Movistar Riders turned anxiety into joy to make history for Spain
Veterans and rookies in a new and unproven roster focused on the pleasure of playing Counter-Strike to become the first Spanish team to qualify for a Major.
Movistar Riders shattered all expectations at IEM Fall, the final Regional Major Ranking tournament in Europe, by going on a dark horse run to secure one of the 11 spots up for grabs at the first Major since 2019 and becoming the first Spanish team to reach such heights. They did so at a time of transition, less than two months after releasing the core of their international squad to return to a full Spanish roster, reuniting Alejandro "alex" Masanet and Alejandro "mopoz" Fernández-Quejo Cano with their former teammate Raúl "DeathZz" Jordán Nieto and bringing on two newcomers, Alvaro "SunPayus" Garcia and David "dav1g" Granado Bermudo, while letting go of much more storied and renowned players.
The squad, put together just a month and a half before IEM Fall, had little to no chance of even making the playoffs at the LAN event on paper — much less finish the tournament in a high enough position to earn one of the cherished spots at PGL Stockholm —, when going up against the likes of Astralis, Heroic and Complexity. But it was then and there that a focus on building a strong team culture together with the spontaneous development of profound chemistry between the team’s veterans and its newcomers would lead the perennially underachieving Movistar Riders straight into the history books.
To understand why the act of enjoyment is so important for Movistar Riders, a word that they have gone so far as to define with several mantras, phrases often repeated that express a strong belief, such as "not showing frustration," "having fun," "showing initiative in order to control our games," and "supporting each other as teammates," one must go back to where everything started for the Spanish organization and the trials and tribulations that the veterans on the team have had to go through in order to end up where they are now.
Movistar Riders was established in Madrid, in 2017, along with the opening of the pioneering Movistar Esports Center — the team’s headquarters at the Matadero arts center in the Spanish capital —, which has since become the de facto epicenter of Counter-Strike in the country as Valve’s first-person shooter has always been the organization’s crown jewel. In its earliest iterations, however, Movistar Riders was no more than the best team in Spain, a title with no punch on the world stage.
The team, made up of veterans Juan "meisoN" Carlos Chacón, Francesc "donQ" Savall Garcia and Javier "dragunov" Sánchez alongside mopoz and alex, achieved what any top Spanish team would at the time, to fight with the best Portuguese teams for regional domination and spots at smaller international LANs such as DreamHack Open Valencia via the Iberian Qualifier, but little more.
The biggest revolution in Spanish CS:GO came a year later, in 2018, when the only two Spanish players with international experience at the elite level, Oscar "mixwell" Cañellas and Christian "loWel" Garcia Antoran, teamed up with the most promising local players to form what was dubbed the Spanish superteam under the Movistar Riders banner. The two stars, who’d played Majors with OpTic and MOUZ, respectively, set their sights on taking their less experienced teammates under their wing and showing them the ropes with the goal of becoming the first Spanish team to qualify for a Major.
Despite the team's hopes and wishes, it soon became clear that the returning players were not mature enough at the time to take leadership positions and the rest of the players far too green to compete at the highest level, which made the project dysfunctional from the start.
The hype surrounding the superteam had one very key ramification, particularly pertaining to the team’s early goals and dreams of immediate success. For the first time a noticeable Spanish fanbase took interest in a Counter-Strike project, uniting the few hardcore fans the country has under one banner. But as disappointments started to rack up and pressure mounted in a team that failed to find common ground among the different castes of players, followers started to become more and more disgruntled instead of adjusting their expectations — a pattern that would follow the team throughout the rest of its history.
"It wasn’t a team I’m particularly fond of," mopoz says of the superteam, "but it was really where everything began and the reason Movistar Riders has achieved what it has to this day. A lot of things were missing in the superteam, starting with a general lack of maturity and managerial knowledge needed to become better. Both mixwell and loWel were very talented players, but neither of them knew how to transmit their knowledge to the rest of us in order for the team to improve together."
Movistar Riders also lacked a more general form of leadership, a head figure that could lessen the friction and close the ever growing chasm that was born of the disparate understandings of the game between the more and less experienced players. That’s when Galder "bladE" Barcena was hired, but as a former player adjusting to a complicated new role in an already tense situation, and with little to no experience in dealing with group dynamics, the superteam continued straight towards the iceberg at full speed.
The team’s growth and progression was slow and hard in the early days, and no matter how much they practiced there wasn’t a real team feeling. It was, in the purest sense of a superteam, a group of people thrown together to play with nothing binding them together. The first trial of fire for the superteam came at the WESG 2018 World Finals in Chongqing, China, where Movistar Riders were eliminated in the group stage by Windigo and fnatic, teams that ended up being the best and 4th best at the tournament — but the experience was nonetheless seen as a failure.
The Movistar Riders organization had never put too much pressure on the team, and they didn’t after this early exit, but the social mass of fans and followers added pressure to the already complicated relational dynamics in the team. After returning defeated from the tournament at the shores of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, bladE realized that there was going to be way more work to be done for the team to reach their goals than what was initially expected. This was a big hit for the more established players and the internal conflict between those that were expecting things to happen quickly and those who weren’t there yet continued to grow.
