Flashback: The rise and fall of French Counter-Strike
French Counter-Strike is not what it once was, but it's difficult to live up to the heights it reached in the early days of the game.
The BLAST.tv Paris Major 2023 will finally bring CS:GO's most sought-after title to France more than 10 years after the game's release, bringing its life cycle to a close ahead of Counter-Strike 2's advent. Players from the region have competed at the very top for more than a decade and their teams claimed some of the most prestigious trophies, branding the shooter's rich history with their many achievements.
Names such as Richard "shox" Papillon, Kenny "kennyS" Schrub, and Cédric "RpK" Guipouy are still considered Counter-Strike royalty despite being retired or past their prime thanks to careers that defined Global Offensive's competitive scene. French teams were historically known for their aggressive style of play, organized in a way that gave their many star players room to craft magical moments due to their individual brilliance. For a period of time, more often than not, they were seen buying CZ-75s and Deagles instead of saving, making every match a spectacle even in defeat.
Their off-the-field antics also became legendary as players partied before important matches, plotted roster shuffles during events, and formed lasting bonds of respect or dislike that affected the dynamic between individuals for the next decade.
Despite the region's impact on the game, only two French players will attend the first Major in their motherland, a far cry from the game's early history, which would at times see two separate teams compete for the title. But how did one of Counter-Strike's most important regions from the last 10 years decline to such an extent that it won't see a full lineup represented at its home Major?
Global Offensive's early days
CS:GO was released in 2012 and it did not take long for 1.6 and Source players to make the switch to the new game despite reservations from some top players at the time. One of the most notable teams to make the jump was VeryGames after the French quintet wrapped up an impressive period of dominance in Counter-Strike: Source's closing stages. The team was headlined by a young kennyS and RpK, widely considered one of the best Source players of all time. The star duo shared the stage with 18-year-old Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt, Edouard "SmithZz" Dubourdeaux, and veteran in-game leader Kévin "Ex6TenZ" Droolans.
The team was an immediate hit in France, remaining the nation's main representative in the new version of the game over the likes of Imaginary and eXtensive. They would have also carried their dominance into CS:GO if it wasn't for an exciting Swedish quintet's monopoly over the young scene under the Ninjas in Pyjamas banner. The Ninjas' early success in Global Offensive is well documented, as is their incredible 87-0 LAN streak which exemplified the level of supremacy showed in 2012 and 2013. Ex6TenZ and company trailed behind the Swedes for months, leaving DreamHack Valencia, ESWC, DreamHack Winter, and AMD Sapphire CS:GO Invitational in second place while Ninjas in Pyjamas took home all four gold medals.
The soul-crushing runners-up finishes and the not very lucrative state of the scene at the time in those first three months took their toll on RpK, leading him to retire from the game. His departure was a huge blow to the French scene, losing one of their most iconic and best players during a time in which they already struggled to match Ninjas in Pyjamas' level. The French team filled the gap with the acquisition of Belgian talent Adil "ScreaM" Benrlitom, who had left Imaginary earlier in the year.
LDLC entered the scene with the signing of ex-eXtensive, giving France's second-best team an organizational structure after their previous one left CS:GO. There were roster changes too, when a couple of months later VeryGames decided to part ways with the spectacular, but still young kennyS in favor of shox, who the members of the squad were familiar with from their time together in 2011.
The swap came a month after the team took home their first tournament win at Mad Catz Birmingham over the Danish fnatic roster, and despite the sniper displaying the highest LAN numbers alongside ScreaM, shox was a known quantity at the time, a star rifler known for his intuitive read of the game and composure in clutch situations, not to mention his incredible output in the server — qualities that made him one of the best riflers in the world at the time. His arrival also allowed SmithZz to pick up the AWP once again while kennyS moved to LDLC to replace Fabien "atLaNtis" Deguiraud.
The new VeryGames roster was finally able to achieve what previously seemed impossible and took down Ninjas in Pyjamas in the ESWC 2013 semi-finals, a closely-fought match in which shox took the reigns of the game to finally defeat the Swedes 2-0. Unfortunately for the squad, they again failed to secure the trophy for themselves, this time against domestic rivals Clan-Mystik. The defeat was a shock as Ex6TenZ's men never lost to French opposition, revealing early signs of brittleness in the lineup.
