Thursday will be a big day for Chaos Esports Club and their young star Nathan "leaf" Orf. Although ESL One Cologne 2020 comes with an asterisk next to it -- as the event has been split into regions, which limits the breadth of competition -- Chaos' place in the North American Counter-Strike: Global Offensive scene continues to rise ahead of their semifinal bout against either Cloud9 or Team Liquid. Their ascendance has been marked by controversy, however.
Some have criticized Chaos because of their team leader, Joshua "steel" Nissan, one of the players permanently banned by game developer Valve from competing in Valve-associated Counter-Strike tournaments after he and the players of iBUYPOWER match fixed in 2014. More recently, leaf has become the focus of mob hate after members of MIBR -- the most popular Brazilian team in CS:GO -- and former player-turned-influencer
Alexandre "gAuLeS" Borba accused the 16-year-old of aim-locking, a form of cheating, in a June cs_summit match between Chaos and MIBR.
"It didn't really affect me past the first week or so, aside from the fact that people are always going to be looking for 'cheating' clips while watching our games," leaf told ESPN. "People just told me to stay off social media, and that's what I did, I would just talk to my team and my friends, and let it die down some."
Several top commentators and players, such as multitime world champion and Astralis AWPer Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz and mousesports rifler Robin "ropz" Kool, came to leaf's defense. Chaos CEO Greg Laird called MIBR captain Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo, Evil Geniuses rifler Tarik "tarik" Celik and MIBR's behavior "unacceptable" and "immature." Journalist Richard Lewis and analyst Duncan "Thorin" Shields have lambasted the MIBR fanbase for threatening leaf on multiple instances, such as on their show "By the Numbers" and on their Twitter accounts.
"Definitely made it feel like someone was on my side," leaf said. "Knowing that people understood what I was going through and believed in me gave me a sigh of relief."
Since the incident, leaf has kept his head down and continued to compete with Chaos in some of the biggest events of the year. Chaos placed third-fourth in the North American leg of DreamHack Open Summer earlier in August, losing to FURIA in the semifinals. Last Tuesday, they beat FURIA in a best-of-three series in the Cologne group stages and then 100 Thieves to qualify for the knockout rounds as the top of their group.
"Being an underdog definitely helps in these scenarios, knowing that we aren't necessarily 'expected' to win these games makes it a lot easier to not get frustrated during the game," leaf said. "Being prepared for these teams also is a huge factor. Every top team does prep, and there's a reason for it. It helps you win rounds, and those rounds could win you the game. We all have really high individual skill, so if we're good at working together, we're very capable of beating these teams."
Leaf represents a changing of the guard at a time in Counter-Strike when many young players aren't following his path, but rather pivoting to VALORANT, Riot Games' new tactical first-person shooter. Many young North American stars like Matthew "Wardell" Yu, Michael "dapr" Gulino and Peter "Asuna" Mazuryk have accelerated their careers by making the switch to VALORANT. The opportunity is larger there for now -- as Counter-Strike boasts veteran players at the top, but VALORANT is an open field.
"Having an opportunity in CS definitely made me want to stick with it," leaf said. "Most of the people that switched to VALORANT felt like they had no place to go in CS and felt like VALORANT was a new place with new opportunities. I could definitely be on a top team as a great player if I play my cards right and get better and better with time."
ESPN Daily newsletter: Sign up now!
COVID-19 looms over Cologne this weekend, as the event, in normal circumstances, would be one of the largest in Counter-Strike. But for leaf, just getting here -- playing amid the top, continuing to press forward -- means something. Successful teams have fallen off in the online environment, like Team Liquid and Natus Vincere, but new ones have risen, like Chaos, Complexity and others. Leaf is confident that eventually when circumstances change and he can play in offline events for the first time, that Chaos will perform similarly.
"We'd definitely have to play a lot of different teams, teams that we aren't used to playing from North America, so it could affect us because we've never played these people in scrims, unlike Team Liquid, FURIA, 100 Thieves, etc," he said. "Obviously LAN is different to online and nerves are a factor, but I think we'd still do pretty well, especially against NA teams."
For now, Chaos continues to compete in North America, while MIBR have traveled to Europe to compete against the best teams in the world, most which are based there. MIBR has faltered, as they recently lost a match to Wisla Krakow, a Polish team ranked 64th in the world, in an online cup. Leaf doesn't have strong feelings about facing MIBR again at some point, but he knows the fans will be watching.
To me, I don't really care, they're just another opponent, but I know the fans of us and MIBR will definitely be interested in seeing who will win, and Twitter will definitely be interesting afterwards," he said.