"I understand how to not just be part of a team, but also run one": ShahZaM's rise to a leader of champions

ONE

Specter

 

Shahzeb "ShahZaM" Khan is a champion. But if you claim to have expected that: stop lying. Though known for showing flickers of brilliance, drama and disappointment followed ShahZam through his early CS:GO years, making it hard to be optimistic about his chances for glory. He was a player one would expect to retire with a respectable online presence, but without major LAN wins and without a tenure on a legendary team. 

 

Yet here we are today, in another time, another game, and with a different ShahZam — a VALORANT Masters: Reykjavik champion at the helm of a juggernaut like Sentinels which, with Tyson "TenZ" Ngo signed to roster, looks to be unstoppable. 

 

The ability with which ShahZaM commands Sentinels makes me think about all the other teams he competed in that could’ve been great too, but which dissolved one after another: be it for poor results, management issues, or internal problems he may have stirred up. ShahZaM felt cursed, with a specter looming over his career. 

 

But now, that shadow’s gone. The immature boy fought his demons and won. 

 

TWO

Break-out

 

ShahZaM entered the Counter-Strike scene with some talent and a ton of angst. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, he was an above-average player, more known for trash talking and causing drama than being a threat on the server. He wasn’t a model professional and that reputation took a very long time to shake off.

 

It wasn’t until CS:GO that ShahZaM made a more serious mark. A top 4 finish in the ESEA Global Finals with Frost Gaming raised his profile and triggered a team-hopping sequence that eventually saw him signed to Denial Esports, alongside top NA prospects like Damian "daps" Steele, Jacob "FugLy" Medina, and Keith "NAF" Markovic. Denial was when ShahZaM hit a growth spurt as a player and got the chance to have a defining moment at the ESEA Season 17 LAN Finals.

 

At the time, Cloud9 was the only North American CS:GO team worth a damn, with a lot of firepower coming from NA royalty like Michael "shroud" Grzesiek and Spencer "Hiko" Martin. Earlier in the same year, 2014, Cloud9’s squad had made two Major top 8’s (at Katowice as compLexity Gaming and Cologne as Cloud9), but by the time they faced Denial at ESEA KAN, they had run out of gas after a staggering streak of disappointments. ShahZaM had been given a gift and he didn’t miss. In two close matches, he helped Denial clutch the win. A week later, he put pen to paper on a Cloud9 deal, taking center-stage for NA CS:GO. 

 

 

ShahZaM was now on one of the region’s biggest team, competing at the largest CS:GO tournaments, all eyes focused on him.

For most players, that would be the dream.

For ShahZaM, it was hell.

 

Source: Marcin Wróbel for ESL

THREE

Hell

 

The four months ShahZam spent on Cloud9 were a nightmare. His decision-making enraged the community and many times he was viewed as the main reason for the team’s failure. LAN stage ShahZaM was a far cry from his online self. Ruining NA’s only hope for CS:GO success made him the punching bag of the community.

 

It was hard to extend ShahZaM any sympathy, with the drama-stirring persona still within him. Former Denial teammate Preston "juv3nile" Dornon spoke of the escalating dysfunction within that team:

 

 “I think I saved ShahZaM and daps from cutting each other at least three or four times.”

 

“It definitely happened because of my relationship with drama before I joined Cloud9,” ShahZaM confirmed tо HLTV. “I built this negative reputation, mostly deserved. Probably deserved, yes. And I think that because of that, people were just waiting for me to fail before they could jump on the hate train and really put me down."

 

And so, the young AWPer left the NA powerhouse and plunged once again into a very familiar pattern of behavior:

 

  1. Join a smaller team
  2. Achieve underdog success
  3. Get signed to a premier team
  4. Crumble under the pressure of the spotlight
  5. Exit the premier team under the curtain of drama and mediocrity

 

After an uninspired exit from another major team in Tempo Storm, and with a career hastily approaching irrelevance, ShahZaM found himself on Conquest — another smaller team and a Denial 2.0 of sorts, with former teammates daps and NAF by his side. A couple of top 4 finishes at S-Tier events revitalized ShahZaM just enough to get him a deal with OpTic Gaming in 2016, at which point he promptly went back to being a disappointing dramatizer. His play was one-dimensional and he rarely performed when it counted as OpTic failed to qualify for most of the significant tournaments of the year. 

 

 

Worse yet, inside the OpTic household, ShahZaM was in conflict with an (unnamed) teammate to an almost comical level. The grief was so severe that OpTic reportedly created voice channels excluding ShahZam and often scrimmed in silence. Daps reflected on the drama, stating:

 

“Shaz has no idea how many times I’ve stood up for him, in terms of teammates coming up to me saying, ‘I can’t play with this guy anymore.’ The amount of times I said ‘Don’t worry, we’ll push through it and he’ll change’... The amount of times I said that to every player on all the teams I’ve played on with him is at least over 20-30 times.” And just like with Cloud9, after four months ShahZaM was out of OpTic, leaving yet one more promising team.

