m1cks: "There was a very real sense on Cloud9 where everyone was playing not to lose"
We caught up with the former Cloud9 assistant coach to discuss the collapse of the 'Colossus' and his role on the team.
In 2018, Joshua "m1cks" Micks reached out to a number of teams playing in ESEA MDL North America, offering his services as an analyst for free. Only one person responded to his request - Tiaan "T.c" Coertzen from Bravado. The opportunity to be an analyst for the South African team proved to be a breakthrough for m1cks, who went on to occupy assistant coach and analyst roles for Rogue, Spacestation, and eUnited over the following two years, working under the likes of Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen and Johnny "JT" Theodosiou.
When Cloud9 acquired the ATK lineup at the end of 2019, m1cks reunited with T.c and JT, but the team struggled to find consistent results as they were plunged into the online era as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. When the organisation parted ways with the roster and enlisted Henry "HenryG" Greer as General Manager to build a new lineup, m1cks' services were retained as an analyst, and he was later promoted to assistant coach after the team parted ways with Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović and added Chris "Elmapuddy" Tebbit. However, roster and role changes, combined with lacklustre results and an inability to gather the team together in-person, led to Cloud9 parting ways with their lineup, and making all players available for transfer.
Following this tumultuous period and his departure from Cloud9, HLTV.org spoke to m1cks regarding the creation of the 'Colossus' project, and the role he played both as analyst and assistant coach during its evolution. The 22-year-old shed light on how the overwhelming pressure that was put on the team from its inception impacted the lineup, and how expectations that the public had of the project "led to a really rough environment" and "one of the worst mental states" he had been in.
He also had high praise to offer regarding Alex "ALEX" McMeekin's in-game leadership, and revealed that part of the reason Erick "Xeppaa" Bach was selected as a replacement for Özgür "woxic" Eker was to help Ricky "floppy" Kemery feel more comfortable in Serbia.
To start off, I wanted to get a general sense of what you did for Cloud9. I think for the majority of the public, your role wasn’t really known, so can you expand a little on your duties?
The main thing I've been known for over the course of my career so far has been mostly anti-stratting, doing preparation for teams. I've always had a good mind when it comes to it, knowing the things to look for, what to prepare for, finding unique tells and stuff. I can tell my team an opponent's entire structure and system, how to read it, just based off of one flashbang, one molly here or there. Especially in recent years, maybe since eUnited, Rogue, something I've tried to continue developing is my own understanding of a team's structure and system. Anti-stratting so many teams has helped me understand what makes these teams good, in terms of their macro, understanding their systems and how they work.
That also leads into helping me implement that type of thing in my own team, adding a structure, foundation and fundamentals, and diving deeper into a player's philosophy and why they are making the decisions they are, rather than just looking at everything on a surface level.
Something I feel like I haven't been able to do much because I've been an assistant coach is really trying to just develop my leadership skills as much as I can. I helped Elmapuddy when he came into the team - we helped each other a lot - but kind of my philosophy on how to handle players, how to handle leadership, establishing a good culture within the team were the things I focused on.
Obviously, Cloud9’s European project didn’t go as they would have hoped. What was it like experiencing some of the blowback from within, in terms of the public pressure and the general way the team was handled during this time?
Especially with the first iteration of the lineup, I wasn't super involved. My role was just an analyst, I was pretty much only counter-stratting, I didn't really have any input or anything. I never met the old team in person, the only person I met was Ricky (floppy) from the past team. I didn't really have a lot of say.
Coming into the new team, it was definitely very hard to deal with, in terms of the pressure and everything on the team, just because people never got a chance to meet each other, we got a three-day bootcamp and that was it. You have to go from there, none of these players had ever played with each other, and the second iteration of the lineup never met with each other.
Having these expectations of the 'Colossus' and people having this idea in their minds that they need to be a top-ten team, the expectations of the salaries, the expectations that the team had placed on it, and the general expectations the community had of Cloud9 as an organisation really led to a situation that was very hard to deal with and hard to get control over. Especially myself, my schedule with the team was 2 AM to 9 AM, which was pretty brutal for me personally.
You mentioned the player salaries and buyouts. How much of an effect did those being made public have on the team?
I don't think it was the salaries and buyouts by themselves that had a huge effect. I think it was just that combined with everything else, with the expectations of the team. leading to a really rough environment. I was working really rough schedules, I never met anyone on the team.
