Navigating the Na’Vi Puzzle

Published on SK Gaming in June of 2010.

Na’Vi are the best team in the world, even after their loss to fnatic in the final of Arbalet Cup Europe. Prior to that final unfolding as it did the first part of that sentence may have seemed trite or obvious to some, the Ukranians having won two events, and yet it is once more in question. For the more ardent fnatic fan the feeling may be that the Swedes were the better team all along.

As the most consistent team in the first part of 2010 it is a testament to fnatic that they could even be in the conversation as perhaps being the best team in the world without having won an event this year until Stockholm. There has never been a team as good at getting deep in tournaments as fnatic and their defining characteristic since f0rest and company joined up in early 2006. Regardless of the Swedes overall form or who else is in attendance you always know that come the semi-finals fnatic will be in one of them and with a chance at winning the entire tournament. That speaks volumes about tight-knit teamplay and the ability to play through pressure.

fnatic can play 9/10 level CS with a consistency no other team in the world can match, Na’Vi included. That’s been the overarching theme of the post-GuX era fnatic: incredible at getting into the final four teams remaining (much like the 2007 lineup) and the favourite to win the tournament unless, or until, they run into a team capable of playing 10/10 level CS against them. I can count on one hand the number of teams capable of playing 10/10 CS so this observation should not denigrate fnatic’s performances. However, when a team has consistently played at a high level game in and game out one must account for missing trophies which are conspicuously absent from that lineup’s cabinet. It is my interpretation that rarely has this fnatic lineup given trophies away, they have put in potentially winning performances, but rather that they have been taken from the Swedes by teams who brought a finals game a notch above in performance level.

The Na’Vi puzzle has baffled, stifled and countered even the elite teams in the world at key moments. Those outside of the elite have simply been dominated. To gain a little insight into how the Na’Vi puzzle fits together it is helpful to follow the team’s progress chronologically but in the context of later events. Na’Vi’s lineup, under the KerchNET name, debuted in impressive fashion at the IEM IV European Finals in mid January as they progressed from their group in second place and with a 14:16 loss to fnatic along the way. They had been the only team in the group to provide any kind of challenge to the Swedes.

In the quarter-finals Na’Vi met up with mouz and in the first series they would play against the Germans the Ukranians went up by a map and then put themselves in a position to finish off their much hyped opposition in two maps, seemingly an upset if one ever saw one. In fact the Ukranians fell apart in the crucial moments of the second map at the same time as mouz cranked their play up to the blistering level we would all see later on in the final against fnatic, a final which marked a clear cut case of 10/10 level CS overcoming 9/10 CS when a game hung in the balance. Still the magnitude of Na’Vi’s play up until the collapse seemed to fall by the wayside as we all focused perhaps a little too much attention on mousesports and their much vaunted new lineup, understandably so. Na’Vi had been excellent on dust2, troubled on inferno and then a big question mark on nuke. As we would later find out the themes of this series would repeat themselves.

After the event we all looked at that series within the context of what it had meant to mouz rather than Na’Vi, who were seen only as a team who had almost come up with a great upset. In fact as we look back from our vantage point in the present we see that these were two of the elite teams who were the best at their own particular styles of play and matched up very well against one another in a best of three series. Had Na’Vi pulled out that inferno victory who knows how their story at that event would have ended up being written. But for fnatic’s tenacity in the final and Na’Vi’s inability to perform on nuke one might even have argued that Na’Vi had played mouz the closest of all the teams at the European Finals. A worthwhile closing thought on the topic of that event’s significance is that Na’Vi’s lineup was all of 12 days old, or some figure in that region, and yet had challenged and almost overcome perhaps the best team in the world at that moment.

