kuben about Virtus.pro decline: "What we had been building for several years fell apart in 12 months"
Jakub "kuben" Gurczynski opened up about his five years as the coach of Virtus.pro, the issues that plagued the original lineup with Wiktor "TaZ" Wojtas and Filip "NEO" Kubski, and struggles they faced when attempting to rebuild.
The partnership of kuben, TaZ, and NEO predates CS:GO. The trio united in 2006, forming the original Golden Five lineup which was dominant in Counter-Strike 1.6 until 2008, after which Jarosław "pashaBiceps" Jarząbkowski joined the squad.
The core transitioned to CS:GO and stuck together until 2013, when kuben and Mariusz "Loord" Cybulski were swapped out for two youngsters — Janusz "Snax" Pogorzelski and Paweł "byali" Bieliński — forming the original Virtus.pro lineup, which ended up winning the EMS One Katowice 2014 Major, as well as number of other Big Events in the following years.
The decline of the fan-favorite squad is, to this day, a big point of discussion. Talking with kuben, who joined Virtus.pro as coach in 2015 and represented the organization until 2019, a new light has been shed on the issues in the team.
The tactician spoke about the team's most successful period in late 2016 and early 2017, during which they briefly held the No.1 spot in the world ranking, and the issues that followed. While kuben dismissed the idea that four-year contracts and big salaries ruined the squad, he explained how the Mercedes gifted to TaZ disrupted the chemistry — a key ingredient in the Poles' success.
Working with a sports psychologist, who joined the team in 2019, helped kuben understand the processes that go on inside a team better, he says, admitting that adding one back in 2017 could've changed the course of the team. However, with those actions now in the past, the 31-year-old is looking for a new challenge, hoping to apply what he learned during his years with the Polish Plow in a new team - at home or internationally.
When players are left teamless, they mostly focus on individual shape, play FPL, pugs or DM. As a coach, what have you filled your days with since parting ways with the Virtus.pro?
It's basically the stuff I mentioned in my TwitLonger post. I've spent the last few weeks analyzing the knowledge I gained during my several years of adventure in esports. As a CS:GO coach, I’ve learned many mechanisms that facilitate teamwork. I constantly write these notes down in a notebook to keep them in order.
Lately, I fill my free time watching as much CS as I can. I doubt there was a time, even back in 2015 or 2016, when teams on this level played as many official matches online as they do now. I want to be up to date all the time so that after being signed by a new team I can work at full capacity.
Players in the inter-contract period also take care of their private life, and so have I. I have a lot of free time for myself, especially because of the ongoing pandemic. I am making up for previously neglected areas in private life. Mainly, I spend most of the days together with my daughter.
You spent five years in Virtus.pro and were a part of the lineup which built its legacy in CS:GO. What are your fondest memories from that time?
The nicest memory is for sure the thing that, as a coach, I could be a part of a team with people I had spent a lot of time in my life with while I was a player. We knew each other so well, we were as thick as thieves. I also met many interesting personalities of the younger generation with whom we created an explosive mix of characters. Wonderful in all this was the number of years in which we were able to enjoy success with the same lineup.
If I had to name the most successful period throughout the years, it began at ELEAGUE Season 1 in 2016 and lasted for about seven months. We spent over a month in Atlanta practicing and having fun together, preparing for each game for a few days. We built a super consistent team in those days. The atmosphere was great and everyone was enjoying the game. From one tournament to the next we were better and better, until the ELEAGUE Major in Atlanta 2017 in which we lost to Astralis, but the rematch in Vegas tasted great.
An additional flavor is added by the fact that at this tournament the coach had the possibility of communicating with the team all the time. Preparing for matches, knowing the mechanisms used by our opponents, I had excellent knowledge about how to play matches at given moments and I largely contributed to the tournament's final success.
It was also unique that during all these years we resolved every conflict by ourselves, without training staff or management.
