The story was originally published in Ilta-Sanomat on August 26, 2018.
Joona “natu” Leppänen, 33, from Lahti, is one of Finland's longest-running racing veterans. He has a career of more than 15 years behind him, which has accommodated both international success and bitter back packs.
It all started with QuakeWorld in the early 1990s, when it was fashionable for players to use four-letter nicknames. Leppänen found his own in a bottle of mineral water and the word natural read on its side.
- Or it was a thing in our then clan called Followers of the Bananameister. In this case, the nickname was shortened to the form natu and that road is frozen. In the early days of Quake, I also used the nickname ^ Jonttu ^, but I never liked that nickname, so I wanted to come up with something else, Leppänen tells Ilta-Sanomat.
Counter-Strike Leppänen became acquainted with his group of friends as a teenager. They used to congregate on the lanes of someone’s home and after the release of Half-Life, they became more and more focused around it.
Joona Leppänen (in the foreground of the picture) playing at the MindTrek event in 2002.
Photo: Joona Leppänen's home album
Half-Life was staffed by an extremely active group of people who made various modifications to it. One of these was Counter-Strike. It became very popular among friends, but Leppänen didn't like it at all at first.
- Its purchase menu was so complicated. Alongside the current buying menu, I still had my own for different caliber stakes and I always bought the wrong ones by mistake and told friends that Quake is my thing.
After playing long enough - under social pressure, but with humor - Leppänen started to get a taste of CS and found that he was quite good at it. He borrowed an official cd-key from a friend to get to play online.
- After that, the game started to take away. Thanks to that guy, because I guess I'll be able to keep that CD and register it in my account in due course after Steam's release.
“Natu” playing CS 1.6 in the EuroCup in 2006:
The international gaming career began in South Korea
For many years, Leppänen was left with positive feelings about Counter-Strike's famous 1.6 version. He describes the mistakes as part of the path of doctrine, noting that without them some successes would probably not have happened.
In particular, he was reminded of the third place won by the Allstars team in 2001 at the first “Gaming Olympics,” the World Cyber Games, and the $ 10,000 prize money earned from it.
Leppänen has said many times that the trip to South Korea in question has been the spark that has driven me to stay around the species for about twenty years.
- I was able to testify personally where in Asia we went around gaming and those images have made an unforgettable imprint and given impetus to the idea that in the future the species could grow bigger even closer to home.
As another big step in his career, Leppänen will keep time with Destination Skyline from the end of 2003 to the end of spring 2005. DSky was the first Finnish team to be internationally successful in a longer period of time.
Leppänen says that he was the last person invited to join the group. At that time, the team had a desire to assemble the best possible Finnish line-up.
- Unfortunately, for one reason or another, we hadn't always got along among all the players selected for the team, but there had been some childish twist in the past. However, they wanted me to join in and forget about the past in order to pile up the pop that had all the components to success.
It was worthwhile, because for a large part of that time, DSky was certainly among the top five teams in the world and succeeded in several big tournaments around the world, Leppänen says. He especially remembered the excellent team spirit and team play.
- The trips were incredibly fun and we got along well with each other. It’s fun to think now that the team was going to fail to pile up in its entirety, at least for the signatory, due to previous disagreements.
Today, Counter-Strike looks like this. In the video below, ENCE veteran player Aleksi “allu” Jalli showed off his sniper skills and won the 1vs5 situation on the de_dust2 map.
According to Leppänen's interpretation, the Finnish CS scene drifted into a discount space in the summer of 2005 and he himself wanted to see the world. He ended up on the international 4Kings team, which was a very educational experience.
- In the light of the results, we may not have fully reached the point where the real potential was. Still, for example, the WSVG tournament in the summer of 2006 in Dallas, where we grabbed a state of fours to remember, was a huge CS for us and we had a chance to go even to the end.
For Leppänen, WSVG was a kind of verification of the concept that by playing you can really earn a living.
- It was great to be the first Finns to get a professional contract. I received fair compensation for playing against the standards of the time.
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Many also remember Leppänen from 2007, when the 69N-28E was the best team in the world for a few months. For him, the period was really heavy for personal reasons, which affected his stamina and performance in the games.
Nevertheless, the team played extremely well. The results were based on numerous hours of play and the unwavering commitment of all to work for success.
Leppänen says that in the summer there were tensions inside the team, in addition to which his personal life was in an unpleasant situation. As a result of these things, he was sidelined from the team and the story ended after only a few months.
- Unfortunately, the flight ended too short, because we were young and still quite childish. Meininki was unnecessarily often more childish than in kindergarten.
Leppänen playing in the ranks of 4Kings. The picture dates from 2005-2006.
Photo: Joona Leppänen's home album
In 2008, Leppänen took a break and moved into working life. The following year, he decided to still try to put together a competitive game team.
Originally known as Crack Clan and later transformed into Power Gaming, the British organization tasked Leppänen with assembling a new team.
The original line-up, he said, was unfortunately quite a fiasco. The team went to a few tournaments and in Leppänen’s words “took a bad hoe”.
