QB.Fire: An unpredictable journey
We met with Quantum Bellator Fire at the Commonwealth Hotel in Boston, where we discovered a Russian team that acts like family, from their Lithuanian entry-fragger all the way to their unconventional coach.
Quantum Bellator Fire have become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Cinderella story in Major history. Only one of three rookie teams to have made it to the playoffs at a Major — joining Keyd and PENTA—, and the only one to have gone all the way from the open qualifiers, Quantum Bellator Fire are set to face Natus Vincere for a spot in the semi-finals after winning three out of four matches in the New Legends Stage in Atlanta.
We met the team at the Commonwealth hotel, near the Red Sox's legendary Fenway Park and Boston University's Agganis Arena, home of the Terriers and the stage for the first Major of the year's playoffs. Sprawled out in different conference rooms on the second floor, the new Legends have practice areas set up—something many teams have asked to be a requirement at events—, where they spend most of their days during the competition. After quick introductions, we were brought up to one of the team's rooms, where we set out to retrace the history of this team and how they got to be where they are.
While not the first players to join Quantum Bellator Fire, Nikita "waterfaLLZ" Matveyev, a former Source player, and Savelii "jmqa" Bragin, who comes from 1.6, are in a certain way the pillars of the team. The duo met at a local LAN in St. Petersburg, their hometown. "We didn't know each other at the time," recalls waterfaLLZ. "It was a mix-LAN and we ended up on the same team."
They both then created PiTER, a team they reached two Major qualifiers with, the ESL One Katowice 2015 Main Qualifier and the ESL One Cologne 2015 European Qualifier, although they were unable to field full rosters at either event. "I couldn't travel to the first offline qualifier because I was 17-years-old and I didn't have a passport," jmqa said. "Alexander "spiker" Ivanov had the same problem, he wasn't as young but he couldn't get a passport in time." The second time around, while jmqa was able to go, the team's star, Jan "wayLander" Rahkonen, had to complete his military service, so Igor "dERZKIY" Radosavlevich was brought in his stead.
After their time in PiTER, waterfaLLZ and jmqa made it to the first CIS Minor under the Method banner. In Minsk they made one of the most impressive second-half comebacks in CS:GO history, becoming the only team to win all 15 rounds to turn a 1-14 deficit into a 16-14 win on Train over the eventual Minor champions, Gambit. After losing the best-of-three in the semi-final and failing to make it to the Main Qualifier, jmqa and waterfaLLZ lost another opportunity at the MLG Columbus EU/CIS Last Chance Qualifier, where they went out to ENCE in the first round.
"After PiTER, I played with jmqa in different teams, but they eventually kicked me," said waterfaLLZ laughing and looking over at his teammate, "I was playing FPL at that time and after half a year we started playing with each other again in EPG." To date, the duo have played over 400 maps together. EPG marked the first time that jmqa and waterfaLLZ played with Kirill "Boombl4" Mikhailov, a virtually unknown player at the time, in the first months of 2017.
The longest standing player in Quantum Bellator Fire is Gregory "balblna" Oleinick, who joined the organization in October 2016 with Vasiliy "FANAT ROCKA" Trusov and Yaroslav "It's my" Ushkov, two friends of his from CS:Source. Before finding a home in Quantum Bellator Fire, however, the trio played using several tags, constantly rotating at least one player.
Out of the current starting five, balblna is the only one to have played all of the CIS Minors, tournaments that have been criticized for giving too many spots at Main Qualifiers for Majors. For teams in the CIS region, however, the Minors have proven to be the lifeblood of the scene. "I don't have a doubt about it, it's the only thing moving the scene in the CIS region," said Aurimas "Kvik" Kvakšys. "People are just trying to be better every time, trying to surprise. Without the Minors there would be no Vega, no Gambit, and no QB.Fire either."
Like waterfaLLZ and jmqa, balblna is also from St. Petersburg, although despite living in the center of the city he has problems getting an ISP to provide an internet service that is good enough to play. "He lives in the center, literally there are houses across the road that have good internet while his doesn't, and no other provider offers service there" explained waterfaLLZ. "They don't have good cable, a modern cable. Every time he played with us, practice or something, he had 100 or 150 ping, with spikes up to 300—just unplayable. That's why he went to a LAN center every time we played a qualifier or a serious match. He was playing there from morning to the middle of the night." When we asked balblna if he had any funny stories from the LAN center, he shook his head saying, "it was really sad, it has been really hard for me. I haven't played at home in almost half a year."
