Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev is the AWPer for CIS powerhouse Natus Vincere. The 21-year-old is lauded by most as the best in the world and by some as the best of all time. In just five short years of professional play, he has worked his way up the rankings into one of the best teams in the world. In 2018, he broke record after record as he carried NaVi to second on HLTV’s world rankings. The Ukranian has shattered the ceiling of potential that professional CS:GO players historically reach.
An Online Prodigy
Kostyliev picked up the professional mouse in 2013 as a paramount rifler for the Ukranian mix team LAN DODGERS. After a short stint in Courage Gaming, s1mple returned to his former team that became Amazing Gaming. Internal issues mired his spells on both teams, something that has plagued the Ukranian throughout his career. Despite this, his undeniable quality has kept him at the forefront of the market. During this period came something that would damage s1mple’s early career. For cheating and ban evasion, ESL banned Kostyliev from 1st February 2014 for two years. While the Ukranian hacked at a young age, the ban came at just the wrong time. This would prevent his participation in all ESL events. The ban was disastrous considering the tournament organizer hosted both Majors in 2015.
HellRaisers – The First to Take a Punt
Regardless, HellRaisers poached the young talent in September 2014, recognizing his superstar potential. Kostyliev joined the likes of Mikhail “Dosia” Stolyarov and Kirill “ANGE1” Karasiow as he attempted to prove himself on the big stage. HellRaisers took a massive risk and gamble in bringing him on; something that paid off.
His first LAN event for the team was the Game Show S1 Finals where s1mple achieved a 1.10 HLTV rating as he helped his team to a runner-up finish. As an offline debut for a famed CIS team, this was a performance nothing short of spectacular for the Ukranian. Soon after was Kostyliev’s first ever experience of a Major; DreamHack Winter 2014.
Drawn into a problematic group, featuring the fantastic fnatic and the revered Cloud9, HellRaisers were tipped to fail. Facing the North Americans first and then the Swedes, HellRaisers did the unthinkable. They thrashed Cloud9 16-5 and closely won 16-14 against fnatic. s1mple’s respective 1.36 and 1.64 HLTV ratings played a considerable role in the wins, as his team secured Legends status. Falling to NiP in the quarter-finals cast only a slight shadow over the team who appeared to be on a high. With internal issues plaguing the team and s1mple’s ESL ban in effect, HellRaisers removed him two months after the Major.
Flipsid3 – Familiar Surroundings
A year after his ESL ban was given, Kostyliev joined the predominantly Ukranian roster of Flipsid3 Tactics. The organization took a huge risk in signing him; remove internal issues on past teams and the player’s ESL ban played on their minds. F3 opted to use stand-ins for the tournaments and took the gamble on s1mple. This show of faith led Kostyliev to play his heart out for the team.
It was on Flipsid3 that s1mple was fated to meet Spencer “Hiko” Martin, a man who would be influential in the young man’s career. Hiko stood in for the team, playing at ESWC 2015 for the lineup. A close friendship blossomed between the two, which would prove to be the catalyst that pushed s1mple’s career to the next level. In the meantime, internal issues once more came back to haunt Kostyliev. He left the team in July because of this, as despite positive results for the roster, it was a different case behind the scenes.
A Stand-In Spell, Raising Hell
HellRaisers announced that s1mple would rejoin the roster on a stand-in basis towards the end of 2015. The only LAN he played for the team would be the qualifier for the DreamHack Cluj-Napoca Major in September of the year. A masterclass from s1mple, with a standout 1.28 HLTV rating, proved not to be enough. Defeats to Titan and Vexed meant HellRaisers did not make the Major, disappointing for the team and s1mple. It may well have been because of past internal issues, or from the team’s poor performance, but Kostyliev did not continue with the team.
s1mple’s friendship with Hiko was the key to his next step. Martin’s team, the North American Liquid, were on a downward spiral and needed fresh talent to revitalize the roster. It was only natural that Hiko remembered the sublime player he played with on Flipsid3; and in came s1mple, as he joined Liquid in February 2016.
Liquid – A Monumental, Continental Change
Being a mere seventeen years old and leaving your friends and family behind to enter a different culture is a huge change for anyone. In s1mple’s case, he also had the weight of expectation on his shoulders. Liquid is a huge esports organization, and with such a huge fanbase there is a sense of expectation. Kostyliev had to perform; he did, and then some.
His first LAN for the team was a baptism of fire: MLG Columbus of April 2016. A Major hosted on Liquid’s home turf, they were under enormous pressure. North American teams had always underperformed at Majors. Cloud9 had only ever made the playoffs once in a Major, at ESL One Cologne 2014, and compLexity at EMS One Katowice 2014 and DreamHack Winter 2013. Liquid was yet to join their domestic colleagues in being a North American team able to make the playoffs of a Major.
