Jeffrey "Mnmzzz" Moore had the chance to interview Justin "FaNg" Coakley during Extra Salt's run in DreamHack Open January to discuss their loss to Rebirth, the team's expectations for the remainder of the event, FaNg's breakout year in 2020, his decision to join Extra Salt, and how the project has been coming together. Note that this interview was recorded on January 29th.
In your opening match of DreamHack Open January, Extra Salt were bested 2-0 by Rebirth, including a 16-3 result on Overpass. This loss was pretty surprising to many viewers, can you explain what happened there?
We knew coming into the game that Rebirth is a PUG, they don't necessarily practice a lot. It was a mix between us getting back into playing officials, this was our first official as a full lineup and obviously the ex-C9 players haven't played for a really long time. So it was definitely a weird atmosphere for us. Coming into the game we felt we were in control but there were a bunch of little mistakes and things that didn't go our way and it put us in a bad spot on Overpass and it really showed. We knew we weren't playing at our level. On Dust2, it definitely was a lot closer, but it still didn't compare to how we have been playing in practice because we've been playing and gelling really well, so it was just a weird result. After the game we instantly did our match review and understood what went wrong. It was a bad day, but we don't want to make excuses for ourselves, so we have to resolve those issues. Since then, we have already seen better performances in our future matches; against Triumph for instance.
As a player who has been in Premier for many seasons you have experience playing against lineups that PUG in official matches. How does a more traditional team like Extra Salt prepare for teams like Rebirth that PUG and are overall less strategic in their approach?
There's not a lot to go off of but obviously there are some matches they have played, although a few aren't with the same five man lineup. But from those you can learn tendencies and just get a general feeling for how they play. We didn't have a lot to go off of, but I told the guys my idea of how to play because I've played against them before in Premier. I definitely gave some insight coming into the match, but I let JT do his thing in terms of calling and getting an understanding of how to call against a team like that. [Rebirth] are unlike a lot of teams he normally calls against because he hasn't played against a lot of PUGs recently.
Extra Salt will be rematching Rebirth tomorrow, do you feel like the team is prepared to take them on again?
Yeah I think you are definitely going to see a way better Extra Salt. I think that first loss was a setback but I think it was good to set up a comeback as it put us in line and made us remember we are not perfect and we had a bad day, we have to recognize that and come into the series with the level we know we can bring and we are doing that consistently. We showed our level against Triumph and we want to make sure we show that against Rebirth.
Speaking of Triumph, as someone who has experience playing with cxzi and Bwills, what are your feelings about that team and how do you think your team compares to them?
I've definitely played with Bwills for like a year and a half, and cxzi I've also played with. I also know a lot of the guys on that team. Everyone is really close and both teams know each other really well. I think coming into the game we have played them a lot in practice, so we know how each other play and I think fundamentally and individually we are at a higher level right now. I think they know that as well. They're definitely a really good team and one of the other super competitive teams in NA so I think they will improve in the next couple events, but I think they need more time to gel.
A lot of people have also been saying how ex-C9 have been a core for a while and now on Extra Salt that they are just slotting me in. But they don't know that we have changed a good amount of roles on the team so it is definitely something that is more fresh for everyone [on the team]. I wouldn't say it is a full rebuild but the team is definitely being organized in a different manner now and we are trying to figure that out.
Can you explain how Extra Salt have been reorganized to integrate you into the lineup and if there have been any major role changes for the other players as a result?
My role in the team right now is an entry player and a trade fragger. It's a little bit similar to what I did in the past, being a hard entry in previous teams. It’s a bit different but I've become accustomed to it and am really enjoying it. Some of my spots on CT have changed but it’s a mix of me getting the spots I was comfortable with before and a bit of plug-and-play with floppy's role as well. We are mixing it around a bit. I think in terms of spots, we have a really good mix between certain players playing sites together, so things are coming together really well right now.
