The story of Kinguin, the first international superteam
Five years ago, Kinguin defied convention by signing an unusual cast of players. We spoke to some of those who have played a part in the creation of the team, who helped to usher in a new era in Counter-Strike.
Mikail "Maikelele" Bill is thinking back to the creation of Team Kinguin and how different the scene was at the time. In 2015, international rosters were practically unheard of. "I hope that people can see it as a good thing and understand how it was at the beginning," he tells HLTV.org. "If you're joining the scene today you don’t understand the beginning of FaZe Clan."
It has now been five years since the creation of Team Kinguin, a project that laid the foundations for a revolution in competitive Counter-Strike. While hugely popular in several other esports titles, international rosters were still a rare sight in CS:GO, almost as if there was an unwritten rule specifically for this game about how if you took players out of their comfort zone you created insurmountable communication issues and cultural clashes that unequivocally put your team at a disadvantage.
Kinguin helped to challenge those preconceptions in May 2015. The Hong Kong-based company, which offers a marketplace for video games, saw in CS:GO the perfect opportunity to expand its global footprint, at a time when the game, and the esports industry in general, was starting to boom. After learning that a new team that looked straight out of a fantasy game draft board was in negotiations with SK Gaming, Kinguin snatched the players by putting more money on the table. "We all knew that SK would be a smarter choice and that it was more of a risk to go for the Kinguin offer, but we gambled a little bit,” Maikelele explains. He and Adil "ScreaM" Benrlitom were the two headliners of the team, and they were both outcasts in need of a new project to kick-start their careers. The Swedish AWPer had been removed by NiP due to his lack of top-flight experience, while the Belgian rifler had seen some doors slammed on him and had been left alone on Epsilon’s roster following the infamous match-fixing incident involving his teammates.
"There are some players [in Sweden] who I just can’t work with, players who I don’t like and who don’t like me," Maikelele explains. "If I wanted to play for NiP [again], I’d have to wait for an offer and you never know how long that is going to take. My goal at the time was to become better than NiP.
"ScreaM and I had had a small talk about creating a team but it was more like a joke. But then we talked again [about it]. I wanted to play with an international team because I thought that if you tried to get players from different countries it could bring more success to a team. It’s not like what we had seen with NiP, who brought in allu and they were talking half of the time in Swedish and half in English because allu didn’t understand Swedish. Now, with only English, you could just pick players from anywhere. We thought: ‘Let’s do something here’."
After going on a quest to find adequate candidates — at one point even discussing an intercontinental lineup with two North Americans, Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham and Spencer "Hiko" Martin —, the pair had ultimately settled for three players at different stages in their careers. Håvard "rain" Nygaard was at the time a rising talent who had caught Maikelele’s eye during their brief time together in LGB. Alexander "SKYTTEN" Carlsson had been off the grid since a top-eight finish at the DreamHack Winter 2013 Major with a previous iteration of LGB that also included Maikelele himself. Finally, veteran Ricardo "fox" Pacheco, then 28 years old, had long outgrown the Iberian scene but remained unproven at the highest level.
"When NiP kicked me I was asked if I wanted to try out for LGB [Editor's Note: Both teams were at the time owned by the same parent company, Diglife], and they were always talking about rain, that he was a super talented player, so I agreed to play for LGB for a while to see how he was because I already had the idea of creating an international team," Maikelele recalls. "He was super good, a complete player.
"SKYTTEN and I were really good friends and we had played together for so long. We had a talk about the whole situation, about what could happen with the team, and he said, ‘If you can just give one chance, I’ll prove what I’m capable of’. He wasn’t an unknown player, he had played for LGB and at a Major. He was a good player. We decided to go with him and see how it felt with him.
"fox was stuck in Portugal, and whenever he played in international tournaments he was always shining. Everyone said that fox was really good and that he was a fighter. We wanted that because we knew that we had to fight and work hard to progress."
Kinguin’s project was revolutionary in more ways than one. Word quickly spread that the players on the team were suddenly the highest-paid in the game, causing a domino effect throughout the scene. "We were playing a scrim against Virtus.pro, and they asked us if it was true that we were making that much," fox recalls. "Players were making around €1,000 and we came out of nowhere and we were making €3,500. That changed everything. Salaries began to skyrocket."
