Jerry: "Our biggest mistake this year has likely been our underestimation of opponents"
forZe's captain opens up about the team's struggles in 2020 and admits that roster changes may be inevitable down the road.
The Russian team enjoyed a breakout year in 2019, with three international titles (Copenhagen Games, DreamHack Open Winter and ESEA S32 Global Challenge), one Big Event final run (BLAST Pro Series Moscow) and their first-ever Major appearance (StarLadder Major) anchoring their ascension. The path was bumpy at times, but, for the most part, it was an incredibly successful year for forZe, who had already shown promise in 2017 by winning the IeSF World Championship — before Evgeny "FL1T" Lebedev and Bogdan "xsepower" Chernikov were recruited — and in 2018 by reaching the semi-finals of PLG Grand Slam, where they almost defeated eventual champions fnatic.
In a largely disappointing year for CIS powerhouse NAVI, forZe's quick rise came as a breath of fresh air in the region. Boasting an average age of just 22 years, the team looked ready to restore forZe back to greatness, the organisation having been involved in Counter-Strike since the early 2000s.
But the past seven months have been trying for forZe, to say the least. The team underperformed in the first two RMR events, ESL One: Road to Rio and WePlay! Clutch Island, and are currently in tenth place in the region's ranking. It will take a miracle for them to earn a spot at the Major through the final RMR tournament as over 1000 points separate them from the qualification zone. They have also had spotty performances in other online events, although they have still managed to reach top eight in the majority of their runs.
The streak of difficulties was sudden and unexpected. After bringing the curtain down on 2019 with a playoff appearance at EPICENTER, the team kicked off the new year by attending DreamHack Anaheim, where they were the second-highest-ranked team in attendance (No.13). However, they ended up being eliminated after just two matches, the second of which a shocking defeat to Endpoint, who were at the time ranked 39 places below them.
"We had minimal preparation for the event because we thought that our form at the time was sufficient," team captain Andrey "Jerry" Mekhryakov explains. "We eventually lost to Endpoint at the event because we were lacking individual form; as for the strategic component, everything was OK, it was simply a poor performance that prevented us from even getting out of the groups."
Immediately after the blunder in Los Angeles, forZe hit the ground running with a bootcamp, looking to get in shape for ESL Pro League Season 11, but the efforts weren't able to propel them far. A 0-2 loss to FaZe in the decider stage meant elimination without the chance to contest the second stage of the tournament. By this time, the coronavirus pandemic already had most of the world in lockdown, and it was time for forZe to adapt, employing their previous routine of five-six practice matches a day, coupled with warm-up and theorycrafting.
But the system failed an already struggling forZe, who crashed out of the first RMR event in the groups after losing to Nemiga, Spirit and Gambit Youngsters — all teams that were previously considered relatively trivial opponents. Even the appointment of a secondary coach, veteran Sergey "lmbt" Bezhanov, which revamped the communication process and allowed the team to analyse opponents more thoroughly, yielded little results as forZe continued to struggle to adapt to a new reality, that of a world without LAN events.
"I realised that the the psychological edge between teams that were and weren't able to show up on LAN had worn off," Jerry says. "Teams that you used to be able to beat 2-0 without issues were now able to take you on as an equal and even beat you, like Nemiga and Spirit. In 2019, neither team was an issue for us, but once matches transitioned online, and there was no opportunity to play offline, the edge was gone. I won't list everything that we did to try to fix this, because the list is long, but, for example, we signed a second coach and tried to rearrange our game to be more scripted. We made several attempts at fixing our issues, but none of them drew us closer to success.
"This led me to conclude that the meta of the game had changed, and not the tactical meta of CS:GO, but more so the meta of teams that were below the top 30 in the rankings at the start of 2020. All of these teams shortcut their way to the top 30 and, as a consequence, shortcut their participation in tier-two events like DreamHack Opens because CS had transitioned to an online setting. It's no secret that when you're at home, you play more confidently because you're in a comfortable environment and you're not stressed by external factors such as noise-canceling headphones, an unfamiliar PC, unfamiliar settings that you get on LAN, or even live spectators; all of these factors simply disappear."
Of the 181 maps that forZe have so far played this year, only 34 (less than 19% of the total) were against opponents inside the top 20, which appeared to be where the team belonged at the turn of the year. And yet, their map win rate is just 56%, down from 64% in 2019. When asked about the team's shortcomings, Jerry explained that he was able to identify one key mistake that has affected many sides that have reached similar heights — complacency.
