The new NAVI: Masterstroke or a flash in the pan?
Natus Vincere’s future could be shaped on the shores of the Rhine depending on the team’s result at IEM Cologne ahead of the off-season.
Natus Vincere went on a historic run at the PGL Major in Stockholm to become the first team to win a Major undefeated. They did so shortly after winning the third season of the Intel Grand Slam and right before closing out 2021 at the top of the rankings with victories at the BLAST Premier Fall Final and the ensuing World Final.
The Russian-Ukrainian team kicked off their 2022 on top of the world with widespread talk of a NAVI era, but their first showing at BLAST Premier Spring Groups was a shaky one. They pulled through and made it to the Spring Final with a decisive victory over NIP in the Last Chance Stage in the end, but from there on out the problems stacked up when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, just days before their IEM Katowice semi-final bout against G2 which they inevitably lost in two fought out maps.
Despite the hardships that came with the war, and even with the team’s future at times uncertain in the words of Natus Vincere CEO Yevhen Zolotarov, who said "we hope that we are going to keep [the CS:GO] roster and that the Russia-based players are going to relocate," the team trudged along to a playoff appearance at ESL Pro League Season 15 before qualifying for the Major at the RMR and even going all the way to the grand final in Antwerp.
It was what happened next that shook the foundations of the team itself, as longtime in-game leader Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov was let go by the Ukrainian organization citing "high reputational risks for the club" just days before the 23-year-old’s ex-wife went on to publish personal material in a bid to cast the player in a negative light and tarnish his reputation.
Two questions arose, then, who would be the fifth player to close out the season and who would be in charge of leading the team moving forward. On May 30 Alexey "xaoc" Kucherov, NAVI’s COO, stated that the team was looking into Timur "buster" Tulepov and giving the reins to Denis "electroNic" Sharipov — the latter being something that was perhaps not as wild a change when taking into consideration Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy’s comments during the StarLadder CIS RMR in 2021.
"He’s in a period of his evolution process when he’s kind of changing,” the Ukrainian coach said at the time. "In the future he can become like Hobbit, for example, a very experienced player with a gut feeling. In the future b1t or Perfecto can be like electronic, our star player, and electronic can be very experienced."
The buster move, a complicated one because of Virtus.pro’s ties to the Russian government and Natus Vincere vowing to not put money into the Russian economy, never came to fruition, but electroNic was indeed made to be the team’s in-game leader. To fill the last piece of the puzzle, Viktor "sdy" Orudzhev was brought on loan from MAD Lions as a stand-in for BLAST Premier Spring Final with an option to extend his stay in the team during IEM Cologne depending on his initial performance.
The sdy announcement was one that was received tepidly by fans, with many mixed feelings expressed about how Natus Vincere would fare not only with a less experienced player that has not been on the elite level regularly, but also with that piled on top of one the team’s star players moving to a leadership position with the role-changes that entails.
But as launders put it during the event in Lisbon, "sdy is a player’s player, this guy has always been underrated." And while his numbers were not earth shattering, a 1.02 rating, or his play perfect out of the gate, he did more than enough not only to help the team win the event, but to get himself another chance at improving and showing his worth at IEM Cologne.
To have another Ukrainian player on the team at a time of national strife lifting a trophy draped in the country’s flag was just the icing on top for an organization that has been vocal about the war, even naming its female team NAVI Javelins, a nod to the American-made portable anti-tank missile system that has been widely used on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev was the first one to go out and praise the stand-in after the event in Portugal. "I hope [sdy] will play in Cologne," the AWPer said, "I think he played really great. He had a lot of key rounds against OG and against Vitality today, a lot of multi-kills. He is a really calm guy and he is ready to learn, he knows how to listen to other people."
The 25-year-old, now at an age of maturity in which many players these days are in or around their peak, took over many positions on the map that do not put him in direct confrontations or high-risk areas, and his tasks were just to do enough to let the star power in the team shine while not being a liability. In the words of Mathieu "Maniac" Quiquerez during a desk segment at the Altice Arena, "he has done enough."
sdy's 1.02 rating was just 0.02 off of Boombl4’s 1.04 average during his time in Natus Vincere and, for the most part, he did well in the maps the team won and struggled in the losses. Perhaps the one thing missing could have been a little bit more output in close defeats, such as the 0.76 and 0.79 ratings in the 13-16 and 14-16 losses to OG on Ancient and Inferno, but there were no glaring faults that suggest personal fault — especially when other players on the team with more star power than the stand-in also struggled to get the team past the finish line.
sdy’s positions on the map are a statement in itself, often found playing around long on Dust2 or in the apartments of Inferno and Mirage on the attack, many times waiting passively and regrouping with the rest of the team when it’s time to execute, many times holding the rear while the heavy hitters play their duels.
