The Thorin Treatment: FaZe Couldn't Buy Success
"I've never seen a bag of money score a goal."
-Johan Cruyff, legendary Dutch footballer and coach
FaZe are one of the most expensive and highest paid teams in the world and the history of competitive Counter-Strike, yet their results have been a mockery of such investment and compensation. Since being acquired in January of this year, the team's different lineups have played at eight offline competitions and failed to progress from the group stage of a single one. This in a year where teams like Gambit and FlipSid3 have made it out of the group stage at majors and Cloud9 have returned from irrelevancy to play in the final of tier two events.
Worse than simply breaking the hearts of their fans or disappointing their employers, has been the nature in which FaZe has fallen short. It's not that they have simply been beaten down and never allowed into games in the first place. At the last three offline events for the team, they have won the opening game of their group, only to lose the winners' match and then the deciding best-of-three series (Bo3). In fact, FaZe have not won a single Bo3 series over a team ranked top 10 at the time in all of 2016.
It's not as if FaZe lacks for talent either. The whole reason they command such high salaries have much more expected of them is that they have been home to players who have been stars in other teams in the CS:GO scene, often performing in those teams at a higher level than they have done during their tenure in FaZe.
The shallow pool
One of FaZe's problems, indicative of their seemingly meaningless search for a distinct identity, can be seen in their ever shallow map pool. The only map they have consistently shown any strength on has been train, which has also left it as an easy ban for opponents. Mirage was once upon a time a good map for them, and continued to be online, only for the team themselves to move away from picking it. Opponents did not even ban the map against them, with the exception of a G2 who ban Mirage against essentially everyone.
Move outside of those two maps and FaZe's map pool is an evaporated stone container awaiting some sign of moisture. They beat FNATIC on dust2 at the last major, yet have not focused upon the map or been able to cement it as a go-to. Cache has betrayed them on a number of occasions and letting Nuke in has shown its own problems. Overpass has always been a fear of theirs, being their usual ban, and cbble has seen them practically incapable of playing the map within the meta-game of any of the top teams, due to how much coordination the Terrorist side of it takes. They were 16:0'd on it by FNATIC in the ELEAGUE group stage and even lost it to a rag-tag CLG in the Last Chance Qualifier.
Turning star players into simply players
One of the most criminal aspects of FaZe has been how otherwise talented players, who have the potential to be stars or have been in the past, have been seemingly neutralised by close proximity to one another and their roles within FaZe. When the core of the team was G2, they had players like ScreaM, Maikelele, Rain and jkaem all showing world-beating performances over maps or series. Now, FaZe find most of their talent unable to even approach their levels of old.
jkaem's MVP level run at DreamHack Cluj-Napoca is what got them past Virtus.pro and had them a round from playing in the final of that major, yet the Norwegian is the most troubled would-be star in the entire team, seemingly devoid if genuine confidence in himself or his team at this point. He has shown some of the worst performances of his career recently, averaging 0.35 FPR at DreamHack Bucharest, a number which is inconceivable for someone of his talent level. On dust2, against Dignitas, he supplied only six kills and averaged 32 ADR. In the elimination game against the same team, he again managed only six kills and this time a mildly less appalling 38 ADR.
Despite such incredible lows, jkaem is one of the true untapped talents of the Nordic region and had shown good form at StarSeries S2, the offline even prior to Bucharest. He remains someone capable of incredible individual play, racking up 30 kills against even world class opposition, and yet also a risk to drop off entirely in the same circumstances and become a walking kill reward dispenser.
Rain has been one of the few bright spots in FaZe and it's no surprise that transfer rumours have surrounded him the whole year as a result. Yet Rain is not suited to being a hard carry player and his versatility means he would be best fit with other star talents who are performing, so he can win clutches and play intelligently outside of just headshotting opponents.
Aizy has been the star role candidate who has most lived up to his billing, with some issues in Bucharest, and yet one still remembers his excellence in Dignitas in the Summer of last year. It also says a lot that put into Dignitas again this year, as a stand-in for Power-LAN and WESG European Finals, he immediately looked like a solid star level player again, in contrast to his reduced performance in FaZe.
kioShiMa has been fairly average in FaZe and looks to almost be going through the motions while he awaits an inevitable move back to a French team, where he can be reengaged and compete for titles. Newest addition allu has been solid, but looks sapped of the ambitions of star player play that he showed going into NiP and during his early days with the Ninjas.
The most recent FaZe lineup has failed in the same way as many of the past ones, yet that does not excuse a mistake of the previous lineups in holding onto fox for so long. Removing him from the team cost them nothing, making one wonder exactly what he brought to the collective unit, and if anything has just given them a more reliable AWPing presence and someone who is not a liability on such an expensive weapon.
