zonic on coaching an international team: "Teamplay and the tactical aspects are very limited"
It has been nearly six months since the international Vitality project was unveiled, pairing together three Frenchmen and a trio of Danes departing from Astralis into a superteam that, at the time, was put together to topple the titans of Natus Vincere. Since then, FaZe have usurped Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev's side from the throne, and the French-Danish blend have struggled to make deep runs at the first few Big Events of the year, managing close maps and series but ultimately falling short of fans' hopes that they could immediately be contenders.
Vitality themselves aren't worried quite yet though, and have been working through the issues as they come. After struggling to find a style that worked for them between the free-flowing approach of Vitality and the more rigorous, tactical method of Astralis, they went back to the drawing board, and are incrementally improving with no expectation of immediately destroying all of their opponents.
To find out more about the process and the issues Vitality have struggled with, we spoke to their head coach zonic, who spoke about the integration of the Danish players into the team, and touched on working with Dan "apEX" Madesclaire and Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut. He also went in-depth regarding the teamplay and stylistic difficulties the team are trying to work through, but was clear that the team were not rushed in their approach, with him playing a large part in helping with preparation and trying to blend together multiple styles of Counter-Strike.
Let's start with the games you've played here, congrats on the win against MOUZ today, you're now in the lower bracket final. There was obviously some disappoint at the Major outside of the great start in the Challengers Stage, so coming into this event and getting a few wins under your belt, what's the feeling like in the team now?
The feeling of the team is that we're moving into the right direction. When we first joined Vitality, there was the idea to continue the playstyle that they had from last year. They were on a good run and they had some pretty good results in the latter part of last year, and I think for us it was just the natural thing to have dupreeh and Magisk hopefully fit those roles, copying shox and Kyojin with hopefully better individual players so we would make Vitality even better, but that didn't work out.
Then we tried to implement a more structured way, in the sense of you can say the Astralis kind of thing, and that didn't work out either. After EPL in Dusseldorf we pretty much started from scratch, so we went over looking at, okay, how is it that we want to play as a team, what is our philosophy, and how are we approaching the game. Ever since we did that, we have been moving in the right direction.
The Major was unfortunate on some levels but I also think we did well. See both at the RMR and at the Major, coming close against both FaZe and NAVI, having good opportunities to at least take a map against NAVI, and to win against FaZe on Mirage. Then we lost a close game to Heroic where we unfortunately lost I think all the pistols and were just too much behind at some point, even though we came back.
It feels good to be here, lost the game against FaZe who is obviously thriving on momentum. I remember the feeling myself, when we won four Majors, when after the tournament they can go both ways. Either you can be complacent and just lose, or you are just so overconfident that you don't believe you can lose any duels, and we kind of felt that with FaZe yesterday, that they were just taking many duels and even though they didn't play as good as they did at the Major, they were just firing off of that. It was a difficult game, but yeah. Good to see how we reset for today and beat MOUZ, pretty comfortably I would say.
I'm glad you mentioned about working off of the momentum from wins —obviously this Vitality roster are struggling with getting to that point, and it's something the last Astralis roster you were with did too. After having that extremely successful period on Astralis and now obviously this downturn between both of these teams, what has it been like for you, trying to click into a different gear in terms of how you need to operate in the team without that momentum?
For me, the last part of Astralis wasn't that successful either. I think dupreeh, Magisk, and I are kind of used to not being the best team in the world, and having to find ourselves again, and also evolve. We can't just live in a world where we think or see ourselves as the best that we used to be, now we have to work even harder because there are these young talents coming up, young teams. I would say the midfield of teams right now are much better than when we were on the top, there were just very few top teams who could beat each other on any given day. Now I feel like the top is not as good as it was before in that sense, but the midfield of teams are... like, before it was maybe top 10, now it's top 30 teams who you could lose to if you don't play up to your best.
We're used to that environment now, and I'm so proud of the boys for, despite us not having the best start, continuing to work really hard. We see the improvements day by day, and I just feel like as soon as we get off to, let's say win a tournament like this, that's really going to kickstart Vitality in the sense that I want it to. It's a lot about patience, I've talked a lot with the boys when we started, that this is not going to be easy just because when we see on paper how good the team can be, it's going to be really really tough because none of us has tried playing on international teams before. It's not just you have one guy from one nation and maybe two guys from another nation, you have three French and three Danes. It has been my primary focus to work on the cultural thing as well, outside of the server we have the best chemistry we could ever ask for, and we are trying to transition that into the game as well. We are slowly but steadily heading there.
You were talking earlier about this attempt to stay with the Vitality style, then trying out the Astralis style. That's something Magisk and apEX have both touched on in interviews over the last few months, but can you go a little more into detail about what some of those struggles have been, just from standing behind the team?
