Vitality Chairman: “We told ZywOo we wanted to create a cycle around him and sign the best players of his generation"
Fabien “Neo” Devide took some time to chat with HLTV.org about all things Vitality.
Vitality announced on Sunday that their star player, 20-year-old Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, will remain under contract with the French organization until 2024 after signing a five-year extension at the start of 2020. As part of the announcement, the Paris-based organization projected holograms around some of the city’s most recognizable locations, including the Panthéon, Trocadéro, Montmartre and the Arc de Triomphe’s vicinity.
“It's a four-year contract extension which took six months to negotiate with his agent,” Fabien “Neo” Devide, Vitality’s Chairman and Co-Founder, said. “It was very natural because they were happy with our project and we're very happy to have the best player in the world—I will never complain about that! We were all on the same page.” To understand why everyone felt that way, Neo takes us on a journey from the team's beginnings to where it currently stands and where it could be headed, peeling back the curtains and sharing his thoughts on the happenings behind the scenes.
(Photo courtesy of Vitality)
Vitality, a French organization founded in 2013 that has since gone global with teams and players from around the world in several different titles, stuck to its roots when launching its Counter-Strike division in 2018, creating a lineup with seasoned veterans Dan "apEX" Madesclaire, Cédric "RpK" Guipouy, Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt and Vincent "Happy" Schopenhauer around an 18-year-old rising star, ZywOo. “We’re very French-centric, it's part of our DNA,” Neo explains, recalling the early days of the organization’s foray into Counter-Strike. “Our roots are French and we're very proud of it, so it was common sense because we wanted to keep going in that direction. We were perhaps the only top tier team that still believed in French CS when we started in 2018 because even though G2 had a French project at the time they were already close to the end of that cycle. The state of the French scene was a mess when we joined in and we wanted to revitalize it.
“G2 had just benched NBK- and apEX, so we saw it as a bridge to jump in because they're legends of the scene and very well respected in France. Signing them would be good to make sure that we would be attractive to other players wanting to join up with such big names and awesome players. So apEX came to Paris to have coffee one day, he had been benched for something like two months and had even been close to signing for mouz at some point, and we had a very straight and transparent talk. I told him that I didn't believe in the old guys, in his generation, I said, ‘I think you guys are spoiled, you have way too much control, and I think that's the reason you're not succeeding.’ He agreed with me, and we discussed his conditions, how he was still hungry to compete and win, but also how he didn't want to build a whole project alone, so we should try to convince NBK-.
“Envy released Happy and RpK around the same time, so the stars lined up. We just had to negotiate with uncle Carlos [Rodríguez, CEO of G2] for apEX and NBK-, although NBK- was doubting whether he wanted to play in another French project because he was tired of replacements, getting benched, and having ego wars all of the time. It was a bit hard, but apEX really wanted to play with ZywOo and so did NBK-, they both thought he was going to be the next big thing and we really wanted to create an environment of wellness between ZywOo and the more experienced players to make sure he'd be comfortable and that the team would be competitive.”
Before joining Vitality and becoming the centerpiece of the team, ZywOo had already been raising eyebrows in 2017 with WySix and aAa while working towards his high school diploma, a prerequisite to move on to bigger things in esports imposed by his family before they would let him sign a professional contract. ZywOo even became the first subject in HLTV’s series about up-and-coming young talents, One for the future, but he had no competitive baggage at the top level and even less experience in the workings of the industry outside of the server. Neo recalls an anecdote from when the two talked for the first time and the youngster didn’t know how to respond when asked about salary expectations, which Neo calls a “classic ZywOo answer.” ZywOo said that "if you give me 1,500€ or 2,000€ I'm more than happy—that'd be insane money", to which Neo replied, "OK, I don't think I can pay you that, it's too low compared to the other guys."
ZywOo was a rookie at the time, but the team knew that they had something special in their hands after several practice days. For Neo, an entry-level salary would not suffice. “We made an initial offer that was more than what he asked for and we added that if he performed well in the first months we'd pay him the same as the rest of the guys. He was so excited, his mother was so excited, and we just knew we weren't going to overpay him, we knew he had the potential to become a genius, a virtuoso, so we wanted to make sure he was happy and full of life. I cherish that moment. He was so shy and so polite during the call that we had, and that's ZywOo, basically. He just wants to play the game, destroy his rivals, and he's so easy to work with—we're very gifted.”
