The growing pains of Grayhound
Ahead of their debut at the New Challenger Stage of the IEM Katowice Major, we took some time to get to know more about the loveable mutts from Australia, Grayhound.
With a hard-fought victory over ViCi, which netted them a second-place finish at the Asia Minor at the end of January, Grayhound became only the fourth Oceanic organization to reach the New Challengers Stage, previously called the Main Qualifier. Joining legendary names such as Vox Eminor, later Renegades, and Immunity, was no small feat, and one that took time, resources, and audacity to accomplish.
The organization came together in June 2017, signing its first squad in the aftermath of IEM Sydney, an event that made waves in the Oceanic scene. The roster that was signed had previously represented Immunity, and the bedrock of Grayhound would, interestingly, prove to be no other than a stout Mongolian, Erdenetsogt "erkaSt" Gantulga, who had come to the country for education: "When I moved to Australia, I had no intention of playing CS competitively". But a news post about a local LAN in Sydney piqued his interest, and he decided to give competing a shot: "I begged a team that was looking for a fifth to give me a chance to play with them", erkaSt remembers.
After getting his first opportunity, he started getting recognition in the scene, with the game helping him fit into to a new environment: "Counter-Strike helped me adapt to the Australian culture a lot, it made it super easy", erkaSt says. While he successfully adjusted to the culture, after four years Down Under, he does still nurture something from back home. "I have a different playstyle compared to Australians and I think that is something that will never change". And perhaps it shouldn't, since erkaSt has been one of the standout players in Oceania in the past two years, and a key figure in Grayhound's Terrorist sides.
Contrasting the initial 2017 Grayhound lineup to the one that just qualified for the Major, erkaSt is the only player still remaining on the roster, also serving as the team captain. The roster changes were necessary as the team didn't impress early on, with Mohammed "MoeycQ" Tizani being the first one on the chopping block—the Australian veteran wasn't able to keep up with the practice schedule the rest wanted to run. Contrary to MoeycQ's opinion, the cut was crucial to improving the team as in his place came Christopher "dexter" Nong, a younger player with experience abroad from his time with Winterfox.
dexter's addition quickly bore fruits as he was putting in good numbers individually while also calling for the team, albeit he stepped down from that role during certain periods. "I couldn't have been at my best [as an IGL] during university" says dexter, putting it down to the how layered and complex the role actually is and how much time is needed to develop in every aspect. But even now, with studies out of the way, there are still some doubts in his mind about how suited he is to the role.
"I don't know if I'm a natural leader, all I know is that I want people to improve, always, and I'll do what I can to support that from my perspective. Sometimes I don’t do that in the most efficient way, but it’s always with best intentions."
As an in-game leader, dexter does exceptionally well in the fragging department, sitting on a 1.33 rating online and a 1.12 rating on LAN over the last 12 months, placing first and second in his team in the two categories.
"I'm not sure really why I do OK in terms of frags as IGL, I guess there's a freedom aspect to it. I've put in so many hours in demos and VOD, I now sit in a mental state where I feel like I understand what the opponents are doing, on a team level, all the time. Therefore I can set myself up to counter the T's by doing my best to read the game. The only difficult thing is actively communicating this ability to my teammates in an effective manner."
Having all of your players under the same roof is not a new idea, but at the time Grayhound announced that they would be moving to a team house in Melbourne, there had not been successful implementations of that idea in Oceanic CS:GO, with some scepticism arising in the community. All five players, as well as the team's General Manager, William Gray, were living there by the end of the year, and, looking at the results, it was working out well.
The vastness of Australia, and the fact that Grayhound also features a Mongolian and a New Zealander, meant that, even though the players are still in their region, they are fairly far away from their family and friends. "Everyone came from a different city in Australia, so the move was new for us." dexter says, adding that he is probably the one in the best situation. "I'm about a seven-hour drive away from my family, and luckily for me, I have a few people I know and catch up within Melbourne. It is however much more difficult for everyone else as they are much further away [from their family], with few close people they know in the city."
Living together in a gaming house is invaluable to the team's development, according to Liam "malta" Schembri, who was brought in as an upgrade from Chiefs in April of 2018. "Living in the gaming house helps us a lot with giving criticism to each other in a non-confrontational way, helps us improve quicker", the 23-year-old says, before touching on the productive mentality the whole team has. "We learn and adapt quickly after a loss, either in officials or practice, which comes down to the mentality of everyone in the team. Nobody likes to lose, so we work hard to learn from it every time we do."
