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Roll back the years: EPICENTER 2017

Photo by Adela Sznajder/DreamHack

Before EPICENTER started, I referred to it as the “Champion of Champions” tournament. Seven of the best teams in the world (and Virtus.Pro) had congregated into a killer eight team tournament. Even among that field, FaZe Clan stood out as a favorite; FaZe had won ESL New York and the ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier in dominant fashion. Its unassailable form turned the centerpiece of EPICENTER from “Which amazing team will come out victorious?” to “Who could dethrone FaZe?” The answer surprised everyone. The two teams that defeated FaZe in the group stages were SK and Virtus.Pro. Both teams went on to the grand finals, the first time they have faced each other since DreamHack Las Vegas.

For Virtus.Pro, it felt like a literal roll back of the years. Prior to this event, the Polish legends had been bearing the weight of a long slump since their Las Vegas victory nine months ago. Around that time, they had switched in-game leaders from Filip “NEO” Kubski to Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski. Although the tactics remained solid, Snax’s individual form bottomed out to the lowest point we’d ever seen from him. Coordination between players appeared fragmented or nonexistent. They were losing everywhere: online, on LAN, in qualifiers — almost anywhere you could think. So it was unthinkable to predict Virtus.Pro going far in this stacked event.

In classic Virtus.Pro fashion, it defied the odds in ways no one could imagine. The first match aligned with expectations. VP was crushed by SK with little suggestion VP could put up much of a fight against Gambit or FaZe. But the Poles regrouped and defeated Gambit, FaZe, and G2 during its run to the finals.

Snax did not return to the superstar antics he showed off earlier in in the year. Instead, everyone else stepped up their game. Jaroslaw “pasha” Jarzabkowski and Pawel “byali” Bielinski have been shining spots for an otherwise lackluster team over the last nine months, and they continued to raise VP on their shoulders as they brought the necessary firepower throughout EPICENTER.

What has truly been surprising is Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas and NEO’s impact. The entirety VP’s slump saw both pull off an invisible man act, and neither showed any sign of returning. This was a problem as their contribution was what tipped the scales for VP in the past. If they were on and added to the firepower of their stars, they turned from a good team to potential world contenders. That happened at EPICENTER, as TaZ had impact as an anchor and entry-fragger, while NEO was one of VP’s best players throughout the entire tournament. Additionally, TaZ finally took over the in-game leadership role from Snax. His style of calling fits the team much better as Virtus.Pro once again looks incredibly dangerous on T-side.

All told, it was a classical showing from Virtus.Pro reminiscent of a time gone by. TaZ was back to in-game leading and producing impact via entry kills to explode into sites. NEO was the critical player to pull the team out of the Gambit series and contributed great decision-making and game sense. Pasha aggressively pushed everywhere and won his duels. Byali got multikills at critical moments. The only one “missing” was Snax, and even he turned up at the very end of the G2 series to close out the game.

Even the final was a modern classic, as VP ended up playing against SK, the Brazilian squad that was once one of VP’s greatest rivals. As for SK, the showing was more a figurative art of mimesis. SK’s run at EPICENTER paralleled its first international finals at Faceit Stage 3 Finals in 2015.

This event featured the Brazilian side with internal team issues. Joao “felps” Vasconcellos was burned out, a frustration with incongruent roles that leaked out into interpersonal interactions.

The change was a sum up of felps being a little bit burned out from playing roles he didn’t even like, requiring a lot of adjustment,” Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo said. “Small problems that we had to deal with outside the game eventually became more difficult for felps to deal with, more so than other players…He wasn’t feeling very happy playing for us and it was pretty much his decision to ask us to leave.”

In his stead, SK brought Ricardo “boltz” Prass. Boltz had been part of this lineup when it first made its big debut on the international stage under the KaBuM.TD tag.

The internal team situation resembles what happened to the Brazilian squad right before the Faceit Stage 3 finals. Luminosity made a dramatic roster move by removing Boltz and Lucas “steel” Lopes for Lincoln “fnx” Lau and Epitacio “TACO” de Melo. They had reached the limits of the old lineup and rather than wait around until after the event, they pulled the trigger.

“Back in the days boltz wasn’t very worried about it, and even with some of us telling him ‘Hey boltz, you gotta fix this thing,’ he wasn’t really focused on fixing issues, and he became someone who didn’t evolve,” FalleN said.

Although the reasons were different, the end result was that both lineups had no time to prepare for upcoming events. FalleN considered Faceit Stage 3 finals a revelatory event for his development as an in-game leader. Prior to that event, he had run a tight ship: there was a system and everyone was a cog within it. But that style of leadership wasn’t feasible with so little practice time, so he set the team loose. The results were some of the best LG ever had, and FalleN revealed himself to be a world class AWPer at the event. The Brazilians took second place, only losing to Fnatic. From that event FalleN learned how he wanted to steer his own leadership method.

