The story of RpK: How 'The Tank' keeps defying the odds
Cédric "RpK" Guipouy is one of the rare cases of players who were able to take a long-term hiatus when Counter-Strike still wasn't a viable career option and successfully make a comeback years after hanging up the mouse. He is also still pushing the boundaries today as he enters his thirties.
"We haven’t yet fully grasped the magnitude of what's happening. It’s a huge blow to the players who have been preparing for this specific goal for weeks now… More than three months of work just vanished," read the first paragraph of a statement written by Titan manager Jérôme "NiaK" Sudries when the French team was disqualified from the fourth CS:GO Major, DreamHack Winter 2014, and barred from playing the qualifier with a new fifth after Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian was handed a VAC ban just days before the event.
Titan were left to pick up the pieces when the dust settled, playing with coach Jeremy "ioRek" Vuillermet during the last month of 2014. At a time when CS:GO was young enough to not have a wide pool of native players, NiaK and his team dug deep to try and find the best replacement possible, eventually coming up with a solution that could not only provide a reliable asset to the roster if it panned out, but that would also be a positive force to clean up a PR disaster that had rocked not only the French squad, but the Counter-Strike scene as a whole. They went after a beloved player who had walked away from the game almost two years earlier, when a career in esports was not a viable path for many.
"I'll always remember this, I was doing a road test on a car that I was working on and NiaK called me on my cell phone," RpK tells HLTV.org. "I saw his name pop up on my screen and in my head I was already saying, 'no, no way, none of this business,' but I picked up anyway. I must have been on the side of the road on the line with him for over 40 minutes and I remember telling him straight up to not bullshit me. At first I didn't believe him at all, I thought it was all lies, but he took the time to explain how the scene had grown and then I went home to watch the videos, the stadiums full of people, etc. When I saw it all I found it magical, I thought it was a crazy world, and the question then became whether I would be able to make a comeback or not."
RpK had been away from Counter-Strike since early 2013, having gone on to work with his father as a car mechanic after a storied six-year career that started in Counter-Strike: Source and ended in the very early days of Global Offensive. Despite being considered one of the best Source players to touch the game, plying his trade on the most dominant team before switching to Global Offensive, adulthood crept up on RpK at a time when he couldn’t earn a livable wage, forcing him to hang up the mouse.
"I started to get older and I didn't have anything else in my life other than Counter-Strike," he says, "and at that time we weren't making much money. Sure, we had contracts and earned a few bucks, but we couldn't make a living like we do these days. At the time, I didn't think the game would grow to the point where people could live off of it, so I had to make a decision. It was one I wished I didn't have to make, but it wasn't possible for me to continue down the path I was going, spending so many hours on the game and not getting much in return, so I opened a business with my father and became a mechanic. I cut ties with the whole scene because I didn't want to be tempted, I didn't want to say to myself: 'OK, Ced, let's go back to playing.’"
The move to bring RpK back from retirement was a risky one for Titan. Legendary players who hadn’t made the transition from CS 1.6 or Source to CS:GO were planning comebacks when the new version of the game started to take off and to become a lucrative career opportunity between 2013 and 2015, but the results were mostly poor as the players who had remained active were constantly pushing the game's boundaries and competition started to become more and more fierce. Despite the possibility of a flop, RpK and Titan believed they could create an atmosphere that would allow him to get back up to speed and play at a top level as his transition would be eased by a tight group of players who were well acquainted with one another from the past.
Another point going in RpK’s favor was that he had been one of the more active players in the early days of the new game. "When we started with CS:GO, we knew NiP were going to be hot, especially GeT_RiGhT," he says of the time before he took the two-year hiatus. "He was like me, he played a lot during the beta before the game even came out. I used to play on the same servers as him all of the time, so I knew he was getting ready to make the jump. When we started to play against them we were all pretty even skillwise, but their in-game IQ was higher. I found them to be smarter in certain aspects and when we played them it was like they were always a step ahead." NiP then established themselves as the dominant force in Counter-Strike after Global Offensive was released and went on an 87-0 streak on LAN. RpK's VeryGames played four events in 2012 and finished all of them in second place behind the Swedes, but it was at that year's DreamHack Winter that RpK shone brightest, ending at the top of the stats leaderboard with a 1.38 rating despite the 0-2 loss in the final to Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund and company.
