s1mple and ZywOo are considered transcendent talents in CS:GO, Duncan "Thorin" Shields considers a more holistic view on their competition to claim the status of world's best player.
For an unprecedented third straight year, it looks as if the two players who will contend for the status of world's best player remain the same: Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev and Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut. Their efforts and impact on their teams are obvious and massive. They are so far ahead of the field that a bad day or week for them would still be considered a good or average day or week for many of their peers.
As their transcendent skills wow spectators and their statistical dominance baffles numbers nerds, what is arguably the most interesting ‘compare and contrast’ in the game will still likely come down to personal preference - which highlights stuck with you more, or which factors you've selected as most important.
Instead, let's consider a more holistic view on their plights. Looking at their circumstances, let's paint a different picture of what each contends with, on their own side.
The other side
Observing a team's Terrorist-side play will quickly explain much without a word ever needing be uttered out loud: One sees which players are given resources - whether that be space, time, or utility; the roles a player tends to undertake becomes apparent; even how much a player appears to trust specific teammates or the game plan at large can potentially be deduced.
The simple principle of professional play for many years goes that an individual player has much more agency over how and where he plays his position.
What is often ignored, though, are the more subtle but still detectable implications of how a player approaches the other side of the game, that of the Counter-Terrorist.
The simple principle of professional play for many years goes that an individual player has much more agency over how and where he plays his position, his timings on rotations, and perhaps even specific site set-ups like boosts and utility usage.
The mastermind In-game Leaders whose vision dominates T-side play are often far more lenient on the other side, allowing players to determine the right course of action according to their comfort level and read on the game.
Going where the action is
On the CT-side, nobody plays like “s1mple”, nor with anywhere near the impact. He appears to have ultimate agency over not just how to play his spot but even which spot is his upon spawning. Some may remember “s1mple's” 2018 CT-side play on Mirage to replace “Zeus”, ensuring a traditionally weak spot in NAVI’s defence was sometimes in fact covered by the strongest player in the world.
In 2020, this concept was pushed to the extreme. “s1mple” could appear anywhere and at seemingly any time on the CT-side, and so the T-side team is forced to factor this into their game plan and conditioning the NAVI CT-side becomes a much trickier proposition. This agency is given not just to unleash the most powerful weapon in the game, but so that “s1mple” can plug holes in his team's defence and make sure he is not locked out of a round and left with an impossible clutch or a save as his only choices.
Credit: Virre CSGO
In contrast, “ZywOo” is still a mortal player, taking his spots and playing them to an absurdly high individual level, but with his rotations based more around getting an AWP pick or covering a specific player. Likewise, “ZywOo” plays the game at his pace and then responds to the calls of his IGL, coach, and team-mates to adjust.
“s1mple” seemingly sits back, let's the game unfold, and then recognises - as if being the IGL himself - when the current game plan will not play out with a high enough chance for a NAVI win – at which point he takes the game in to his own hands and bends it to his will. “ZywOo” does it with his crosshair and skills while “s1mple” has increased influence by knowing when to short-circuit NAVI's system and take matters into his own hands.
Follow whose lead?
Neither superstar can boast a traditionally great and tenured In-game leader. Indeed, one might argue if they did that their team would have locked up the top spot. The two are in far from identical scenarios, though.
After last year's campaigns, many will point to Vitality's “XTQZZZ” as one of the game's elite coaches, such as his impact has been with integrating “apEX” as the new IGL, “misutaaa” and “Nivera” into a formerly veteran roster, and bringing in “shox” as a contributor, but not dominating the flow of the offense.
Credit: Thorin via Thorin Clips
In contrast, a quick look at NAVI suggests more questions about “B1ad3's” coaching than answers as to where his impact is found. A team with skill and aggressive talents seems to play too slow for its personnel at times and seems to suffer from "the perfect" being "the enemy of the good" as they attempt execution and intricacy that would be difficult from anything but a team of long tenured veterans with excellent chemistry. As such, who calls “B1ad3” one of the best coaches in the game? The answer is telling considering the massive results NAVI have had at times.
