Short & Sweet: Captain AZR Steering RNG To New Heights
This one wasn’t very short, but it sure was sweet. Nick “Taffy” Taifalos and the Renegades caught up with Aaron “AZR” Ward to talk through the last three months as the captain of the new-look Renegades and their form heading into the end of the 2018 calendar year.
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The Renegades CS:GO squad have returned from their annual pilgrimage to the Asia-Pacific region, which this time included an Asia Minor spot at the Oceanic Closed Qualifier for IEM Katowice as well as a top four finish at Bangkok for the $100,000 Toyota Masters LAN.
Many expressed shock upon hearing RNG had not topped the qualifier, going down to Grayhound in a nail-biting best-of-3 and while top seed at the event was certainly the aim, Aaron “AZR” Ward was just happy to book the team’s spot at the Minor in January.
“Obviously we wanted to come out as first seed, but as long as we made it to the Asia Minor, that was pretty much the goal for us at the qualifier. Heading into previous Asia Minors, it was just about making sure we qualified for the Challenger Stage, to qualify for the next stage in our Major journey.”
The 1-2 loss to Grayhound (13-16, 16-13, 17-19) went down to the wire; both teams left everything on the server and despite solid preparation and a gameplan to boot, RNG couldn’t convert a number of anti-eco rounds and let the match slip to their Oceanic rivals. AZR put it down to individual focus.
“I think we were fairly prepared for that game, we watched their other matches [at the event]. Some of us weren’t very focused during the matches. Our heads weren’t in the game, we weren’t doing stuff we practiced and prepared for them, I think we were even playing a little scared.
“Grayhound are probably the most consistent team in Australia, for sure. I was expecting a little more from the Tainted Minds line-up if anything else. We knew ORDER would be contending as well but hadn’t looked into them as much.”
RNG’s win over Karlo “USTILO” Pivac’s Tainted Minds 2-0 (16-9, 16-7) ensured the squad would travel with Grayhound to the next stage in the opening major season of 2019 at the Asia Minor, marking RNG’s seventh appearance at the qualifying event.
The qualifying process has differed from previous Majors, where the Renegades victory at the previous three Asia Minors ensured a direct invite to the following Minor. This time, with the boys dropping back to qualify through Oceania, the team took the extra two weeks and over the course of a month will bounce between the States, Australia, Thailand and Denmark. AZR is not the biggest fan of the change, but knows it can be avoided should the squad make it past the Challenger stage in February.
“For me personally, I definitely think it’s pretty annoying. We’ve always just been invited and it’s just made it a lot easier for us. We haven’t had to worry about jet lag at past Asia Minors, which was another factor coming in to this event; the jet lag from America to Australia has always been pretty bad for us. I mean it’s just how it is; hopefully next time we can just qualify for the top 16 and not worry about this process again.”
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The boys are in high spirits now, but it’s a stark contrast to the situation following the squad’s demise in London at the FACEIT Major. Eliminated once more in the Challenger Stage, changes were inevitable for the line-up, and next to nothing was set in stone in the weeks leading up to the start of the online season.
“So originally we thought we were going to keep the same line-up, but then Noah [Nifty] got the offer from Envy. He wanted something new for himself, he didn’t want to IGL or AWP, and then Renegades also wanted to make changes. It was a pretty chaotic time – it happened all in under a week. Eventually it was decided on Liazz and Grat, then Karlo [USTILO] had to go. Then we had to work out who would IGL, it was just chaotic, we were asking players from Europe and America and Australia…eventually it just came down to ‘f**k it, I’ll do it for the team’.”
Within a week, RNG had lost two long-serving members in USTILO and Nifty, the team’s captain. Their replacements in Jay “Liazz” Tregillgas and Sean “Gratisfaction” Kaiwai were carving up their local scene in Australia but were otherwise for the most part untested internationally. The team was still actively searching for an IGL and was just days away from their EPL debut as a new lineup.
What came next was astonishing - RNG opened their EPL account with eight straight wins, then made it out of the dreaded Swiss stage at StarSeries i-League Season 6 to finish top eight after wins against TyLoo and compLexity Gaming. The Renegades would go on to claim second in Season 6 of ECS with a fantastic 13-5 record, including wins over Team Liquid and MIBR. AZR puts it down to a number of factors, but above all the attitude of the team’s newest in Liazz and Grat.
“With me IGL’ing now it’s definitely very different – I’ve usually been a secondary leader, always helping the main IGL. It’s guess it’s just another stepping stone in my career, learning another role.
