NIP COO calc raises 2023 expectations: "With this, I believe we can contend for Majors"
"It's the year where we can really go for it for a long time," calc says as he looks ahead into 2023 fresh off completing a year's worth of roster changes, finally bringing an end to question marks over AWPing with the signing of Daniil "headtr1ck" Valitov. "I really believe that 2023 is now where we can really give it time and say that, with this, I believe we can contend for Majors if we do our homework well enough, which I haven't felt confident about I would say ever, since joining NIP, honestly."
It's been a very long time since Ninjas in Pyjamas have been in the conversation to contend for Big Event titles. Their last dates back to late 2017, when the team still featuring the legendary core of Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund, Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg, and Richard "Xizt" Landström won IEM Oakland. Five years later, only Fredrik "REZ" Sterner remains from that team, as the organization has been chasing its dream of getting back to winning ways without success.
For brief period it looked like Ninjas in Pyjamas were on the brink of greatness when they made the blockbuster signing of Nicolai "device" Reedtz in early 2021. Their new superstar's MVP-worthy efforts yielded them an RMR title at IEM Fall later that year, but we all know how it turned out. The Dane went on leave at the end of 2021, sending Ninjas in Pyjamas down a spiral of uncertainty for the following year, until device eventually returned to his old home in Astralis.
"We lost a year, pretty much, because of unforeseen circumstances," calc says on the topic of how device's leave affected 2022. "You have the arguably one of the best players of all time that is supposed to AWP, and he's not available. That just causes a lot of turbulence, a lot of insecurity in the team, a lot of pausing. You're in-between as you're figuring out, 'is this a short-term thing, how do we go about that?'"
"That was definitely not part of the plan," the chief says. "When we signed device, he was the perfect piece of the puzzle for becoming more Scandinavian than Swedish and looking towards a more winning lineup."
Through the uncertainty, Ninjas in Pyjamas kept plugging the AWPing role all the while making incremental upgrades to the roster. "It was obvious from the get-go that we had to get a primary AWPer. But you work with what you have and also with the information that you have at the time," calc explains as he goes over the ways Ninjas in Pyjamas addressed the missing piece throughout 2022.
Academy member Love "phzy" Smidebrant stepped in for a time to take up the sniper, filling shoes that were clearly too big for him until Ninjas in Pyjamas acquired Ludvig "Brollan" Brolin from fnatic in late March. This was a massive signing of a player that was hailed as Sweden's best, bringing with it a promise of a better future. But despite the undisputable upgrade to firepower, Ninjas in Pyjamas's form didn't improve much. Top-eight finishes at PGL Major Antwerp and IEM Cologne were the highlight of the rest of the season and while Brollan had his highlight moments, he was missing the consistency that earned him consecutive top 20 appearances in 2019 and 2020.
"Ever since [I joined NIP], Brollan has been number one on my Christmas wishlist. Brollan was always someone we thought belonged at NIP," calc says. "With that said, in terms of results, I don't think it matters. 2022 was turbulent and it's not like Brollan can come in alone and then fix everything when we have a turbulent year going. We've not even seen the best of him yet. That's now, that's going to show, in a less turbulent environment."
After the second part of the season began came another key move that brought a cascade of changes inside the team. Ninjas in Pyjamas and calc jumped at the opportunity to acquire Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen after the Finn was benched in G2, moving even further away from their Swedish roots as they removed Nicolas "Plopski" Gonzalez Zamora, and making a clear statement that they are ready to go international with a switch to communication in English. Aleksib's arrival moved Hampus "hampus" Poser into the role of the secondary caller, a change calc says was in discussions for some time.
"The change of moving hampus away from the IGL has been somewhat of an evolving discussion with hampus himself and me," calc shares. "I believe a lot in hampus' talent, he's an incredible player that has so much to offer, but I always had this notion that I think he might be better as a second caller rather than an IGL."