With s1mple leading the pack that record was shattered. Liquid beat fnatic and FaZe to make the playoffs and then secured victory over CLG in the quarter-finals. They were raring to go against the Brazilian Luminosity in the semi-finals. After choking on two maps, an expense of Marcelo “coldzera” David’s legendary AWP play on Mirage, the North Americans were eliminated. Even the fact that Luminosity was the eventual champions did little to comfort the team. With spirits at an all-time low, they crashed out in last place at DreamHack Masters Malmo 2016 after falling to TYLOO and Mouz.
After this tournament, s1mple caved. He could not cope with being so far from home, in a team that simply could not find consistent success, and dealing with further internal issues. With NaVi not looking to make a move before the ESL One Cologne 2016 Major, Kostyliev opted to stand in for Liquid at ECS S1 Finals and in Cologne. Elimination to eventual champions G2, crashing out within the top six, was a decent achievement for Liquid. It would be nothing near the miracle run they had in Cologne though.
Victory against the French EnVyUs was how Liquid opened ESL One Cologne 2016 before a defeat against Virtus.pro set them back. Facing mousesports in a tight best-of-three to advance to the quarter-finals, s1mple was impressive. He achieved a 1.26 HLTV rating as Liquid ran out 2-0 winners. Against his continental colleagues, and future teammates, NaVi, in the quarter-finals was to be a tight affair. Liquid overturned them, returning to the semi-finals after a 2-1 triumph where Kostyliev stood out with 67 kills over the series. His remarkable 88 ADR was the highest on his team, who relied upon the stand-in to carry them through the match. Facing fnatic in the semi-finals was a blessing in disguise, as Liquid took the series 2-0 and became the first North American team in a Major final. Against fnatic, titans of the scene who ruled Counter-Strike in 2014 and 2015, s1mple shone under pressure. He stole the limelight as he took his team to the next level. And while the team fell to SK in the grand finals, it was Kostyliev who was the hero of ESL One Cologne 2016.
Now a free agent after his stand-in period with Liquid had expired, Kostyliev was a man in demand. Just less than a month after Cologne, NaVi unveiled s1mple as a new player. He could return to his homeland, back to a familiar culture, and of course, he returned to playing phenomenal Counter-Strike.
NaVi – A Homecoming to be Remembered
The arrival of s1mple was a statement of intent for NaVi. He was the most talked-about player in the CIS scene at the time of his addition, and with a fresh injection of new talent came huge burdens of expectation. Kostyliev had tasted this expectation on Liquid, but now on a historically world-class team, he had to perform from the get-go.
Surprisingly, s1mple failed. His first LAN was StarSeries S2, where NaVi crashed out last, and Kostyliev achieved a mere 0.76 HLTV rating. This remains his lowest HLTV rating on LAN over an event in his career. It may well have been this that lit a fire under NaVi, but the team and s1mple bounced back in incredible effect at the next event. This tournament went down in history for CIS as a region, NaVi as a team, and s1mple as a player. ESL One New York 2016.
In the group stage, three consecutive victories against Liquid, Virtus.pro, and SK put NaVi straight into the semi-finals. Once again, s1mple and co. faced his former team, Liquid, in a best-of-three for a spot in the grand final. After a disappointing 7-16 defeat on Cobblestone, NaVi bounced back against the home team on Train and then Dust2 to reach the finals. It was on the latter of these three maps that one of the most legendary plays in CS:GO history occurred: s1mple’s fake flash with an AWP.
In the final, NaVi were pitted against Virtus.pro. These legends of Counter-Strike were all that stood in the way of s1mple’s team as they attempted to win their first ever premier tournament. Once again starting with defeat on Cobblestone, a bounce-back victory meant that the CIS titans plowed to the trophy. s1mple made a remarkable play in this match too; a 1v4 on Train, without armor or a defuse kit.
Kostyliev, with his 1.24 HLTV rating over the three-map series, was a massive factor in NaVi’s victory. Their 2-1 victory meant everything for the team, and s1mple. He had established himself as the star rifler in his home region’s best team, won a premier tournament, and was one of the best players in the world.
While s1mple remained a well-performing cog in the NaVi gear system, the system itself was falling apart. After the coaching ban hugely harmed the team, it chuntered along for much of 2016 and 2017 with little success. The return of Zeus spelt NaVi’s intent to return to the top, but the team continued to struggle. In November, the change they needed was made. The removal of Denis “seized” Kostin to make way for Flipsid3’s young star player Denis “electronic” Sharipov breathed new life into NaVi. At the new lineup’s first LAN tournament, they won DreamHack Winter 2017, as the s1mpletronic duo was born. s1mple was the star man, and electronic helped him carry the team over the line. The year thankfully ended on a bright note, with the team feeling positive for 2018.
To understand how s1mple broke away in 2018, an understanding of his past is necessary. An online prospect, Kostyliev saw his luck hit high as HellRaisers gambled on his success. His career has gone through highs and lows, from reaching the Major finals to suffering from an ESL ban. He has battled through internal issues, earned the respect of his peers and cemented himself as the best team in the world. In the next part of the s1mple series, his 2018 will come under the spotlight. What set him apart? How did he reach such a high level? How high was his level?
Continue to Part 2.
Image Credit: Helena Kristiansson / ESL