Causing Chaos: How leaf and Xeppaa have emerged as North America's next prospects
The names of Nathan "leaf" Orf and Erick "Xeppaa" Bach have only recently gained traction in the wider Counter-Strike community, making headlines as they became the newest members of Joshua "steel" Nissan’s Chaos roster. In North America, however, both players have been on the rise for almost two years, impressing with their form in ESEA leagues and smaller events alongside the likes of Michael "Grim" Wince, who is reportedly poised to sign for Liquid.
As they have only recently ascended to the upper echelon of the circuit, their tales are ones that have not been told — especially since leaf was unable to play in MDL and ESL Pro League until he recently turned 16, artificially capping his growth. That lack of exposure to players and teams at the top level led to them being the subject of abuse and harassment from some of the Brazilian Counter-Strike fanbase after Chaos sent MIBR down to the lower bracket of the Regional Qualifier for cs_summit 6 North America, with Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and Brazilian caster Alexandre "gAuLeS" Chiqueta alleging that both players may have cheated in the match, partly due to them being unknown quantities.
Members of the community and other players were swift to step up in defense of the Chaos newcomers, especially those who had borne witness to their rise through the ranks of North American Counter-Strike. Those who had played with them in the past also expressed how they had witnessed first-hand how skilled the duo were and the time they had dedicated to improving at the game. When contacted by HLTV.org, former teammates drew specific attention to not just the aiming ability of Xeppaa and leaf, but how they handled communication in-game and how solid their game sense was in a region where both of those qualities are severely lacking. What may surprise those unfamiliar with their individual stories, though, is that it was the younger of the two players who picked up the game first.
leaf explained to HLTV.org how, at the age of eight, he had watched his brother play minigames and jailbreak community mods in CS: Source and bought the game himself before later pre-ordering CS:GO, quickly rising to the rank of Global Elite in 2013, when he began to play the game in earnest. Shortly afterward, leaf asked his father to purchase an ESEA subscription for him, playing as a stand-in on an Open team during his first league season at the age of 11 because he still had a bedtime of 8 PM before making his return on an Intermediate team in Season 25, a lineup which also featured Triumph AWPer Paytyn "junior" Johnson.
The youngster then had his legs cut out from under him just as he rose to prominence through strong showings in Seasons 28 and 29, with organizers imposing the aforementioned age requirement of 16 for players who wished to compete in MDL or ESL Pro League. Despite the setback, leaf was picked up by Zone for ESEA Advanced S30 after he demonstrated good form in FPL-C, going on to help them to secure promotion to MDL with a first place finish in playoffs by averaging a 1.19 rating over 19 maps. "Winning Advanced was obviously a pretty big moment, it made around half of MDL know who I was if they didn’t know me from FPL-C," leaf said of the victory. "Obviously it was a huge punch in the face to win the season and not be able to play the next division up, that makes you feel disappointed. At the time I didn’t really get upset as I knew it was going to happen half way through the season and there was nothing I could do about it, so I just made sure my team won the season."
The in-game leader of Zone, Alexander "zander" Diaz, described the situation regarding leaf being unable to play in MDL after earning promotion as "sh*tty" before going on to praise him as one of his favourite teammates. He expressed admiration towards leaf’s commitment to the game despite his health issues with Crohn’s disease, mentioning that even with those real-life hardships, he was never late for practice, always warmed up, and continuously strived to improve at the game. "No matter what leaf did wrong, he always wanted to find a way to fix it," zander stated. "Even if it seemed unfixable or not his fault, he always wanted to find a way to make it better. When we first played he was like a sponge and everything I said just got soaked up and he learned extremely fast."
Conversely, Xeppaa arrived much later to the party, only picking up the game in 2015 and playing it on a more casual basis. "I didn't know what CS:GO was," Xeppaa recalled when asked about how he was introduced to the title. "I played Minecraft for a while and a friend that I played with at the time bought me the game." Although Xeppaa did not know it, his friend’s $15 purchase had just laid the foundation for what would go on to be Xeppaa's future career. Of course, it wasn’t immediately apparent that he would be a talent that could compete at the top level. His first appearance on HLTV came in the DreamHack Winter 2017 open qualifier, where he posted a 0.73 rating as part of Problematic. With them, Xeppaa went from ESEA Intermediate to Advanced in four seasons, eventually parting ways at the end of September 2018.
