YEKINDAR: "I'm living a dream life, but that doesn't mean that I should be chilling. I still need to grind and there is a lot that I can achieve"
The Latvian rifler who burst onto the scene in style spoke about his development through FPL and CIS teams and explained how he helped Virtus.pro gain momentum before the end of 2020.
Year after year, Counter-Strike at its highest level has become a more calculated discipline, where safe moves and punishing your opponents' mistakes are favoured over all-out, risky maneuvers. When players who break that meta find their way into the top tier, they are quick to gain a cult-like following among hardcore fans of the game. The latest one to do that is Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis, a 21-year-old Latvian who, quite literally, rolled his way onto the professional scene.
"OK, we need an idiot like him", CIS veteran Dmitry "hooch" Bogdanov said after watching a clip of YEKINDAR entering the stage at his first LAN, the regional Game On III Finals in Vilnius, Lithuania, in September 2017. His forward roll into an energetic celebration caught the eye of the then in-game leader of EPG, who saw in YEKINDAR exactly what is needed from an aggressive playmaker, a role he still plays to this day.
Seventeen years old at the time, YEKINDAR played Game On III under Wolsung, a well-known tag in Latvia, months after making his HLTV.org debut with that lineup. Counter-Strike has been a part of YEKINDAR's life since an early age, but he notes that "it was in 2015 or 2016" that he started to take the game as something more than a fun pastime. In October 2017, exactly on his 18th birthday, YEKINDAR was asked to sign a professional contract with EPG, leaving the Baltic region behind and joining a CIS squad.
"It was a bit hard to adapt," YEKINDAR says about parting ways with a free-flowing team, where he was beginning to grasp team-based play, and joining a project led by veteran hooch, who has been competing in Counter-Strike since 2003. "You can't fully commit to your decisions because you know that you have your team and your agreements, you can't go out solo somewhere without any purpose. "Wolsung was maybe top 100, and EPG was at that time top 50, top 60. Additionally, with more experienced players it was hard to adapt to communication and information".
The language barrier wasn't an issue, though, as YEKINDAR's family is fluent in Russian. "Their Latvian is worse than their Russian", he remarks. He brushed up on Russian additionally by playing CIS-based pick-up game leagues on FACEIT, where he developed as a player and eventually got noticed by his future EPG teammates.
"I remember I was playing kind of average or even poorly at the start [of EPG], but once I started getting comfortable with the information, with the plays, and with my teammates as well, it was really cool," YEKINDAR explains. He spent eight months on the team, averaging a 1.13 rating as they climbed the rankings to peak at No. 33 in March 2018. But a second failed Minor qualifier sparked a change.
"After we didn't qualify for the London Minor with EPG, I said that I was not sure if I wanted to play," YEKINDAR says. "I lost some motivation at that point because it was the second time that we didn't qualify for the Minor, even though we were pretty good. Everyone considered that we should be the ones qualifying".
YEKINDAR ended up still playing the Minor as former teammate Aleksei "NickelBack" Trofimov called him up to stand in for Monolith, who were a player down due to visa issues. The team went out last following defeats to AVANGAR and Spirit, but at the venue, he was approached by FORZE's management, who were interested in trialing him. "I started playing with them, we won an online tournament and it was all good, but I decided not to sign the contract", YEKINDAR says.
The second part of 2018 is what the youngster described as a very "hard period in time". For the first time, he was faced with making decisions that would shape his career going forward. "I had many possibilities, not the best ones, but it was difficult to choose out of forZe and pro100, and I was also trying out for European teams, like Vexed," he says. "A lot of teams wanted me, but it was difficult to choose.
"If we compare EPG, forZe, and pro100, forZe was a lot better at that point, but we didn’t come to an agreement regarding the contract, so I didn't go there. pro100 was my second option and EPG was the third. pro100 had a bit of a different game to EPG and forZe, and at that point, I saw their players as more individually skilled than those in EPG. At one point I still didn't want to sign, but after we qualified for Toyota Masters Bangkok 2018, I started to actually believe in the team and signed."
It took a year of middling results and numerous roster changes before the pro100 team found some success. It was with the lineup featuring Vadim "Flarich" Karetin, probably the best-known Latvian player at the time, and former FlipSid3 duo Jan "wayLander" Rahkonen and Georgi "WorldEdit" Yaskin that YEKINDAR managed to climb back into the top50 in the second half of 2019. HellRaisers soon swooped in for Flarich, forcing another change, but things ended up working well for YEKINDAR. With the main star leaving, he stepped into the spotlight and had his breakout performances at the end of the year, pushing pro100 to two LAN victories with an average rating of 1.39 at DreamHack Delhi Invitational and Qi Banja Luka 2019.
