n0rb3r7: "We prepared the same as for Rio, maybe 140 hours in the last two weeks"
Virtus.pro are looking to move on from a tumultuous 2023 at ESL Pro League.
A lot has happened at Virtus.pro since their Major victory in Rio. They have fielded four different rosters, and seven different players. From number two in the world at the turn of the year, they dropped to as low as 22nd before settling around the bottom of the top ten.
David "n0rb3r7" Danielyan was the first victim of this instability, benched just one month after he helped VP, then known as Outsiders, to glory in Brazil. It was a ruthless move, one that was supposed to keep Virtus.pro at the top as those around them strengthened.
It even took n0rb3r7 by shock. "I wasn't even expecting that they could do the roster changes in the middle of the event," he tells us at ESL Pro League's media day.
He had been told that a return was on the cards — it was even hinted at by the announcement of his benching —, but it's hard to imagine any player coming into an environment like the RMR at such short notice and performing.
VP watched the Paris Major from the sidelines and chose to do the same for IEM Rio, turning down a chance to compete at the same arena where they won their Major. They made this call in order to make time for "enhanced training."
"After Katowice I injured my right hand, putting me out for some time. I waited for five months on the bench, then I won a tournament, then it felt like I was on the bench again."
Nikolay "mir" Bityukov came in as a sixth man, but upon n0rb3r7's return from injury it was instead Alexey "Qikert" Golubev who departed, creating the fourth — and, they hope, final — Virtus.pro lineup of 2023.
Losing Qikert, whom n0rb3r7 called "a very good teammate," was a blow, but the Kazakhstani's status in the team had fallen over the years; Qikert often traded IGL duties with Dzhami "Jame" Ali back in the AVANGAR days, but Jame has always been the number one in VP and Evgenii "FL1T" Lebedev is the current secondary caller.
New boy mir is far from a direct replacement for Qikert on CT sides, meaning some shuffling was required, but Virtus.pro have never been afraid to go for firepower over comfort. The moves of KaiR0N- over n0rb3r7 this year, or FL1T over Sanjar "SANJI" Kuliev in 2021, prove that. After this shuffle, Petr "fame" Bolyshev is the one who joins n0rb3r7 as the team's primary anchors.
On T side, mir is in most of the roaming positions Qikert had, which are usually occupied by rifling in-game leaders. "mir is playing a bit like the 'space' role," n0rb3r7 says, "but I think he needs more experience at big tournaments, like Pro League and Gamers8, because he was inactive for almost two years."
n0rb3r7's role, on both sides, is unchanged; he will not have to learn too many new positions as he gets back to grips with Jame's system. When he joined it was a bit hard for him to learn everything Jame needed. "There was too much information," he confesses, "but now it's okay because I know the structure that we work in."
It is now mir who has to go through that same process, but he has the tools to do so, according to n0rb3r7: "He has played a lot of LANs and Majors. He is an experienced player, unlike me when I joined VP."
Fast adaptation is the name of the game, and ESL Pro League is an event Virtus.pro are taking more than seriously. "We practice the same way that we practiced in Rio, before the Major." The players have racked up as many as 140 hours played in the last two weeks.
That was the formula for their success in Rio as a quiet team that kept to themselves and spent hours and hours locked away in their practice rooms.
The roster debuted with a second-place finish at PARI Dunav Party, losing 22-19 to Danil "donk" Kryshkovets's new-look Spirit in the deciding map of the final. There were positive signs despite the loss, such as a 3-0 record on Overpass at the event and captain Jame returning to the form he had when he was named IEM Rio MVP with a 1.29 rating.
Qualifying out of Group D of ESL Pro League is the next goal, one that should be achieved if Virtus.pro are to be taken seriously as a threat going forward.
The opener against Liquid will be played with Robert "Patsi" Isyanov absent, significantly neutering the threat Mareks "YEKINDAR" Gaļinskis's men pose. Beyond that, only Cloud9 and G2 are teams that should out-perform a well-prepared Virtus.pro on paper.
News of VP's 140-hour practice campaign should strike fear into any opponent, even those two; the sleeping bear is back with a vengeance. Their instability in 2023 has been partly self-inflicted, and partly bad luck due to n0rb3r7's injury, but now is the time to move past that.
Virtus.pro have everything primed to step out of the shadows as a dangerous dark horse once again. Will the scene be wiser to their threat, or can they upset the balance of power again? ESL Pro League, only their fourth big event of 2023, will be the stage as they strive to answer that second question in the affirmative.