The second player to join balblna in Quantum Bellator Fire was Kvik, the Russian-speaking Lithuanian player whose origins date back to CS 1.6. "Before Quantum Bellator Fire, I had only played in one team with my fellow friends, Nikolaj "kalinka" Rysakov, Lukas "lukjjE" Baciliunas, Augustinas "fender" Ciaglys, and Andrius "TORAS" Balciunas. I was playing with them from the beginning of CS:GO, and I never tried another team. We were just sticking together all the time, and we didn't accomplish anything other than playing in Premier because we didn't actually practice," he said.
Kvik's highlight in the Major cycle with the Lithuanian team, then under the VwS banner and with Eimantas "pounh" Lazickas instead of fender, was making it to the CIS Minor leading to the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major, where his team fell just short of earning a ticket to the Main Qualifier after losing to ALLIN, now known as Vega Squadron. It was there, too, when hanging out after the event, Kvik first got in touch with Quantum Bellator Fire, a team he had beat in the lower bracket final.
Disenchanted with his teammates' ambitions, Kvik decided to make the jump as soon as the opportunity arose, as he explained to us in detail:
"So when we came back home and played online, we switched our organization from VwS to Playing Ducks. We played for them, qualified for ESEA Premier, got our salary raised, got invited to Rank S, and people started playing Rank S more than practice, I guess. Just playing for the money.
"That really bugged me, I really wanted to be better as a team, to improve together, not just as individual players. I asked if we were going to practice or not - they said no. Then I received an invite from Quantum Bellator Fire. They wanted to change one guy, Ilya "fix" Golovko, and I said 'of course'. If my team did not want to change, I would be the one making changes.
"I went for that, I changed teams (from that lineup only balblna is still around), and we attended a Minor in Moscow. We got out of the groups but we didn't accomplish anything, I think we finished fourth, didn't win any maps in the playoffs.
"I was actually doubting my decision to play with the guys, but the organization said that they were going to change some players, that they were going to invite good players and that they wanted to reach the top level of the CIS region, at least, and they wanted us to win the Minor. They instantly kicked two guys, It's my and Alexander "uNdo" Kiziukevich, and that is when jmqa and waterfaLLZ joined our team. We played for two or three months, we attended one LAN, and I think you got the rest of the story from there."
Boombl4, the youngest player on the Quantum Bellator Fire lineup has a story that is more attuned to the new generation of players bubbling to the surface. After playing on FACEIT for a year, he qualified for FPL's Challenger league in August 2016. After a demotion and a process of climbing back up into the league, he played for a few more months there before going to a local LAN in Moscow, where he faced players like Egor "flamie" Vasilyev, Ivan "spaze" Obrezhan, and Dmitry "hooch" Bogdanov. After showing off some of his talent, he started chatting with these veterans on Steam and quickly found himself playing on FACEIT with them.
Still unknown to most of the scene, Boombl4 was brought into EPG by Alexey "ub1que" Polivanov, and he quickly started to show his prowess. However, after the addition of hooch to the team, Boombl4 began to struggle. "There were two periods in EPG," said waterfaLLZ, "the first one was with me, ub1que, Dmitriy "facecrack" Alekseyev, and Boombl4, but then we decided to add hooch, and Boombl4 didn't have a good time from then on. hooch was trying to change so many things that he put pressure on Boombl4, who could not handle it. I was playing with him during the first three months of his pro level, and he was performing really well. You can see his HLTV stats, it's all black, and then hooch joined and there's more red than black."
After the EPG period, Boombl4 played FPL-C for a few months before being picked up by jmqa and waterfaLLZ again, becoming the last player to join the now-Legends team. "I thought about it first," said waterfaLLZ, "I told jmqa that we should take in Boombl4 and he said that it may be a good idea."
Around the same time as Boombl4 joined, so did the last piece of the puzzle, the team's coach, Dmitry "iksou" Mikhaylichenko, a quirky and eccentric character who, despite not speaking English, quickly had us all laughing. Coming from the Source scene, iksou explained he was never a professional player and that he had spent almost a decade watching and analysing demos, and training players and teams in the game. "I remember him," recalls waterfaLLZ. "I was a young guy, we had a big league in Source called APOFIC. During that time, it wasn't really competitive, we were playing for fun. I saw him, he was coaching some teams and I was like, 'what is this guy doing? Why is he coaching some team in Counter-Strike?'. No one was doing it back then, I didn't understand why you would need a coach, but he was doing it back in 2010 and now he is coaching my team, it's a great story."
iksou was initially forming an Academy for QB.Fire with Boombl4, although eventually both were brought onto the main squad. It quickly becomes evident that he is a big part of the team's success, as waterfaLLZ explained:
"We went to the Binary Dragons LAN and our organization asked if we needed a coach, that they have one. He was on trial at the time and was watching our games, but he didn't even know if he would join us or not. So he came to the Binary LAN and we met there for the first time.