FalleN embraced pedagogy instead of remaining the captain of the enterprise. His Counter-Strike methodology was taught and assimilated by his teammates. From there the structure was formed as they reified FalleN’s ideal of how CS should be played. Finally he gave them freedom, understanding he no longer needed to micromanage them — his players understood why he had them move in certain ways and thus they did it independently. That in turn freed FalleN to become the star AWPer of the team, the cornerstone from which they won two Majors.

At EPICENTER, the same thing occurred. There was no time to fit boltz into the system. Instead, SK relied on the core of the team as the basis of success. FalleN, Fernando “fer” Alvarenga, Coldzera, and TACO have played together for more than two years now and have a shared understanding of each other’s play that is nearly unmatched. From there, the experiences of boltz kicked in.

“I realise how stupid I was in the past, being lazy and how I lost an opportunity in my life, but I really learned from it,” boltz said.

For those two years following his departure from LG, boltz had built himself up as a better player. He first became the star of the second best Brazilian team, which eventually became Tempo Storm and then Immortals. As the roster filled out with more talent, he became the in-game leader and worked to be the supplemental element within the team. On his time with Immortals, the star AWPers of his team were Henrique “HEN1” Teles and Vito ‘kNg” Giuseppe. Boltz facilitated them with the maximum amount of freedom while he and steel filled in the gaps for teamwork, did the menial tasks, and consistently made great plays to push the team over the line.

When he came to SK, he did not let those two years go to waste. He applied those lessons of selflessness and discipline to make his new squad better. Boltz took up the old roles TACO had grown tired of, becoming the new site anchor and allowing TACO to explore where he wants to go with his play style. He took on felps’ old position, and his passive style perfectly complemented the hyper-aggressive style of fer. On the T-side of Mirage, he has shifted to TACO’s old spot at palace and in general is playing passive holds his side of the map, letting the rest of the team work without worry.

Boltz’s contributions have enabled other players to abdicate some of their previous responsibilities and focus on individual performance. On the former SK roster, FalleN’s innate style clashed with felps, which had both players sacrifice for each other to work. With boltz, FalleN’s AWP performance stabilized. These shifts boltz has brought to the team in turn has allowed FalleN more stability in his AWPing as there is no longer a style clash with his supporting cast as there was with felps. Just as in Faceit Stage 3 Finals, FalleN had a standout performance as an AWPer and one of his most notable showings since the removal of fnx.

It was fitting that these two teams ended up in the finals. Virtus.Pro has once again reawoken its old form. VP dug out the old plow under the snowfall, dusted it off, and rebuilt the engine to reach a final for the first time in eight months. SK had been slumping since the Major but is now revitalized with the addition of boltz, reminiscent of the Faceit Stage 3 Finals run nearly two years ago.

The question prior to EPICENTER starting was who was going to beat FaZe? The answer was Virtus.Pro and SK. Virtus.Pro’s renewed form was able to defeat FaZe with tactics, teamwork and key individual performances. SK was able to defeat FaZe with natural chemistry and individual skill. So going into the finals, the match was set as Virtus.Pro’s tactics against SK’s skill.

In the end, the EPICENTER trophy boiled down the classic VP/SK matchup. This was the best matchup in 2016, and this finals lived up to that hype. The series went all five maps. Virtus.Pro’s CT-side shut down SK on Mirage, and SK promptly retaliated by crushing VP on Inferno. Train was a tightly contested map as both teams dominated CT-side, but in the end SK clutched it out on Coldzera’s back. Cache was the exact opposite as both teams looked invincible on the T-sides. SK had fer as a one-man wrecking crew, but in the end Virtus.Pro persevered in classic Virtus.Plow fashion.

The final game was on Cobble. Looking back, it was a legendary game that will go down in the annals of CS:GO. VP’s T-side tactics were explosive and NEO had a world class performance. On the other end, Coldzera was the best player on SK and once he got his AWP going on the B site, Virtus.Pro could no longer contest him. It ended in double overtime where SK had to dig every ounce of clutch it had to take the final away from Virtus.Pro.

Although I have recalled the similarities of both teams to times gone past, the circumstances have completely changed. A year ago, you could say Virtus.Pro would always find a way back, but this year saw these players enter the worst slump of their careers, a hole so deep that it was incomparable to every other decline they’ve had. SK made it to the finals with a roster shift at the last minute, much like its run at Faceit Stage 3 Finals with fnx or DreamHack Las Vegas with felps, but both runs ended in second place. This time SK came out victorious in one of the epic grand finals in CS:GO history. And in its wake, both Virtus.Pro and SK have made a statement with their run. They are back and they are hungry.

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