"If we take our largest setback or mistake of the year, it's likely our underestimation of opponents," he admits. "Even though the coaches and I watch demos and build pistol rounds around specific opponents, we have this relaxed state that still lingers. For 2020, I think a shared goal between me, the team, our coaches and everyone that is involved in our project is to ensure that we approach every single opponent we face as if they are Astralis.
"I genuinely wish for both myself and my teammates to embrace this approach, because when you approach the game with responsibility as if you're facing the best team in the world, you strive to do everything to perfection. You need to be very careful and focused, which I think we've lacked so far this year. It's a mindset, and much like any skill, it needs to be developed. The more time you dedicate to its development, the better it becomes, and there's no other way around it."
forZe are one of the one longest-standing top contenders from the CIS region, sporting the same starting line-up since October 2018. But the team came close to being stripped of this title in January 2020, when FL1T found himself on NAVI's wishlist. The Russian player was initially believed to be receptive to the transfer, but then forZe announced that he had decided to stay on, with NAVI then turning to Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy.
"In that situation, FL1T was making decisions solely by himself," Jerry explains. "He consulted me about the matter because we're pretty close, and I would always repeat the same phrase to him in the calls that we had: 'Whatever it is that I tell you, the decision is on you and I really don't want to influence your decision. I want you to decide for yourself'.
"In the end, FL1T decided to stay with us because he believed in the team. In hindsight, it's probably not great realizing the repercussions of your decision, and, in terms of his career progression, it would've been a very significant step. It would've been five to six steps higher than where we currently stand, but after the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, the situation in CS:GO changed substantially, and even NAVI have lost to similar teams from the CIS region.
"When I look at the situation, I think that it's important to support FL1T and understand that he was in a pretty difficult spot. From my point of view, he [FL1T] made the decision himself, he understood the potential repercussions, and whatever people said about buyouts and so on, you need to understand that the player makes the decision on his own, particularly if we're talking about transferring from a tier 2 team to a tier 1 team. In 99% of the cases, the final word is on the player because no one from our management ever wants to get in the way of a player's career development. They're interested in you as an asset in the wider scope of esports, but no one will get in the way of your growth. If there's one thing I'd like for readers to derive from this situation, it's that the decision was made by Zhenya [FL1T], and I think he perfectly understands the repercussions and is at peace with them. He's a professional, and even if he declined the offer back then, who knows what will happen in a year's time, perhaps it'll come back again because things aren't particularly smooth in NAVI, similarly to the entire world of esports. I'd like for people to know that he's a professional who isn't affected by our performance drop. He's been stable in his performance and training, much like he always was."
As pressure mounts on forZe to right the ship and get back to where they were less than a year ago, the question is how long can they wait before pulling the trigger. In the past, Jerry argued that roster changes were not the answer to solving issues, but he seems to have since changed his mind on the topic. He admits that roster moves will be inevitable unless players stop feeling comfortable with what they have achieved so far.
"In a lot of interviews in the past I had a certain philosophy," Jerry says. "For example, in the interview I gave after we won MDL, I said that the key to success was not rooted in roster adjustments because, at the time, I was under the impression that everyone was willing to work and give their all. I have matured a little since then, I'm currently 22 years old, and I suppose I have arrived at the wisdom of always striving for more and having ambitions. If we look specifically at what needs to happen in order for us to consider adjustments, it would be the following: there could be absolutely abysmal results, and obviously that would result in roster changes and those decisions will be down to management. If we take our roster, including our coaches, then we would have to come to the realization that a specific player is simply not willing to work more than what is required of him because success and growth flourish when you leave your comfort zone.
"When we reach a point where we definitely know that someone is unwilling to leave their comfort zone, and they're content with remaining in the top 20 and our current position, to a point where they refuse to work harder, that will justify roster changes. If I'm completely honest, failing to qualify for ESL Pro League or the Major is a total failure in our eyes. Our directors also understand this, and I'd like for readers to understand that we won't be held forever. This isn't the case, and replacements are, hypothetically, possible even in the next six months, but, again, it will only happen if a person is not willing to work and is incompetent. This is determined by both the team, coaches, and directors, who are occasionally present at our practice sessions and debriefs, they also form their own opinions. Through voting and discussions, openly, not behind peoples' backs, and democratically, we'll deliver an ultimatum to an individual.
"With age, I've come to realize that having a solid roster is amazing, but if your ceiling is in the top 20, while you have ambitions to win a Major and want to consistently be able to contest top-tier teams, then you are required to work harder and grow. This is not always possible when people are, metaphorically speaking, giving 100% when they can are capable of giving 150%. This is true, and unfortunately, a lot of rosters reach their ceiling because of this, they think that things aren't that bad. I think that in my team, things are currently bad [laughs]."