The making of junior: How NA's young star caught FURIA's eye
We explored the North American AWPer's rapid rise to the top and his journey to joining FURIA.
In a year when several organisations withdrew from North American Counter-Strike, Triumph shone as a bastion of hope for the region. Housing one of the hottest prospects at the start of 2020 in Michael "Grim" Wince, an up-and-coming AWPer, Paytyn "junior" Johnson, and one of the few remaining in-game leaders in the region in the form of Alan "Shakezullah" Hardeman, the team showed promise as they proved a worthy adversary against domestic competition,
Not if junior had anything to say.
The 20-year-old's trajectory to the top has been a steep one, driven by his dedication to the craft, desire to improve, and ability to hone in on what it takes to achieve his goals. It's a rise that junior credits Shakezullah and Grim for, but one that would not have been possible without a high level of commitment. Here, we take a look at that rapid rise to the top and the player's approach to the game ahead of his impending debut FURIA.
junior discovered CS:GO in 2015 when he was introduced to the game by a friend, initially playing matchmaking before joining ESEA one year later, when he began to develop an interest in team-based gameplay. Four years of grinding through each of the different ESEA league divisions, playing alongside in-game leader Alex "vek" Voynov, helped junior get a sense of how the game was meant to be played, although he struggled throughout his early efforts as the old laptop he played his matches on held him back.
"It took me a while to move up in the scene, I always played on 90 FPS and had really bad internet so I couldn't fully showcase what I had," junior explained to HLTV.org.
The AWP role was one that immediately drew junior’s attention as the sniper was his weapon of choice when he played Call of Duty, with CS:GO’s AWP offering a playstyle that suited his interests.
"I love the movement with it and for me, it's more fun to use an AWP, it allows for more play potential and can bail you out of situations," junior said. Indeed, it was the lack of AWP usage in his inaugural MDL appearance that made junior disregard that season, stating that he didn’t count his time on Divine as real MDL experience as he was rifling at the time, going on to add that "the team environment was very bad."
It was during this period, and the ensuing ESEA MDL Season 33 under Recon 5, that junior began to make an impression and his name was noticed. While averaging a 1.07 rating over 21 maps that season, junior put in hours on his own to improve at the game, taking part in ESEA Rank G, a PUG environment where he encountered Grim for the first time.
"I started playing Rank G just as something to do around late 2019,” Grim explained. "junior was in there and he would always impress me based on his decision-making and raw mechanical skill." When Triumph’s AWPer at the time, Logan "Voltage" Long, was bought out by Chaos, Grim proposed junior as a replacement to Shakezullah, stating it was a "no-brainer" based on the Rank G performances he had witnessed.
"I knew nothing about junior at the time aside from the fact that he was playing for Recon 5, so I trusted what Grim had to say and we picked him up on the spot,” Shakezullah recalled. “My first impressions of him were good. He would stay on the server for hours to perfect whatever we needed him to do in terms of learning how to throw difficult nade combos, or understand his role within the team better. I could tell that as long as he could keep up that fire, he would see significant improvement."
When asked about what fueled his desire for self-improvement, junior said: "Growing up, I played sports for all my life, so I was always working to improve myself. Once I put it in my mind that I wanted to go pro in CS, I would make myself have 100+ hours every 2 weeks in order to get where I wanted to go. If I have a bad series or map, I'm rewatching the match or I’m in deathmatch for the rest of the night. Different people have different ways of staying consistent - you see s1mple with 100+ hours every two weeks and other people with 30."
junior revealed that the NAVI star is a source of inspiration for him and admitted that he is excited to have the opportunity to compete against the Ukrainian. "If s1mple has 110 hours, I'll have 111,” he remarked. Then, when asked why he thinks this self-fueled drive to improve is lacking in North America, junior stated his belief that players in the second and third tiers in his region often show an unwillingness to "do the dirty work" that is required to improve as an individual and prefer to just play PUGs without ever rectifying their errors.
Specific credit from junior went towards Grim for further elevating that competitive spirit during their time together on Triumph. "Playing with Grim really helped me and pushed me even harder because we have the same work ethic and we would always grind deathmatch together," junior explained. "I didn't want to be outworked so he pushed me to improve to the best of my abilities."
