What did BLAST Spring Groups tell us about the new NAVI?
We take a first look at Natus Vincere's performance with their new youngster after 13 maps played.
Natus Vincere came into the first tournament of 2023 with a new roster, adding Andrii "npl" Kukharskyi as the permanent fifth man and removing Viktor "sdy" Orudzhev. This change was not greeted with widespread approval: npl struggled in his debut at the BLAST Premier World Final in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and even Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy admitted that removing sdy meant a "struggle" when it comes to having a deep map pool.
If the Ukrainian coach had his way, sdy would still be part of a six-man roster for Natus Vincere, with npl gradually introduced map-by-map. Instead, the academy graduate has been thrown into the deep end as a mainstay on the roster. But, npl's own form is only one part of Natus Vincere's new look going into 2023, his arrival having a knock-on effect on the roles of all five players. It is a true rebuild, not a plug and play.
The most obvious change is with Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy, who is now the main anchor on CT side. This even extends to spots like B on Mirage, with Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy — who is widely regarded as the world's best support player and was HLTV's 2022 Anchor of the Year — moved to the more active position on B Short.
Having a player of b1t's ability on B Apartments duty might be puzzling initially, but there is logic behind the decision. b1t already anchored spots like Ramp on Nuke and A on Ancient, and moved to Pit on Inferno at the back end of 2022. His supreme aim is perfect for shutting down rushes, deleting opponents and disrupting spacing with a few clicks of his mouse. His new positions may not see the most action, but they are among the most important.
Another possible explanation is that, with b1t's form on a down-trend at the back end of 2022, the decision was taken to divert resources to Perfecto. There might be an element of truth in this, but b1t still has plenty of room to flourish.
b1t's new CT roles have synergy with his move to more passive (those usually reserved for star players) T side positions after the arrival of the aggressive npl, whose aggression is crucial for Natus Vincere as they have lacked a true entry since Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov's departure. b1t is the hard lurk on Anubis and Inferno and is rarely near the pack on the other three maps we have seen from the new Natus Vincere. This helped him win six clutches (joint third) at BLAST Spring — his path ahead appears to be one of a pure closer.
It is not just on Mirage that Perfecto, the go-to example of a support player, may be putting doubt on that label. In Natus Vincere's debut on Anubis it was he who played in the B Connector, a spot he shares with Håvard "rain" Nygaard and Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis — not his usual analogues. His roles now appear more like Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken's in FaZe, taking the supportive positions when required but still having space on more than a few maps.
npl is the true support player now, given the leftover positions. He is their most-traded player, with high opening kill attempts on T side but not CT side. These two stats usually describe a supportive entry fragger, and that is true for npl too. His aggression is used to set up b1t and Perfecto, rather than a sign of any true freedom.
But, this decision is not final. On Mirage he plays in the A Connector, the pre-eminent star rifle position. Natus Vincere and B1ad3 are still giving him the opportunity to show his potential, even if he has a lot of the dirty work on most maps.
npl's move to Connector displaces IGL Denis "electroNic" Sharipov from another of his trademark positions, having already lost Pit on Inferno to b1t in 2022. Since taking up the in-game leader mantle his role has changed to the point that he was the second most aggressive player at BLAST Spring Groups by opening kill attempts (31.2%).
He has the freedom to search for openings on both sides of the map and, if necessary, leave his pack behind. By the stats from BLAST Spring, electroNic looks more like an Andrei "arT" Piovezan, YEKINDAR or Vladislav "nafany" Gorshkov than himself. He has made some sacrifices to his CT positions, but that has come with a huge amount of independence in terms of the plays he can make.
Natus Vincere have never publicly considered the idea that electroNic is only a temporary IGL; they are fully on board with the idea that this is the way forward. With B1ad3 as the true shot-caller, electroNic's role is simpler than many of the other in-game leaders in the scene and should leave him free to frag more than conventional captains. Still, it is hard to tell whether electroNic's increased aggression is something he is truly comfortable with or simply an attempt to gather information at any cost to aid his calling.
Aside from a short honeymoon at BLAST Premeir Spring Final in 2022 (1.25 rating), he has struggled since taking the responsibility, averaging a 1.04 rating in the last six months of play. The 24-year-old, however, had already seen a drop in form at the start of 2022 — he only averaged a 1.08 rating in 2022 before taking the IGL mantle, the same as his average rating since.
The brutal fact of the matter is that electroNic has been a top-level professional since 2017; not many star players have remained star players over a six year period. The calls to instill a new IGL to release electroNic back to more comfortable star rifling positions will not stop until trophies arrive, but there is no guarantee that his form will instantly improve if that comes to pass.
There is also doubt, perhaps for the first time, about Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev's durability. The greatest player of all time may have won the Player of the Year for a record third time in 2023 but he only mustered two MVPs, compared to eight in 2021 and six in 2018 the last time he achieved that feat. There is a perception that s1mple has struggled in the last six months, but he has still put up a 1.19 rating.
s1mple's peak will not last forever. There have been struggles, such as in the Major playoffs against FURIA. But, it is not time to sound the funeral bells just yet: In a supposed slump, he is still 7th in LAN rating over the last six months (Min 40 maps). Whether Natus Vincere get themselves together or not, s1mple is unlikely to be what swings the balance; his form will remain at the very top, like it always has.
Instead, the question marks are on the riflers. Will Perfecto put up stronger numbers in more active positions? Can b1t adapt to a more defined role? How will npl adapt to tier one? How long will they persevere with electroNic as the IGL? These are the areas that Natus Vincere need to find answers in.
Natus Vincere are still experimenting. They are in a complete rebuild, such is the quantity of changes. There is a concrete chance that by IEM Katowice much of this has already changed, as they tweak and tweak in a search to recapture their form of 2021. Chances are it will be a slow process, with an aim to peak before the Paris Major if not further into the year.
Re-building so drastically is a brave choice, but one with clear underlying logic behind it. electroNic was at a cross-roads, and with a dearth of Ukrainian IGLs it was always likely he would continue as captain. Taking even more on-meta IGL positions is a natural consequence of that doubling down. b1t was previously a hard player to define, but has embraced lurking and anchoring. Perfecto is still supportive, but closer to the pack and with a few active CT positions thrown in, an opportunity to show just how over-qualified he is as the nominated 'support player.'
It is a blueprint closer to FaZe, with more defined roles and clearer responsibilities. To make such a drastic shift speaks to Natus Vincere's unhappiness with 2022, a year in which they were the second best team but only grabbed one trophy. It is a shift that, if nothing else, still shows how much effort they are putting into reclaiming the crown the war in Ukraine took from them. They go into 2023 with a new system, and all eyes set upon a new era.