"We talked a bit, he coached two games, after that we talked on our way from the LAN center to the hotel and I told him my ideas, how I wanted to create the team and how I wanted to play. He told me some things as well, which I liked, and after playing some games, some practices, we talked a lot and we liked each other, so we told the organisation we needed him, and he was signed."
When we asked about iksou's impact, the whole team looked at him, to which he opened his arms and arched his eyebrows as saying, 'you're the ones who have to answer this'. And waterfaLLZ quickly did, saying that "[his impact] is huge. He has developed into a really good coach. [...] It's not only the game, you need to understand CS, but he [also] needs to understand psychology, to talk to players, to put them into the right mindset... he needs to be a good friend, I think. A CS:GO coach needs to do many things, and he does all that."
When we asked him to give us examples of some of the impact he might have had inside and outside the game iksou immediately took us back to the Minor. The team had got to the semi-finals and were tied 11-11 with pro100. "We were playing Nuke, it was a really hard game for us, it was their best map," said iksou, "The score was tied, I paused and called a round that I knew would work for the rest of the game: smoke outside fast and run underground by holding W all the time. It worked because they had a very slow rotation, and that decision won us the game."
The fact that Quantum Bellator Fire was in that semi-final to begin with, though, was thanks to a miracle round, against Tengri, in the elimination match. "We were down one map and losing 13-15 on the second map, Mirage," remembers waterfaLLZ. "We had around $2,000 per player, and balblna called, 'let's smoke A bombsite and connector, and try to push A', and I was like, 'OK let's do it.' I was maybe a little bit tilted at that point, we were one round away from losing."
"Funnily, after the Minor, every time that I called this round in practice we lost." Kvik quickly added: "Yeah, even before you guys (waterfaLLZ and jmqa) came into the team, we were never winning that round. So when balblna called that, I was sitting there thinking, 'no, please, not this round', but waterfaLLZ said, 'let's do it...' I was ready to go home. It shows how much one player can do for a team. Just a random call, the simplest round we could have ever done. Literally, one round made the difference, we wouldn't be here without it."
But iksou's playfully miscreant side was most visible in the match against Spirit, the consolidation final which gave the winner a spot at the Main Qualifier. Quantum Bellator Fire picked Inferno—a map they have since won three times in Atlanta, and lost once. It was the first map in the best-of-three and they lost it, 8-16. Before heading into Nuke, the second map, for which Spirit were heavily favored, iksou found an unusual way to motivate his players.
"The team had a bad mentality after the first map," explained iksou. "So I came over to them and said: 'I don't care if anyone sh*ts on me, but if some randoms sh*t on my friends, I will f*ck them.' The players were like, 'they are sh*tting on us?' So I told them that Spirit was saying we are bots and f*cking noobs but that they couldn't hear it because they had their headphones on. Immediately the guys got fired up, they were screaming, 'f*ck them!' But the truth is Spirit had not said anything, I faked it all. At that point, the team was so fired up that they won the next two maps, and now we are here." As iksou was telling the story, and Kvik translating on-the-fly, the whole team was crying with laughter—and so were we.
After earning a spot at the Main Qualifier, Quantum Bellator Fire went to Barcelona for the WESG EU & CIS Finals with Alexey "BAS" Kustov standing in for Kvik, due to single nationality roster rules, although the Lithuanian player still traveled to the event to support his team. Quantum Bellator Fire didn't fare well, however, as they went out in 17-20th place and were unable to qualify for the global finals in China. In Barcelona, they were only able to beat Space Soldiers, and took three losses to Wololos, BIG, and Nemiga.
Quantum Bellator Fire played a few online cups and qualifiers before the end of the year and went to Moscow to bootcamp at a house owned by the organization. The team adapted their holidays from the Julian calendar, taking time off during the Western world's Christmas, and giving up their own celebrations because they were afraid they wouldn't find enough opposition to practice against.
"We had a bootcamp for 20 days," said Kvik when enquired about how the team was doing after the Minor. "We actually didn't do well, we were losing a lot of practices, a lot of official matches, but after the holidays we came back and changed some things, some roles in the team. It was iksou's decision to change the way we practice." waterfaLLZ added that the team came back on January 5, three days before leaving for Atlanta, and the changes "worked instantly."
