tabseN: "I have figured out what I need the most — to be treated like family"
Johannes "tabseN" Wodarz has been considered an elite player for years, and despite long drought periods with his team, he hasn't entertained the option to leave BIG for greener pastures. Through a talk with the 25-year-old German and his current coach, we explore his exceptional loyalty and discuss the path he has chosen.
Some stories begin in unusual ways. In April 2016, the German-American NRG lineup was travelling to Croatia for Counter Pit Season 2 when Peter "ptr" Gurney — mid-flight—, suffered a fractured ankle as a result of turbulence. The team's AWPer returned home to receive treatment, leaving the rest of the squad to hustle and find a last-minute replacement. That was when Fatih "gob b" Dayik and Nikola "LEGIJA" Ninić offered the chance to PENTA's tabseN, someone they knew from a shared stint in mousesports in 2014-15.
At the time, tabseN was nothing more than an ordinary German player who was averaging a 1.01 career rating, mainly playing in domestic competitions and the lower tiers of Europe. But after the first series played for NRG at the LAN event, the hype train was real. The last-minute replacement turned out to be a super-sub, dominating Envy (then ranked fifth in the world) with a 1.29-rated performance to help NRG (ranked 31st) send the Frenchmen packing early. The team finished the event in 3rd-4th place, with the natural next step being for tabseN to join the team full time, moving to North America and starting his tutelage under one of the most tenured in-game leaders, gob b.
tabseN is confident that ptr's unfortunate injury set him on a path he wouldn't be on otherwise. "I had other plans back then. I was about to join another team, which was also an American one", he reveals, adding that linking up with his countrymen was still on the cards. "Maybe our paths would have still crossed and there would have still been an opportunity to get in touch and play with Fatih [gob b], since he, Niko [LEGIJA] and I were already pretty close."
A crucial period for tabseN followed, as, far away from the distractions of everyday life, he developed into an industrious, hardworking competitor. "We were playing 12-15 hours a day, talking about Counter-Strike, going on the server, trying to make some moves and trying to understand the game", tabseN remembers, noting that before NRG he was a good aimer but didn't put in the necessary hours for other aspects of the game. "gob b taught me about grenades, movement, ways you could think about the game just to have an advantage for yourself and the whole team". While the team's results in North America were nothing to write home about, tabseN showed that his Counter Pit performance wasn't a one-off, averaging a team-high 1.10 rating while representing NRG in 2016.
"If I hadn't been in NRG at that time, I think I wouldn't be here now", he stated back at ESL One Cologne 2019. Shortly after that, gob b retired from competition, leaving tabseN to take over the helm of Die Mannschaft — BIG.
While the German scene was noteworthy in the days of CS 1.6, the country struggled to have a consistent presence in the upper echelons of the Global Offensive competitive circuit during the first few years of the game. Organizations like mousesports and PENTA leaving domestic players behind and going international was just one indicator of that struggle.
Things started to change at the start of 2017, when the NRG core returned home to create Berlin International Gaming. BIG was built on the core of tabseN, gob b, and LEGIJA, with Kevin "keev" Bartholomäus and Johannes "nex" Maget completing the roster. The hope and expectations of the whole nation were on the team, who didn't take long to deliver.
A second-place finish at the domestic DreamHack Open Leipzig 2017, their first LAN event, set them on a good course, and as they battled through the fierce competition in the Old Continent, more and more of the spotlight was on tabseN. His play in North America was respectful, but it was only after his displays in Europe that he started gaining notoriety as the hard-carry of BIG. In the first three months of 2017 he averaged a 1.23 rating, nex followed fairly closely at 1.17, while the rest of the team was below the 1.04 mark.
The disparity only grew as time went on, with the public opinion quickly becoming that tabseN was too good for BIG. An excerpt from BIG mission: Make German CS great again, written by Luís "MIRAA" Mira ahead of the PGL Major Main Qualifier in June 2017, describes how outstanding he was: "There are only three players in the world who better tabseN’s current 1.30 LAN Rating for 2017 – Ismailcan "XANTARES" Dörtkardeş, Hansel "BnTeT" Ferdinand, and Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač."
