Hardly anyone would be familiar with Linus “LNZ” Holtäng‘s name when he was representing the Prima banner at the end of 2020 outside of the lower-tier Swedish scene and the British scene, where the 18-year-old had played for close to a year in his early career on the lower end of the ESEA ladder.
Only seven months later, the Swedish youngster is about to compete for one of the most coveted trophies under one of the most recognizable brands in Counter-Strike after having worked his way up from the Young Ninjas academy team and getting the opportunity to play for the main squad in the span of just a few months.
LNZ has high expectations for himself ahead of IEM Cologne
After dipping his toes in the tier-one scene in three tournaments over the past several weeks (IEM Summer, BLAST Spring Final, and Gamers Without Borders), LNZ has all to play for as he enters what could be his final tournament with NIP at IEM Cologne, having been given until the summer break to prove his worth at the top level.
That puts the young gun in a do-or-die position ahead of the last tournament of the season, which is set to bring competition back to LAN for the first time in over a year, adding an extra layer of pressure on top of the tremendous weight LNZ already has on his shoulders.
We had the opportunity to sit down with the newest NIP recruit ahead of the kick-off of the IEM Cologne Play-in stage to find out how he’s dealing with the pressure and learn a bit more about how he views the unique opportunity after making the jump from the lower-tier scene to the top of the competitive ladder so suddenly.
Let’s start with your beginnings in professional, or at least competitive, Counter-Strike. How and when did you learn about the competitive side of CS and what did your progression look like early on?
My first real team was in ESEA Open I think three years ago, where I kind of learned the competitive side of the game. I started playing with some friends who later became competitors with me, and after that I just tried to climb in the ESEA leagues, which was my main focus. Then I think two years ago I started playing more in the lower semi-professional level, like playing ESEA Advanced and reaching playoffs there, which is almost the border to the HLTV-covered games. I’ve mostly actually played in the UK scene, and the Young Ninjas team was actually my second Swedish team at a decent level. Before that it was Prima, but that was a flop, it had players like ztr, Jackinho from fnatic, and isak from GamerLegion.
How did that lead to Young Ninjas? Were you an in-game leader before then?
I came into the picture for them because I already knew phzy from school, we went to the same class before we graduated. I also knew nilo, and I kind of told them that I was available and down to try out if they wanted. I wasn’t actually an in-game leader back then, that was actually the first team that I was calling in, and I’m surprised that it went so well right off the bat. That’s basically how it went down, from just me putting myself on the table for them to choose, and they were interested, so we just trialed and they signed me.
After [I joined Young Ninjas] I just had the confidence to believe in myself, and it was actually my goal that after three months I wanted to be ready to hop onto the main team.
You ended up making it close to the top 30 very quickly for an academy team full of young players who are still looking to prove themselves. Why was the team that successful so early on?
We all had the firepower that was needed. Every single one of the five players could drop a 30-bomb in a game and win a map, and I think that was our biggest strength, that even though somebody maybe had five kills we could still win a game because we were just playing out of our minds in some games. I also think that we played so many officials that we learned a lot about each other and how we should approach the game. Even though we were not even close to playing perfectly as a team, I think that by playing so much together, you learn so much about the game and you get a really good feeling, and you really get used to officials, which makes it easier to just hop in an official and just do your thing. We weren’t really focusing on anything but us.
When you were called up to Young Ninjas you came in as a replacement for ztr, who got the opportunity to play for the main team. At that point, how much was it in the back of your head that this could mean a step up to the main team for yourself at some point? Did you think that was a possibility at the time?
Yeah, definitely. I think when I came into this project I was really confident in myself even though I hadn’t proved anything before I joined Young Ninjas. I felt like that was the turning point for my confidence because I was never really a player who had much confidence. After that I just had the confidence to believe in myself, and it was actually my goal that after three months I wanted to be ready to hop onto the main team. It’s funny that it’s now three or four months and I’m already getting the chance. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m not surprised, because that was my goal. It was the thing I was working so hard for.
Was it made clear to you that it could be a possibility when you joined the organization?
I think everybody who has signed a contract for Young Ninjas knows that it is a possibility because that’s like the goal when you join an academy team like Young Ninjas. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so fast. Really, I had no clue, to be honest. I’m just glad it happened so fast, and not in half a year.
If you look at the level I played at six months ago, it’s nothing compared to the chance that I have today
It must have been a pretty big source of motivation to see that it was possible. Young Ninjas formed at the end of the year, and within around three months ztr got the call up.
Yeah. If you look at the level I played at six months ago, it’s nothing compared to the chance that I have today. It’s day and night when it comes to the level, and I’m really, really proud of myself and really happy. I’m lucky to get this chance because not everyone gets a chance like this.
What do you think was behind that big improvement?
