How three players are changing the face of Israeli Counter-Strike
Guy "anarkez" Trachtman, Lotan "Spinx" Giladi and Shahar "flameZ" Shushan are shifting the paradigm in Israel, where the old dream of creating a team that could mimic Luminosity’s meteoric rise in 2015 and 2016 is giving way to a generation of players who are striving to forge their own paths in the international scene.
Israeli Counter-Strike has never had strong ties to either the rest of the Middle East or Europe, be it due to political turmoil, language barriers or geographical location, but locally there was once a bustling circuit with over a dozen teams competing at offline events every couple of months during the heyday of LAN cafés in the 2000s. “At first, 14 teams were fighting to be the best,” says Avraham "spooky" Maduel, one of the most storied players in the 1.6 scene, who played at ESWC 2011 with eSrael. “But then the number reduced to two or three teams as the player base diminished.”
As the pace slowed down, players in Israel took a particularly long time to break with the old versions of the game before making the jump to Global Offensive, with most switching over only in 2014, two years after its release. It wasn’t until 2016 that Israel made a blip on the radar when spooky and some of the more established players finished second in ESEA Main. Despite getting promoted to ESEA Premier (MDL’s precursor), the good result ended up being three of the veteran players’ swan songs, and as spooky and company gave way to a younger generation, the team was then relegated from Premier in last place with a 1-15 record. "It wasn't worth it in Israel," spooky, who was in his mid-twenties at the time and was starting to have to deal with real-life commitments, recalls. "You didn't get a salary, it was just for fun and in the end, people realized that. Going professional was a fairytale. We wanted it, there were rumors it would happen, but deep down we knew it wasn’t really going to happen.”
An unproven anarkez, with whom many people didn’t want to play because of cheating rumours, had got his first shot with spooky. The veteran gave the youngster a spot on a team when he was just 15 after seeing potential in him, but he didn’t learn much from his elders. Another young talent, Guy "NertZ" Iluz, who went on to become one of the most winning players in the local scene as a mainstay in the country’s best team, Uniquestars, had also played alongside spooky early on in his career, but in an environment that didn’t provide stability, youngsters had to find their own way to the top. As spooky himself puts it, "good players like Nertz and anarkez did all of the work by themselves, nobody really taught them,” which anarkez corroborated, stating that he “learned how to play by watching demos.”
Spinx and flameZ joined the fray later on, and although they went on to forge their own paths through FPL, they took their first steps in that same environment. The older of the two, Spinx, took up Counter-Strike in 2012 but quit soon afterward and didn’t pick it back up until 2016. “I was just a normal kid at school all day and going out with friends, but I wanted to play some CS, just randomly, and I knew Global Offensive had come out,” he recalls. "At the beginning, I was always looking up to Nertz and those guys because they were the best in Israel, but eventually I wanted more. I didn't want to just be part of an Israeli team that would be forgotten.”
In flameZ’s case, he had become acquainted with CS all the way back in 1.6 before he turned 10. “I mostly played on bunnyhop servers, [just] enjoying it and playing for fun,” he says. He continued playing casually after transitioning to CS:GO in 2014 before eventually moving on to PUGs, to which he was introduced by his older brother Shiran "shushan" Shushan, a more established player in the scene. He took part in smaller tournaments with friends, but some negative experiences made him aware of the need to step out of his sibling’s shadow.
“Someone was trash-talking me, saying that I was just there because I was shushan's brother,” he recalls. “At that point, I told myself I wanted to become the best I could, but also become the best person I could be for the Israeli community and not get full of myself.”
Teams in Israel were mostly informal affairs early on, without any real financial backing and with the sole goal of getting the best players together to win the two or three local LANs that were held every year. “We had a lot of changes in Uniquestars,” NertZ says of his team, usually the squad to beat in the early days of CS:GO in Israel. "It was just a bunch of friends getting together. We just played local LANs and if we won that, we were the best in Israel. We weren't looking at the European scene or the international scene, we just wanted to be the best in Israel.”
