Through the Lenz: A manager's view of BIG
Christian Lenz, a longtime staple in the Counter-Strike scene as a part of organizations like Virtus.pro, mousesports, and now BIG, sat down with HLTV.org to tell stories about managing CS:GO teams and give a glimpse into his views on the recent changes in his team's roster and their state ahead of the IEM Katowice Major.
It’s November of 2018, and BIG are on a hot streak after building on their top-eight finish at the FACEIT Major with a playoff run at StarSeries i-League Season 6, where they knocked out the tournament favorites, mousesports, in an infamous victory on Train, and a third-place at cs_summit 3.
This time around, however, the German team's players are walking into the press room at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago with their heads down after losing two matches in the group stage, to fnatic and mousesports, going out in 9-12th place. Christian Lenz, the team’s manager, sat down to talk with HLTV, joking about how the players don’t get to sit in front of the mics this time. The conversation then continued after that first encounter in Chicago, as we followed up to learn about the team's changes and evolution from his perspective ahead of the IEM Katowice Major.
"First of all, I'm pretty old," kicks off Lenz, 35, rolling back the time time. "I started working with my first professional team, ESC ICY BOX, in 1.6, with pronax, BARBARR, and MODDII. Then we got the Polish guys, which brought me to Virtus.pro after managing n!faculty for two years. Virtus.pro was my second team in CS:GO, the rest was all 1.6. After that, mousesports convinced me to go back to the German side, and yeah... then we created BIG, which I guess will be my last station.”
For those who don't know, BIG’s roots are deeply entwined with those of mousesports, and although they may not have much in common now, the majority of the founding members split from mouz to create BIG, and, with the exception of Ismailcan "XANTARES" Dörtkardeş, all of the players on the roster have also donned the red jersey at some point in their careers.
“Basically, 80% of the BIG management worked for mousesports. We had different visions in mousesports, and I'm not saying their way was not correct, but we wanted to do something else. They have had great success to date, even if they’ve had to change some players, but it's not the style we wanted to work around. We're not that result oriented, we're more trying to create a cool brand with players who are open to giving back to the community, and I think we have exactly these players. If everything works out fine between each other, then you'll find great success, and I think that nobody would have expected us to go this far in our first two years, so we're quite happy with the result.”
Lenz, like his team’s captain, Fatih "gob b" Dayik, is part of the Counter-Strike old school and one of the people who have seen the transformation from an amateur scene to a more and more professional circuit. A former player who couldn’t make the cut, Lenz admits that management is “a lot of fun if you accept your role."
"Whoever likes travelling and working with nice people all around the globe will feel good in this job," he explains. "Let's be honest, though, you become a manager if you suck at playing yourself. That's my story.”
A hulking figure who can be spotted from afar, towering over his team and pretty much anyone else around him, Lenz has taken on several roles in BIG, but managing the CS:GO team is where his heart is at. "I have no problem with being the team's b*tch. You can write that, I don't care. What's most important for me is that they can focus on playing. I'm not only doing the CS:GO stuff in BIG, but it's my main priority and the job that I love. Having these guys as not only players but friends is a blessing for me."
But being "the team’s b*tch" is far from what Lenz is. Rewind to summer of 2017, the PGL Major in Krakow. At that event, the German side were exploiting a grey area of the game, a jump bug—even branded as the German jump—that allowed the players to see the other team without being spotted by crouch jumping a specific way over certain walls. After the bug was exploited several times, a swarm of players rushed the game’s developers and tournament organizers on the floor of the event’s group stage in a frenzy, and it wasn’t until Lenz’s towering figure emerged to call a meeting with all team captains behind closed doors that the turmoil subsided, avoiding any escalation during the heat of the moment.
Lenz’s looming presence and assertive temper go a long way towards helping to protect his players, as he explains: “You need to be the one who can make calls if you need to [as the team manager]. Let's say you're at a tournament and everything goes horribly wrong, which happened to me at GameGune in 2011 or 2012. You have to be the person who says ‘STOP’ at some point to save your players from becoming over exhausted."
It isn’t all as dramatic as that, however, as the manager strolled down memory lane and told lighthearted stories while the IEM Chicago playoffs raged on in the background. One of them, from the ESC days, came up when talking about players like Owen "smooya" Butterfield, the typical jokesters, and involved Wiktor "TaZ" Wojtas, a player who will be deeply missed by fans at the Spodek Arena this year, where he won a Major of his own in 2014 while Lenz was the team's manager.