Arbalet Asia went mostly overlooked as most of the Western CS audience was locked in heavy REM sleep when the games began each day. What was important about the event was that it showcased Na’Vi’s progression towards the championship level team they were going to become. Here is where we saw them get a lock on their winning edge. Here is where that confidence appeared which began to overflow into in-game activity and yield results. The Ukranians showed their ability to deal with, neutralize and overcome a variety of different playing styles. We saw Na’Vi dominate teams not on their level, keeping in close games but then pulling away to victory at the right moments. The beasts from the East had arisen and were now dark horses on the fringe of becoming real contenders. These things must be proven against elite competition though.

For most who had been thrown off by the KerchNET tag at the IEM IV European Finals or who had been solely focusing on the spotlighted teams Na’Vi’s coming out part was the IEM IV World Championship. Their first day’s play saw them setting the tone of being a dominant force on train, capable of roughhousing any opposition on that map. Still Na’Vi moved on to the playoffs without any reason for anyone to imagine they’d be the team from their side of the bracket to reach the finals. That is except for the fact they were matched up in the quarter-finals with mouz once again, on the same first two maps and in the same order. mouz had impressed with some of their own group play so most were expecting mouz to either beat Na’Vi by a large margin or win out in any close-game situations again. Certainly the script seemed to have been pulled from their previous matchup as Na’Vi won dust2 first but managed to lose inferno after having a big lead and the chance to end the series with decisive terrorist play, play which once again never showed up.

The third map was tuscan this time but that did not hold out much hope for Na’Vi seeing as mouz had ground out an incredible win in the clutch against fnatic on it to win the previous IEM event. Mouz looked set to control the decisive map the whole way as they went up 10:5. This is where Na’Vi emerged as the best team in the world, this moment. Here is where you can pin-point and narrow down to say you really saw the emergence of the best team in the world. Perhaps that blue and yellow machine had been waiting there all along waiting for a chance to step to the forefront or perhaps they were formed in the fires of that all important moment. Backs against the wall and facing a seemingly scripted destiny which had them once more playing the parts of the vanquished challengers in mouz’s path to the semi-finals, once again to be the recipients of a soul-destroying loss snatched from the jaws of victory. Instead Na’Vi emerged and fought their way through to the semi-finals.

The semi-finals brought don’t need a large amount of discussion as Na’Vi took EG’s best, thought admittedly somewhat lacklustre, punch early on and still win with a decent enough margin that by the time they’d sown up the second map all eyes had already turned to the second semi-final to see who they’d be playing in the final. The semi-final was Na’Vi cruising past a team who were still only pretenders to the throne and showing themselves to be genuine contenders. If there were any moments of softness or apprehension or undue reverence for the great names in CS those were cast aside as Na’Vi outclassed the American team. markeloff showed the world that the next great AWPer had arrived and that he was a league above everyone else at the event, with a style unique enough to consistently neutralize that of one of the all time greats in fRoD.

Despite all of this the finals cast Na’Vi not as potential champions but rather as a team running hot who fnatic would take care of and in doing so reclaim their throne and show the CS world that the European Finals had been a momentary lapse in domination. fnatic had absolutely decimated SK in the semi-final a day earlier in a match many had expected to be as close as they come. Despite GuX, a major piece of fnatic’s greatest lineup, leading SK into the all-Swedish war it was fnatic who delivered on expectations as they totally dominated in every respect. Throw in f0rest shouting ‘flame on’ and torching SK players every which way with a rifle which refused to overheat and the coronation of the old kings seemed inevitable. Na’Vi had already overcome their biggest hurdle in mouz, reached respectability and recognition as a good team by reaching the final and now were to give a good effort before bowing out with their silver medals. In reality Na’Vi was once against to rewrite their destinies by virtue of their characters.

