Vitality Esports Director: "When this team starts winning, we will win for a long, long time"
Fabien "Neo" Devide gave insight into the team's 2021, the blockbuster signings, and the strategic shift that comes with "Vitality 2.0" in an extensive interview with HLTV.org.
One report shocked the Counter-Strike world like few others did in 2021. Early on Saturday, November 6, it was revealed that Astralis' era-defining trio of Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen, Emil "Magisk" Reif, and Danny "zonic" Sørensen were leaving the Danish team and were going to start the upcoming season in the jerseys of the most recognizable French organization Vitality. To accommodate the international turn, revered coach Rémy "XTQZZZ" Quoniam, icon of the francophone scene Richard "shox" Papillon, and rookie Jayson "Kyojin" Nguyen Van would be making way.
The move from Vitality left people astounded and in disbelief. But perhaps it shouldn't have. Perhaps we just weren't listening closely enough.
Understanding the cycle
Since entering CS:GO in 2018, Vitality have been an organization that talks openly about their plans and, more often than not, follows through on them. "This is not a short-term project," they said after signing some of the best players France had to offer alongside young prospect Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut. The plan of reaching the top 10 in the world was accomplished within six months, as well as participating at both Majors in 2019.
After a fallout at StarLadder Berlin, Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt was removed from the team and replaced by shox, with XTQZZZ going on to say in an interview that this is "the last French-speaking team at Vitality. They know it. I have no problem telling everyone, that's Vitality's vision." Moreso, he explained that even if they won that Major (they were ranked second in the world), the change would've still happened. Sounds familiar?
With ZywOo winning back-to-back player of the year awards in 2019 and 2020, Vitality became a powerhouse name on the scene, being named the third-best team of both years. Having just signed a four-year extension with their superstar, Vitality's Esports Director Fabien "Neo" Devide spoke to HLTV.org at the end of 2020 about his wish to "create a cycle" around ZywOo, signing the best players of the 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." That also rings a bell.
Fast forward a year and Vitality have signed the two players and coach that have won three Majors back-to-back, with dupreeh and zonic even having a fourth one to their name. It is fair to say that they fit the bill for the "best players of the generation," especially when the AWP position on the team is already taken.
Our most recent in-depth talk with Neo makes it easy to understand how Vitality came to make what at first seems like a shocking and drastic change, as he rewinds time to explain the approach. "The goals were super clear from the beginning, back in 2018-19 when we joined CS:GO. We wanted to win titles that mattered and Major tournaments, especially when your biggest prospect ZywOo becomes back-to-back HLTV number one," he says. The French unit won five notable tournaments by the start of 2020, a respectable result, but what was missing was a Major.
"I had a lot of expectations, especially at the beginning when we discussed with XTQZZZ and the guys. We wanted to have a cycle of two to three years, but because of COVID we extended the cycle to at least to have a proper shot." According to Neo, within the team it was clear that 2021 was going to be the last year of the cycle, and that after it, big changes were likely.
Signings, mistakes, and 2021 results
"Winning one or two trophies a year should be a basic expectation, especially when you have the best player in the world, because ZywOo is the best player in the world." Neo says when explaining how he rates his team's year, talking about a standard to which Vitality's weren't living up to until their 'last dance.'
"I won't say it was a disappointing year because it was not. We had a tough beginning, I think at the beginning we needed to digest the six-man roster, implementing it, and then killing it." That tied onto the team losing the majority of their Regional Major Ranking points as the system was reset, and then player issues that were carried on from a successful but busy end of 2020. "We had apEX burnt out, we had RpK being super, super tired, and I think it was the right thing for him to maybe step back from the game at this time. Not because he was not performing well, [...] but it was very complicated for him to be at his peak performance."
That is when Kyojin stepped into the lineup, a rookie with no experience competing at the top level. Knowing that the goal was to go all out for the Major and the cycle was nearing its end, was that signing a mistake?
"The answer is definitely yes. Not a mistake because Kyojin is still an amazing player, and I think he has a bright future in front of him, but he definitely needs more time in tier 1 tournaments. Adding someone unproven and without any experience, I think it was a gamble. It could've paid out on our end, but it did at the end of the day. But definitely, if we wanted to have a shot, a proper shot, we should have hired a veteran at this time."
Neo explains that a more experienced player wasn't hired because there were no suitable one for the anchor role except players that were already in Vitality. The coaching staff and players were aligned in the opinion that Kyojin was the right pick.
