JT: "Now that we're in Europe we can tell that FaNg doesn't really feel the pressure like some other players would"
Extra Salt's captain opens up about the team's first weeks in Europe ahead of their opening match in DreamHack Masters Spring.
At the start of April, Extra Salt embarked on a trip to Serbia to begin a gamut of European events, at long last having the opportunity to showcase their ability against international competition after being locked into domestic derbies in North America since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The team, who had been tearing up competition in their region as Josh "oSee" Ohm showcased stellar form, had a less than ideal start to their trip as they were humbled by Spirit in the single-elimination BLAST Premier Spring Showdown, but were able to bounce back just one week later as they managed a runner-up finish in the FunSpark ULTI Europe Final, with 18-year-old Justin "FaNg" Coakley claiming the MVP despite the loss to BIG in the title decider.
As the team prepared for the most stacked tournament of their European trip in DreamHack Masters Spring, in which 14 of the top 20 teams will be in attendance, HLTV.org caught up with Extra Salt's in-game leader, Johnny "JT" Theodosiou, who explained how the variety of playstyles of European teams is something that Extra Salt have had to adjust to after playing against the "very standard" style of North American lineups.
The South African captain opened up about the heartbreaking loss to BIG, admitting that nerves got the better of his side in the best-of-five final. Quizzed on the current state of the North American scene, he praised the increasing number of tournaments such as the ESEA Cash Cups, stating that they have given teams something to play for and helped to tackle one of the biggest issues in the region.
You just came off your second European event appearance, a runner-up finish in FunSpark ULTI. What has it been like playing officials in Europe so far?
I think it's been exciting to play against these teams. Obviously, they are all very strategic, something that we're not used to coming from NA. A lot of the NA teams play very standard, and these EU teams all have their own playstyle. Especially BIG, they're big on the utility game, and that's something that we haven't really experienced in NA. That's kind of the style that we play, we're heavily into the utility game, making sure we're hitting all the nades and we're able to fake out our opponents just with our utility. So it's been a little different playing against teams like that, and also playing against CIS teams who will just walk up and aim duel you, that's pretty much the meta for them. They just know they have better aim, so they just try and use that to their advantage, and that is something that we are used to in NA, but it's obviously very difficult to counter that when you're unsure about exactly what they are going to do.
I'm pretty happy with our performance coming into this tournament, FaNg played extremely well and I think that's good for him, considering this is the first time he's been in Europe and he's only 18. We're still just taking this as a learning experience, we didn't expect to get this far in the first place. It's obviously exciting to know that we can compete with these top EU teams, but yeah, I think now we have changed our goals a little, we actually want to win a European tournament now that we know that we're able to compete with all of these teams. These next tournaments are going to be something big for us.
Since you were stuck in NA for so long, the experience of playing against some of these teams is really valuable, so can you expand on what you can take away from something like that narrow loss to BIG, versus what a match in NA?
Well the loss against BIG, I think it honestly just comes down to nerves from us. It was countless rounds, and all three of the maps we lost were from very important economic rounds because of nerves and stupid mistakes that we don't usually make, so I think it's just something that we've got to get used to, that you get used to just playing these finals against these EU teams.
We're used to finals in NA where we expect ourselves to win, but these finals in EU are just something new to us. It's super upsetting to lose in that way because I feel, strategically, that we should have won a lot of those maps. We're just going to have to take this one and learn from our mistakes.
You touched on FaNg having a pretty strong breakout performance here against European teams, even grabbing the MVP medal for FunSpark. What led to you picking him up, and what has his development been like since then?
When we were first looking for a fifth player back in January or December time, we were actually speaking to a lot of the Chaos members, MarKE and Xeppaa included, but none of them really wanted to join. Then we started looking at who the up-and-coming players were, especially players from Rugratz because I already knew them from when I had subbed for them in one Cash Cup.
FaNg really impressed me when I watched some of his games and also when I spoke to him. He's got really insane aim and he's extremely confident on the server, and that's something that we really needed in a player. I'm super happy that we ended up with FaNg rather than one of the Chaos members, because FaNg is actually a beast.
You mentioned needing confidence on the server. After you picked up FaNg, MarKE came in to replace motm. Was there a specific reason behind that change, did you feel the team was plateauing or did something else lead to that move?
