After a rebuild and a relocation, Spirit's bet on youth is starting to pay off
With an average age of 20.7 years, Spirit is the youngest team in HLTV's top 30 and the youngest to qualify for the PGL Major in Antwerp.
Spirit had everything to look forward to at the beginning of 2021 when they brought on one of the most sought out up-and-coming AWPers in the region, Abdul "degster" Gasanov, from Espada, alongside youngster Robert "Patsi" Isyanov who would be the team’s sixth man. The Russian squad had broken out in the online era in 2020, reaching 13th place in the HLTV team ranking. Within the first month of the year after the changes, Spirit showed great promise to continue their climb at one of the smaller events in the circuit, DreamHack Open January, where they took first place after beating BIG and FunPlus Phoenix in the playoffs — their only loss in the group stage coming at the hands of Gambit.
"At the end of the player break we added degster and we played a lot, like five practices a day and then five games of FPL. magixx and degster had a record number of games, they played a lot of pick-up games and were in really good shape," Leonid "chopper" Vishnyakov recalls during an interview several days before he and his team were set to fly to Antwerp for the PGL Major. "We were peaking while everyone else was just coming from vacation. This was a big advantage, our game itself was pretty simple, we just relied on communication more than strats and set plays. Playing in this environment, in FPL, a lot of it worked."
Spirit’s good run of form continued in February, shortly after their DreamHack Open victory online despite Patsi being moved to the academy team when Valve made it harder for teams to field six man roster, but this time they took it to a whole new level at one of the biggest events of the calendar, IEM Katowice. To reach the group stage, they left Cloud9 and BIG in the dust at the play-in without dropping a map, followed by victories against G2, Heroic and Astralis to top Group A before their run was finally brought to an end in the semi-finals by the eventual champions, Gambit, in a two map series.
Following their early prowess in 2021, Spirit sat at the doors of the top five in the ranking, hitting sixth place on March 22, a day after securing their spot at the BLAST Spring Showdown by winning the Winstrike CIS Spring Cup. chopper and company never managed to break the top five threshold, however, and started to lose steam little by little as poor results at Big Events chipped away at the team’s morale. Back-to-back 9-12th places at DreamHack Masters Spring and IEM Summer were followed by a 13-16th place at IEM Cologne and 17-20th at ESL Pro League.
"It wasn't really a honeymoon, everyone was working really hard to get into our peak back then," Boris "magixx" Vorobiev says of the team’s good form early on. "I believe that the main issue, which happened right after those tournaments, was that we needed to continue working even more than before. When the year started, the rest of the teams got into shape and better individually after their vacation, they worked and we didn't work as hard as we did before, which affected our results right after. That's why we fell hard."
Constantly doubting themselves, the Spirit players and coaching staff tried to change roles, positions and play style, but to no avail. "Some of the decisions we made were wrong and didn't work out for us," magixx says. "We couldn't fix that throughout the year at all."
The PGL Major in Stockholm, the first Major since most play was moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, would be the final tournament for this iteration of Spirit. With losses to FaZe and Virtus.pro and victories over GODSENT and TYLOO, Spirit were on the brink of making it past the Challengers stage, but a 0-2 loss to Astralis dealt the final blow to a team that had been slowly declining from top five aspirations to No. 20 on the ranking.
Just days after crashing out of the Major, Spirit announced the team would go in a new direction as "the project’s potential wasn’t fully achieved," and on November 4 Nikolay "mir" Bityukov and chopper were put on the transfer list with Patsi and Aleksandr "KaiR0N-" Anashkin moving up from the academy roster to take their places. By the end of the year Viktor "sdy" Orudzhev also stepped down, leaving just two players from the previous squad as the building blocks for the rebuild.
Spirit, as most modern organizations these days, is built in a way in which the players from any roster in any discipline are not in control of the roster. "It's management first," Konstantin "-tvd-" Machaidze, Brand Lead at Spirit says. "On the brink of creating a roster, the coach or the coach and manager are the main guys, that's ingrained. hally's big advantage to assert himself is that he worked with four of the players before, he worked with magixx and degster in Espada and the two younger players in the academy."
Spirit, which was founded in 2015 and took its first steps in CS:GO in 2016, started with CEO Nikita "cheshir" Chukalin, who found investment for the organization and built a team of like-minded people to lead the project. "There aren't a lot of us, like NAVI, who have 60-70 people working for them," -tvd- says. "Spirit is smaller, but we still have a vision, a model in which we build our rosters on, and we believe in it. This is a group of individuals that want to build successful rosters and market around them to bring in new sponsors."
