Shakezullah: "Any of us could go to VALORANT and find an offer there, but we play CS because we love it"
The Bad News Bears captain talked to HLTV.org about the team's struggles in ESL Pro League and shared his thoughts on leading the team thus far.
After a dismal ESL Pro League Season 14 campaign that ended in an 0-5 finish in Group A, Bad News Bears returned home to North America, the subject of much derision and public criticism. The team, who had swapped in Paytyn "junior" Johnson just ahead of the event as Peter "ptr" Gurney retired, had almost no opportunity to get top tier practice in ahead of their trip to Europe, and were limited on time upon arrival at the GODSENT facilities.
Bad News Bears' first appearance since their EPL exit is at Fragadelphia 15, the first large-scale North American tournament since DreamHack Anaheim nearly 18 months prior, with the team entering as favorites to take the entire event alongside Party Astronauts. Spots in Fragadelphia Fall, the North American regional qualifier for the BLAST Premier Fall Showdown, are also on offer to the top five teams from the event, with Bad News Bears already having booked their spot as they went undefeated in the upper bracket to advance to the grand final.
Ahead of the team's final upper bracket match on Saturday, HLTV.org spoke to Alan "Shakezullah" Hardeman, who revealed that the team suffered some turmoil ahead of their EPL appearance that played a part in their lacklustre showing. He also spoke to the quality of practice in North America, praised the progress of Michael "Swisher" Schmid, and touched on how the pressure from not having an organisation to represent has been affecting the team.
I wanted to start with you coming here after EPL. Obviously it wasn't an ideal performance for you over there going 0-5 in your group. What went wrong?
We had a lot of team turmoil before the event actually happened, and it really took the first day when we lost to Heroic before we said a lot of things that we needed to say, and a lot of things that have been building up over the course of a month or two. So we kind of went into that tournament unprepared because of those team turmoil things, and our performance did get better after that first Bo3 against Heroic, obviously they're the best team in our group so it's expected that they have the most dominant performance against us, but after that, we started to play well.
A lot of the time what happened is that in the mid rounds, we would actually get into beneficial positions, spots where it would be like 50/50, and we would just misplay a lot of them. I think that just comes down to the kind of practice that we get and the skill level that we get.
We kind of have a meme now every time we play scrims, like 'we would have lost that round in EU, but we won it here in NA', or where we play a 3vs3 or something and we mess it up. We miss a smoke, we miss a flash timing, but we still get the kill, we still get rewarded for the fact that we did it and in EU, every time that happened, we got punished. Again, a lot of times, we would get down into these rounds, and we just would make one mistake, or we would have one lapse in communication, and they would just wipe us or whatever, and we would just lose rounds like that constantly.
Even when we played Astralis and it was 16-4 or 16-5 on Inferno, there were a ton of swing rounds if you go back and watch the demo. If we can close out two or three of those, maybe we don't win the map, but you know, it's a lot closer, they don't get an economy where they're never broken on CT side and stuff like that. That was a lot of the difference in those maps, and kind of what we identified as what we need to fix.
Since you're talking about that scrim practice, obviously North America is not doing so great in that regard. A lot of top teams aren't really scrimming here, even when they are back between events. How's that been for you, not even being able to get top tier practice at home?
It's really rough because sometimes we can't even get scrims on prime scrim days, like we'll try to scrim three or four times and we can only get two, or sometimes only one depending on if MDL matches are going on or if there's an open qualifier going on. We scrim way more Advanced teams than I've ever scrimmed before in my whole career once I made MDL.
Again, the practice level is just not good, because on one hand, it's hard to stay focused when you're beating a team really bad and it's hard to say, 'hey, we messed that up, hey we messed that up' and trying to be really hard and critical on yourself.
The biggest problem right now with NA teams is just that a default style, which is what we want to run, is hard to run in Europe comparative to NA because you get so many more opportunities, you get so many more holes, like on Inferno we will run up banana and kill the other team every single round in NA practices. Then in EU, they will either win the banana fight or it'll be a 50/50, and so that means your win condition in the round is a lot different. So when you go over to Europe and you don't get the banana control, now you're playing a whole new Inferno T side than what you're used to, and that's kind of the big difference is that it's like that across most maps.