"Those two were my best tournaments because before that I had actually started grinding FPL," he explains. "I believe FPL helped me a lot at that time". YEKINDAR also mentioned the positive influence of pro100 founder Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko, who spent time with the team during bootcamps after retiring from competitive play.
Despite LAN success at events that featured the likes of Copenhagen Flames, Arcy, and HellRaisers, YEKINDAR wasn't all too satisfied, showing how high his bar was set: "I felt good at these events, but the team level wasn't that high, it wasn't something I could be proud of, I believe."
Heading into 2020, YEKINDAR was formed as a player and ready for the next step. Looking at the pillars of his development, it seems that his two mentors — hooch and Zeus — played a crucial role, as did hardening in the FACEIT Pro League.
"Both of them [hooch and Zeus] helped me, but at different times," YEKINDAR reminisces. "hooch was always supporting me, he heavily believed in me, he was always giving me confidence, trying to improve my game. hooch and I are really good friends, he is like a father figure to me. Whenever we are in the same city, we always meet up. He was helping me with my individual problems and even out-of-game problems. That felt like family.
"With Zeus, it was a bit different, at the start of pro100 he couldn't commit to the project fully because he was still in NAVI. After he left the team, we talked a lot more and became more like friends, because he had a lot of time to actually come to the bootcamp and support us. He was trying to figure out the team problems with us and give up different small life hack that we could use. He was more of a coach and a friend kind of a thing, and hooch was more of a father figure."
We talked to hooch to hear why he pushed YEKINDAR into becoming a playmaker as early as 2017. "He has crisp aim and confidence in what he's doing," the Russian said. "And also, his character is suited for an aggressive player who makes ballsy moves. It would be a mistake to make him a passive player."
YEKINDAR's character shines through in conversation, making it easy to see what hooch is talking about. Energetic, confident, and with a black belt in taekwondo, he is playing a role that suits him perfectly.
Rookies with minimal team experience taking the FPL route to get into top teams isn't uncommon by now, but YEKINDAR's approach was a bit different to that of fellow Baltic players Robin "ropz" Kool or Aurimas "Bymas" Pipiras. The Latvian only managed to qualify for the elite pick-up game competition after playing professionally for two years, but he used the platform to sharpen his skills. The style of play in FPL suited his approach to the game, with a lot of chances to make plays and take aim duels across the map.
"In EPG I already had a lot of roles that actually require you to be super aggressive and do the weirdest things ever, I had a lot of individual roles where it all depended on my form and the plays I make," YEKINDAR says, before explaining that he continued with a similar role in pro100.
"From that, I moved to FPL... I like FPL. In FPL you play against individually really good players and the most important thing for me at that point was to just outplay them in 1v1s, do solo plays, do things that I would do in my team. I was just practicing the playstyle that I had since EPG. This super aggressive, individual style. In FPL I just polished it because a lot of better players are playing there. At least at that time, now a lot of good players are not playing anymore, which is kind of sad."
While FPL was a great practice ground, playing with the world's best and most accomplished players wasn't always smooth sailing. YEKINDAR admits that there was an adjustment period needed when he started playing with Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, and co.
"When you don't know the personalities of the players you don't know... if you say something wrong maybe they will get mad at you and you just ruin your relationship with him — when in the future, it could be a good one," he explains. "I couldn't say everything I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do because I felt like FPL is something that I need to hold on to. I didn't want to leave a bad impression or something like that.
"But once I felt that people were comfortable playing with me and that they believed I was a good player, allowing me more space in the server, I felt like, 'OK, I'm going to play how I play'. tabseN was the one that helped me gain confidence, he always said good things about me, like, 'Don't worry, you are really good, you have a bright future ahead of you'. tabseN is the main reason why I played FPL and wasn't afraid of making some mistakes and all that stuff. He was a great figure to have in FPL."
After he gained confidence in himself and his plays, YEKINDAR ended up in a situation he was initially scared of, involving none other than s1mple. "The point is that everybody is memeing this in CIS, everybody is asking, 'Do you know how to play against a force-buy?'", YEKINDAR starts to tell the story, immediately bursting into laughter. "Everybody comes to my stream and asks that, it is already getting old". He continues in a playful tone, showing no negative emotions tied to the situation.
The drama was sparked after YEKINDAR's reckless play against an eco cost his team the round, and eventually the game in FPL. s1mple was on his team for the match, and according to the Latvian, he wasn't happy about the situation. "After that, s1mple said on his stream, 'Zeus, can you please teach your players how to play against an eco?'. He was fully serious." YEKINDAR pauses for another laugh. "It was hyped up and everybody was trolling me, even Zeus was taking that hype and hyping it even more with a video answer to s1mple. It was funny as hell."
While YEKINDAR finds the situation funny now, the way he dealt with it showed maturity as he owned up to his mistake and took it as a lesson. "That was a stepping stone for me because I wasn't bothered by s1mple's opinion," he notes. "I cared more about the criticism than about the way that he said it. So I just tried to get the best out of it and not think about the worst parts that happened.