The first step of the rebuilding process was that the longtime Spirit coach, Nikolay "Certus" Poluyanov, left the team in mutual agreement with the organization. "The new coach, hally, who was with us at the RMR, and our CEO, were responsible for assembling the new roster," chopper says. "The plan was to completely rebuild around magixx and degster, so I was in limbo for quite a while and the last person to actually complete the roster.
"Spirit decided to bring on Patsi because everyone believes he's a talented player and was playing well in the academy roster. One of the plans was to make him the in-game leader, like he was in the academy, because that was his role there, but eventually it was decided that he should just be a role player and the captain should be someone else." With chopper still on the chopping block, there were several other candidates for the IGL role under consideration, including big names in the region, but ultimately no deal was struck and chopper was brought back with the task of being the experienced voice in a young roster that also included another academy player, Pavel "s1ren" Ogloblin.
That left KaiR0N- out, the other academy player that had been trying out with the team after the Major, but problems with him fitting into the team ended up in him wishing to try his luck elsewhere. "KaiR0N- was not the kind of player that would fit into this team, mainly because of his roles and positions," magixx says. "His play style didn't suit the team and he had big role clashes with Patsi, since he didn't play anchor positions and he played in the middle of the action. He was sad when he had to play anchor positions, which aren't for him, and that's why he didn't settle in. At some point it was in his hands to get used to these positions, but you can see the outcome, he's not in the team and he's not with us."
One of the newcomers, s1ren, also had to fight for his place on the team, as there was a competition between him and another unnamed player from the CIS region. "He's very talented and mechanically gifted, plus he has this fire in him," chopper says. "He wants to compete and be the best. So after playing a couple of mix games with each player, the team decided that s1ren was more fit for the roster."
Since then, s1ren’s development with the team has been something to be pleased about according to magixx. "The first time I played with him was in December or January and since then he's been getting better day by day," the 18-year-old says. "He's hungry for the wins, grinding a lot, and the main thing is that he learns from his mistakes and listens to both the coach and his teammates regarding how to play better. Everyone is giving him advice, even me because I had some positions on the old roster that he now has and I can share some stuff with him. He's doing a great job, he's a great player and if he keeps up the way he works he'll be much better really soon."
-tvd- also adds that "s1ren is a very calm player, gifted mechanically and has a robot aim," before also sharing some of the other newcomer’s qualities. "Patsi is really positive, smiles a lot, laughs a lot, and he is the one who keeps the atmosphere bright many times. He’s a creative player, an entry, so he wants to be aggressive, to find opportunities and entry frags, and he's also the secondary caller because he has the experience from Spirit Academy which helps chopper a lot. Being the entry, when he sees an opening he wants to call that."
This new Spirit lineup, with an average of 20.7 years of age, was a clear bet in favor of youth by the organization as sdy moved to MAD Lions and mir remained on the bench. The renewed roster didn’t get off to the most brilliant of starts and stumbled in their first online cup of the year, finishing 9-11th in the Pinnacle Winter Series 2 Regionals, but were quick to bounce back to win Malta Vibes Knockout Series 6. The first big test, however, came at the RMR’s European open qualifiers, where thousands of teams fought to make it to the final hurdle before the Major. It only took Spirit two tries through the grueling bracket, as they were knocked out by OG in the first qualifier’s quarter-finals — the deciding match —, before going on to finish the second qualifier in second place.
Stakes raised at the RMR in Bucharest, where Spirit started out with a loss to ENCE before bouncing back against ASG to go into the 1-1 pool at the end of the first day of play. They were then pushed to the brink by SINNERS after a poor performance on Nuke, but rallied to win their last two best-of-threes against Endpoint and Anonymo to secure a spot at the Major, thus becoming the youngest team to qualify for the PGL Major in Antwerp and the youngest team currently in the top 30. "The expectation when this roster was built was to make the top 30, which we achieved," chopper says. "The next step on the roadmap is only upwards. Making the Major was huge because the RMR was the team's first big LAN together, and it was the first big LAN for Patsi and s1ren, who had no experience.
"On top of that, we only played practice games for like a month and not everybody punishes the mistakes you make in practice. That's what happened, for example, against SINNERS. We never struggled in outer on Nuke, but SINNERS heavily punished us there because not everything was optimal, so making the Major was huge and it boosted the morale of the team. Regarding day to day, we want to do our best and approach the game map to map to prove ourselves and everyone else that the path we chose is the right one."