Then, just further talking about the amount of scrims, it's just hard to keep up a good map pool because if you're only scrimming two maps a day, or two times a day, maybe three times, it's hard to just make sure that you have your stuff set and that you remember everything. You know if we did four scrims, we would have no problem, we could do like two scrims where we talked about whatever we wanted to do, we could do like two refresher scrims or we can just change it around. But a lot of times you're scrimming only one map a day. So you might be able to play every map over the course of a week, but if you go a whole week without playing a map in a scrim or official, then you just lose a little bit of it, and so we're just lacking the reps in that sense.
I think you had pretty short notice ahead of your EPL group, only a couple of days before you actually had to figure out where you're going to bootcamp and whatnot. What actually was the practice environment like coming into EPL?
I think we had good scrims coming in, I actually can't remember too much. Again, it was just the same as before, there's player breaks, so we had to run in with that issue, and we were only getting two or three scrims. It's not that different from how it is now, there wasn't paiN or GODSENT that were really scrimming, so we were really only getting Advanced teams and stuff like that. Obviously, when you compare NA Advanced to playing, you know, EPL teams, and us coming off our own break, it just was not a good mixture, or not a good recipe for success.
Speaking of coming off that break, ptr announced that he was retiring right before EPL and you replaced him with junior. What's that experience been like, without having ptr on the team and reuniting with junior?
It was one of those big things that affected us during the comeback. We didn't have a lot of notice, and we essentially had to plug and play in a lot of the spots, but Paytyn [junior] is a little bit different than Pete in terms of AWP style. I think Pete is a little more supportive, and he is more... he definitely has more of a voice, and I think he can do a lot of things without being told necessarily what to do.
Paytyn sometimes lacks experience in that area, but he's more of a clutch AWPer, and he knows that he's gonna play more late rounds, if that makes sense. Pete would be a little bit more aggressive, especially on CT sides, I think that's the biggest difference that we can tell right now in our comms. Pete was very active with the AWP, he was very good with communication, you know, 'hey, come repeek this, it's good for me for you to come up and do this', and Paytyn doesn't do that as much. Again, that's just something that we need to work on.
Obviously, you played with junior a bunch on Triumph before he went to FURIA. What sort of differences have you noticed in his game between that time and now?
He's a lot slower now, I don't know what happened, but we call him 1senior now because he's just a grandpa on the server. I don't know what they're doing over there at FURIA, but he got the worst of it.
Otherwise, I mean, he's just more experienced in terms of knowing how to play situations. He's had a lot more scrims against top teams, so he's just more well-rounded fundamentally, I guess I'd say. He can make better mid-round decisions without needing to be told what to do. He's not as active with his comms still, so that's again, just something we need to work on.
In terms of playing things correctly, by himself, he's definitely improved and stronger in that area. He was doing a lot of different stuff on FURIA, so I haven't noticed that much of a difference in his AWPing — they had him doing like pit on Inferno or you know, on Overpass, he would not be allowed to play situations the way he would play them on this team. So he's better at more aggressive AWPing I guess, because he was forced to do that a little bit more on FURIA, but he's having to kind of get back into the mode where he does some passive AWPing. So yeah, that's a big difference.
When you came in to this team before ptr retired, you took over the IGL role. Tell me about bringing your system into this team and how that's been. I know you said earlier that it's been a bit plug and play so far, but what's that experience actually been like for you?
I think it's been good because the players are a bit more experienced. Obviously we didn't have the results in EU that we wanted to have by any means, but I like to run more of a default style, one that allows my players to work and really make decisions on the fly in-game. I think that I need to do a better job about enforcing and making them look for certain things in the round, because I don't think we're doing the best in terms of communication about what holes we see, what trends we're seeing, and making sure that that's all adjusting because that's things we need to be doing in that style.
These players are a lot more experienced though, we have Jon, even Swisher is really good at thinking on the fly, junior, I did that with him on Triumph a lot, and Spongey as well. They know some of the things to look for, and they know generally how the default is going to work. That's what I wanted to go towards more and I thought that was a lot of the reason why we struggled on old Triumph, because I had more inexperienced players.
A lot of the IGLs that are coming up in the scene don't really run default styles, they run a lot of set strats. I know NartOutHere makes a lot of videos and a lot of Advanced and Main teams will just run that stuff, and that's not breeding the best way to read the game, or the best player types.
A lot of the players in Premier aren't good at reading the game, they're not good at defaulting and seeing things and reacting. Even with the kind of players that I played with on Triumph, I mean, they're really good players when you run strats and do their own system, but they had a lot of growth that they needed to do in terms of defaults, and I think that would have taken us a lot of time as a team to really get that down.