"For me, it was a good mental thing, to improve as a person and as a player."
In a recent interview, Dzhami "Jame" Ali revealed that "at the time, YEKINDAR won an FPL season and beat us in ESL One: Road to Rio, so everything pointed to the fact that we needed to sign him". His arrival wasn't the quick fix the StarLadder Berlin Major finalists were hoping for, though, as they dropped out of the top 30 before finding their way back. Initially, YEKINDAR was partnered with Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev, which caused issues as both players like to take initiative, but things clicked after Timur "buster" Tulepov's return in August.
"We spent one and a half months trying hard, practicing and getting our map pool done, improving all the time, fixing all the mistakes," YEKINDAR says. "We were playing so much CS, and I knew that after buster came back, I needed to be in good form so I played a lot of FPL as well at that time. We were basically living CS at that point." An intense period of practice yielded results as Virtus.pro went on a 20-series win streak and were triumphant in ESL One New York CIS, beating Natus Vincere twice.
The victory in the CIS Regional Major Ranking (RMR) tournament gave the team more confidence, but YEKINDAR stresses that they never stopped practicing and improving: "After every official game, after every practice game, we always analyzed our mistakes, analyzed everything that we had done wrong, looked at what we had done great. Even after Flashpoint, we won the final and instantly went on Discord and rewatched the game, rewatched all of the mistakes, got rid of those and played the next tournament."
The Flashpoint 2 tournament win made Virtus.pro the team with the second-most prize money won in 2020 and cemented their status as an elite side. Still, YEKINDAR wasn't too satisfied on a personal level.
"Ah... I'm more proud of my team than of myself," he says. "I didn't play as well as I could have. For me it was more of an adaptation process, playing against teams with a higher ceiling." YEKINDAR averaged a 1.06 rating in the playoffs as Virtus.pro took down MAD Lions, fnatic, BIG, and OG en route to the title. "It was a test for me regarding what works and what doesn't, what I need to change and how I need to improve individually.
"But I'm happy as a team that everything worked out really well because we were practicing a lot. We won the tournament, yes, but it is not that big of a deal for me. It is just like, 'OK, we won this, we need to continue with this pace and focus on the next tournaments'. Grind, grind, grind, and play more."
The Latvian shows incredible drive and high expectations when asked about where the bar is set after Virtus.pro climbed to the 10th place in the ranking in December, his first time breaking the top-10 barrier: "At this period of time, there is no bar. If we weren't in quarantine, in this pandemic time, you could set a bar like winning two Majors in a row or something, but in this period everybody is always improving, always competing against each other.
"There is a lot of tournaments, and I think it would be good to be in the top 5 in the next five or six months. That would be really good in my perspective, but it all depends. I just want to play and win."
Observing a player climb through the ranks can be a mesmerizing experience. Just a year ago, YEKINDAR was playing small LANs in India and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Now, he is a standout player in a Virtus.pro team that won the last two events in which they competed. The 21-year-old averaged a 1.17 rating in the last six months of the year, with a 33.5% opening kill attempt rate and a 1.24 opening kill rating. What are the key differences between 2019's YEKINDAR and the one we saw this year?
"I believe there are a couple of things that changed," he says. "After winning those two tournaments [with pro100], I actually got a lot of motivation, and especially after Zeus told me I was probably going to get an offer from Virtus.pro, I had amazing motivation and drive to play. That helped me play a lot of games, FPL, practice, officials, whatever. When you are playing a lot of games, you are always going to improve as a player."
Additionally, playing alongside Virtus.pro's members and facing a higher tier of opposition has boosted his development. YEKINDAR praised the team for its healthy atmosphere — "we can all criticise each other, in a good way" —, and described his in-game leader, Jame, as a mentor. "Jame is focusing a lot on the team overall, of course, but he always helps me a lot with some small things, different mistakes. He has his own opinion on some of my plays because I can be really stubborn sometimes, I can do some things in the server that maybe aren't the best, but Jame as a person is really cool-headed. He always understands what is best for the team, what you need to do as a player, and he always gives me advice. He has improved me a lot as a player."
YEKINDAR's meteoric rise in 2020 was built on hard work, long practice days, and a plethora of official matches followed by a series of FPL games at night. He is aware that keeping the motivation he got after shining on LAN at the end of 2019 and joining an established team like Virtus.pro will be key to grow from an exciting youngster into an elite player.
"The main thing I need to fight against is losing the motivation that I have now," he says. "The second thing [that I need to be wary of] is developing an ego, you know? I need to understand that I'm living a dream life. I dreamed about this before, but that doesn't mean that I should be chilling. I still need to grind and there is still a lot that I can still achieve. I just need to understand that in the future."