“Do you know my Brood War ID? My id was ‘Neverdie Jaedong’. It means never ever die Jaedong! Don’t forget, the Tyrant will be back soon.” – Jaedong, legendary Brood War player
The sun rises in the East and sets in the West. The ebbs and flows of fortune rise and recede with the tide. We are but impermanent beings in a vast universe, trying to find and create that one perfect moment we can say was ours.
When we find it, we hold onto it as tight as we can, knowing that it will not last. It can not last. In competition, that moment is a player’s victories: their primes, their peaks of career. When those peaks pass, when the victories are no longer there, the chase feels hopeless. Nevertheless the perfect moment was so beautiful, so impactful, so important, that they must continue to chase it.
Legend goes that the Chinese poet Li Bai drunkenly mistook the reflection of the moon for the real thing and drowned trying to reach it. It was a stupid and foolish way to die, but there is something in this story that resonates with the human spirit. Many people chase that dream, that ideal, that moment. Some even spend their entire lives futilely searching for it. In Counter-Strike, chasing that dream is more difficult than ever. Eight potential super teams have formed, and the competition continues to get tougher by the day. Tactical and strategic innovation has never been easier to learn or spread. Novel positions or nade usage gets analyzed, disseminated and countered in record time. The chase for the dream is still the same, but the game has gotten fiercer.
There are some who will not yield to the higher stakes, who will not give up on their dream. Regardless of lack of skill or opportunity, they refuse to stop. They vowed to persevere no matter how long it takes to get back to the top. Those players are all the more interesting because they have staked their being on this impossible endeavor, and will see it through for as long as they can bear. The three players who come to mind are Spencer “Hiko” Martin, Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko and Kevin “Ex6TenZ” Droolans.
“If I don’t win anything, then my career will have been a waste of time.” – Hiko
Hiko is in dire straits. Once heralded as one of the better North American prospects, he finds himself adrift with no real future. He was recently kicked from Team Liquid to make room for Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz. This was after months of trying to shift his role to help support the other stars of the team and sporadically taking up the in-game leader mantle. It was a prudent move considering Liquid needed leadership and direction more than anything else, yet it put Hiko into a very awkward situation. After the kick, he stood in for OpTic over several tournaments, each one demonstrating how necessary stanislaw was to OpTic’s success. Hiko’s gameplay wasn’t what OpTic needed. Meanwhile, Cloud9 has decided to lock in with its current five. Even if that wasn’t the case, Hiko burned that bridge a long time ago in a symbolic move to prove to himself that all he cared about was winning.
With no way back into any of the top North American teams, it seems hopeless for Hiko to win the title for which he searches. There is no obvious road back, so Hiko will have to build it himself. It’s unclear whether he must prove himself again as a star player, join a team and help them rise up, or create a new team of his own. Yet I believe he can make it back because he did it once before.
People talk about the iBP players as if they were the potential saviors of North American Counter-Strike. They were right that an iBP player was, but simply wrong about which one. The savior of the NA CS:GO scene wasn’t any of the banned players; it was Hiko. Hiko’s forceful chase to become the best player in the world was a trial and a half. He was exiled to playing in Tier 2 teams. His attempts to create a super team with Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham crashed and burned when other top players rejected his offer and Skadoodle left him in the dust. He was called greedy and “toxic”. But there are only a handful of NA players who were ever as desperate and determined to win like Hiko. He eventually hit the big time when he joined Liquid and despite constant shuffles and internal trials, his efforts earned NA its two best results in CS:GO Major history.
Hiko will not give up. He will return and he might just save NA CS:GO again along the way.
“I am not going to give up until I win a motherfucking Major.” – Zeus
Zeus is a legendary Counter-Strike player with nothing left to prove. He is one of the all-time great leaders of 1.6 and briefly led Natus Vincere in CS:GO before giving the reins over to Sergey “starix” Ischuk. In 2016, Na’Vi was one of the best teams in the world but could never win a Tier 1 event despite having strong odds in every tournament it attended. This eventually came to a head as rumors circulated about a potential player being cut to make way for teenage superstar Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev. s1mple was too much of a star player to pass up. Zeus was the first on the chopping block as the team considered his role redundant with starix doing the in-game leading.
Zeus refused to believe it. He had been a part of the organization for so long and considered the team his family. Furthermore, Zeus was a firm adherent of loyalty. He believed that a team of five should stick together as long as possible and work through problems instead of relying on roster changes. Na’Vi disagreed, and he was removed from the starting lineup in August. Zeus eventually found a new team and family in Gambit.
This is where Zeus’ new legend began. Before Zeus joined the team, Gambit was considered a bit of a joke. There were some good pieces there, most notably Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev, but no top team considered them a threat. When Zeus joined, he changed their reputation in the scene. He created a system that helped facilitate AdreN’s star potential. Under his leadership, Mikhail “Dosia” Stolyarov found new ways to contribute as a support player. He gave guidance to the younger talents of Abay “HObbit” Khasenov and Rustem “mou” Tlepov.
