STYKO: "CacaNito is like a gem hidden in the rocks"
Apeks kicked off their season at the IEM Cologne Play-in with a victory against BIG in their opening best-of-one. A nail-biter against Astralis followed, in which they dropped the ball late on the Ancient decider as they were unable to close the map out on the CT side and lost it in overtime.
Before traveling to Germany, in the summer break Apeks lost a crucial player in their rise in the spring season, Justinas "jL" Lekavicius, who was signed to a Natus Vincere side turning into an international European squad with the additions of in-game leader Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen and Romanian breakout rifler Mihai "iM" Ivan.
Enter CacaNito, Apeks in-game leader Damjan "kyxsan" Stoilkovski’s former teammate from BLUEJAYS and a player on several teams' radar. He even aroused interest from teams such as Endpoint and ENCE in previous off-seasons, but in the end the likes of Lotan "Spinx" Giladi and Guy "NertZ" Iluz took precedence. This time, he was Apeks' first option.
"We were happy that we didn't have to go through our list of players, and the list was long," STYKO says. It makes sense that CacaNito was Apeks' top pick, as his most attractive qualities were a similarity to the outgoing jL: aggressiveness, raw aim and a willingness to take duels.
As with any negotiation, nothing was sure until ink was put to paper, but there were many factors playing a role in the signing going forward. "I'm pretty sure we were the highest-ranking team that tried to get him," STYKO says, "we had secured at least three or four tournaments after the break, and joining back up with kyxsan obviously could have played a big role. Also, there's the fact that we came off of a hot streak at the end of last season. Maybe all of these things played a role, but I'd say it was a no-brainer for him to join and I'm happy he did."
After Apeks’ semi-final finish at the Major it’s also impressive that the team only lost one of its pieces at a time in which bigger fish were feasting on their smaller counterparts. Other teams that surpassed expectations in Paris, GamerLegion and Into the Breach, lost two players each. "That was a pretty good thing because I feel like with jL leaving, sure, our structure was damaged a little bit, and our system was damaged a bit, but at the same time it's not like he was an irreplaceable part of the team," STYKO says.
"jL also has weaknesses he knows about and he's probably working on it. I immediately took it like, 'alright, maybe we lose a bit of firepower and experience, but we'll improve in this thing that sometimes bothered the team and hindered our performance.' I was always looking at the positives.
"What we are losing is a bit of expertise, jL was with us for half a year and we were building the system together from tier 3 to tier 2 to tier 1 and it obviously worked. Now CacaNito has to jump through those two tiers and into tier 1 immediately, which is kind of overwhelming, so we're losing a bit of that smoothness on the server, that calmness when it comes to knowing what to do. He has to process a little bit more stuff.
"But what we're gaining is a very mentally stable guy that's ice cold in tense situations, yet at the same time he's hyping up his teammates and is very selfless. These were qualities we were missing a bit in the old roster. I won't talk about shooting because I think they're both great aimers and great shooters, that's besides the point."
STYKO says CacaNito is "like a gem hidden in the rocks" and isn’t sure why he wasn’t picked up before because his potential to become a tier 1 quality player is laying under the surface. Although adaptation to a new team undoubtedly comes with growing pains, integrating him has so far been a smooth process. As a similar player to jL, slotting him in hasn’t led to chaos, although there has still been some positional overlap with Joakim "jkaem" Myrbostad. Luckily, he's a good fit in terms of personality has helped ease the transition.
"CacaNito is very chill outside of the game, stable and consistent inside of the game, and very good with communication," STYKO says. "He's generally a good guy and brings vibes we were missing because jkaem and I tend to be a bit more passive when it comes to showing emotions. We're calm guys, so we need some hype from these young guys. Both him and kyxsan bring that Macedonian Balkan power, so we're happy to have them and they're doing their job when it comes to hyping the team up."
A lot of the adaptation also comes down to the specific journey Apeks have been on. For Jakub "kuben" Gurczynski, jkaem and STYKO it has been a story of falling and fighting their way through the mud back to big events. This rise from tier 3 has been one of figuring out tendencies and protocols, but more importantly creating an identity. CacaNito was not there to live those trials, and now much of the work the team is doing is for him to understand how to play certain situations in line with that identity.
"At times he thinks a bit different than us, which isn't necessarily a bad way of playing, but it can be bad when four teammates are playing differently," STYKO says. "So he's not on the same page, but it's a part of the process and it's normal that he feels this way and that it happens when we've only been together for two or three weeks."
CacaNito also happened to join Apeks at a time in which many teams made changes during one of the most memorable off-season markets. This has brought about new strategies and playbooks have been rewritten, meaning that anti-stratting is less of a factor and individual skill can shine through, which could be a good thing for him.
Much of the work to grease the machinery comes from kuben, a veteran coach who earned his stripes as a skipper standing behind Poland’s most decorated players in Virtus.pro after his own playing career with many of them. As he was back in VP, he is now the glue in Apeks. "He's the glue between the IGL and each teammate, between the organization and the management and the team," STYKO says.
"He's also a father figure and a mentor to many of us. He's just making sure that we play to the best of our abilities, that we're mentally prepared and prepared in and out of the game. I'm impressed with how he's dealing with everything, how he's juggling everything. Sometimes he's a hard coach, but sometimes he's a good friend of ours. It's this healthy relationship we have that I think is pushing us forward. I've never had the pleasure to play with this kind of coach and I really like it so far. Props to him and what he's doing, and also how Apeks is enabling him in how much of a say he has in the team."
kuben is also bringing CacaNito up to speed, talking to the newcomer about CS when they go on walks, when they travel, when they bootcamp, and on any possible occasion. "It's literally CS all of the time," STYKO says.
"We understand the importance of discussing CS a lot even if we're not at the PCs. He's just making sure that he not only explains it to CacaNito, but that CacaNito understands it so that he doesn't play like a robot. When you have an aimer that plays like a robot, he's not going to focus on that anymore, he's going to focus on protocols, on strats, on the playbook, and on the text on the piece of paper in front of him. Then you might as well bring anyone into the team. We need people to think instinctively so that it enables this potential when it comes to shooting."
Now, with a new player in tow, Apeks are ready to continue their charge and try to become more established among the pool of top teams. Their opening victory against BIG and a strong performance against Astralis are a good start, but they are taking nothing for granted.
"First of all, we're not a partner team, and second of all, jkaem, kuben and I were all a part of these events almost every time they were happening before. We dropped out of that for years and were grinding to make it back. Now that we're here we're not letting it slip." STYKO says. "Second, there are only so many spots at each event. Many of them are distributed between partner teams, and I feel like for these teams it's impossible to drop out of the top 20 if you're both a BLAST and ESL partner team, unless you're making a heavy amount of roster changes like EG and BIG.
"Other teams will just never fall out of the top 20, it's just impossible. I don't think it's a healthy circuit right now, so hopefully with CS2 there will be some changes. We'll see, but for now I'm not a fan of it. Maybe I'm a bit salty because I'm not a part of it, but I'm optimistic that it will change and we can be this team like Gambit when they made it into these events and stayed on top fighting to be the best in the world. It's a long way still, but at least us being competitive in these tournaments is a huge step forward and I'm hoping to do well here in Cologne if we make it to the main event.
"Tomorrow we have a decider game and that's all that matters for us. We're not thinking about the main event, the arena, or anything like that. We probably overperformed at the Major and we can't take arena games for granted, so we're just focused on that."