Kjaerbye on time as a free agent: "It was a big relief to see that there are teams that believe I still haven't peaked yet"
Kjaerbye closed a big chapter in his career in July when he and North parted ways after more than two years together, and opened another when he inked a deal with FaZe after three months on the sidelines, two of which due to medical reasons.
The 22-year-old played his first official match since returning to action in FaZe's 2-0 defeat to Heroic in ESL One Cologne, and the team will now have to face MIBR in a do-or-die series later on Friday in the lower bracket.
In the interview, Kjaerbye reminisces about his last period in North and talks about having to take a break to recover from stress-related ailments, as well as his time as a free agent, his newfound motivation to compete with FaZe and his first impressions after joining the European team.
The last time we spoke was last December, right after you lifted the DreamHack Open Sevilla trophy with North. You said at the time that you were happy in the organization and wanted to renew your contract, which you did in January. What happened after that?
I have to go back a few months before Sevilla because I feel that up until the Major, when valde was the in-game leader, we were going in the right direction. I was feeling pretty happy, even though the results we were getting didn't live up to our expectations or the organization’s. North wants to be a world-class team and that was what we were all working on. I thought we were going in the right direction, but valde left to join OG and gade became the in-game leader. We won in Sevilla with him, but a few months before the interview we did there I was struggling a lot. I was finally playing better and I was feeling like we were progressing, which made me happy, but despite that I was still conflicted because I was far from where I wanted to be.
The highlight of the year was the Berlin Major, but it still wasn't that good of a result. I had a good tournament so it made me want to stay and keep working, but when we found out after the break that valde didn't want to call anymore, things started to get extremely weird. We tried to rebuild by bringing in cajunb and gade started to lead, but it was a bit of a mess.
It's always nice to end the season with a tournament win and when you caught me after the victory I was obviously happy. After that I ended up extending my contract. It’s not something I regret, I was happy in North, but I had a lot of stress during my time there, working for two years and not living up to my own expectations, things not working out for whatever reason... so it was really stressful, but I got used to the stress and it just became a part of my day-to-day life.
Slowly the stress started to affect me physically. I had been going to different treatments to stay in a decent shape to fight it, but when the coronavirus hit and we started to play even more—and we really played a lot—, I just felt like my body was telling me that I couldn't keep doing this. I was even blacking out, I lost my sight while driving my car after an official match and I had to stop, wondering what was going on. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I had experienced some pain at times, like pain in my back and stuff like that, but never something like blacking out or having breathing problems, so at that point I realized there was no way I could keep it up.
We didn't have substitutes, so there was that extra pressure. I tried to play a bit from home and talked to our mental coach, Christian Engell, but in some way it was all still really hard. Then the team had to play with the coach and that was also very stressful because you see them struggle while you’re gone. North was really good at understanding that health comes first and I really respect that, but in the back of my mind I was just thinking that I had to recover fast and beat the stress to go back and help the team. It was tough for both parties, not knowing when I'd be ready to come back and all of the uncertainty regarding my health issues.
When you decided to take some time off, were you already thinking about perhaps leaving the organization or were you focused solely on getting better?
When I stepped aside, the only question I had was, 'When will I be ready to play with North again?'. That was the plan until some things happened within the organization. They needed to know their future, I couldn't tell them when I'd be ready to go back, and we had to figure out a solution. Our vacations in the past had only been three weeks, shorter than the official player break. Sure, three weeks is nice, but after a long and intense season it's not always enough and you end up stressing about the fact that you need to relax during those weeks [laughs], that's just how this business is, so it was the first time I could really listen to my body and truly take some time off.
After a few months I felt like I was ready to go back, and the initial idea was to rejoin North, but it didn't fit into their plan. For me it worked out fine as well, I'm trying something new now, and I think that at some point they also realized they wanted to rebuild as I'd been there for years. It was a good breakup. I said goodbye to the organization and my teammates, all of whom I really like. It was just a weird time with all of the coronavirus-related stuff going on, but I can say with an honest heart that when I was sick the plan was to return with North.
At what point did you realize that it was the end of the road with North and what did you think would lie ahead?
