w0nderful: The boyhood fan signed in NAVI's time of need
s1mple defined Natus Vincere in CS:GO, but they are entering CS2 with a new Ukrainian AWPer.
Ihor "w0nderful" Zhdanov has big shoes to fill. The 18-year-old sniper is preparing for his debut event with Natus Vincere, in Ukraine's finest organization and replacing the country's — and Counter-Strike's — finest player.
"s1mple is his idol, for w0nderful NAVI is probably the best team where he wants to play," former Spirit teammate Robert "Patsi" Isyanov tells HLTV. "He was playing literally with the same config as s1mple."
This is what one might expect from a Ukrainian AWPer like w0nderful who grew up in Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev's prime, watching him clinch three number-one placings in HLTV's Top 20 players of the year and average a 1.29 rating from July 2016 to the end of 2022.
Many players dream of being s1mple, but it is w0nderful who now must replace him. That challenge, for a player whose short career has not been without speed bumps, is one w0nderful may have craved in his youth as a NAVI fan but can easily turn into an unenviable task.
Ahead of BLAST Fall Final, where w0nderful will pull on the iconic black-and-yellow jersey for the first time, we dived into the stats and spoke to Patsi and Sprout coach Danny "BERRY" Krüger to find out if he is up to the test.
"Back when I was a player myself I had the chance to play against him and he completely destroyed me," BERRY recalls. "After the game, I had to watch the demo and I was very impressed with how he could be both fast and precise with the AWP."
The results, on paper, justified the gamble. In Sprout, w0nderful averaged a 1.29 rating and around 20 kills per 24 rounds — form that attracted Natus Vincere once s1mple made clear it was his intention to take a break from CS2.
The w0nderful of Sprout was a far-cry from the one utilised by Leonid "chopper" Vishnyakov in Spirit, a period in which both Patsi and magixx noted his tendency towards passive play with the Big Green.
Patsi pointed to Dmitry "sh1ro" Sokolov when we asked him about similar AWPers, a supportive early-round AWPer focussed on clutch situations and life preservation. On CT for Spirit, he was more of a turret compared to s1mple's flashy rotate frenzy.
In Sprout, however, the stats show that BERRY is right about an evolution of w0nderful's game. He is just above average for an AWPer in terms of opening attempts on both T and CT side, and his closest tier-one statistical doppelganger is Alvaro "SunPayus" Garcia, a very aggressive sniper.
Patsi believes that w0nderful "has better mechanics in-game than sh1ro but his macro is worse." He also put doubt on w0nderful's late-round prowess, saying that he "couldn't say that he is an insane clutcher honestly."
"His game depends on his mentality, if he is confident 'today' he is insane. There are two different versions of w0nderful that could be in-game, but if he can fix his mental problems he could be an insane AWPer."
Patsi pointed to Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy as a key figure in extracting the undoubted potential present in w0nderful, a coach who is no stranger to unlocking difficult characters and building a player's confidence.
One thing that does come with w0nderful is malleability. In Sprout, BERRY says that "he was very good with picks and plays if you asked him to do something. Even if he didn't try it before, he gave it a chance and made it work for him. Whatever we asked of him to do in Sprout he always tried to adapt and mostly he was successful."
w0nderful, for his part, is confident he can adapt once again. "In every team I joined, I learned some new stuff, and every time, I managed to do it faster," he told NAVI's YouTube channel. "I think everything will be okay, and I will feel super comfortable after just a couple of tournaments."
This is true of communication too, where speaking English in Sprout was "hard for him in the start but he got used to it," according to BERRY. "By the end of Sprout it never really felt like there were any problems for him with it."
w0nderful's journey to NAVI has not always been smooth sailing. He got into trouble with Ukraine's esports federation for playing alongside four Russians in Spirit, perhaps a factor behind his move out of the Russophone scene into Europe's tier two.
Still, dropping down to Sprout, who were undertaking a complete rebuild, was a less glamorous destination than many expected for an AWPer whose firepower was obvious.
That Spirit, with Danil "donk" Kryshkovets-mania gathering steam, chose to go with ArtFr0st over w0nderful could be interpreted as a lack of faith. "The main problem was that, after degster left, [Spirit] lost a third big voice," Patsi explains. Strong communication is a skill all AWPers require at the top level, and though w0nderful was more of an assertive carry in Sprout it is not something that improves overnight.
w0nderful, Mihai "iM" Ivan, and Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy are still all fairly quiet characters, and, though Justinas "jL" Lekavicius is louder, the vacuum created by the loss of voice as strong as s1mple's will be felt — whether that rears itself positively or negatively.
What is clear is that w0nderful is not s1mple. He is still a fairly passive sniper, and one that prefers to support his teammates by holding an angle rather than throwing a flashbang (his figure of 0.58 thrown per round is very low for an AWPer).
"I think he is so far from s1mple, not as in skill-wise, but they are just so far apart personality-wise," jL said on HLTV Confirmed. "It's a different player, even though he has s1mple’s sensitivity and video settings and all that stuff, he does not play like s1mple. s1mple is a phenomenon you cannot repeat. He understands the game is his own way, you cannot copy that, this is not the book."
What Natus Vincere will argue is that he does not need to be. Those rough edges can be smoothed out, and Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen has improved the games of Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov and Daniil "headtr1ck" Valitov in similar situations. w0nderful does not need to match prime 2021 s1mple for NAVI to be successful. Other players can help Aleksib in-game, while w0nderful continues to develop into a more assertive voice.
It is a time of managing expectations compared to the era when NAVI could pluck the finest talent from not just Ukraine but Russia, too. Now, they are but one of tens of organizations fishing from the same international pool of talent.
Inside the organization, that might seem too harsh an assessment. This is still Natus Vincere, the premier brand in Eastern Europe, and the team that can crack the five most-watched series in tournaments they are eliminated from in groups.
s1mple's departure can be framed as a pressure reliever in terms of immediate success, but it will probably not feel like that for w0nderful. He will need no reminding of the Counter-Strike heritage he is now part of. That type of pressure is as likely to make diamonds as it is to completely crush anything beneath it.
In an ideal world, he would be coming into NAVI a few years later, without the specter of s1mple's legacy hanging over him so immediately and with more experience under his belt.
In our world, an un-ideal one where opportunity's knock can come at any time, his time is now — and who knows if there will be another chance.
Objectives will have to be realistic. s1mple appears to have his eye on a rifling role, but could change his mind at any time and leave w0nderful in the lurch. But, should he be given time, Natus Vincere have picked up a home-nation talent who has years ahead of him and bags of potential.
w0nderful is mechanically excellent and a serious fragger. He is a solid rifler, and once he has an AWP it is very difficult to take it out of his hands. It is also early enough into his career that he can be formed how B1ad3 likes, and excel in CS2 without as much baggage of CS:GO holding him back.
But, what if we let ourselves dream a little? What if the boy that looked up to s1mple, to the extent that he has matched the GOAT's settings down to the exact sensitivity, could be his successful long-term replacement?
|BLAST Premier Fall Final 2023|