Maikelele remembers with amusement the early days of the team as the players began to bond with each other while entering uncharted territory. "It was super fun, we were always laughing. fox’s English was pretty bad and it was really fun to play, to just sit there for 6-8 hours every day and practice to get better," he says, before explaining how everyone contributed to the team's play style. "We all shared our visions, we all had different in-game leader experiences. ScreaM had played with Ex6tenz, I had played with Xizt. Everyone had their past and had experiences that they brought into the team."
It was all sunshine and rainbows in the Kinguin camp in those early days, but cracks began to emerge within weeks. The first roster change came at the end of June, when SKYTTEN was let go after the team had grown unhappy with his leadership. Maikelele broke the news to his friend the day before the team travelled to Slovenia for the Gaming Paradise Inhouse Qualifier, which SKYTTEN missed due to health reasons. "He was really emotional and so was I. It was really hard because I knew it was the last time we were going to be in a team together," he says. "I might be mistaken but I think some players in the team didn’t enjoy playing with him. I have a vague memory of people complaining that he was baiting for stats, but that's just a common word to use when there are hard feelings. I don't think he was a baiter at all."
Nikola "NiKo" Kovač was the first name on the players’ wish-list. The Bosnian prodigy had stepped in for the team in Slovenia, averaging a tournament-high 1.28 rating, and was spending his days on mousesports’s bench after the organisation had decided to return to a German communication system. However, a transfer failed to materialise as Kinguin was unwilling to open their cheque book again after having already splashed out a fee to sign rain. "I think the numbers were around €40,000 or something," Maikelele says. "If you think about it in today's numbers it's nothing. The same team, for a different organisation, bought him a couple of years later for like $500,000. Imagine if we had bought him."
The replacement came in the form of Dennis "dennis" Edman, who was returning to action from a year-long hiatus after accepting a full-time job in mid-2014. "It was olofmeister who made me come back and grind as much as I could before I joined Kinguin," he reveals. "He told me how much the scene had grown and that the salaries were good enough to make a living off it." Kinguin made their first appearance with the Swedish player at the FACEIT League 2015 Stage 2 Finals, where they wowed the world with a 16-0 thrashing of Virtus.pro on Cache, the culmination of a come-from-behind victory against the Poles. The result inspired a wave of memes with Jarosław "pashaBiceps" Jarząbkowski’s "no chance, my friend" comments from when he had learned about the team’s creation.
Kinguin finally seemed to be picking up form and had a system in place that was starting to bear fruit, but a sudden departure threatened to disrupt the plan. And because nothing about this team was conventional, it happened in the most unthinkable way.
Just days after the FACEIT League Stage 2 Finals, Kinguin announced that team coach Danniél "dalito" Morales had been dismissed because of his ties to a VAC-banned account. "This is the weirdest situation I’ve been in in my entire life," Maikelele says. "We were stranded in Valencia and dalito started to get very stressed. He was like, 'I need to go home, it’s really important that I get home, I’m going to pay for my own flight'. We told him to relax, that our organisation was going to get us a hotel and we would stay there for a couple of days.
"The organisation paid for his flight, and then like an hour or two after he had left us, the news came out. I know that he was friends with some of the players who had been VAC banned and people were talking [about him], but I never believed it. He told me he had never done it.
"We didn't think about it too much and just started to laugh. We were like, 'No hard feelings, let's just leave it. F*ck it, he's still our friend'. Sure, he was lying about this, but in the end I think many players would lie about this if it came to it."
Kinguin had been one of the first teams to transfer in-game leadership to a coach before Valve decided to limit the coaches’ communication at its events and other tournaments followed suit. But in a meta that favored skill over tactical discipline, dennis insists that the loss of dalito barely affected the group. "Back then coaches didn’t have the same impact as today so I didn’t really care that much that he was gone," he says. With dennis as the new skipper, the team went on a run late that summer, placing top eight at the ESL One Cologne Major and picking up their first title at Gaming Paradise.
Those were the last two events that the team played under Kinguin. On September 11, the players switched to G2 as part of the deal that saw Kinguin become the title partner of the organisation, which was rebranding from its original name of Gamers2. It was the first of a series of power moves that G2 have made over the years in their relentless pursuit of greatness and of the unofficial title of best in the West.
It was also the culmination of a plan that had been worked out months earlier.