As Na’Vi stormed the final with the kind of play they’d brought against mouz it was suddenly fnatic who were fighting for their lives as they scrambled to take rounds here and there to prevent the Ukranians blowing the game open. Both maps came down to a small handful of truly decisive moments where the winner of them would take each and the series. fnatic may have lost both maps but they were in both right up until the end. On the other hand Na’Vi occasionally had their moments where they needed heroes to push them through and onwards on the path they were beating to a world championship. markeloff had continued to play like the best player in the world and Zeus was reading the Swedes better and better, enabling him to pick out the right strategies, however off-kilter they might seem at times, to get his team rounds and through moments of fnatic resurgence. Still another hero needed to step forwards for Na’Vi as fnatic seemed poised for an inevitable run.

ceh9 exploded with a finals performance which was a reflection of Na’Vi’s emergence as a whole: gritty, surprising, exhilerating and powered by a hungry will to succeed. The spotlight in the team had always been on markeloff and Edward since they had been potential superstar level talent for some time. Any left over went to ex-Virtus.Pro man Zeus who was calling the strategies or starix, whose standing in the Ukranian scene was well known thanks to his history of play.

ceh9 was supposed to be the worst player in the team yet in the final the rounds he won for his team put them over the hump and made them champions. Playing the game of his life ceh9 would not let fnatic win and would drag, push, pull and will his team to the top of the mountain. Aside from the raw visceral thrill of seeing a supposedly lesser player rack up kill after kill on fnatic was the incredible way he did it in rounds which broke fnatic’s back just when they had pulled in view of the winning line. Again 10/10 level CS had overcome a solid 9/10 performance from fnatic in the final. Themes also emerged here regarding the new era fnatic lineup but those are part of another story, better saved for another day.

Perspective on Na’Vi was still far from where it is now despite a golden victory and peaking during the biggest moment of the year. No the storylines were being written a little differently and they were of mouz underperforming from their IEM European Finals level, fnatic playing valiently and Na’Vi edging out the Swedes in impressive fashion. The question seemed to be whether Na’Vi could really play at that incredible level again or would they suffer a dip in performance and make way for fnatic to take a titles again.

Despite becoming world champions Na’Vi, it could be argued by some, were still not the best team in the world. Too many question marks lingered whereas on fnatic’s side of things there was almost a full compliment of ticked boxes. markeloff had dominated individually in a way which hasn’t been seen in a number of years. Could he really perform in the same manner again? Edward was the best pistol player in the world at IEM and had produced miracles in jaw-dropping fashion with a consistency which just doesn’t happen. Could he really bring the same to the table again? Surely IEM WC was Na’Vi at their best and now they’d have to come down to Earth a little, right?

Arbalet Best of Four had a mouthwateringly beautiful concept: get three of the top four teams in the world, throw in a dark horse with potential and have them play all the maps against each other. Now we’d see who really was the best. If Na’Vi had simply been hot or faced teams underperforming or had the right maps then finally they’d be exposed. Finally we’d know their real level, afterall they surely couldn’t replicate and sustain what they’d done at IEM. To get the formula spot on at the very next tournamet surely. Surely that mercurial meeting of players all playing their roles brilliantly and stepping up to be counted in the big moments would not manifest again. Someone would have an off tournament or zig when they should have zagged.

Apparently those sentiments didn’t enter the world of Na’Vi because they began the tournament by smashing SK 3:0 before the Swedes had even caught their breaths. The draw and loss which followed seemed like Na’Vi easing their foot off the gas pedal, having already made a statement to the other teams in the tournament. That statement became a thunderous booming shout as Na’Vi consumed UNiTED’s very souls in front of them in the next series 5:0. No matter how many big rounds the UNiTED players had or breaks go their way the Ukranians kept coming and coming until they were firmly in the driver’s seat of the event, knowing exactly what they had to do against fnatic to win first prize.

fnatic had taken their lumps from SK in unconvincing fashion and now they were all that stood in the way of Na’Vi and victory. Sadly not all of our questions would be answered in this series. Na’Vi went nuts again on the first map but in doing so won the tournament. They squeezed out a second map win but then seemed more and more out of things as the series progressed. They still tried to win rounds and shouted encouragement but all knew they were merely three maps away from a victory celebration regardless of the results. Na’Vi had won Arbalet Best of Four and convincingly and a series loss to fnatic here still left fnatic the ones with questions to answer. fnatic were the ones who needed to do it against Na’Vi in a final.