When asked about the right path, chopper mentioned the importance of the team’s coach, Sergey "hally" Shavaev, stating that "the right path is hally's vision which is the vision of the whole team and which everybody buys into. The way we train, we fix mistakes, communicate inside the team, the whole way the team functions. That's our path."
The establishment of this team didn’t come without its bumps on the road, as before the RMR, Spirit had announced "the relocation of its office to Belgrade, Serbia, suspending expansion in Russia and engaging in the relocation of employees for ethical and practical reasons due to the situation in Ukraine" in order to accomodate the organization’s employees — many of which are from the two countries, including the recent The International 10 champions as well as the CS:GO team. "We opened an office in Belgrade and from now on we're going to operate from Serbia," -tvd- says about the decision, "all of the top management and two rosters moved here. We still have ties to Russia, our streamer, Hearthstone player and the League of Legends team are all living there and our target audience is still people who understand Russian, but we would like to also branch out into a Western audience since we moved to Europe."
Following the successful run at the RMR, the team did a half-bootcamp from Serbia ahead of the Antwerp Major, where chopper and magixx were waiting for some of their teammates that still needed to acquire travel visas, not letting it hinder their practice. "We still had an opportunity to train even if some of us were getting visas, it didn't take them all day," magixx says. "With the Major coming up so soon we have to give our best and put time in to get a good result there. We're still training and working a lot, as much as we can. We lost some time because of the visas but we still have a job ahead of the Major and we have to continue working as hard as we can to make our results better."
Everything was going to plan, but just three days before the Major Spirit put out an announcement stating that they would not be able to compete with hally at the Major, as he was one of three coaches that were to be charged by ESIC in relation to the coach bug. The news, which would deny hally his first attendance at a Major due to one round in which he was stuck in the static spectator bug back in 2019 when he was coaching Espada, was not well received by the organization.
"hally is the main man in the roster and his vision is the most important, everyone adheres to that," chopper says of his coach. "He does strategy and tactics — let's say he says we need to do X, and I say there are two ways to do that, and hally chooses. I'm more tactical, and he's more strategic. He's about the big picture and I bring it to life. hally is heavily involved in tactics, too, but the strategic approach is on the coach and the tactical approach is shared between the two of us. In the micro moments, hally is very creative, so if he sees a flaw he knows how to fix it really fast, he can fix mistakes and come up with new stuff really easily."
magixx, who briefly played under hally at the beginning of his career with Espada, agrees with the sentiment. "Everyone in this team believes and trusts in the coach's vision of the game and how he wants to build the game, all five of us have agreed with this and how we want to play. There's not many arguments regarding in-game situations because we all trust our coach and he makes the final decision about how we'll play."
"He’s a former 1.6 player, he was pretty decent in the CIS region, and he also played a bit at the beginning of CS:GO," magixx adds about his skipper. "Shortly after that he took a break from games and at some point was invited by OverDrive to coach Espada. They gave him a try and the young new roster did a really good job breaking into the top 30. He has only been improving since then and he's very impactful as a coach.
"Playing the Major without our coach sucks, we feel we got hard done-by, so we need to play not only for ourselves but for hally too, we are not giving up and we will do our best to show a good performance."
As a young team — and furthermore without their coach to stand behind them — Spirit are not going to the Major under the crushing stress of high expectations and sit comfortably in the underdog position. "We don't have any pressure going into the tournament, we just have to take it game by game," chopper says. "The goal is just to go from one stage to the next, we're a young team and there's not much material on us such as demos and stuff like that. We don't care who we play, we just want to show our best, what we trained, what we're capable of and we think we can do some damage."
Spirit’s first match at the Major will be against none other than the Imperial veterans, pitting the youngest and the oldest teams at the event against each other in the opening round of best-of-ones. "It's cool that the old guard is at the Major, it'll be nice to play against them," chopper says. "It'll all come down to the map we play and we'll build the veto to be comfortable and show our best face."
While closing out the interview, both chopper and magixx go out of their way to put in a good word about the organization ahead of their travels to Antwerp. "Spirit is doing everything they can to make the team as comfortable as possible, they created all of the conditions for the players to live and breathe CS, which is a lot in the current state of the world," the in-game leader says. "I'm thankful for that."
"Those who remain from the past roster are extremely thankful to the organization for believing in the players, giving us a chance to prove that we're still capable of playing well and showing great results," magixx concludes. "We're happy to have the chance to represent this organization."