Spirit coach Certus: "degster is a great asset, but he can play much better than he's playing now. We will work on that"
Winning DreamHack Open January after the addition of a young star AWPer has thrust Spirit into the spotlight. We spoke to the team's coach and in-game leader to find out about their plans moving forward.
A breakout year for Spirit, 2020 saw the Russian team reach unprecedented heights, peaking at No.13 in the world and securing wins over teams such as Vitality, fnatic, and MOUZ. Yet as the winter break neared, Spirit lost some steam and were unable to get past the group stage of both IEM Beijing-Haidian and DreamHack Masters Winter. To end the year as only the fourth-best team in the CIS region after showing that they were capable of scaling greater heights was something that the Spirit organisation couldn't be happy with.
"We grew more and more fatigued towards the end of the year, there was no longer any strength to analyze our defeats, draw conclusions, fix mistakes, and conduct all the necessary work in practice," Nikolay "Certus" Poluyanov, the team's coach, said to HLTV.org, echoing what many others had already said about the pandemic-crippled 2020. "All in all, the year was long, difficult and, worst of all, monotonous."
The veteran coach, 37, added that there are only a few teams that can go through a season like that without suffering "serious dropoffs", which was a key reason for the roster changes that were made and for the move towards a six-man lineup.
In order to bring in new players, someone had to be removed, and it was the team's AWPer, Artem "iDISBALANCE" Egorov, who found himself on the chopping block. While critics deemed him inconsistent, the 24-year-old was far from a bad player, averaging a 1.12 rating in 2020, and Certus explained that it was a different reason that led to him being placed on the transfer list.
"We decided to remove iDISBALANCE because we wanted to change our game, and to do that we needed a more aggressive sniper," he noted. "However, I’d like to state that Artem is an incredible player and teammate, and his lack of consistency was due to the tasks we assigned to him in the game."
To fill the more aggressive AWPing role, Spirit landed highly-rated youngster Abdul "degster" Gasanov, who, together with Robert "Patsi" Isyanov, had helped Espada reach the top 30 in the world rankings before that team broke apart. "I’ve followed Abdul since his first official games for Espada, sometimes in my free time I even talked to him in TeamSpeak to help him in his progress," Certus said before revealing that they trialled the AWPer as early as in 2019, but opted to add Boris "magixx" Vorobiev instead. "He wasn't ready at the time, but he developed very fast."
Patsi also joined the team on a trial period. His strong individual play and communication, Certus said, explain why the 17-year-old was described as "the best option we could count on" in Spirit's announcement. "He just needs time to adapt to our playstyle. With the right attitude, I don't think his trial will last very long."
DreamHack Open January Europe was Spirit's first event with the new lineup, taking place just a week after degster and Patsi joined the team. Their potential was apparent, but as only the fifth-highest ranked side in the eight-team tournament, they were dark horses at best. In the first stages of the tournament, their play reflected that, getting into good positions but struggling to close out maps against Sprout and Gambit in the group stage, as well as against BIG in the playoffs, leading to drawn-out and messy series.
"I think this is because we lack experience playing as a team," in-game leader Leonid "chopper" Vishnyakov said about their inability to capitalize on leads such as 15-10 on CT Train against Sprout and 13-6 on CT Inferno versus BIG. "Sometimes we didn’t know what to do when we found ourselves in difficult situations since we hadn’t had time to play and discuss them in practice. Both BIG and Gambit are more experienced teams - they know how to put pressure on their opponents and don’t grant you many chances to play your own game."
The grand final against FunPlus Phoenix was a completely different story, though. After four hard-fought BO3s, all going 2-1, Spirit breezed past Chris "chrisJ" de Jong's team, securing a quick 3-0 victory in the grand final to win the tournament. "Against FPX it was different," chopper admitted. "They are a new team like us, so in the grand final we just played our game and enjoyed it - and on that day we were stronger".
An intriguing part of Spirit's run to the title in DreamHack Open January was their handling of a six-man roster, which saw Patsi play multiple maps, replacing different players. The Russian team played with five different lineups throughout the group stage, swapping out every member besides Nikolay "mir" Bityukov.
"For DreamHack and practice before it, I just tried different combinations, sometimes contrary to players’ opinions," Certus explained. But as the tournament progressed, the coach stopped tinkering with the roster: Patsi played just one map tin the playoffs, the 16-14 Inferno loss to BIG, in which he mustered only nine kills and a 0.64 rating. chopper admitted that their focus moving forward will be on playing as a five-man roster with a substitute player, rather than an active six-man lineup.
"The roster composition will most likely be 5+1 moving forward instead of 6," the in-game leader said. "Patsi is still in the testing phase, and as he gets more experience we will evaluate where and when to slot him in". The main reason for that isn't Patsi's poor performance in the DreamHack tournament (0.82 rating from five maps), but rather Valve's ruleset for Regional Major Ranking (RMR) events, which incurs penalties for every player swap.
"If all tournament organisers have the same clear rules about six-man rosters, we will move towards fully embracing it, but recently, Valve regrettably took a stance that destroys this approach," Certus says. " I don’t see how we can play some tournaments with five players and others with six. I haven't decided yet, but most likely Patsi will be a substitute player in case of emergency."
With mir having reclaimed the form that he had as the star of CIS upset kings Vega Squadron, and with the addition of rising talent degster as a potent AWPer, Spirit have secured two of the region's hottest prospects. The two players averaged a 1.27 and 1.29 rating in DreamHack Open January, proving crucial to Spirit's success in the tournament. But while praise is thrown their way, especially towards the new signing, who has already been labelled the squad's best player by some, Certus plays down the hype and enforces a team-first view.
"We consider every player to be the best," the coach said. "Stats can be deceiving - the player who has the best stats is not always the one with the highest impact. degster will give us more aggression, which is something I feel we lacked before. Abdul is a great asset, but he can play much better than he's playing now. We will work on that."
Spirit peaked at No.13 in the world rankings last year, and obviously have more to give now. What do they aim to accomplish in 2021? chopper's answer is simple: "Our team has the highest goals, we aim to break into the top 10 and stay there, to participate in every tier-one tournament while we gradually improve our team play and become a more stable team internationally."
Their next challenge is the IEM Katowice Play-in, in which they will begin their campaign with a clash against Cloud9. "Our goal is to show what we prepared in practice, and to play at 100% - but we’re still a new team and qualifying is not a do-or-die situation for us," chopper added. "Personally, I don’t think about the consequences of qualifying or missing out on the main tournament - I just think about our next game."