I’d say the only things are hard work and patience. I didn’t really wait long, so patience might not be the right word, but before Young Ninjas it took a long time for me to improve as a player and even back then I was struggling with finding consistency, among other things. I think having the patience from there and continuing to work hard, I just knew I would find myself in a much better place a year later, and I think that’s the biggest thing. Hard work and patience.
From what hampus said when he was on our show, the main team was clearly kept in the dark about your arrival and you didn’t even get much practice in ahead of IEM Summer. How was that from your side? When did you learn that you would be moving up and what was your reaction like initially?
I don’t remember exactly when they told me that I got the chance. It was not long before they announced it. But as you said, we didn’t really get any preparation for IEM Summer, I took the train up two days before, and we played one day of four scrims of Ancient, and that was basically it. So we basically were mixing out the tournament and I was really happy that we could take down a team like Heroic.
It seems like a massive step to be thrown into the elite scene, first of all, and then into your first tournament with barely any practice. What was the experience like during the tournament?
Yeah, the step-up was massive and it was really fun to play since that’s all you want when you try to climb the ladder in the lower scene. I think the difference is huge as well, and I first thought it was really hard to play, but then after a game or a best-of-three I felt like I was getting into it. I was watching the tier-one scene play all the time and I was using a lot of my time to study how the tier-one teams play, and I kind of got the hang of it really fast because you try to learn from that scene, and it’s much easier to play against them since I already see a lot of players, what they do and what the teams like to do. It’s a lot less random when you compare it to the lower scene.
If you’re put in a position like I’m in right now, you’ve got to give everything that you can. You don’t really have time to feel sorry for yourself if you have a bad game or two.
How did you mentally approach that opportunity? Considering you set that goal to be ready for the move up to the main team, it sounds like you didn’t have doubts as to whether you were even ready to make it.
Yeah, exactly. I wasn’t really doubting myself since I knew that this was my goal. This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for, and it’s time to show what I’ve got. I think if you don’t come in confident you will not bring anything to the table, and if you’re put in a position like I’m in right now, with the trial in the main team, you’ve got to give everything that you can. You don’t really have time to feel sorry for yourself if you have a bad game or two, to doubt yourself, because then you will just lose time that you actually don’t have.
After you were thrown to the wolves at IEM Summer, you impressed at BLAST with some solid performances. How happy are you with what you’ve shown so far?
I’m really happy, actually, I’m really satisfied, but I also feel like I can give more. That’s something you can always say after a tournament, that you could have given more, but I think that gives me even more motivation to show what I’ve got in Cologne. It’s a really big event and I think that’s my time to actually show what I’ve got now, especially in a big LAN event like this.
It all seems to be building up towards Cologne. Even in the initial announcement, it was stated that the team would be giving you a chance to prove yourself until the summer break, which is essentially right after Cologne ends. Do you see Cologne as the last chance to prove yourself to be able to join as a permanent member?
As it seems now, it does actually feel like that, and that’s why my expectations for myself are really high for that tournament.
I think the biggest challenge is probably if I get nervous in a game, like a big LAN game. Since it’s the biggest event I’ve ever played, it’s possible that I can get nervous before a game or during a game.
Does that create a lot of pressure on yourself, or are you able to ignore that and take it as fuel for motivation?
I kind of ignore it, to be honest. As I said before, you don’t have time to think about it, because then it will just be blocking your thought process ahead of a tournament and the way you feel about yourself. I think you should just ignore it and try to improve as much as you can before the tournament.
How do you feel about the LAN component of this? Is that something that concerns you, considering you don’t really have that much experience in a LAN setting, or do you think it won’t be much of a difference?
A bit of both. I feel very good about the mental aspect of being able to ignore things, and I think that’s something that I will be able to do, not think about it too much, since there’s not a crowd or a big stage or anything, it’s still in a room with the group of five guys that we have been playing with. But I think I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.
What are your personal expectations and goals for Cologne?
It’s something I haven’t really thought about yet, but from my side, my personal goal is just to perform better than I did at BLAST. As long as I do that I will be a little bit more satisfied. But I will never really be satisfied after a performance.
What do you see as your biggest challenges?
I think the biggest challenge is probably if I get nervous in a game, like a big LAN game. Since it’s the biggest event I’ve ever played, it’s possible that I can get nervous before or during a game. That’s the biggest problem I can see happening since I’ve been playing CS for a while now, it’s still the same game, we’ve been practicing before Cologne and I’ve already gotten a little bit more used to this level. I’m not used to it yet, but it’s better and better every day.
Have you done any sort of mental preparation for that?
I’ve been working on it a little bit, speaking with our performance coach, David. He’s been helping me out with how I should approach things and how I should think in general. Also, I’ve been trying to be more alone to get into my thoughts and process things my way without getting disturbed.