"Taking for example NBK- who could have been a better, more of a veteran choice. We already experimented playing together and I don't think it right to go back to what you had before when it didn't work out. Kyojin was our only option, and maybe we overestimated our impact on the progression of Kyojin because of misutaaa — we did wonders with him super fast except for his first month. I think we were in this 'rookie fever' and maybe we were a bit overconfident to make sure that he can deliver, it was probably too much pressure for him and it [the responsibility] is probably on us."
With their two last French signings being rookies, Kévin "misutaaa" Rabier and Kyojin, and even the Danish trio coming over on a free transfer, Vitality faced some criticism that they don't want to buy out players. Neo claims that was never the case, except when they had to find a last-minute replacement for Alex "ALEX" McMeekin at the start of 2020.
With the COVID pandemic breaking out at the time, the outlook on upcoming tournaments as well as partnerships and sponsorships was unclear. "In France at that moment most traditional sports clubs — and I remember even Astralis —, were super conservative regarding their finances because of the fear sponsors and partners could just cut budgets. It was a pandemic crisis and there were more important things outside sports and entertainment."
The pandemic wasn't the only issue, a 48-hour window in which a replacement had to be found due to roster locks meant that other organizations found it a good time to ask for "aggressive buyouts." Neo admits Ali "hAdji" Haïnouss was a player they were considering at the time, but the transfer never materialized and they opted for misutaaa, who was already signed as a streamer.
"In the past we were not afraid to invest, look at what we did when we had the choice between kioShiMa and shox. shox was benched on G2 and had an expensive buyout while kioShiMa was free after his time on Cloud9. We were never afraid to invest any money on top players and upgrade the team to make sure that we have the best shot to compete."
In the end, Vitality's 2021 looked strikingly similar to their last two years. "Six months of average and six months of greatness," as Neo describes it. It was after an underwhelming start to the year, when the team briefly fell out of the top 10 and wasn't really in contention for a single title, that he decided it was time to act.
Going international and a new strategy
"The change about becoming international is about the club strategy overall," Neo said as he started to explain the massive overhaul of the team. "We want to accelerate right now, when in the past [in CS:GO], as well as in other games likes LoL, we used to aim for rookies and development." The direction change in League of Legends was apparent in December when their roster featuring "the best European players" was unveiled, following a €50M investment round.
"Right now our place in the industry is pretty obvious. We want to be clear winners in Europe, we want to be the #1 team in Europe in every game and to compete for every Major title and international title in every game. For sure it was more of a switch internally, and an appetite for us to go aggressively and make sure that Vitality is the new powerhouse and can go on to create its own era.
"I don't have any regrets on what we've done before," he continues. "It is not about disappointment or lack of trust with someone like XTQZZZ or something like this. I think XTQZZZ is definitely one of the best coaches in the world, he's amazing, and shox is also a tier 1 player and will have a bright future in front of him. He can play until he's 45 years old, I'm convinced, because he's passionate and he's a really nice guy."
Carrying on with an all-French lineup wasn't impossible, he adds, as there are good sub-top players in the countries that could "fuel our ambitions and give us a proper shot at a Major," but at a strategic level, going global was the decision that was obvious for Vitality.
"I think it was the right timing I guess, to end the cycle of 2-3 years and not finish badly. Sometimes you can finish on a high and positive note and you don't have to have your project implode or players hating each other to suddenly overreact and say 'Oh my god, what am I doing? There is nobody on the market, what should I do? I need to find a substitute and a backup plan.' For the first time, we had a lot of proactivity in the offseason."
Forward-thinking to this degree is rarely seen in Counter-Strike, or at least rarely highlighted. Neo then pulls back the curtain a bit more, revealing that his proactivity about the roster dated back to May of 2021, when Vitality hit their massive slump and even the team's veterans were concerned about reaching their objectives for the year.
"I told the team that I will not make any decision yet, I will just have interviews with people and probably international players," which led to informal talks. The Danish trio found themselves on the list after Neo heard rumors that they might not want to continue with Astralis.
"I had a polite call with them and it was not a formal interview, I was just asking about CS:GO, their vision and different things, and I think we had a really really good fit with Magisk actually. He used to be in an international project with OpTic back in the day, the way that we talked and the vision that we had, the fact that this is a grown adult, that he knows how to control his emotions, that he is a proven winner... It made the think: 'Wow, this is actually super refreshing to hear.'"
"I had a lot of interviews, actually, I also had a really bad interview with a player, I just had a really bad feeling about it. You know, some players just talk about the money, some just talk about themselves, and when I had Magisk and dupreeh it was super refreshing because they are both proven winners, they don't need to prove themselves. If they wanted to go to a superteam in North America or somewhere else they could've probably gotten 2-3 times more money than what we offered. These guys were just hungry to compete and to win, and to actually create a legacy somewhere outside of Astralis, to maybe prove that they can achieve this and be maybe the biggest legends of the game."