In terms of personal comments towards myself, I never really care much, but when people are talking about my team and the expectations and performance of my team, I tend to take it a lot more personally. So my isolation in LA, combined with the schedule, never meeting my team, just the overall environment that was created around the 'Colossus' project, led to probably one of the worst mental states I've ever been in and one of the least enjoyable experiences I've ever had on a team, or just life in general.
It's definitely super hard, I felt even myself, I wasn't necessarily at a level of being able to help the team or coaching at a personal coaching performance level. I felt like I was doing a really poor job because of the entire environment and expectations around the team, but I wouldn't say the salaries and buyouts themselves were a huge issue, it was just that they became an easy way to pick on the team, combined with all of the other expectations.
Early on, the team experienced some issues with roles, woxic going out of the roster, and then ALEX and es3tag trading off AWPing duties. What was that period like internally, in terms of those roster and role decisions? Do you think something should’ve been done differently, in hindsight?
It's hard to say. We had the initial lineup, and then obviously there was a falling out between kassad and the rest of the team in terms of the direction of the team. I wasn't too involved in woxic getting removed and who was being picked up, I learned Xeppaa was joining my team via an HLTV article, so the communication of the team was a bit poor at times. I understood the decision, because I think the general idea, and one thing people miss is that Ricky especially was struggling being in Serbia alone. I think he had Henry with him at times, and kassad there, but obviously it's different from having someone he can really get along with, so part of the reason behind picking up Xeppaa was to get another North American player to help Ricky be incorporated into the team a lot better and help them feel more comfortable.
That was the general idea behind getting Xeppaa, and there weren't really any North American AWPers we could get at the time, so they took a chance on ALEX being able to pick up the AWP as the IGL and help the role issue there. The roles were going to be a bit weird with Xeppaa coming into the team, so the idea was that ALEX using the AWP would free up es3tag, because es3tag and ALEX had a bit of a clash in terms of the roles they wanted to play, so that kind of freed that up. And then es3tag switching to the AWP after ALEX had tested the role for a bit was a similar idea, I think.
Talking more about that Xeppaa signing to give Ricky some company. Would the situation have been different if the team wasn't isolated because of COVID, like if you were in some sort of bootcamp or the same area? Would the roster decision have been different?
Yes, I think things would have played out a lot differently if we had been able to get everyone together at a bootcamp. We wouldn't have had the issue of trying to do something to help Ricky feel more comfortable, but just in general, you have five new players who have never played together before. They've met each other for a total of three days, the coaches have never really met the players, it's a lot harder to naturally build that chemistry and just be able to build up the confidence and chemistry with each other when all you're doing is talking to each other over TeamSpeak, especially against the teams that you're playing over in Europe.
On a similar note, with North American players traveling to Europe more, especially those not on a North American lineup like junior to FURIA, it seems like frequent travel may just be the reality going forward with not too many domestic opportunities available. Do you think that will be an issue going forward for NA players?
It could be, it really just depends on the player. Someone like Twistzz is pretty comfortable with the situation that he's in, even if he's not bootcamping with FaZe, he was already kind of wanting to move to Europe. It really depends on what your goals are, right? If your goal is to make it in the top tier of Counter-Strike, I think playing more in Europe is just something you have to be open towards. It's a lot worse at the moment because everything is online, you're not really working towards competing and winning a huge LAN in front of big crowds, that kind of passion element of it isn't there as much. So it really makes going to Europe and sitting in a computer room all day just playing online events that are all pretty much the same a lot harder to do.
You can compare the difference between someone's happiness level, like Ricky just sitting in Serbia all day playing online events versus when we were bootcamping together with the old South African lineup in Poland and Germany, it makes a huge difference in terms of who you are around and what you're playing for. I think it's definitely something that most NA players have to consider. Obviously, it might change once LAN events come back around, but you definitely have to be willing to make the sacrifice of spending the majority of your year in Europe, I think, if you want to make it in the top tier of Counter-Strike for an extended period.
You mentioned the South African players that you previously were an analyst for. What're your general thoughts on Extra Salt right now in terms of where they are now, as well as the additions of MarKE and FaNg?