"I think what Titan expected when I came back was ‘The Tank,’ someone who is solid and strong in his positions," RpK says referencing his other nickname. "I think they also believed in the fact that I could evolve and make up for lost time, which is in turn what I expected from them as well, that they could help me catch up to speed so that I could give them my strengths: being solid individually and a good team player. It wasn't easy at first, though, I was very far from the level that I have since reached, and just being able to feel good in my positions took a really long time.
“I played a bit at home with an old computer during the Christmas period, but when I tried out [for the team] I went to bootcamp in Belgium and that's when I started to really play and pick everything back up. What's funny is that after two years I didn't really feel like I had lost a lot of my skill, it came back really quickly, it was the meta that was a whole new world — I was completely lost. I couldn't understand anything that was going on around me, and on top of that I had never been particularly strong with utility, so I was totally out of my element. Killing people, that was fine, but everything else was incredibly hard for me."
Many things had changed in the two years RpK was away from the scene, and just as Counter-Strike's popularity had grown by leaps and bounds, the way the game was played had also become more complex. Positions for coaches and analysts were starting to open up, organizations had gaming houses at their disposal and the frantic rhythm of a packed schedule meant teams had to constantly evolve or risk falling behind. "During the whole Titan period I was trying to really understand what was going on around me," RpK says, "I had never been one of the hardest workers when it came to understanding the game, I wasn't like apEX, who spends hours upon hours in the server, if I did that my brain would melt. I think the reason it took me so much time to get my old level back was that, while I understood that the game had evolved, I still had the same mentality from my Source days. I thought I could be a good player without needing to spend too much time in the game, so I kind of rested on my laurels telling myself that everything would work out, which is not what ended up happening at all. It took time for me to realize that I needed to get serious in order to become a good player, but as far as thinking about going back to working with cars, I never wanted to go back, I was fully into Counter-Strike even if I was refusing to see the reality, which was that I needed to work much harder than I had before."
At ASUS ROG Winter 2015, RpK’s first event since his return, he found himself once again on the losing end of a grand final match against NiP, followed by another second-place finish at the Inferno Online Pantamera Challenge, this time falling to fnatic in the final. Shortly afterward, Titan played their first Major since the KQLY incident after a successful run in the IEM Katowice 2015 Main Qualifier, but an opening 14-16 loss to local rivals Envy followed by an elimination match loss to PENTA marked an early exit for the team. Despite the blunder, Titan established themselves as a solid playoff contender, with several quarter-final and semi-final finishes and the odd push to a grand final, but they were never able to stabilize at the top and were always a step behind their Envy counterparts. When Vincent "Happy" Schopenhauer's side started to stagnate by mid-2015, a French shuffle took place, with Kenny "kennyS" Schrub and Dan "apEX" Madesclaire moving to Envy while Richard "shox" Papillon and Edouard "SmithZz" Dubourdeaux went in the other direction. The shuffle didn't do much for Titan’s aspirations, however, as they still struggled to become title contenders and had a particularly hard time at the remaining two Majors of 2015, going out of ESL One Cologne and DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca in the group stage. Envy went on to lift the trophy in Romania, proving they had come out on top in the trade deal.
RpK wasn't much of a gamechanger for Titan in the statistical department, but his calm temperament and measured approach made him a bulwark of the team as the game started to become more and more nuanced and other players stepped up to fill the prime roles. "I do find myself in some of the harder positions in the game," RpK says of his evolution as a player since his return, "but that doesn't really bother me. I like being in my little corner doing my own thing. When it comes to comparing my CS:S and CS:GO careers, it was easy to play Source because we could get multi-kills, no analysts or coaches were watching us, so it was easy to surprise people and get double or triple kills, we just played duels and since that was my strength I could be a star player, whereas in CS:GO if I play duels the way I did back then... It's just not possible, I'd be smoked or flashed immediately. The game has changed so much, like night and day."
