Nikola ‘NiKo’ Kovač is the best Counter-Strike player in the world and yet does not play for a top 10 ranked team. The Bosnian phenom’s level exceeds that of olofmeister at his peak, yet he has never lifted a significant trophy. Even kennyS’s hard carry performances in early 2015 can barely contend with the dragging NiKo does of his languid mousesports.
No world number one player has ever faced as difficult a toil as NiKo does and nobody has had more asked of him. Even now, fans demand trophies and top podium finishes from a 19 year old master of the game who is playing in a foreign team with no cultural ties to his own background. Despite months of consistently superlative performances and displays of a near peerless skill ceiling, NiKo has just reached only the first semi-final of a $250,000 or higher prize purse tournament in his career.
The mousesports team is critically flawed in ways which have led to their eliminations becoming both predictable and inevitable. With most great players, a top drawer performance ensures their team victory, while NiKo must manifest such brilliance simply to give his team any chance against the world's best sides. For NiKo, though, there is no such thing as pressure, only opportunity, and he continues to show the world that talent and ability have no bias to flags.
Unchaining the monster
IEM Katowice this year was not a CS:GO major, as it had been in its two previous incarnations, but it featured one of the most stacked team line-ups of the year and a hefty prize pool worthy of a major. Group A was the obvious "Group of Death", with four of the world's top six teams making up the six assembled there. The only team mousesports could be considered a favourite against was TheMongolz, who were attending their first international event.
For mousesports, who were by now known for beating up on the second tier of CS:GO teams but rarely scoring anything but single map upsets against the world's best, it was inevitable the German side would not be playing in the bracket stage play-off of the competition. Such came to pass, but not without incident from mouz's young star, NiKo.
In a game against FNATIC, NiKo announced to the world that he was ready to take up the mantle as the best individual player. FNATIC were the best team in the world; eventual champions of the tournament; a team on a streak of having won the first five tournaments they had played together and with a core which boasted two majors in the last 12 months. FNATIC were intimidating to the opponents as much for their reckless and brute force playing style as their trophy haul. But even the scariest team in the world could not anticipate the terror about to be unleashed.
NiKo exploded for 42 kills and an ADR of 114 over 36 rounds. Mind-boggling numbers against the most fearsome and arguably most skilled team in Counter-Strike. FNATIC escaped with the victory in overtime thanks, in large part, to the efforts of their own super-star, as the mighty olofm put up 37 kills of his own and 92 ADR to steal the win for the Swedish titans. FNATIC would continue on through the play-offs to take their sixth straight title, but a mark had been made in the minds of onlookers. NiKo's era was dawning.
In 2015, NiKo had been an impressive rising star, but taking over the reigns of mousesports as their in-game leader in 2016 he had been forced to base the entire game around himself to allow mouz any chance of success vs. the world's elite opposition. If mouz could not shine, then NiKo would have to. No more measured team balance and subtle tactical application, the game was now about putting NiKo in position to have as great an impact on each round as possible. mouz could not boast the most fire-power, but they had the biggest gun in the world.
Assessing the skill-set of NiKo reads like the formula for creating the perfect Counter-Strike super-star. The base of every great all-around player is their use of the rifles and nobody can boast better rifle skills than the Bosnian. With the M4 and AK he displays near perfect technique, calmly bursting to the head and securing a head-shot kill with such frequency the world can never know whether he intended to spray or simply to burst.
CS:GO has been graced with a number of great hybrid AWPers, riflers who can also wield the sniper rifle with impressive aptitude, but NiKo can be counted as one of the very best in the game. As a monster rifle star, his use of the AWP is reminiscent of NEO's in 1.6, using the weapon to play key positions on specific maps or during make or break moments for his team where the gun is needed to counter the opponent or get his squad back into a tough game. ChrisJ has been a primary AWPer his entire career, yet NiKo is mouz's most effective sniper.
Pistol play determines not only how often a team gets the early lead in the game but also how often they can claw their way out of difficult economic situations. NiKo has strong pistols across the board, but stands out as having the best Desert Eagle in the world. Few players can showcase the kind of rounds he has had in the last year over even an entire career of using the powerful yet difficult to handle pistol.
The core strength of the Desert Eagle is in being positioned correctly and having very strong first bullet precision. In these respects, NiKo shows his peerless pedigree. It is easiest to spot great aim from players who use higher mouse sensitivities and flick around the screen more, so their incredible shots seem to be plucked out of nowhere and suddenly turn a round. NiKo's aim is not lightning quick, yet it seemingly never falters. He moves onto the opponent smoothly and eliminates them with ruthlessly efficient application of effective technique.