"It was then that I tried to tell everyone that it was going to take a lot of time and patience," bladE recalls, "I wasn’t sure how long that would be — a year, two, or whatever, but it would be a long time." The team, the organization and the fans all had big hopes set on that WESG event in China, and instead of taking the hard loss, filtering it and learning from it, loWel took an offer from HellRaisers that appeared to break the tiny string keeping the team together, although with time it has been shown that it wasn’t quite the case. "At that point a bunch of new doors opened and they were never going to close again," bladE says, "and the project had to be handled with care in order to get it back on track while doing the least amount of damage."
Movistar Riders’ players were possibly as far as they could be from enjoying the game at this point, something mopoz remembers clearly. "I was very frustrated during the superteam era, I hated playing CS back then," he says. "If Valorant had come out at the time," he says somewhere between joking and dead serious, "I would have switched." To understand this degree of frustration, one must understand that mopoz exists on the fringes, a bullheaded oddball that follows no rules and prays to no God.
From the way mopoz eats his macaroni, sliding the prongs of his fork into the noodles instead of piercing the pasta's outer skin, to marking the position of all of his peripherals on his desk with permanent marker and measuring the distances of everything on his desk, or the way he holds Banana and the B site on Inferno — continually playing mind games with his rivals instead of adjusting to the established meta —, he is very much a singular individual.
mopoz had always been a star player coming up in Spanish teams before joining the superteam, and he had initially been promised certain favorable roles and positions, but little by little they moved him away from all of those roles and he ended up in anchor positions, which was an agony for someone not accustomed to it. "The two types of player that do that job well are the incredibly talented ones who are world class at doing that job, like ropz, or guys who bait the hell out of their teammates," mopoz says, "and neither of those are who I am, it’s just not my personality as a player, so instead of getting better and better I fell deeper and deeper down the well."
DeathZz was brought on to the squad to fill in the empty spot in the starting five left by loWel. He was shy and didn't talk much, but the only rifler in Spanish CS:GO whose mechanical skill was comparable to the former player. The team bounced back and had a decent showing at Copenhagen Games, DeathZz first trip outside of Spain, going from the BYOC to the main event and finishing in 3-4th place after a semi-final loss to Sprout.
It didn't take long for Riders to find trouble as they failed to beat Portuguese rivals Giants at the BLAST Pro Series Madrid Play-In and then fell short of making the StarLadder Berlin Europe Minor in the open qualifier. It was at that point that mixwell also jumped ship, trying to get his career at the top level going again by joining Cloud9. The move wouldn’t end up panning out for the AWPer, who eventually found that moving to a new game and getting a fresh start in Valorant would be a better career choice than fighting to embolden his name in the pantheon of Counter-Strike.
Movistar Riders brought in Rajohn "EasTor" Linato, one of the most esteemed snipers in the Spanish scene and a player that fans were fond of as he had been a part of the Wololos crew that made it to the WESG 2018 World Finals, a proto-superteam made around the core of mixwell, loWel and Aitor "SOKER" Fernández with veteran David "Kairi" de Miguel. The Spanish-Pinoy AWPer quickly became the first in a line of AWPers to be a crucial figure in Movistar Riders, as he was the sort of player that brought a jovial atmosphere to the team, binding the squad together and starting to dissolve the initial feeling of just a bunch of guys who have been put together with no common ground.
Movistar Riders decided to put loWel back into the fold not long after EasTor joined the team as his HellRaisers sojourn came to an end when the international roster failed to live up to expectations at the StarLadder Major Berlin’s Challengers Stage. Returning humbled and into a group that was finally starting to find an identity, albeit still incredibly far from where they’d hoped to be at the outset of the creation of a Spanish superteam, loWel helped the team break new ground alongside the organization’s first high-profile international signing, Lucas "steel" Lopes.
"The best results didn’t come when we had the best individual players," mopoz says of these early years, "but rather when the structure sustained itself and everybody felt like a part of the team and we could trust each other."
Signing steel had been a tough decision for bladE, an independently wealthy coach who could be doing anything else with his life but whose complete dedication in body and soul to the team comes from his competitive spirit and his yearning to do things well in the game he loves, as he had to let SOKER go, a friend and former teammate, to make place for the Brazilian in-game leader. But the team had hit a wall and the skipper didn’t stutter when he had to make the call to get out of stagnation.
The organization backed bladE's decision, as they always did, since he could always argue in favor of his calls and they were never baseless, although his veiled approach and a lacking communication often put him in the crosshair of public scrutiny and made him a target of fan’s frustrations when things didn’t go well, which only grew with time as the team continued on a rollercoaster of results. Despite that, no matter how tough the scrutiny got, bladE always stuck to his guns no matter what the public said, and the few times he has given interviews, opinion tended to shift in his favor — even if just momentarily.
