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Life, Death and Rebirth: The Art of Virtus.pro

Even when it continues to fall, Virtus Pro always finds a way to rise again.
Even when it continues to fall, Virtus Pro always finds a way to rise again. Photo courtesy of ESL and Turner Sports/Slingshot illustration.

Ever since its formation, there has been something special about this iteration of Virtus.Pro.

Initially known as Universal Soldiers, then briefly as AGAiN before joining Virtus.Pro, the Poles have stood apart from the rest of the scene. Wiktor TaZ Wojtas, Filip NEO Kubski, Jarosław pashaBiceps Jarząbkowski, Janusz Snax Pogorzelski and Paweł byali Bieliński have won at least one big international trophy every year since 2013. That’s an exemplary accomplishment, yet VP is not singular in its success. There have been greater lineups: the early dynasty of Ninjas in Pyjamas and the latter empire of Fnatic come to mind. There have been greater CS:GO players: VP has no one as individually skilled or historically distinguished as Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund, Kenny “kennyS” Schrub, and Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer. Nevertheless, there is something unique that makes them more than the sum of their parts. You can’t help but find them compelling; VP is an alluring presence that draws you in.

Is it their personalities? They have some of the biggest in the scene. Is it the games? They’re incredible, VP has been part of some of CS:GO’s all-time great matchups. Is it their history? No other lineup in CS:GO has lasted as long, and more than three years after forming, they’re still holding strong. Those are all parts of it, but as I’ve combed through their games and their history I came to a different conclusion. Their games, words and actions all lead to that crucial element of life. It is the ambition to want more, the undying competitive drive, the determination to never give up, that fire of life that is beautiful in its ephemeral intensity, and that ineffable grit that forces them back up again and again. That is the art of Virtus.Pro.

Virtus.Pro is a history of ups and downs. On any day, they can be the strongest team in the world, and they rightfully earn the moniker “Virtus.Plow.” On their worst day, they can flunk out of any tournament and lose to any team. There is no consistency, nor an easy answer to this instability. The players themselves have no idea what causes their shifts in form on any given day, but what we do know is that they will always find a way back to the top, no matter how long it takes. Like the sand painting traditions of the Navajo or Tibetans, their form is not made to last. An elegant painting is painstakingly made with sand; after it is finished, it must be destroyed. In a similar fashion, Virtus.Pro reaches the heights of its form only to dissolve. Then the players look internally as they mix up the roles and positions until they find a solution — until the process ends. It is a constant cycle of life, death and rebirth, and each time it is a trial by fire.

The Plow Begins

I wanted to prove to everyone that we are great, that we can still be great.” — TaZ prior to ESL Katowice 2014

The Virtus.Pro victory at Katowice in 2014 was both a surprise and a revelation. Their play on T-side Mirage defined the map, as they took control of mid and exploded on either site of their choosing. Their aggression was equally forceful on CT side. On maps like Inferno, they’d rush up and take upper banana control, proceeding to quickly take control of apartments or have four men rush middle and seize the center. It was raw, aggressive and utterly bewildering for the competition. This “shock and awe” approach to execution became a hallmark of the Virtus.Plow machine. It also formulated the basic roles that defined VP for years to come. Pasha, Snax and byali were the stars of the team, while TaZ and NEO played the support roles and tried to facilitate them by taking the roles no one wanted. In this earliest iteration, pasha picked up the AWP when they needed it.

By the time Katowice finished, everyone thought this team could be the best in the world. The tournament run included HellRaisers, Titan, LDLC, LGB and NiP. Pasha was the MVP of the tournament; the play of the tournament belonged to Snax, when he destroyed three NiP players by sneaking through B and patiently waiting for them to gather up and die. VP followed that performance with a second place finish at Copenhagen Games, narrowly losing out to NiP in the rematch. VP looked ready to be a consistent elite team, but it never happened.

The Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall

It doesn’t matter if a player or the team starts off badly. They (Virtus.Pro) will always find a way back into the game.” — Thorin

Just like that, the Plow vanished like the afterimage of a thunderbolt. VP was unable to replicate its Katowice success but remained a strong team to close out 2014, finishing top four at Starladder Starseries IX in a packed field. They momentarily slipped with a quarterfinal exit at DreamHack Summer, their worst result of the year.