Mixes and teams were then assembled and dismantled every few months, and although the stakes weren’t very high, it was where players who are now starting to make their way through FPL-C, FPL and MDL took their first competitive steps. “We didn't have many LANs, maybe like six in three years, but those LANs gave me a lot of experience to play outside of home and feel what that's like,” anarkez says. “Of course it's not like playing a LAN in Europe, but it still gave me some experience.” LANs were also a place where youngsters could prove themselves against the more established players in the scene to start carving out a name for themselves and move up the local ladder. “What made some of the new up-and-comers like asYLum, meow and myself were those kinds of LANs, our performances and what we achieved there,” flameZ says. “Without them, players will not keep coming up.”
It wasn’t until 2017 that Israeli players started to pay more attention to the outside world. Uniquestars qualified for the IeSF World Championship, a tournament where they would go on to finish in 5-8th place after a quarter-final loss to MVP PK. “All of the Israeli players thought Uniquestars would win it because we didn't know any of the other teams playing there,” flameZ says. “We thought it would be easy, but it was like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re not winning this, there are better teams than them!’ So we started to understand that there were bigger things out there, that maybe you could skip the Israeli scene and go straight to the international scene to get better.”
Noah "buue" Nethanel Türnpu then became the first Israeli player to qualify for FPL in December of that same year, going on to play on Asterion and Smoke Criminals, early pan-European rosters. “He came out of nowhere and made FPL without being known in the scene, that's when we started to see his name in MDL,” flameZ says. “Everyone then started trying to get to ESEA Advanced and MDL. Before that, we just played in Main.”
buue, who quietly tried to pave a way for himself but never made enough noise to get the recognition that the current trio of Israeli FPL players are enjoying, had to maintain a part-time job and was eventually kicked out of FPL due to inactivity in 2018. He still tried to find his place in the Israeli scene before retiring due to back problems.
In 2018, another opportunity that allowed Israeli teams to dream about making it big outside of their borders arose when they were allowed to play the Middle East qualifier for the FACEIT Major's Asia Minor instead of having to go through the much more competitive European qualifiers. Uniquestars, now with anarkez on the roster, would once again be able to compete outside of Israel after winning the qualifier, which secured them a spot for the event at Twickenham Stadium. They went on to get eliminated by Tainted Minds in the Group B decider match, but after that milestone was reached, teams started getting more serious and the stakes became higher. “You need to understand that the Asia Minor qualifier is the best opportunity for an Israeli team to qualify for something,” NertZ says. “We put teams together half a year before that qualifier just to play it. The Asia Minor qualifier is the reason Israeli players make teams.”
exDT, another Israeli squad with anarkez on the roster, then made it to the IEM Katowice 2019 Asia Minor, which they played as Aequus, but the team suffered turmoil during the whole process. For starters, exDT was where flameZ played regularly, but not yet 16 years old at the time, he had to sit the qualifier out, something that had already happened before and ended up causing him to quit playing CS for several months out of frustration. The team carried on and qualified successfully, but internal disagreements led to two players getting removed ahead of the event, which they finished in last place, causing a rift that would eventually push anarkez to step away from the Israeli scene. “anarkez got used to being the star and for everything to work out, but the mentality of the players on his teams wasn't really what he expected from them and he kind of went out in a bad way,” says flameZ. “The changes on the team were mainly because of him and everyone took sides. He started to flame the scene after that, but it has since grown a lot with players like Spinx or myself. It just wasn't the right place for him back then.”
(Photo courtesy of Aequus)
anarkez, whom flameZ calls “the first hard worker in the scene,” saw a lack of discipline and bad attitudes towards the team’s goals as his main concerns and used this falling out as an opportunity to continue his journey outside of the country, linking up with Dmitry "hooch" Bogdanov and Sergey "starix" Ischuk in a project he eventually had to quit because of the mandatory military service in Israel. But anarkez, who was going through FPL-C at the time, liked playing on teams more than playing pick-up games, so he jumped at the opportunity to join a mix team composed of FPL-C and FPL players. “juanflatroo, sinnopsyy and rigoN wanted to play a qualifier together and they called me and tudsoN,” he recalls. “Something special happened, something magical, we just clicked somehow and won a lot of matches. Then we beat mousesports and we were all in shock, it was an insane result. I knew we would probably get offers after we beat them and Secret came to us, opening a door in our careers.”