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However, the team went to try their luck in the Finnish WCG qualifiers for Assembly Summers 2009 and a little miracle happened there. This victory has been remembered by Leppänen as one of the most unforgettable experiences, as it was so unexpected with all the adversities that happened before the tournament.
The tournament started with a disaster. Niko “Nasu” Kovanen, who played in the team at the time, no longer wanted to participate but went somewhere in the wilderness to spend a fun weekend with friends. The team struggled to the finals with a substitute.
A few hours before the decision, Leppänen received a message from Kovanen's big brother, Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen, who said that his little brother had returned to the people's air. He recommended Leppä to persuade Kovane to the final.
- I got it as I got after Niko's over-talking and with some lynx we cranked the then Astralis, who had to wipe the floor with us, in the final series with 2-1 numbers. Niko, who hadn’t even touched CS in two weeks, was still in the flames in the finals.
After the tournament, Leppänen concluded that in order to succeed, the team had to make player substitutions. They were made, but in January 2010, play was suspended for half a year as four of the five players left to perform conscript service. In May, the team returned and played the WCG pre-qualifiers successfully.
- This team (Leppänen, Kovanen, Tino “tihOp” Puumala, Max ”ruuit“ Aspe and Samu “plastE” Aalto) remembered that we managed to put together a line-up where the atmosphere was calm and the mood was constantly under control. It was definitely the “easiest” team in my 1.6 career, as concentration was essential most of the time and no energy was spent shouting unnecessarily, Leppänen recalls.
The decision to terminate is made
CS was revamped in 2012 when the latest version of CS: GO, or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, was released in beta. Leppänen played it with Jonas “ScurK” Finnilä and Aleksi “allu” Jalli, who currently plays in ENCE.
- It simply started to taste quite good and I got the feeling that I still have it, Leppänen remembers.
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The arrival of CS: GO was already a time when Leppänen was family-oriented and strictly in working life. He didn’t get paid for playing, but he drove another 40-45 hours of CS over the work week. He enjoyed playing and his wife wasn’t against it either.
Still, it was starting to feel like an effort. At the end of 2014, Leppänen was mentally preparing to end his career, but a phone call on New Year's Eve changed the plans.
Jalli called Leppänen while he was firing rockets with children and neighbors. Jalli had talked to others that he, Leppänen, Tom “stonde” Glad, Taneli “Disturbed” Veikkola and Jesse “KHRN” Grandell could be the line-up for taking Finland back to the CS world map.
- That's when it was rattled on the phone for a couple of hours and I decided to look at this card.
However, the promisingly started story ended with the Ninjas in Pajamas team needing Mikail “Maikelele” to replace Bill. The Finns wanted Jalli to seize the opportunity.
Leppänen told the others that he would no longer play for very long, even though the team had previously made it through the Katowice Major tournament and the Pro League final games.
The second version of Dust, one of the CS map favorites. It is also one of the most famous playing maps in the world.
After Katowice, NiP star Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesundi asked Leppä to coach the team. He agreed to play in the Pro League finals and end his career in it.
- The idea of quitting was just a little quietly growing in my head and then is the moment when I have to move aside. Less surprisingly, when I had spent a decade and a half around the species, moving aside didn’t take me very far.
A more than fifteen-year esports career left my current career.
- Esports, as the business of growing and I luckily got a ringside seat to witness it. The gaming career was a great time and there are good memories left. There are enough stories to tell all the way to the rocking chair.
ENCE and the future
Leppänen is currently working for the racing game organization ENCE. Officially, his title is Marketing Director, who is also responsible for dealing with partners, creating a team brand, and social media channels. He himself describes himself as “wood oxygen”.
- Now, I'm still in the "iltahommina" had since May jeesaamassa our new CS-teams and traveled with them in tournaments. So there are enough job descriptions, but it is great in all its stress, because it is something that is our own.
ENCE’s CS team has rumbled to become the world’s top names challenger.
Photo: Jussi Jääskeläinen
ENCE is doing really well at the moment, Leppänen says. The prize cabinet includes Overwatch's Championship gold from last year, Rainbow Six Pro victory at the end of 2017, Joona “Serral” Sotala’s three World Championship Series wins and GSL victory this year, and, of course, the success of the latest big big investment - the CS team. and the world ranking achieved in August 14.
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The organization is now focusing on its current player roster and is not looking for new games and players. In Leppänen's words, ENCE wants to be more than just a “logo on a shirt”.
- We want to be an organization that the player wants to commit to and feels that they will get the right added value from the support measures we provide. The partnership with Lahti Pelicans, which started in the spring, helps with this, for example on the sports side.
The challenge, on the other hand, is the heavy cost structure of racing gaming and growing the business.
- In Finland, doing a very international business, such as esports, is very challenging, from a purely operational point of view. The level of demands on the budget will inevitably start to shift towards seven-digit readings, and getting to one in a market the size of Finland is not a piece of cake, Leppänen says.
There is still enough to be achieved. Leppänen says that he wants to contribute to the development of Finnish esports culture and pave the way for the future.
- Yes, it would mean a lot to me that in Finland, in a big picture, the international level is also reached in terms of team organizations, events and tournaments.
Leppänen is currently ENCE's Marketing Director.