The Thorin Treatment: Welcome to NiP World, Stop by the Gift Shop
For the fourth time in their four and a half year history in CS:GO, Ninjas in Pyjamas (NiP) has recruited a new fifth man, retaining the same four man core for the game's entirety. In this instance, the familiar move sees pyth, who had joined in late 2015 and thus enjoyed the longest tenure of any player to occupy the fifth spot since Fifflaren's departure, replaced by draken, star of Epsilon and rookie to top tier level play.
The names are different but the story is the same, as NiP identify the problem in their team as being their most recent recruit and replace him rather than any of their seemingly immovable core four. The question is not whether pyth was the problem, or any of the previous names replaced, but why NiP refuse to consider removing any of the other names which have long made up their roster.
Good, but never the best
The original five man line-up of NiP, featuring Fifflaren as the fifth name to go along with GeT_RiGhT, f0rest, Xizt and friberg, was the original CS:GO dynasty and achieved then seemingly unthinkable levels of success. Since Fifflaren's departure, retiring and initially moving to desk analyst before taking up full-time employment with twitch, the Swedish side has rarely ever won.
NiP may still be hailed as Counter-Strike royalty, but the Ninjas have been crowned champions of only three international tournaments of any reasonably large significance in the two and a half years since making their first roster move.
To put that in context, the Astralis core are famed for choking and underwhelming once making it deep in tournaments, yet that core (device, dupreeh and Xyp9x) have won eight notable international tournaments over the same span of time.
The FNATIC core of olofm, KRiMZ, JW and flusha have not taken down a big event in over a year and weren't even together for five of those 27 months, yet can boast between 13 and 16 notable international titles, depending on how strict your criteria is.
Virtus.pro have not made a single roster move in that time span, even toughing it out through slumps which saw them accrue numerous droughts without titles, yet have a trophy cabinet containing between two and five, again accounting for strictness of criteria considered, glimmering cups.
SK Gaming have only had a roster capable of championship form for around 15 months, yet have matched NiP's three titles and far exceeded the significance of those wins, in light of two of SK's wins being at majors, where none of NiP's were.
All four of those teams contrasted against NiP can legitimately be argued to have been the best team in the world at a specific period of time and coinciding with victory at a major or one of the best tournaments of the year. NiP, on the other hand, won their titles in the vein of classic "NiP magic", rising to the occasion and delivering a memorable victory, but not legitimately in any position to be called the best team in Counter-Strike, despite what the crippled outputs of rankings might tell you, following a player break and some weakened fields.
Dancing without the stars
Once upon a time, the question surrounding NiP's roster would simply have been why they didn't remove one of the supportive players and what that said about them as a team and organisation. Now, years after their glory days, one must look at the stars of NiP and include them in the discussion to justify their continued tenure within the line-up.
GeT_RiGhT is still a strong candidate for the best CS:GO player of all-time and could well be argued to be the best Counter-Strike player of the last 10 years, all things considered. Nonetheless, the one time god of lurking is in a career slump the likes of which he has never experienced before. So rarely has he been the best player in his team, nevermind the server, over the last nine months.
Fans have no problem calling out the likes of Hiko and Happy for their seemingly outdated and stubborn lurking styles, yet few will dare utter that perhaps his highness GeT_RiGhT might want to put on some clothes this winter.
f0rest has been the best in NiP over the last nine months, at times hitting peaks of form not seen since back in 2013, but even then he has not matched up with the world's elite players, barring a couple of MVP level tournament performances. Since pairing up with GeT_RiGhT, back in 2009 in FNATIC, f0rest has rarely been called upon to be the consistent super-star of the period prior to that. His up-and-down motivation has been mirrored by his streaky form in-game and the weakness of his game dipping below star level play has been largely offset by the consistent greatness of GeT_RiGhT for the lion's share of the last decade.
In the latter part of 2016, with GeT_RiGhT barely a top 10 player in their native Sweden, f0rest has played good and at times great Counter-Strike, but has not been able to bring the consistency of players like coldzera and device or the peaks of NiKo and s1mple. Again, fans simply bathed in the aesthetic beauty of champagne Counter-Strike from a past master, never stopping to ask if having your best player be someone scraping the top 10 players in the world is a good enough center-piece to build a new world number one or dynasty.
GeT_RiGhT and f0rest are legends of Counter-Strike, nothing can erase that or call such status into question, but they are individually questionable in taking up super-star spots in a potential world number one, with such spots demanding a level of attention and resources from teams that make them in short supply within a five man unit. Even with the best supportive elements in the world and a perfect leader, one could make the case that GeT_RiGhT and f0rest could not carry NiP to the top spot and dominance over the CS:GO world.
For their past efforts and moments of brilliance in the here and now, it's understandable that the organisation, their team-mates and fans of exciting CS:GO may want to see them remain the line-up, but such considerations do not match up with aspirations of greatness in 2017's competitive climate.
The postmen who rarely delivered
The supportive elements in a team are like the postman: they do a boring job, which doesn't carry much fanfare, and yet is relied upon by more high profile figures to make the system work. NiP have supportive elements who have consistently been a let-down in the past couple of years, yet seemingly convince their team-mates and bosses that they should not be the ones let go when it comes time for a head to roll.
friberg has been a topic of continued scrutiny for the last two years and with good reason. If GeT_RiGhT's attempts at lurking have become outmoded, then friberg's status as the entry fragger who doesn't frag, moving from "entry fragger to entry frag" as a reddit comment once put it, has made it more than difficult to defend his position within the team.