It was around this time that Xeppaa graduated from high school and moved away from his hometown, and also when he began to take Counter-Strike seriously. After closing out ESEA Advanced S29 on a different roster, Xeppaa made the jump up to MDL by joining Infamous in January 2019, linking up with in-game leader Josh "JoshRT" Lee, who had found him through Rank G and was in need of a fifth player. His rise from here was rapid, impressing notable names in the scene through his performances both in league and on PUG platforms.
"I asked for him to join," JoshRT explained when asked about picking up Xeppaa. "When I was more active, I was always on the lookout for upcoming talent, which was a habit I started with a former coach, GBjame^s, in Season 22 that actually helped CLG scout Subroza and Ethan. Xeppaa was at the top of my list. He pretty much checked all the boxes for me in what I look for in a player. He had fragging talent, as evidenced by how fast he kills a player — that is, low time to target, good spray control, and high headshot percentage. A quick eye test shows this, but I also looked at the stats to back up my theory, not to mention the fact that this man was in deathmatches every day."
The second factor JoshRT drew attention to was Xeppaa’s attitude toward the game and his coachability. "He has a very easygoing personality and communicates with ease, so I thought he would be a great teammate. He was dedicated to the game and bought into the team from day one." He went on to mention that, while a lot of up-and-coming players may do well in the fragging department, the latter criteria are something that is severely lacking in the North American semi-pro scene and were the type of traits that Xeppaa shared with other notable names that JoshRT had scouted, including Ethan "Ethan" Arnold.
In his debut MDL season as a part of Infamous, Xeppaa would go on to post a 1.03 rating across 16 maps — nothing outstanding, but for a player in their first season of MDL to hold their own, it was definitely a good sign. JoshRT’s immediate impression was that Xeppaa would improve to play at a top MDL level in fast fashion, requiring experience through playing league matches and improving individually through FPL and Rank S to do so. Xeppaa also showcased confidence when questioned about his debut season, saying that "every season of MDL always has lower tier teams and high tier teams — I knew I could compete in MDL but not against the top."
After continuing to compete alongside JoshRT at the start of Season 31, then under the Royal banner, Xeppaa took his leave from the roster to join Variance, later known as Rap Gang. It was on this roster that Xeppaa truly began to blossom as an individual talent, ending MDL Season 31 with a 1.04 rating before vastly improving in the ensuing season, mustering a 1.18 rating and averaging 83.9 damage per round despite his team winning just four out of 16 maps during their campaign. Xeppaa also felt that this was the period he had the most growth as an individual on the server, a result of putting a lot of time into the game and playing in FPL alongside practicing with his team.
When questioned about how playing on the PUG platforms helped him, Xeppaa said that "FPL and Rank S definitely gave me some experience playing with pros, learning their thought process, and gaining game sense." Prompted on his thoughts regarding issues he’s had while playing in the hubs, he stated that it was just a "big PUG with a lot of money put into it" and complained about the lack of team play. "It is always about how many frags you can get and people don’t know basic nades," he explained.
Still, playing on these platforms drew further attention to both Xeppaa and leaf’s names, with their time in FPL and Rank S catching the eye of Anthony "vanity" Malaspina. Shortly after the end of Season 31, Xeppaa attended Fragadelphia 14 with the former eUnited in-game leader, playing alongside the current Cloud9 trio of Ricky "floppy" Kemery, Ian "motm" Hardy, and Josh "oSee" Ohm to eventually claim victory over the MDL roster of Divine. In an interview at the event conducted by Dust2.us, vanity echoed similar sentiments to JoshRT:
"Xeppaa is someone that I've played with in FPL, I've been playing against him for a really long time and he's always been someone who sticks to his friend groups on teams. It's harder for players like that to reach different levels of success because you're limited by who you're friends with. Obviously I got lucky that I was friends with players who had extremely high aspirations, like our Gorilla Gang core has all made Pro at this point, and it's only been one year since we played. It just doesn't pan out like that for everyone. I think he's insane mechanically and he has really good comms, so I could definitely see him making pro in the future."
When asked about other players who he thought would make pro, vanity mentioned three names: Erik "penny" Penny, former Triumph member Rahul "curry" Nemani, and leaf. Exactly one year after making his first appearance on an MDL roster, Xeppaa linked up with curry on Under 21 in Season 33, achieving his best individual form yet with a 1.21 rating over 28 maps as the team topped the regular season, losing only three matches while beating the likes of Chaos, Triumph, and Bad News Bears.