For steel, coming to Spain could be seen as something extravagant, moving to a new country by himself and learning a new language in order to lead a team that had not really proven anything great. That showed bladE that the Brazilian was taking the task seriously and even though there was always a risk of things going South, it ended up being a good decision as Riders instantly became better under new leadership by breaking the top 30 and playing some of their bigger LAN events to date like the Champions Cup Finals in Malta or DreamHack Open Sevilla in late 2019.
Movistar Riders’ good form got the team invited to the ESL One Rio Europe Minor Closed Qualifier, which they cleared to reach a new high. But then Covid-19 came and took it away and instead they would have to play the online RMRs, which were nice because it was a chance to compete against top opposition to gauge where they were in their progress as a team as well as to gain crucial experience to keep pushing forward. The downside was that with it all being online the results didn't carry the same weight as LAN, but it remained one of the most important feats ever achieved by a Spanish team.
As the time of quarantines settled in bladE had many conversations with alex, mopoz and the organization regarding how to use this strange period in human history to their advantage and expedite the team’s learning process during the confinement months and the RMR period. His thinking was that there would have to be a before and an after, the Covid pandemic would have to end at some point and he wanted to look back on it as a time that was taken advantage of instead of wasted — so they started to think about where they were headed and what the future was going to look like.
This was a time to learn from the past and to invest in the players that they believed would be in the organization on a long term basis. All of the players’ faults were more pronounced at the more demanding events, so it became easier to see who was better or worse prepared, who was stronger mentally, and who had projection to make it to the next level or not.
By the summer of 2020 the Spanish CS:GO scene had been defunded by the same organizations that had previously created a massive bubble and were never able to put forth strong enough projects to compete and succeed in Valve’s shooter, be it on the server or the ledger. In a scene filled with Riot zealots, the newly converted left their failed CS bids behind in hopes of greener pastures irrigated with developer handouts, although most Spanish teams ended up floundering in mediocrity making way for organizations to bring in international rosters.
The game did gain a footing in Spain immediately, however, as the average viewer in the Iberian country took to following streamers and influencers more than pure competition, further dooming Counter-Strike and its old school ethos. That’s when Movistar Riders shifted towards the international market to try and find players that could add to the maturation process and growth of the players that would remain.
One thing bladE was adamant about was that alex and mopoz, who had gone from hatchlings to becoming two of the players with most weight on the team, get out of their comfort zone once and for all to break through the barriers of being sheltered in Movistar Riders and the Spanish scene.
This was an opportunity to make them learn how to work with people from different backgrounds and cultures, to deal with problems in another language and put them in a mental space far from their old bad habits learned from the the Spanish scene that were replicated time after time. Problems that bladE would also have to learn to deal with at the same time as the players, as would Raquel Esperanza — the team team’s incredibly beloved manager —, and even the organization’s staff at large.
So Movistar Riders kept its two stalwarts and steel, who could play in English and had done a good enough job for everyone to be happy with him. The organization knocked on a lot of doors during this time of restructuring, but without much time to act and a limited budget they ended up taking up two rookies in Kristjan "shokz" Jakobson and Sebastian "larsen" Larsen, the latter becoming EasTor’s spiritual successor as a unifying component in the team.
This period proved to be crucial for alex and mopoz’s growth, as both players who could have appeared flat at one point started to develop more facets and evolved by leaps and bounds in regards to their style, their in-game level, their understanding and management of frustration, acceptance of their own and their teammates’ mistakes, along with myriad other lessons learned.
The work didn’t stop for bladE, either. He started to work much more on the aspects that he could control instead of those outside of his grasp — particularly the team’s culture and identity. He started by defining everyday words and in-game terminology so that everybody would be on the same page, making sure communication was good in and out of the server. He also looked for help elsewhere, continuing to learn about coaching techniques and methodology on his own while focusing more and more on his managerial duties instead of dealing only with matters pertaining strictly to the game.
"Galder [bladE] was very frustrated during his first years because of things that were out of his control," mopoz says, "because in the end it’s the players that are the ones on the server, not him, but he worked on it a lot and grew into an excellent, world-class coach."
mopoz, who at some point had been offered to have some of his former and better roles back but refused them, started to flourish, realizing that he could be one of the team’s stars and playmakers even playing the roles that he hadn’t liked years back. He he even shared carry duties with none other than Movistar Riders’ new flaming high-profile signing, Owen "smooya" Butterfield, who took the spot of larsen.
"There’s one thing in competitive team endeavors that can be bad, which is the ego," mopoz says, "but what I’ve learned is that it’s just as bad for me to have too much ego as it is to completely suppress it, which is what I had done in the superteam to not bother our star players. As time passed I started to take out all of the bad feelings and emotions I had pent up inside me and I started to work on getting things out and communicating what I thought."
No longer in the dumps, mopoz now looks back and sees that the hardship he went through was worth it to get him where he is today. "I ate so much shit for so long before I started to love the positions I had once hated," he says. "There was a transition period in which they tried to take me out of those positions after three years and there was no way I was going back now that I was starting to play them well.
"I live in the mud now and I love it. If you look back at old demos I used to literally just commit suicide round after round, and honestly, I still play pretty much the same way I did then. The difference is that now you can see I’m more experienced after suffering a lot of humiliation, which made me learn how to time my plays and movements better. But my playstyle has always been the same.