A hindrance to their development is still the region in which they compete. Even though they are contracted players with full-time salaries, they can't make the most of it while living and playing in Oceania—as they are part of a small group of people who can play whole day. "It's quite hard in Australia to keep a productive CS schedule", dexter says. Scrims only go on between 7 pm and 10 pm, and there are not many good PUGs or FPL games to play during the day as most of the players are either working or at school. "It's difficult to keep up your own individual skill or play all day. So it comes down to deathmatching and watching demos before scrims.
And the little practice they get isn't productive either, but dexter understands the responsibility Grayhound, who have attended six events overseas in the last 12 months, have to actually make it better:
"Practice in Australia is very difficult, everyone has very similar playstyles, in my opinion, scrims are very limited to the night, and half the time the practice isn't good, where both teams are not learning anything. It's more who has better aim and individual players.
"We'll avoid playing other top teams when it's getting nearer to finals or qualifiers, which sucks because you need that top level practice. It's basically like teams such as MIBR, FaZe, Astralis, Liquid only being able to practice each other for two or three months (obviously not on the same level).
"Only when you finish the qualifier/final seasons can you actually practice what you execute at international events. But playing at home, you can forget what to do a lot of the time to compete at an international event. So it's all about learning as much as possible, remembering each detail while overseas, and bring it home to increase the average practice quality in Oceania."
In Oceania, there are some who think that Grayhound is limiting themselves due to being a "friends team", a squad that keeps players past their expiration date, doesn't make a roster upgrade when it is an option, and holds social, out-of-game aspects in the highest regard when considering changes. dexter admits that there is a certain truth to it, but stressed that "benching and recruiting players should never be off the cards."
"We just know it's important to discuss and explore many options before even thinking about it. Having someone who fits in socially is super important to the team in my opinion. CS isn't just about who's the nerdiest or has the most skill. Basic emotions such as being happy, healthy in your team environment play the biggest role in your success. If you're happy you'll practice more individually, work harder to help your team on every level. That is exactly why Astralis are so good, they’re all talented and happy, which makes them work hard all the time and remain consistent. So enjoying teammates socially will highly benefit the overall mood and confidence of the team going into events."
The team suffered a big hit when Sean "Gratisfaction" Kaiwai, an outstanding AWPer and the secondary IGL of the team, got the opportunity he couldn't turn down—to join Renegades in the United States. "It did feel like a strong blow at the time, but I feel like we've found our footing again with sterling," dexter says. Initially, the move didn't seem like a strong one as players such as Simon "Sico" Williams or Alistair "aliStair" Johnston from rival teams were more proven AWPers than Euan "sterling" Moore, a youngster who couldn't hold his place in Chiefs and had to go outside of Oceania's "Big Four" and join Legacy to get another opportunity.
"We understood 'why' he had been benched and that we would have to apply ourselves to work on those reasons if there were any. We needed a talented player but also someone who had the right mentality to learn and adapt to our style, hence why we went with him over any others.
"Buying out Sico financially wouldn't have been an issue with Mr. Grayhound's millions of bitcoin dollars, though."
Despite multiple international outings and the title of the No.1 team in Australia secured, Grayhound still do not have an official jersey—instead competing with matching t-shirts, showing up for photo shoots in bathrobes and sporting Hawaiian shirts—, let alone any sponsors attached to their apparel. Grayhound's General Manager William Gray explained their view on the matter:
"Grayhound is of course looking to get sponsors and partners on board (special shoutouts to the homies Elon Musk and G-Fuel), but it is a very delicate game of maintaining competitive results, remaining true to our fans and, most importantly, the willingness of potential brands to take on our persona without holding us on a tight leash."
Ollie "DickStacy" Tierney and IEM Sydney helped them break out internationally, albeit with admittedly pretty basic jokes based on the player's nickname vibing with the CS:GO community at large. Even though the fame has not got to his head, at least not yet, he admits that, "to get so much support, so fast, was unexpected", before finishing in his style: "I'm very grateful for the continued strong support from the growing dick army and I’m glad they are alongside me, enjoying my CS:GO journey wherever it goes". And that's exactly the persona Grayhound want to keep.