Watching NiKo's slower sensitivity displays his marvelous game-sense, as the young star is seemingly never caught out of position and repeatedly makes correct decisions in where to place himself and which way to face. NiKo's skill in numbers disadvantage situations, including clutch rounds where he is alone against multiple opponents, speaks to a deep and nuanced understanding of the flow of a round. NiKo listens and the game speaks to him. That he then has the tools to select the correct play and execute it suggests an abundance of gifts few players will ever possess.
You're just a tourist; I live here
Players like olofm, GuardiaN and coldzera have not had to be the best in the server every day of their careers, despite showcasing periods of time when they were. Their teams could secure victory or stay alive in tournaments without such a burden placed upon the best players in the game. For NiKo, his consistency has been perhaps his most astounding quality as a performer. The only tournament at which his performance can be considered below super-star levels is ESL One Cologne, the last major, and his teams' results in a competition have not seemed to show any correlation with NiKo's own individual excellence.
Look at the stars of teams who are the peers of mouz and one will find the likes of WorldEdit, Rain, mou and oskar. WorldEdit and mou are famously inconsistent, yet the divide comes with the level of opposition they face. Put them against tier two competition and they will provide many games to make a believer out of the average onlooker, but put them in with the top teams and they crumble. Rain is capable of great consistency, but rarely shows the kind of holistic tournament performance NiKo has shown month in and month out. oskar's team is too underwhelming to even put him in position to show his skills on the kind of platform NiKo performs on.
To even find players of a similar level of consistency or skill peak, one must go far beyond the level of mousesports and look towards the best and highest profile teams in the game. device has shown us a level of gritty consistency over the year, even with Astralis' repeated failures, but does not push the boundaries of individual play to the extent NiKo routinely does. olofm and GuardiaN have never looked truly the same since their injuries and often times have struggled to even separate themselves from their star team-mates.
To find an equal for a fair discussion about NiKo, in terms of individual game impact or consistency, the only other name in the discussion is coldzera. That one has to pick out the most efficient player in the game, a two time major champion and the super-star of the best team in the world, for a reasonable comparison with NiKo speaks to the degree mouz's Bosnian phenom has singled himself out among even the greats of the game. coldzera's great games secure his team major titles, while NiKo's are required to even see mouz through to deciding maps in series against top 10 ranked teams.
coldzera had impressive statistics throughout his career, but it was the arrival of his new team-mates (fnx and TACO) and then Luminosity's ascension to the elite tier of Counter-Strike that marked the peak of his statistics. NiKo has delivered similar numbers and some of the best in the game's history over the year despite being on a team which has struggled to even secure Bo3 series wins over top 10 ranked opposition and had, until this week, never cracked a top four finish at one of the game's biggest tournaments.
0.80 FPR is the kind of consistent output of frags that the stars of the game deliver in the big competitions and those good players on lesser teams may show such numbers in the smaller competitions but either see that stat fall against better competition or simply cannot play enough games, due to their teams being eliminated early, to arrive at a reasonable sample size, in contrast to the super-star names.
NiKo is CS:GO equivalent to Steph Curry in his nature as an unreal outlier statistically. Just as Steph Curry's numbers, when viewed in context, boggle the mind, so NiKo's make little sense when placed alongside his peers in the lower ranked teams or put next to the super-stars who have far betters squads built around them. Steph Curry's percentage of shots made seems impossible because of how many he takes, where most with similar percentages carefully selected a smaller sample size of good shots.
NiKo can seemingly at will produce event campaigns with higher than 0.80 FPR. At IEM Katowice, despite facing four of the five games against top level competition, he broke 1.00 FPR. At MLG Columbus, the first major of the year, he hit 0.85 FPR despite being eliminated in the group stage. Over 15 maps at ELEAGUE, he sits at 0.87 FPR. mouz may win or lose, but NiKo will always get his numbers. His career worst performance, at the last major, saw him barely drop below 0.70 FPR. When CS:GO is finished as a relevant esports title, NiKo may well be remembered as the best fragger in this game's history. That's where his trajectory points right now.
Put me in, coach
NiKo was not even supposed to be an active starter in the mousesports line-up. The team was originally in good form with him on the bench, as gob b led a side which was powered by strong performances by nex at the smaller competitions. Failure to progress from the group stage at ESL One Cologne 2015, a major on home soil no less, saw the management force NiKo into the starting line-up. mouz continued to struggle in the big competitions, but the individual performance of NiKo was already ramping up to a star level.