He backs the claim that Magisk and dupreeh are putting success ahead of money by saying they maybe could've earned more if they stayed put. "I think they are being paid well in Vitality, don't worry about that. (laughs) I think they have really good conditions, but I don't think they have a better offer than they had in Astralis."
Rumors of the Danish trio being a "package deal" for Vitality were confirmed by Neo. "They really wanted to work together, Magisk and dupreeh really wanted to stick together, also with zonic, so I had to consider the full package for sure," he says, adding that he could've fought against it, but there was no point in doing so as they were the three best interviews he had. "I didn't feel like I was forced to do anything."
The package deal was mostly brought up in the context of XTQZZZ's removal, who is considered by many one of the key people behind Vitality's success over the past three years. The team's Esports Director went against continuing with his long-standing coach mainly because of uncertainty around his English, but also the unique things zonic brings.
"I think English was XTQZZZ's weakest point, I think he will catch up super fast to prove me wrong right now, and he will have interviews in English in six months, you will see (laughs), but at the time we were making the decision he wasn't projecting himself in international projects. He had some doubts, and I had the feeling if I'm going in a new cycle with a new team, I need people that are convinced 100%, otherwise we are doing something messy, not laser-focused."
"I have a feeling that XTQZZZ maybe wanted to have another shot with a French team, he was convinced and not convinced at the same time, and I think it was the right moment for us to just end our relationship in a non-dramatic way. Because once again, I'm super grateful, I think he is definitely one of the best in the world, but I think it was the right thing."
The interviews held in May built up to the decision to sign the Danish trio a couple of weeks before the PGL Stockholm Major, something Vitality players would only find out after being eliminated by Natus Vincere in the quarter-finals. "[The players] were pressured by Astralis to know what is going on, they were pressured by other teams because they had unrealistic and crazy offers on the table, so at some point it was a leap of faith and we needed to do it."
"Of course, I wanted to have a proper shot at the Major, that is a tough position because I don't want to say to the guys 'you aren't going to be a part of Vitality' before the Major and maybe crush their chance to achieve something right there. I had a lot of expectations and I wanted to win a Major with them. It would be the best way to actually end this cycle and this team."
While Vitality didn't pioneer the idea that the coach would be the one holding the power over the team instead of the players, XTQZZZ certainly was one of the standouts in that role. Now, zonic will take the mantle and, together with the management, determine the future of the roster.
"zonic will have control. The trust I put in XTQZZZ, I don't regret any of our decisions and what we've done. It will be the same with zonic, of course he needs to report to me, and we have to make decisions together."
The Dane's goal will be the same one his predecessor had: A cycle of two years, aiming to win the Major.
"He knows from the beginning, I'm crystal clear on this. zonic — you have two years to win a Major, but the biggest difference with this team is that if we win a Major I want to make sure we have a proper shot to win several Majors. That is actually what I expect with this team, that is why we are going with proven winners, that kind of profile. They know how to handle the pressure of being a favorite."
Ultimately, what dupreeh, Magisk, and zonic bring is something new, Neo believes. The knowledge of how to win, how to stay on top, and how to be favorites, which is something Vitality struggled with in the past, often doing better when they were the underdogs in big matches. "If we want to create our own era, our own legacy, we need to grow, we need to handle this kind of pressure, to learn from the best. When you get a shot to have the best in the history of your game, that is a unique opportunity."
The organization's co-founder isn't aiming to outdo Astralis right away and win consecutive Majors, "but having our own era like NAVI is doing right now, or what Liquid managed to do, that is something I want, especially when I have the responsibility of having the best player of the world."
Criticism and expectations
Fast forward to January 5 and the official announcement of the roster, the discussion about Vitality's international direction is reignited, the speculation about what could go wrong is back on the table. An international roster had never won a Major, a divide within the team between the Frenchmen and Danes could happen, and the language barrier alone could cause many issues. Is there reason for concern?
"I agree with them [the critics], it looks scary, and for us, it is a big gamble. When you have your French team being rockstars in France, loved by everyone, and then go international to be hated by all the French right now, risking to maybe lose everything is scary, I won't lie. But at the same time, I want to be the best, I want my team to be the best and to create its own legacy. I need to take this kind of risk."
Unlike G2, who unveiled a promising 16-year-old by implying that they are going for the next Major, Vitality are toning down the early expectations. "The first six months will be super tough, I don't expect us to be contenders for the first six months, to be honest. If it happens, I will be super happy and the process will be shorter compared to my expectations.