markeloff had not only been the best player in the world for another tournament but he had even taken it up another notch. Racking up round after round of clutch play, map after map of big numbers impact play, picking off opponents over and over with his AWP to open up defenses or halting the rushes of opponents. Likewise Edward had once more been a Picasso of the pistol rounds during big games, not only cementing himself as the best pistol player in the world but setting himself up to one day be one of the all time greats. Accompanying those recurrent performances was Zeus’s tactical mastery as he’d read opponents and led his own team in all the key moments. ceh9 had once more shown his intensity and will could spill over into the game giving him improbable round wins which put his team over the edge. Then there was starix, one of the quietest members during IEM, who had his own big time performances to complete the perfect yellow and blue machine Na’Vi appeared to be.

Na’Vi went into Arbalet Cup Europe as the clear favourites while many were looking to how fnatic would respond on home soil or glancing at SK out of the corner of their eyes to see if they could build upon their Bo4 second place and return to consistent contendership. Yet there was something crazy still about expecting a team to produce a superlative performance for a third consecutive tournament featuring elite teams. Nevertheless the first group stage saw Na’Vi go through teams like a buzzsaw, dominating in a fashion beyond even what had been seen before. Had Na’Vi somehow found a way to improve yet again to another level of play? The second group stage saw them played closer but still keep their noses in front when they needed to to get to the finishing line.

By Na’Vi had reached the finals it seemed as though finally the answers would come, there was fnatic waiting for them. Na’Vi had looked unstoppable once more while fnatic had faced a couple of speed bumps but made it to the their third final of the year nonetheless. This is where the levels theory of play came to light again as Na’Vi were out of the game enough to be totally dominated on inferno, hung in long enough for their mojo to reappear briefly and get a win on train and then fell apart on dust2 in the face of face’s performance. That was classic fnatic at their best, with GeT_RiGhT reaching a new personal high in a finals situation. 9/10 CS at the very least. In Na’Vi’s case something more akin to 8/10 or 7/10 CS most of the time and fnatic ran up the difference to great effect.

Na’Vi were never able to kick their game up to the top level they’d shown in previous tournaments and fell apart under the everpresent solid play of fnatic which waits to grind you down if you’re anything but spectacular. Na’Vi were unable to shine in that moment and fnatic were left alone to walk up and claim their throne. But how does that tie into the original statement that Na’Vi are in fact the best team in the world still?

Na’Vi’s two stars, markeloff and Edward, are doing things which are out of this world in 2010. They’ve both been in the top 5 individual players at each of the last three international level events at least, even at an event they didn’t win, so it’s become clear this is just the level they play at day in and day out. That kind of sustained performances doesn’t happen in modern day Cs unless you’re talking about the best periods of neo and f0rest’s careers.

Na’Vi had their breakdown or dip but even so it felt as though their loss came in circumstances whereby they lost to the only team at that event who could have bested them and was capable of getting to the level to do so. That very team showed up and played at the required level, much as had happened to fnatic in their two finals. On the basis of the playoffs of Arbalet Cup Europe alone fnatic deserve a lot of credit yet there are still some questions to be answered. Will they be able to figure out the Na’Vi puzzle when it is at its peak of mystery and effectiveness?

Viewed in the context of his history it simply doesn’t happen in modern CS that teams dominate consecutive events the way Na’Vi have done, no matter how good a team may be. Especially in this kind of era where there is immense competition amongst the elite teams, with three teams at least who can win a major event. This is not the same as past periods of dominance in the modern era, this is dominance in an era of great teams and that itself is highly significant. Right now Na’Vi are the best team in the world and they’re on course to be one of the greatest teams ever. For now they’ve proven their case as the best team, the impetus is on the rest of the world to provide evidence it can solve the Na’Vi puzzle when it matters most.