The flaws of that previous mouz line-up were apparent and have only accelerated since, at least until this week at any rate. gob b was removed from the line-up, for reasons which conveniently have never been publicised internationally but were explained to me as a lack of dedication for his duties as an in-game leader at the time. With no obvious leader in sight, NiKo took on the task, despite being the team's best player and star.
mousesports in 2016 has been a mess. ChrisJ has established himself as the second best player in the team, but still comes nowhere close to the kind of impact and performance NiKo shows day in and day out. nex was supposed to be the future of German Counter-Strike, but has failed to deliver upon that promise in any meaningful way, now famed for his inability to perform in the biggest tournaments and during high pressure matches. denis and Spiidi each show significant difficulties in adding to the fire-power of the team, which is already depleted from two of the skilled positions, in contrast to any top 10 ranked side.
NiKo is not only the star of mouz, and by an overwhelming degree which exceeds any other top player and his team in CS:GO, but accomplishes such a feat in circumstances few can even truly comprehend the difficulty of. NiKo plays for a German team despite being a native of Bosnia and thus being forced to communicate in a second language, all at the relatively young age of 19. The reason such trying circumstances are easy to forget is because NiKo's phenomenal level of performance focuses the observer's eye only on his performance and the mind upon his impeccable skills within the game.
The heaviest burden
No world number one has ever had less help from his team than NiKo, in fact no great CS:GO player has ever lacked for as much back-up either. In spite of that, NiKo continues to push the limit of impact play and statistical excellence one can expect from a super-star. For around 4-5 months spanning the end of 2014 and the first part of 2015, kennyS was hailed as the best player in the game and arguably reached the highest individual level of impact in the game's history. Yet even kennyS's Titan, famously lacking in enough fire-power to see him adorned with the medals and handed the trophies his performances deserved, was worlds better than the current mouz squad.
Titan paired him with apEX, capable of transforming into the world's best entry fragger and hand delivering a map win for the team. The team was headed by Ex6TenZ, one of the best in-game leaders in history and whose tactical approach and application saw the team scoring more wins and close games against FNATIC, the best team in history, than anyone else in that period of time. Finally, the other names in the team were veterans of CS and could perform their roles in the context of a team, even if not often in terms of kill output.
mouz has no genius in-game leader and NiKo has largely been forced to perform that role himself. His "second star" is ChrisJ, who is more suited to be the third best in the team and a player who pushes you over the top with a rare but strong performance. nex should be the other star of the squad, yet constantly shies away from the spotlight and looks average against top opposition. Titan was a team in the cohesive context of playing their roles and working as a unit. mouz is a group of individuals who can rarely shine even as a result of individual play; a budget FaZe.
The closest one can reach for a world number one level player who had little fire-power around him is back into 1.6 and the career of the legendary NEO. The game's greatest player could be the MVP of a tournament without his team even reaching the final and often was, but rarely had team-mates who would have been considered stars. That was a drastically different scenario to NiKo's plight, though, as NEO's team-mates made up for their lack of fire-power with strong team-play, drive to win and determination to fight from tough situations.
It is most telling of the distinction between the two squads that loord, widely considered the worst of NEO's team-mates during the major winning years, was a remarkably good clutch round player in the highest pressure situations and secured his team a number of vital victories with play of that nature. It is also key to note that positioning and team-play could overcome skill with a much greater frequency in CS 1.6 than in CS:GO.
The odds are high that NiKo's mouz will be eliminated from the semi-final of ELEAGUE on Friday, and NiKo had been required to play at an inhuman level to even get them into those play-offs, but that is of less concern than the limitation placed upon NiKo's career success by his current circumstances. All-time great players can rarely sustain their career peaks of form for more than three to six months, so winning during that window is at a premium if they are to secure trophies. With oskar apparently set to join mouz in just over a month, help may yet be on its way and in the form of another player who knows, albeit at a lower level, what it's like to toil away with strong individual play and yet go nowhere close to the podium.
For now, the best player in Counter-Strike continues to dominate games and grind away in the hopes of elevating his team to a stratosphere from which they can provide him the opportunity to compete for the titles his talent is deserving of. This is his toil and his burden, but also his opportunity. Few remember strong team performances from mousesports, but nobody can ignore the greatness of NiKo.
Photo credit: ESL, Dreamhack, ELEAGUE, SK Gaming
Custom artwork by @PapieroweDrzewo.