Looking back, anarkez does lament the way some relationships with his peers broke down, and although he still keeps more of a distance from the Israeli scene than Spinx and flameZ, tensions diminished as he continued on his new path. “I do regret a bit that I was an outsider, it’s not about the friendships, but there'd be four guys on a team and then I'd be alone,” he says. “Even though I didn't like their attitude, I could have still been around them more. But after all of the good results happened with m1x and I signed with Secret, I can say that they mostly came to me and started to talk to me and we’re more friendly. They understood why I had acted that way.”
anarkez had been in the military for several months when he joined Secret, who offered him his first professional contract, but when it became harder and harder to reconcile the service with his burgeoning career, a decision had to be made. “I remember the first time I talked to the army about leaving, I had some personal stuff going on with my family, but they didn't believe me and were just seeing how I would react, so they gave me a new job which allowed me to go home every day,” he says. “I told myself that I'd do that job for a few months, see how it went and if teams would be okay with those conditions, but I saw it wasn't working out, so I tried again. At that point you literally need to cry in front of them, it's just like you're in a movie, and if you can get out of the army you're pretty lucky because they don't just let people out.” anarkez saw his discharge as a sign that things could start working out for him, and he took it as extra motivation. “This was something from heaven,” he says, “it was my opportunity to show that I could really make it.”
The military service, a 32-month commitment during many players’ peak formative years, has long been one of the biggest career-enders for gamers in Israel. “It affects the scene because there are players who are very good but that don't get easy jobs, like being a cook or something, which would allow them to go home every day,” flameZ says. “Many go into the army and do a proper military service that only allows them to go home two days a week, so they have no time to play CS. Many players have had to quit CS or stop playing in teams because of it.”
Spinx was also in the service when he fully committed to the FPL grind during the summer of 2019, when anarkez was starting to get results with m1x. “When I made FPL-C I didn't think I would make it to FPL,” Spinx says. “But one month I was top-5 with 40 games. I had a 70% win rate and I thought that if I kept playing and maintained that win rate I could make it to FPL, so I just decided that I was going to put everything in my life towards that and play as much as I could all day long. I didn't show up to the military that month, so I got a punishment and I had to stay on base for two weeks before I could go back home, but I qualified.”
Spinx, who had reached the top echelons of the local scene by then and had played the IEM Katowice 2019 qualifier with Uniquestars, became the first Israeli player to reach FPL since buue, edging out a second-placed anarkez, who still remembers the bitter moment vividly. “I was really mad about it, to be honest, I'm not going to lie,” anarkez says, laughing. “We weren't really friends at the time, but in the end, we're from the same country, so I was proud of him.”
(Photo courtesy of yourgame.co.il)
Spinx didn’t play FPL the month after qualifying as he slowly eased back into a routine upon his return home. “I didn't feel ready after those two weeks, so I played a lot of deathmatch and FACEIT with friends until I felt I was at my prime again to perform,” he says. “Then I started to play FPL and it was good at the beginning, everything was smooth, but after some time it started to get hard on me because I was still in the military and still had to go on base every day. I wanted to play FPL every single day, I wanted to play a lot, as much as I could, I wanted to win it, but the problem was that I didn't have much time. I didn't sleep much and my performance in FPL dropped. I’d be falling asleep in the middle of games and stuff like that, so after some time, two or three months, I had to choose between the military and CS.”