"It’s a playstyle that nobody else has and I like it for exactly that reason. I do my things and the only person that really understands me is alex because I started playing this way on Inferno and he’s been my site partner there for years. He hated me at first, but he got used to seeing a madman do whatever the hell he wants and with time he even learned to support me, which is actually incredible."
After a mixed bag of results for the international team in 2021 and some internal turmoil due to smooya’s impulsive character — a character which actually pushed Movistar Riders’ coach bladE to grow more than any at any other point, and showed the team valuable lessons such as the importance of being frank and direct —, mixed with shokz’s lack of progression and steel no longer being the catalyst he had once been, it was once again time for changes.
If there was ever a time to go back to a Spanish roster, the 2021 summer break was it. The right players were free on the market and it would also allow the organization to cut costs and apply all of the lessons learned in the past year, putting them into play in a more controlled and comfortable environment, like a marathoner running unburdened on race day after months of practicing with a weighted vest.
The initial reactions to the news in Spain were mixed, however, as fans had become enamored with smooya’s extreme dedication and his incredible output on the server, especially after months of harsh criticism fell on the team for not spending enough time in the game and not showing their effort by putting in the same grueling hours as the British sniper. Bringing on three unproven players, of which none was Pere "sausol" Solsona Saumell as MAD Lions wanted to hear nothing of transferring him, was seen as a step back instead of a leap forward.
Even bladE didn’t have particularly high expectations for the team initially, anticipating this change to be more of a long-term project than an immediate wildfire, something that would need to be molded and shaped with time. But something completely unexpected happened and the Spanish quintet immediately gelled as every individual had full faith and belief in the system, each other, themselves, and the team’s style.
Three players that had been fighting off the death of Spanish Counter-Strike in the face of Valorant joined Movistar Riders in what ended up being the biggest possible gift they could have received for their perseverance. DeathZz, dav1g and SunPayus had just been kicked in the gut when their team was picked up by Caronte just to be back on the street as the organization became insolvent as quickly as they came into existence.
The Iberian squad trudged on without support under the Iberian Family, although they did have their 15 minutes of fame when they beat MIBR at Spring Sweet Spring 3 and gained a following as the team of the people in Spain while Movistar Riders played with foreigners. To add insult to injury, Iberian Family were in negotiations with Case and were told that Yan "yepz" Pedretti would have to be a part of the roster if they joined the club, conditio sine qua non, so DeathZz was let go to help with the acquisition before Case backed out.
DeathZz was contacted by bladE immediately after being dropped by Iberian Family and was in the Spanish coach’s plans, who believed in the former Riders’ player’s transformation during his time on other teams. Fortunately, one thing all of Movistar Riders’ veterans agreed on when he joined back on was that he was a completely changed player. A quiet player that almost needed constant guidance in the server the first time around, he was now a much more vocal addition to the team as he had spent a time leading Iberian Family in their early days.
"He’s much better at communicating now and will literally give winning calls, showing much more initiative than the first time around, as well as much more maturity and clear conviction regarding the way to play," alex says of his teammate. "He doesn’t talk that much, but when he does make a call you know he’s going to nail it."
"I got very happy when they contacted me," DeathZz says, unable to hide his emotion, "because we weren’t able to squeeze out the full potential of the old Movistar Riders roster and I’ve learned a lot since then. Everybody has changed. I’ve changed, they’ve changed, and what really helped was them having an international roster.
"Everybody learned a lot about different ways of thinking and working and they’re applying all of this newfound experience with the new roster and we're working on aspects regarding work ethic, communication, managing tense situations in the game, and we’ve all become much more tolerant of each other while leaving no room to fool around anymore."
Movistar Riders’ coming of age is undeniably visible in alex, who picked up the reins of in-game leadership for the first time in years following steel’s departure. Known to be hot-tempered and full of bravado, the very Mediterranean player is now much more calm and collected despite sometimes still going off — as he did when the team qualified for the Major, calling out the haters that doubted the team in an act that he says was to protect his teammates, particularly bladE, who he considers has been treated very unfairly by fans in the past.
No longer the youngster he was when he joined Movistar Riders, alex still sees himself a bit green as a leader, which is understandable as he’d been a year and a half away from the role while steel called and it has only been a couple of months since he picked it back up. That doesn’t mean he’s not comfortable slotting back as IGL, however, and he is now working on making everyone in the team an active asset by getting them to communicate and give ideas so that the peripheral players can also activate the team.
The 25-year-old IGL was initially the leader in the superteam roster, but he never felt like a captain at the time and when steel came in as a pure IGL he switched to another role. Now, he’s happy to be back, as leaders have been sorely lacking in Spain, something alex wants to change. "Having the figure of an in-game leader in Spain is important," he says, "not just for me and my active playing career, but it’ll be good to have this knowledge to share when I retire, that would be something beautiful."