At the time, all four players were promising statistical standouts, but perhaps due to his experience in English-speaking teams and the reputation of German CS, tabseN seemed like the safest bet to become an elite player. That's why witnessing him have to go 38K-22D just for BIG to edge out wins over underdogs like Tengri left many wondering if his time with the team was going to end sooner rather than later.
tabseN posted incredible ratings (1.51 in the Minor, 1.32 in the offline qualifier and 1.30 at the Major) and was the standout for BIG in their PGL Krakow Major campaign as they surpassed expectations by making the playoffs — their first breakout result. As time passed, BIG were able to make a few more incredible runs, namely finishing second at ESL One Cologne 2018, but lacked consistency in results and went through a number of roster changes trying to find the right formula. As early as 2018, tabseN was questioned about other teams and his loyalty to the German outfit: "I could've done things in different ways," he said after the grand final defeat in Cologne, "but I feel like I've put so much time and so much effort into this team, and also into the BIG organization".
"I will probably always stay in BIG because I feel at home here", tabseN concluded.
tabseN's playstyle has changed quite a bit over the years. Initially an aggressive rifler, he toned it down as time went on and started to move towards AWPing in 2018, as things didn't quite work out with any of the team's previous snipers - keev, Niels "luckeRRR" Jasiek, and Owen "smooya" Butterfield. The next year, he also became the in-game leader, putting an immense amount of responsibility on his own shoulders.
Changing roles "was always a team decision", tabseN notes, not something he did on his own whim. His current coach, Tobias "tow b" Herberhold, describes the BIG captain as someone who has an outstanding "will to win", which drives him to do things many would shy away from: "Not everyone is willing to put their ego aside, change habits if necessary, and do everything for their team to succeed. That’s what tabseN is able to do. That's why he is a great IGL and teammate as well. He is always open to new stuff, even if he has never heard of something before he will give it a serious try."
Adaptability and diligence are great traits to have, but they don't transfer into results directly, which tabseN felt in the second half of 2019 as BIG were heading straight downhill under his leadership. "I got into the IGL role way before it was announced and, honestly, I did a terrible job at first," tabseN admits. But passing on the responsibility — as many other star players have done after a bad month or two — wasn't on the table for the 25-year-old: "Of course, I knew that giving up was not a choice at all for me, so that’s why I focused on working and improving my weaknesses".
tabseN acknowledges that 2019 was "the hardest period" for the team. "After the disappointing Katowice Major and several lineup changes, including gob leaving the team, we were not able to get synergy between us". Things didn't pick up after the addition of tow b, but tabseN refused to give up: "I didn't question myself or my teammates, but it was of course not easy to deal with the situation at all".
At the start of 2020, after finally consolidating their roster and moving back to German communication, BIG found themselves sitting in 46th place in the world rankings. tabseN had to dig his team out of a deep hole and get back on track quickly.
Thankfully for BIG, the additions of Florian "syrsoN" Rische and Nils "k1to" Gruhne helped transform the team, but it required tabseN's role on the server to change once again. He passed on the AWP to syrsoN and went back to rifle-hybrid play, albeit a more passive variant of it. tow b explained how putting k1to in the aggressive role was the missing piece for the squad: "He took over many of tabseN's and XANTARES' positions as T. That's why we were able to get XANTARES more often in clutch situations, in which he has always shined. Also, tabseN was able to fall back to a position where he stays alive longer — which is really valuable for us since he is in direct control of rounds."
Stacked like no BIG lineup before, the German team has sometimes given the impression that it has thrown away a lot of what had made the previous rosters great to begin with — a solid tactical understanding and utility usage rivaled only by peak Astralis— in order to play to their new strengths.
tow b dismisses that idea, saying that the approach he has developed together with tabseN and gob b is a mixture of Sprout's "loose style in the beginning of the rounds" and BIG's "unique understanding of equipment usage", resulting in "brilliant executes and strong CT sides". tabseN also rejects the notion that they were throwing away gob b's teachings: "I learned the most of my in-game knowledge from Fatih, there is still a lot of him in the way I play and lead". At the same time, he credits tow b for bringing new ideas that have helped him develop as an in-game leader.