For Spinx, it ended up being relatively easy to get discharged. “I had a medical issue and the army can't keep you when you can't serve, so they had to let me go,” he says. But after all of his trials and tribulations, Spinx was dealt some bad news and was kicked out of the league he had fought so hard to get in. “Everything was good, I had just made top-3, but that month they kicked me and it was very hard on me. I was very sad about it, but it wasn't a blow to my motivation, it was the opposite. I wanted to make it back just to prove that I belonged there, so I decided that I was going to qualify for FPL again. I played a lot of FPL-C in the first couple of days of the month and stayed on top of the leaderboard. And that was it, I made FPL again. But this time around I didn't have the military or anything else to take up my time, so I just focused on playing. I made the top-3 three times and eventually I even won it.”
flameZ fulfilled his dream of playing with NertZ after joining him in Finest that summer, but when he saw a chance to continue through FPL-C a few months later to keep growing individually, he jumped at the opportunity. “When I went for FPL-C I was in Finest and I believed in the Israeli scene,” he says. “I was happy because I was on Nertz's team, but seeing Spinx and anarkez was extra motivation, they were starting to show up on cups that were featured on HLTV.”
But to make it to FPL-C, flameZ also had to find a way to make time and shuffle his priorities, even if he didn’t have to confront the army yet. “I got home from school, practiced for seven hours with the team and then played PUGs until like four in the morning,” flameZ recalls, “I didn't see friends, I didn't go out, and I was in a situation people wouldn't really want to be in, having to do several things at the same time, but I think that it made me stronger. I didn't quit school to make my mother happy and I stayed on the team because we played well and it was fun for me, but one day I had to tell Finest that I couldn't play with them anymore. I apologized for wasting their time and left. Then I played for 27 hours straight to reach the FPL-C qualifier. Every time I finished a game, I started a new one, until I made the top 100. Eight days later I played the qualifier and made it to FPL-C.”
FPL-C and FPL have been regarded as a stepping stone for Israeli players, who can use these platforms as a trampoline to further their careers beyond what local teams can offer. “I wanted to play with an Israeli team, but nobody was really solid,” flameZ remembers. “Things really popped off when the coronavirus pandemic started to get serious in Israel, in March, and there was a global quarantine. That's when I went full-time. I didn't have anything else and could just play every single day, so that's what I did. I played with Adaptation and competed in FPL-C, but I didn't have the goal to make it to FPL yet. I didn't believe I could qualify for FPL with my PC, I only had 100 fps and I didn't believe I could get any better.”
(Photo courtesy of Aequus)
flameZ was growing rapidly, playing FPL-C and ESEA Advanced, but it was an Israeli friend, Roey "ZENCER" Kimhi, who helped him unlock his potential after he had hit a brick wall. “One day I talked to ZENCER and told him there was no chance for me to make it to FPL because of my computer,” flameZ says. “So he told me to look at anarkez, and that even if we couldn't compare the PC situation, he was a guy who worked hard every single day.” anarkez had made it to FPL a few months earlier, and flameZ took the conversation to heart.
“I told ZENCER I only played FACEIT or with the team and I had a 50% win rate on FPL-C, so he replied: 'OK, then start playing deathmatch and aim botz, you'll see that it’ll go up to 60% or 70%.'” flameZ recalls. “The following month, I started playing aim botz and DM as much as I could, even if I had less than 100 fps in DM and it was really hard. I finished top 2 in FPL-C and got some prize money with a 70% win rate. I kept doing that in June, with the same PC, and it got up to 80%. I kept playing aim botz, I kept playing DM, I started watching demos and doing everything I could to improve, even if I was limited. After the first 15 days in July I was top 12 on the FPL-C ladder and then a new PC came, my brother had ordered it for me for my birthday. When it arrived I won almost every match I played, I had a record that was like 37-6 and I finally qualified for FPL. First Spinx made it, then anarkez, then me and now it's everybody's dream.”
(Photo courtesy of Aequus)
Spinx agrees that making FPL is now every Israeli player's goal. "They're playing a lot of Premium Master League in order to get to FPL-C and they want to do the same as we did,” he says. “Get to FPL-C, then FPL and join a good team. There are a lot of players in Israel who have the level to be in FPL-C but don't have the time because they're in the military. When the coronavirus pandemic started and players didn't have to go on base there were so many more players in the top 100 in Master League. Like 15% of the top 100 players in that league were Israeli, so we have the level for it, we just don't have the time.”