Leading also makes alex a better player as it helps him focus on the task at hand and he takes joy in the tactical and strategic side of the game — it’s not just something that was asked of him and he complied. And unlike the first time around he now enjoys it twofold, since this iteration of Riders feels like it is really his team and not someone else’s.
Movistar Riders play a slow, structured game under alex’s leadership, enjoying control and managing the pace without having to gamble on plays. He also likes to build his own playbook without relying too much on any exterior influences.
"People think that copying a tactic will make you better or it’ll work for you the way it does for the team that came up with it," alex says, "but that’s not the way to go because you don’t know everything that went into making that tactic in the first place, how they act and react around it, what solutions and variants they have — so we don’t copy tactics, but we’ll take certain movements here or there as long as we’re sure it won’t change our identity."
The additions of the two rookies, dav1g and SunPayus, have also been crucial for alex to flourish as a leader despite their relative inexperience, since the former is a highly moldeable player who is happy taking any role needed by the team and the latter is a highly talented AWPer that has a vision of the game that aligns perfectly with alex’s methodical approach.
Becoming a professional crept up on dav1g unawares, which very much speaks of the entry fragger’s laid-back character. "dav1g is the bomb," mopoz says of his teammates’ Keith "NAF" Markovic-like personality, "do you know how much money I’d pay to have his personality? He doesn’t let anything faze him! Nothing!" The youngest player on the team at 20 years old, he didn’t start to play competitively until 2017 as a hobby to pass the time.
He had even attended side tournaments at events where Riders would play on the main stage, such as DreamHack Open Sevilla 2019, where he won the local BYOC tournament before going to watch Riders play, and yet he never envisioned himself being on that stage one day.
"When they called me from Movistar Riders I thought, ‘what the hell?’" dav1g says, almost still incredulous not only that he qualified for a Major but that he’s even playing in the best team in Spain. But behind his gentle personality as a sacrificed entry fragger, which could easily fool one, he is just as competitive and hungry to win as anyone — he just doesn’t care how. "I don’t care about stats," he says, "I know I could be better individually, and it’s not about positions or anything, but I just want to win and I don’t care about anything else — positions, statistics, whatever."
The biggest discovery the world made at IEM Fall when it comes to Movistar Riders was learning who SunPayus is, and appearing out of nowhere in 2018 at the grassroots level in Spain, one wouldn’t be surprised if some Spanish fans didn’t know who he was before signing for Spain’s top side. The AWPer played for local sides KPI and Wygers, making his largest strides as a player in the latter under the wing of Swedish veteran André "BARBARR" Möller.
How he got to play at that level remains somewhat of a mystery that can only be explained by natural ability. SunPayus didn’t have a computer growing up and would play on his brother’s when he could, or go to a LAN café in his hometown of Murcia to practice a couple of hours a day here and there after being picked up by the café’s own team, Myrtia Wolves. He received the offer after telling the owner he was ranked SMFC in CS:GO — while attending a Hearthstone tournament.
Even to this day SunPayus doesn’t have that many hours under his belt since he linked his initial forays into the game without a computer and traveling to BYOC LANs on a borrowed PC with finishing his college studies, graduating with a degree in Chemical Engineering right before joining Wygers at the beginning of the 2021. Despite his lack of hours or experience, the 22-year-old handles himself like a veteran and is alex’s right hand when it comes to mid-round calling. Chock-full of confidence, he has taken the baton from both EasTor and larsen in being the glue holding the team together, while one-upping them in also delivering very high numbers day in and day out on the server.
A little known fact about SunPayus is that he was tried out by Movistar Riders when they were searching for an AWPer before bringing on smooya and he could have ended up on the squad then and there, but miscommunication between the team and organization ended up in management going forward and signing the Brit while the team was actually hoping to build around the foundational player that is the Spanish AWPer.
"SunPayus still has a lot to prove,"bladE says, "but I could tell you that he’s the perfect player. The way he thinks in and out of the server, his attitude, his desire, the way he sees the world. He doesn’t overthink, he’s prepared to deal with any situation be it good or bad, he’s a fast learner and applies what he learns or if what he applies doesn’t work he tries something else… He’s open, he adapts quickly, he has talent, and he’s confident in himself. Counter-Strike is a mental game and his head is in the right place for it. He was destined to be a great player and if he keeps at it he will only get better."
This is high praise coming from a coach that has always believed in AWPers being the guiding light for his teams. "Counter-Strike is a game made for AWPers to shine and AWPers need to have personality," the coach adds, "SunPayus has personality, smooya had personality, mixwell had personality on the server. I don’t understand Counter-Strike without an AWPer like that and that’s why the teams I coach have the star player on the AWP."
bladE didn’t let the work he picked up while learning to deal with an international roster go to waste and kept working on the team’s cohesion, on their culture, on defining words together, putting together mantras on how to act in and out of the server and what each player needs to do to shine and remain positive with their teammates.
One of the keys that helped bladE unlock the hidden potential of the roster in such a short time came from a conversation with Movistar Riders’ performance coach, Luis "Deilor" Sevilla Petit, who at one point coached fnatic in League of Legends. "What’s going to make you win?" Deilor asked, "getting players to excel at what they’re good at, or that they become better at what they lack but stagnate in what makes them special?"