“I think it’s been going alright so far. Having Sean [Gratisfaction] and Jay [Liazz] when they rocked up was great. They both have very good mentalities, they’re both very keen and don’t tilt easily. They’ve reinvigorated me a little bit, having these two on the team.
“I think we’ve got pretty good roles on CT right now. Previously with USTILO, jkaem and I we had some clashes when playing some passive spots but having jkaem and Justin [jks] now playing solid anchor roles, they’re getting the job done and it’s freeing the rest of us up a lot. We’ve had a few issues on our T side as of late but we’ve been working through it. It’s only going to get better as we keep grinding through.”
The online season was brilliant for the Renegades, finishing 25-15 over both major leagues. AZR was pleased with the team’s form over the course of the six-week online portion of the season, but definitely didn’t mince words over the decision to both shorten the format of each league and run them simultaneously.
“The online season was pretty decent for us, but some of those matches at the end of the season were a waste of time. We ended up playing the last few matches from Australia [against Envy] and we couldn’t forfeit them, it just took a lot of practice time while we were in Australia.
“This season was definitely packed man. I mean there was nothing really different about the teams, but the big thing was that both seasons were smaller and packed into the same time – we had to play both leagues within something like six weeks. We had stuff like double headers almost every day – there were just so many matches and it was definitely taking a toll on some of the player’s patience."
Of course the team wasn’t complete without coach Aleksandar “kassad” Trifunović, who returned to mentor the new lineup following their top 8 finish at StarSeries. He has since been instrumental in nurturing RNG’s newest talent to prepare them for competition, but most importantly, allows AZR the chance to lead the team as much as possible.
“Alex [kassad] has a lot of freedom with our theory sessions with strats and stuff but when it comes to practice and scrims, I definitely want to lead the prac, I guess you could say. I definitely look to Alex for guidance – he brings in a lot of strats to our stratbook, there’s definitely a lot to go over, and sometimes I’ll forget about something and he’ll remind me of something. We play off of each other.
“I guess previously when Noah and Alex were leading, we all saw eye to eye – I think it’s important for the IGL and the coach to be on the same level. His knowledge of the game is really high and having him back in the team has been awesome for me as a player and as an IGL. He’s definitely one of the more emotional coaches both with the good and the bad.”
ESL Pro League’s LAN Finals begin this week in Odense and with an opening best-of-one against CIS squad HellRaisers, AZR isn’t wanting to take any chances playing with fire in the lower bracket, so much so as to prepare as much as possible for the opening game over potential future opponents.
“At the moment we’re just focusing on Hellraisers – studying how they play, their map pool, watching their current events [at Supernova Malta], but mainly it’s just them for now. We don’t focus too much on any other teams – it’s a best-of-one so we’ve got to make sure we come out strong early. They’re looking pretty strong right now after picking up Hobbit, and they’ve obviously got woxic and ISSAA. They’re a pretty decent team so we have to come out swinging.”
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EPL Finals marks the end of RNG’s competitive season, and above all, AZR is looking forward to the time off before the Major season begins in early 2019.
“For me, I’m going to Copenhagen for Christmas with my girlfriend, then after that I’ll be bringing her back to Australia with me to see family and friends. I haven’t been back to Australia to see them since January – we didn’t really get a chance to see each other during IEM Sydney or the Katowice qualifiers so I’ll definitely be relaxing and taking it easy. After the holiday it’s straight into the Minor boot camp.”
The break is an important one to AZR. Many, including teammate Justin “jks” Savage and ex-teammate Nifty believe that the Major season should be the pinnacle of the competitive period and that the vacation time before the Major is spent worrying about the upcoming gauntlet. But for AZR, the spell is important to allow him to clear his head before the Major.
“I think if you ask the whole team you’ll get mixed feelings. For myself personally I love being able to have that break then coming back reinvigorated into the biggest event being the Major, but I know other people prefer to stay focused and would prefer to play it at the end of the season. It just depends on the person.”
Finally, RNG have had their fair share of highs and lows over the calendar year, but the obvious high for AZR came in May during the team’s trek and playoff finish at their home event at IEM Sydney.
“Being able to play in front of the Aussie crowd was awesome. To have people cheer for you, to have your friends cheer for you, to hear Renegades get cheered out, to hear your name get cheered out – it’s a crazy feeling and you take pride playing for your country.”
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Article & interview by Nicholas “Taffy” Taifalos
@TaffyAU on Twitter