The demise of the team is still a topic of discussion, with many tracing the downfall back to the end of 2016, when four-year contracts were signed which were rumored to make Virtus.pro the highest-paid team, and the start of 2017, when TaZ was gifted a Mercedes after the DreamHack Masters Las Vegas win. Do you agree with the sentiment, or was this more of an outsider's simplified view of how things went down?
I think that the increased salaries did not have such a significant impact on the bad performance of the team as the fact that some team members felt underrated because only TaZ received the Mercedes bonus. We learned about it a few months later, so it was sad that despite our long-standing friendship, anger and jealousy stewed inside - instead of enjoying the success of a teammate.
During the struggles, byali was the target of criticism for "playing too much PUBG", even leading to an April fools joke tied to it. Was this a real issue in the team at the time, not just with byali, but the whole team? How do you approach a player who is putting in time in other games?
The balloon about playing other games has been blown up too big. If the player is willing to improve, devotes enough time to understand his performance issues in CS, and finds solutions, then playing other games in his free time is not an obstacle here. However, when team results are not the best, and in 2018 they undoubtedly weren't, then the priority should be CS.
I understood it better in cooperation with a sports psychologist. In 2019, we had frequent problems in online open qualifiers, which are played as best-of-one. The thing is, a professional player still wants to experience new stimuli and new emotions. If the player plays other games before team training (and there have been situations when someone played a different game even in between matches in these qualifiers) he will in some way silence that stimuli, feel satisfied and calm down, and this will undoubtedly reduce the player's concentration and disposition in the upcoming match.
At the end of 2018, as VP unveiled a new lineup, the General Manager Roman Dvoryankin said he regretted not making changes earlier. Was that your thinking as well? The addition of MICHU was something that had been discussed for years but seemingly came in too late to save the team. Was there a time before the benching of TaZ when you were close to making a roster change?
The first ideas of change appeared in mid-2017, but it was said we should wait for the upcoming Major since there was an EPICENTER event on the way as well, which was an additional motivational boost for our team since it was in Russia - the country where the organization Virtus.pro comes from.
After a surprisingly successful performance (narrowly lost in the BO5 final against SK) when the whole CS community was doubting us, another ray of hope appeared - only to be quickly buried at the next tournament. The performance at the Major in January 2018 was the final nail in the coffin and changes were inevitable.
I was very emotional when we had a late-night dinner to tell TaZ about the change. There were tears in my eyes. This was not just a coach-player relationship.
However, we could have made changes to the team even earlier or hired a psychologist to help us solve the big issues that had been there for a while. Waiting until the Major wasn’t a clever decision.
It is difficult to say today, but from experience I will say that the whole process would have looked different. Today I know that it was worth replacing two players at the same time. In June 2018, we wanted to react again by strengthening the lineup, but Roman disagreed. After a while, he admitted that he regretted it. The lack of action motivated Snax to leave the organization in favor of mousesports, and this shortly led to parting ways with byali. Pawel, out of politeness, stayed with us until Major in London, but playing under such circumstances did not please everyone.
You can see how much we lost in one year. We played at two Majors and eventually fell out of the cycle. What we had been building for several years fell apart in twelve months. The hiccups had a negative effect on the next squad. In 2019, we proved that we could play on LAN. If we only had a higher place in the rankings it would ensure us systematic competition with the best, and maybe today we could be a consistent top ten team.
That period buried Virtus.pro the most. All these player changes, resulting in instability and poor LAN performance, were harvesting. Anyway, when we got the chance to return and maybe keep the lineup - we fucked up. Who knows what the team would look like if we had won a place in the ESL Pro League for 2019.
Going into 2019, Virtus.pro entrusted you with a new, young Polish lineup, but the project ended up being a failure. What went wrong?
