A new season dawns upon the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitive scene, but last year’s storylines are still around the corner. With the BLAST Premier Global having just started, the top eight teams in CS:GO are squaring up against one another to lift their first trophy of 2021 — and to put 2020 to rest.
Among them lies Team Vitality’s all-French lineup, one that claimed several titles in 2020 following Dan “apEX” Madesclaire’s transition to in-game leadership. The transition freed Richard “shox” Papillon to focus on rifling and paved the way for Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut, Kévin “misutaaa” Rabier and Nabil Benrlitom to take over.
Before the start of the BLAST Premier Global Finals, Inven Global was able to reach out to shox regarding 2020, the inner workings of Team Vitality, his transition from G2 to Vitality, and why the French scene has been unable to field more than one lineup at the top level.
The interview was conducted in French. Below is a translated transcript.
I almost said "who is in Vitality nowadays" because of the sheer scale of your career. But back when you transitioned from G2 Esports to Team Vitality, what were your expectations at the time as you swapped back to rifling? What was your mindset like at the time?
At the time I went to Vitality, I had spent three years in G2. I wouldn't say that it was catastrophic, but it was not particularly good either. After three years, when G2 decided to bench Lucky, I thought about the whole process: of having to pick up a new player and building something new — and it's been three years of being unable to find the right formula in G2. So, I thought that it was time for me to look elsewhere and make a fresh start. I felt like I would be burying myself in G2 at that rate, and I didn't fancy that.
I saw Vitality as a new leap: it had been three years of in-game leadership [before then.] I wouldn't say that IGL isn't a role I'm capable of having, but I have a personality where such duties can be complicated to handle: I'm averse to conflicts. But as an IGL, you have to know when to have a go at your players and tell them things that may hurt them [to find a solution]. In my case, there were times when I didn't dare say such things.
After taking stock of my situation, I decided to let someone else take that role. I can be alright as an IGL, but as a player without that focus, I bring more assets: beyond playing well individually, I can add value to our IGL given my experience. I know what an IGL's expectations towards their players is, and I understand that side better. So, I can help the leader by adding my voice to the lot and chime in with suggestions.
"I felt like I would be burying myself in G2 at that rate, and I didn't fancy that."
I am interested in knowing how things work within Vitality with you occupying such a role.
We have a system with apEX as our IGL, making most of our calls. Beyond that, the way we try to improve as a team is to have each player have their own voice, and have it carry its weight — be it by suggesting something different, highlighting weaknesses, and adapting on the fly. We make it so that not everything falls upon Dan: before being a leader, he's human — and I understand that since I was an IGL before.
At some point, you'll have moments when you'll have a lot of energy and make the right calls and everything goes right, but if you take too much space from the team, you'll get exhausted because of how much focus and energy the role demands. If, after six months, you have a moment of weakness, but that your teammates aren't accustomed to you having one, the team will immediately start collapsing. To avoid that, we are trying to ensure on a daily basis that, if Dan has such a moment — and it would hurt us a lot—that it doesn't lead to disaster. We won't be faint of heart at that point.
Such a system would depend a bit on XTQZZZ, and I'm curious about it.
Rémy tries to teach us to be as autonomous as possible from him, that we don't overly rely on him. He won't sink the ship. And when someone needs to step in and shout [during a review], he'll be there, and he'll guide us. But he's there to guide us as much as possible, and it's up to us to do the work. If he didn't — and if he took on all of those responsibilities himself — we would never progress. And if he ever becomes unavailable, we would go right back when we started.
On his end, he puts us on the right track, and he guides us. And if we step out of line, he repositions us so that we still stay on track.
This lineup has a curious mix of the old guard of the French scene and brand new talent, especially looking at ZywOo, Nivera and misutaaa. That's quite the interesting mix you have there, be it in France or overall.
Yeah. It's a functional mix, and it works well. Dan, Cédric [RpK], and I have been in it for years, and we have all of this experience to help guide the new talent and make sure that they don't make the same mistakes that we did, as well as be the voice of reason to be as fair as possible and teach well, implement a work method. We know where we want to go, and we know why this-and-that works and this doesn't because we've done a lot of testing over the years.
"Sometimes, we need to know when to take risks; the young ones remind us of that."
At the same time, we need the young players to bring brand new ideas and a fresh outlook, to have a brand new brain to take on information outside of the framework that our brains built through experience (and 20,000 information bits). With their fresh outlook, they have different takes on sets, and they would be less likely to hold back when we would. The firepower is stronger at age 20 than at age 30, and the mix between youth and experience works greatly.