My plan was to get back into it slowly after the player break, and I thought it was mutual, so we had a follow-up meeting to see how I was progressing and to make sure that I was working on my health, doing my meditation and learning these kinds of things, which I was, and we spoke about it. Teamwise and financially, they needed to know about their future, and I can't get deeper into it than that, but it made it hard to keep going forward together.
All things considered, I had a good time and learned a lot about myself. Even after the bad times I still feel hungry and even though the stress has been hard on me I'm happy that it didn't end my career or anything like that, which could have happened. It was also just a result of me wanting things too badly and investing so much into it that at some point I couldn't keep up.
You had a month or so as a free agent. Tell me a bit about how the negotiations went with FaZe. Had you thought of going international?
My biggest concern was wondering what teams would want to play with me. I didn't know what would happen to me once I hit the free-agent market, I literally had no idea, so I was happy to see there were a few teams interested in me, that there are teams that believe I still haven't peaked yet and that believe in my talent. That was a big relief for me, to be honest. NiKo wrote to me asking if I'd like to play with them, that they were on vacation but he would talk to the guys. I told him I'd think about it, that I thought they're a great team and everything, but I wasn't ready to go back to playing just yet. This was back in July.
NiKo contacted me again three or four weeks later, at the beginning of August, just as I was about to go on vacation. By then I felt ready, I’d had some talks with my family and my girlfriend and I came to the conclusion that I had never felt so unstressed. When you reach that point and you're feeling good you wonder if taking any more time off is helpful or actually damaging. I was a bit nervous but also happy when they contacted me again. They asked if I'd perhaps not go on vacation to start practicing, but at that point I was almost on my way to the airport so I told them that I really needed the time off and that we would train hard when I got back. During my vacation I felt that I made the right decision. I was so excited to go back, meet up with the new teammates and get started—like a little kid just wanting to go back home and play on the computer. I was really happy to feel that excitement inside of me.
How about the first contact on the server? The first practices, some of the discussions about roles, etc.
We had six days of practice before ESL One Cologne. I talked to NiKo about roles a bit while I was on vacation, but I basically just said that I could do anything. I started my career as an entry-fragger, and back in Astralis I was afraid that it was all I could do. I doubted if I'd be able to become a lurker, but then I just did it and ended up being really good at it.
So I told NiKo I could be an entry-fragger or lurker. On the CT side I've been playing as a rotator, taking initiatives, but there are so many insane, experienced players on this team that I agreed to become an anchor. I want to become a great anchor player and learn that aspect of the game as well because it's one of the few roles I haven't played or mastered yet, and that's also really exciting for me.
FaZe were looking at in-game leaders as an option when they were shopping around for a fifth player. What's the leadership like in the team?
We're just focused on getting the basics down right now. During these six days we didn't have time to build an empire, so we're just focused on basic CS. I have a clear view that NiKo is not only really skilled but also really clever, so he's good at reading the opponents. At the same time, he gives players a lot of room to help him out or to go make plays, and YNk is very supportive of that as well. There’s the idea that to win a game you have to be ballsy and take the duels without overthinking things. Sure, we lost to a strong Heroic, who are in great shape, but we can't give up after one loss. We're disappointed, but we’re just getting started.
Did Heroic take you by surprise at all?
We knew they were coming in hot, so we didn't underestimate them, but we haven't played that much yet, so we're just trying to stay positive and take it round by round. We don't have a big enough playbook yet, so my hope for this event is that we can win a few games and progress through the tournament. We didn't need a huge victory against Heroic, but we did hope to get a win to at least get to go through in the upper bracket. They just read us very well, it felt like we were running into a wall at times. So yeah, we have to give them props, but it's still the early days and they'll have to keep showing this form for a longer time, maybe even offline as well.
Yeah, of course, it's all within the context of the coronavirus situation that we’re in...
Yeah, you can't use the fact that it's online as an excuse anymore because we know it's going to keep being like this. It's good for new players to be able to figure it all out from home and get to shine, so we just have to adapt to the situation.
There's this mindset that online CS isn't as important as LAN CS, but when all we have is online CS it can be hard for people to shift their mindset back to thinking that whatever CS we can get now is the most important...
After this player break, everyone knows that online CS is all we have, so it's the most important thing. Sure, you can still make excuses and have your doubts about whether some players would still make the same plays with a crowd or under pressure, but at the end of the day that doesn't change the result.