A new beginning should be a new opportunity for each team member to show up. Unfortunately, not all contracted players had this approach, hence why we made three changes in the first half of the year. Not everyone can adapt to the intensity and frequency of training and the constant desire to be better. For me, as a coach, it wasn't an easy period. Team's problems were accumulating, and in the meantime, I had to say goodbye to my dad, who passed away after a long illness.
I had to make many decisions alone and the weight of results, despite the enormous amount of work I put into the development and maintenance of the team, was on my shoulders. I felt a lot of pressure. However, once I got a call from Roman Dvoryankin that it was time to start working with a sport and business psychologist I was very happy about it. He (Michal Dabski) joined our team and things were getting better.
The psychologist helped me lead the team on the right path and after several months of cooperation, I knew that we were going in the right direction. I have said many times that I learned so much from him and I know that I can easily bring many mechanisms to a new team.
Often, success was the beginning of problems and in our case, a good performance at V4 in Budapest meant further challenges in terms of team management. I do not intend to speak negatively about any of the players with whom I cooperated, but when I am analyzing situations coldly now, I think that the composition was chosen wrongly from the beginning. I am thinking of dedication, adaptation, and perseverance in the plan I imposed.
Additionally, in a situation where, in cooperation with a psychologist, we had built the foundations of a team that could achieve greater success, Virtus.pro decided to not extend his contract and it became harder to deal with problems. What is worse, over the course of time, several players did not like the way we had laid the foundations and they were letting me know it very ostentatiously.
Earlier this year, you said "I constantly write these notes down in a notebook to put them in order. But I have no intention to keep the acquired knowledge only to myself or to put the notebook on a shelf." If you had the ability to do something differently in the past with the knowledge you have now, what would it be?
I would have certainly forced the management to hire a sports psychologist. I admit that I disregarded this topic myself in 2017. I thought that we would be able to deal with the problems that arose on an ongoing basis, as we had in the past, but the problems ultimately overwhelmed us.
Over the years, I have developed my coaching and managing skills, but despite the not necessarily good results in 2019, cooperation with a sports psychologist helped me grow and become a more complete coach.
Continuous development is needed to maintain high performance. Searching for new and better solutions is the basis for being at the top, and finding the right ones will allow you to make a step ahead of the rest. For this, you need people who have open minds and want to go in this direction. If you stand still, you go back. That's why I think that with the right direction taken by the management of the team it is much easier to lead the players. Setting team goals is the basis of cooperation.
Many situations that occur in teams are incomprehensible to players because they go unnamed. The ability to name the processes that occur helps the players to become more mature in such situations and helps them to understand and solve the problems. The mechanisms that I learned in the previous year could have definitely helped to solve the problems arising in the old lineup.
Despite the sour end, the original Virtus.pro lineup stuck together for over four years and is considered a very successful team. Do you think that, to some degree, Virtus.pro was ahead of the curve, making role changes to refresh things, but keeping the same lineup to build on the chemistry and teamplay you have? Is there a similarity to what Astralis is perhaps now trying to do with the addition of a sixth man? (interview conducted before the JUGi announcement)
As far as I see Astralis wants to implement an innovative plan - especially for the CS:GO team. It is a model taken from team sports and is also used in the Polish team AGO. The Danes had already once been pioneers in their activities and everyone is aware of the great success they have achieved thanks to the decisions they made about the team's functioning model.
Awareness that behind your back stands another player ready to jump into your shoes and is ready to give more than you causes your "sports anger" to build, which takes you to a higher level. After such a dominant era of Astralis, motivation drops - it's inevitable. I am curious about how this matter will develop.
However, in our team, the role changes over the years caused a frequent change in the style of the game and its dynamics. It was something innovative because in most teams the underperforming player was changed, and those who did well in their roles remained in their comfort zone. In our team, this zone was often abandoned to help those who were playing worse at some point and felt uncomfortable. We were looking for new solutions, and worse spots on the maps were patched by someone else giving them a try. It automatically changed our style of play. We also often changed the role of the main sniper. Thanks to that we were unpredictable. I believe that these changes helped all of our players open their eyes more widely and be more universal.