After a few days of thinking, bladE, who’d always thought that fixing the negatives instead of empowering the positives was the key to success, got back to Deilor and said that he had been looking at it the wrong way. Having some negative aspects to work on shouldn’t take energy away from empowering the positives.
Instead of focusing on the negatives, the team would focus on being the best at the things that they’re good at, which is what would make them win in the first place, while working on their shortfalls. So they got to it and everyone wrote down what they’re good at, what they’re bad at, and everyone verbally accepted each other’s faults while understanding that what will make the team win is focusing on their strengths.
The IEM Fall qualifiers came shortly after Movistar Riders finished their first bootcamp, and at that time the team was wondering if it would even be worth playing them because they still felt unripe and as to not lose focus on their main goal of not relegating from ESEA Premier, but they signed up nonetheless. It all started for this new team in the second open qualifier’s Round-of-16.
Movistar Riders was up against HAVU on the attacking side of Nuke, where they went down 0-13. "When we won our first round we celebrated like we hit match point," alex says of the team going 1-13. The Spaniards then went on to win their second round before mounting an epic comeback on the CT side to win the match in overtime. "We knew that if we won that game we were through to the closed qualifier, 100%," DeathZz says, "it didn’t matter what happened after that match, if we won it that was it, we would make it through."
The moment bladE realized that this team was something truly special came a bit later, when Movistar Riders beat Eternal Fire, a team that looks more like the Movistar Riders of yore than the current iteration, to secure a spot at IEM Fall in the closed qualifier. At that point, the coach sat down with management and told them that the team’s growth process was going along exponentially faster than he expected and improvements could be seen not just every week, but every single day.
Movistar Riders went into IEM Fall in ideal conditions, with absolutely no pressure. No goals were talked about, everyone was just happy to be there and all that was expected from the players is that they get some experience and enjoy being on LAN for the first time in two years. The first game was a strange one, as Heroic picked Dust2, both of the teams’ perma-bans, and the Danes came out on top 16-10.
alex and company then played another set of Danes, Astralis, and again lost, although this time it was an even closer bout, 13-16, on Inferno. At this point it looked like Movistar Riders were done for, but there was a unanimous feeling among followers that they were at least putting up fights against top teams, an exciting enough ocurrance for a two-month-old Spanish team.
"After losing to Heroic I thought we were going to cause some upsets" bladE recalls. "I could see that the team still had their personality on LAN despite the lack of experience and If they won against Astralis I was sure they’d make the playoffs. They didn’t, but when we beat Complexity the first thing I did was send management a message telling them that we were going to win the remaining two matches and make the playoffs without a shadow of a doubt. I was sure this team had something that no other Movistar Riders squad had before."
Movistar Riders exploded, as bladE predicted, and took out SINNERS in an incredibly tough match on Vertigo, the Czech squad’s stomping grounds, before rounding out their group stage effort with a victory over Endpoint. It seemed like winning three matches in a row would be the Spanish squad’s biggest feat that week, but they once again beat the odds and busted through through the tiebreakers against Heroic and SINNERS. None of the teams vetoed Dust2 in the first round, all three of the teams’ usual first veto, and in the second round it was Casper "cadiaN" Møller who banned it, leaving the final bans in the hands of Movistar Riders and SINNERS.
By the end of the veto Nuke was left standing and coming hot off of their final group stage match bladE’s men crushed Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný and company 4-0 by playing a heavy Outside/Secret strat on the attack, after which they followed their initial victory up with a 3-0 half on the CT side against Heroic before closing out the map 4-1 to secure a spot in the playoffs.
Movistar Riders, who had been listening to Shakira’s Waka Waka as a pre-game anthem to harness the spirit of the 2010 FIFA World Cup team that put a star on Spain’s jersey (although mopoz being his unique self was partial to the soundtrack of the 2004 French drama The Chorus), were just a step away from securing a spot at the Major. But even then they were the clear underdogs with a red-hot Copenhagen Flames and the much more experienced Fiend taking precedence in analysts’ predictions over the ragtag bunch.
Movistar Riders were paired up with the hottest team at the event, NIP, in the first round of playoffs, but even then the Spaniards put up an impressive fight by taking it to the Swedes on Ancient, 14-16, before winning their own Inferno map pick in overtime before the best-of-three took its toll on the less experienced team. "When we reached the decider map against NIP I only had winning on my mind," dav1g says, "so after we lost that Nuke 5-16 I was really bummed, but the truth is we were a bit off by then. We were a bit down by the third map of a best-of-three — not tired, but maybe not at 100%."
The feeling was mostly echoed by all players with the exception of mopoz. "Best-of-ones were always on comfort maps," SunPayus says, "so when best-of-threes came around we knew things would get more dicey, like on the Ancient we played against NIP. Our style is based on theirs, it’s very similar, and it was just different because we went from maps in which we always knew how to act and react to playing a map that maybe we haven’t touched in five days. But yet we still played well and lost that Ancient to NIP in the details, we could have won it.