Clan-Mystik was the other important player in France, represented by an exciting core of Dan "apEX" Madesclaire, Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian, and Fabien "kioShiMa" Fiey. While the team itself did not win another notable event, its individuals all became integral to the internal politics in the French scene and the shuffles to come. The British LAN hosted the first and last time VeryGames beat the Ninjas, who went on to eliminate the Frenchmen in the semi-finals of CS:GO's first Major at DreamHack Winter a month later.
In January 2014 VeryGames pulled the plug on their CS:GO division, with the lineup subsequently acquired by Titan. The new year saw LDLC's return to the scene with a roster consisting of Vincent "Happy" Schopenhauer, apEX, Mathieu "Maniac" Quiquerez, Kevin "Uzzziii" Vernel, and KQLY. LDLC was expected to give VeryGames a run for their money, and they did. Happy's team outplaced their regional rivals at the next four LAN events, even beating them at Copenhagen Games before taking their first trophy at DreamHack Valencia and temporarily cementing themselves as the major power in France.
The first French shuffle
Ninjas in Pyjamas's victory at ESL One Cologne 2014 gave way to the regional rostermania that followed each Major, but this time it was different. The French scene was shaken as no team managed to reach the final of a Valve-sponsored event for the third time despite good odds before the tournaments, leading the three prominent teams from the region to scramble for the winning formula. Dubbed the first French shuffle, Epsilon (ex-Clan-Mystik), LDLC, and Titan all engaged in a series of transfers over the late summer to revamp their rosters and create a French team capable of taking home a Major.
LDLC completely reworked their roster around Happy with the acquisition of shox and kioShiMa from Epsilon before signing NBK- and SmithZz after they were released from Titan. The newly formed organization instead hired the trio of kennyS, Maniac, and KQLY, leaving Epsilon with ScreaM and the remaining French players left out during the shuffle. It was around this time that kennyS hit the peak of his career, performing to a level previously unseen in Global Offensive with the AWP with an ultra-aggressive and dynamic play style. The Frenchman averaged a 1.22 rating 1.0 over 2014 and topped charts over Aleksi "allu" Jalli, Robin "flusha" Rönnquist, and Freddy "KRIMZ" Johansson.
Titan seemed to have hit the ground running immediately at DreamHack Stockholm CS:GO Invitational, beating a new-look fnatic and LDLC on their way to the trophy. The good times didn't last long, however, and shortly before the last Major of the year at DreamHack Winter got underway the French scene was hit with one of its biggest scandals.
KQLY takes a VACation
Titan's star player KQLY was handed a VAC ban by Valve on November 2014, just a week before the start of DreamHack Winter. He was suspended by the organization just hours later as they conducted their own investigation, and shortly after came the announcement that Epsilon's Gordon "Sf" Giry had also been hit by a ban. "My curiosity failed me and now my career is over CS after 12 years," KQLY confessed on his Facebook page, stating that he had used illicit software days before joining Titan.
The bans meant more than just the players potentially missing the Major because they also held the spots necessary to keep the teams in the Legends Stage. The worst-case scenario came to life and the event organizers disqualified both Epsilon and Titan due to their players' VAC bans. LDLC were left as the only French representatives at the Major, but they made the most of it.
Controversy and triumph at DreamHack Winter
Happy and company started off their journey in Sweden with group stage victories over ESC and France's greatest enemy, Ninjas in Pyjamas, to qualify for the playoffs. Their first match in the group stage over then-favorites fnatic gave way to one of the weirdest days in Major history as LDLC stole Dust2 and cruised through their CT side on Overpass with a 13-2 lead over the Swedes. With their backs against the wall on the decider, Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer began exploiting a strange boost on the A site to overlook a significant portion of the map.
The boost caught the Frenchmen completely off guard and allowed fnatic to come back, bringing the game all the way to 16-13 in favor of the Swedish squad. LDLC filed a protest to the tournament admins over the play, claiming it violated rules against "pixel-walking." fnatic responded with a protest of their own over a similar position used by the Frenchmen in the first half. DreamHack officials decided that Overpass was going to be replayed the following day, but the Swedes forfeited the match after significant backlash from the community, giving LDLC a clear path to the final.
The French squad moved through the rest of the tournament with relative calm, cruising past Natus Vincere in the semi-final before taking it all in a rematch against Ninjas in Pyjamas which went all the way to overtime in the decider map. LDLC were crowned Major champions, the first winners from France, and the fourth-ever team to do it in Global Offensive.
The closing stages of 2014 saw the unlikely return of RpK from retirement at the behest of Titan following KQLY's ban in November. Le Tank, as he was affectionately known during his playing career, took some time to adapt to competition and was reportedly micromanaged by Ex6TenZ while he accustomed to the game again.