 

Source: ELEAGUE

 

The departure saw ShahZaM play for a couple more teams to once again mediocre success at best. In 2016, Echo Fox, headlined by ShahZaM’s old Cloud9 IGL Sean "seang@res" Gares, was an embarrassment in ELEAGUE Seasons 1 & 2. Viewing time there as a waste, ShahZaM left for TSM, whose roster was later sold to Misfits in 2017, where drama caught up to him again. Conflicting with team’s coach Luis “peacemaker” Tadeu sent him to the bench mid-summer and although ShahZaM returned to the starting roster soon after, Misfits was already on a downward spiral. After a Last Dance run at ELEAGUE Major — more akin to a Cha-Cha Slide at a retirement home rather than Chicago Bulls’ sixth championship run — the roster disbanded. 

 

For ShahZaM, it meant another new year and a couple of new teams — the last CS:GO squads he would play with. 

 

Source: Adela Sznajder from DreamHack

FOUR

End of the road

 

In an odd twist, ShahZaM rejoined OpTic in 2018, but his curse followed him there too and the team soon crumbled. Fundamental playstyle differences tore a divide between ShahZaM and stanislaw and their three Danish teammate in Emil "Magisk" Reif, Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke, and René "cajunb" Borg. OpTic favored the Danes and ShahZaM had to look for a new job, not even three months into his second OpTic stint.

 

His last Counter-Strike team was Complexity Gaming and it almost looked like this could be “the one”. It was a smaller organization compared to Cloud9 and OpTic. He had a knowledgeable support staff, no inner strife, and an organization that aligned well with him. Even ShahZaM had changed. He wasn’t embroiled in drama every weekend, and while some fans were still bitter, his teammates were welcoming.

 

“I feel like I'm in a place where I'm not just respected but also appreciated,” he said. “The guys really value me as a teammate and I'm glad I can be more of an experienced figure for them now.” 

 

ShahZaM committed to making Complexity a top team. He couldn’t.

 

While every other circumstance might’ve improved, ShahZaM was still mediocre. He never performed in offline events. In two years, coL posted no significant results — more of the “not great, not terrible”, middle-of-the-pack gruel he’d been supping his entire career. When coL benched him in 2019, his CS:GO career was over. 

 

When it comes to CS:GO, ShahZaM was a disappointing player. Trapped forever in a purgatory of drama and inconsistent performance, he played for 13 different teams in little over six years, and never showed up when it mattered. Whatever bud of a talent he might’ve had for the game never bloomed. 

 

Source: Riot Games

FIVE

Revival

 

“Every time something happened with a team, my dad would be like, ‘It's okay. I've been in this position before where I've been let go from a job. If you believe in your abilities, you'll find something better.’

“I had a really good support system. Outside of confidence in myself, knowing that ‘This is just unfortunate. I know what I'm capable of, and I really want to keep doing this.’ It's just about pursuing your passion, you know? No matter the setbacks, if you really want something, you just keep working hard towards it.” — ShahZaM for Inven Global, 2021.

 

There aren’t many career options for 26-year-old CS:GO professionals, whose competitive opportunities have been all but exhausted. Not counting esports-adjacent avenues like streaming, there was in fact just one: VALORANT.

 

But even among the first wave of pros that migrated to VALORANT, ShahZaM wasn’t eye-catching. Many expected him to be on a Tier 2 team and continue his lackluster legacy. Instead, he was snapped up by Sentinels and put at the helm of their roster.

 

Skepticism in the Sentinels line-up was well-founded. Next to Overwatch legend Jay “sinatraa” Won, there were CS:GO veterans Michael “dapr” Gulino and Hunter "SicK" Mims and APEX Legends champion Jared “Zombs” Gitlin — talent flocking from three vastly different games. Not only was there no coaching staff to train it, but it had ShahZaM as the IGL: a player who had been notorious in CS:GO for toxicity, drama-mongering, poor decision-making, and below-par performances under LAN pressure. 

 

Why would his Sentinels stint be any different with higher stakes? 

 

Source: Sentinels

SIX

Metamorphosis

 

“It's surprising to see the level of success that ShahZaM is having. If you had told me he would be one of a handful of top Jetts in NA, I could see it, even if his playstyle isn't perfectly suited for it. But to do it as the IGL of by far and away the best team in NA, while flexing?” — juv3nile for Inven Global, 2021 

 

After a few tournaments to find their style, Sentinels became one of the premier teams in NA midway through 2020. They still lacked a coach, but looked great, showing team cohesion, rapid individual development, and excellent strategy. In these periods, ShahZaM’s new-found talent for in-game leading became the talk of the town. 

 

ShahZaM is first to admit that it was a difficult transition from what he had to do in CS:GO to VALORANT. 