On our end, we try to calm them down and to bring them some soundness in their play; and to make them understand how the game is played as a team, how to work with others. On their end, through their fervor and youth, we feed off some of their energy, to the point when we would sometimes go for plays that we had long since forbidden ourselves from doing given the consequences — but plays that shouldn't be discarded because everything is possible in-game. Sometimes, we need to know when to take risks; the young ones remind us of that.
This balance between risk and experience is super interesting: the more experience (and age) you gain, the more risk-averse you become. It's the same as a kid falling to the ground face-first: at five years old, they would laugh it off and wouldn't care. A 20-year-old, on the other hand, would make sure not to fall face-first in the first place. At the same time, if you never take risks in life, you'll never accomplish anything grand.
Our mix is really well put together, and it works well.
Mid-way through your statement, I nearly projected myself into ZywOo's brain given some of the plays he goes for, as if he somehow internalized the map and potential opposing player moves, going for wild guesses at times, when thinking about this whole "new outlook" that a young player can bring. It's as if that could be adapted to the way the play is structured, but I might be completely wrong there, or on the tangent.
It's not really about structure: it's all about awareness, fervor, youth, risk-taking. It's really important to have that, but if you only ever do that, it won't work either. On our team, we find a balance in-between.
Let's say that Team Vitality's performances speak for themselves: either winning, or reaching a semifinal round. I don't know if you see it as a lineup "start," but what's your take on all of this?
I wouldn't say it's a start: our start was when Dan [apEX] shifted to IGL, and when Kévin [misutaaa] joined us. When Nabil [Nivera] joined us, it was no longer a start: he had to integrate into our lineup through a few maps. Nowadays, I'd say we're consistent, but we have to beware that, just because things went well the day before doesn't mean they will naturally go well the day after. Always question yourself and improve, and remember why strength and consistency followed. As soon as we forget that, our level will drop.
Our objectives this season are as follows: (1) maintain our level from last year, just because we showed good play doesn't mean that we will do it without breaking a sweat this year, we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought that way; and (2) if we manage that, soar higher.
"A semifinal would be a good start for this new season."
It's all about staying focused: things only worked out last year because of the effort put forth.
That's exactly it.
And there's an opportunity ahead, with the BLAST Finals coming ahead — a bridge between last year and the start of this new season. What are Vitality's expectations for this specific tournament?
We didn't necessarily talk about it, but a semifinal would be a good start for this new season. There's no way to know for sure who will start strong and who's in good shape, unlike the middle of the season when everyone knows what to expect. Early and late into the seasons, performance levels can be a bit random: it's all about who still has something left in the tank late into a season, and it's all about who will start strong early after the break.
Especially after taking breaks, some teams are likelier to try new things and to change their play in specific phases, and those are complete unknowns at that time. By the time the season starts, there won't be much of a break to [innovate.] But when breaks happen, given the lack of data at the time, surprises arise.
Still, looking at the bracket, I'm looking at Complexity, Na'Vi, and Team Liquid. I can't help but think that you will be tested in this first tournament.
That's what a final is! There's going to be so many good games off the bat with all the great teams from last year competing and qualifying to the finals.
Another thing dawned on me, as if calling a flashback: way back when CS:GO's competitive scene was taking shape, there was more than one French lineup at the top level in CS:GO — not only VeryGames. Nowadays, I look at Team Vitality, then ask myself a few questions when I see no other squad. What happened since then?
"What we did with [Nivera] and [misutaaa] shows that there is hope in French CS:GO, but nobody else did that before us."
Some French players have joined international teams. Others lost motivation or were lost in transition. What we did with [Nivera] and [misutaaa] shows that there is hope in French CS:GO, but nobody else did that before us. For up-and-coming young players, for a while, there wasn't room for them to break through. Other than us, there was a bit of a void. G2 going international also broke another French team; even though we weren't at the same level as Vitality now, back when I was in G2, we were still a competitive French team.
I'm not worried: it will eventually come back. But we will have to wait a bit.
For new emerging talent to appear...
Yes, and for a new face to show the way, and we lack that. Vitality is working well, but apEX hasn't been a leader beforehand, and we didn't know that it would work out when we tried that change. We could have faceplanted if it didn't work out.
What the French scene lacks is a "face": someone whose charisma and leadership are apparent, that can influence others on the way. Nowadays, a lot of young players want to be the star, put headshots all over the place, be like ZywOo. But if there is only that profile out there, you cannot assemble a team [with just that]. If everyone wants to be the star, well: y'all can stay where you are, because we have ZywOo and he isn't going anywhere! Besides us, maybe there is another team looking for an up-and-coming star, but that would be it. We need other types of players to emerge, and those are the ones [in demand] in France.
Team Vitality has already prevailed against Complexity 2-0, and they are set to play their next game in the tournament against the winner between Natus Vincere and Team Liquid on Jan. 21 at 19:30 CET.