"The biggest thing we learned from the best-of-three was that we needed to have some snacks and water to stay hydrated and keep our energy levels up. You could tell in that decider that the comms didn’t have the same energy. I noticed I was more tired, we all were, except maybe mopoz, who remained active."
Movistar Riders got another shot at the Major against the Danes of Copenhagen Flames, another one of the dark horses at the tournament after winning their group with a 5-0 record. One of the Movistar Riders’ mantras is to "shed expectations," something incredibly hard with the Major berth within reach, but with their snacks and fruit at the ready they played relaxed and composed, something the younger Danes struggled with and ended up paying for.
"We had the guts and the nerves on our side against Copenhagen Flames," SunPayus says, "they have very young players and it was possible that they were more tense than normal. We knew what we were doing and we just followed our plan." The 22-year-old compared the team to a sponge, learning from everything quickly and adjusting to it, adding that "this is the first Spanish team I know that is incredibly calm under any circumstance, no matter if we’re up or down on the scoreboard, keeping clean communication and a constant pace."
During the IEM Fall ordeal, it started to become clear that this Movistar Riders was unlike any of its predecessors. Sure, IEM Fall had a best-of-one group stage, but they brought back a 0-2 deficit to qualify in a cutthroat three-way tie as the underdogs before playing two very close maps with NIP. To top things off, they then became the first Spanish team in history to qualify for a Major in a series against a team that also ended up qualifying for the Major in the following round.
To fully comprehend why this Movistar Riders has something special is impossible, and much of what made the team click is intangible. However, in the case of alex and mopoz it’s the culmination of a long journey in which they’ve had to learn from a long trail of errors, put what they learned into practice, and become different players after expanding their worldview outside of their Spanish cocoon.
Getting good results and gaining heaps of confidence during a honeymoon period also helps, as does seeing constant and consistent improvement on a daily basis, but there is more. It has to do with personalities fitting together like a glove, with accepting that everyone is going to have their good and bad sides, and with the experienced players — once the rookies themselves — knowing how to deal with the newcomers in a way that will help them blossom instead of wither.
"Explaining what we feel with this team is impossible," alex says, "we sat down for the first time at our initial bootcamp and everything was just seamless. We talk about everything, be it Counter-Strike, football, our hobbies, or our lives. At IEM Fall we felt like we had been playing together for years, and all you can chalk that up to is chemistry. I don’t know how it happened, but all of the pieces just fit together."
Communication also played a key role in Movistar Riders getting where they are, not only inside the game but out, so that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goal in the same manner. "Talking always used to cause problems in the Spanish scene," DeathZz says, but Riders have found that being honest and establishing a way of communicating without disturbing the peace is crucial for things to work smoothly. "You always have to be honest with your teammates," alex adds, "You have to say things in a nice way, you can’t just be nasty, but honest communication is very important."
Qualifying for a Major after years of pursuing this very endeavor was both cathartic and mundane for the veterans on the squad. As alex puts it, it was a way to get rid of a lot of baggage from the past, from all of the times the team tried and didn’t get anywhere, the times the team tried and fell just short of their goal, but now with such a big barrier broken the weight of the past is vastly diminished.
Coach bladE has a similar take, except it relates to vindicating the journey followed. "Making it to the Major changes you," he says, "it shows that the way you work is the right way, because most of the time you’re in the dark. You work with your method and your past experiences, the things you’ve learned, but there’s always some doubt and you wonder if what you’re doing is really right. I haven’t had more experiences than those with Riders and for my players it’s more or less the same. So we ask ourselves, ‘is this really working?’ And then when something like this happens you realize that it is. That’s the most important thing for me, what lets me sleep at night."
After the ordeal in Sweden the squad returned to Madrid for a short, light bootcamp as they fought to keep their spot in ESEA relegations, played BLAST Showdown, recorded some content for the organization, and secured a spot in the ESL Masters Spain grand final that will take place after the Major, showing that their feet are still well on the ground.
Other than playing their official matches, the team mostly did light tactical work alongside bladE and the team’s new analyst, Ángel "repk3ys" Gracia Navarro, a chatty youngster full of passion who professes his love for the Luminosity/SK side that won back-to-back Majors at any chance he gets. Other than doing the strategic grunt work, he is someone for bladE to bounce ideas with, which the skipper considers crucial, and is importantly someone who is outside of the server as bladE says the players’ views is too limited and subjective at times.
Another one of the keys to Movistar Riders gelling so quickly is the group’s discipline, as players meet together at a scheduled time before practice and have their coffees together, they eat together, they have pre-match talks and post-match debriefs with the team psychologist during which they take time to talk to each other.
They talk about Counter-Strike, their lives, their girlfriends or lack thereof, anything and everything, and in the end, it is not something done reluctantly. Everything is more or less fluid and happens naturally as each individual accepts their place in the hive and works for the best interest of the team. Raquel, the team’s manager, kept bringing up how she didn’t understand that other teams at IEM Fall were eating alone or members of the same team were sitting at different tables, something unthinkable for a group of Southern Europeans traveling together, let alone a team.
