The search for forgotten glory from Counter-Strike’s most eminent nation
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NiP are looking to win the PGL Major and become the next great Swedish CS team

Ingmar Österberg, an 18-year-old Swede, and three of his friends are driving all the way from Gothenburg, Sweden, to stay at their cousin’s flat in Stockholm, five hours away. They have tickets booked at the Avicii Arena, formerly the aptly named Stockholm Globe Arena, which sort of looks like a pus-filled pimple in the middle of the Johanneshov district in the southern part of the city. Beneath the other-worldly dome’s exterior, the arena can fit roughly 15,000 people when it’s filled to capacity.

Throughout its history, the Avicii Arena has mostly played host to ice hockey games and occasional concerts — but Österberg is not going to the arena to watch hockey.

On Thursday Nov. 4, 2021, the Avicii Arena will be filled with thousands of Counter-Strike fans, all coming to see the first major tournament in over two years. That is, as long as people don’t start getting COVID-19. Health concerns and long travel times were not going to dissuade Österberg and his friends from missing not only the first major in two years, but one on Swedish soil, at that. A major that could reignite Swedish CS.

Österberg has been playing and following CS since 2016. Back then, two Swedish Counter-Strike: Global Offensive dynasties were fizzling out, nearing their natural conclusions: Ninjas in Pyjamas and Fnatic. Their rivalry was what ignited an enduring love of the game in many young Swedes. Österberg fondly recollects watching the old NiP squad, which featured fan favorites and legends of the game like Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund and Patrik “f0rest” Lindberg.

“Fnatic was always the evil team, the antagonist,” Österberg said. “When they won, it was fine, but you were… not mad, but you weren’t as happy as you would’ve been if NiP won.”

Times have changed and NiP are no longer the team they once were. Swedish CS, once at the top of the world, saw a steep decline as the Danes and the CIS teams rose to supremacy.

The NiP of today, while presently rated No. 2 in the world, is filled with some new and largely untested faces. They’ve seen their fair share of disappointment and are only now poised to be dark horse contenders. What’s more, Österberg doesn’t feel the same attachment he felt to the old NiP roster, though the behind-the-scenes vlogs that the organization is putting out has started to help in that regard.

 

But what happened to the Swedes who once dominated CS:GO? And why has it taken so long for NiP to rebuild a team that inspires a fragment of confidence, a persistent ember sustained by goodwill and national pride, in the team’s Swedish fanbase? If you ask f0rest, one of the aforementioned Swedish luminaries, the root of the problem is a sense of entitlement.

Where Did All The Swedes Go?

On Oct. 21, 2021, pley.gg published a damning interview with f0rest where the veteran ripped into the new generation of Swedish players. His call to action both shamed and encouraged them in equal measure.

“The Swedish players feel kind of entitled because Sweden always has been presented as one of the best nations in Counter-Strike,” f0rest said. “Because of that, some people expect to be a great star player right off the bat and to join an already Tier 1 team. But people are not fighting together as a team to reach that goal collectively.”

He pointed to the Danish scene as a textbook example of building talent from the ground up. The drive and commitment their Tier 2 players demonstrate in battling for recognition, not as individuals but as a unified roster, is the special formula their Scandinavian neighbors to the north are failing to adopt.

F0rest and his NiP compatriots have all retired or moved on to other teams, with f0rest and Adam “friberg” Friberg now playing for a Dignitas squad who unfortunately missed out on qualification for the PGL Major Stockholm 2021. The old have made way for the new and, say what you will about Swedish CS, NiP have certainly taken some chances on young talent that have shown they’re willing to grind away on their academy team, the Young Ninjas. Whether they’ve fostered that talent? That’s still up for debate.

“NiP is doing something right with giving [Linus “LNZ” Holtäng] a shot, being a young player from Young Ninjas and now has won IEM Fall,” f0rest said. “That will hopefully give some motivation for younger Swedish players to see that it’s possible.”

