“It was worse than breaking up with a girlfriend.” — Chad “SPUNJ” Burchill, on having to kick Luke “Havoc” Paton from Renegades
The period after a crucial tournament like The International in Dota 2 or a CS:GO Major is a strange time. For the majority of the year, teams are generally united. They might fight and bicker, but there is an implicit understanding that in order to win, they must play together as a cohesive unit. As the trite motto goes: “We win as a team, we lose as a team.” The truth of this aphorism depends on the quality of the personnel. Some players perform their roles better than their contemporaries, others slack off when it comes to work ethic (sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t), and some are simply a pain to work with. Even if you play well and fit the team, your tenure isn’t guaranteed; in the afterglow of winning The International 5, Evil Geniuses kicked Kurtis “Aui_2000” Ling.
Those first few weeks are a stressful time for everyone. Whatever team spirit exists is ripped away from a once amicable captain and exposed as a facade; roster changes are a business decision, and the drive to compete outstrips any noble urge. Every player is judged and evaluated. Their skill is analyzed, their teamwork is questioned, their potential is discussed and their personalities scrutinized. For pro players, competitors who stake their lives on being the best at what they do, it stings to hear your teammates and organization brings your contribution into doubt. A team can win all year with you aboard, but if you have one bad showing at an important event, the entire castle can come crumbling down.
It happened with Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi after the dissolution of Team Secret post-TI5. Despite multiple elements of Team Secret collapsing all at once, large sections of the community turned against him and made him the scapegoat of the team’s disastrous run in Seattle That was an extreme case where social media turned against him and tried to make him out to be a super villain.
Sometimes the worst wounds are personal. When a player truly believes a team is more than a engine of success, it opens the door for a vulnerability and trust that is both rare and dangerous. In traditional sports, the existence of a team culture ties its members together, deepens their ties beyond financial pragmatism, and unites them in a pursuit greater than themselves. An optimistic illusion can be reified as long as the team believes in it. Yet things can turn bitter quickly when the mirage dissipates.
During 2016, OG built a reputation as a team that valued camaraderie and elan more than the grubby trappings of victory. They spent the entire year talking about team unity, friendship, and how, unlike all of the other teams, they weren’t going to fall to the roster shuffle syndrome. Their mettle was like the tune of the Pied Piper during the interim period, and the charisma of its members convinced many that their proclamations were more than hot air. Then once OG was knocked out of TI7, the team booted David “MoonMeander” Tan out the door like yesterday’s trash. In a later interview, MoonMeander made no attempt to disguise his disappointment or the bitter cynicism that followed.
“I had no power over it,” he said. “I wasn’t given a chance to defend myself. I was already home. They had a week to tell me to my face. I deserved to be told to my face. I was at two TIs with Fly. We won two majors together and we’re really good friends. But that talk never happened. They just told me I got kicked when I got home… It’s all business at the end of the day. At least I know now that whatever team I join I won’t put my emotions into it. I won’t fall into that trap again. This friendship thing is all bullshit, a facade. I guess I was wrong the entire time. I was just lying to myself with this whole friendship rainbow thing. At the end of the day, money talks.”
MoonMeander’s case might be more of an outlier, but it stands that many teammates forge friendships and feel a special bond that is difficult to break. Competitors can recognize their kin instinctively and by the nature of playing a game seriously, they spend enormous lengths of time working toward common goals. To tell them that they aren’t good enough to play on your team sounds ridiculous from the outside, but it is nevertheless an intense moment. SPUNJ was extremely emotional about kicking Havoc as they were friends, and by kicking him off the only professional Australian team in CS:GO, SPUNJ was probably ending Havoc’s aspirations to continue as a pro CS:GO player.
Even in the best of circumstances, where the players retain respect and affection for each other, even being near each other is too much. Kyle “melonzz” Freedman was on good terms with his players, but he still had to split up with them, and the feelings were mutual. As he explained it, “it didn’t work and — it’s just sort of trauma and you don’t want to be reminded of it everyday when you look at each other. It really is fucking traumatic.”
It isn’t all bad news. Behind the hype of a new roster forming is the fact that players do take kicks personally. They often register it as an insult to their honor and players that weren’t performing before or barely practicing find renewed motivation. It would be vacuous to call it a noble drive. The drive to win is still ever present, but pure spite can push them forward in ways they could not previously image.
In recent years we witnessed two highly public examples with Fabien “kioShiMa’ Fiey and Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko. Both were underperforming on EnVyUs and Natus Vincere, respectively, and both were removed for upgrades. After the shock had worn off, both found themselves reinvigorated by the desire to show their former teams that they had made a grievous error. KioShiMa changed his entire play style to be a skilled support player on FaZe (only to eventually be kicked again, of course), while Zeus improved his individual performance and re-emerged as one of CS:GO’s great in-game leaders.
The roster shuffle is one of the few opportunities to see the raw emotion of what players think about each other and their teams. It is an intense moment in time that we can later laugh about, but in the moment it feels like the most dramatic thing in the world. As Chen “Hao” Zhihao says, “The deeper the love, the deeper the hate.”
Cover photo courtesy of ESL