The Thorin Treatment: Return of the Maik
The return of Mikail "Maikelele" Bill to the Ninjas in Pyjamas' line-up saw the Swedish side win their second big title of 2016, taking down Starladder i-League StarSeries S2, and become the first team in history to win a championship of that calibre using a stand-in. The man Maikelele was replacing - pyth - had become one of NiP's better players and helped them to their first big win of the year - DreamHack Masters Malmö - but the return of Maikelele evoked memories of his brief four month tenure with the Ninjas.
Over the five tournaments NiP have played with Maikelele, four in their first go around and now this fifth as a stand-in, the Swedes made the final of four of those events and won two of them. With NiP having been gradually dropping rungs in the global rankings since Malmö, culminating in group stage elimination at the last major, the return of Maikelele seems to have been a crucial catalyst to reawaken something dormant inside the once champions of the world.
Maikelele - then known as "eksem", "exema" in Swedish - first appeared on the competitive radar for fans in the LGB line-up which managed a surprising 5th-8th finish at Dreamhack Winter 2013, CS:GO's first major, and took a map from NiP in the quarter-finals. At the Svecup final, a domestic offline event held the following month, Maikelele and his team would again take a map from NiP and this time push one of the world's best teams in a tight three map series. olofm, KRiMZ and dennis were all members of that line-up, but Maikelele would not survive to see the successes of the following year, when LGB would break top four at the next major, as he was removed as part of a transfer which brought in twist and cype.
For the majority of 2014, Maikelele was wandering the desert of the Swedish semi-pro scene again. At Dreamhack Summer, he was part of a Swedish SK side which produced some upsets. SK twice won against FNATIC to eliminate them from the competition, and set in motion the events which would bring Maikelele's former team-mates olofm and KRiMZ to that organisation and spark the birth of a new dynasty. In the ESPORTSM competition, another domestic cup and which was held at Dreamhack Summer, they were able to take a map off NiP again before falling to the superior Swedes.
Maikelele's own performance over the aforementioned results was fairly average. In the upsets over NiP others shined and even in the Dreamhack run his risky and aggressive style of play often saw him giving up as many kills as he secured. He was not a NiKo or a s1mple, standing out with hard carry performances on a lesser side and with his play begging out for a better team to take a chance on him. The one notable offline event at which he managed a strong performance of that nature was Gfinity 3, where ESG - a modified SK - went out in the group stage but with Maikelele consistently putting up good numbers against a mixture of tier one and two teams.
Bringing the magic back to NiP
When founding member fifflaren retired in November of 2014, NiP were at an all-time low. Their run over the previous few months had seen them in free fall. Despite the miracle victory at the major in Cologne, NiP had routinely finished outside the top four of offline events, failed to qualify online for numerous others and finished their time with the original five bombing out of the group stage of their last two offline competitions. Teams like FNATIC and LDLC had risen up and there seemed no immediate way back to the top for the Ninjas.
With speculation rife around who would be fifflaren's replacement, a name I had been running through my head was Maikelele. The rapid rise and success of the FNATIC players left few obvious talents out there in the Swedish community and so they gave the former LGB player a chance. That his first tournament would be Dreamhack Winter 2014, the next major, ensured the pressure on the new player and the decision itself was immense.
NiP began their major campaign looking shaky, losing to an elite level LDLC and coming close to being eliminated by the Polish ESC. Battling through the latter game to take the win and move into the play-offs, NiP faced a HellRaisers team who had beaten FNATIC and looked scary. A classic f0rest performance took care of the CIS squad and put NiP into the semi-final against Virtus.pro. The Poles pushed NiP on the first map of nuke, but Maikelele's men escaped in overtime. A loss on cache, the same map ESC had made them sweat on, saw them into a decider on inferno. NiP would here establish a home map for the tournament, as a team who had noticeably lacked one during their dark latter days with fifflaren. NiP won the decider with ease and had secured themselves a fourth straight major final appearance.