Carlos "ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago is now one of the most recognized faces in the esports industry, a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree and the founder and CEO of an organisation valued in 2019 at $165 million. But in early 2015 he was still grappling with the business side of esports after retiring as a professional player, and G2 were still known as Gamers2, a modest organisation still in its infancy that dreamed of bigger and better things.
Having competed at the highest level in League of Legends alongside players with different nationalities, ocelote knew that an international approach had its merits. With his Polish team, headlined by Michał "MICHU" Müller, struggling to dig out of its hole, he knew that his organisation would have to go in a different direction, and he got just the right person to buy into his vision: Viktor Wanli, the founder and CEO of Kinguin.
"Creating the team with ocelote was the right thing to do. He was already very knowledgeable in the scene," Mr. Wanli says. "The line-up was super hot and we knew with ocelote that it had big potential. We put in the financing with a subsequent deal to transfer the team to G2 at a later date."
ocelote was baffled at the narrow-mindedness of the scene and went out to prove a point. "I was always bugged at the fact that no team seemed to believe in multi-national lineups for CS:GO," he explains. "We were determined to change that mindset." He says that the team formed by Maikelele and ScreaM married two very important things: "victory and marketability." Perhaps no-one symbolised the latter better than ScreaM, who was Counter-Strike royalty even without any significant achievements to his name. Yet by the time G2 picked up the team, the Belgian had grown detached from the rest of the squad, in body and spirit, playing just one tournament, DreamHack Open London, before requesting a return to a French-speaking project.
"ScreaM started to be more away from the team, and people could feel it," Maikelele recalls. "I don’t think it was his intention. I think Envy was there [DreamHack Open London] and he was hanging out with them a lot. We started to think about going with a Swedish/Norwegian team but it was nothing set in stone, it was just talks between me, rain and dennis.
"People started to dislike how ScreaM was handling the team, and there were some things happening in-game as well. People thought he was starting to bait. He is a very different player, he is someone, role-wise, who's never going to be going and running first because he's just not that type of player. But in some scenarios, when you have to and you don't, then it makes people think."
Doubts remained about the direction that the project would take, but everything began to click in the run-up to the Cluj-Napoca Major. The team, who had picked up Joakim "jkaem" Myrbostad from CPH Wolves, forged a special bond outside of the server during a bootcamp in Germany. "It was like a family," Maikelele explains. "We all woke up in the morning, we’d had breakfast, we’d play and afterward we’d go have a beer. We were doing everything together, we were having so much fun. The atmosphere was just perfect." Inside the game, things were going so well that confidence was rippling through the team. "Back then the meta was to pop heads, which was perfect for us because everyone did exactly that," dennis says.
It showed. In Cluj-Napoca, G2 started off by surviving a tricky group that also included TSM, mousesports and FlipSid3. They proceeded to dispatch Virtus.pro in two maps before Envy stopped them in a dramatic three-map semi-final series. The French team came back from three match points down on Inferno to tie the series before cruising on Cache. That was the final boss for Envy, who would go on to beat Natus Vincere in a one-sided final.
"It’s still haunting me sometimes," Maikelele admits. "I think that was my best shot at winning a Major, even though I had been in a final and 11-4 up on the third map against LDLC [with NiP at DreamHack Winter 2014]. I don’t want to take anything away from NAVI, but I think we would have crushed them in the final. I think our play style matched up well against theirs". fox agrees with that sentiment: "We were 90 percent sure that we would win."
That incredible run helped the G2 organisation to blossom into greatness. "It showed to the world that G2 Esports were the new kids on the block and ready to take over," ocelote says. "Before that moment, nobody believed in us. In fact, people thought it was a fluke. And then we took over in pretty much every top title." But against all expectations, the team came apart at the seams after the Major.
Their troubles began when dennis was sold to fnatic and Philip "aizy" Aistrup was brought in his place. The Danish player had generated a lot of hype while with Dignitas, but he turned out to be the wrong fit for the squad. "It was a dumb thing on our part, I think everyone quickly realised that," fox says. "He is very good but he wasn’t the player we needed. You took away someone like dennis, an in-game leader who took the wheel, and put someone who was a natural lurker, it made no sense." Maikelele, who claims he suggested bringing in Richard "Xizt" Landström instead, says the team became "sloppy" and "lost everything" after that change. He reveals that this is one of the two things he wishes he would have handled differently. The other one nearly cost his career.
