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Q&A: Richard Lewis previews the ELEAGUE Major Qualifier

Slingshot’s Vince Nairn caught up with Richard Lewis to prepare fans for the ELEAGUE Major Qualifier, which begins at 10 a.m. ET Thursday on Twitch.

Vince Nairn: First of all, how does the modified Swiss format, what kind of role is that going to play in what we see this week?

Richard Lewis: We had a lot of options for format, and we’ve seen how well the Swiss format has been received by the community, how well it’s been received by the players who play in it. I think a lot of people feel it’s generally the fairest way to get a team that’s more deserving through because of the sheer amount of games you have to play. I think we all recognize that when you have a team that could go out after one or two games, it can be a little frustrating. Obviously we’ve looked at the formats available to us, and we think the Swiss system is the perfect fit. So we understand that maybe some people who are tuning in aren’t familiar with it, and certainly it’s a new thing. I’ll be honest, when it first came into esports I had to look up what it was. But the esports community is no stranger to kind of weird format picks. So yeah, it’s gonna play a role in allowing us to get the most high quality Counter-Strike and also arrive at the fairest determination as to who deserves to progress. So we’re definitely looking forward to it.

VN: Who do you think has the most to prove of anyone in the stacked field that we have?

RL: You can’t really look further than the two top teams coming in. Dignitas have a lot to prove in a way because they win EPICENTER, everyone is talking about them. They’re now this conquering force. They’re an international team. And guys like Janko are out there talking about how good they are. And Duncan is out there talking about how good they are. Moses. I was the only guy not sold on Dignitas, and they made believers out of me. When Dignitas won EPICENTER, I wrote an article on the ELEAGUE website and said I’m a convert. Because I’ve known all the Dignitas guys for years. I’ve known all the Danish players for a long period of time. So I wanted to see them succeed. But since then, they haven’t quite lived up to that billing. They flopped at DreamHack (Winter), which was unbelievable. It was literally their tournament to lose, and to go out in last place is unfathomable to me. And then they come to ELEAGUE. I think there was this thing hovering over Magiskb0y, who had exams coming up. And then they draw SK, which is still a tough matchup for anybody. They’re still an elite level team even if they’re not winning tournaments anymore. They go out in a three map (loss), super close, and FalleN basically wins it in the third map with the AWP, and it finishes 16-14. And obviously they have a stand in for ECS, a tournament they didn’t even know they were going to at some point. That’s the rumor: That they found out when they were on a plane to ELEAGUE. So I think it’s fair to say maybe preparation hasn’t been ideal for them. But now Magiskb0y has all his exams out of the way, he’s focused solely on this, and now we can judge them. If they fail to make it to the Major, maybe it’s time to revise just how good Dignitas are and what that means for the future for them.

NiP as well, they’re synonymous with the Majors. All of the early Majors were the stories of NiP in many ways. The very first one, they were meant to win it. They didn’t. Fnatic did. And then it became “When will NiP win a Major?” And then when they took the first one in Colgone, their first Major, you get that moment with Get_Right hugging the trophy. This is one of the most storied and tenured teams in our generation of Counter-Strike. They were the original pace setters. A team like that not being at the Major? It’s inconceivable to me. So I think they are also right up there as the favorite coming in. But honestly, once you get down to all the teams outside of them, it’s pretty close. Immortals have to be mentioned. OpTic, certainly. If not Dignitas and NiP, I think OpTic are (a favorite). Then you’ve got EnVyUs, who looked a lot more like their old selves at ECS. Then there’s G2. So I think you’ve got a lot of teams outside those two who could certainly cause the upset and go all the way.

VN: Yeah, what do you think of the French teams? They’ve both been in this kind of weird space for the better part of this year. How will this week impact what happens in the future of the French scene?

RL: I’d hate to be a French Counter-Strike fan, honestly. Because as long as I’ve followed the game, there are five players in France that can make the best team in the world or certainly close to it, in my opinion. But at any given period they don’t want to play with each other. There’s all these weird arguments and bickering. I would love the French guys to be more like and just say “We’re going to work through it. We have arguments, and we will have slumps, but we’re going to stay together.” Pick the five best French players and put them into a super team. They’re gonna win big tournaments. It’s that simple. The talent level is so ridiculously high. But what you have at the moment is G2 have deficiencies, EnVy has deficiencies, and I can’t really back either of them to win a tournament. I can’t really back them to do well here. G2, you really don’t know what you’re going to get. Is it going to be all-conquering, shox doesn’t miss a single shot, and they just roll over opponents? Or is it going to be the G2 that literally gets blown out because they’re trying to be too perfect? It’s very frustrating to watch G2 because I know all of those players have a very high skill ceiling.

And then you go over to EnVyUs. They’ve just suffered a crisis of confidence. They simply do not believe in themselves anymore as a team, and I think it shows. But as I said, at ECS they looked a bit more like a team. They lost to OpTic, and we all know they’re in red hot form right now. But they have some decent results and performances. KennyS is still in good form. I almost feel that out of the two French teams, I can maybe see EnVyUs getting back to the No. 1 French team. But if both of these teams don’t make it through the Major qualifier, don’t make the Major, I think realistically, whether it’s the players themselves or the owners of both teams, a conversations got to be had. “What can we do to get us back?” Because EnVyUs has won Majors. Players in G2 have won Majors. It’s absurd to be in this position that because of differences and petty grievances from back in the day, you don’t do what’s best for business. And what’s best for business is to create the French super team — which I’m sure is different for different people. But I certainly think we can name a core four and all agree on it. And if it doesn’t happen,  think we’ll see a move that certainly makes it closer to a reality. It’s time for the French revolution.

