“I myself watched and took a lot of lessons as a leader from LeX. He never gave up, he always showed character and no matter the difficulty of the situation he never gave up” — Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko
On July 8, 2016, Team Liquid defeated Natus Vincere 2-1 in the ESL One Cologne Major. It was a painful loss, especially as the team entered the Major with high hopes. After winning DreamHack Leipzig and the CounterPit League Finals earlier in the year, Na’Vi had enjoyed three consecutive silvers at the MLG Columbus Major, Dreamhack Malmö, and StarLadder i-League Invitational. Such losses might have been frustrating considering how well Na’Vi performed, but a quarterfinal Major loss was especially demoralizing by comparison. After the loss, Zeus took to Twitter to express his desire and determination to succeed.
“I am not going to give up before I win a motherfucking major,” he wrote.
What Zeus didn’t realize at the time was that he was going to have to do it on another team.
A CIS shuffle was afoot and rumors started to circulate that his organization would be part of it. Zeus didn’t believe them, as his loyalty was irreproachable on the topic. He considered Na`Vi his family, and he hadn’t heard anything from the org. Yet he failed to consider the most disconcerting possibility of all: management had remained mum on the topic because he was the player getting kicked. The switch of in-game leader responsibilities to Sergey “starix” Ischuk and a recent spurt of bad form had, unbeknownst to Zeus, made him the ideal choice to replace. One month later, he was benched, with an uncertain future.
“I was a hard believer that our team was one big family and we can’t make changes like that,” he later told Dot Esports. “But I think there were some people who had to go, and s1mple deserved to replace them. So the team figured that that person should be me.”
At that point in time, Zeus considered his options. Given his recent form, it seemed a good time to retire and become a coach; he could still apply his prowess as an in-game leader without being a burden. Yet he was a longtime veteran still burning with the desire to win. At that crossroads in his life, the new Valve rule came into play limiting coaches’ influence and making the in-game leader position even more important. Zeus took it to mean that, “Daniil, you won’t be a coach. You must play.”
Zeus stayed on the bench for two months before moving on to Gambit. It was a different kind of team, lacking the prestige and high expectations of Na’Vi. Gambit’s CS:GO roster had only been created that year, headed by the former core of HellRaisers. At the ESL One Cologne Major, Gambit also lost in the quarterfinals — an impressive showing for the nascent organization. But the loss was much more humiliating than Na`Vi’s, as Fnatic smashed Gambit and after the match, Robin “flusha” Ronnquist was brutally honest about his opponents.
“Honestly, we expected more of a match,” he told HLTV. “We could do whatever we wanted. I didn’t even have to call. It wasn’t a hard match, and it didn’t feel like a Major quarterfinal.”
Gambit had some good pieces, specifically the aforementioned core of Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev, Mikhail “Dosia” Stolyarov and Rustem “mou” Telepov. Among all of the players on the team, AdreN seemed to be performing the best. It was surprising as AdreN was an old veteran of the game. Both AdreN and Dosia had played on the old Virtus.Pro lineup that broke Ninjas in Pyjamas’ famous 87-0 streak, they and later joined the failed Astana Dragons project. But overall, you could only conclude Gambit’s run to the playoffs was due to luck. Both Counter Logic Gaming and Astralis had coaches stand in for that event, so Gambit was able to make it to the playoffs off two best-of-one victories against weakened teams.
On Oct. 12, Gambit made the roster shuffle that would forever change its fortunes. Zeus became the in-game leader of the squad and Abay “HObbit” Khasenov joined on loan from Tengri. The team was an intriguing mix on paper. It had old veteran players in Zeus, AdreN and Dosia mixed with rising talents in mou and HObbit. But whatever potential Gambit possessed would have to be teased out slowly. Its first events were nothing special; a forgettable loss to Space Soldiers at eSports World Convention and first place at Acer Predator Masters Season 3 were hardly indicative of a world-class team. Gambit won DreamHack Winter, but no top teams attended except Cloud9 (which bombed out in the group stage in typical C9 fashion).
The moment Gambit shocked the world came at the ELEAGUE Major, where it defeated North, Godsent and FaZe Clan to make it out of the Swiss system. But Gambit was swiftly eliminated in the playoffs — again by Fnatic. The same thing happened again at DreamHack Las Vegas. It became clear that Gambit was good for making best-of-one upsets against the better teams. On Cobblestone and Overpass, Gambit could beat anyone in the world, but beyond that, the team didn’t have the consistency or tactical depth to contend with the likes of SK Gaming or Astralis.
If Zeus had only led his team that far, we would have called Gambit a great success. The mixture of talent was nowhere near the stacked lineups boasted by the best teams; the only player on the squad who could play at that level consistently was AdreN, who was at a superstar level at the beginning of the year. What bolstered this team past its cumulative individual skill was Zeus’ leadership and system. He took the spare parts and made the whole greater than the sum, pushing the team to a level it never expected.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Zeus. He understood the weaknesses of the team and that it could improve. In the ensuing months, he expanded the map pool so Gambit could start playing Inferno, Nuke, Train and Cache. It culminated in Gambit’s most impressive victory to that point at DreamHack Austin, where the team defeated G2 and Immortals in the playoffs. But that unexpected win exposed Gambit’s firepower issue. The upset against G2 required a MVP-level performance from Dosia, a player who could hardly be expected to play at that caliber even 30 percent of the time.
At the same time, more teams rose throughout the year with more impressive rosters and resumes. They superseded Gambit’s results and pushed them down the list. By the time the PGL Kraków Major came around, Gambit’s chances of making a deep run were doubtful. AdreN seemed to be falling off in form, mou was inconsistent, HObbit remained merely a good player and Dosia had returned to his mean level. Rumors swarmed that Gambit had massive problems in practice. They were eventually confirmed by Filip “NEO” Kubski of Virtus.pro.