For me it was a lot about how much freedom the players could have, in the sense that calls on the fly, we didn't really do that in Astralis. we were playing a lot on what we were doing in practice, playing a lot of structured Counter-Strike. I call it A-B-C Counter-Strike, you play the game based on what the opponents are supposed to do, but unfortunately people they also counter-strat, and they know the wrong choice is not the wrong choice in some sense, or the stupid move is not the wrong move, necessarily.
For Peter [dupreeh] and Emil [Magisk], coming from Astralis, I think it was a difficult transition. They have to be much more responsible for their own playstyle, they have to think a lot more about themselves and what they could contribute to the team, whereas in Astralis, everything was just planned from the get-go to the final flashbang before we're executing. That was a big turnaround for them. That was difficult, but now I believe as a coach that in modern Counter-Strike, you need to be able to play both, you need to be able to play slow, fast. You could say a mix of the way karrigan likes to call, which is a lot of calling on the fly, a lot about the opponent and the feeling of the ideas of the game. Then you have the gla1ve side on the other side, who more represents the structured way, that we need to know what your teammates are doing and all these kind of things.
That we changed in Vitality. We like to do calls on the fly still, but it has to be like, a minimum in some sense, and it has to be when we have momentum and when everything is clicking. In the beginning they had so many things they had to get used to, so for them to also change that philosophy and way of playing, that was difficult.
Staying on the philosophy side of things, there was also a lot about what can we do in different situations, with the communication we had to implement a lot of key words, buzz words, to shorten down the communication, to help some of the players who are not used to speaking English. It has become a lot better, but we still... what's good about this team is that we can clearly see our flaws that we need to work on, but it just takes time because none of us have tried this before.
Let's explore that a bit, trying this for the first time and putting this roster together, originally to take on NAVI at the start of the year. What was the driving force for you to join this project with Magisk and dupreeh over staying in Astralis, or exploring other offers you might have had?
It was about challenging myself. I think I have accomplished whatever I could in Astralis, and for me it was either staying in Astralis and trying to rebuild the team to reach new heights, or it was about challenging myself. In that time, FaZe has done it, but my goal was pretty much to do what no one could have done in the sense that making an international team really succeed, I think a lot of people have tried. We are moving in that direction in the future. It was a good chance for myself as a coach, simply because I feel like I've paid my dues in some sense in Astralis and I've accomplished what I could, and for me it was time, before I one day retire, to try and challenge myself by being a coach for an international team.
You've worked with device in his prime, now you're working with ZywOo, another phenomenal talent. How do they compare as individuals to work with?
Both players, I'm really fond of. They have different strengths in some sense. device is more a hybrid AWPer who likes to analyze his opponents, he's human, but he's extremely disciplined in some sense, and it's very difficult for the opponents to read. Whereas Mathieu, ZywOo, he just has this gift of being able to do really unhuman things, he doesn't care about who he plays, it doesn't really matter to him. He doesn't necessarily take the best decisions, but he somehow just manages to always survive, and gets unrealistic kills, in some sense.
He's not the guy who likes to go in as device and just watch three or four matches of the opponent or player to figure out what he can do, he just plays on his intuition, and his game awareness is just out of this world in my opinion, and the best that I've seen by bar, by any player. His anticipation of the opponent and mechanical skills, he's just phenomenal, whereas device is the hardworking student who analyzes his opponent and capitalizes on that.
That's the biggest difference, but both of them are good team players outside and inside of the server, so there's also a lot of similarities.
What are you trying to bring to this team, and how it is working with apEX while trying to establish your voice as you aim for titles as an international roster?
I would say my biggest contribution to this team is definitely structure. Making sure that our playbook is up to date, that we also try and evolve, make sure our playbook is working, coming up with new stuff, making sure that we have a structured everyday life. Nowadays, Counter-Strike, there's a lot of balls in the air, you have to be able to play a lot of different styles and, as I said before, there's a new way of playing Counter-Strike.
You can't just go and look at your opponents, do some anti-stratting, and then that is what they're going to do when you then play them, because a lot of teams, they are very disciplined, they anti a lot, so it's very difficult nowadays as a coach to find that balance of focusing on your own game and also analyzing your opponents. My biggest evolvement now is that I also need to adapt as a coach, I can't just sit and continue with the same playing style that we had on Astralis where we are playing this structured way of playing, playing the A-B-C Counter-Strike that I talked about before. We also have to adapt and teams nowadays have to be able to play different styles, because otherwise you will just simply be too easy to read. Although I still represent the structured way of playing Counter-Strike if that makes sense, but I also acknowledge that you have to switch it up a little bit.