Titan closed its doors at the end of 2015 citing financial problems stemming in part from KQLY’s VAC ban a year earlier, and the Franco-Belgian team found itself without a home in early 2016. G2 owner Carlos "ocelote” Rodríguez was in the market for a new squad at the same time, having sold his star-studded European lineup to FaZe [read more about it here], and a deal was struck to bring the team managed by NiaK into the former League of Legends mid laner's organization. "G2 was more professional," RpK says. "There was a certain pressure to get results immediately. Personally, I've always dealt with pressure pretty well. When things don't work, they don't work, and that's that, I don't think of all of the different outcomes that could have happened. It went mostly well there, we could have done better, sure, but I believed in that team up until the Envy switch... which was when I didn't believe in it anymore [laughs]."
RpK spent one year in G2 during which they had a mixed bag of results. His Major curse continued, with the French team going out in the group stage once again at MLG Columbus, where they lost their opening match and the decider to a struggling Virtus.pro, knocking Cloud9 out in the process. G2 then alternated between good and bad events, now with Alexandre "bodyy" Pianaro in Kévin "Ex6TenZ" Droolans's place, finishing DreamHack Masters Malmö in 13-16th place before taking second place at the ESL Pro League Season 3 Finals, and going out in 11-14th place at ELEAGUE Season 1 followed by their best result yet, when they raised the trophy at the first ECS Finals in London. Individually, RpK finished with a 1.24 rating at the event in London, his top performance at a Big Event in 2016.
Once again, G2 were unable to transfer their good ECS result and hit another a wall at a Major, going out last at ESL One Cologne 2016 after losses to SK and fnatic in the tournament's group of death. They then followed it up with a second place finish, this time at the SL i-League StarSeries Season 2 Finals, but ended up fizzling out, unable to make deep playoff runs at Big Events for the remainder of the year. The squad stuck together through the winter break ahead of the first Major of 2017, the ELEAGUE Major, but changes that had been in the making during the player break materialized after the two French teams in attendance flopped out of the group stage.
"We've always had problems with stability in France, which affected our ability to evolve as a team," RpK says. "History always repeated, and players changed teams. You can feel when it's coming, when the atmosphere isn't great. I can feel when things don't go well immediately, and this time around I wasn't in the loop of what was going on, so I felt things were off. It was weird that people weren't talking to me much and I quickly realized that it was because I wasn't in the plans for the future. Getting cut from a team hadn't happened much to me in my career, so when it happened I had the sudden realization that I had some problems to deal with in the game. I told myself that it was important to show a different side of me moving forward, so when things ended with G2, it really got to me and I wanted to show what I could be capable of as a sort of revenge."
G2 put together what was dubbed the French 'super team' after the Major, uniting the scenes’ two brightest stars, shox and kennyS, under the same banner, with apEX, Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt and bodyy filling the remaining slots in the starting roster, while SmithZz took over coaching duties. The leftovers, RpK, Adil "ScreaM" Benrlitom, Happy and Christophe "SIXER" Xia, formed Envy's new team with Alexandre "xms" Forté as the new fifth player and Damien "maLeK" Marcel as coach.
"The famous G2/Envy shuffle happened and that's when I told myself, ‘OK, Ced, it's time to stop messing around, you're going to have to work really hard now,’" RpK recalls. "That's when I gave my best. I had been given a second chance to make a comeback and got myself removed from a lineup, so I realized that at any moment I could be out in the cold and I did everything in my power to make myself as good as I could so that I wouldn't go on to regret anything. This is what I've been doing since the end of my time in G2, and that's why I think that I was able to shine during my whole time with Envy."
Envy’s new roster got off to a rough start with back-to-back 7-8th place finishes at cs_summit Spring and DreamHack Open Tours, where RpK had two forgettable showings, but he quickly became the driving force behind the team, highlighted by a 1.24 rating in Envy’s 5-6th place finish at the ESL Pro League Season 5 Finals and a 1.29 rating in their DreamHack Open Atlanta title run. That roster never became a Big Event title contender, and even missed out on the PGL Major in Krakow after finishing fourth in the Europe Minor, but RpK kept showing individual prowess, becoming key to Envy’s playoff run at ELEAGUE CS:GO Premier, which he ended with a 1.37 rating, particularly excelling in the Group C decider match against NiP with a 1.41 rating in the three-map series.