More drama and shuffles
Roster changes began immediately after the turn of the year with Major champions LDLC being acquired by Envy in February 2015 after the team's win over Ninjas in Pyjamas at MLG X Games Aspen. The French organization left CS:GO for more than a year before returning in spring 2016 with a radically new roster.
Later that same month, Epsilon players Robin "GMX" Stahmer, Uzzziii, Morgan "B1GGY" Madour, and Joey "fxy0" Schlosser were indefinitely banned by Valve and other major tournament organizers after being involved in a match-fixing scandal the previous year. The development left ScreaM as the only remaining player from the team and he had to wait three months before finding a new home with Kinguin. The Belgian joined the organization's venture into CS:GO alongside big names such as Håvard "rain" Nygaard and Mikail "Maikelele" Bill to create the basis of an international proto-superteam, which was later acquired by G2 and, eventually, FaZe.
French squads slowed down significantly in the early stages of 2015, when several teams including Virtus.pro, TSM, fnatic, and Natus Vincere took turns to win various LAN events. Eventually the Swedes' new roster with olofmeister and KRIMZ that came together the previous year clicked and they began to dominate the Big Events in the first six months.
While the French scene stagnated and fnatic cruised through several Big Events nearly uncontested, the idea of another shuffle to breathe new life into the rosters and create new contenders began to take shape. The second French shuffle took place in the summer, somewhat unexpectedly even for some of the players involved as shox and SmithZz reportedly only found out they were being traded to Titan while competing for Envy at ESWC 2015. apEX and kennyS went the other way, completing an exchange that was admittedly less complex than the previous one in 2014.
The new Envy was an immediate success, taking home the trophy from IEM Gamescom 2015 before a runners-up finish at the ESL One Cologne Major behind fnatic. The loss in the final did not slow down the Frenchmen and they came back immediately with titles from DreamHack Open London, Gfinity 2015 Champion of Champions, and most importantly, the DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca Major. Happy and company even defeated the dominant Swedes at the latter two events, claiming the title of the best team in the world. The good times, once again, did not last long and the internal issues inside the French roster lead to its demise.
Internal politics, more shuffles, and even more drama
Titan folded in January 2016, partially due to the financial fallout from the KQLY scandal more than a year prior. The lineup was later acquired by G2, who entered the French scene and became one of its major players after spending the previous year with an international lineup. The only roster change made that year was to swap veteran in-game leader Ex6TenZ with promising player Alexandre "bodyy" Pianaro in April while shox took over the team's leadership.
On the other side of the coin, Envy failed to live up to expectations after their fantastic run at the end of 2015. The team became stale and discontent against Happy and his structure began to boil over. kioShiMa was eventually the first to leave the lineup, being later dubbed the problem, ironically. He was replaced by Timothée "DEVIL" Démolon on the roster. Envy never recovered and they went the entirety of the year without a single final appearance at Big Events.
G2 were the only French core to win a notable event in 2016 as shox and ScreaM bullied opponents out of the way at ECS Season 1 Finals, including No. 1 team in the world, Luminosity. The organization was, however, not happy with just one trophy and the plans were put in motion for a move that would make G2 the best in the world.
The French 'superteam'
No French team reached the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major playoffs in early 2017 following disastrous 1-3 and 2-3 exits for G2 and Envy, respectively. After the tournament, G2 executed a daring maneuver and brought apEX, NBK-, and kennyS over to replace RpK, ScreaM, and a retiring SmithZz. The lineup hosted the five best French players at the time and paired shox and kennyS for the first time, a partnership that was previously not explored despite previous shuffles.
This third shuffle really exemplified one of the systematic issues within the French scene. While the top players experimented with yet another combination of the same old names, the scene's young prospects awaited in the background for a chance at the big leagues. France's top team was now a case study for players that were known quantities, and it was up to this new combination of players that changed the ceiling rather than the individuals' potentials. Even when given chances at the top, the newcomers were often handed roles difficult to shine in with very little space, while the older players kept the more impactful roles for themselves.
The now-labeled French 'superteam' failed to claim the crown of the best in the world in the world or even win a Major, but it was consistently the top squad from the region, even taking home titles from ESL Pro League Season 5 Finals and DreamHack Masters Malmö 2017. Regional rivals Envy did not even reach the semi-finals of any Big Event that year, and the new roster featuring RpK, ScreaM, and Alexandre "xms" Forté only lifted one LAN trophy at DreamHack Open Atlanta 2017.