“We were at DreamHack Winter and TaZ was trolling the team, back when Mariusz "Loord" Cybulski and Jakub "kuben" Gurczynski were still playing, and we had to take the bus from Elmia to the hotel. He fell asleep like five to ten times, and we asked him if everything was ok. He just grunted at us, and so when we were one station away we just thought about letting him keep sleeping. Everyone agreed, and without saying a single word, we all got out at our station, we went around to the window and knocked on it. He looked at us, smiled, closed his eyes again, and then opened them again with a very angry expression. We had the fun of our life, he went onto the highway and when he came back like an hour later he didn't talk to us for a whole day. It was a long highway ride, and he had to take another bus back. I don't even know if he had money for the bus, but it was very funny. We all laughed for hours about it. Well, except him. So yeah, smooya wasn't the only troll around, and careful if you troll people because you can also get trolled back!”
Lenz’s experience has also helped him understand the inner-workings of a CS:GO team and how the esport has evolved with time, and he is quick to adopt whatever he sees works well. He takes care of the basic managerial duties of keeping the team happy by dealing with tournament organizers, making sure they have optimal conditions in regards to flying, lodging, eating, etc., becoming a key part of an organisation pushing hard to provide the best support the team can get.
"It's all about the mix in the end,” he says. "The perfect set-up right now is having the five players, the analyst, the coach, and the manager. Planning out the days of these eight people travelling around the world is very important." It’s not only during the travelling season that Lenz takes care of his boys, however, as the organization has made it so that everyone can live in or close to the gaming house, or travel back-and-forth to it when needed, which creates a solid work ethic as well as a flexibility that can help in keeping everyone happy.
As far as the day-to-day workings of the team, “the schedule is a 50/50 split between tactics and practical stuff," with gob b doing "most of the work" with the help of Nikola "LEGIJA" Ninić and Alexander "kakafu" Szymanczyk. "The players then do their stuff, they watch demos to make their positioning better, work on their decision-making, they see how the enemies are playing, etc."
"If you would describe it like a TV show, we'd be like House. Fatih is Dr. House, who gets loads of information, most likely wrong information, but still finds the best way to cure the patient. It's a really good mix that we have. You have to accept Fatih as he is, he is a strong leader with a strong personality, and with all of the people working behind BIG, which includes the management and myself, we've found a good way to keep the players happy, which is the biggest key to our success."
And while most of the players are happy, it has not always been an easy road, with Niels "luckeRRR" Jasiek and smooya examples of players whose departures left a bitter taste after struggling to adapt to the team's dynamics. The former exited the team after a failed trial period in which he complained about the team being overly critical and not communicating with him and helping him grow the right way, while smooya left, as he said in an interview with HLTV, after growing unhappy at his roles in the team and no longer enjoying himself or feeling that he was growing.
The British player's exit is particularly interesting because his arrival had forced the team to make a radical change by switching the communication language from German to English. Yet he still decided that the structure in place was not for him. "Owen is one of the most talented players I’ve ever worked with," says Lenz. "Unfortunately, he is the only person who can stand in his way to become a top-class player. He has to trust less in his abilities and he needs to be more balanced in his decision making, both in-game and personally."
When talking about smooya's signing in the first place, Lenz opened up on the tightrope BIG are constantly walking as they have to juggle between finding local talent and playing at a world-class level:
"If you would ask some German people, they would have wanted to have syrsoN on the lineup because we would have stayed a full German squad, but we agreed after not being super happy with our last two AWPers, which could also be our fault, that we needed someone who was a totally different guy. We found that in smooya, everyone knows that he's a bit different, or more than a bit different. He is, I guess, one of the biggest talents I've ever worked with, and we didn't see anyone who is close to having his skill or potential in Germany. That's why we picked him up."
As far as the XANTARES signing goes, it was gob b’s presence that made all the difference, says Lenz, as the veteran in-game leader "flew directly over to Berlin when he knew that XANTARES would arrive."
"They had very long talks about possible setups and how our gameplay should look like if XANTARES were to sign for us," the manager explains. "He also stayed with him in the gaming house until Johannes "tabseN" Wodarz arrived while we were all at home with our families during the player break. It was really important for Fatih and XANTARES to be on the same page. He was a big factor, for sure."