But it wouldn’t be like Virtus.Pro to simply stay down. The Plow came chugging back at Gfinity G3, defeating Dignitas and Titan to win the event. This time, VP owed much of its fortune to a critical mastery of Cache. It was one of the maps Virtus.Pro picked up early to great success, especially on the T-side, with astounding tactics and map control. But in the Dignitas game, it was the CT-side that crushed the Danes. That perfect form didn’t last long, and for the rest of the year Virtus.Pro was unable to get its hands on another trophy.

2015 was the year of travel. It was a constant journey, as VP went from LAN to LAN, trying to recapture that special form that comprised the best team in the world the previous year. The constant grind didn’t result in consistency, but VP eventually found its form at the second Major of the year in Cologne.

By then, the roles had changed. VP switched in-game leaders multiple times, and NEO had become the primary AWPer. In addition, the players implemented the new version of Train into their map pool. Their names soon became synonymous with the map, especially on T-side.

The Plow returned in Cologne, when VP went down 7-2 on T-side Train against NiP in the quarterfinals. In the next round, Byali won an incredible 1-v-2 clutch to seal it; a double entry in the follow-up secured VP two more rounds. By the end, VP had wrestled Train from NiP and proceeded to steamroll the Ninjas on Inferno.

VP then played against Fnatic, the tournament favorite and undisputed best team in the world. The first map was an incredible display of domination in destroying the Swedes 16-6. VP then appeared to have Fnatic down to its final breath on Inferno with a 13-8 lead before Fnatic made its legendary pause. With heroic plays, Fnatic made a stunning comeback and became the first team ever to stop the Plow’s momentum cold in its tracks. Although VP lost in the semifinals, the Poles showed they were back. Then VP won the ESL Pro League Invitation in Dubai by beating four of the best teams in the world: NiP, EnVyUs, TSM and a grudge match against Fnatic. The best-of-five finals was especially astounding and one of the best CS:GO finals ever played. Caster Anders Blume best summed up how Virtus.Pro won with a single sentence: “This team just won’t surrender.”

The streak did not last. Just like in 2014, the championship form evaporated. Virtus.Pro remained a strong team but could never regain that championship stature for the rest of 2015. EnVyUs and TSM rode past them in the middle of the year and Luminosity and Natus Vincere take over at the end.

The 2016 Slump

Photo by Patrick Strack/ESL, eslgaming.com
Photo by Patrick Strack/ESL, eslgaming.com

 

Unfortunately, our bad performance continues. We do better in some spots, worse in others. We lack something, just like at the start of this team. If we won’t find our game, who knows, maybe this is it.” — TaZ in April 2016.

The first six months of 2016 were the worst in the team’s history, with constant under-performances and finishes no better than top eight. It was also the first time we saw the team’s mettle under fire. It’s easy to stick together and make things work when a team succeeds. But Virtus.Pro kept dropping out early (for a team of their caliber) from events. and nothing seemed to be working.

It was true that in its first six events of the year, VP lost to the eventual winner in five of them. But it was small consolation to the Poles, who wanted to be more than also-rans. If there was any sign of hope for the team, it was that they never gave up in any match. No matter how bad its form, VP scratched and clawed for every round. VP never fell far enough that it surrendered the hope of victory. That mental fortitude would eventually pay off in spades.

The Return

Everything is in the head. If something isn’t working you can change it. If it’s not working, it’s not working. Sometimes you have a block in your head, but you need to stay focused. Even if you play badly in one game, or 10 games, or like me in 100 games, you can never give up.” — Pasha at EPICENTER 2016.

The first signs of change were at the Starladder i-League Invitational in May, where VP managed to overcome Na’Vi in the finals. They followed it up with a semifinal appearance at the Cologne Major. You could hear the cogs turning as the Plow started revving up once again. It appeared in full blast at ELEAGUE Season 1 in the most shocking fashion possible. Inexplicably, NEO had returned to his code-seeing ways. Despite his acclaim as the greatest (or at least second greatest) CS 1.6 player of all-time, NEO had been only a role player in the recent versions of VP. He had filled the roles that were needed and helped facilitate Pasha, Snax and Byali in getting kills. At ELEAGUE, he elevated his game, and NiP became his first victim as he slammed them on Dust2 in the quarterfinals.

Snax also made a comeback, and between the two of them, no one could stop the Plow. They destroyed the competition with ease, not dropping a single playoff map en route to winning the tournament. It was the precursor to three incredible tournament performances at DreamHack Bucharest, ESL One New York and EPICENTER. VP won DreamHack Bucharest and took second at ESL New York and EPICENTER. If they had won both of those tournaments (and the ESL New York was a nail-biter), the “parity era” wouldn’t have been entertained as a serious thought.

