How HAVU have risen to new heights following ENCE's implosion
We spoke to some of the team's members to learn about the recent results and the quest to put Finnish Counter-Strike back on the map.
HAVU is not a new name in Counter-Strike. The Finnish organization has been involved in the game since 2017 and even broke into the top 30 that summer, with a lineup featuring Jere "sergej" Salo and Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen. The 2021 roster, however, is leaps and bounds ahead of that team or any other squad in the organisation's history.
To understand how HAVU managed to assemble a team capable of taking down top-15 squads from a seemingly barren Finnish scene, HLTV.org conducted interviews with players and head coach Taneli "disturbed" Veikkola ahead of the FunSpark ULTI 2020 Europe Finals, which kicks off today.
2020 was, without a doubt, far from an easy year for HAVU. When ESL trimmed down the number of teams participating in Pro League in January that year, HAVU were one of the highest-ranked sides left out in the cold, with nothing to show for their strong season in ESEA MDL. ESL's decision forced them to turn towards the recently-created Flashpoint 1, where they got a spot with some good fortune as SKADE missed the qualifier due to visa issues and BIG pulled out after beating the Finns to a place at the $1 million event.
The team was thrust into the spotlight with a third-place finish in Flashpoint, outclassing squads representing prestigious organizations such as Cloud9 and Gen.G. But little changed in the long run, the team's AWPer, Lasse "ZOREE" Uronen, remembers. "We were hoping to get some invites to more meaningful tournaments, but sadly no invites came our way after Flashpoint." HAVU fell from their peak ranking of No.22 in no time, and soon afterwards, Aaro "hoody" Peltokangas stepped down from the team to pursue a career in VALORANT. That opened up a slot for the addition of Sami "xseveN" Laasanen but caused a setback in terms of figuring out roles and establishing routines and teamplay.
The squad never fully clicked following the summer break, which made ENCE's swoop for rifler Joonas "doto" Forss and in-game leader Eetu "sAw" Saha in November a blessing in disguise, paving the way for a big rebuild. ZOREE admits that, at the time, he was slightly worried. "In the beginning, there was a bit of stress if we could get Aerial and jemi to complete the lineup, but after it was finalized everything was great. We were really optimistic about the future."
At a time when their domestic rivals ENCE were shifting to an international roster, HAVU renewed their commitment to supporting Finnish talent. Their plan was to bank on a new, unproven in-game leader, and two players who had been chewed up and spat out by the Enceladus.
HAVU's first challenge was deciding who would take over shot-calling duties following the departure of sAw, the team's tactical mastermind, to ENCE. sLowi, the longest-standing member in the squad, stepped up to the task: "I actually used to be an IGL before I joined iGame with sAw back in the day. Playing with sAw for over two years gave me some kind of an idea how to do it, but there is still so much to learn." With a new leader came a new style, which coach disturbed, a veteran of the Finnish scene, says is heavily dependent on great communication and reaction. "With our previous roster, we had much more set strats, which were way easier to counter. Nowadays, we've created a lot more open system in-game and have a lot of things and reactions in different situations - so it's a lot harder to counter."
The hardest part of being an IGL, sLowi says, is staying positive even when things aren't working out. "I sometimes run out of ideas, especially when we are losing. Thankfully, xseveN and Aerial are constantly giving me new ones and also helping with the mid-round calling."
xseveN and Jani "Aerial" Jussila have, without a doubt, been the difference-makers for HAVU. xseveN had been on the team for four months when Aerial joined, but it was only when his former ENCE teammate arrived on January 1 that he began posting outstanding numbers. Aerial, who had been in one of the worst slumps of his career during his final months with ENCE, has rediscovered himself since joining the team.
"I've always held Aerial to a really high regard," sLowi opens up on the topic, explaining that he attributed the entry-fragger's struggles to the well-documented issues in ENCE. "I knew the internal issues were taking a toll on Aerial’s performance, so even though he had a hard time in ENCE in the latter stages, I knew the potential was there. Picking him up was a no-brainer for us especially after we decided that I would start calling as I was the entry-fragger in our old lineup.
"He’s really easy to set up and to play with as he is never afraid of taking a duel if you tell him to. That gives a lot of room to the other players when your entry-fragger is always ready to go."
The call to move sLowi to the lurker position and fit Aerial into his natural role proved to be the right one. The in-game leader continues to deliver respectable fragging performances despite the shift (1.10 rating in 2021), while Aerial and xseveN have blossomed into the stars of the lineup. The pair are averaging 1.24 and 1.18 ratings this year, respectively, with ZOREE being the fourth pillar of the team, providing a stable presence with the AWP (1.14 rating in 2021 and only 0.56 deaths per round).