“Among top teams, we make fun of Gambit,” NEO told HLTV. “They’re even close to getting kicked from the practice channel for pro teams.”
Gambit had lost every scrim in an all-around demoralizing bootcamp. Everything had gone wrong, and it seemed the Gambit players were desperate to make anything work. But in typical CS:GO fashion, practice results didn’t seem to matter once they got to LAN. Gambit crushed mousesports, G2 and Virtus.Pro to secure a spot in the playoffs; instead of relying on Cobblestone and Overpass, the team succeeded on Inferno, Cache and Train.
Then the insane bracket draw was announced where the four remaining favorites — Fnatic, Gambit, Astralis and SK — were all put on the same side of the bracket. For Zeus, he had to play an old boogeyman in Fnatic, the team that plagued him throughout his entire career. Back when Na`Vi was one of the undisputed best teams in the world, Fnatic had stopped nearly every run Zeus had dating back to 2014. That included the ESL Cologne Major in 2014, Starladder Starseries X, DreamHack Summer 2015, ESL ESEA Proleague Finals Season 2 (2015), Starladder XIV Finals 2016, ELEAGUE Season 1, ELEAGUE Major and DreamHack Summer 2017. Fnatic had stopped eight of Zeus’ runs spanning across Na`Vi and Gambit, personally stopped Zeus from reaching the trophy on four separate occasions and killed his Major runs twice.
This time, things were different as Zeus led Gambit to a 2-0 victory against Fnatic. Although Fnatic was still the more skilled lineup, it became evident firepower was its only advantage over most teams. Gambit still had competitive players skill-wise but also backed it up with a great in-game system, a seasoned leader and a consistent map pool. Dosia in particular was critical in the second map as he bailed Gambit out of tight situations around the map.
In the semifinals, Gambit was set to play against Astralis, a team that was essentially crowned the tournament champions after defeating SK in an epic best-of-three. That quarterfinal wasn’t the mighty struggle most viewers anticipated. Beyond the first half on Cache, Astralis never relinquished control of the series. In particular, Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz had just outdueled FalleN in one of the most brutal AWP duels ever witnessed on Overpass. In the series, Astralis was clearly the favorite. Even AdreN admitted that the team needed more than strategic depth.
“We will have to play our game and especially make some magic,” he told HLTV. “We need that luck, that magic against these teams, so if that is with us, we’re going to win.”
Luck was on Gambit’s side. Mou decided to have the game of his life on Overpass. Instead of outright dueling dev1ce, he outmaneuvered him and shut down everything Astralis wanted to do. It was a legendary performance and a necessary win as Gambit stole Astralis’ best map. The Danes easily cleaned up on inferno, pushing the series to Train. Gambit had a strong CT-side and won the pistol round on T-side, going ahead 12-6 before Astralis’ first CT-rifle round. With that margin of error, Gambit should have been able to grind down Astralis economically. But Astralis refused to surrender: Dev1ce in particular was a menace on the map once he got his AWP rolling. The Danish resilience stumped all of Gambit’s attempts to breach the A site, and soon Gambit barely held the lead. Up 13-12, Gambit took a pause that changed the entire flow of the game.
“Zeus was then just standing on the spawn and calmed everyone down, like ‘guys, we have two or three tactical rounds, let’s make them, we have nothing to lose,’” mou told HLTV. “And that’s pure leadership, when Zeus can calm everyone down like that so we can win the game.”
After the pause, Zeus completely changed the pace of the game. Instead of going to defaults and looking for pickoffs in preparation for a site take, Gambit exploded onto the A site early in the rounds. Zeus led the charge as he took out Peter “dupreeh” Rothmann at pop-dog to open up the outer site. It blindsided Astralis, which was unable to adapt. Gambit closed out the map 16-12 to advance to the final against a surprise contender in Immortals.
The finals proved an incredibly tense set. Immortals made an immediate statement by demolishing Gambit on Cobblestone. Gambit had to rally back and dig deep to find the path to victory. Besides the security of leadership and team structure, each of the five players stepped up their games. AdreN was a consistent star in the second and third games, especially on CT-side Inferno. Mou carried the team on Train to close out the CT-side. Zeus called a great T-side on Train to put the team in the lead and had critical clutches on the last two maps. Dosia had impact rounds that ended up making the difference in the final moments on Train and Inferno. HObbit defended the honor of the Shire, saving Gambit with impossible plays to stifle Immortals’ frenetic efforts to get back in the game.
It was not only a legendary achievement for Zeus but for the players under his wings. AdreN and Dosia were longtime veterans, but neither had ever come close to this level of accomplishment. Their best run at a Major was under Astana Dragons, where they placed Top 8 after being upset by compLexity. After that, their careers and results sank into obscurity, but Zeus revitalized them and gave them the belief that they could play alongside the best. On the other side of the equation, HObbit and mou were both rising talents with uncertain futures. Like AdreN, they hailed from Kazakhstan, which severely limited their chances to join a top team. Zeus and Gambit provided the opportunity to blossom and become star players. Together they became more than what they were apart. A team working in harmony came together to win the most prestigious trophy in all of CS:GO, the Major.
With this victory, Zeus has achieved the impossible. When he left Na’Vi, he was already a legendary player, one who had attended nine Major finals across CS 1.6 and CS:GO. After being removed from the team that had meant everything to him, Zeus’ legend has reached even greater heights. He took a team without expectations and led it to a Major championship. Through unyielding persistence and the will to never give up, Zeus wrote an underdog story for the ages. He swore that he wouldn’t stop playing until he won a motherfucking Major. Now that motherfucking trophy is his, and you can be assured he is hungry for a second one.
Cover photo courtesy of Robert Paul/DreamHack