From Cash Cups to the Major, paiN's quest to join the world's elite continues in Paris
The Brazilian quintet is on a mission to prove that their breakout season is anything but a fluke as they take on the world's elite at the Paris Major.
A convincing argument could be made to defend that paiN have been the biggest surprise in top-tier competition since the turn of the year. The Brazilian team's future might have looked gloomy when they were left without an IGL after Vinicios "PKL" Coelho took a leave of absence in February, but their recent results speak for themselves.
Good performances at top tier events and collecting some impressive scalps against higher-ranked opposition means that the Brazilians have shot up the rankings and are now comfortably Brazil's second-best team, far ahead of recent challengers such as 00NATION, Imperial, and MIBR. Armed with a motivated IGL and a pair of young stars paiN is ready to continue their progression and challenge FURIA as Brazil's top side, but their ambitions go even higher.
paiN's core of Wesley "hardzao" Lopes, Gabriel "NEKIZ" Schenato, and Rodrigo "biguzera" Bittencourt has been together since December 2019 — with a small hiatus when NEKIZ left to spend a summer away at O PLANO in 2022 —, and success was not easy to come by during their first few years together. They spent all of 2020 outside of the world ranking's top 50, playing regional tournaments in North America and claiming sparing victories in Cash Cups and other smaller online events. Despite the humble starts, NEKIZ, who has represented the team in three different stints, saw the potential in the organization straight away. "I think professionalism is the word that defines paiN," he tells HLTV. "I'm not sure if it was because back in the days it was not treated as a profession, but paiN has always been a very good org to play for and represent."
The start of 2021 remained overshadowed by the pandemic, which limited everyone to online event appearances. At the time, though, paiN took a step up in the caliber of online tournaments they appeared at and even won DreamHack Open January 2021 North America. They also played the $250,000 DreamHack Masters Spring that year during one of their rare European trips.
Those achievements paled in comparison to their next accomplishment, which was qualifying for PGL Stockholm 2021, the first post-Covid Major. The team's aforementioned core was playing alongside star AWPer Rafael "saffee" Costa and long-time IGL PKL, and while the team scored just one victory in the Challengers Stage against fellow countrymen Sharks, close 14-16 losses to both Virtus.pro and Renegades marked a sign of their potential.
paiN's breakthrough Major attendance put a spring in their step as they entered 2022. Their first task was to repeat the feat and qualify for the Antwerp Major, but they were dealt a blow when saffee left the roster to join FURIA. He was replaced with a less-experienced AWPer, Gabriel "nython" Lino, and paiN struggled in the qualification process. In the end they missed out on making the Major in Belgium after losing a decider match against 9z.
The lack of a Major appearance and the inability to rise to another level prompted the team to make a pair of roster changes in July 2022. The latest addition to the squad, nython, was removed alongside NEKIZ. "I believe the team before I left the second time needed a change," NEKIZ says. "The vibes were bad, the chemistry in the team was really bad, and we couldn’t go to the next step because of it in my opinion."
paiN then needed to fill out the two roster openings and it is no understatement to say they hit the jackpot with their choices. First, though, they broke the bank, paying the most expensive transfer fees recorded in Brazil to acquire Felipe "skullz" Medeiros and Romeu "zevy" Rocco. Dividends of the move were returned almost immediately as the team won ESL Challenger Melbourne 2022 in September and hit an entirely new level in 2023 after another roster change.
zevy hit the ground running and averaged a 1.21 rating during 2022 and his level remains at a very high 1.14 in 2023. Considering paiN now play against higher-ranked teams than in 2022, a slight drop-off was expected, but the 21-year-old AWPer has still been a key piece in the ESL Pro League S17 and RMR campaigns that have put a spotlight on paiN. "In my opinion zevy is the most talented AWPer currently in Brazil," NEKIZ says about the young sniper, "he's very skilled and confident."
The other rookie, skullz, hit an even higher level than his AWPing teammate. The ex-ODDIK player averaged a 1.17 rating in 2022 and has so far kept up the exact same in 2023. His standout performances include a 1.19 rating at EPL S17 and an incredible 1.41 at the Paris Major Americas RMR in paiN's recent breakthrough events. Unsurprisingly, an output like that prompted the scene to take notice. The 21-year-old has broken through to be considered one of Counter-Strike's future stars.
"skullz is the second best Brazilian player currently, behind KSCERATO," NEKIZ says. "Both of them [zevy and skullz] can win rounds that are already over, with clutch situations or even hitting insanely good shots." When asked whether the duo are future stars of Brazilian CS, the 27-year-old gave a concise answer. "To be honest, they already are."
The addition of the star duo was not the last of the roster changes, however. After an underwhelming display at IEM Katowice 2023 to start the year PKL decided to step down and paiN and NEKIZ was called upon to fill his spot. "When I returned it was a whole different feeling. I think I evolved as a person, I knew how to deal with these situations, and the mood in the team was lighter," he reflects. "To reach this new level that we are right now is because of those things combined. The mood is super good, everybody is putting a lot of effort to make things go well, and we all like each other."