I definitely think the changes were good for them. Towards the end of our tenure in Cloud9, the team was kind of plateauing, I felt because we were playing everything online from the same LA house. In my opinion, we definitely needed to do something, whether it was adding a sixth man or replacing someone, in order to continue on the same path to improvement.
I think it's been really good for them, it took them a bit to find their footing in terms of getting the right replacement, making the right next step, but MarKE was a perfect replacement for what floppy was, and FaNg was also a really good pickup in terms of just adding more growth potential to their team. Also, getting dropped from Cloud9 and everything that happened, going to Europe with a new organisation, that adds to their own motivation and their own will to improve. The biggest thing for them was adding new players to continue the growth of the core three, and also the extra motivation with wanting to prove people wrong that getting dropped by C9 brings.
Going back to the European Cloud9 lineup, can you touch on how ALEX was as an in-game leader, and why the team seemed to consistently push teams to their limits but often weren’t able to overcome the final hurdle and take a win?
Honestly, I think people that say that ALEX isn't a good IGL just don't know what they're talking about. I honestly think he is, if not a top ten, then a top-five IGL in the world, he is such a good IGL. He has a really good mindset, he has a really good understanding of the things he wants to do, and he has a really open mind in terms of playing different ways or exploiting different things. He's not super stubborn about trying certain counter-strats, anti-strats, things like that, and was a big reason why we were consistently in every match. People would just look at how we played at a surface level, and the execution wasn't always the best, but to me that is more on people just never being able to develop the chemistry with each other than his calls, or his leadership, being subpar. I think he's one of the best IGLs in the world and wherever he goes next, he's going to find success, in my opinion.
The biggest thing with trying to get over the final hurdle was, in a general sense, because of the expectations and the pressure on the team, and stuff like that. There was a very real sense on the team where everyone was just scared to lose, playing not to lose, and when you have that attitude of playing not to lose instead of playing to win... I remember comments about how we never even look happy when we win a game. It makes it a lot harder to get over that hump when you're playing not to lose. When you're playing kind of scared, and playing scared Counter-Strike, that's going to really amplify itself when the games get close and more meaningful, with more and more on the line. Take the game versus FURIA, where we just destroyed them at EPL, and then the next game, the 2-2 game to go through to playoffs and what ended up being the last match of the lineup. Everyone was just so stressed out and people were scared of losing, scared of not making playoffs again, and that's the biggest thing when it comes to getting over that hump.
You can have really good calls, you can have the strats that you want, you can have good preparation, but at the end of the day 75% of Counter-Strike is really about hitting your shots, right? If you don't have the confidence, that confidence in each other, and you're not playing with the right attitude, I think you're going to have a really difficult time closing out matches.
You've already mentioned it, but you spend a lot of time involved in researching the micro and macro aspects of the game, looking at tendencies and so on. Can you talk a little about your process in doing that research, and how you actually apply it to a game and work with the captain or other players?
Where I generally start out is identifying the core principles and structure of a team. So identifying their main defaults, then any set strats and executions they have coming out of those defaults. To me, it's more about figuring out their structure and their system, figure out ways they have to play off of that structure. In terms of finding tells, you're looking for ways to easily identify and narrow down what the other team is doing. As an example, one of the tells I had on the old Envy was ryann and moose throwing the default short B molly on T side Overpass in different ways: moose threw his running, so it landed deeper and we would instantly know Envy was A defaulting and we could have 3 A, ryann threw his standing and thus it landed a lot shallower, which then told us Envy was either taking short through connector or doing a B pop through monster after our smoke.
You get a good oversight of everything the other team does, you try to find as many tells as you can to give you a good read and when to expect those things. From there, it's working with the coach and working with whoever the IGL is in terms of developing how you want to play against those things, and the general style we want to play against a team. So I'll work with ALEX, we'll go over it in a server. 'These are the main things they do'. 'These are the main things to watch out for'. We go over ways to predict what they're doing, and from there we'll talk about how we want to approach a round if we see a certain tell.
You don't have to do anything crazy, but everyone having a good understanding of the other team and being able to tell what they are doing creates a lot more of a naturally flowing game plan with everyone on the team. If everyone has a good understanding of what is happening, then you're going to make the correct decisions more often and the rounds are going to play out more favourably for you. I'm trying to help paint the most accurate and easiest picture for how the other team is playing.
