In the wake of his MVP performance at EPICENTER, NiKo has finally started to get some of the attention he deserves. In the shadow of players like s1mple and device, he’s crept under the radar in 2018. But don’t be fooled, he’s actually having the best year of his career.
At this point, few people would contest the claim that NiKo is one of the best players of all-time in CS:GO. Ranked #11 in 2016 and #2 in 2017 in HLTV’s annual player rankings, he’s due another Top 5 in this year’s rankings. No doubt about it, Niko has been one of the premier superstars in Counter-Strike for more than two years now.
In all-time LAN 1.0 ratings against Top 20 teams, NiKo’s 1.18 rating is only rivaled by s1mple (1.23), coldzera (1.18), and device (1.17). Below these four players, there is a steep drop-off to kennyS (1.12). That does not mean that these are the four best players of all-time; after all, both GuardiaN and olofmeister have been playing at the top level for much longer. But this does show that NiKo is on pace for legendary status, as are his peers s1mple and coldzera.
Yet unlike these two players, NiKo’s never really had his moment—a period of time in which he has widely considered the best player in the world. In 2016, he suffered from a lack of opportunity to prove himself as a player for a mediocre mousesports. In 2017, FaZe’s great year was overshadowed by their failure to defeat their rival, SK—just as NiKo’s great year was overshadowed by coldzera’s near-ubiquitous status as the best player in the world. This year, NiKo’s excellence has been seldom celebrated, as s1mple transcended the mortal realm and device has posted comparable numbers as the Bosnian on a much more successful team. NiKo is headed for a #3 ranking in most people’s list, and again he has been overshadowed.
That’s okay. s1mple deserves all the praise he gets (and more), and coldzera’s consistent excellence over many years earned him consecutive #1 rankings. And while NiKo wasn’t Counter-Strike’s posterboy in 2016 or 2017, he was widely celebrated in both years. In 2016, he was one of the breakout prodigies. Last year, he broke out as a superstar on two elite rosters, finally enabled to flex his skill in championship matches. This year, however, there’s no sexy storyline for NiKo. Even when FaZe was the best team in the world, they could not win a title; and with the dominance of Astralis, it’s awkward to say that NiKo was,for a time, the best player on the best team, even if that was at one point true. NiKo is neither new nor is his team thriving—so there is no obvious reason to acknowledge his excellence.
Though it may not be obvious, there is a reason to celebrate NiKo’s current play: this is the best year of his career. In both ‘16 and ‘17, his LAN rating was 1.18. Thus far this year, it’s up to 1.22. In terms of raw individual numbers, he has outperformed his past selves. Beyond overall fragging, NiKo’s finally been able to excel against the very best. A background concern with NiKo has always been that his stats are deceivingly high. Given his aggressive style, he’s often been accused of bumping up his numbers against weaker teams while faltering against the top teams. Pretty much every player takes a statistical dip against the best, as one would expect. However, NiKo’s ‘18 average against Top 5 teams has been a startling 1.19, below only device and s1mple. Over the past six months, he’s tied with device and s1mple for a 1.21 rating in this category. Thus, despite an underwhelming Major final in Boston, NiKo’s been a superstar against all competition.
But is NiKo really better this year than he was in 2017, during FaZe’s peak? I think so. He’s gotten more kills (with a whopping 0.82 KPR), fewer deaths, more maps with a +1 rating. On any statistical metric one may look at, NiKo has improved.
Not that statistics are the be-all-end-all. The stats simply confirm that the eye suggests, once one takes the time to look at NiKo’s game—which is incredibly well-rounded. Unlike most superstars, he’s perfectly comfortable in passive situations as well as aggressive ones. On CT-side, his pressure-response is incredibly sensitive to the situation—NiKo rarely forces a bad play. On the T-side, NiKo can do whatever you want him to. As an entry, he’s rivaled only by dupreeh. And yet, if the situation so dictates, he’s more than capable of being a passive player, something he was forced to do before olof became more of a mid-round player for the team.
On top of this, NiKo has performed excellently while being an in-game leader. While his style is decisively simple, it’s far from daft. With some decisive splits on both sites, FaZe threw Liquid into a panic on Mirage; and with some quick fake-B-hit-A strats, NiKo was able to manipulate Na’vi’s expectations enough to force them into multiple multi-man saves. Of course, exogenous factors like being an in-game leader are not fit for use in player rankings, but the fact that he could call adequately while playing up to his peak is certainly remarkable, and serves as another jewel in his crown.
So while he hasn’t been the best player in the world this year, we are currently seeing one of the best players in the history of CS:GO play in peak form. That kind of thing shouldn’t go under the radar. So in between fits of euphoria watching s1mple, we should take a moment appreciate what NiKo has been doing.