The final would see Maikelele make a significant impact, as LDLC were heavy pre-match favourites and it would be the Swede's AWPing which would go some way to bridging the gap between the teams. NiP lost the opener on dust2 as Maikelele struggled to AWP in the second half, playing the mid doors as CT. The second map was inferno, NiP's pick, and Maikelele exploded with an MVP level performance to help NiP crush the French and earn a chance to win the major. The decider was on overpass, where LDLC had beaten NiP in the group stage, and would develop into a true classic, going the distance into overtime. NiP reached championship point, and Maikelele went off for over 30 kills, but Happy's men would snatch victory from them and the trophy.
The next event would be two months later at MLG X Games Invitational Aspen. In the semi-finals NiP matched up with the FNATIC team many considered the best in the world. The series is fondly remembered and frequently cited as the best ever played in CS:GO history. Such was the quality of play, the back-and-forth nature of the maps and the number of big team and individual sequences which resulted in a near full three maps of entertainment. In the opener on cache, Maikelele helped NiP to a narrow in with a famous 1v2 which saw him landing a noscope seconds after dropping from upper in the B site.
FNATIC struck back with a gritty win on inferno, NiP's home map but also FNATIC's, to level the series. The decider was mirage, where FNATIC were feared by many. The key to victory would be the CT side hold of NiP and spearheading it into the A site was Maikelele and his AWP. A few key kills and rounds and FNATIC finally relented and NiP won a truly memorable series to reach a second straight final with their new player.
The opponent was again LDLC, but this time the series was no kind to Maikelele. He was able to put up kills on the second map to help NiP win another map against LDLC, this time in incredibly close fashion, but was otherwise muted on the two maps, the first and third, which the French side took. Again the title had eluded in NiP in the final, but they had reached two straight finals with their new line-up and looked to be one of the most dangerous teams in CS:GO, especially with their epic win over FNATIC.
Days after MLG, NiP flew to Finland for ASUS ROG Winter. The tournament was not the most internationally relevant tournament, but did feature some quality sides in attendance. Most notable were Virtus.pro, who were an elite level team; Titan, who had lost KQLY to a ban but just brought RpK out of retirement and had the power of kennyS, the world's best player, making them relevant; and HellRaisers. Virtus.pro would fall apart in the group stage and NiP had an easy time beating out HellRaisers to reach the final.
There they faced kennyS's Titan, but RpK was far from ripe and kennyS could not win the final alone. The most Titan could manage was a close cache game and NiP took the series in a two map sweep, with Maikelele earning MVP honours for his strong play in the play-offs.
As the crowd chanted Maikelele's name, one could be forgiven for thinking he would wear the black and gold of NiP for a long time to come. In fact, his next event with them would be his last of this period.
Rash decisions and recycling
In early February of 2015, IOS Pantamera took place in Sweden. The event was sponsored by a government initiative to get people to recycle, but featured a line-up of teams which were far from trash. FNATIC, EnVyUs (as LDLC were now known), Virtus.pro, Titan and NiP were some of the best teams in the world. The format was one group, with all of the teams playing a single round robin to determine the three who would reach the play-offs, which employed a gauntlet format. NiP would manage to win only one of five games, beating the Norwegian LGB side. To make matters worse, they twice lost inferno, seeing FNATIC and Titan best them on it.
Maikelele's form was significantly poorer during the tournament than it had been previously. The event did match the likes of Dreamhack Winter and MLG Aspen in stature, yet the team's performance there proved to have a large impact upon the atmosphere, as they decided to bench Maikelele and look for a replacement. He would not play another offline game for them that year and was released, with allu taking his place for the major - ESL One Katowice - which took place a month later.
