cArn: "As long as CS is out there and is a competitive game, fnatic is here to be a top contender"
fnatic’s Chief Gaming Officer and co-owner speaks about reform after one of the lowest points in the team’s history.
As the cream of Counter-Strike gathered in Cologne last month, the community was brimming with excitement at the return of in-person events. This was a moment long awaited after the pandemic had disrupted competitions, testing the patience of players and fans alike during an agonising 16 months of online action. The event was a celebration of Counter-Strike and what makes this a spectacular esport, with its glory, its drama and its moments of individual and collective brilliance.
But for fnatic’s fans, IEM Cologne also offered a painful reminder of how far the team have fallen since their glory days. A household name in Counter-Strike and the second-most successful organisation at Majors, fnatic are navigating the worst crisis in their 16-year history in Counter-Strike. The team started the online era on the right foot, winning ESL Pro League Season 11 Europe, but then fell off a cliff and never recovered, showing quality only in sporadic flashes. The images of fnatic’s players looking dejected after being eliminated from Flashpoint 3 were telling of how difficult the tournament season was for the Swedes.
After appearing in all six LAN events held in the ‘Cathedral of Counter-Strike’ between 2014 and 2019 — and also in last year’s online tournament —, fnatic had to sit this one out and watch from home. And no one was really surprised that they weren’t there.
As the dust settled on IEM Cologne, one of the biggest talking points was how LAN teams like Astralis and FaZe had looked so much more solid and cohesive than in the months leading up to the event. Both teams used all their LAN experience to beat some of the biggest winners of the ‘online era’ and reach the semi-finals of the showpiece competition, making a mockery of crisis talk as the player break approached.
If fnatic are known for anything, it is their ability to perform on LAN. They have 23 relevant titles to their name in CS:GO, including the DreamHack Winter 2013, ESL One Katowice 2015 and ESL One Cologne 2015 Majors, and they had shown in the past an uncanny ability to bounce back from dire situations. But the prospect of a return to a more normal event schedule after the player break, with LANs becoming the norm once again rather than the exception, did not deter fnatic from making major changes. On July 6, it was announced that in-game leader Maikil "Golden" Selim had been benched. Exactly two weeks later, Jesper "JW" Wecksell, who had been with fnatic since 2013 (apart from a brief four-month period with GODSENT), was also removed from the starting lineup.
"I think we lost ourselves at some point," Patrik "cArn" Sättermon, fnatic’s Chief Gaming Officer and co-owner, tells HLTV.org about the team’s struggles. "I'm not sure it was a motivation thing; in fact, we worked harder than ever, but our confidence took a great hit as a team and as individuals, and we were never capable of reversing the downward trend, and kept dropping out early at events, a free fall in the world ranking that led to fewer invites or tougher seeds. The consistency we had gained in the team's first six months together was lost, and we didn't manage to regain it.
"I think our team is a LAN team. That's where the majority of our players thrive. It's not an excuse but it's reality. From a tactical standpoint, there have been flaws. The in-game leader has a big role to play in this, just like the coach. There hasn’t been the right amount of cohesion, timings have been off, we’ve been taking risky peeks and throwing away plant situations that we normally wouldn’t.
"Players may be thinking, 'From my side, how can I have the most impact on the game?'. Sometimes, that creates a situation where players care more about what they contribute than about the team. Individually, I also think that several players haven’t been hitting their shots. We haven’t done the necessary damage to the opponents or found the right timings, to get the confidence needed to pick up your team on your shoulders in certain games. We've had too few of those moments.
"It's a cascade of things. Leadership, tactics, and the way the individuals played."
cArn certainly knows what he is talking about. He won several major international titles during the six years that he led fnatic's team, back in CS 1.6. He is a big reason why the Counter-Strike scene associates fnatic with the blue and yellow Swedish flag.
But the world has changed, and fnatic have realised that they must adapt to the new order if they hope to challenge towards the top again. After all, single-nationality rosters seem to be more and more a thing of the past, and Sweden, once the biggest talent factory in the game, has produced very few international-calibre players in recent years. Without surprise, fnatic are taking the international route after almost a decade in which the team was exclusively made up of Swedish players.
"This has been in consideration for a while," cArn reveals. "The fact is that fnatic Counter-Strike is the only team within the organisation that has a single-nationality roster. And this is obviously an outcome of a quite successful and rich history of solid Swedish players — and, to some degree, Danish players — in both 1.6 and CS:GO.
"Now is the time to think bigger and more long-term. What kind of an organisation do we want to be? The fact is that we are not a Swedish organisation, we are a global organisation with offices and staff around the world. Is it likely that some players out there with the best mechanics, or that tomorrow's best in-game leaders, might not have a Swedish passport and a flag that is yellow and blue?
"As long as you're willing to travel, you're a hard worker, you're willing to become a great teammate and you have excellent skill in one or more key areas, then you might be a great fit for fnatic. And we're proving this in every title."
Part of cArn’s job as Chief Gaming Officer is to identify patterns. That helps him make key strategic decisions related to fnatic’s esports department, including choosing which games to invest in and picking the right players for each team. As fnatic’s Counter-Strike team went into crisis mode, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
With the benefit of hindsight, cArn admits that perhaps he should not have waited this long to pull the trigger on these changes. But he explains that he saw signs that the team would find a way to work through the issues, like it had done many times before.