Meanwhile, AWPing remained a question mark. From when Brollan came, the duties fell on Patrick "es3tag" Hansen, who had had some experience with the role, being a jack of all trades, but was far from a star AWPer that many teams revolve their play around. Once Aleksib was brought in, Ninjas in Pyjamas decided to give REZ the chance to try his hand at the Big Green for the first time in his career. This was met with a lot of criticism, and calc said the reason was simple — it was an attempt to empower REZ and the timing was right for Ninjas in Pyjamas to give it a try.
"It was a childhood dream or something that he always wanted to try out," the COO explains. "There is a strong case to be made for the fact that REZ could potentially be an incredibly good AWPer. He's a top-tier aimer, he's an incredibly smart player, he's got the movement and the way of thinking about the game that could fit a solid AWPing style. If there was ever a time [to try], this was probably it. And then we can look at it at the end of the year and say, 'was this it, or was this not it?'"
In the end, it turned out to be a dead end, and by the end of the year REZ had his mind set on returning to rifling. The new roster showed early signs of promise when they made it through the Europe RMR undefeated in their debut, but then bombed out of the IEM Rio Major in last place. "Me and REZ took a walk down in Rio," calc remembers. "We didn't even open a conversation about it before he was like 'yeah, I probably shouldn't do this, now it's out of my system and I miss rifling.'"
As the year was drawing to a close, calc says Ninjas in Pyjamas did a thorough review and analysis of how to keep progressing towards their goal of winning Majors. As a result, they set their sights on finally signing a primary AWPer again, after the device saga had officially come to an end at the end of October when he was acquired by Astralis. "It became clear in that process that we were going to try and find a main AWP player. The es3tag situation, that was the decision that made the most sense for the group," he says about the decision to remove es3tag in favor of the incoming signing before delving into how NAVI Junior prospect headtr1ck was chosen out of a field of candidates.
"headtr1ck was just hands down the best fit for us when we looked at all the parameters, from a performance standpoint, from a cultural standpoint, from a work ethic and everything like that. He speaks very good English, he's very mature for his age, and is a really nice guy. He really fits some of the values that we enjoyed, the same ethos, and how he goes about the game, in terms of energy levels, he just ticked a lot of boxes. The skill component I think no one can deny that he's one of the most interesting young AWPers out there at the moment."
The addition of an AWPer from a region far removed from Ninjas in Pyjamas' Nordic focus came as somewhat of a surprise to the community. Rumors swirled around that another promising young AWPer, Iulian "regali" Harjău, was one of the other candidates and he looked like a more obvious choice given that, although he is a Romanian citizen, he lives in Denmark and speaks Danish. calc did not specifically comment on other candidates but at least elaborated on whether he has any concerns over possible cultural differences between headtr1ck and the rest of the team.
"I always have concerns about cultural differences, because I think it's one of the biggest components into building high-functioning teams, that the culture works, the friendship is there, and that you can relate to each other. But I will say that we have a backroom staff of incredibly talented people that work around it that can be part of vetting people correctly and giving their opinions on it, understanding our and that person's culture fitting. That made us really comfortable that headtr1ck was the fit."
With the signing of headtr1ck, Ninjas in Pyjamas finally addressed the question marks that have hung over the AWPing role ever since device went on leave over a year ago. Now, calc is confident this is the lineup that can end the organization's Big Event title drought and perhaps even one that can win Majors.
"I'm going to say that, in 2023, we're going to win one of the big ones. That's our goal. There's a couple you can win: A couple of Majors, there's Pro Leagues, there's BLASTs, Cologne and Katowice, stuff like that — we're going to take one of those. And then we'll take it from there, that's the way we'll go about it."
"There's no doubt that, player by player, we've got it. We have got enough firepower to win a Major, I'm 100% convinced of that. Of course, it all has to click at the right time, but individually we now have all the pieces that we need to win something."
The new Ninjas in Pyjamas's season is about to begin with a debut in the BLAST Premier Spring Groups. Armed with their new AWPer, they are about to clash with Natus Vincere in Group C on Saturday at 12:00
|BLAST Premier Spring Groups 2023|