Who is saffee, paiN's late bloomer?
The 26-year-old talks about his rapid rise to the upper echelons of the Brazilian scene as his team, paiN, are about to compete in DreamHack Open January.
Rafael "saffee" Costa's first experience with competitive Counter-Strike dates back to 2011, when he attended some Brazilian CS 1.6 events. The 26-year-old, however, quickly had to put esports aside to focus on his education as he wanted to become an engineer. It wasn't until March 2018, when he saw TeamOne eliminate the Major-winning lineup of Cloud9 at the WESG 2017 World Finals and grab an unlikely fourth place at the $1.5 million tournament, that he began thinking about picking up the game again.
Later that year, with help from his father and brother, he bought a PC and made a pledge to become a pro within a year. "I was studying and playing football for a college in the United States, but Counter-Strike appeared in my life again, and my passion for the game prevailed," saffee said. His goal wasn’t easy by any means, especially because he had played CS:GO just once in all those years, in a Zombie mod server in 2014.
He left everything behind to focus on the game and started playing in FACEIT hubs. In three months, he eventually qualified for FPL-C, in which he got to play with up-and-coming North American players, and was signed by New England Whalers in April 2019, representing that organisation until the end of the year. After some middling results, he returned to his homeland to play for Paquetá, an esports organization created by football star Lucas Paquetá, who currently plays for Lyon.
saffee had always been a natural rifler since his CS 1.6 days, but he became an AWPer on Paquetá. His numbers immediately exploded as he averaged a 1.27 rating in the first months of 2020 to draw the attention of paiN. The giant Brazilian organisation wanted to send their team to compete in the United States and were in need of a new sniper because Paulo "land1n" Felipe couldn't secure a U.S. visa.
Although many would say that saffee is mechanically gifted because of his meteoric rise, he assured that it's the result of his hard work. "I know I’m still a rookie and I have so much to learn," he said. "When I started playing again, I knew because of my age that I had to dedicate 100 per cent as there were younger people with more experience than me.
"I think the amount of time I have dedicated and the will to learn the game as quickly as possible made me get here. Nothing has come easy for me."
Brazil has produced some of the most aggressive AWPers in the scene such as Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and Vito "kNgV-" Giuseppe, but saffee looked at international players when he started playing with the AWP, modelling his playstyle after Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, a sniper who constantly creates space for his team, which is a characteristic that you can also see in the Brazilian’s repertoire.
"saffee’s strength is definitely his aggressiveness, even though we’re used to playing with him, sometimes he still surprises us with some of his aggressive plays," paiN captain Vinicios "PKL" Coelho said. "One thing he can improve is to know when he should play aggressively and when he should play cautiously, which is the hardest thing for an AWPer.
"saffee is the AWPer with the most potential that I have ever played with, for sure. He became a sniper just some time ago and has been improving quite fast. I’m sure that he’ll be among the best and most famous AWPers soon."
paiN won ESEA Open Season 35 in December, just three months after moving to Last Vegas, to earn a spot in the Advanced division. Last week, the team qualified for the $30,000 DreamHack Open January North America, which will be their biggest tournament on U.S. soil. to date. saffee, who has averaged a 1.31 rating since paiN landed in North America, believes that the level of MDL teams is "very similar" to what he was used to in Brazil. He is confident that he will keep playing well once the team qualify for bigger tournaments and start facing better teams.
"If the team are doing well, I think my numbers will be great," he said. "Of course, we have much to improve as a team, but everyone is eager to do it and to start facing the tier-one teams. I’ll never be afraid of anyone. We’ll play to win, regardless of the opponent. paiN is a big organization and we’re working harder to be prepared when the time comes."
The Brazilian scene recently went through a major shuffle at the top, with new teams emerging and some established sides making minor adjustments. If saffee keeps putting up great numbers, it's only a matter of time before a bigger team comes knocking, but saffee is focused on helping paiN achieve their goals in 2021.
"I want to keep playing my game and I want to help paiN qualify for bigger tournaments," he said. "Everybody in the team is making sacrifices, we left our country to pursue a dream and I believe we have what it takes to compete against the best in North America."