Of course, Shakezullah's assistance also played a key factor in hastening junior’s development. "Shakezullah taught me the correct way to play CS," junior said. "I was always a pugger, had really good aim but could never master the other part of the game like rotations, supporting your teammates and mid-round situations. Shake taught me a lot of the little things of the game that make a big difference, I would constantly ask him if he sees anything I need to work on until it got to the point where he had nothing left for me."
Shakezullah concurred, voicing that he helped junior as much as he could while praising the AWPer’s work ethic and own desire to improve. "junior was really raw when he came to the team, Shakezullah recalled. "I believe most of the stuff we run now are plays or things I have shown him. He was a really good student in that he had a desire to learn, and then would put hours into perfecting what he had been shown, which was extremely strong. When I told him he needed to do something, he understood it, implemented it, and made improvements.
"Over time, we were able to build a repertoire of things for him to do on each map. He worked hard, practiced what he needed to, watched demos to learn on his own, and came to me with questions or to review his demos whenever he felt he was struggling. His initiative and willpower to improve are what really surged him forward. His aggression on CT and T sides was no different. It was something he knew he needed to learn. As time went on, he understood the limits of what he could do with certain spawns and mid-round positions. Once he got those down, his performance within the games really started to surge."
junior’s progress was clearly visible as he was thrust against top-level North American opposition early on into his time on Triumph, competing against top teams in ESL One: Road to Rio and BLAST Premier Spring Showdown. While he struggled making his debut against higher tier opposition in the former event, the latter saw him begin to make a mark as Triumph scored a win over Cloud9 and held 100 Thieves and Evil Geniuses to draws to make a playoff appearance.
Additionally, during Grim’s stellar series against MIBR in the cs_summit 6 Regional Qualifier, junior was a key contributing factor, posting a 1.29 rating over 110 rounds and playing a pivotal part on the final map, Mirage, despite the eventual series loss. However, after the departure of Grim to Liquid, junior’s individual performance took a dip, fluctuating as the roster underwent multiple changes following ensuing exits from other players. It was only recently that his form bounced back with a stabilized roster, with the 20-year-old guiding Triumph to a win over Liquid in the team's runner-up finish in IEM Beijing-Haidian North America towards the end of 2020.
It was only a few days after that performance that reports began to surface of FURIA setting their sights on junior to replace Henrique "HEN1" Teles. "I always played well versus FURIA and was always friendly with them in practice and matches, we would joke around with each other," junior explained when asked about being approached by the Brazilian team. "arT messaged me asking if I could talk, and he told me that they wanted to play with me and asked if I was interested. I’d always loved watching FURIA play and been a huge fan of them since they came here from Brazil. Some of my favorite players who I love watching are yuurih and KSCERATO, so it was basically a no-brainer for me to join them."
FURIA’s coach, Nicholas "guerri" Nogueira, explained to HLTV.org that the team intended to go international and communicate wholly in English, with the addition of junior being the springboard for that effort. He wasn’t naive regarding the difficulties in changing languages and the impact that such a move could have on the lineup.
"There are certainly times when communication becomes very chaotic, but we will put a lot of effort into improving it," guerri explained. "We will probably suffer in the beginning, but it is part of the evolution process to reach our goals." He also ruled out the idea of Andrei "arT" Piovezan returning to a main AWP role as "the team works better" with the in-game leader having more freedom of choice, and stated his belief that junior will have no problem to fit into the team’s style, a sentiment that Shakezullah agrees with.
"I think junior will be a phenomenal AWPer for FURIA," the Triumph in-game leader predicted. "They are a team that has a ton of passion, practice often, and have an amazing support structure with guerri as coach. He should fit into that team environment easily. The language barrier will be an issue at first, but I believe arT and VINI speak English almost fluently at this point, so the groundwork is there. Junior has every tool needed to be one of the best AWPers in the world, so as long as he continues putting in the same work and effort that he did here [on Triumph], he will succeed there. If FURIA needs him to adapt or improve in an area, he will do everything in his power to do so. FURIA should contest for one of the best teams in the world as long as things transition smoothly."
Although he’ll have a later start to his tenure on the team than he would have wished due to passport issues at the start of the year, junior is looking forward to making his first appearance for the Brazilian lineup. "Communication can get hectic," he said when asked about his first scrims with the team, while he was still in North America. "But that's just FURIA."