"Most of the roles I am fitting in the places that they need me," sdy said, "but I am fine with it because I am a versatile player and have played a lot of positions before. Of course there are some roles that I didn’t play before in my life, but it’s fine, I am getting used to it and learning something new is cool." On the CT high-output teammates played near and off of him, while some of the biggest changes made in the team were due to electroNic’s new role, shifting himself and, to an extent, Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy around in the process.
The big question for the two-time top 5 and two-time top 10 player in the world was if he would be able to keep up his incredible output while calling, and more importantly, while learning the ropes in a new endeavor. The first results were overwhelmingly positive, as electroNic ended the BLAST Spring Final with his highest rating of the year so far, 1.25, which is close to his peak in 2021 during the PGL Major in Stockholm and the BLAST Fall Final. Another big statistic in favor of electroNic was his opening ability while leading the team, which went from an average 1.08 opening kill rating to a 1.28 in Lisbon, the team’s highest alongside b1t, with 28.1% attempts and 57.8% success.
electroNic’s calling, too, proved to be a breath of fresh air for NAVI, whose play has become more dynamic in the mid-round with quick decisions being made to keep enemies on edge with no noticeable drop-off in the tactical department. Some beginners’ blunders crept up, like a round in Dust2 against FaZe in which a late mid push had to be canceled and Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy ran out of time when trying to plant on B after going back up through tunnels, but that was the exception and not the rule.
For a team that, as B1ad3 said going into BLAST Premier Spring Final, was 50% prepared and won a trophy, Natus Vincere have for now found a winning combination. The timing has been forgiving, as the changes happened after the Major at a time in which much of the field is making their own roster moves while the others try to figure out what incursions into the market they will make during the off-season after lackluster starts to 2022. But questions still remain, one of them being whether sdy will fully be able to adapt to the team and to playing at the elite level, and the other if electroNic will be able to keep up with both his new role and the demands of being a leader while continuing to put up big performances.
"So far good," B1ad3 told HLTV in Lisbon in regards to sdy. "He still does a lot of mistakes, but I said this in the beginning that it is normal and we don’t look at it, it’s not something that can characterize him as a player or his potential, because he doesn’t know our system and he must adapt." The Ukrainian skipper also added that "he’s a nice guy and is trying to be smart, and I like this, trying to be smart in the game."
Another point in favor of sdy’s adaptation comes from s1mple, who lauded his coach as a catalyst for sdy's progress in the team. "Everyone who works with B1ad3, at least one or two hours per day, will become better as a player in one, two, or a maximum of three months," he said. For sdy himself, nothing like winning a Big Event trophy will keep his motivation to keep working hard. "I imagined this almost every day of my life," he said about lifting the hardware in Lisbon.
When it comes to electroNic’s future as an in-game leader, history shows that IGLs have been able to frag and excel tactically simultaneously, albeit rarely, and the 23-year-old has already shown that he has the capacity to do so. "Overall electroNic has one of the best understandings of the game," s1mple said before BLAST Premier Spring Final. "He can easily read opponents as well and he is really calm in pressure moments when you need to make a good call."
s1mple then confirmed his initial statement on the desk after winning the event in Portugal. "[electroNic]'s very smart," he said during the post-game interview, "he can outcall any IGL and he’s really good in mid-rounds when you just need to go, don’t use any nades, and they won’t even expect you." When asked if this was just a honeymoon period, s1mple also dismissed it, stating that with some work electroNic will be even better.
After just one event it is undoubtedly too early to know exactly where Natus Vincere stand, but there is also no other way to look at it than by seeing this as the best possible start to electroNic’s career as an in-game leader and a strong showing in favor of sdy sticking around. It is made ever more obvious by Natus Vincere calling the the 25-year-old back up to play at IEM Cologne, but early success begs one thorny question. Will this last?