Not long after their 5-8th place finish in ELEAGUE Premier, RpK had a health scare at the TBS Studios in Atlanta that ground his momentum to a halt. During the second day of the ELEAGUE Major Boston Main Qualifier, The Tank’s calm and collected demeanor changed and he could be seen struggling on the broadcast cameras during the team’s victory over Flash, after which he was taken to the hospital. "I don't tend to show much emotion," RpK says, "people have told me I appear cold, which I think is true, I do appear that way when people don't know me, and I tend to hide the things that are happening to me, so when I fell ill in the US I didn't tell anyone for a couple of days, I even played a game during which I could barely breathe. Those three days were a rollercoaster, sometimes I was OK and other times it was a catastrophe. When I finally went to the hospital they did an X-ray of my lungs and told me I had a huge problem, a fourth of my lung wasn't showing up on the X-ray and there were some complications. I had a pneumonia that had become a triple infection of my right lung, and honestly, at that point, the game didn't exist for me anymore—all I could think about was surviving. Three or four days later I started to get better, when they found a way to cure me, but there was a time in which I really believed that was it, the end."
As someone who has his feet on the ground and is thankful that he was given a second opportunity to have the career he always dreamed of, this other second chance reinforced RpK’s positive outlook on life. "I come from a rough background," he says, "and although of course there are always people who are worse off, it helps me be thankful for making it to where I am. After 'staring death in the face' I told myself that I really needed to live everything deeply, take all of the opportunities I get and do everything in my power to be happy and satisfied. I’ve never been one to complain much, and this really intensified my joie de vivre."
Meanwhile, Envy had failed to qualify for the Major with coach maLeK standing in for the team. When RpK got back into the server with his teammates, they continued to struggle to find their place, adding Fabien "kioShiMa" Fiey and Ali "hAdji" Haïnouss to the squad for xms and SIXER, but Envy were still in a hole they could not get out of, losing their ESL Pro League spot following painful losses to AGO and Windigo in the Season 7 Relegations and calling it quits after a harrowing 5-6th place on home soil at DreamHack Open Tours.
Rumors of a new team involving apEX and NBK- started to swirl in the summer of 2018. The benched G2 duo then got bought out by Vitality, who also signed the French rising star Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, now allowed to pursue a career in esports by his parents after passing his baccalauréat, and the ex-Envy duo of Happy and RpK. They struggled with online qualifiers early on, but got off to a flying start on LAN at DreamHack Open Atlanta, where they lifted their first trophy. Despite the small victory, Vitality experienced growing pains and moved Happy to the bench to open up a spot for Alex "ALEX" McMeekin. The revitalized roster popped off and made its way through the IEM Katowice Europe Minor and the ensuing New Challengers Stage, but it was brought back to earth in the New Legends Stage, which it finished with a 2-3 record, losing the deciding series to NiP.
After the Major group stage exit, Vitality really started to hit their stride, winning the smaller Charleroi Esports before lifting the trophy at cs_summit 4. They then won their first Big Event, the ECS Season 7 Finals, and established themselves as one of the top teams in the world with a second-place finish at the prestigious ESL One Cologne. It was then that RpK finally broke his Major curse: after seven failed attempts, he finally made the playoffs of a Major, appearing on stage at the Mercedes-Benz Arena during the StarLadder Major in Berlin. "At the time I was so focused on the competition that I didn't really pay much attention to it," he recalls, "but looking back on it, it's so cool. It's particularly pleasing to have done it with this team, and to see that we're doing well ever since. It's also nice to see that there were French fans there brought out by our chairman, Neo. That was amazing. It was really heartwarming. I'm someone who doesn't show emotions much, as I stated earlier, but I was really touched. To this day I still think this is all nuts and I find it extremely cool."
