Photo: By Bart Oerbekke For ESL
NRG have finally made the CS:GO Major. For the team, this is a milestone event as this will be the first time this lineup attends a Major. The lineup of: Jacob “FugLy” Medina, Damian “daps” Steele, Vincent “Brehze” Cayonte, Cvetelin “CeRq” Dimitrov, and Ethan “nahtE” Arnold have been together for over a year. Each of these players has gone through noticeable growth in the last year as they have gone from a tier two team to a regular playoff team in large international tournaments.
The Glass Ceiling of Competition
To understand why the rise of NRG is special, we have to understand what esports competition is at its core. Competition is a competence pyramid where a deliberate evaluation is made after every series. You either win or you lose. While each separate instance requires context to determine overall individual and team value, if the experiment is repeated enough, the best will rise.
So when we talk about the competitive CS:GO scene, each rung on the competitive ladder sees a certain amount of players hit their ceiling and then drop out of the race. They best way to perceive this is the major circuit. The major starts with open qualifiers where hundreds of teams participate. Only a few dozen survive to the closer qualifier stage. Among the teams remaining, only two make it out of the minor, with third place having to battle it out with three other teams for two spots. Once you get to the Challenger stage, only 32 teams are left. Eight of them are seeded from their performance at the last Major in the legends stage. Among the 16 teams that are in the Challengers stage, half will be eliminated. As the tournament goes on, team after team, player after player is taken out in a ritualized combat to see which among the remaining teams in the tournament deserves the honor of hoisting the major trophy.
That is just one tournament, but if you iterate that experiment across a long period of time over dozens of tournaments and matches, average those results, and you will get the average expected result and ceiling of each team and player. In a vast majority of cases, most players can’t find a way to break their glass ceiling and climb further up the competitive standings. What makes NRG so special is that nearly all of the players did exactly that in their 2018 campaign.
The Assembly of NRG
The longest standing member of NRG is FugLy. Back in 2015-2016, he was removed from the Liquid team and replaced with Oleksandr “s1mple’ Kostyliev. While he was a fairly good role player on Liquid, that skill didn’t translate to the other teams he joined. He first joined CLG for the first half of 2016 and then later joined the German iteration of NRG, the one where Fatih “gob b” Dayik was in-game leading. From 2016-2017, FugLy had a mediocre career and it looked like he had hit his ceiling of how far he could go in his career. It looked like his best chance to make it to the top was years behind him.
The next two members that joined to eventually create the modern NRG squad were Brehze and Daps. Brehze was the talk of the NA scene when he first debuted on Selfless as potentially the next big talent. He did fairly well online and was eventually picked up by NRG at the end of 2016. However through 2017, his play on LAN never reached the original hype that surrounded him and by the time 2018 rolled around, the community no longer considered him a hot prospect waiting to burst into the scene.
The other player was daps. Daps was a tier 2 NA in-game leader who was left behind by his teams after he had taken them to a certain point. In the case of Denial, he helped make them a good roster up until they joined Liquid, at which point he was removed. He did the same with OpTic until the team made a move to get Tarik “tarik” Celik. After that the team removed him from in-game leader and had Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz take the role instead.
The 2017 run with NRG wasn’t nearly as successful as the team never truly came together. By the end of 2017, though daps was able to recruit a fairly unknown talent in CeRq, who’d end up lighting up scoreboards in 2018. However for daps, the year looked to be a disaster and he was on the verge of hanging it all up.
“I didn’t even want to play anymore at this time last year. I was that miserable. I was willing to coach or completely quit” – Daps from an HLTV interview
By the end of 2017, those rosters looked to be the high points of his career. Daps was looking to hang it up as he became the coach of NRG. The NRG project hadn’t gone the way he and the org had hoped up to that point as they had continued to scout out young unfostered talent throughout that period, which included players like: Allan “AnJ” Jensen, Dylan “RIKO” Sabin-Arnce, Omar “MarkE” Jimenez, and Derrik “LILMAN” Boyne. While daps had managed to bring up two NA rosters before, it looked like he couldn’t do it a third time.
However after a few weeks of being a coach, NRG reverted the decision as daps came back to play. While 2017 was a painful and long year, 2018 was to become his best as NRG got the final piece of the puzzle in nahtE. NahtE was one of the star players from Pujan “FNS” Mehta’s CLG squad in 2017 and was able to achieve decent success. His addition was the final catalyst that NRG needed to accelerate their growth and become a top team in the world.
NRG Taken as a Whole
“If you saw our roster before the start of the year, no one expected us to be top 10.” – Daps from ddk’s podcast
Going into 2018, the team was largely inexperienced. Outside of fugLy and daps, none of these players had ever gotten close to playing for a top 10 team in the world. For daps this was to be the best lineup of his career. At this point, he had the experience and understanding to figure out how to use all of these young players to their maximum potential. At the same time, he was able to acquire the players with the right attitude.