LNZ is a hot button topic moving into the PGL Major. Unlike his young teammate, Nicolas “Plopski” Gonzalez Zamora, who’d dabbled in Tier 1 CS during his tenure on x6tence prior to joining NiP, LNZ was thrown directly into the gauntlet as a stand-in after the team moved Erik “ztr” Gustafsson back to the Young Ninjas for further development.

So far, LNZ seems to be delivering — at least to an extent — having helped propel the team to their IEM Fall victory. Their win was the conjunction of the right stars lining up and, most importantly, the team’s star Danish AWPer, Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, returning to his peak form. Still, there are niggling doubts about the team, especially relating to the young’uns. Due to the pandemic forcing competitive play online during the past years, the major will be LNZ’s first tournament playing in front of a crowd. That is, assuming they can advance to the playoffs.

LNZ at EPL
LNZ at ESL Pro League Fall playoffs in 2021. | Provided by NiP

Despite his seeming importance to the team’s future success, LNZ hasn’t talked to management specifically about what he needs to do to become a permanent fixture. Instead, he’s focusing on how to improve himself and level up his game.

“What they want from me is to just be the support that the team needs, and just, at all times, to do my best to improve myself as a player, both mentally and with the technical stuff,” LNZ said. “I would say that’s the biggest thing: to just keep on improving at all times.”

It’s no coincidence that LNZ has this mindset, the exact one that others have said young Swedish players should exemplify more. LNZ, more than most others, is acutely aware of the problems with Swedish CS. As a player who has been through the lower tier gauntlet, he had front-row seats to the lack of commitment f0rest described.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to put in the hard work and only want to do the easy work,” LNZ said. “And it’s a weird situation because everyone’s complaining that the Swedish scene is dropping off but nobody’s really willing to put in the work that’s needed. I think that’s the biggest reason that it fell off.”

No fact highlights that lack of commitment better than the way LNZ said players move around constantly in the lower tiers of the Swedish scene. Before joining the Young Ninjas, LNZ played for five different teams in the span of a single year. As a result, there’s no real time to develop as a team.

He contrasted that experience with what was accomplished by Sinners Esports, the Czech squad led by Tomáš “oskar” Šťastný.

Like the Danes, the Sinners know the value of putting their nose to the grindstone. For the better part of 2021, the Czechs gave everything they had, putting themselves through the ringer of online Tier 2 and Tier 3 tournaments. Eventually that work yielded results, as they now compete at S-Tier tournaments, taking games off the best teams international CS:GO has to offer.

The Young Ninjas team have become a partial fix to this endemic plague of starry-eyed Swedes. Academy rosters help provide a stepping stone between lower-tier and Tier 1 CS. MOUZ’s academy team, MOUZ NXT, for example, have been wildly successful, rising to the top of Tier 2 CS. Obviously not every organization can field an academy team and not every promising Swedish up-and-comer can be on the Young Ninjas, but it’s a step in the right direction. LNZ and ztr are evidence to that effect, even if their full potential hasn’t yet been realized.

“I think the future of Swedish Counter-Strike looks brighter than it has in the last few years,” f0rest said. “There are a lot of upcoming talents who are beginning to pop up within the scene, and it feels like the Swedish CS:GO has got reignited and realized ‘Hey, we are not so bad after all.’”

Dignitas field a Swedish roster, and there are a few other Swedes scattered across Tier 1 CS, but it is NiP that will have to be the shepherd of this new dawn for Swedish CS; with Fnatic shifting to a UK roster and Dignitas often floundering a step behind the best teams, there’s really no one else.

The future is uncertain, but this current iteration of NiP have shown itself to be a contender right now. And still, not everyone is confident that the team, and especially its younger players, will live up to the mounting hype as they prepare to play in the PGL Major Stockholm.