Despite reaching the playoffs in Germany, internal quarrels within the team reached unmanageable levels and NBK- was removed from the starting lineup. To substitute him, Vitality brought in shox and they kept competing at the top level, finishing second at DreamHack Masters Malmö and winning their last event of the year, EPICENTER 2019. "We weren't ready for ALEX to leave, that really hurt us," RpK says of the British tactician's shocking decision to step down due to burnout stemming from the itinerant life that came with event-hopping before the coronavirus pandemic ground the world to a halt. "But apEX taking the lead has been good. He's a super hard worker and a great leader in and out of the game, he's somebody who's very close to me and he's always willing to sacrifice himself for the team. Thanks to that we're back on a high. Bringing in misutaaa was also a huge leap, especially for him, as he came out of nowhere, but we're doing the best we can and little by little we're getting there. It's a real pleasure to see the results we're capable of achieving even though we haven’t been able to stabilize completely just yet."
At 30 years old, RpK is on the older end of the spectrum in Counter-Strike, but that hasn’t slowed The Tank down. "What's interesting is that as time passes I feel better and better in the game, and that's pretty cool," he says. "The only thing I've really had to change is my mouse sensitivity. I've always been a low-sensitivity player, I had 1.10 in 2015 and now I'm up to 1.35, but other than that I've not really had to change anything. As far as reflexes go, I don't feel like anything has changed, either. When I look at my performances, I actually feel like I’m getting better and better." It's not just his sensitivity that has changed with age, however, but also his sensibilities. "I can't do all-nighters anymore, it's impossible to stay up playing until five or six in the morning," RpK says, laughing. "On a more serious note, there is a certain madness to youth, but with experience I’ve learned to know what I need, how I need to act and how I need to prepare for certain matches, whereas with youth the energy is dispersed all over the place. It's important to find the balance and that's something that comes with maturity."
RpK has also found balance outside of the game in his longtime passion for cars, which has provided a way for him to reconcile his gaming career and his personal life. "I'm fairly discreet in my day to day life,” he says. "But when it comes to cars and speed, that's what allows me to have a release. That's where I can express some of the craziness. It's what brings balance and allows me to still be here at 30 with a huge passion for the game, and although I do spend less time on the server than many others, what I know is that it's important to have a physical and mental balance to be able to persist in time. Having this escape valve allows me to take in life fully, so when I return to the game I'm completely focused and happy to be there doing what I'm doing. It comes down to mental strength, day to day, to not crack.
"It's more mental than physical, and there's also a big social part. Personally, I think 30-year-old players who were legends back in the day and could have kept playing didn't because their social lives change and it impacts their relationship with the game. We have to do all we can so that everything goes well in life, because that has a direct impact on our performance on the server. I get my balance by lifting weights, doing physical work, and through my escape valve, which is driving cars. Without these, I think my performances would have gone way down and like many players my age, I would have quit because at that point you start to lose faith in yourself. Every day I fight to remain confident and to give as much as I possibly can to my team, which is why I think that I can still be around now and that’s what makes me believe I still have some good years ahead of me."
The first season of 2020 was a challenge for everyone in Counter-Strike, from players to tournament organizers to fans, as the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have disrupted life on a global scale. It was particularly hard on RpK, whose past respiratory issues put him in an at-risk group. “I was worried because I've had problems before," he says, "and of course it's going to affect me, so CS kind of fell into the background during the first month. I made sure to see that everyone close to me was safe, but it was CS pretty much non-stop up until the player break. Truth be told, it has been a pretty hard time. I can completely understand why so many players have experienced burnout because what makes us ready and motivated is that we get to travel to tournaments and live very intense moments. When you take that away, you're just sitting at home behind the computer and the flame just doesn’t burn as brightly. Competition just isn't as transcendental.
"One of the things I'm thankful for is that at least I have my car here at home, and some people may find this silly, but just hearing the engine roar, to be able to accelerate — within reason, we’re not trying to be the Fast and the Furious here—, that brings me joy, it makes me feel safe, but it's not easy. Online tournaments have carried a huge load of matches, too, and that makes it extra hard to stay constantly focused and motivated. Playing from home can be very tough, mentally."
RpK continues to enjoy himself, so the thought of what might come next doesn't cross his mind. "I really don't [think about my future] because I believe that when you start to think that way it’s because you're ready to stop," he says. "My goal is to keep going as long as possible and I'd love to be the oldest player still performing. Why not? That would be crazy. As long as I'm ready for it mentally and I don't have any physical problems, I want to give myself fully to my team and keep living beautiful moments."