After departing from NiP, Maikelele had begun his adventure with the Kinguin project. Made up of known players from around the globe, but all possessing a mercenary quality due to not being able to secure spots in top international teams, it would take a few tournaments and roster changes before results began to flow. At ESL One Cologne, Kinguin would get out of the group stage and finished 5th-8th. The following major, Dreamhack Cluj-Napoca, would be the high point of Maikelele's time with the team, as the now named G2 got out of the groups, beat Virtus.pro and came within a round of reaching the final, losing to eventual champions nV in the semi-finals.
The team would slide into a slump as the year ended and fail to emerge from it over the first quarter of 2016. Maikelele departed in April and was barely heard of from that point on. It wasn't until late August that Maikelele hit the headlines as he was announced as NiP's stand-in for pyth at Starladder i-League StarSeries Season 2 finals. Out of action for so long, little was expected of him. NiP themselves looked to be in weakened form. After a strong Spring and early Summer, they had been beaten in the Dreamhack Summer final by Immortals, eliminated from the group stage of ESL One Cologne - the major - for the first time in history and emphatically kicked out of the ELEAGUE play-offs by long-time rivals Virtus.pro.
Another magical run
StarSeries S2 featured the likes of Virtus.pro, champions of ELEAGUE; Na`Vi, who had added super-star talent s1mple to their line-up; and G2, one of the world's most explosive and dangerous sides. NiP cruised through their group, even crushing the GODSENT line-up who were making their offline debut with their newly acquired returning players from FNATIC.
Astralis were a familiar opponent for NiP in the play-offs and the result was just as familiar, with NiP again going to three maps against the Danes and again moving on to the next round. The semi-final proved almost hiliariously easy, as NiP rolled over a lacklustre Cloud9 who had been looking improved, but failed to turn up at all. A classic GeT_RiGhT performance saw NiP through to their third final of the year.
The opponent in the final was G2, featuring core VeryGames players who had been playing finals against NiP since the early days of CS:GO. shox and SmithZz had also been present in the LDLC line-ups which had denied Maikelele the trophies at Dreamhack Winter 2014 and MLG X Games Invitational Apsen. G2 arrived at the final in powerful form, with shox and ScreaM hitting the kind of stellar level which typically accompanied G2 victories. The French side were favoured to lift the trophy, especially taking into account no team had ever won a big tournament with a stand-in, as NiP were attempting to.
The map draw came out as cache, overpass and cbblestone. cache had been NiP's best map with the pyth line-up and they had arguably been the best in the world on the map, but the last few months had seen them racking up losses on it, contributing to their troubled form. From the final of Dreamhack Summer through to the end of the StarSeries semi-final, NiP were only 1:3 on what had once been their home map. In contrast, G2 counted cache as one of their best maps, known for their strong T side play. NiP would defy the numbers and expectations to cruise to an easy opening map victory.
overpass was G2's pick and looked to favour them on paper. They had a limited sample size of games on it, but largely because other teams had noted it as a dangerous pocket pick of theirs and thus banned it. G2 had famously twice beaten SK, often considered the world's best team on the map, there and had destroyed olof's FNATIC on it in the ECS S1 semi-final. Still, there were promising signs for NiP, who had embraced the map more over the last few months and had secured some wins and many close matches on it.
This would prove to be one of the closest games in CS:GO history, evoking memories of the NiP vs. LDLC Dreamhack Winter 2014 final as the match went to overtime. The story even seemed to be repeating, as NiP threw away championship points in regulation. The difference would be that NiP and Maikelele would be the ones to take the game in overtime and the trophy. An old story-line had been resurrected and rewritten. Maikelele and NiP were champions of a notable international tournament, not quite the major they had let slip but far more impressive than their ASUS ROG campaign.
Now, with another title under their belts, the Ninjas have to ask themselves the question the world hangs upon: is this the last we'll see of Maikelele in the black and gold? He may not have carried them, but he did bring the magic back to NiP twice.
Photo credit: Dreamhack, Starladder
Custom artwork by @PapieroweDrzewo.