Bright Lights And Young Guns

Mohan “launders” Govindasamy, a Canadian color commentator, is one of those people not sold on the idea of NiP making a deep run at the major. He thinks that, despite recent strong showings, teams like NAVI outperform NiP at every level, from star players to the more inexperienced rookies.

“I think if the major wasn’t a LAN, I’d feel like there was more merit to the idea that maybe Plopski and LNZ could keep up,” launders said.

In general, launders is critical of the Swedes, applying a sharp analytical lens to dissect what NiP’s fans feel more as a general pessimism about the team’s chances of winning. With LNZ, he only sees occasional spots of potential shining through. As for Plopski, who’s “a shell of himself,” according to launders, “I don’t really see how he could’ve ever been a star player.”

To make up for those facts, launders said the team will lean hard on dev1ce and Fredrik “REZ” Sterner, who’s finally started to emerge as the talent he was touted as.

As for their in-game leader, Hampus “hampus” Poser — NiP’s third and final player making a major debut — “he’s an IGL on an island,” launders said, after complimenting hampus’ level of play. “He’s never had help. He’s referenced the fact that in Sweden there’s never been anyone to teach him how to call.”

NiP pose for a photo
The Swedish roster poses for a photo. |Provided by NiP

For all the sharp criticisms, launder belongs to the same camp as f0rest and countless others who see the tantalizingly bright flashes of potential on this current iteration of NiP. They’ve had close to five months with the same five players, a respectable amount of time for things to start gelling in Counter-Strike terms, and the team’s players, for one, are confident.

“I think we feel really good, outside and inside the game, as a team,” Plopski said. “Our chemistry is on point. We just feel like we’re getting better each day.”

Since the team won IEM Fall, they’ve been boot camping at NiP’s office in Stockholm. They’ve been honing their skills, taking time to incorporate changes to the game’s meta that came with the implementation of the grenade dropping mechanic. Unlike most of their competition, who’ve flown in from all over the world, the only travel NiP have to do is a short drive across town — a grand total of six minutes to reach the Avicii Arena.

Yet, make no mistake. Even with the cautious reservation many Swedish CS fans feel for the new NiP and their excitement over the chance of witnessing Natus Vincere and s1mple win a major before their very eyes, dev1ce and the rest of the plucky Swedish underdogs will be their favorite. And their voices will be heard in the arena.

Plopski has played in roaring stadiums before. Even though he said it feels like his personal growth on LAN has been hampered by the pandemic and online play, Plopski at least has a basis for knowing what he’s getting into. For LNZ, and the bulk of the 59 other major debutants who are fighting for an appearance in the Avicii Arena, it would be a totally novel experience. None of them know whether the pressure will bring out the best in their play or leave them breathless, sweaty and trembling, as they get battered by vets with more experience under their belts.

“If the whole Swedish crowd is cheering for you, that might be a lot to deal with on a different level,” launders said, “You don’t want to let them down. Maybe that’s the thing that makes you crumble.”

Of course, to even get to the arena NiP must make it through the New Legends stage, which is by no means a given.

A Good Time To Be A Fan

It’s not just NiP with something to prove, either. All the storylines heading into the event are titillating to say the least: NAVI and s1mple poised to win their first major; Astralis without dev1ce, getting the rest of the band together for one last gig; and NiP, the home team favorite, fighting to hold on to their position at the top. Then there’s FaZe Clan, who barely scraped through qualifiers, and Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer Gustafsson — the only Swede in attendance not on NiP — who has attended every single major.

The PGL Major is, simply put, exciting. It’s the highest level of play and it’s a return to a live audience. Any lover of esports, hardcore or casual, knows that nothing compares to watching games in a stadium full of people. Barring a COVID-tastrophe — knock on wood — that’s exactly what the Counter-Strike world will get starting Nov. 4.

For Österberg, his friends and the thousands of other fans who will soon be heading to the Avicii Arena in Stockholm, anything is possible. They might just bear witness to the resurrection of Swedish CS supremacy.

“Kom igen Ninjas, kom igen!”

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