It is worth adding that we had a lot of innovative tactics in the stratbook that the world had never seen before. Utility usage was at the highest level, especially crazy smokes strats. It certainly, at some stage, distinguished us from the rest of the teams.
What do you think about AGO's approach to CS:GO? They seem to be trying something similar to the "Astralis model", but results haven't been that inspiring. Will their approach work on a lower level, with Polish players?
Indeed, it was initially like that - they tried to copy the Astralis model. AGO aims to create something long-term, not only a team that will be able to win one tournament in a year and disappear for the rest of it.
AGO owners treat our industry as a sport. One of the shareholders is the former owner of Legia Warsaw. They are not afraid of innovative solutions. Importantly, they work with an agency that does research and analyzes all of the players.
However, I think that for them the CSGO team is just the start to a larger project that aims to create a player base and resell them or loan them to different teams. Currently, ten players are contracted, and from the five benched players they created a second-team, from which a player can jump from day to day to the first team, I guess.
Expanding on the topic of the influence of money on performance - the Polish scene has had an influx of organizations and leagues in the last two or three years, with a high number of teams being on full-time salaries. Do you think that the amount of money coming in has actually harmed the scene? Has it made it too easy for players to get along by being average, while back in the early CS:GO or 1.6 days, you had to win championships to get by?
The only two Polish teams whose salaries were relatively high were Virtus.pro and Team Kinguin. In my opinion, the problem is a bit different. In Poland, investors want their investment to pay back in a moment and not in a few years.
Despite the fact that player salaries are not high by European standards, most organizations still do not have financial liquidity. It scares them away from further investing. I think this is why they are afraid to create a team including people who deserve to be well paid, a team that would have considerable marketing and sports value as one of the best teams in the world.
However, I agree with the issue that young players are too demanding and expect a lot of money at the start. We, the old guys, have worked for our salaries for many years and the successes we've had justify such a salary.
There has been a lack of Polish teams on a top level since Virtus.pro's fall, despite a big player base and the country's history in the game. What will it take to build another top-tier Polish team? Have the departures of rallen, MICHU, dycha, and others to international teams made that impossible? Is there a Polish team right now that can do it?
I don't want to fight with Polish casters, analysts and editors, who eagerly encouraged our best players to leave the country and represent international teams, but I have a completely different opinion. It seems to me that it is impossible to carry out a full generational exchange without interfering with the most experienced coaches and players of the present time in Poland.
Of course, I understand the players who sign for international teams, but I can not understand that in a country of almost 40 million people there is no idea how to create such a team. I can immediately name a few players who would form the core of such a composition and I believe that with financial resources and proper management we would be able to get close to top 10 in the world.
What do you want to do next in your career? You mentioned sharing the knowledge you have learned so far - is there a specific region you think it would be most applicable to? Who would you like to coach?
I would like to devote myself 100% to my new job again and I have the support of my family to do it. At the moment, the region where I would work is not important to me. I am ready for any challenge. I feel hunger and want to go back to what I love to do. Share the acquired experience and spread the knowledge to the younger generation. Be an example for them and unite them. Help them realize their full potential.
I would like to work for an organization that knows which path they want to follow and have set goals, or to help them set such goals while making players feel that they are an integral part of this project, together with the coach who is not just an addition to the five players, but a person who leads the life of the team and knows how to do it. An organization in which the hierarchy is established.
As I wrote in my TwitLonger: "I wish to work among people who love this game as much as I do. Putting the ego in your pocket. Trusted. Able to confront. Willing to develop and sacrifice for the team. Adjusting their lives to a player's career, not the other way around."
I would like to work with players who are willing to develop constantly. Players who are aware that to achieve success everyone needs to work hard, and that the coach is not a magician who will come, spin his wand, and suddenly everything will start to work as it should. Anyone interested can contact me via Twitter DM, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.