Back in December I told T.c he needs to make all of the decisions in terms of the lineup. I think of myself as a player, I'm a little biased at times towards my teammates, and I think it's the coach's job or the manager's job to make those decisions. With the decision to bench motm, it was more of a... I wouldn't say his performance on the server was the biggest factor, but that confidence, like what I said about FaNg.
We needed confident players on the server, and FaNg was one of those players but he was playing in the wrong role. FaNg and motm, they do play the same roles, and FaNg was struggling to play a lurker role or an anchor role on some of the maps that someone like MarKE loves playing, so I think an important factor in benching motm, keeping FaNg, and bringing in MarKE was just the role clashes.
I think something that can’t really go unmentioned is when the core of your team was with Cloud9. Your form has looked a lot better since back then. Was the team just stuck in a rut? What has changed since then?
In terms of the differences between the two organisations, with Extra Salt we've been able to do what we want, and they make sure we're as comfortable as possible. I think in Cloud9 we weren't always comfortable with where we were staying, or comfortable with our environment, and now with Extra Salt we're able to just focus on the game, we're happy where we are and anything that we need, Extra Salt will provide for us. Just having that ease of mind and being able to just focus only on the game has helped us in practice, and it's showing up on the server now.
Something the European Cloud9 lineup struggled with was the pressure that came with being attached to the Cloud9 brand. Was that something that you felt as well?
Obviously I want to say no, but I think for all of the players, there is that element of pressure since it is a Major-winning organisation. But I wouldn't put our losses down to just pressure from the organisation, because I think it was something that was just in the back of our minds. Like, 'It's Cloud9, we need to be one of the best teams in the world', but at the end of the day, we knew we still needed a lot of practice to get to that point. There was a little bit of pressure but it wasn't as much as some people would think.
Before traveling to Europe, you were stuck playing against domestic competition in North America for the better part of three months. What was that like, repeatedly playing the same teams over and over again? Do you think NA is doomed to have the same small loop of teams playing, or is there hope for the future with new talent?
I think the problem in NA is just that there are not a lot of players, especially with the best players going over to Europe, the playerbase becomes even smaller, so we just keep playing the same teams over and over again. It's definitely a different dynamic playing in NA than playing in EU. I mean, I've played Triumph and Bad News Bears four times in one month, right? So we can't keep using the same game plan, we can't keep using our best strats, because they know about them and they're not gonna work when they know it's coming. So I think that actually was a good aspect for us because we couldn't keep using the same stuff, so we had to keep changing up things and that just made our map pool much, much bigger.
But at the end of the day, it is kind of boring and draining, just to keep preparing for the same teams over and over again, especially when you're winning because you know they're going to come with a different game plan every single game because they're watching your demos and they know what you do.
There is definitely hope for NA, there are a lot of newer players that are coming up like for example, FaNg, who knew about FaNg before we picked him up? As long as these new teams work hard, there will be more teams coming out of NA.
Are there any names that come to mind off the top of your head?
Not really, no.
I wanted to talk a little about oSee’s form since you started this European campaign - obviously, the numbers he was putting up against competition in North America were unlikely to directly translate in Europe and I think he's been playing pretty well, but I’m more curious about how you’ve felt that impact on the server.
The expectations were obviously too high about what oSee was going to do when he came to Europe. If he kept the same kind of scores he was getting in NA, he would literally be the best player in the world *laughs*. To have a 1.40 rating in EU, that would just be stupid and we would be winning all of our games. I think he has been playing well, obviously he's not dropping the same numbers he was in NA, but he's still dropping extremely high scores in EU.
He mentioned in one of his own interviews the difference between NA and EU is that in EU, they keep pushing him back with flashbangs and utility and stuff like that, but in NA he was able to do whatever he wanted. He has been looking at ways to abuse the fact that these EU teams are trying to push him back, and trying to find ways just to play around that. He's doing a good job and I'm very happy with how he's been playing. The more that we play in EU, the better his performance is going to be.
Touching a little more on playing in North America, with most of the tournaments now being in Europe, there's a little less to play for in NA, but ESEA has been running Cash Cups and there has been the occasional DreamHack event as well. How beneficial has that been, in terms of still having those tournaments to play?