The main binding element that set the trio apart from other talented players in the country is that instead of folding under hardships or putting CS in the backburner when other obligations came up, they found a way to put in the time necessary to achieve their goals. anarkez, who experienced a tough home life after his father passed away, says that ”I didn't go through the things that have happened in my life for no reason, so I really want to make it to the highest level possible now. When my father was still alive he would always tell me to 'do whatever you love and work really hard in whatever that is,’ so now I want to do this for him because he was the one giving me all of the lessons to deal with life."
Spinx, who was better known for his inventory than his performances on the server when he started playing, emphasizes that hard work and dedication are what got him noticed enough to earn a tryout with c0ntact. “As with almost everything in life, if you focus on it and put time into it, you'll become better at it, and CS is the same," he says. "If you want to be a professional and make a career, you're going to have to work for it. Sometimes people prefer doing other stuff instead of playing CS, and that's why you see that those who make the sacrifices and focus on CS are the ones who are doing well, like anarkez, flameZ and me. We've made these sacrifices and it has gone well for us.”
Little by little, the narrative in Israel changes as these players reach new heights. “We talk a lot about Luminosity and how we want to be like that team,” says NertZ, who was one of the people who wished flameZ the best when he left Finest while other teammates and members of the community told him he was making a mistake. “But it's only a dream. If we're going to compete at a higher level we need to get international experience through players like flameZ and Spinx, and afterward we can put together an Israeli team. Every Israeli player needs to play internationally. Only by playing in the European scene will you bring out your best, and when you join a European team you'll have the need to prove yourself, which will make you even better. Unfortunately, I realized this later than the rest of the guys.”
Spinx also wishes that one day an Israeli team can compete at the top, but he says that "people will have to work hard" for it to happen. "Back in 2016 it was all about Luminosity, they came out of nowhere and made it," he says. "They didn't have FACEIT, they didn't practice with European teams, they didn't have FPL, but after all they made it, they became the best in the world. If they did it, why can't we? I've learned a lot on this journey and I can help people. I talked to xertioN when things got hard for him and I helped him out. I didn't even play CS when I was 16, I was no one, I was level 4 on FACEIT. Some players are 15, 16 and are already at level 10. They're so far ahead, they just need to keep going and not let anything stop them if they want to achieve it.”
flameZ, who has a jovial personality and befriends players everywhere he goes, be it in teams, mixes or PUG leagues, has the dream of one day coming back to Israel to pass on the knowledge he has gained the hard way, although he realizes it’s going to be a long road ahead. “Now I'm playing with Endpoint and what I feel with them is different,” he says. “When I wake up and go to practice with an Israeli team I know that I will have fun with my friends, but when I'm playing with Endpoint I learn a lot and develop myself as a person and as a player. When you leave Israel, you get tools that are really important in order to achieve the small things. One of my dreams is to make it to the top and then come back to Israel to coach and help the players here. I really believe that the talent in Israel is insane, but we just don’t have the tools because nobody has been on a top team yet.”
Even anarkez, who had a more complicated break than some of the other players from the scene, does not close the door on an Israeli project somewhere down the line. He also welcomes the chance to help his peers outside of the server if they seek him out. “Right now I don't believe in an Israeli team, but maybe in the future,” he says. “For now I just want to get to the highest level I can. It's not that I don't believe in flameZ or Spinx or any other player in Israel, it's just that I want to be at the top, I want to play some bigger events than the ones I'm playing right now. I’ve built myself a character that has made me really strong and I’ll offer friends in Israel the chance to go sit outside somewhere and eat something and talk about life. I'll help anyone I can outside of the game if they ask, but inside of the game I'm just here to play and give 200% of myself.”
The three players are just now starting to make a name for themselves on the international stage, setting new standards for others in Israel to follow. They are also looking at one another to see how far they can go. “I believe that there's an unspoken game between anarkez, Spinx and me,” flameZ says. "Nobody really knows that it's there, but we’re all competing with each other to see who becomes the first Israeli to make the top 30 in the ranking, or who gets on a top tier team first [Editor's note: flameZ has broken the top-30 barrier since giving this interview]. I don't know if they're on the same page, but I really think we're all putting in an insane amount of work to outdo one another, although we won’t be sad if one of the other guys makes it first because we’ll all be happy for each other.”