 

“My role in CS was very different from an IGL,” he told Inven Global. “Being an AWPer, you have to be a bit more selfish, using the most expensive gun in the game. While being an IGL, usually, they're the most selfless player on a team. They're the one that's setting other people up for success. And so I think the biggest thing that helped was that I played with so many different IGLs within NA's region in CS. I got to experience a lot and learn a lot from the different outlooks of playing with seang@res, playing with daps, playing with Stanislaw. Even earlier on in my older days, I just got a really good understanding of different perspectives to the game. And I think I took all the stuff that I liked from those leaders and translated it into this team in VALORANT.”

 

Several events in, Sentinels still lacked a coach, so ShahZam took on the responsibility of being a player/coach hybrid. “I know our manager is concerned, he wants us to get an analyst at least to help me. There’s a whole lot of work, but it’s not like I don’t enjoy it. That’s why I really like doing it, I really like feeling prepared when I go into a match.”

 

Whatever stank ShahZaM carried over from CS:GO had now fully dissipated in the new game. He was a mature and respected leader. He was showing up in big tournaments and he captained a roster that actually worked. With VALORANT Masters on the distance, ShahZaM was poised to touch greatness for the first time in his eight-year-long career.

 

But as it’s always been with ShahZaM, it’s never that simple. 

 

SEVEN

Cursed again

 

“It felt like—despite us starting to find success as a team—we kept having setbacks every tournament. Something would happen. But I feel those adversities too brought us closer together as a team, if that makes sense.” — ShahZaM for Inven Global, 2021

 

It was like supernatural forces did everything to inhibit ShahZaM’s reinvigorated career. His dad passed away right before First Strike North America. Sentinels were among those affected by the Texas winter storm, lacking water and electricity for several days. They had a COVID scare with dapr. And finally, only months before Masters, Sentinels suspended sinatraa after sexual abuse allegations against him surfaced.

 

That all happened over the span of just three months. The ShahZaM of the younger days would’ve likely been crushed. But ShahZaM the leader endured. He stared into the face of his specter and took what was his: glory.

 

After his semifinal ousting at First Strike, ShahZaM came back a week later in rare form. He finally caught a lucky break too after almost a decade of being cursed. The COVID scare returned a false positive, and the suspension of sinatraa was merely a prelude to bringing in young star Tyson "TenZ" Ngo. By the time their lives stabilized, Sentinels looked more than just the best team in North America. 

 

“When you face challenges as a group, it brings people together more to face those challenges,” ShahZaM told Inven Global. “And I think it actually made us a better team: having to deal with all these different situations, be there to support each other, and stick together as a team. Once again, it definitely required a good mentality, but I think that’s because we're not just teammates, but really good friends. We're there for each other. Whatever comes up that we have to face — whether it was having to get a last-minute sub, or trying to find out how to play during storms — we just addressed it as a team. 

 

“‘We're gonna figure this out, guys. We can do this.’ And we always find a way.” 

 

 

Source: Riot Games

EIGHT

Catharsis

 

VCT Masters Reykjavik was the real test: the first offline event in VALORANT’s history.

 

ShahZaM looked his best. There was no curse, there was no ominous specter. Masters Reykjavik wasn’t some poetic run where they barely won. Sentinel’s victory at Masters was excellence in every way. TenZ broke out as the best player in the world, while ShahZaM’s tactical brilliance and game-sense cemented him as the best IGL in the world. 

 

More than just victory, the trophy was catharsis. 

 

“This team started out with the Ignition Series, and we won a few of those. But that was still the early stages of the game, and we felt really good to cement ourselves and start becoming the favorites in the scene. But when it came to Masters [Reykjavik] earlier this year, that was the first big tournament. Organizations seemed to fully establish their rosters. People were legit trying to build super teams. So to win in Masters One in the fashion that we did, it was really nice. 

 

“It felt like the whole beginning of the year we were facing constant struggles. Obviously, the personal stuff in my personal life, the snowstorm, having to find a replacement for sinatraa. So to come out on top, even then, it was everything we were working towards. It felt really good.”

 

Source: Sentinels

 

There’s no telling how much longer ShahZaM will be playing and whether his team will stay on top. It’d be a shame if VCT Masters Berlin this weekend somehow triggers ShahZaM’s downfall after his Shawshank-esque crawl through a torrent of filth, instead of putting him on the path to becoming an ultimate champion.

 

But regardless of what happens next, ShahZaM’s journey is a testament to the power of perseverance and personal growth.

 

“I wouldn't pretend like I was a perfect person or perfect teammate, especially early on in CS:GO. I was really young. You just kind of learn. You grow with the experience. You learn about the game, you learn about working in teams, and you learn about working with other people. And I really valued all that experience that I had previously and applied it onto future teams. 

 

I feel like I'm much older now. I understand how to not just be part of a team, but also run one.” 

 

We don’t always have to be victims of our circumstances. We don’t always have to be victims of ourselves. Thanks, ShahZam, for showing that.

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