(Photo courtesy of Vitality)
Not only did ZywOo perform like the rest of the team, but he also became an instant sensation, rivaling the world’s most elite players as he took his team to three international LAN victories while tallying five MVP performances in 2019, his rookie year. These feats saw him named the best player in the world over the likes of Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev and Nicolai "device" Reedtz, but such an ascent wasn’t easy to digest for the French star, and it started weighing on his shoulders. “He's starting to realize things a bit more now, especially after HLTV selected him as the best player in the world,” Neo says. “He struggled a bit for a month or two because of the media exposure and the pressure on his shoulders. We tried to overprotect him the first year and we may have made a mistake with that, but we try to be protective because when he's happy and more unaware he's such a beast, so we try to create a bit of a proxy.
"Last year he couldn't compare anything because it was all new, he was discovering everything, and he needed this year to confirm that he's a great player and probably the best in the world. He had this pressure from fans and from the media, and there’s this expectation that every time you look at his POV, every time he's alive on the server, even if it's just him against five, that he’s going to do ZywOo things, but he's overcoming it right now, he's maturing, and I think he's evolving in the right direction. He had to face some small crises from time to time, but he was able to overcome them every time, and I'm very proud of him. I really respect players like him and s1mple because they're not just instinctive players and mechanical gods, but they're also able to face a ton of pressure. It's amazing that they can be so competitive and remain at the top of their game—it's remarkable and I'm very proud of the work ZywOo has done outside of the server this year.”
It wasn’t just ZywOo who had to overcome hurdles at the beginning of 2020, though, as even before the coronavirus pandemic put a wrench in everyone’s plans, Vitality had to wrestle with the departure of their in-game leader after two disappointing finishes at BLAST Premier Spring Series and IEM Katowice, the last big LAN before the world shut down. Alex "ALEX" McMeekin had been a big part of the team’s 2019 success after replacing Happy and taking over as the team’s full-time in-game leader following NBK-’s departure, but he decided to step down from the roster citing travel fatigue. “When ALEX left we faced an important crisis,” Neo recalls. “The dynamic in the team had been pretty good and we didn't see any other IGL in France that was good enough to join our team. But we also have RpK, who doesn't speak English very well, and ZywOo, who can speak it but not that well.
"We're not totally fluent in English and that's something we're working on now and that we will be working in 2021. It will be part of our performance trajectory, we want XTQZZZ to speak English, ZywOo to be fluent, RpK to understand it as well… Not necessarily to go international, but so we can add an international guy if we're facing a crisis like that one at some point, although the project isn’t really going in that direction now with the additions of misutaaa and Nivera. We also want to see if we can have opportunities to recruit crazy good rookies with high potential, which is a core value for us. We want our DNA to be a mix of youth and experience, which is exactly what we did this year with the additions of misutaaa and Nivera. We told ZywOo we wanted to create a cycle around him and sign the best players of his generation. If they're French, then thank God that we can continue in that direction, but if they're international then we'll probably have to switch at some point.”
Vitality then had to make the last-minute decision of whether they would move forward with a completely inexperienced player, Kévin "misutaaa" Rabier, just hours before the ESL Pro League roster lock. When they finally decided to take in the youngster, handing the in-game leader role to apEX, the team’s whole planning for the year was turned on its head. “Before ALEX's departure our goal was to win a Major and be No. 1 or No. 2 in the world because in 2019 we had an amazing run and we were No. 3 during most of the year, winning several titles in a crazy good year,” Neo says. “When we picked up misutaaa, it was a completely different project. Our goals went from winning a Major to qualifying for a Major and from being a top 2 team to being a top 10 team. Not because we weren't confident in misutaaa or in apEX becoming a leader, but because we didn't have any answers. We didn't know if apEX would deliver, if misutaaa would catch on really fast or not. You have to keep in mind that misutaaa had no knowledge of the game, the small details, the utility, we had to teach him most of it, so it was a tough challenge.