Although Zeus is further on the path than Hiko, getting a Major victory remains an improbable hill to climb. Gambit is among the best Tier 2 teams alongside Immortals and Heroic, but there are entire levels to climb before they can begin consistently beating the best teams in best-of-threes. They need more reliable maps in their pool besides Overpass and Cobble, and they will likely need a roster change to fight on even ground against the super teams of the world. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Zeus’ team philosophy means that he will not swap in players. It rests solely on his shoulders to develop his young prodigies into potential superstars. The climb is long but if he can do it, Zeus will add another chapter to his already legendary career.
“I will not retire until I win a Major.” – Ex6Tenz
Ex6Tenz is just as far from the Major title as Hiko — and in some ways further away.
Touted as one of the all-time great tacticians and leaders of CS:GO, Ex6Tenz is the abandoned leader of the French scene. He finds himself forgotten, his reputation besmirched and options limited. The pebble that started the avalanche was the VAC ban of Hovik “KQLY” Tovmassian at the end of 2014, which crippled that Titan roster. It speaks to Ex6Tenz’s incredible leadership and Kenny “kennyS” Schrub’s awe-inspiring skill that they had such good results. But the French shuffles slowly left him behind as LDLC took kennyS and he was eventually kicked out of G2 for Alexandre “bodyy” Pianaro. Given Ex6TenZ’s inexplicable collapses at the Majors, it was already hard enough to devise a way to win them. Now he has been exiled by the top French teams for reasons unknown. None of the top players seems to want to play with him again and given all of the roster shuffles, perhaps Ex6Tenz doesn’t want to play with them again either.
After being left behind, Ex6TenZ was forced to adapt a new approach. He created a team from the leftover Tier 2 players who weren’t bought out by the top two French teams. All things considered, his LDLC team had very strong results given the relative lack of skill and experience compared to a continually increasing competitive scene. In 2017 one of the better players on the team, Alexandre “xms“ Forté, left to join EnVyUs. In spite all of that, Ex6Tenz continues his toil. He knows that the Major is far away. But he is building towards a future years down the line, hoping to one day reach the top once again.
Seen it before
Competition is cutthroat. Players can all be friends outside of the game, but there is no mercy once it starts. With the increased exposure, salaries and players coming into the field, it has gotten harder than ever to find a way to the top. This is why we see old star players that announce a return but never make it. The time they took off was too much and they have to catch up on the tens of thousands of hours they missed out. Even if you caught up and worked as hard or even harder than everyone else, there is no guarantee of success. They fall by the wayside.
That is what makes these three in particular special. They could have fallen by the wayside, slowly fading away as they spent their last fruitful years in uneventful mediocrity. But the dream to once again reach the top — once again be the best — still burns inside them. It motivates them to try again, fail again, and repeat the cycle without end.
And if there is a chance, there is hope. I’ve seen it happen. Mun “MMA” Seong Won is one of the all-time great StarCraft 2 players, but at the end of 2012 he lost everything. He was in a slump and he was publicly called a cancer by Team SlayerS. He was hated and flamed in Korea, betrayed by his own team. It is even worse when you realize that SlayerS was Lim “BoxeR” Yo-Hwan’s team, and BoxeR is an idol in Korea. MMA had called himself the Son of BoxeR, such was his confidence and admiration. To be decried in such a demonstrative way by his idol should have been too much to bear.
But he didn’t give up. MMA joined Acer to revitalize his career. It didn’t quite work as he was never the same kind of superstar player he was before. In an interview with Duncan ‘Thorin’ Shields he said, “I always remember when I was at Anaheim and the crowd cheered my name. That is what keeps me going, so I want to reach Blizzcon and play in front of that crowd once again.”
It was a nice sentiment, but sensible minds regarded it as a pipe dream. The competition was more fierce than ever and he wasn’t in one of the fabled KeSPa team houses that trained Champions. His time had come and gone, or so people thought.
Two years after leaving SlayerS, one year after stating his goal, MMA found himself at BlizzCon 2014 and made a miracle run to the finals against some of the best players in the world. Despite the obstacles, he forced his way back to the top. He achieved his dream of playing in front of the giant BlizzCon crowd one last time.
If I had to describe how MMA did it, I could only use one word: effort. He refused to give up. No matter how many times he fell, he got back up. And that is the key to making a comeback. You have to be willing to try as many times as it takes. When a player loses 10,000 times in a row, he must get back up again and try round 10,001. Hiko, Zeus and Ex6Tenz all have the willpower to do exactly that.
Cover photo by Robert Paul/DreamHack