The good match between me and Dan [apEX] is that I focus a lot about statistics, what we are doing right, what we need to do, what we need to work on, where he just follows his gut and I'm the one who sometimes has to tell him, okay, we need to step back and we need to play on our fundamentals. I'm that kind of guy, who when everything goes out of hand, which it does sometimes, then it's up to me to figure out okay, what do we have in our playbook that we have been practicing, that has been working well, that will fit our opponent like we used to do in Astralis.
Is it ever hard to strike that balance with apEX? As an example, I was watching one of your matches, I don't know if it was here or at the Major, but during a timeout you were calling something, I'm not sure if it was a strat or a play specifically, and then Dan kind of put his head in his hands and just said to himself, 'I need to trust my gut, I need to trust my instincts' and then came out and called something completely different-
Yeah, and he has to, but then we ended up losing that round and afterwards he said, 'yeah, you're right.' [laughing] No, I'm just kidding. Of course he has to.
I think as a coach, you can only interfere so much, but if your caller is not feeling it then there's no point in calling it because that will transition into the players, knowing that okay, the caller is not really feeling comfortable, and then they lose confidence in him. My work is definitely behind the scenes when we practice, making sure that everything is correct so that when we go, we have all CT setups, we have been practicing, we are practicing playing aggressive, playing defensive, all the T strats are in place, we know how to play and everyone knows what to do, minimizing our mistakes.
When we go to tournaments, it's a lot about the five players on the server. I have a tac, I can call something, and most of the time it works, but also as I said before, a lot of teams are very advanced today and they know sometimes when you take a tac, they are also trying to analyze it and maybe they will continue doing the same, where you anticipate them to change up. A lot of the time, doing strats, it can be a gamble, so whenever he says that he needs to trust his gut, then I come second. I'm never going to be a coach who wants to be in the spotlight and I will just say oh go my way, and afterwards if it works, I'm going to say hey, look what I called. It has to be from the players. Just like I won't tell dupreeh how to play a different position or a different spot, he has to feel comfortable with it, and the same goes for apEX.
Focusing more on the results here in Dallas now, you lost your opener, but now made it to the lower bracket final. You'll be facing the winner of Astralis-G2, already beaten Astralis in your last two matchups, is there a bit of a rivalry there for you personally when you take them on, and how're you feeling about facing either of those teams?
I think that's where it gets tricky, with us being a French and Danish lineup. The French, they have what I feel when facing Astralis, that it's very special. I know Vitality has a lot of rivalry with G2 from different games, some past history, but apEX is also playing against his former coach and the same with my assistant coach MaT. So there is a lot of feelings, and of course we want to beat Astralis and they want to beat us, that's just how it is. It's very special games, and it's weird for me to prepare against my old teammates who I've coached for five, six years. Regarding who we are going to face, I don't focus too much on that, for me it's about us showing up on the day and I think that's how Counter-Strike is nowadays. We showed up at the Challengers Stage as you said before, won quickly 2-0, and then we won the last game, but if you don't show up it can easily be a really tough day.
That's where we need more experience as a team, we need to be able to have bad games where ZywOo doesn't pop off but some others step up, we need to have more time for us so that eventually when we do have bad games, we can rely on the teamplay and tactical side of things. But we also have to know that teamplay and the tactical aspects of an international team is very limited compared to a team with the same nationality. We have to rely on people hitting shots and playing good individually, so that's the criteria of having a team like us. The good thing is that we can pinpoint every player that we want on different positions, but the teamplay side is tough.
I don't care who we meet, they are good matchups, we have won twice against Astralis and we know that they are a good team. They in my opinion still have really good players who are a good mixture of extremely hungry players, motivated to assemble themselves as top players in blameF in k0nfig, and then you have really experienced players in Andreas [Xyp9x] and Lucas [gla1ve], and Farlig who is a huge talent in Denmark.
G2 I think are on a similar path as we are, a new roster, new coach, things are not going as smooth as they want to, but they need more time, and I'm sure they will be a big contender in the future, just like us.
Do you need much more time, or are you ready to fight for a title here?
I know we can. We have proven that in practice, and I also think that we see glimpses of it when we play games, we can at least play really close against the best teams. We also had our chance against FaZe yesterday, it was just us making some small mistakes here and there, us again not winning any pistols, that's no excuse, but if we can just win some pistols.
I don't see us getting stomped like we did one or two months ago, now I can actually see us winning, and whenever we see holes in our playbook or mistakes that we make, we fix them, and then we see some new mistakes and we fix them. If the players keep fighting hard and working hard as they're doing now, I'm confident we will get there, but I'm patient. Also as I said before, I told the players that this will take time, we're not just going to go out and destroy everyone from the beginning.