Despite being in a fragile state in the aftermath of dennis’ exit — going through a rough patch of form after a semi-final run at IEM San Jose —, the team were still in hot demand. The relationship with G2, which had been soured over alleged unpaid prize winnings, hit a breaking point when the players began to flirt with the prospect of joining FaZe, a Call of Duty giant looking to expand into CS:GO.
Before a deal was finally completed for a then record fee of $700,000, Maikelele was caught in the crossfire between the two organisations as FaZe attempted to sign the team for nothing, with the Swede nearly risking a ban from all major tournament organisers.
"I would have skipped doing the entire G2-FaZe thing," he admits. "I didn’t have any energy at all for many weeks, even months. I was in meetings with different lawyers from different countries for 15-20 hours a day. It was a very tough time for me. The team were involved, but I think I took the biggest hit because I was the most vocal one.
"It was very dramatic and I remember that I almost got banned because G2’s co-owner, Jens [Hilgers], they almost got me banned. I got to know Ralf Reichert [then CEO of ESL Gaming], who helped me a lot and arranged some meetings with different tournament organisers so I could explain my side of the story. I was pretty lucky that FaZe actually bought us and didn’t just steal us, if I can put it in that way. If this had happened, I think I would never be able to play Counter-Strike again.
"The relationship between me and G2 was so infected, and it didn't help that the whole scenario with someone throwing shoes at G2's owner and everything. I'm not going to mention names, but it was really, really weird [laughs]." (ocelote did not wish to comment on this incident or Maikelele's role in the team's transfer to FaZe.)
In a 2017 interview with Duncan "Thorin" Shields, Maikelele stated that "everyone wanted to join FaZe". However, this claim is challenged by fox, who says there was a split in the team and that the players ended up losing money by turning down a lucrative new contract with G2.
"I really like FaZe, they did their best to please us, but jkaem and I thought we were making the wrong decision," the Portuguese veteran says. "rain pretty much didn’t care about anything, whatever the team decided was fine by him. He just wanted to play.
"At the time, Carlos [ocelote] offered us $11,000 plus a percentage of a few skin sites, some projects that he had in mind. It was a great deal. People may say what they want, but for me he is one of the best in the business. Even during some of the team’s worst periods, he was always supporting us and telling us, ‘Don’t give up, don’t worry about the results, things will happen naturally’. He didn’t put pressure and supported us, which is what a player needs because the pressure and the salaries are very high. When you have a boss that supports you regardless of the results, I think no-one can ask for more.
"We turned all that down for FaZe’s name and fame. I blame Maikelele the most, he was the one that pushed the hardest, saying that things were going to be better, that he was a super fan of FaZe. ‘Do you know who they are? They have this many million followers!’. I don’t give a f*ck about that. We turned G2’s offer down to get $7,000 from an organisation that had never been in CS before. In the beginning, it was a big mess because they didn’t really know anything about CS. And then the inevitable happened, changes..."
Nothing was quite the same again. Within 13 months of the team joining FaZe, everyone but rain was gone. Maikelele, who had orchestrated the move, was even the first to go as FaZe became a revolving door of players until 2017, when the North American organisation bought NiKo for a reported $500,000 fee — approximately ten times as much as what he would have cost just two years earlier. G2 found small bursts of success with a French-speaking project before bringing in two Balkan stars last year — "international rosters are 100 percent the way to go", ocelote says. And Kinguin, which had dared to step into the unknown in 2015, struggled to stay relevant in the Counter-Strike scene in the years that followed and slowly faded into the background. In 2019, the company’s esports section was rebranded as devils.one.
Maikelele watched from afar as the team he had helped to build became a world contender and even rose to No.1 in the world rankings. The Swedish AWPer, who spoke to me a couple of weeks before he was removed from GODSENT’s lineup, was happy that he contributed to breaking down walls and barriers for players who, whatever the reason, struggle to find opportunities in their native countries. That his name will forever be associated with one of the most impactful teams in the history of the game.
"They’re still playing. It may not be the same team but it’s the team that I once created," he says. "It’s one of the best teams and has been such for many years. I just hope that people understand that international Counter-Strike is the future and that I was the first one to show it."