Something mentioned by other CIS teams is that it is sometimes hard to find good opponents to practice against, because top-flight teams do not want to face the unpredictable and aggressive style of some of the teams from the region. We were told that, in most cases, teams like Quantum Bellator Fire and Vega Squadron have to play against tier 2 and tier 3 opposition. "We played maybe two practice matches against top teams, the rest was against tier 2 or tier 3 teams. We don't usually practice with tier 1 teams," said waterfaLLZ, to which Kvik added: "We won practice matches against Astralis, so we felt we were not that bad, and when we came here, after the New Chalengers Stage, SK asked us to practice and we were doing OK against them. We also practiced against Natus Vincere and won a map. That boosted our confidence, as well. After that, we thought we could actually make it through to the next stage."
Quantum Bellator Fire made it through the Main Qualifier, exceeding many people's expectations, losing to Natus Vincere and FaZe, and winning against Flash, AVANGAR, and Envy, although the latter of the three carries an asterisk as Cédric "RpK" Guipouy was out due to illness and Damien "maLeK" Marcel, the team's coach, had to play in his stead.
We asked the Russian team what their expectations and hopes for the Major had been before flying to Atlanta, and everyone answered, 'not going out 0-3'. Well, everyone except for Boombl4, who knew they would make Legends all along. "Honestly, our CEO said we shouldn't go out 0-3 in the Qualifier," said waterfaLLZ. "We are here to gain some experience as I have said many times in interviews. But one thing... while we were bootcamping, Boombl4 was always saying: 'We will reach Legends status, trust me, I know. You don't need to believe me, but I know.' We would reply: 'Shut up Boombl4, what Legends? We never attended a Major, and you are aiming for Legend status already?'" Amidst general laughter in the hotel room after an hour of chatting and trading stories, iksou added that "Boombl4 sold his soul to the Devil for this Legends spot," after which the 19-year-old smiled and everyone roared once again.
The relationship between iksou and Boombl4 is not just one of banter in the hotel, though, as the coach has put the youngster, who has a certain brightness about him, in charge of keeping team morale high. As waterfaLLZ described, "iksou gave Boombl4 a role in our team to make calls like, 'relax guys, it's ok.' He was always coming to Boombl4 and asking him to fire up the team." Kvik even explained that the player can sense what the coach wants without being able to hear him. "Because of the rules stating that the coach can't speak in-game, iksou used Boombl4 to tell us these things by showing him some signs."
On the topic of chemistry, waterfaLLZ added that the team has "really good chemistry, like family. "Everyone likes each other, and we do everything together, even after practices," he noted. "If you trust in your teammates and if you trust that you will kill the guy, play without pressure and fear, you will do well. After every match [in the Main Qualifier] our confidence grew. We were practicing against good teams and we saw that the things we had prepared during our bootcamp were working."
After the first week in Atlanta, Quantum Bellator Fire came out swinging, and landed the first of a series of punches Virtus.pro received at the Major, winning 16-3 in their first match. Quantum Bellator Fire followed it up with a win against Gambit on Inferno, a map they were able to close out despite giving a 15-12 lead-up, not staggering in overtime—something many novel teams are prone to do. After having a shaky qualifier the week before, waterfaLLZ displayed a stellar CT side. "Before the New Legends stage, I noticed I had forgotten to change the sensitivity in my config during the Main Qualifier. I wasn't hitting shots and I was so tilted, I didn't know why I was missing shots. I noticed it in the practice room before the New Legends Stage, and then already in the next match I felt very good against VP, and then I destroyed Gambit on the CT side. I was hitting my shots and I was thinking: 'yeah, I can play this game!'"
G2, one of the hottest teams at the tournament, put Quantum Bellator Fire's feet back on the ground, not giving them a chance in a 4-16 bashing on Cache, but the Russian side quickly bounced back. Needing only one more win to go through and become Legends in their maiden voyage, Quantum Bellator Fire took on MOUZ as heavy underdogs. The match was going as expected, and MOUZ were making quick work of waterfaLLZ & co., winning the CT side on Train by a lopsided 13-2 scoreline.
"Before the game we were talking more about MOUZ' T side than their CT side, so on our T side we didn't have anything [special] against them, but on our CT side we knew that where Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný came out from, probably the whole team would follow. That's why we managed to make the comeback," said Kvik. "iksou was all-in with our comeback, he was just preparing us for the second pistol round, saying, 'just take the pistol round and you will win the game." And win the match they did, as they won all but one round in the second half to stun MOUZ and secure a top-eight finish at the Major.