This was also the season in which leaf turned 16 and reunited with some of his former Zone teammates, then playing under the Rugratz tag with the other up-and-coming name vanity had mentioned, penny. "leaf wanted to quit when he couldn’t play MDL," zander recalled. "I basically begged him not to, saying that I would pick him up, that I would literally cut anyone once he turned 16 if he kept playing, and so I did." The young talent immediately impressed as he mustered a 1.24 rating over 21 maps in his MDL debut, placing high on the statistics leaderboard in a number of categories alongside seasoned names like Owen "smooya" Butterfield, Michael "dapr" Gulino, and Grim.
The impressive form of both leaf and Xeppaa put their names high on the recruitment list for interested parties as the season reached its end, with their rapid rise coming at an opportune moment. "As people left or were cut from the Chaos team, they began to seek out players," Xeppaa recalled. "I happened to have a good reputation about me, how I was performing, and they took a chance with me and here I am."
Chaos also briefly enlisted the services of leaf at the start of the season, but quickly found themselves left without him as the release of Riot Games’ tactical shooter VALORANT saw Cloud9 express interest in signing him to their team in the new title. For leaf, one of the primary draws of the offer lay in the hype behind the game and the idea that there was no No. 1 team, with the healthcare that would come with the signing also being a major factor to help him combat Crohn’s Disease and arthritis. However, the deal ultimately fell through, and leaf was offered a second chance on Chaos after Logan "Voltage" Long stepped down from the roster to pursue college with a full-ride scholarship. Xeppaa was not as tempted to pursue a career in the title, explaining that he did enjoy the game when it was released but stopped putting time into it once he had the offer from Chaos in hand.
Both leaf and Xeppaa made an immediate impression under steel’s lead, once again continuing to improve statistically — averaging 1.27 and 1.31 ratings, respectively, in MDL Season 34 — while also passing the eye test, earning praise from other pro players, broadcast talent members, and viewers alike. When it came to playing under the leadership of steel, the duo had only good things to say. "His experience helps a lot with learning how to think about the decisions you make and why they’re right or wrong," leaf said. "Little mistakes that happen consistently can make you lose rounds, and those round losses can determine whether or not you win the game." Xeppaa made mention of the 30-year-old’s experience playing a large part in him learning new things in-game, before attempting to dispel the image that some hold of the Chaos captain. "He isn't this ragey psycho people make him seem to be."
The guidance and leadership of steel and their own individual improvements also helped Xeppaa and leaf hold their own against the likes of Liquid, FURIA, and MIBR in DreamHack Masters Spring North America as well as 100 Thieves and Gen.G in cs_summit 6 North America, although the effects of playing against a higher calibre of opposition were definitely felt. "There is a big difference between MDL teams and pro teams," Xeppaa explained when asked about the jump in calibre of his opposition. “Their team play in general is way harder to compete against, but I’d like to say I've been able to contend with them." leaf expressed similar sentiments, explaining that "these teams aren’t like MDL teams where they’ll do the same thing in every match — they’ll know your tendencies and what to do against them. It’s a big learning curve but it’s definitely easier to get used to the more you play against them."
Of course, the pair’s performance against MIBR in the cs_summit 6 North America was what really put their names in the public eye after they were accused of cheating by prominent members of the community. For 16-year-old and 19-year-old players breaking out onto the world stage to be harassed and verbally abused by hundreds, if not thousands, of fans, and to have their labored and storied road to the top dismissed by a pro player many look up to in the form of FalleN, cannot have been easy. However, leaf is taking it in stride.
"The cheating accusations haven’t really affected the way I play, although it was hard to play the best-of-threes against Gen.G and 100 Thieves immediately the week after," leaf explained. "I’m back to being comfortable with the way I play and obviously winning WINNERS League and Mythic League made for a good closure heading into player break. I definitely think after Covid-19 is over and I have the opportunities to play LANs and prove people wrong, it’ll be a lot more redeeming. I’m comfortable with my team right now and I don’t think I’ll let my nerves get to me."
Although they have certainly taken a step up by joining Chaos, it's safe to say that Xeppaa and leaf’s careers in this game are still in their fledgling stages as they now look to make an impression on the world stage, an opportunity that will await them once offline tournaments make a return. In a region where rising talent is in short supply, especially following the release of VALORANT, the Chaos duo have clearly established their names as ones to keep an eye on, with few able to doubt their talent and ability to play the game at a high level online. Now, it’s left to be seen whether Xeppaa will live up to the comparisons to Ethan drawn by JoshRT, and whether leaf can maintain his strong form once the player break reaches its end and offline play eventually returns.