"But at the same time, I expect the team, when they find their groove, we have a great synergy, zonic's and our coaching staff's methods are implemented...When that happens I'm pretty sure our ceiling will be 2-3 times higher than what we had in 2021. And also, we have a full cycle of two years where we can project ourselves with stability, same lineup, clear objectives, and clear goals."
Neo continues by saying that people stating that they will fail before they have even started "is toxic," but those people will also fuel Vitality to prove them wrong. "The same as when we did the six-man roster, I remember the whole Reddit was super furious because they thought it was not the right thing to do in the game."
To battle a divide within the team, which isn't uncommon in situations where the nationality is split 50-50, Vitality have a mix of Danes and Frenchmen in the staff, as well as in key roles in the team. Dan "apEX" Madesclaire will remain the in-game leader, while the co-leader is expected to be Magisk, chipping in with mid-round and pistol calls. zonic will be accompanied by Mathieu "MaT" Leber, XTQZZZ's former assistant, and as an addition to their French backroom staff, they have added Lars Robl, the former sports psychologist of Astralis. "We tried to copy Astralis back in the day with the performance staff, because there is no shame in copying the best, but when you can hire them, then it is more efficient," Neo points out with a smirk.
Even with all of the work they are putting in, Neo makes it clear that it won't completely stop issues from popping up; that is unavoidable in his opinion. "We need to face issues and then to solve them. [...] But definitely, we are aware of what we are doing and we are giving a lot of resources, time, confidence, and trust in our new team."
"We will be there to support them, even if the beginning will be tough, there is no pressure on this. We are clear on what we want to do and for sure, when this team starts winning, we will win for a long, long time."
ZywOo's comfort zone
The team's superstar was certainly the main reason why Vitality was able to attract the players they did, even without offering the highest bids. However, will a transition from a French to English speaking team affect the prodigious sniper negatively? Risking the form of your best player with the international move was a concerning factor for some.
Neo is of a diametrically opposed opinion, as he believes ZywOo is at a point in this career where needs to be challenged not only on the server, but also within his team.
"ZywOo needs to be out of his comfort zone, to perhaps also learn from someone else and have something to compare. He will keep what XTQZZZ gave them, and then he will also be trained by zonic, a proven winner, who knows how to be a favorite, to win titles again and again and again. I think for us it was a unique opportunity also to make sure that ZywOo will be challenged in practice and in his method, because he can improve. I think people don't realize he is just 21 years old and his margin of improvement and progression is still super-high."
You perhaps noticed that Neo referred to ZywOo as the "best player in the world" multiple times in the interview, saying it in a very confident manner, as if it was a universally accepted fact. He also called him totally unique, gifted, a mutant, The Chosen One, and even a Master Jedi. Asked about that, as well as his main rival Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, he says the following:
"s1mple is definitely the best player in 2021 (laughs). And he is super good and I have a lot of respect for the guy because he is so consistent, consistently super-good, he can completely change the game on his own. A lot of respect for s1mple, but you know, I had a lot of players in my life, in other games as well, but ZywOo is totally unique. He is pure instinct, the way he sees things, he is so unique. ZywOo is gifted when s1mple is probably a super-hard worker, dedicated to his own sport and I have a ton of respect for him, but I think ZywOo is a phenomenon.
"Of course, it would be a controversial headline, for sure, but what am I supposed to do, say s1mple is the best in the world? I will never say this because I'm convinced that it is ZywOo, also because of the way he behaves outside of the server. Keep in mind that at 19 years old he joined us and right away became the ZywOo in the space of 2-3 months. This is totally unique, no? I don't mind it actually if people criticize the fact that I'm biased about my players, but it is just that the guy is genuinely the best. His DNA is CS:GO. The fact that he is born the same day as Counter-Strike isn't a coincidence. He is the Chosen One. This guy will bring the balance in the force, he is a fucking Master Jedi, you know?"
A new cycle begins
As we begin to close the nearly one-hour-long interview, Neo goes on to once again give credit to former players, as well as take a part of the responsibility for not reaching their main goal in the cycle — winning a Major.
"I don't want to be harsh to our former or current players because again they deserve a lot of credit, a ton of credit, and it is more again an end of a cycle, a new strategy in the club. It is always hard, but of course, we made mistakes on the management side and they did on their side, but that is fine."
"But right now I need to open up a new chapter for Vitality, it is Vitality 2.0 in CS. Fingers crossed it will be the right thing for us, the right thing to do, but going international at some point is no surprise, we told you this before and I think it was what we aimed to achieve at some point. I think we have the right pieces to do it."