A significant problem BIG had to deal with following the departure of legendary captain gob b was transitioning from an old system of leadership where the in-game leader called for everyone, setting things up to the smallest detail, to a modern one where players are given a larger degree of independence and responsibility, freeing up the leader to provide more fragging output.
"I am mostly focusing on myself, getting a good flow in the game and talking with Tobi about the gameplan", tabseN explains. In this online era, some teams have passed on more responsibility to coaches, but tabseN is still calling the shots during rounds. "We treat online matches just as LAN matches, so I am calling all the time, Tobi takes well thought-out timeouts and gives his input."
As the 2020 season kicked off, BIG were fast to prove that last year's struggles were far behind them, starting with a victory at DreamHack Open Leipzig — the same place where they had first shown promise three years earlier.
A dramatic period followed, during which BIG lost a place in Pro League, qualified for Flashpoint but then pulled out of the North American competition as the coronavirus spread saw a spot open up in ESL's competition. "Our highest priorities were to not get burned out while we get the best quality practice time and still have enough time with our families and loved ones so that everyone is happy," tow b explains. A family-like approach in which the atmosphere in the team is a priority has always been a core value for BIG.
The decision turned out to be the right one as achievements which surprised even the most delusional BIG fans followed in the second half of the online season. The German outfit won DreamHack Masters Spring and cs_summit 6, and qualified for the next season of Pro League. By being the most consistent team in a very erratic era (80.6% match win rate over last three months at the time of writing), they skyrocketed through the rankings, going from 24th all the way up to first in a two-week period. Even the ever-optimistic tabseN wasn't confident in them taking their first title until they showed up strongly in the group stage.
"To be fair, I am a positive guy and I believed in us more than anyone else, but to actually win DreamHack Masters I knew we needed to step up in the tournament," he says. "I am incredibly happy and proud of the results we had, it is still hard to realize that we managed to come so far. I am very confident of the work we put in and I am sure our results will not change too much on LAN. We treat all online matches like LAN tournaments, we have been bootcamping and practicing hard for every tournament."
The critics of BIG, who have long hoped to see tabseN join FaZe, mousesports, or even a North American team such as Liquid to make the most of his potential, were finally silenced after the team's latest endeavours. Three years into his tenure, tabseN has reached new heights with BIG, and interestingly, he is not the main carry he once was. Instead of trying to push his individual performance further, he underwent changes to become what the team needed, and one might argue that his importance now as the in-game leader is even greater than what it was when he had to be the main carry all the time.
"To be honest, my goal has always been to become the best player in the world playing alongside the best team", tabseN says, in a way admitting that he gave up on half of the goal in order to facilitate his squad. "Becoming the best player is a goal which cannot always be fulfilled, but becoming the best team in the world is a dream come true".
tabseN is someone who likes to leave the past behind, but he does his best to explain his loyalty to BIG: "I have figured out what I need the most — to be treated like family within an organisation that actually cares about what we are doing for a living". Where others are quick to jump ship, tabseN prioritizes the healthy relationship with those around him and the family-like environment within BIG: "I've had my own experiences with people in the scene and I learned from that. It has been a long time finding what's best for me."
"The German scene wasn't the best environment for young players, there were also some troubles with organizations, regarding payments and loyalty," tabseN expands, adding that joining players that he trusted in NRG and gaining international experience changed a lot for him. "When we created BIG in 2017 it was clear for me that I only wanted to play and work with people I could trust, and when you look at BIG as an organization today it's mostly the same people as in the beginning, of course with some new additions".
"This is one of the places where I gain my motivation and confidence from."
In a competitive discipline where careers are short and in-form periods are over in a flash, it is no surprise that players aren't willing to endure poor spells in teams for years, hoping to rebound down the line. Franchise players do exist in Counter-Strike, but it would be difficult to find a player with the potential of tabseN who struggled as much as he did with BIG. It is exactly that struggle that makes his allegiance to the German side appealing, and their recent results enjoyable to witness.
Will BIG hold the No.1 spot and fill up their trophy cabinet by the end of the year? Can tabseN continue leading his squad to success and build a legacy as an IGL akin to gob b? That remains to be seen. But being at the helm of the first German team to reach the No.1 spot in the world has already earned tabseN a place in the game's history, and the tenacity he has shown throughout his career makes it hard to believe he will stop at this.