Have you noticed yourself changing your playstyle to go with the times?
I feel pretty good despite having played only six days. I hadn't played for three months, so even though we lost I was just really happy to be on the server. It felt good to play an official match again, win or lose. But yeah, I think I need to become more reliable, I'm an aggressive player but I need to be patient and not over-rotate since I'm becoming an anchor player now. Also getting used to communicating in English, it's not rocket science or anything, but sometimes when everything is happening very fast you can miss out on some things. Getting used to different accents can also be pretty funny [laughs].
What's most important for me is to find some structure in my life because my goal is to be more consistent. I need the team to be able to count on me and I think that's how we'll become good. We have some of the best players in the world so at the end of the day if I can help out and support them while being consistent on an individual level, I think that's what the team needs from me.
Regarding ESL One Cologne, did you talk about the team's expectations? Did you have any team discussions?
It's not like we had a big discussion, but we're aware some teams had more time to practice, although that's no excuse to go out in last place. We also talked about having to do better against MIBR. We're really looking forward to that game. It's not easy being in the lower bracket this soon, but we're playing against coldzera's old team so it's going to be a lot of fun, I know him pretty well already and I know he's going to be really hyped and ready to play. That's going to be fun and I hope we can benefit from it. I think we’ll be the better team.
What are you trying to get out of moving to FaZe on a personal level? What's the step you're trying to take now?
When I was out as a free agent I had the feeling that I wanted to try and go international. I'm a pretty impulsive guy and also kind of adventurous in a way, so I sold my apartment in Denmark and if it makes sense I'll move closer to some of the other guys. I wasn't shy about going to North America, either. I love Denmark, but I have an urge to get out and try to live. I'm not sure where I'll be moving to, but I don't think I'll stay in Denmark this next year.
It sounds so silly to say that I want to go all-in, or the Michael Jordan way of 'winning at all costs' kind of thing because at the end of the day I can sit here and say all of my thoughts, but people are always going to cast their verdict or base their opinion on how you do and how you act and not what you say.
The interesting part is more the actions and the process than the words...
When I really realized that I made the right decision and was one hundred percent ready to train hard and play hard was during my vacation. If I hadn't gone on vacation maybe we would have had a few more practice days, but I wouldn't 'feel it'. One thing is what you think and want to achieve, and another is what your heart tells you. You have to feel it in your body. You get some kind of lust, I believe.
I remember I had a talk with the Astralis guys back in 2016 or 2017 and I said it would be fun to go live in Los Angeles one day and try to play in North America. Of course all of them had girlfriends and were like, 'I don't think we want to do that'. I was actually a tiny bit discouraged by that because the world is open and I like to think that nothing is impossible.
It's not my main motivation to prove people wrong, I play because I love the game and first and foremost I want to show to myself that I can play at the highest level, but by proving it to myself there's this little extra on the side to also show it to the people that counted me out or think I'm lazy.
While you were on vacation you noticed that you really wanted to come back and play. How will you be able to make this excitement last through the ups and downs?
That's what I mean when I talk about it coming from the heart. When I joined North, my goal was to win with the team, but at the same time I was out there saying I wanted to be one of the best players in the world, and then you get kind of lost. The difference is that when it comes from the heart and it's something you really want to achieve, motivation comes by itself.
You can't force motivation, but you can do things to keep it up. For example, as I said, I'm impulsive, so I don’t like to plan my days, but I know from experience that I at least need to have a steady sleeping schedule. It's hard being impulsive and then having all of the obligations to live up to, but that's just life no matter what, right? [laughs]
So it's about finding the balance. You have the day-to-day obligations but then also leave room for selling your house and moving to a new country. Do you think FaZe is a good fit in this sense? Do you think this team perhaps shares more of these traits with you than some of your past Danish teams?
I've only been here for six days but I can already feel that I'm really benefiting... In North there was this Danish mentality that you talk things through for a long time without really reaching a conclusion. In Denmark, at least, when you have a problem it takes too long to get to the point and ultimately it's wasted time. It's hard for me to answer, but I do think we're a good match when it comes to mentalities, we just have to find each other on the server and find our style. We haven't really done that yet.