To round out the quartet of teams participating in DreamHack Open January, paiN have thus far this year only lost to Extra Salt. Do you think your team is in a position, if you make the finals, to best them once again?
Yeah I think we can. Our map pool is really similar and last time we played them it was a really close series. I definitely give paiN a lot of respect in terms of their playstyle, it is really unique, and it is similar to how a lot of Brazilian teams like to play, with it being a bit more based on individual skill. I think when they play against us there is a bit of a "brick wall" in terms of individual skill but also our mix of tactics and the way we call that makes our team unique and leads to a lot more competitive games when we play paiN. If we make the finals it is going to be a really good series and we should be able to take it.
You said that paiN's unique playstyle allows them to compete very well against most teams in North America. Unfortunately they are not in Premier this season, but how do you think they stack up to the teams in the division?
paiN is definitely one of those teams that when they initially came to NA they were a bit weaker, still really good but not at the level they are at now. I think it helped them to get perspective from some of the top NA teams and helping their players individually get more reps against known teams. Through the progression of that they get a lot better and I think they're playing at a pretty good level right now. I think [this progression] helps them play against a lot of Premier teams and just convincingly beat them solely off of that practice. If they were in Premier they could match up against and beat most of those teams. I think there are only two or three teams not including us that could give them some trouble, but they could play really well in Premeir.
Now taking a look back into your history as a player, I think that 2020 ended up being a pivotal year for your career. Going back to the very start of 2020 when Under 21 formed with a roster consisting of Bwills, Xeppaa, Sneaky, curry, and you, did you and your teammates have a sense of the skill and potential within the team or was it not until later in hindsight?
In hindsight at least I did, and to this day me, Xeppaa, and Bwills are really close. That team was a family and we all knew we were really good, and it was just a matter of gelling. I think if that team got to play together longer it could've been a lot better, but we knew there was a lot of skill there especially for such a young team.
At the time we knew that even if we didn't have an insane showing in our first season of MDL that players would be poached and that's inevitably what ended up happening: Xeppaa went to Chaos, curry went to Triumph, and the others just progressively left. We were all happy for everyone when that happened, it was kind of sad, but everyone has to look out for their own careers also and organization support wasn't the best at the time. It was unlucky but we all really enjoyed playing together.
You mentioned how after Season 33 the team got pulled apart with Xeppaa and curry being called up while leaf and Sneaky left the team. At the time Under 21 was heavily considering disbanding so can you explain the team rallied and decided to bring in Powerzz, KmZ, and RZU?
So that was a weird time in the team. After those changes we tried to reinvent the team, but some stuff wasn't working in terms of us getting the players we wanted and actually being able to gel and practice in the pre-season. Sneaky at the time didn't know if he wanted to play CS as this was right when VALORANT was releasing. Even Bwills to a certain degree didn't know if we wanted to play CS or focus on a new game. I understood this but for me I've always wanted to play CS at the top level so VALORANT wasn't interesting at all for me.
Bringing KmZ, RZU, and Sneaky in was a last minute decision. Me and Bwills were in a weird spot because there weren't a lot of options to pick players up. Me and Bwills both received a couple, but we wanted to play together, and the offers weren't super insane, so we tried to make the best of it at the time. I think we did well considering the circumstances we were in.
Regarding the lack of offers and organizational support at the time, at the end of Season 34 Under 21 was signed by Levitate and that was the first organization you played under since Variance in August 2019. Was it disappointing to you that it took so long to find an organization despite your team's strong performances? Were there any offers you were interested in at the time?
That whole Under 21 lineup, especially when we ended as the number one seed in Season 33, we received a couple offers but it was pretty shocking in terms of the salary and the numbers they were offering. It put us in a weird spot to commit to something like that and to be honest I kind of regret it now because an organization probably could have helped us build our brands as players, but it may have hurt us too in terms of contract lengths. That was just something we didn't want to get into based on the offers we were getting.