This is critical as daps has noted in the podcast with ddk that dealing with attitudes and getting players to stop fighting with each other was one of the hardest jobs as an in-game leader. In this squad that wasn’t an issue as all five of them got along and had a similar mindset when it came to playing Counter-Strike. On top of that, daps tactical style had become more varied. In the early days, he was a far more explosive and caller. During his OpTic days he learned how to call a more default oriented and proper style of Counter-Strike. By the time 2018 rolled around, he had learned how to call a wide gamut of styles from executes, rushes, a loose individualistic style, 4-1s, and defaults.
This increased experience made him realize that while tactics were important, it was the player’s individual ability that could make such tactics excel. In the podcast with ddk, he tells him that he had the team focus more on their individual game better. At understanding their role in the game and updating their individual styles of play.
Finally, the team was a well constructed lineup that made use of all of its various parts. The three main stars of the team were Brehze, nahtE, and CeRq. Brehze grew in strength over the year as he became a better lurker and partial entry player for the squad. nahtE came into his own as he moved from lurking to becoming an entry fragger for the team. CeRq was their dynamic mobile AWPer who could go toe-to-toe with many of the big names in the scene skillswise. The team was rounded out by the two supportive elements of daps and FugLy.
Beating and Falling Below Expectations
2018 was a year where NRG simultaneously beat and fell below expectations. No one expected them to do that well before the year started, so the community was surprised when they started to destroy the competition online. They were then tagged as onliners as they didn’t do well at their first events at IEM Sydney and ESL Proleague Season 7 Finals.
They then destroyed expectations at StarLadder i-League Season 5 where they made it to the finals by defeating HellRaisers, Liquid, and North. This was to be the team’s story throughout the year as they oscillated from success to failure. They’d lose the Americas Minors failing, only to win IEM Shanghai. They’d bomb out of DreamHack Stockholm and then get top four at ESL New York by defeating FaZe 2-0. They’d beat FaZe at ESL New York, but lose to Vega at StarLadder i-League Season 6. At IEM Chicago, they beat MIBR in a bo3 series and then get upset by LDLC.
NRG’s level of inconsistency was maddening, but understandable. None of their star players had ever played at this level or with this level of expectation. These were growing pains from a squad that was still trying to realize it’s full potential. Among their challenges, the biggest comes from high stage pressure matches.
The Pressure, the Minor, and the Major
For a squad like NRG, pressure is their Achilles heel. The only way to deal with pressure is to experience it yourself and learn how to deal with it. It is similar to how players need a first victory to gain the confidence needed to know that they can compete with the best in the world. Daps noted this when he talked about Brehze’s development,
“Before Odense last year, Brehze had never beaten a European team in any sort of form, be it best-of-one or best-of-three. Once they realized they can compete against the top players in the world, they got comfortable instantly.”
For NRG, the psychological pressure of massive tournaments gets to them. The biggest example was the Americas Minor for the Faceit Major. In that tournament, NRG were far and away the favorites to win the event as people had them already pegged as a potential playoff team for the Major. Instead eUnited eliminated NRG at the Minor. In that event, the pressure manifested in their comms. They were unable to communicate and play like they usually do and that made a huge difference in the play of the day.
In many other teams, that could have been a loss that broke the team apart. However in NRG, the players all realized that they had a bad day, but they could learn from that experience. They proved just that as they were able to smash the Americas Minor for the IEM Katowice Major in 2019.
In essence, what NRG believe in is their ability to grow. This is one of the few lineups to have survived past the one year mark in CS:GO. A vast majority of teams will have already hit their ceilings as a squad once they hit the year mark, but in NRG it may not be the case. After all, nearly all of these players have forced us to re-evaluate them and their careers through 2018.
Before 2018 started no one expected much from the NRG team. FugLy was a known quantity who looked unable to get any further in his career. Daps was a good in-game leader at a lower level, but couldn’t hang with the top. Brehze was hyped for a bit before being lost in the shuffle of up-and-coming players. CeRq was a relative unknown from Bulgaria that no one was looking for. NathE had shown some promise on CLG, but nothing that could have prepared foretold this.
By the end of 2019, FugLy has shown himself as one of the best support players the NA region has produced, daps proved he could lead a top 10 team in the world with players that have never been there, CeRq has the potential to be among the best AWPers in the world, while Brehze and nahtE are considered incredible NA talents that can play at an international level. For NRG, 2018 has been a period of growth as every player on this squad has reached career heights that none of them expected. Now all of that growth will be tested at the Major. There we will see if NRG can shatter our expectations again and show us that can grow to be even better than they are now.