Falling from the balance beam
A clear problem for FaZe is that the team roster looked like a random fan's attempt to build a top squad out of star talents who weren't already on top teams. Imagine a football team made only out of strikers and attacking mid fielders, or a basketball squad composed only of shooting guards and aggressive point guards. There is a reason traditional sports have a balance of roles and esports games have followed down a similar route of developing a meta-game of role balancing: because it provides a structure for the stars to have the resources to shine and perform, while also setting in place who the supportive players should help.
FaZe has lacked for both supportive style players and a true in-game leading presence, with now FNATIC player dennis being the closest they came, back in the G2 days, and even then someone known for a looser and faster playing style, as opposed to a tactical focus. Put together a lot of stars and you will end up with a team like FaZe, where either everyone tries to make plays and there is no coordination or star players sit around letting someone else have "their turn" to take the initiative. Were Rain not so talented at winning in clutch round situations, one wonders how many times FaZe would have been dead in the water purely from scenarios where they have lost rounds with man advantage, pushed or peeking in an uncoordinated manner.
Understandably, speaking a variety of different languages and many of them incompatible, it will be harder for a composition like FaZe's to have good team-play and communication, but that puts even more emphasis on their role balance to allow their stars to shine. Consider how a squad like G2 has a far more dangerous fire-power component with arguably less skill present in the lineup.
In other teams, you have less skilled but more reliable players whose supportive style can benefit the team without necessarily requiring them to get kills. markeloff is praised by team-mates for his ability to stay alive and hold a site as CT. Maniac was a man who did whatever the team asked of him. It's not even that FaZe has lacked players who could play a more supportive style, but more that they seem to have ignored the concept of role balance entirely.
Imagine if allu and Rain, the two most stable players, had been the supportive core, with jkaem and Aizy set-up to be the stars of the show. Of course, that leaves the question of what to do with kioShiMa, but his old role of entry fragger in LDLC and nV was one which could benefit such a squad. FaZe never accomplished this kind of conceived unit and as such squandered the talents and strengths of their players.
Marquee movies can still suck
Those who know the history of financial success and rabid fanbases that the big CoD orgs, such as FaZe, have built up, may cynically suggest that FaZe simply bought the team and its players for name value and just wanted to appeal to a wide cross-section of fans, which their international flavour did, and rack up sticker money at CS:GO majors.
Certainly, they succeeded in that respect, as the numbers showed them topping said sticker money charts at the last major, but one has to wonder how much more effectively actual in-game success could be marketed. Imagine this machine surrounding and working with a squad which wins or places highly at tier one tournaments. Of course, that might require replacing a big name or two with one who has less star power, as we now see with karrigan's arrival.
The poisoned chalice
karrigan comes into a situation where he not only has to bring success to the team, but effectively has to build from the ground up. It's as if the parts for a high performance car lay around him in the junk yard, but he must not only have the knowledge to identify what each part is, but what it does and then the technical skill to assemble it and then pilot it. That analogy perhaps belies how difficult a task karrigan faces when you consider that a mechanic with driving talent at least does not have to convince an engine it is an engine, which may yet be his task in FaZe.
Your author speculates that karrigan's first order of business should be establishing Aizy as a star, in line with what he has done in Danish lineups. From there he must find a way to make jkaem dangerous, confident and prominent. Rain can take care of himself and will fit in a successful lineup, so that just leaves the leader himself and allu. allu has played with karrigan before, so I expect them to have an undersanding, so karrigan must find a way to make himself useful. His fragging was notoriously poor in 2016 and allu will be wanting his AWP, so unless FaZe play a tactical style and buy in, as Astralis did not always, karrigan will be left with little to show for his own play.
If karrigan can achieve genuine success with this lineup then he is one of the all-time great leaders. For now, though, it feels as if he has been passed a glittering chalice which contains the poison which may kill him once he drinks from it.
One last experiment
This last iteration of FaZe should reasonably be its last. The experiment has been run and any successful part has long since moved on. This core has had more than enough chances and have systematically failed, to the extent that even keeping them together is holding them back from accomplishing more elsewhere in the scene. The day this FaZe lineup disbands may be the day we end up with two or three more dangerous lineups immediately, as their talent disperses out through the CS:GO scene. Perhaps this karrigan gambit will be enough to improve matters, but if not then it's time for FaZe to put those dollars to use and buy a team who can actually perform at a world class level, as benefits this level of investment and compensation.
Money doesn't buy success, but it should be able to gain the services of someone who can attract it.
Photo credit: DreamHack