To do with the Levitate stuff, that was my first organization since Variance, and it was more so an org that was there to support us financially a tiny bit. It wasn't necessarily something that would become long-term, it was just something for that season.
Your time with Levitate ended up being short lived as they released the team after two months. During this period, the team underwent a number of roster changes, eventually dissolving after dazzLe, cxzi, viz, and Bwills left the team. What was the team environment like at this time as everyone slowly went their separate ways?
To be honest, after the original Under 21 roster broke up, the team was never the same in terms of being a family as the original lineup were so close and spent so much time together. After the changes that [family environment] kind of stopped. But, we were all super motivated especially with dazzLe and later cxzi and viz. They didn't have as much experience as us our old teammates so it we were trying to teach and bring our inexperienced players up to our level as a top Premier team. It took a little bit more energy and time from me and Sneaky, but it definitely isn't something I regret at all. I think I helped those guys a lot and it was awesome to play with them.
Towards the end of the team we failed to qualify for IEM New York and the team was in a stale spot especially for me. I personally felt like in my career I hadn't played with a ton of players, playing with the same core of players for a really long time so after a certain time I felt like I needed a change in terms of team dynamic to start growing again. I parted ways with the team to join valens' project and Bwills went to join Whalers, which led to the team dissolving.
Speaking of valens' ex-Recon 5 project, can you discuss how you found your way onto that team and what it was like working with valens and FugLy?
I got a message from valens asking if I was interested in playing with them and instantly joining the lineup. At first I kind of knew that in terms of the actual team it probably wasn't going to be better than my former team, but I felt like if I was on ex-Recon 5 I could make it a lot better. Also, I was interested in being in a new environment with different players with a mix of different personalities. The experience of working with valens and FugLy was really big as well. I wanted to go outside my comfort zone even though I knew it might not have been the best move on paper, I wanted to grow as a player and figure out my strengths.
One thing I talked to valens about and I give him credit for was he helped develop me as a player in terms of raising my overall skill. He helped me with any questions I had, with watching demos, learning spots, and being more adaptive in different ways. I don't regret my time with the team, and I enjoyed playing with them a lot and I learned a lot from playing with valens and I enjoyed the team overall. But, it definitely went south because we couldn't really practice at all so that part was rough but overall I don't regret it.
Was the team's actual performance in the server a disappointment for you at all and did this influence your decision to leave?
If I'm being completely honest it did to a certain degree. Me personally and the whole team were disappointed by our results. In the month with the team I feel like I got a lot of knowledge to help me grow as a player and I did what I needed to do before leaving the team to join the Rugratz PUG mixteam for a bit.
How did that Rugratz mixteam come together and were you happy with your accomplishments on that team even if it wasn't a serious long-term project?
When I started playing with them, we played in a bunch of Cash Cups and performed pretty well in a few of them. I played with them just to get a few more reps and get more officials under my belt. I enjoyed playing with those guys, with the exception of RZU they were all new to me, so it helped me branch out more and play with different players to get their perspectives. That was something I was open to. I played with kobruh and mada, so it was a bit different in terms of player personalities because I haven't been really close to any of those guys or talked to them a lot, so it was different.
When we started playing in MDL, we were playing alright and the cash cups were definitely helping in terms of getting more reps with the team. Infinite ended up subbing in for one of them and me and him definitely connected pretty well, we enjoyed playing together. It was a little project we started just to play and try to make the best team we could while PUGing some matches. So we started playing with that mix and while we didn't do insanely well in MDL, there were a couple matches we didn't get to play because of player issues, but I wasn't in this team for MDL. I wanted to play all of the matches I could to get myself out there as much as possible. We tried to play every qualifier we could and after some performances we ended up getting an invite for IEM Beijing, which was the largest event we got to play in.
Looking back at Rugratz's performance at IEM Beijing, the team performed very well with cxzi as a stand-in, playing close games against Liquid and Chaos while besting New England Whalers 2-1. After this showing, did the team consider sticking together and make a more serious project?