The beginning of the end
Both French teams' trajectory started to take a dive at the turn of the year, with Envy quickly parting ways with xms in favor of kioShiMa while Ali "hAdji" Haïnouss made the transition up from the academy roster into the senior lineup.
Later in the spring, the tensions within G2 started to boil over as shox and NBK- disagreed on the team's direction. Two proposals were initially put on the table by both parties, but it was 'the Kingmaker' who initially had his bill passed while shox took time away to recover from an injury. With shox away, they acquired Spanish sniper Oscar "mixwell" Cañellas to take over the rifler's spot while NBK- trialed with leadership. The project didn't even reach two months old and it wasn't long until mixwell was out of the door, replaced by the returning shox and his proposed lineup with Ex6TenZ and SmithZz. apEX and NBK- were moved to the bench to make space for the new players and they remained on the inactive roster for the next four months.
Envy released their French roster in June, temporarily leaving the region with only one squad at the top level. RpK found a new home in October, when Vitality entered the CS:GO scene with 'Le Tank', apEX, Happy, and NBK- as the in-game leader. To round out the roster was a young French sniper that had dominated FACEIT Pro League and impressed at a few local tournaments named Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut. Despite winning DreamHack Open Atlanta just a month after their formation, the team parted ways with both Happy and coach Philippe "faculty" Rodier, replacing them with Alex "ALEX" McMeekin from LDLC and Rémy "XTQZZZ" Quoniam, respectively.
While Vitality tried to settle in their new game, G2 realized that shox's project was also deeply flawed, leading them to sack Ex6TenZ and SmithZz in favor of Lucas "Lucky" Chastang and Audric "JACKZ" Jug from 3DMAX. The duo had propelled their previous team as it rose through the ranks of European online Counter-Strike, topping Seasons 28 and 29 of ESEA MDL Europe.
The two French squads performed relatively well at the IEM Katowice Major despite exits in the Legends Stage for both of them. G2 had a tough draw in which they faced Natus Vincere, MIBR, and ENCE. Vitality left first Major with a solid result and secured their attendance at StarLadder Berlin in the autumn. The first half of the year continued on an upwards trajectory for NBK- and company, who secured three more titles at Charleroi Esports, cs_summit 4, and ECS Season 7 Finals.
It was later revealed that after IEM Katowice ALEX had taken the reigns of the team on the T side, while NBK- kept control of the CT side's leadership. While the system seemed to work for a few events as shown by their trophies, it was questionable whether the arrangement could work in the long term and if ALEX should just become the IGL outright. The Brit eventually took full control of the captaincy before the Berlin Major, a tournament that Vitality came into as the second-highest team. Unfortunately for French fans, the event in Germany ended up being a disaster for both their teams.
G2 were eliminated in the Legends Stage following consecutive losses to Renegades and AVANGAR. The Kazakhs took another French scalp later in the quarter-finals, when Vitality fell apart after tensions in the squad boiled over in the last match. It was the worst possible moment for the team to collapse as their bracket would have put them against Renegades in the next round, giving them a clear path to a grand final appearance. The development for the two squads did not halt while the Major was still underway and reports Indicated both French cores were looking to revamp their rosters. NBK- was benched immediately after their loss to AVANGAR while G2 looked to replace shox and Lucky with the Nemanja "nexa" Isaković and Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač from CR4ZY.
Vitality signed shox shortly after the Berlin Major while G2 went international with the singing of the rumored Balkan duo. It took some time for nexa and company to become title contenders while the new Vitality roster came online much earlier with a second-place finish at DreamHack Masters Stockholm, semi-final at IEM Beijing, and a trophy from EPICENTER to close the season.
Despite a tumultuous year for the French teams, there was one constant positive that would always make this year a special one for fans: ZywOo. The young superstar took the scene by storm in his first full rookie season, blowing opponents out of the water with sheer skill and his explosive, yet consistent playstyle. After Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev dominated the previous year nearly unchallenged, the sudden and exponential rise of ZywOo gave way to a two-way fight for the title of the best player in the world. The rivalry shared a lot of similarities as both players were incredible AWPers, proficient with rifles, but also part of highly dysfunctional teams. The French superstar ultimately came out ahead in the race when he was crowned HLTV.org's No. 1 player of 2019 after an unprecedented rookie year.
