Comparison between sport and esports can be mawkish or awkward, but sometimes a story just resonates. Watching Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev win his first CSGO major was a cathartic moment for his fans, friends, and family. And for fans of the most popular game on the planet — football — it may also have been extremely reminiscent of a moment in sport that happened recently, for another individual that is hailed by many as the greatest to ever do it.
Our protagonists here are both relatively young men, uncertain of their place in the world, but blessed with supernatural talent, and their journey from difficult prodigy to “greatest of all time” (GOAT) status is hardly a new one. Nothing worth having ever comes easy, and the stories of so many GOATs seem to reflect that: from Federer to Hamilton and so many more, including one Lionel Messi, the s1mple of world football.
In terms of fame, it’s probably fairer to say that s1mple is the Messi of Counter-Strike, and the comparison is far from one to one, of course. Both men have won titles down the years, with Messi one of the most decorated players in the history of the sport, but both were still chasing an elusive crown that would finally allow them to shake off the doubters and hold their head high as the greatest to ever do it, with no asterisk required.
A Major problem
For those who aren’t steeped in CSGO culture, the biggest event of the year is the Major, with nothing else coming close in terms of prestige or pressure. Unlike Dota, Valve’s flagship CSGO tournament doesn’t have an eye-watering prize pool that makes it sit on the calendar like a bowling ball on a delicate souffle, but in many other respects, it defines the year. A Major title has priority over all else.
For s1mple, however, that was the one title to elude him. His talent was clear for all to see, with pundits and experts happy to proclaim him the best player in the world, but his results on the biggest stage didn’t match up to that. It didn’t seem to matter how well he played: something would always go wrong in previous Na’Vi lineups, with problems often stemming from the leadership group and the in-game leader Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko.
There was also the small matter of the competition, with Danish team Astralis having dominated Majors for a number of years, winning three Majors in a row between 2018-2019 and four in total. Their system was not built on star power or fragging ability, but a higher understanding of how the game could and should work, and a greater level of team synergy than we’d ever seen in the game’s history. The Astralis system appeared to totally trump the individual genius of s1mple when the two teams met in finals, which was a common occurrence in 2018 especially.
It is fair to point out that Astralis were never truly defeated by s1mple and co. The Danish org eventually ate itself from the inside out, their stars deserted them for bigger paydays, and their lustre was lost to time and lockdowns. But then again, s1mple was still the greatest even when Astralis were at their pomp, even if the record books would show other names with more titles, and he maintained that greatness until Astralis were no more.
It is also fair to say that Na’Vi themselves endured and evolved even while under the oppressive reign of Astralis. The romantic reunion with his former IGL Andrii "B1ad3" Horodenskyi, now coach of Na’Vi, and the rebuilding of the team from its Zeus/Edward/Flamie days to what Na’Vi has become in 2021, gave s1mple teammates like Valerii "b1t" Vakhovskyi and Denis "electronic" Sharipov, no longer expecting him to solo-carry the server every time. The team evolved around s1mple, and in turn he evolved to meet even higher standards.
Just like s1mple, Messi also lacked an international trophy in his cabinet, and like s1mple he faced more than just internal problems. His national side was not in the best place, as a succession of managers could not convert the talent into trophies. Despite being just one of 11 men and often the best performer on the team, blame was often laid at Messi’s feet.
Messi also had to face teams like Germany and Spain in his lifetime, which had less individual talent but played in a system that made them dominant. Both teams were based around fantastic club sides in Barcelona and Bayern respectively. Both had long periods as the best in the world, right at a point when Messi was reaching his prime and coming into it, meaning his chances of winning a World Cup were greatly reduced regardless of his personal performance.
Until this summer, when Messi finally hoisted the Copa America trophy high, this fact was used against him in the endless debate about whether he or Cristiano Ronaldo was the greatest in the world. This conversation was often fueled by Ronaldo’s one international title to his name, the European Championship — a fact that fans would hold over Messi when others tried to support his GOAT credentials.
The famous eye test
Now, for those who watch a lot of football and study the game as an art, it seems obvious that while Cristiano Ronaldo is a force of nature, there is no real comparison between him and Messi in terms of overall talent. While Ronaldo has maximised every ounce of his ability with a ruthless, uncompromising commitment to self-improvement (from a sporting standpoint) to become one of the greatest goalscorers ever to touch the game, Messi is just on another level as a player, with a vision and ability few, if any, have possessed.
Similarly, while it was clear that s1mple’s ability sets him apart from the pack, the conversation about the GOAT of CSGO always had other names thrown around. Fans of certain teams might have tried to insert Kenny "kennyS" Schrub or Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut into the mix, but realistically the only name that comes close is Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, the star man of the hegemonic Astralis era.
On paper, dev1ce was clearly the better player, with multiple titles to his name and the stats to rival anyone you’d want to put up against him. His fans pointed out that CSGO is a team game, and s1mple’s failures could be a sign he isn’t a great teammate, just as Messi’s detractors would point to Ronaldo’s single international trophy as proof he was greater than Messi in the biggest moments, despite Ronaldo not actually having played a part in the final Portugal won.
In the server though, it was the other way around. dev1ce was working his hardest to maximise his talent and move the art of Counter-Strike forward, where s1mple just effortlessly (or so it seemed) produced moments that made your jaw drop. The eye test favoured Na’Vi’s man, but his fans always had to deal with the same taunt: that he had no major title, and needed one to truly be considered the GOAT of the game.
Faith no more
Today, with s1mple crowned Major champion and Messi in possession of a major international trophy, there is no more debate about who the GOAT is. Paper arguments will exist until the end of time, but anyone who'с watched and studied CSGO knows that s1mple is just the best we’ve seen up until this point, and now he has the resume to prove it.
Interestingly, for both Messi and s1mple it was an old mentor and ex-player that seemed to be the catalyst for their success. When Pep Guardiola joined Barcelona, Messi was a great player, but not the superhuman freak that came to dominate the game for a decade or more, in much the same way that s1mple was always insanely talented, but wasn’t able to achieve his dreams until his old IGL and friend B1ad3 gained control of the Na’Vi team and system.
This is proof, if proof were needed, that even in a team game you cannot do it alone, even if you are s1mple or Messi. With everything in place around s1mple’s with a team that is capable of playing the level of CS required to dominate the biggest tournaments of the game, this could be a watershed moment for the Ukrainian star as we enter the Na’Vi era, and as he cements his place as the greatest by every metric.