Now that they had had a few days to digest such a feat, we asked them it would have been possible to predict this a few months ago; if there was any indication that this team could end up becoming Legends, to which everyone replied negatively. "I can understand the guys who were hating on us," added waterfaLLZ. "We really had poor results, everyone was saying we were not a team that should be here." Quickly, though, Boombl4 interrupted with "I knew we would be Legends, I predicted it!" [laughing]. The conversation immediately changed pace, as Kvik and waterfaLLZ were still processing much of what has happened over the past few weeks. "I will remember this tournament my entire life. I cannot fully understand what we have done here yet," concluded waterfaLLZ.
The results in Atlanta have opened up a lot of new questions for the team moving forward, things the players would have never thought about before a deep run at the Major. "We were talking at one point in a taxi about how much we suck online," recalls Kvik when asked about the unexpectedness of these results. "How are we going to play on LAN? How are we going to not sh*t ourselves at the Major? We figured that maybe we are a LAN team, like Gambit. They were losing online, I was even beating them with Playing Ducks in ESEA Premier and they went on to win the Major. So we thought maybe we were a LAN team as well, but we couldn't actually test that theory. It just seems on LAN our team is more focused, hungrier to win."
Regardless of Quantum Bellator Fire are a LAN team or not, these results beg the question about whether they have unlocked something that will allow them to remain at a higher level than the one they were at before the event. "I think about this question myself, but I don't know, time will show," said waterfaLLZ. "But now we should get some better conditions from our organization. We'll try not to lose our HLTV rank, to stay in the top 30. We are already qualified for the next two Majors if they don't change the system."
After talking for over an hour, we got into some of the managerial and day-to-day operations of the team and the organization, and how they work together. It came out that Quantum Bellator Fire have an agreement but not actual contracts, though the players were quick to assure that they are quite happy. "We just trust each other like a family," said Kvik. "We're friends with our organization, it's not just business. Our CEO is our friend. That's why we don't have contracts, he trusts us, we trust him, he knows we will stay with him. When we were at the Minor, he was saying that Quantum Bellator Fire are a long-term project. 'If you lose 0-16, we won't change any players, everything will be all right'. He was always telling us that. It was easy to play without pressure."
With changes in management and iksou not speaking English, Kvik was charged with some of the more mundane tasks. "I do [the managerial duties]," he said, "right before the Major we had some issues with our management, we changed managers and the new one couldn't be here on time, but I don't mind doing these things." After that, iksou got up and walked across the room, gave Kvik a hug and said: "Thank you, Kvik!" "Player, entry fragger, and manager!", joked waterfaLLZ. "And Legend!", added Boombl4, with everyone breaking out in laughter in response.
We also asked the players about having their stickers in the game, and they were incredibly happy about it. "When we saw this on HLTV, we were bootcamping," said waterfaLLZ, "And we were all like, 'f*ck yeah, we got the stickers! We are in the history of the game now.'" Even iksou, who as a coach doesn't have a sticker, added that he was just happy to be part of the history of the game.
As we were winding down the interview, we asked the team if there were any last words they wanted to share. If there was something particular we didn't cover in our conversation, and this is what they had to say:
iksou: "Everything that is happening right now shows that we were on the right path the whole time, we were doing things right. Before this we were doubting ourselves, if we were doing the right thing, if we could ever go this far..."
waterfaLLZ: "Yeah, I was thinking 'should I play CS?' I had already been at two qualifiers and couldn't make it to a Major. This was really troubling me, but this tournament showed that I was doing things right with my life"
Kvik: "It's probably like that for every player here. I was always playing with Lithuanians and I couldn't even imagine that I would be this far so quickly. I was always dreaming about it, but never thought it would happen after three months of being together. It just shows we were on the right path, we just had to wait some time."
Especially for iksou. He has a wife and two children, he's 36 years old, he dedicated nine years to this and now he is probably the happiest person on our team."
jmqa: "For me it's like a new level in life. I just want to thank my mom in the first place, for believing in me, for supporting me in what I was doing. Without her I wouldn't be here. I was thinking a lot because I do not have a proper education. What would I do in the future? I don't have a father, my mom was sick, so I didn't know what I would when I turned 25, I was scared. If I did not achieve anything in this game, I would be alone in five years, I would not have anything, my time would have been wasted. But now there's a good chance I will make a career off this."
waterfaLLZ: "When I was playing in PiTER, I got kicked out of my university because I was playing the game. My dad said I should go to university, but he didn't stop my career, he believed in me."
iksou: "When my father heard what I was doing, he stopped talking to me, and that lasted two years. The only person in the world who believed in me was my wife. I didn't even earn money coaching in Source or at the beginning of CS:GO, my wife was helping me, she always believed in me. So I'm the happiest guy in the world now."