"As weird as it might sound, I respect the decisions that were being made," he says. "The group was aligned and a lot of work was put into it, but that belief was never translated into results.
"From the outside, you saw a team losing and dropping down in the rankings, but on the inside, you saw a hard-working group that was very stoic in their approach and practical in the way it solved problems. That makes someone like myself think that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
"But at some point you have to realize the repetitiveness of it. From a practice standpoint, we were probably playing some of our best CS of the last years in scrims, but we were not able to exercise that when it mattered. In some cases, we did not show up on the day; in others, we lost very tight overtime games."
When he started planning for the future, cArn immediately knew that he wanted the new-look fnatic to be built around two specific players: Ludvig "Brollan" Brolin, who recently signed a three-year contract that will keep him with the organisation until 2024, and Freddy "KRIMZ" Johansson, who has been a stalwart for the team for several years and has missed only one of the last six HLTV Top 20 lists.
Rumours have been swirling in recent weeks that fnatic have set their sights on former Cloud9 duo Alex "ALEX" McMeekin and William "mezii" Merriman. The former briefly toyed with the idea of switching to VALORANT after the failed ‘Colossus’ experiment but has decided to give CS:GO another shot and is hopeful of proving that he can lead a team without Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut to success, while the latter has been tearing up the tier-two scene with Endpoint, averaging a 1.22 rating since he joined the British outfit.
cArn only wishes to speak in broader terms about the profile of players he is after. As he looks to bring fnatic a level of sustained success that he claims international teams have struggled to achieve in Counter-Strike, he is targeting an in-game leader with experience in piecing together "numerous ways of playing and numerous cultures that should coexist in a team."
"There are cultural and linguistic challenges if you’re trying to put together five star players with nothing tying them together other than the fact that they know how to play the game," he says. "That can maybe result in a successful period of two or three months, but then the team typically cracks.
"We are looking deeply into the kind of leadership that we want to have and, more importantly, we want to have a support structure around the team that can make a daily impact on the development of every individual.
"I think it’s fair to say that the market of in-game leaders that are compatible with an international team is quite scarce. But we’re very comfortable with the way we have thought about this."
But these are not the only changes that the team will undergo in the off-season. Head coach Andreas "Samuelsson" Samuelsson is transitioning to a team director role in the organisation and will be managing the entire Counter-Strike division. As for Jack "Jackinho" Ström Mattsson, cArn says that fnatic "still believe" in the player and want to continue to aid his development. The 22-year-old joined fnatic in January as a promising hybrid player that could hold his own with the AWP, but he was not quite able to show his talents during the tournament season, in part because of the uncertainty over the sniper role in the team.
fnatic hope to forge a strong relationship between the main team and the new academy squad, which was somewhat hastily put together before the start of the WePlay Academy League and includes players from four different countries. The outside expectations for fnatic Rising weren't that high, especially considering how much of a head start some of the other academy projects had, but the team have been surprisingly competitive in the tournament. With an 8-6 record, they finished the regular season in fourth place and have secured a spot in the grand final of the Play-In Stage. Iulian "regali" Harjău, the second-highest-rated player of the tournament so far, seems to be a star in the making.
Like many other organisations, fnatic believe that a strong academy project is a good way to help create a sustainable ecosystem for Counter-Strike esports. They were one of the pioneers of the academy craze in 2016, but the team, despite achieving international success, ended up disbanding in the summer of 2017 after their two most promising players, Golden and David "Jayzwalkingz" Kempner, were offered big breaks in fnatic’s main squad and Renegades, respectively. In 2018, fnatic’s attempt to revive the academy project through a partnership with reality show GAMERZ lasted only six months.
"We're working with WePlay to create this academy circuit, a meaningful place, a place for people to get proven, the same infrastructure that I wish we had thought about maybe five years ago," cArn says.
"Imagine now if you're an up-and-coming player and you can get a team like fnatic behind your back, helping you to become a better player. At the end of the day, developing players is the sole reason for our existence. We became what we are today because we believe in young players and in our ability to level people up.
"The likes of JW and flusha — who were they in 2013 before they joined? They were up-and-coming players. Look at Rekkles and Caps in League of Legends, look at DJ in Dota. We have not felt the need to always be in the market and buy the absolute biggest proven names because we have helped to create some of these names. We want to expand on that.
"I don't think we're late to the party. And it's not about winning the first season, but about building a strong academy that I think future stars will emerge from."
As much success as the blue and yellow flag has brought to fnatic over the years, taking a fresh approach was a necessary move to snap a 16-month title drought that certainly ranks as one of the lowest points in the team’s history. Some of the recent decisions — the unyielding faith on an underperforming roster, the strange addition of Peppe "Peppzor" Borak as a sixth player or the late announcement of an academy squad — had led many to wonder whether fnatic had grown complacent.
But cArn insists that no one is resting on their laurels.
"We're putting a lot of gunpowder into this project and that is never going to change," he says. "As long as CS is out there and is a competitive game, with people who care about it and great players to pick up, fnatic is here to be a top contender. By no means are we happy.
"There are only a few organisations that have been successful over an extended period of time. We are looking to continue the journey that we started 16 years ago. For us, the show goes on, the hard work continues, and we remain loyal to Counter-Strike as an esport.
"When the dust eventually settles, we want history to show that we have been the most consistently performing organisation that the world has seen. So far, that is somewhat the case, but a lot of work still needs to go in. We are very hopeful and we're very happy that we have so many fans out there on this journey."