"I'd like to think we have a genuine understanding of what 'esports' is as a whole; we recognize we're in the entertainment industry and as such try our best to give the people that experience both in and out of the server." - William Gray
Looking to the future, the General Manager's goals are simple: "Play the best that we can, genuinely have the time of our lives, and acquire matching Tesla Roadsters."
On their road towards Roadsters, the team has already reached some goals, with the biggest milestone being qualifying for the New Challengers Stage of the IEM Katowice Major. The reaction that followed after malta found the last kill on the third map against ViCi showcased how much it meant to the "Other Boys".
Beating SK back in Sydney, pushing Renegades to the limits at the Minor and other good results make dexter happy with their progression, but he thinks that even as a team based in Australia, they can do more. "With our current resources it's definitely been good, but we need to reach a much higher level post-Major for the rest of the year. We need to tackle everything professionally and grow the brand, the team, and the individual game". And the bar is not set low: "The main goal is to go on stage and/or become a contender internationally, winning tier two events at the very least."
For the challenge straight ahead of them, the Major, Grayhound are accepting the role of the underdog, one in which they feel comfortable. "We just want to play and learn through each win and loss. It’s good because we have no pressure on us to perform". The focus, he says, is on the mentality and on putting all of the pieces together in a coherent way. "We’re looking to learn even more about the mentality of the game, as well as details that affect strategy. It’s just important we do not lose our playstyle trying to implement too many things into our playbook."
Those details and ideas, which can be overwhelming for an inexperienced team, come from spending about a month in Europe and playing with the world's best on a regular basis. The time bootcamping in Poland has been invaluable for the Australians, with dexter being astonished by how good the practice is and how much they have been able to learn from the diverse playing field:
"The time spent in Europe has been the best, the culture of practice here is the best. Every team has their own style, they 'mostly' run gameplans on the CT and T side, and you are able to see every gap in your own game, which makes you want to work harder to plug them up and/or add more strategies to your own game.
"If you have an open mind even when getting smashed in practice, you see the level of detail in everything they do, and it's very interesting as the depth of CS is so vast. From the individual skill to strategies and teamwork, you see how good everyone is and it makes CS very fun compared to Australia."
"We've played nearly every top tier team, but playing Astralis, fnatic, BIG, and NiP has given us our biggest takeaways in the strategic level of the game. With Astralis, you see how they change the pace of their game, how they use information and exploit it in an instant. We played one scrim versus them and got wrecked on Overpass, and the resulted in a massive change in our game, as their style was meta defining.
"fnatic use momentum really well, we're individually getting smashed, but you see the gameplan slowly unfold on you, and you cannot do anything, because if you get greedy with fights, utility or map control, they'll punish you with a calculated explosive strat.
"BIG and NIP have very explosive styles on T side, if you fail to adapt early enough, or read into your own game, they'll exploit it in an instant, and every level of their play is on point, they know when to go, when to stop and what fights to take while making you worried about everything."
Considering all of the benefits that come with it, moving the whole team out of Australia is also an option, but one that hasn't been talked about much. "There have been maybe some small discussions, but with Will's support I'm sure we're open to the idea so that we can reach the next level." After spending time in the US with Winterfox, dexter is up for another move, but he would prefer to go to Europe this time around. "As easy as NA would be to qualify for most of the leagues, playing from Europe would teach us how to play on such a higher level strategically, and teach us about ourselves as players".
Still, all of their success and experience could be for nought if they don't apply them properly when they return back home. Getting lost in it all and not being able to play a style that fits when taking on domestic opposition would cost them their ranking and the international competition spots that they desperately need in order to continue their development.
"Depending on when we return, we might be taking a 'theory' break, as it's important to reset mentally. We'll have a meeting and apply our learning of the game in Europe to Australia so that we are not stepping over ourselves trying to apply everything at once and causing burnout." - dexter.
In the in-game leader's eyes, it all comes down to finding the right balance: "I believe this international experience will definitely help us stand out more locally, just as long as the 'teamwork' mentality is still applied and we don't think we're the best, as long as we remain humble in our understanding of the game.
"Because playing CS is walking a tightrope of being as confident as you can, but not being an idiot at the same time".