Once again the team had morphed into a new identity. This time, Snax took the AWP and NEO was the in-game leader. VP still had Mirage and Train to fall back on but expanded its map pool to be one of the best teams on Cobble, Overpass and Nuke. The plays were still jaw dropping to watch. NEO’s 1-v-5 clutch against Dignitas and Snax’s 1-v-4 pistol against Na’Vi at ESL New York will go down as two of the most memorable rounds in 2016.

The Art of Virtus.Pro

Photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE
Photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE

 

“I just want to prove that I’m one of the best players. It’s still in my head, and I have this fire in me to compete, and it just feels like a couple months ago, it started to burn even more in me, and I am so hungry now to succeed and win” — Taz after ELEAGUE Season 1.

Virtus.Pro is unique in multiple ways. The team stuck with the same five players since the beginning of 2014. Unlike other regions, there isn’t as deep a pool from which to draw in terms of replacements. At the same time, VP forces it to work time and time again. Each of the players is incredibly versatile in what they can do and what they must do to win. Despite having the same lineup, the players constantly morph and adapt.

They did this shuffling on every map on every side. Their early Mirage CT-sides had them put Snax at B and NEO at cat. By 2015, NEO reshuffled to mid, Snax to A, byali to cat and Pasha to B. By 2016, Snax was holding mid with NEO returning to cat and TaZ holding connector. Meanwhile, the AWP had jumped hands from Pasha to NEO to Snax. They switched in-game leaders even more often.

For Virtus.Pro, the never-ending quest to win — and limited ability to force change by switching out players — has forced the players to always look internally for answers. They go from map to map, starting with Mirage, then Cache, the Train, then Cobble, Overpass and Nuke. It is why, among all the teams in competition today, VP is the most dynamic. Their struggles mimic the struggles of growing up. In order to stay relevant, Virtus.Pro goes through a constant cycle of growth, decay and transformation.

None of this could happen without the will to win. VP might be known best for the Plow, but it should be equally known for grit. The team refuses to die no matter how dire the circumstances. We see it in the games time and time again, that each player will fight for every inch for as long as possible. After winning ELEAGUE Season 1, TaZ said: “I want to show the kids that even when I’m 40, I will get to the server and destroy everyone.” Even though he is the role player on the team, he has had matches and specific roles where he takes over the game. The first that spring to mind is his B-site hold on Train against NiP in ELEAGUE.

Given all that, it isn’t surprising his team can’t seem to ever get it together in online games. They all know intellectually that they have to do well to get the LAN stage, but something always holds them back.

Dota 2 player Kim Febby Yong-min said it best: “Online and On LAN are different because when you’re online you just roll out of your bed and it’s whatever. When you’re at the LAN, your blood starts pumping and the adrenaline starts to come in.” For a team like Virtus.Pro, which seems so intrinsically linked to grit, to a fire that can only be lit in the face of real stakes, online games are an anathema. The only games VP can play seriously are live matches.  

But bring them to a LAN, get them to a large international stage, and they light up. It is captivating to watch. That special spark they have not only burns in them, but is also inflamed in their opponents. VP has fought against and given some of the best series across CS:GO’s history against the likes of NiP, Titan, Fnatic, TSM, Na’Vi and SK. Something about their style and history serves as a catalyst for incredible games. All of the great teams get drawn into it. Is it any wonder OpTic wanted to play them at ELEAGUE despite Virtus.Pro being famous for slaughtering North American teams?

The constant cycle of death and rebirth, fueled by an indefatigable determination, created a legacy unmatched in CS:GO. Every other team in competition must change when it hits a wall. Not only does that mean adding a new player who may be better, but it also forces a stagnant team to shake off apathy. Just as how a normal person feels something has changed in the new year, teams feel refreshed whenever they change rosters.

Meanwhile Virtus.Pro stands immovable, grinding it out in the face of adversity. VP faces difficulties and internal issues head-on, the players changing themselves instead of bowing to circumstance. That is what makes them so compelling. No other CS:GO team reflects the vicissitudes of life so clearly. When they are in form, it represents the fire that burns inside all of us, in awe of what we can do, our capabilities. When we watch Virtus.Pro scrapping and fighting for every round, it is that part of the soul that screams, “I will not go quietly into the night.” The art of being VP is like life itself: violent, ephemeral, beautiful, intense, and with a fire that never extinguishes.

Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE and ESL. Illustration by Slingshot

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