"I think that when I was in Virtus.pro I was very selfish," TaZ says. "I thought that, if we were over, then everything would be over."
The question had been whether he used to think, when he was at the top of the world, that there was more to Polish Counter-Strike than just his own team. After all, it is easy to overlook what is out there when one has spent their entire career playing for the best team in the country, with the best conditions, including salaries that at one point went as high as $25,000.
As a veteran of the game, TaZ has seen it all, the good but also the bad. He has lived and breathed Counter-Strike for the better part of the last two decades, and 20 years in esports certainly feel like a lifetime. Throughout his rollercoaster of a career, he has won almost everything there is to win – in 1.6 and CS:GO (he was just one game away from also picking up a big title in CS:Source) –, but there have also been times when things have gone awry. Those times include unpaid wages and broken promises from organisations, forcing him to compete at (and still win) tournaments under the temporary name AGAiN.
That is all in the past now, just like Virtus.pro, who benched him in February after a four-year stint during which the team had won several international titles, including one Major crown in 2014, in front of a vibrant Polish crowd in Katowice. Thirty-two-year-old TaZ is a man looking ahead as he prepares for his biggest challenge yet with his new Kinguin team, the Europe Minor.
With Janusz "Snax" Pogorzelski, Jarosław "pashaBiceps" Jarząbkowski or his brother-in-arms Filip "NEO" Kubski no longer by his side, TaZ has had to start from scratch with far less established teammates who have a combined four Major appearances - eight fewer than him – and a more modest structure around the team, coached by his longtime friend and former teammate Mariusz "Loord" Cybulski. Still, the 32-year-old can’t help but feel that he is "enjoying the game a lot more" now than he was towards the back end of his Virtus.pro stint.
"I do not know what has changed. Maybe it is because this is a new project, and everyone has a fresh mind. Maybe it is because I am working with Loord again and this also gives me a special extra motivation," he says. "There are many small factors, but overall it just feels that everyone wishes [each other] the best. You do not feel anything off during the game, you do not feel that you are making mistakes. You do not feel that something is going wrong. It’s like, ‘you made a mistake, let us move on and just forget’. The game is enjoyable.
"Maybe it is also because the level on which we are playing is not the highest at the moment… Maybe the pressure is not the highest. All the top teams know that, when you are playing at the best tournaments, the pressure is huge, and it is very easy to get distracted and just go off when something goes wrong."
Kinguin are now inside the top 30 and will travel to London with confidence running high after winning the ZOTAC Cup Masters, in Milan, last month. Yet things have not always been rosy. The team’s first two international events, Copenhagen Games and Good Game League, ended in disappointment, with the 0-2 defeat to x-kom in Poznan leaving many wondering whether the team would ever be able to challenge Virtus.pro and AGO for the Polish crown.
It turned out that attending Copenhagen Games so soon after the team’s creation was a mistake. "We overestimated our form going into the event," TaZ admits, quickly adding that he "really wanted to bounce back to LAN quickly" after leaving Virtus.pro. The rest is the result of the growing pains that any new team has to overcome.
"I told the guys at the start that we would get some success and that there would come a time when we would be losing really hard and that this would be the moment of truth, the moment that showed if we could go further and win something in the future, or if we would just crumble under pressure and never come back," he says, before slamming the hectic tournament calendar that teams like his have to deal with. "This line-up played during the first two months more official games than I think I had played with Virtus.pro in one year, you know? That's how it felt. The number of online games we are playing, the amount of pressure we need to cope with, without proper practice, is just too much. Even when we were bootcamping it was hard to find time to practice.
"When I look back, it was a really rough couple of months, but it was also a test for all of us, for the players... How we cope with all this pressure, all these bad results, and stuff like that. And I feel that slowly, the guys are starting to show their potential, show their skill, what we expect that they will show. I am just happy to see them play with more confidence and just show the world that there's a lot more to offer."
A lot has changed in the team since those days. The most important thing, TaZ believes, "is the confidence" that the players are now demonstrating in the server. "The guys just had to find themselves in the game, in our system," he says, expressing his delight at the fact that everyone is contributing, from veteran coach Loord, who remains "fresh with ideas" and "consistently finds new ways to play the game", to the quiet duo of Mikołaj "mouz" Karolewski and Paweł "reatz" Jańczak, "who are doing their job and not being silent".
For someone used to competing at the top, having to progress through the ranks once again can often lead to frustration. But that’s not TaZ’s case. "There is no pressure from my side," he assures. "You need to lose something to actually start winning big, and I believe that, with time, we will start being successful, but we all need to get real that it is not going to be so easy." He also rejects the notion that there is a clear gap between his team and the elite sides. "The level now, the skill, is getting higher every day, and there are a lot of teams who want to achieve something. Let’s say that a team between top 5 and top 15 drops down to MDL, I think they would have a tough time to go back to Pro League. Maybe BIG is not the best example, because I feel that they belong to the higher tier, but not too long ago they were playing with all these lesser known teams, and they had trouble.
"I just believe that, with good enough spirit and preparation, and with work, you can actually enter this tier one. If you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything."
But if the team stays on the right track and continues to progress, won’t it face the same issues that usually plague tier one sides? "No, no chance. No way," TaZ says, without even having to think about it. "The team was actually built to not have this kind of problems in the future - that was one of the specific things that we were looking into, because we did not want anyone who would explode [under pressure] or anything like that. I believe that, if we can communicate on the same level, we will not have the same problems that they, or I, have had in the past."
As the conversation turns to more personal matters, I ask TaZ if he did not leave Virtus.pro earlier and try to find happiness elsewhere out of fear for the comfortable position he was in. "The thing is I am the guy who is not thinking about [roster] changes because I know how that affects people’s lives, so…," he says with deep sincerity. "I always try to work extra hard to fix things. I do not look for an escape, for a way to bail out, or anything like that. And the last year was actually the first one in which I felt safe.
"All my career had been more like fighting - you go to an event, you lose, you’re done. You cannot do anything. You join an organisation, they do not pay you. Then you need to find another one, and you do not have any money for like six months and you still need - somehow - to live.
"With Virtus.pro it felt almost the same at the start, like we needed to really work hard every day to achieve this. Last year, I felt like, ‘ok, keep on working hard’. I felt that is where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do. For me, it was just a learning process. Unfortunately, VP was not for me, and I understand that. I have moved on."
At the age of 32, TaZ is the oldest player currently competing in a top 50 team in the world. And even though retirement seems to be out of question - at least for now - he admits that he is thinking about his legacy, about giving back to the Polish community some of the experiences he has had, now that he is no longer the "selfish" TaZ he once was.
"I want to build something for the future, something special - something to be remembered," he says. "Not only for people to remember me, but also so that people remember all about these guys, and to give them a taste of what I was a part of during these last years. I hope that, when I move on or stop playing - or when any of the guys from VP stop playing -, that we will be able to watch other Polish teams succeed. That is my target: to build a project that will nurture and invest in youngsters, so that there will be more to talk about than just the 'Golden Five' or Virtus.pro."