The change also meant the IGL mantle fell upon biguzera. The 26-year-old was a star player in his previous role and given that a switch to the calling role doesn't always work out well for stars — just ask Nikola "NiKo" Kovač and Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså —, expectations for the team were low. biguzera bucked the trend, however, and took on the role with aplomb to transform paiN into a regular tier-one event attendee while still keeping up his impressive individual level. He averages a 1.13 rating in 2023 and is a consistent third star, all while in-game-leading a team that can play on all seven maps if needed.
"He is very mature. To handle hard situations, or maybe hard moments of the team, the captain needs to be mature to handle it in the best way. He puts in a lot of work to get new things for the team, and sometimes things for a single player in the bombsite. He is always open to new ideas, even during the game. There are a lot of IGLs that don't like it that much, but in my vision of CS, the best way to make the team succeed is making all five players and coaches help each other," NEKIZ commented on his teammates' switch to the in-game-leader role.
Under biguzera's leadership and with the help of skullz and zevy's fragging output, paiN shifted to an entirely new level that culminated with them peaking in 13th place on the world ranking. Their road started at ESL Pro League, where they qualified for the first round of playoffs after wins against OG and Liquid but conceded to MOUZ in a three-map series to secure a 9-12th finish.
They beat Liquid again at BLAST Premier Spring Showdown 2023 Americas to prove they have the North Americans' measure, but fell just short of making the Spring Final after a grand-final loss to Imperial. Despite falling to their countrymen, paiN demonstrated they are a cut above most teams in their region at the Paris Major Americas RMR, where they qualified with a 3-0 record with victories over Complexity, Fluxo, and Paquetá. NEKIZ and company then barely lost out on a Legends Stage spot after a close three-map defeat against FURIA, but ultimately achieved their main goal of returning to the Major circuit.
paiN's recent success now puts them into a comfortable second place among Brazilian teams behind the FURIA powerhouse. With 00NATION, Imperial, and MIBR missing out on a Major spot and suffering different issues, whether it be a lack of experience, roster instability, or uncertainty about the future of some of the players, paiN took the chance to propel themselves to the pinnacle of the Brazilian scene.
For NEKIZ the rivalry is not with FURIA, instead he says it's with every team they come up against. "Right now our focus is to be the best team that we can. I know in the Brazilian scene and the Brazilian fans want that contest of the best Brazilian team, but we are working hard to be the best team in the world. It’s a long journey, a lot of work, but we are on the right track."
What makes paiN's breakthrough even more impressive is the fact that the team is located in North America, a region known for its lack of decent practice in recent years. "Right now it is very hard to practice in NA. I’m not sure why, but I feel like most teams over there don't even try to improve. Every single month you see a different roster move, and sometimes weeks, it’s weird," NEKIZ says when asked to describe the situation in the region.
"I think ever since the EPL and ECS leagues left the NA region, it was never the same. And people can say that back in the days we used to have more money invested in the region from the orgs, better teams in the region (SK/Immortals/C9/Liquid), and that's why right now is hard."
The Brazilian team sticks out as an example of hard work paying off. Their recent improvement was all made while playing in the region with the occasional European bootcamp doing wonders for their preparation, according to NEKIZ. "You can use us as an example. When we arrived in the US in 2021 we didn’t have a huge salary, a huge structure, and some of the players didn’t have a good experience outside Brazil, but we worked hard to reach this level we are currently at. About the European boot camps, yes, a lot of what we are achieving lately is because of those bootcamps, but the structure was built during NA [practice]."
When asked about their goals for the Paris Major, NEKIZ says the team is taking it step by step. "Our first goal is going to the next stage, and then, the playoffs. But of course, if you go to any tournament, you need to have a vision of winning it. We know that it is hard to reach that, but if we gain confidence during the tournament it is possible to achieve."
paiN start their Major campaign against their fellow Brazilians of Fluxo, who they comfortably beat 2-0 at the RMR. This time, the best-of-one format offers more chance of an upset, but NEKIZ remains confident and insists they are not taking any match at the tournament in France lightly. "Meeting a Brazilian team right at the start can be tricky, derbies are always tough. We had a good match against them during the RMR, which makes us confident to do the same again, but we need to be well prepared for them."
|BLAST.tv Paris Major 2023 Challengers Stage|
paiN's future looks bright as further tier-one experience is nothing but a positive for a squad that made the most out of every opportunity they fought for. CS2's release could well shake up the competitive order and the Brazilian team, its young stars and veterans, are still gaining crucial experience at the highest level to hit the ground running when the new game drops.
In the current era of unpredictability paiN are a part of the winds of change and their journey in Paris will be just one part of their ever-evolving story, a chapter that could propel them closer to their ultimate aspiration of joining the world's elite.