"I started watching a lot of demos of myself and the team", Aerial notes, explaining that he reviews everything that goes wrong in officials and practice matches. "I rarely did this while playing in ENCE. Also, the atmosphere is a lot better in HAVU, which makes me feel comfortable. But most importantly, getting my confidence back helps massively, I had zero confidence in the latter part when playing in ENCE." But his improvements aren't limited to the game: he has changed his diet and is exercising regularly as he wishes to live a "healthier life".
For xseveN, the most important thing was fixing issues outside the game. "I feel like I'm way more comfortable making plays inside the game now than back in the day with ENCE. I guess the atmosphere really helps with feeling more confident." The 26-year-old is also not stuck in all the supportive spots he played for ENCE, which have been taken by Jemi "jemi" Mäkinen, the last piece of the puzzle and the least-talked-about player in the team. The 21-year-old, formerly of SJ, has faced little criticism as he continues to learn the ropes at the highest level. "He has always played as an entry fragger so him switching to a site anchor and supportive role are big changes," disturbed said. "It will take some time for him to fully adapt to his new role while playing against really good opponents''.
HAVU came into action several weeks into the year, recording their first match with the new lineup only in mid-February. "Firstly, we had a very busy 2020 without any long breaks", sLowi explains. "Secondly, Aerial had just benched himself from ENCE due to not feeling well, so we wanted to give him as much time to recover as he needed." Success came right away as HAVU qualified for Snow Sweet Snow 2 and won the main event without losing a single series. Promising teams such as Winstrike, SAW, and Endpoint all fell to the Finnish side, with xseveN posting a mindblowing 1.32 tournament rating.
"We knew going into the tournament that we weren’t quite ready to play every map in our map pool, so our expectations weren’t that high," sLowi recalls. "Sure we knew that our individual effort and mid-round decision making could enable us to win maps, but to win it as 'easily' as we did came as a bit of a surprise for me."
Going from strength to strength, HAVU proceeded to punch above their weight in Pinnacle Cup 2021, in which they took down top-12 teams in back-to-back matches. They dispatched NIP in the quarter-finals, then breezed past BIG in the semi-finals, with Aerial topfragging both series, the second of which with a whopping 51-26 K-D. While not able to defeat a red-hot Gambit in the grand final, the Finns took a map off them, ending the IEM Katowice champions' 7-0 win streak on Mirage.
"It's really motivating", sLowi says about their results at the start of April. "We have been working really hard for the past few months and I’m glad it's paying off." Trying to explain how the team has improved so much, so quickly, the in-game leader mentioned confidence and a good atmosphere. "I think the biggest factor in our results so far has been the fact we can keep the hype up within the guys, it enables us to continue playing confidently, even though the score might not show it."
Following those strong results, HAVU moved up to No.16 in the world ranking, breaking their previous record of No.22, which dated back to April 2020. disturbed's team are currently ahead of ENCE on the world ladder, but with a difference of only four spots between the two teams, the gap is small. The rivals have faced off twice this year, but little separates them in that aspect as well, with the series record tied at 1-1.
When asked about his former team, Aerial says that despite the international aspect, a rivalry is still there. "In a way yes, I see them as rivals. ENCE is a Finnish organization and my old team, so I have a greater desire to beat them compared to some non-Finnish team we face. But then again, they only have two Finnish players, so I don't experience the same amount of pressure or rivalry as I do facing a fully Finnish lineup. "
After this interview, HAVU started a bootcamp in their office in Helsinki, from where they played the Elisa Invitational Spring and will compete in the FunSpark ULTI 2020 Europe Final. The former tournament didn't go as planned (7-8th finish following losses to Apeks and SKADE), but the latter one, featuring Virtus.pro, BIG, and Evil Geniuses, provides a chance for HAVU to get back on track and take more big scalps.
"Being at this event feels good, we are getting more and more chances to play against great teams, that was something we were lacking with our old line-up," sLowi says, explaining that the bar is still set low. "We haven't really discussed any 'goals' for the tournament. I feel like we are still such a new team with so many areas to improve. I personally will be happy if we can play the level of Counter-Strike that we show in our practice games."
In the long run, HAVU's goal is similar to that of many teams who are not partnered with any league and want to make the most of the few chances they get to play at the highest level - to break into the tier-one scene.
"We want to start getting direct invites to tournaments or closed qualifiers," disturbed said. "Meanwhile, we're playing in smaller tournaments and facing higher-ranked opponents whenever we get a chance.
"We got invited to ESEA Premier's relegation tournament but the schedule clashed with Elisa Invitational, so we had to decline. Of course, getting invited directly to ESL Pro League would be a significant boost for us, but there are so many teams competing for those spots so we still have some work to do."