Considering you look at the demos of a lot of different teams, what are some of the main components you’ve noticed playing a part in the rise of some of these recent teams who've put in a lot of work, like Gambit and Heroic, or another team that comes to mind for you? Has it gotten substantially more difficult to do prep work given the amount of effort teams are putting in during this online era?
I definitely like some of the Counter-Strike they play. I'm a little curious to see how Gambit will do on LAN, not just because they're doing random shit, but some of the plays they have and some of the things they do in their defaults may not work as well just because of peeker's advantage, and because they're a newer team in general and they don't have as much experience with that. Heroic is a team, even with their old lineup, that I have always been impressed with how they play. They play a really solid style of Counter-Strike, there's a lot of sense to everything they're doing. They have a really good coach behind them in HUNDEN, and I've always really respected cadiaN as an IGL, I always felt he had a lot of potential for it. With a team like Heroic, you can prepare for them, but you're also not going to find a lot of things to outright exploit because they have a good idea of how to disguise what they're doing, and changing it up.
One team I really like that I felt was underrated even though we beat them the past few times we played them was NIP. I've always really liked their style, I'm sure they'll be getting even better with device now, but they've always had a really good structure, a good system and understanding of what they're doing in their defaults and their strats. Everyone knows what's expected of them, and then they also have such a wildcard element with hampus as well, who isn't afraid to randomly walk out of a smoke or make a random peek that you never really expect someone to make. It's probably a combination between THREAT, hampus, and other people on the team, but I've always liked that overall combination of having that insane wildcard element and aggressive element in hampus, while also having really solid team play and fundamentals behind that. They're always a team that I've expected to have better results than they've been having, so I'm pretty excited to see how they do with device.
You’ve previously been an analyst under MSL, and have also worked with T.c and now ALEX. How would you compare those experiences? What was the main difference between working under each of them?
MSL was my first eye-opening experience, kind of my tactical renaissance of sorts. After I was on a team with MSL, my eyes were opened to how structured Counter-Strike works and how to achieve that. Like how he based all of his strats around the same nades, and he did a really good job disguising it while also having a ton of structure, but also a really well-rounded approach. He had a really structured style but also knew how to default when he needed to and stuff like that.
With JT, he was a bit more execute-based, he's pretty similar to MSL but at least when I was on a team with him, MSL had a leg-up on him in terms of defaulting and how he approached CT sides. But JT puts a lot of work into his executions, and obviously everyone knows them for how good their flashbangs are, their timing with that, and how much work they put into that stuff. JT is someone that is often going to rely on his executions even though at times, they may be a little obvious and teams may be expecting them, they're still really hard to stop if opponents give him the space that he wants.
ALEX still has that European style, the executes and the set strats, but he's a lot more about detauls and a lot more free-flowing. Especially towards the end of the lineup we were trying to give floppy a lot of freedom, ALEX is okay with someone like floppy just doing whatever he is comfortable with and whatever he wants and picking up an AWP if he wants to, whereas someone like MSL was a lot more set in what you can and can't do in a default or in your CT position. ALEX is someone that will play a lot more around his players with his structure and execution, but he also wants his players to do their own thing as well, and wants everyone to have their own input.
Following your release from Cloud9, what are you looking towards now?
I've been an assistant for a couple of years now at this point, and I think I'm really just looking to continue improving at my own pace- I feel like there are very few assistant coaching spots where I can actually do that, especially ones in terms of working with a European team from America again, that was pretty brutal on me and my mental health.
So at the moment I'm mostly just looking towards more NA teams, and looking towards head coaching spots, whether that is in Counter-Strike or VALORANT. Even if I go to VALORANT I'm pretty confident I would return to Counter-Strike eventually, I think my coaching style can transition between games pretty easily. At the moment I'm really looking for something I can have a lot more passion for, a lot more input in, and something that I have a lot more riding on in terms of what projects I'm looking for.
Would you be open to a move to Europe if a team offered you a position as a head or assistant coach there?
Yes, I definitely would. I think that's the main thing that stops me from wanting to join a European team, it seems like for a lot of players, their problem with joining a European team is that they don't want to spend large amounts of time living in Europe. For me, I don't care what country or continent I'm in, I just don't want to be working 2 AM to 9 AM again with a European team. I'm definitely open to working with one if I'm actually relocating, bootcamping, and going to events with them, but at the moment it's hard to find something like that.