half of 2018 there was nothing special about Maden's path. He jumped around from team to team every few months, like most players at the level he was at do, playing with different regional mixtures. With the competitive scenes in Montenegro and in the surrounding countries still struggling behind other minor regions, he was only able to attend a couple of local LANs per year, and despite his good individual showings, he didn't lift a single trophy.
Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač's Valiance dominated the region during that time and started making serious international strides in 2018, but even when they reached their plateau and looked for replacements (which ended up being Aleksa "Impulse" Stankić and Aleksandar "jayzaR" Zarkovic), Maden wasn't someone on their radar.
Read more: Valiance - A second chance for Serbian CS
The lack of success or big opportunities didn't dissuade Maden. Instead, his love for the game fueled him through the ups and downs. He quit university shortly after enrolling — "It was a really hard decision, my family wanted me to finish it before everything else" — and patiently worked on his craft, trying to learn from every teammate he had. "I never thought of quitting the game, I was playing every day just to get better," he says. "I played a lot of PUGs, watched demos, watched live games and spent a lot of time improving on every aspect of the game". Quietly, Maden was building the foundations for what was to come.
He finally found some stability playing under Mladen "juricM" Jurić in UltiCoin, which the Montenegrin notes as his "first real team", before joining Akopalipsa (BLUEJAYS) —initially led by Petar "HOLMES" Dimitrijević before Nemanja "sarenii" Šarenac took over the reins.
Even at the start of Akopalipsa, Maden wasn't the clear-cut star of the squad as Miloš "dEE" Marčeta and Dimitrije "DiMKE" Veljković were perhaps the bigger names in the lineup – a sentiment supported by sarenii. "At the start, Maden was a young, talented player like everyone else in the team, but I would say he was learning a bit faster than any of us and that made the difference," he says. Eventually, that started reflecting on Maden's stats as well, as he averaged a 1.12 rating over the first half of the year, significantly higher than that of his teammates.
Akopalipsa started grinding online cups and open qualifiers in 2019, and without any organizational backing or direct help from the more experienced players in the region, such as the iNation core, climbed from the 181st spot in the world to 84th within a few months, making it the first time that two Adria-based squads had ever been in the top 100 in the rankings.
One year ago, Maden was in Split, Croatia, putting in a tournament-high 1.37 rating to help Akopalipsa to win the $4,500 CSadria Championship Season 3. To understand how he earned his breakthrough just five months later you have to realise how a bit of luck can turn things one's way.
"It's actually a little stupid how we decided to pick him up", Kevin "kRYSTAL" Amend, the in-game leader of GODSENT explains. "We were playing a lot against him in open qualifiers and he just always destroyed us. More than once he had 30 or even 40 kills in close matches". So when the team parted ways with Thomas "Thomas" Utting and signed with SMASH in September, they decided to give Maden a chance.
Here is someone who had no international team experience, suddenly playing in a multi-cultural lineup alongside veterans. kRYSTAL had reached two Major playoffs, Mikail "Maikelele" Bill had competed for NIP and been one round away from winning the DreamHack Winter 2014 Major, Jesse "zehN" Linjala had enjoyed a memorable Major run with PENTA, and Martin "STYKO" Styk had only recently been a part of a top-five mousesports side. Despite the massive experience gap between him and his teammates, Maden had no problems slotting in and continuing his upward trajectory, playing as if he had never left the comfortable atmosphere of a Serbian lineup.
"He handled it pretty well in my opinion," kRYSTAL says. "He has strong opinions and voices them a lot; however, he is never doing it in a disrespectful way". The German in-game leader adds that the team had to make some adaptations early on as they tried to figure out how to use Maden in the most efficient way. "Sometimes he was too aggressive, so we tried to make him more of a trade fragger at certain points within a game. Apart from that, there wasn't much of an issue - he was the perfect fit for our team".
Maden had the joint-highest rating in the team as they won their first online competition together, LOOT.BET Season 4, and he did even better at his debut LAN for the squad, putting up a tournament-high 1.28 rating in the title-winning run at the WePlay! Forge of Masters Season 2 Finals, in November. At the start of 2020, GODSENT managed a semi-final run at the ICE Challenge event, where their demise was losing two BO3s to the eventual runners-up, Natus Vincere. Maden once again led the charge for his team as he averaged a 1.20 rating, raising eyebrows in the Dust2 victory against Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov's side with a 1.84 rating.
Maden mentioned the WePlay! victory as his proudest moment yet: "I felt great after it. I couldn't believe that I was going to win my first international tournament and be the best-rated player". Securing a Europe Minor spot over OG comes in as a close second, he adds.
When asked how Maden had become so good, so fast, kRYSTAL retorts: "I wouldn't say he became good, he just is good", noting that the 21-year-old has never seemed nervous in the server and constantly brings ideas outside of the game. For his part, Maden thinks he still needs more experience to continue his development as a player. "I think I am not even close to my peak form yet, I think I can be much better than I am right now", he says confidently. "I don't have personal goals. Of course, I would like to get into the top 20 HLTV players this year, but I don't think about it as much, I'm just working on myself, [making sure] that we as a team do well". His mind is set on playing as many tier-one tournaments and qualifying for the ESL One Rio Major with GODSENT.
When looking at a player's breakout, we often like to search for key moments, point out mentors, or highlight tournament wins that have "unlocked" a new level in a player, kickstarting his career. But Maden didn't really have any of that, which proves what, deep down, we all knew all along - it all comes down to hard work.
A player from Montenegro, a country with no achievements in Counter-Strike, has made it to the top-level through sheer dedication and drive. He went all-in, sacrificed everything, never gave up, and after countless failures got one lucky break - which he has taken advantage of. Will Maden become the next superstar? Most likely not. But the Montenegrin surely has room to grow and, if he continues on the right path, a bright future lies ahead.