It was just really frustrating for me to go from Grim and junior, players that were able to grow into that very easily and understand it, and then go take a step back with players that kind of need to be taught and shown. And not every player can learn, or not every player can improve as fast as those players did.
Expanding on that a bit, I remember I talked to you a while ago, and you mentioned wanting to play with certain players who have the ability to actually make an impact in the scene, actually make it to top 30 or achieve something bigger together. Two players you'd mentioned were Jonji and Swisher, so what's it actually been like playing with them versus sort of your expectation?
Well, Jon's one of the only real, real entry fraggers in the scene right now, so that's been night and day in terms of having somebody that goes in and knows how to create space and how to call things. I had that with ryann for a little bit, but obviously he's in VALORANT now. Jon's just an experienced player, he's not afraid to take over the reins and be like, the secondary caller, he's not afraid to be like, 'hey, this is my timing, we need to go go go', and that's really impactful to have in terms of entry, because sometimes if I'm throwing nades, or I'm supporting, I don't really know the best time to go in, or I'm just doing it off feel. So it's really important for him as an entry player to be able to communicate that, and that's a skill that has to be taught to a lot of entry players that are coming up in the scene.
In terms of Swisher, he's an all-you-can-do player, just all around, he can support, he can be aggro, passive, whatever we need him to do. He's kind of like our Ironman in that aspect and I've been very impressed with him. I know he came up in the scene, he's relatively inexperienced, especially comparative to all of us, but I think his growth as a player has been at that trajectory where he can definitely make it and be one of the top pros. I mean, that's kind of the trajectory line that he's taking in terms of his improvement, so he just need to keep doing what he's doing and I think he'll be a really good player.
Another one for the Shakezullah Academy.
You were previously on Triumph, a team that had a salary and was able to play full-time. Now you're onto Bad News Bears, and one of this big storylines here is that this team has been looking for an org for a decent amount of time now. What's the environment like there, is there a lot of pressure for the team? How does it feel to play with that barrier in mind?
I think there's definitely more pressure because at the end of the day, I think any of us could go to VALORANT and find an offer there, but we play CS because we love it, and it just puts more pressure on us to perform. I don't think that was exactly why we struggled in Europe, but it might have been a contributing factor.
I think that we're probably going to be able to find something here, because there was a line of communication that was kind of broken, and we figured out that a lot of the orgs that were reaching out to us were not properly being handled, and we fixed that so hopefully orgs reach out to us now. We have good talks with them and we've had talks with a few, so hopefully we can find something soon here.
But as I said at the end of the day, all we can do is prove ourselves in North America and get opportunities to go over to Europe, and we just need to have better performances over there than we had previously.
Two final questions here. You have domestic competition in teams like Extra Salt, Party Astronauts, and then also the Brazilian teams like GODSENT, TeamOne, and paiN as well. With that reduced pool of teams that play domestically, how is it constantly ending up facing against the same teams over and over for you guys in terms of your matchups?
It's really good for us in a way because like I said, we like to run the more loose default style, so in terms of picking up reads about what other teams like to do, because you're scrimming the top team more you get an idea of you know, this player likes to do this, this player likes to do this, or when they run 'this stuff' we need to watch out for 'this'.
It's just a mind game right now in NA at the top level in terms of just figuring out the other teams in scrims and just making sure that you can just get info on the other team. A lot of that's just gonna come into the matches and help us, so we just need to stay loose, make sure we change stuff, and just make sure that we're reading the game well, and I think that that'll be a benefit to us.
This is your first event after EPL and you're coming in here as the tournament favorite. First of all, does that add or remove pressure for you knowing that you're not the hard underdog coming into a tournament after EPL? Also, what is it like being back on LAN, playing some teams that you are a little bit more familiar with than at EPL?
I mean, LAN is just always good experience regardless. We also started on stage and there's just things you have to adjust to, and even though we're the favorites coming in, we're still not that experienced on LAN, so just getting reps with stuff like that is very important. I don't think we need to think about it any more than we do online, we've beaten all of these teams online, we've proven that we can do it, and there's just no reason that we shouldn't have that mindset and translate it into LAN.
It's definitely a little weird, because in the last Frags I've come to, I've been the underdog and I've been like the player that looks up to swag, Cooper, freakazoid, the lineups that won. mitch was there with a roster, kaboose, it was kind of surreal to see all those players before and it's just a bit weird to be here, especially with the depleted scene and to be just one of the favorites coming in. But like I said, I'm not thinking about it, our goal here is to win, and we're in the grand finals so we're putting ourselves in a good position to.