Rooster finally has an ideal five, now they dream of breaking out on the world stage
Three Rooster players were affected by ESIC bans between 2020 and 2022, but their homecoming could not have gotten off to a better start as they are now set to play one of the world's top sides in their Big Event debut.
Rooster is, without a doubt, the biggest unknown in this ESL Pro League Season 17. Made up of three players from Australia and two from New Zealand, the squad has a combined total of less than 25 maps at LANs covered by HLTV. None of the players have profile pictures and they are the second youngest squad at the tournament behind Spirit with an average age of 21.
The team is based around AWPer and in-game leader Michael "chelleos" Hawkins, who put this squad together and is the architect of the side as it is today. A proto Rooster already existed in 2019 when chelleos and Akram "ADK" Smida, who were already playing together since 2018, were joined by Tyson "asap" Paterson, but it’s no coincidence that now is when the team broke out after years of shuffling players.
Both ADK and asap were banned, the former by ESIC for betting on European ESEA matches and the latter by ESL on ESIC's recommendation for providing fake documentation to play a Red Bull Flick 2vs2 tournament while underage. Their return, alongside another player that was banned for betting on ESEA matches outside of his region and who is now regarded as one of the hot up-and-comers in the region, Corey "nettik" Browne, was the long awaited homecoming.
There was really no other way than going about it in DIY fashion for chelleos, so he put the squad together after spending the early months of 2019 competing in ESEA Advanced Season 30 North America. He had traveled to Canada under the wing of veteran Kyle "OCEAN" O'Brien, known for his knack in discovering and developing talents like Jake "Stewie2K" Yip and Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken. The young Australian didn’t find instant success, however, and returned home after just a season.
"OCEAN basically just asked if I wanted to go play," chelleos recalls. "I was sick of playing in Australia and wanted to see what that was like, but it wasn't like I was going to move there." After some time in the cold and not playing his best, he returned home and joined back up with madlikewizards, where the Rooster egg was laid.
"I had to rebuild the team," chelleos remembers. "Most of them I've been playing with for a few years and I just stumbled upon this TjP fella. He's a good shooter, right? So I thought I'd give him a shot because there were a lot of changes, people getting banned and stuff." Despite having to field different rosters while waiting for the banned players to return, the team always tried to be as serious as they could. Now, with the best possible five, they are ready to start growing. "I just have the players that I think are good and I like," chelleos says of the current configuration. "I've stuck with them, I think they are the best option to have."
Rooster’s core played one LAN together in September 2022, before ADK and nettik were unbanned, a BLAST Premier qualifier. The trio of chelleos, asap and Tynan "TjP" Purtell finished in 3rd-4th place after losing to VERTEX. ADK and nettik made their return shortly after and since then the team has become Oceania's second hardest hitters behind Grayhound. They played two tournaments since, ESL Australia & NZ Championship Season 15, which they finished in second place, and ESL Pro League Season 17 Conference Oceania, where they once again came runners up. Both times it was second to Grayhound, losing 0-3 (with a map disadvantage from the lower bracket) in the former’s grand final and 1-2 in an overtime affair on the decider map in the latter’s upper bracket final.
Other than regional online tournaments and the odd local LAN, most of the players have no international experience, so flying to Malta to play ESL Pro League will be an immersion into elite level play that not many teams in their situation can ever experience. They will be thrown straight into the lions, as well, when they kick off their Group C run on Wednesday at 16:00 against the best team of 2022, FaZe. To prepare, chelleos and his squad spent three weeks bootcamping in Katowice. The scrappy youngsters, who are yet without salary, paid for the trip out of pocket in a sort of sacrificial devotion reminiscent of the Brazilian Luminosity squad that broke out in 2015.
Rooster's fast growth, primarily online, raised eyebrows and made them somewhat enigmatic among their local community, but chelleos brushes it off. "People think all sorts of funny things," he says, "but it doesn't mean anything really. Most people don't know what they're on about." Now, the whole Counter-Strike world will have the chance to see them play in the big leagues for the first time, an experience that will no doubt be invaluable for such a young team.
The Australian-New Zealand side are major underdogs in a group with behemoths like FaZe, Ninjas in Pyjamas and Vitality, but also with lesser teams like paiN, 00NATION and their Grayhound countrymen. chelleos and his teammates are going in without expectations, but the 22-year-old believes that there’s some games there up for grabs. That, in fact, is one of the positives of coming from a region like Oceania. "It's not that bad," he says, "people just complain about it and use it as an excuse for why they're bad, but there's good parts about being in Australia in terms of CS. Like, you get to be a surprise team, people don't really look into you. At the end of the day you just have to grind no matter where you are."
There are not many chances for Rooster to face Grayhound, as the two are across from each other in the group’s bracket, but chelleos already has his sights on a fight for the top spot in Australia, something which comes with the perks of more international travel and LAN experience around the world. So far, however, he has been unsuccessful.
Since the good old days of Renegades, who moved to compete in North America and put their region on the world map in the early days of CS:GO, no Australian side has been able to constantly fight at a top level and last-place exits at international events have become the norm in the past years. chelleos credits these struggles to a lack of sacrifice. "That's the problem with Australia, that's a big part of the Australian CS scene," he says when asked about Grayhound players not looking to move to a more competitive region. "It's easier to just come last place." As for him, his trip to live briefly in North America was perhaps already proof of concept in the quest to compete at Big Events, Majors, and the ultimate goal of making it to the top. "There wouldn't be a point in playing otherwise," he says.
The three week bootcamp has been a learning experience for the team, who got to scrim against top European sides, but it has also helped them understand where they’re at outside of the server. "Some might [be willing to make sacrifices], some might not be, that's what I've kind of figured from this bootcamp," he says before lightening the mood with a joke when asked about what it’s like to share close quarters for three weeks while preparing for the tournament. "People be stealing people's socks and stuff, it's fucked."
The AWPer and in-game leader is positive about the direction of the team as it finally is despite struggling with CT sides and at times not enough input from his players during scrims — and it doesn't help not having coach to add his voice and get the team going in tough situations. "We've had players banned for two years and in our first tournament we made it to Pro League," he boasts. "We can improve at a decent rate, and experience matters, you know? If other teams have a lot more experience they have a bit of an advantage."
The goals are long term and today’s experiences are something chelleos hopes his team will reap in the coming year or two. The more immediate goal in Malta will be to improve and gain some confidence if they play well, but the 22-year-old is positive that his side has what it takes to post a win. "I know if we play well we can definitely beat basically anyone," he says before accepting the problem of every new team that is inexperienced and not well seasoned. "It's just a question of if we can really show up, on any day we could be shit or we could be good. It depends on if we wake up on the right side of the bed."
An avid admirer of none other than AWPer and IGL Dzhami "Jame" Ali, chelleos is quick to clarify that they could take anyone but Outsiders. "Can't beat them," he says, "too good." Luckily, they would only have to worry about that in the playoffs, a far cry for a team of Big Event neophytes.
For chelleos, who likes to watch demos the way one would study comparative literature, the time to break out is now. "I've waited two years to play with these exact players, it took a long time, so I'm not exactly going to leave the first chance I get," he says. "I knew that these players were the best and there were no other options for me even if I wanted them. I see this team as the five players that can make it far."