These Cash Cups and DreamHack tournaments have been really important for the NA scene. We pretty much had tournaments every two weeks, and I feel like that's something new in NA, like we had something to play for constantly, and we had tournaments to play constantly. I think teams only really improve once they start playing officials and once they start playing high-pressure games, so I think if more tournament organisers do provide things like the Cash Cups in NA, it will help the scene grow.
You were playing in the last season of Premier, but you ended up dropping out of playoffs to go on this European tour. Was that decision just made because the experience of playing in more European tournaments outweighed the potential of making Pro League for you?
It was a combination of wanting to play in EU early, getting an early bootcamp, and the scheduling not really working out. If we had to play the ESEA Premier playoffs, we would have arrived in EU the same day one of our tournaments started. I think BLAST would have started the same day we would have arrived, and obviously we don't want to arrive too late because we're going to be jetlagged and our performance would've just been horrible. So we had to just back out of ESEA Premier mostly because of the scheduling.
Are you at all concerned that the same situation could happen with Premier, where you make playoffs but you have another three or four European tournaments lined up around the same time?
Yeah, we're definitely concerned the same issue with scheduling could happen again with Premier, but if we keep playing well, we might just receive an invite to Pro League, we might not have to play ESEA Premier, that's what we're hoping for. Obviously, that's something that a lot of teams don't get the chance for.
Through the ESL World Ranking you mean?
Yeah, something like the ESL World Ranking is good, maybe we can receive an invite through that, but at the end of the day, Pro League is just a single tournament, we can keep playing these FunSparks, keep playing BLAST, and whatever else we qualify for. We don't necessarily need to play in Pro League.
You're set to play against Astralis in DreamHack Masters. It's not going to be the same Astralis that we're all used to, but in general, what are your expectations not necessarily for the match, but for Astralis as a team given they're not going to have their best player on the server anymore?
It's really hard to have valid expectations. Honestly, I have no idea how Astralis is going to do. I think dupreeh is obviously going to AWP, unless they bring in new players, and I'm happy for Bubzkji, he's an extremely good player and it sucked that he was on the bench for a while, but I have no idea how the roles in this lineup are going to work now.
When we do play them, it's going to be weird. If you're facing Astralis, you're going to prepare extremely hard for this game, but how do we prepare when they're changing roles and bringing in a new player? It's a completely different AWPer, so it's going to be a weird one playing in DreamHack and we're unsure what roles and what spots these players are going to play. I'm still excited just like everyone else just to see how well they do.
Your team usually have a lot of preparation going into matches, so what will it be like headed into that match-up given the situation?
Yeah, T.c and I prepare extremely hard for all of our games, like even these Spring Sweet Spring games. Even back in NA, we were preparing for every single team that we played. It is definitely going to affect us, but we're still able to play without that much preparation, and we're still going to be able to prepare for them in a general sense, they still have the same IGL so they most likely will be playing the same style. It's always a little weird playing against a team not knowing exactly how they're going to play because that is something that we do heavily focus on in our preparation.
Two of the teams in DreamHack that have been playing well this year are Gambit and Heroic. What do you feel that those teams have done right during this online era, and how do you think it will translate to LAN? Do you think there'll be some issues for any of these teams that have been playing well in the online era when they have to go back to LAN, including your team?
I'm a strong believer that these teams in the online era will play well on LAN. Maybe they won't play as well at the start, but I think they're all playing legit CS, especially Gambit. I respect those guys a lot, they've been a team for the longest time, three years or something like that, so I think for Heroic and Gambit, Gambit especially, it's just the hard work paying off, and I think that will translate to LAN. These players are used to LAN as well, if you look at Heroic, players like cadiaN are not new on the block. There definitely will be a difference when we do get back to LAN, but I think the same teams will eventually be on top, like Gambit and Heroic.
Is it something that FaNg might struggle with?
Honestly I don't know. We obviously haven't played a LAN with FaNg, but he seems like a pretty level-headed guy, especially now that we're in Europe we can tell that he doesn't really feel the pressure like some other players would, so I think he'll be fine. But we're obviously going to help him out when the LANs come, and if he needs an extra hand we'll be there for him.