To be honest, not really. Before [the event], there was a bit of interest for me as I played with a couple guys on that team before. Also, with the different personalities on the team I wanted to see if we could get more results but to be frank we didn't connect in game to a level that I wanted. So for me personally I didn't want it to be a serious project. For the rest of them, some of them did and some of them didn't so it was kind of a mix and we stayed as a mix to PUG and stay together until certain people get offers and certain teams made changes. There was a level of seriousness in the middle of the project but by IEM Beijing it was more of a PUG.
When we beat Whalers it was really good for us, and there was that question about if we wanted to play serious but there were some issues as the roles didn't match super well on that team by default. I was the main guy IGLing for that team and while Infinite helped me a lot that's not something I am necessarily comfortable doing on a more serious team and having that be my set role. After we beat Whalers though that was when teams started to have more interest in me, and I started getting contacted by some teams so I didn't want to make the team serious because I knew something would happen eventually.
After IEM Beijing you played with New England Whalers for a few events towards the end of their contracts. I know that there was some interest in keeping that quintet together, but you were also looking at other offers. Can you mention why things didn't work out with Whalers and any other offers you were looking at during this time?
I won't name names of other teams, but Whalers were the first team that had interest in me after Bwills left to join Triumph and that team was definitely interesting in the sense that I haven't played with any of those guys before in any teams. I played a LAN with djay but nothing ever serious. So that team had a new atmosphere for me, but it was something I definitely wanted to do and try out. I think the team definitely was in a rough patch when I initially played with them because of their previous results before Bwills left, [the team] was kind of on a downward spiral after they lost MDL finals. But practice with them was pretty good, our prep for DreamHack Winter was good as well. Coming into the event I'm not sure what happened, but there were some internal issues with the team. I'm not going to say anything directly, but a couple issues led to me ultimately leaving after getting a couple more offers and making my decision from there, I didn't think the team was the best fit for me.
I really liked playing with ben1337, I think he's a really good IGL and teammate and PwnAlone is a really good AWPer and he's someone who is really nice. All of those guys are really nice, so I have a lot of respect for them. Overall though, I felt like I would fit better on some of the other teams I got offers from, with my last offer being from Extra Salt on Christmas.
How did you end up deciding to pick Extra Salt among some of the other offers you received?
Daniel, the CEO of Extra Salt, reached out to me and messaged me on Christmas Day. At the time I had another offer I was considering taking and I was pretty close to taking it, but the Extra Salt offer made me reconsider what I wanted to do. I thought about the players on [Extra Salt], how competitive and serious they are, how much work they put in, and how skilled the lineup is. I felt like floppy was a really key player on that team for sure and he's a really insane player and really nice guy, and once they lost him they lost their identity a bit. They were playing with Infinite and ultimately when he left for VALORANT they didn't necessarily get the player they wanted in terms of a player that fit the team's personality because that team is also a family, having played together for over a year. That's something I value on a team, that everyone is close, respects each other, and want to play together.
I've known oSee for a while and I remember I talked with a bunch of them asking general questions and it came to my mind that I think Extra Salt would be the best team for me in terms of a team I could perform in and the team I was most comfortable in terms of personalities and having those guys as friends. That was what led me to sign with them.
One factor that seems really important for you when choosing a team, is the sense that the lineup are friends and get along together. With that how has the integration into Extra Salt, on a personal level and on a professional level, joining an already established top NA team?
On a personal level I'm starting to fit in with the team really well. It's a bit different right now because they're all in their apartments living and playing together in Austin while I'm not there so talking to them individually is a bit different. But, I connect with these guys really well and they're well... they're really open and really welcoming and really friendly, especially when I first joined the team. They made sure I was really comfortable and they're really good to talk to, like I can talk to them about anything.
