iM: "I cannot be the guy who's saving the team"
Two months into his NAVI career, iM is still getting to grips with his new environment.
Adapting to Natus Vincere hasn't been easy for Mihai "iM" Ivan. The Romanian broke out at the Paris Major with a performance second only to MVP Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, a show that attracted the attention of one of Counter-Strike's biggest organizations as they transitioned to an English-speaking lineup.
He was signed to be the star rifler, filling the aggressive role left behind by Denis "electroNic" Sharipov in high-action CT rotator spots and as the primary spacetaker on T side. iM, unlike many players who step up to big teams, got his spots in NAVI. The platform was there for him to perform.
But it has been tough going, at least so far. He has recorded 0.99, 0.92, and 0.95 ratings in his first three events in the black-and-yellow. "To be honest, there is a lot of hate towards me," iM admits in an interview with HLTV before Group C of ESL Pro League. "But I take it, I don't mind."
"I was in GamerLegion for three years, so whenever we created a team [it was] around me. We didn't play 100% around me, but it was easier to play because we had a lot of time together."
Natus Vincere, however, is still a work in progress. Communication was always going to be difficult for Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy and even for Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, who said he will "feel more comfortable in a few months."
On that basis, Natus Vincere have done about as well as expected; qualifying for BLAST Fall Finals and a top eight finish at Cologne and Gamers8 are promising foundations for a completely new lineup. Expectations have to be reset after Natus Vincere had spent so long making playoffs at each and every event.
Despite decent team results, the spotlight has been on iM's performances. So, is his form a concern, and what is causing it?
Creating synergy in a team built from scratch is always a challenge, and the process can harm individual form. iM noted how he and Isak "isak" Fahlén had played together for two years, knowing exactly "what to do with him in a clutch or on the same site." In NAVI, iM has not played with any of his four new teammates before, and the same is true for Justinas "jL" Lekavicius and Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen.
For iM, this is naturally intertwined with his own individual form. "I know myself, if there is a good environment and chemistry I can play well. If my team is playing better, I'll play better. I cannot be the guys who's saving the team."
His role is an unforgiving one, too. In a new team that can sometimes look disjointed, it is the spacetakers like iM that are left out to dry, running out for an execute that has mistimed flashes or missed smokes.
In GamerLegion, iM was more of a lone wolf than a bomb-site entry fragger, allowed to prowl for openings on his own based on timing and intuition. Plays like lurking out of Connector on Mirage as the team executed onto A were his forte.
The same is true on paper in Natus Vincere, but iM does entry more often nowadays to make space for s1mple, or for the others. Part of this comes from role — there is no Nicolas "Keoz" Dgus figure in NAVI, someone who would bear part of the bomb-site entry fragging burden in GamerLegion — but there is also a sense of humility and a distinct lack of ego from iM.
"Sometimes I have a bad habit, maybe not always bad, but if a teammate is close to me and he's shooting or blind, I have a habit of helping him instantly. But sometimes you need to leave them to die, because then you can flank and so on. I still need to learn how to bait, but in a good way."
He has also swapped a few positions, losing B Short on Mirage where he averaged a 1.26 rating. He still has a star role in Connector, but has averaged a 0.95 CT rating there on what used to be his best map. "In Connector you have more things to do," iM says. "You need to care more about A hits, boost window, flanks, connector, lurkers. It's a bit tricky."
It is a similar journey to that of Lotan "Spinx" Giladi in Vitality, arriving as a star rifler from a smaller organization and being expected to deliver immediately. Both were the main stars in their old lineups — and, coincidentally, B Short players who initially struggled in Connector — with Frederik "acoR" Gyldstrand and Olek "hades" Miskiewicz taking far less room than the two best players of this generation in s1mple and ZywOo.
All of this adds pressure. iM used to look to his side and see long-term teammate isak and coach Ashley "ash" Battye, who frequently worked with him one-on-one. Now, it is Major winners s1mple and b1t, with Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy calling the shots from above and enforcing a "tournament-winning environment."
iM could also be forgiven for feeling the weight of the NAVI jersey, something unlike anything he has experienced to this point. Unfounded rumors that suggested a sky-high buyout price are also unwelcome for a player who has only played three Big Events in his career.
It was always likely that his performance in Paris was an overperformance. He had been having a very strong 2023 online beforehand, but it would be unfair to expect Nikola "NiKo" Kovač-level performances consistently. Teams now have plenty of data on him at tier one too, meaning adaptation is necessary.
"I struggle most when there is a situation that never happened in practice," iM says, which has happened a lot given how late Natus Vincere secured their new lineup before the opening event of the season. The first time they played Ancient together was in an official, a 16-8 loss to Astralis.
A two-week bootcamp in Berlin before ESL Pro League is hopefully going to change that: "Now, we know each other better in game, outside of the game, we have more time to go outside, to spend time together even not on the server and it's much, much easier."
Switching to international was always going to be a long-term project for Natus Vincere. Doing so with a nine-month runway until the Copenhagen Major was the perfect opportunity, especially once electroNic and Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy departed the project of their own volition.
Natus Vincere, as a whole, are performing well considering the magnitude of change they are undertaking. But, if they are to get back to their rightful place in the biggest arenas and competing for the grandest titles, iM knows more is expected from him.
Consistency is hard to find for any aggressive rifler, but iM was signed to be a star and has the freedom and positions to be one. In GamerLegion, a bad map was one where he dropped below a 1.00 rating; in Natus Vincere, so far, that is his average. Changing that should be at the top of Aleksib and B1ad3's to-do list.
Nobody needs to remind iM of the pressure he is under. But, iM, regardless of his slow start, has more than earned his chance in the big leagues. He is capable of rising to the occasion. What remains to be seen is whether he will.