“When COVID-19 came, it was bad, of course, because not having LANs and the spectator experience is terrible, but at the same time, it was an opportunity for there to be less pressure on the guys, for us to have time to develop apEX as an IGL and to develop misutaaa's potential. We said, ‘OK, let's take this year to teach them, to take some time outside of the server to get comfortable.’ During the first month, XTQZZZ was very vocal because we needed to remain competitive and keep the right dynamics, so during games he talked a lot, but when misutaaa started to become a key asset, a key player on certain maps, XTQZZZ came to me and said, ‘Don't have high expectations in this tournament because I won't talk.’ I asked him why he was going to do that when things were going well and he answered that, ‘If we keep going in this direction, with him at home and me making calls or helping, we’ll struggle when LANs come back.’ So he switched off his microphone, basically.”
Despite the early struggles and some ups and downs, Vitality still managed to remain competitive, reaching two grand finals before the Summer break and two more after it, but it was finally at the end of the year, having added another youngster to the roster, Nabil "Nivera" Benrlitom, and pioneering a six-man rotation system, that the French squad managed to pick up titles (IEM Beijing-Haidian and BLAST Premier Fall Finals). At the same time, Vitality used different tricks to maintain an atmosphere of urgency despite matches being played online to make sure the younger members of the squad weren’t too comfortable in this weird environment. “We had a roadmap because we understood that we couldn't win everything and we knew that there were times in which we needed to be out of our comfort zone,” Neo says. “Sometimes we brought people to the Stade de France—following the sanitary requirements, of course—because we wanted people behind the team in semi-finals and finals so they would feel the pressure. We talked to journalists before the matches and we tried to create a similar routine to that of playing on LAN, even though it's way different because you don't have the people, the pressure, the adrenaline, but we tried to at least implement small things to make sure our rookies could really deliver.
“That's when XTQZZZ saw that maybe this could be an opportunity for us to teach them and also to have extra time to review demos, do analysis, work on weaknesses, work on routines, and so on. We took a lot of time to nourish them mentally and physically. Our Counter-Strike staff, they're very smart, great guys, dedicated to the players, the game and the team. We're all very loyal and transparent and I think that's a big reason for our success, everyone is confident in each other. I don't think there are any trust issues in the team and we all believe in each other. If we ever face issues we say it, even to the players, and I think that's very refreshing because then they don't need to overthink, they don't have to wonder if their job is on the line and so on. Perhaps they could have thought of a sixth player as a threat, that they could maybe be benched or something, when it wasn't the case at all.”
Having been able to find the silver lining, Vitality are now ready to look back at the year, study it, and shift focus to 2021, with their eyes very clearly set on Counter-Strike’s crown jewel, the Major, which was taken away from players and fans alike in a year marred by the coronavirus pandemic. “We'll do a post-mortem meeting to analyze 2020,” Neo says. “There were a lot of ups and downs, but I won't lie, there were more ups than downs, so we can’t complain. Vitality is a well-recognized organization in the world, but we have a lack of Major titles. We have tier-one titles, but having a Major title is the reason we wake up every morning and work so hard every day and keep investing in our teams and our players.
“We're going to face a lot of question marks and new challenges next year, so we want to do a projection and an analysis, which will take two or three weeks. We're not going to just have a one hour meeting and say, ‘OK, it was a good year, great, thank you, really happy, let's be first and win a Major next year.’ That's not the way we work, we have a timeline with all of the events, the calendar, we pick the events, we try to understand our trajectory even if it's not 100% accurate and we'll have to face different health issues, personal relationship issues, all of it. I don't want to project anything for 2021 yet because it will be part of the discussion with our staff and management, but we really want to win a Major, and we want to do it with our fans. Last year, we took 50 or 60 people to the Major in Berlin by bus and we received very positive vibes from the French guys and fans all over the world. I’ll get three, four, five busses if needed and take every fan we can to the first Major or Big Event of 2021. I hope it's in Europe, otherwise I'll be in trouble, and I hope the organizers will be ready because there's going to be a ton of baguettes in their city.”