VN: There are a few teams there — Vega Squadron, Spirit, even HellRaisers hasn’t been on LAN much lately, and I guess you could add TyLoo in there, too — that a lot of people haven’t seen a lot of, if anything. Is there anything about these teams that people should be watching for this week?

RL: We’ve got some interesting stuff going on here. In terms of Russia, I think Gambit has the No. 1 spot locked up. They’ve uncovered an incredible player in the form of HObbit from Kazakhstan. They’re looking really good. I recently responded to them in a Twitter Q&A. They asked me what I thought of Gambit’s future, and I told them I didn’t think they were gonna win another event like DreamHack soon, but “keep HObbit and you might just be in with a chance.” But in regards to teams like Spirit, it’s not all bad. There are some players you’re not going to have heard of for sure. But they’ve got players like DavCost. He’s certainly got that pedigree, played with some decent players and decent teams. Kibaken as well. He’s played alongside some of the players that were in Na’Vi, so he’s got pedigree as well. It’s not like these are terrible, atrocious players you shouldn’t pay attention to. There are some people who follow the CIS region closely who tell me Vega Squadron and Spirit could come here and do something. I’m not entirely convinced by that. I think if they win one game, that’s going to be a huge accomplishment for them. But certainly in terms of TyLoo, it gets a bit more interesting. Because we’ve seen TyLoo at international tournaments. And I think that window for TyLoo to be that team that brings CS to Asia and comes over here and captures everyone’s imagination with big wins, I feel that’s gone. I really do. They had the opportunity. When we thought they were going to be in ELEAGUE Season 1 — they were unable to do it because of visa troubles, unfortunately — but that was the moment I thought they were going to ascend. And it didn’t happen, and since then they’ve gone to some other tournaments and played pretty poorly.

They’re doing well in Asia, they’re still a top team in Asia, but if you look at what they did, they lost to Echo Fox at iBuyPower Masters. Echo Fox has subsequently exploded. They were terrible in Oakland, going 0-5. World Cyber Arena finals, which again you can imagine not a particularly high caliber of teams out there, and they’re fourth. They’re below teams like, VG.Cyber Zen, which is the other big Chinese team with Savage on there — and he is Savage. He’s a beast. And then Epsilon took it overall. So where are they at the moment? Their first game against OpTic, and I think they’re gonna get crushed. And that’s a shame because I think there’s real talent on the roster. But it’s tournaments like this that Vega Squadron, Spirit and TyLoo need to use to build international experience. They’re not gonna win. There’s not gonna be some cinderella story. Major Qualifiers, everybody’s going to bring their “A” game, so it will mean no happy endings for the underdogs for the most part.

VN: What’s going on with Cloud9? They win at Brazil, which is a big moment for North American teams. But since then, they have both been passed by OpTic in the region and struggled at every tournament they’ve played. What do you make of them?

RL: Let’s be real: their achievement in Brazil is ridiculous. Its an unbelievable achievement and unbelievable story. It’s predicated on their players playing out of their skin. Autimatic being the MVP of a tournament with the caliber of teams that was there, that’s insane. Him and Stewie are just phenomenal finds, breakout stories — Stewie certainly. But here’s thing that I saw when they were here for the Americas qualifier: They were a bit lethargic. We saw them lose to Immortals. And then obviously, they go on to beat TSM in the final, so they’re beating a team that doesn’t really exist anymore. And they didn’t look to be their fluid, sick selves. And then when they went to Oakland, it wasn’t great. They went to DreamHack Winter and finished fifth/sixth, a tournament Dignitas had gone out in the round before them. So Cloud9 should be favorites.

So I don’t know where they are right now in terms of mentality and mindset. I think they’ve still got a great roster. Honestly, it’s the same old issue for me. N0thing is the vertan. He’s punching way above the level he should be at. Autimatic is a hell of a find. It’s unbelievable they’ve managed to get a player who’s been a journeyman — played for five or six teams in 2015 — and they pick him up and he’s been this good. Stewie has been great. People were disappointed when they picked him up, and now he’s one of the most complete players in North America. It’s always about the stars, and when your stars don’t shine, it’s gonna be tough. I don’t want to keep banging on Skadoodle and how he’s not the best AWPer in north America anymore, but Dazed himself said it, and he’s absolutely right. Skadoodle’s a player who needs to be micromanaged. Stewie has only been an in-game leader for a short amount of time, so I don’t think he’s gonna be able to micromanage Skadoodle the way so we can see the best from him. The statistics don’t lie. Skadoodle might be on an upswing, but if you look over the past 12 months, he has been poor. And Shroud as well. He hasn’t lived up to the billing. He likes to be the standout guy in the team, but honestly he’s been eclipsed by almost everyone else with a rifle in their hands right now. And when both of those things happen, it’s going to be extremely difficult for Cloud9. You can’t expect autimatic to turn into god himself every tournament to make you win them. It’s not realistic. It’s unfair. At what point do you need to say “What am I going to do to boost my own performance?”

So what are Cloud9 going to do? I think it will be very disappointing if Cloud9 go from winning a tournament, and everyone’s talking about how we’ve finally got a North American team that can mix it up with Europeans — and yeah, we have. But its OpTic — but Cloud9 have to continue that. It can’t just be a flash in the pan. I think Cloud9 definitely have a lot to prove. They’re up against FaZe in their first game, so we’ll get a good understanding of if Cloud9 are ready to rock heads again. They’re great guys, and I hope they do it. And for North America, I hope they do it because I don’t want a Major where North American teams aren’t being widely represented. Because I really think the scene has come leaps and bounds at the end of this year.

Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE