apEX: "We thought about keeping the six-man roster, but I felt that it was impossible"
The French skipper talked about Vitality's slump at the beginning of the season and the thought process behind their roster change in the latest episode of 'HLTV Confirmed'.
Vitality could have fallen apart in early 2020 when then in-game leader Alex "ALEX" McMeekin suddenly left the team in March due to the hectic travel schedule of an elite side. However, they persisted and, under the leadership of Dan "apEX" Madesclaire, became one of the most consistent teams when competitions transitioned to an online-only format due to the coronavirus pandemic, winning two trophies in the final stretch of the season, shortly after adding Nabil "Nivera" Benrlitom as a sixth player.
But the French team have endured a shaky start to 2021, their best result so far being a third-place finish in the BLAST Premier Global Final in January. They didn't reach the playoffs in IEM Katowice and ESL Pro League Season 13, nor did they make it out of their BLAST Premier Spring Group.
"Obviously, we're not playing well, a lot of things happened at the beginning of the year that were really hard to handle," the 28-year-old captain said on Tuesday on the 'HLTV Confirmed' podcast. "But right now, we're practising a lot and playing as much as possible individually to come back to our real level, I would say."
According to apEX, the team went through different problems at about the same time. Firstly, Vitality were fined $10,000 by the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) in January for breach of code after it was revealed that the team had played two matches in the BLAST Premier Global Final with a stream running in the background. Shortly afterwards, Valve decided to issue penalties to teams who substitute out players in the Regional Major Ranking (RMR) circuit, which came as a blow to Vitality, who had become the reference on how to properly utilize a six-man roster. Some of Vitality's players also had to deal with personal issues, including apEX himself, who took a short break from competition in the middle of the team's campaign in BLAST Premier Spring Groups.
"It was the first time in my career that I couldn't focus on CS," he revealed. "I'm really emotional and everyone knows it, but at that moment it was even worse. We were wrecked by Complexity in BLAST and for the first time in my life, I didn't care. Personal issues happened, and after that, I just talked to our coach and we decided that I would take a week or two off.
"I just took a week to do everything I could to solve my personal issues. I'm not a person who needs a month or two to come back. I'm the guy who likes living a 'normal life', and it's been pretty hard to do that with the pandemic."
Vitality were blazing a trail for teams wishing to explore the possibilities of a six-man roster before Valve announced the ruleset for the 2021 RMR circuit. They had won two Big Events – IEM Beijing-Haidian 2020 Europe and the BLAST Premier Fall Finals – using all six players, with Nivera making important contributions almost every time he was called into action. According to apEX, Valve's decision left the team with no choice but to bench the Belgian player.
"We would have three days to practice with a five-man roster for the RMR, which is really hard," apEX said. "It would be really hard to make it work in the long run, we thought about keeping a six-man roster and doing it, but I felt that it was impossible. It was obviously not my decision, but the staff's decision.
"We kind of invented the six-man roster, I mean, changing players in between maps. I think it's the future because almost every player has a map where he doesn't feel really comfortable. That happened with shox for a long time on Inferno. When we added Nivera it was much easier, we solved the problem. It was pretty good for us, but unfortunately, we couldn't continue with it."
"Nivera is not an entry-fragger, and if he were to replace misutaaa, he would have to be an entry," apEX explained. "So, it's not easy to replace people like that. Just take G2 for example. It was a big mistake when they tried to replace JaCkz from my point of view because they had no one to go in first and sacrificing a little bit.
"We're not using misutaaa like that all the time, but he likes to go in first and it's what he wants to do. I think it would be a bit different in terms of roles if we were playing with Nivera instead of him."
Ever since G2 took the international route in 2019, Vitality have been the only ones carrying the French flag at the highest level of CS:GO. The second-best French team at the moment, DBL PONEY, are playing without the support of an organisation. But the lack of professional teams doesn't mean that there aren't youngsters looking to improve and climb up the ladder. apEX said he's having a blast playing in the French hub on FACEIT, where young players have shown a willingness to learn from veterans like him. The main problem, he added, is the lack of in-game leaders in the lower tiers.
"That's why a player like misutaaa wasn't ready to play at the highest level," the 28-year-old said. "He had crazy good mechanics, but the rest was really bad. He's getting better, but he's still not there in terms of communication and everything else because we lack in-game leaders in France."
You can access the full VOD of Tuesday's episode of 'HLTV Confirmed' below.