Inside the gaming room at the MEC the atmosphere tends to be more serious, even if the players are taking a break or browsing on their computers, as it never ceases to be a place of work. It gets particularly serious when the team is playing, obviously, but meetings and debriefings are also moments in which calm takes over so that any and all matters can be discussed and the appropriate attention paid to whatever comes up.
From reading their mantras before matches, which is akin to every player voicing a sort of code of conduct along with the things each one will do and work on in the game, to discussing anything that may have gotten out of hand in the heat of a match in a debriefing session where all voices are welcome and both veterans and rookies can have the floor for whatever they want to discuss.
During the bootcamp there are also activities and games are played, spurred on by the team psychologist, Jaime ESensE Callejas, who also sits in TeamSpeak to listen in on communications and the team’s emotional health. One of the games played is spike ball, a sort of volleyball-like game in which two teams have to spike a ball against a net on the ground, with everyone from players to staff partaking in the fun, albeit competitive, break in the day.
It’s easy to see the team’s good chemistry as a mirror, projected both in real life and on the server, taking different forms both physically and virtually. Outside of the server in a much more jovial and lively atmosphere, whereas in the server calm and seriousness reigns. But it is all about finding joy in the end, in play and in work.
"We just spent 15 days at a hotel in Stockholm experiencing some incredibly intense emotions and when we got back to Spain we realized how tired we were," bladE says when asked about how other teams may be having much more intense bootcamps ahead of such an important tournament as a Major. "We need to rest and we need to go back home for a couple of days to see our families, our people, sleep in our beds, and go to Sweden with our batteries charged.
"We'll have three or four days to practice there before our opener so I’ll make a plan for the days before the event and that’s it. We want to be stress-free and in a good mood to be able to compete at our best."
Movistar Riders lost their BLAST Showdown match against Virtus.pro, the toughest one they played during their bootcamp between IEM Fall and PGL Stockholm, but they were never in danger during the ESEA Premier Relegations. Despite being on cruise control ahead of the Major, the team feels in control, there’s no fear, and lower-tier match-ups feel less daunting than they used to.
The bootcamp, in a way, was for the team to manage their emotions together, play the games that were obligatory, and feel the love of the whole Movistar Riders staff, from the broadcast crew to the financial department and everyone in between, a group of people that truly work on making the MEC a hospitable place for all who come in. A feeling that the team’s manager Raquel also fosters, taking care of everything down to the most minute detail, such as bringing three different types of paper towels into the gaming room before a match so players can choose what texture they want.
The team spends around half of the day at the MEC, from noon to midnight, with some visitors allowed. Iberian Family’s former manager, Eloy "deLonge" Suárez, for instance, came to have lunch and wish the boys luck, sharing a KFC bucket with DeathZz and dav1g while the rest of the team chose to eat their usual catering meal, after which one of mopoz’s childhood friends, a chiropractor, came to work on the players’ postures in the evening.
"I’m very calm," bladE says after a few days at the MEC, "I don’t think we’ll know where we really are until we sit down to play our first match. We don’t have any expectations, we’re just going to try to apply everything we’ve worked on up until now. We’re going to continue being a unit, a team, and we know that what we’ve already earned no one can take from us, which should keep us calm.
"We’re not going to try to revolutionize anything, we’re not trying to be the crazy dark horse. At IEM Fall we realized we’re a capable team, so we just need to go back and enjoy doing the same things we already did. Make a plan, be positive, enjoy playing on LAN after two years online and not overthink anything.
"We have no precedent for what we’ve achieved, this is new for everyone. It’s new for the organization, for the staff, for the psychologist, for the players, for myself, for everyone, so we’re just trying to handle everything as naturally as possible because if not it’s easy to just go crazy. We’ve talked about all of this, we have our feet on the ground, so we’re just trying to filter everything, to understand where we’re at, and to accept that we’re a team that played ESEA Premier Relegations and ESL Masters Spain leading up to the Major.
"This is all part of the process and we have no idea where we’re going to be in three or four months. We’re just going to keep going as we were and not change anything, because it worked. The good thing about this team is that we’re all kind of normal. Sometimes it’s hard to find normal people in this line of work, so it’s kind of easy for us to just make this a normal situation for everyone."
Everybody on the team follows bladE in not letting the Major get to their heads, and mopoz once again brings up the joy of playing Counter-Strike, as if to push the years of suffering through uncomfortable situations out of mind. "We want to have fun. We’re doing something that has never been done in Spain and we want to enjoy the moment — we don’t want to live through it with anxiety. Nerves cause the same reaction in the brain as excitement, so we just need to make sure that we harness that excitement and don’t let it turn to nerves."
The new and old RIders agree with this sentiment as SunPayus is very much in line with his coach and teammate. "I hope to take away every possible positive experience that I can from playing this Major," the 22-year-old says, "I don’t expect anything else. I want to enjoy it and live what’s happening because this is the kind of experience that may not come often in a lifetime. Whenever we’re there, that’s all we have to think about, what’s happening in the moment — and revel in it."