Some good rounds in the victorious StarSeries S2 final and a couple of good tournaments after that don't cancel out years of poor performance and ineffective efforts before and over the months since his brief revival. friberg may try his hardest to improve, but, despite what Hollywood movies may have told you, effort is not always enough in an arena where success is decided by how good you are.
Xizt was hailed for his efforts as the team's in-game leader back when their loose style of play allowed everyone to bring their individual efforts together to paint masterpieces of dominance. Over 2015 he was the target of frequest bemusement and frustration for his bizarre map veto phase decisions, at times putting NiP seemingly behind before the first bullet had been fired.
In 2016, the team's initial revival came with THREAT taking over IGL duties and imposing upon the team the kind of disciplined approach they had always recoiled from even the suggestion of in the past, as their previous coaches will attest to. After Valve chopped away THREAT's legs and the former IGL travelled to less events with them, NiP went back to Xizt and his loose calling style. A few grand performances of NiP magic were enough to dazzle the loyal fans, even if the other performances saw them failing to make any impact at the majors and rarely looking like a team capable of capturing the title elsewhere.
Xizt's individual performances seemed to perfectly coincide with NiP's victories, showing the impact he could have upon the game, but NiP reaching the finals of only three big international tournaments in the entire time they had pyth attests to how rarely Xizt accomplished such a level of competency.
Permanent residence in an Egyptian river
When NiP find themselves without any super-star figure and nowhere near to two stars to amount to a base of fire-power, do they remove a star and build around someone new? Of course not, the fifth man is replaced again. As the supports deliver little but low impact performances month upon month, do they ever risk losing their jobs? No, just the unlucky soul occupying that fatal last spot.
The big picture story is the same every time for NiP, even if the details have their own novel qualities. They remove their fifth man and bring in someone whose name and resume of success is smaller than that of NiP. Initially, there is a spike of interest and motivation, as a fresh chance invigorates most of the squad and they think "this time it will be different!".
Adjustments are made, sometimes to make a new recruit feel more comfortable and give him a running start, and opponents have to feel and figure out the differences in this new NiP and the formula to beating them. NiP wins some big games early on and goes deep in some tournaments. Then the performances drop back off to a good but not great level, seeing others forming their dynasties and routinely lifting trophies as NiP awaits the next moment of magic they can muster up. Only the magic comes less frequently now and seemingly takes every ounce of effort within their combined bodies.
Playing the same style and with the same players attempting to do the same things but come up with different results, NiP becomes stagnant and stale. Their map pool falls apart, their pick and ban becomes more neurotic and bizzare. The stars revert to their classic tendencies and the newer players see themselves pushed into off-roles, from which they may for a time survive but likely will not thrive. The fans look at the stars keeping their heads above water, by virtue of the numbers on the scoreboard, and blame the new recruit.
Coaching seems less effective or abandoned entirely in favour of individual play. Soon enough, that approach can carry them no further. A roster move is made and the fifth man is removed so the machine can return to its starting position and begin all over again.
Is it any wonder NiP doesn't attract high profile free agents and potential recruits? Who would risk a gulp from the poisoned chalice that is their open fifth spot? Especially knowing what has happened to the three names who came before you. Were those three really all the primary problem which only removal could remedy and as such you will survive a taste of that dark and deadly elixer?
Built this way?
The NiP organisation can hardly be relieved of any responsibility for this cycle of madness. The organisation are a father hosting a game of musicial chairs at a birthday party and never stopping the music when any of their four favourite children are too far from the four chairs in the middle. Only that unlucky newest kid finds himself out of the game when the time comes.
Were NiP truly cynical as an organisation and simply wanted to make money off the legacy of their famous four and marketing the star brands of GeT_RiGhT and f0rest, then perhaps one could forgive them that and understand a little their approach. There have been many sports teams who have been willing to let legendary stars who helped build their periods of great success spend the last years of their careers wearing the same jerseys and celebrating each and every last fading and less frequent moment of greatness, until the well is entirely dry and they are ready to retire.
Likewise, if the NiP players simply wanted to get paid and play with their friends and revel in the occasional occurance of "NiP magic", then who could truly begrudge them that and say they should do otherwise? The problem is if that is not the stated goal and chief priority of the organisation and the players. If winning and being the number one organisation and line-up is the number one goal, then this approach has long since shown itself inadequate to accomplishing the task and an experiment which requires terminating.
Around we go again
draken may well be a good addition to the team, providing the AWPing and hunger their four man core lack, but he cannot set right all that is crooked within the NiP team and their familiar approach to becoming the best. NiP are the world's best NiP tribute band, still cranking out the same old hits the fans want to see every night and with all your favourites still very much a part of the line-up. Black and gold nostalgia on tap, any time you want it.
The NiP fairground is still big business and has everyone's favourite rides there, from f0rest's pistol round prowess to GeT_RiGhT's cool clutches and Xizt's wacky picks. You know how they all work and they're very much on the rails, but the diminishing thrills still elicit some excitement, until you grow up and get bored of them. Of course, then there's a new generation of kids ready to experience them for the first time. Ready to buy their jerseys and stickers at the gift shop on the way out.
NiP have one of the best fan products in esports, but are far from boasting the best team in CS:GO, now or any time in the near future. Their process ensures as much. Now, draken, take a deep drink and try to ignore the vague after-taste of cyanide.