Similarly, “apEX” has earned begrudging respect for his role as IGL and helping make Vitality the most consistent team of 2020. NAVI’s “Boombl4” is still more talked about for memes and his occasional big fragging performances. Who could even outline his strengths as an IGL? When one considers how many rounds fall apart and how often we see “s1mple” dragging the team over the finish line, it would be easy enough to suggest “Boombl4” is even propped up in ways that don't appear to apply to “apEX” and “ZywOo”.
Win as a team, lose as a team
Most exceptional and comparable between “s1mple” and “ZywOo” is their ability to produce their best play and be the best player in the server whether their teams win or lose and even against each other. Fans could not ask for a more consistent pair of duelling would-be-world-number-ones.
Still, Counter-Strike is not just a team game but one in which team co-ordination and execution have traditionally overcome even the best individual excellence over a healthy sample size. Hence it didn't matter if “s1mple” was playing the best CS in history in 2018, because Astralis were playing the best team Counter-Strike. There was a satisfying order to things, in that sense, even if it was frustrating to see “s1mple” unable to capture trophies he was more than good enough to win.
“s1mple” has the worse team in the two most important regards: in terms of role aptitude; and stylistically...Vitality is loaded with key experience and players whose fragging is often less relevant, exactly because of their aptitude to their individual role and their ability to harmonise.
“s1mple” has the worse team in the two most important regards: in terms of role aptitude; and stylistically. Were the former fixed, the raw fire-power of NAVI (which seems slightly higher than Vitality all-in-all and on occasion certainly can impress) would be enough to make the matter of little relevance. NAVI's issue is that their style looks disjointed and is arguably already masked by big fragging performances from the others on those days when NAVI actually look like champions.
Vitality is loaded with key experience and players whose fragging is often less relevant, exactly because of their aptitude to their individual role and their ability to harmonise and produce the effective and consistent style that Vitality made work for the lion's share of last year.
Of course, both scenarios are appropriate to the players we are discussing. “ZywOo's” youth and relative inexperience matters less surrounded by veteran names and figures committed to role play. “s1mple's” individual play reached incredible heights years ago and in the last couple he has devoted himself further to understanding the game on the cerebral level typically reserved for IGLs and coaches. Thus, he can appropriately take over the team and turn them to his ends when necessary.
Putting each into the other's kind of current environment would be a fun exercise though, and one worth undertaking mentally if you prefer one to the other - to anticipate how it may help or hurt their performance.
If I want to win a single game, then give me fragging and I'll gamble that those kills have the right impact. If I want to win a whole tournament, then give me experience and players who understand their role and how it applies to the larger picture of the team style. The traditional contrast of FaZe and Astralis, respectively, should quickly establish the distinction being highlighted.
The next chapter
The consistent excellence these two have bestowed upon us in Counter-Strike cannot ever be taken for granted or rested upon. That they continue to excel and have not hit hard slumps of many months is near impossible as it is. Nonetheless, so phenomenal have they been that one begins to imagine their battle can continue on for many years, contrasted with the fight of Federer and Nadal in tennis, perhaps.
As such, it is “ZywOo's” development and changing team scenario I look to most. It's already unfair to expect him to go directly head-to-head with the best player in history (who’s still in their prime), yet he has done it and even looked to be favoured at times during their back-and-forth rivalry.
Considering “ZywOo” has yet to complete his third year as a tier one full-time professional and with much of that timespan not taking place during the time we had offline events, one can do little more than marvel at how good the French Phenom has been. From such amazing progress, it now becomes appropriate to ask if he is the next “s1mple", and look at a trajectory where he can contend for the title of best player in history himself. After all, who would count either of these men out again? Haven't they shown us more than we could ever have hoped for already?
Cherish this rivalry. You may never see another like it.