The online era and the move to European rosters
The following year began with G2 reaching the grand finals of IEM Katowice 2020 with their French-Balkan roster. Natus Vincere beat Damien "maLeK" Marcel's men in the final to win the event that marked the start of the online era as the COVID-19 pandemic prevented crowds from attending the event and forced cancellation on all the offline events for 18 months.
ALEX stepped down from Vitality in the spring due to burnout, leaving the starting lineup to scramble for a replacement during a time of economic turmoil and French-speaking IGL drought. apEX decided to take the step up and become the team's captain — a surprising announcement considering shox's previous experience in the role. Kévin "misutaaa" Rabier, a French rookie with no top-tier experience, was eventually brought over to fill the void left by the British captain's departure.
The two French teams had already taken different approaches with their transfers in 2020 with Vitality going for young players from the lower tiers such as misutaaa and a six-man roster with ScreaM's brother, Nabil "Nivera" Benrlitom. Meanwhile G2 looked into Europe with proven talent, including huNter- and later, Nikola "NiKo" Kovač.
The willingness for apEX and company to try new players quickly faded in 2021 with the arrival of Jayson "Kyojin" Nguyen Van to replace a retired RpK failed to lead Vitality back into the conversation of elite teams. The organization made the decision to part ways with the French lineup despite a solid end to the year with a trophy from IEM Winter 2021. Vitality shocked fans and spectators alike when the rumors emerged of an interest in the Danish trio of Danny "zonic" Sørensen, Emil "Magisk" Reif, and Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen in an effort to challenge for trophies at Big Events more consistently. The roster was officially announced in January 2022, and with it ended the presence of a fully French lineup in tier-one Counter-Strike.
The French region today
The announcement of the Paris Major in September 2022 created a short resurgence in the French scene as experienced the return of iconic names to competition such as shox and kennyS, tier-two teams shuffled, and new mix squads from the region assembled with one goal in mind: qualify for CS:GO's last Major at the BLAST Paris 2023.
In the leadup to the qualification circuit shox returned to competition after a failed stint at Apeks to kickstart his Nakama project while NBK- took over the leadership in Falcons. François "AMANEK" Delaunay's LDLC and the Mixfits blend were also looking for their opportunity to prove themselves and made it to the closed qualifier stage for the European RMR alongside HEET and Falcons. NBK-'s men were the only French roster to reach the RMRs after a disastrous event for the teams that made it to the closed qualifiers. To make things even worse for France, when squads gathered in Copenhagen to compete for their tickets to the Major, Falcons failed to qualify despite a solid 2-1 start to the event, leaving NBK- and kennyS out contention for the Paris Major.
Many of these teams have either disbanded or failed to maintain a structure behind them since the end of the Major qualifying cycle. HEET and GenOne disbanded their CS:GO divisions earlier in May, while rumors about Falcons' roster continue to highlight the instability of the region. Years of constant shuffles between the region's golden generation, who seemingly thought they alone could forever carry the scene on their shoulders, doomed France long ago.
Between 2014-2019 very few young and promising talents from the region were given the opportunity to compete among the best and even when they earned their place in a top lineup, they were often given difficult roles where they struggled to shine. Players such as DEVIL were thrown into tricky positions, hAdji struggled to find a spot in tier-one teams, and even ZywOo was reportedly passed over by G2 due to their belief that he was a cheater or a fear of having too many stars on a team.
The formation of the French superteam in 2017 really encapsulated that problem as all it did was condense four of the region's most senior players within G2, instead of spreading the veterans on multiple squads to guide the young and rising players. The daring young signings by Vitality in 2020-2021 not only came too late to make an impact on the wider scene, but they were also often made with players too green to make the jump into elite-level competitions. Both misutaaa and Kyojin came into Vitality with almost no experience, while Nivera's experiment was shut down by Valve's new ruling on extended rosters despite showing promising signs in the late stages of 2020.
apEX and ZywOo will be the only home representatives at the last CS:GO Major, a far cry from the 13 that took the stage at the first Valve-sponsored event at DreamHack Winter 2013. Vitality is not out of the conversation when it comes to lifting the trophy, even when discarding the unquantifiable factor of playing in front of their home crowd. apEX and company secured a spot in the Legends Stage after a solid 3-1 run at the European RMR and claimed the most recent LAN title at IEM Rio, defeating the current No. 1 team in the world, Heroic, in the final. French fans will be looking to Vitality to make their nation proud and bring a third Major trophy back to France, closing the Global Offensive chapter on a high note after a few tumultuous years and bestowing ZywOo with the highest honor in the game and thus elevating him to the level of legends such as NBK-, shox, and kennyS.