And it was getting XANTARES out of Turkey, something that had seemed impossible in the past, which again spoke of the familiar atmosphere that exists within the organization. “XANTARES knew that we had a great interest in him," Lenz recalls. "I was surprised when LEGIJA wrote to me asking to book a flight for him to come over and get to know the people in and behind BIG, as well as to check out the living conditions. We gave him the best possible welcome, which was easy since our founder Yilmaz (who had also been a founder at mousesports) and his wife Nuran are Turkish and took him in like he were their own child. That’s it, the BIG family factor—he felt welcomed and signed a very long contract.”
"We had had a lot of great talks at several events with the ex-Space Soldiers team and had a really friendly relationship with a lot of respect for each other, even if it might not be the same after XANTARES left them for our team, which is understandable. I personally hope that we can get back to that good relationship in the future. We approached him after learning that nex couldn't play for an unknown amount of time, well knowing the fact that he would never be a stand-in rather than a permanent addition to the starting lineup."
XANTARES' signing was a high-profile move for a team that is competitive but bases a lot of their image on the interaction with fans and on being a majority German side, something the organization is hoping to change as they want to be more recognized for their work in the server.
“I think we stayed in the top 10 of the HLTV ranking after Cologne and dropped out recently because of the player change. With the addition of Can [XANTARES] we are aiming for a higher ranking and winning a big tournament. That’s something we (players and organization) owe our fans. You don’t sign a star player to stay on your current level. We had to improve our firepower and unpredictability, and the focus is clearly on our CS:GO roster, but we are also [still] on a mission to help the German scene grow.”
The team played their first event of the year at the Turner Studios in Atlanta, where they were part of the $150,000 four-team ELEAGUE CS:GO Invitational. There, they played their last event with smooya as well as their first event with XANTARES, and ended in third place after losses to Cloud9 and FaZe, with only a victory against Complexity to show for.
It seemed as if things were going to be unstable for a while after losing the Englishman, but the opposite occurred and, upon the team’s return to Europe, BIG played a very solid IEM Sydney qualifier following Johannes "nex" Maget’s reintroduction to the roster. So solid in fact that they took first place and a slot at the event in Australia after beating teams like HellRaisers and G2, both of whom who will also be fighting for a playoff spot in Katowice. XANTARES also finally played to his potential, averaging a 1.47 rating, a massive increase in contrast to the 1.02 he had put in on LAN at the ELEAGUE Invitational. And that was all before the team even had time to practice.
"We were quite surprised when we found out that nex wouldn’t need surgery," says Lenz when enquired about bringing the German rifler back to the lineup. "He was out for one month without touching a mouse or keyboard, focusing only on his rehab, although he still spent a lot of time with us in the house and got to know XANTARES when he came over. He has been doing fine so far, although he still has to undergo physical therapy treatments on a regular basis. It’s a long way to go for him, but even if he isn’t at 100% he is still more valuable to our team than any other option. I think the motivation XANTARES brought to our team affected nex’s recovery as well."
BIG brought that motivation with them to Poland, where the team bootcamped at the EPC [Esports Performance Center] in Warsaw. They decided to go, as Lenz says, “for two weeks, to focus on team bonding and chemistry without any distraction, locking ourselves away from reality.” During this period, BIG played over half a dozen matches per day, debating the team's play and undergoing a full analysis of their IEM Sydney qualifying run, all in preparation for the Major.
Continuing to talk about preparation and the restructuring, Lenz goes on to reveal how the team have focused their efforts moving forward: “While considering nex standing behind the team during the Major, we came to the conclusion that we did not need a strong character as a coach (like LEGIJA), but more someone to assist gob b in his vision of the game. So kakafu will be back behind the team [after the Major]. The two of them worked out an intense schedule and to-do list for our bootcamp and preparation, so you can be sure to see some new stuff from BUG (Berlin Utility Gaming), and maybe some legal boosts as well.”
For BIG, the stakes of having a good showing in Katowice just got raised, as StarLadder recently announced that they will host the next Major in BIG’s hometown. Like every other competitor, the German squad is going to Poland to win, but they will take it one game at a time with the only goal during the first week of play being to make it to the playoffs and secure their presence as Legends at the next Major in Berlin.