They're helping me with my personal and professional growth and I really think I'm starting to learn a lot more than I would on some of the other teams that I had offers from. I'm getting feedback from every player, not just JT. I really respect that because it is going to help me build myself up and advance to being one of the top players and the player I know I can be. T.c has helped me a lot too by making me feel comfortable and making sure my schedule works with the team's schedule. Also, he makes sure that I hear everything the team hears. Practice has been really nice, rolewise everything is fitting really well and I'm slowly getting into my groove. In a couple more weeks the true form of the team is going to come out.
Is the goal for you to eventually move to Austin and live with the team?
Yeah that is the goal.
How's that coming along right now with the travel restrictions?
Right now Extra Salt is working on getting me a P-1 visa so I can live in Austin instead of visiting on a travel visa. With the COVID situation getting a P-1 visa is the most ideal especially for traveling to Europe.
T.c is by far the most experienced and veteran coach you have worked with so far in your career. Can you explain what the difference working with him compared to your previous coaches, and what conceptually makes him a great coach?
I can already tell you T.c is the best coach I have ever worked with by far, and it's not close. One of the main reasons for that is the prep work he does, in terms of finding strategic advantages or reads on teams. He actually provides valid information about enemy teams and just general concerns about teams and guidelines and the fundamental ways they like to play. Also, just normal feedback like pointing out the routines players have in bombsites and their positioning. He provides the team with valid feedback and we can ask questions based off of it.
Secondly, leading into the more mental-emotional side, I've definitely worked with coaches that focus on that, but with T.c I feel like he is a really calm guy. Before being involved with CS [full-time] he was a doctor too, so he definitely knows how to work with people psychologically. If it a serious topic he is going to make sure the person understands it and is able to ask questions and get answers to the best of his ability. I also give him a lot of respect because after the Rebirth game he basically drilled everyone is the sense in what we needed to do moving forward to improve and we went right into review. He holds everyone accountable and he does it in a respectful way, where if you're going to get in trouble then you're going to get in trouble, there is no easy way out. If you do a really good job, he's going to tell you did a really good job. I really value it a lot, and he expresses himself 10x better than a lot of coaches and the reason he is able to do that is because he puts in 10x more effort. I feel like he's way more active as a coach compared to my previous coaches, when he does his job he loves his job. I feel like a lot of coaches in the scene aren't dedicated as someone like him.
I feel like there's some analysts that are more dedicated. For instance I think Nart is one of those guys too. He has a YouTube channel now, but he branched out from that stuff and his analytical videos are giving him more exposure. I think he is another person who takes pride in what he does. But yeah those the main differences with working with T.c compared to other coaches.
Looking past this event, what is Extra Salt's expectations for this season of Premier, do you think you'll easily win it or who are your biggest rivals?
For Premier, it's not our main priority. Our main priority is definitely doing well at every event, and Premier is more going to be second until it gets more serious, later in the season or in playoffs. But we want to make sure we're putting in the work everywhere but also in the areas that need it right now. So Premier is going to help us to get more officials played and more reps. As a team, I'm not going to speak super highly of ourselves but we are one of top teams to beat in Premier so that is something we already know. We want to make sure we win Premier because we know we can and it is something we expect to do but we're not going to be egotistical about it, I'm going to take it with a grain of salt. We want to play every match like it is the most important match of our lives and we'll play to win every time and we're going to put in the effort and not underestimate anyone.
With Premier being a secondary priority for the team, is the goal to travel to Europe and compete there? Is a European bootcamp on the table?
It definitely is, we have spoken about it a bit. For now though, I think it's a matter of us gelling and getting comfortable and putting up results and then when there are more events in Europe that's definitely something we are going to consider for sure.
To close, where do you envision this roster in six months?
I don't want to think that far ahead right now, I have a lot on my plate right now, but I will say we want to be one of the top NA teams, and I think the other guys on Extra Salt have proven that before and now with me I have something individually to prove. So I think it is about getting to a higher peak than they were at before where we can compete in Europe and play against some of the best teams in the world. We want to be one of the top teams regionally and globally.