The last few months have seen Virtus.Pro on the rise.

20:30, 02 Mar 2021

The last few months have seen Virtus.Pro on the rise. Prior to the break, the team started to win smaller events like Flashpoint Season 2 and DreamHack Open December 2020. VP’s stock has continued to rise in the new year. They started off 2021 by winning the CS_Summit 7 and got second at IEM Katowice with bo3 wins over both Astralis and Liquid.

All eyes are now focused on the star duo of Dzhami “Jame” Ali and Mareks “YEKINDAR” Galinskis, and rightfully so. Jame is the leader and star player of VP. VP’s playstyle revolves around using his AWP to get favorable consistent trades. YEKINDAR is the newest addition to the lineup, but he adds the element of firepower, space, and speed to enable Jame to play at such a high level.

Together the two of them define the playstyle of VP’s current lineup. While IEM Katowice showcased VP’s strengths, the finals against Gambit showcased potential weaknesses as well. Thus it was the perfect tournament to dig into VP’s styles, strengths, and potential going forward.

 

StarLadder Berlin Major and IEM Katowice 2021, AVANGAR and VP, Then and Now

The best point of reference we can use to grasp this iteration of VP is to look back at the AVANGAR line-up that got second at the StarLadder Berlin Major in 2019. AVANGAR’s line-up for that event was: Jame, Timur “buster” Tulepov, Alexey “qikert” Golubev, Sanjar “Sanji” Kuliev, and Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev.

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At the event, AVANGAR shocked the world with a second-place finish. In retrospect, it’s fair to call it a fluke run (as that lineup never had a similar result again). The Major itself was scheduled to be the first tournament after the break, so many of the other teams had ring rust. The Swiss bo1 format increased volatility. Counterintuitively, the fact that AVANGAR had to play and struggle through the Challengers stage meant that they were warmed up and ready by the time the Legends stage started. Finally, AVANGAR got the easier side of the bracket as NRG, Na`VI, Astralis, and Liquid were all in the lower half.

None of this is to take any credit away from AVANGAR. After all, every team was playing under similar conditions, and AVANGAR capitalised on their moment of opportunity while ENCE, Renegades, and Vitality failed to seize the moment. When we keep all of this in mind, we can understand why AVANGAR failed to reach the same heights in subsequent tournaments. That 2nd place result at the Major wasn’t heralding the arrival of a new CIS world-beater, but it was a potential glimpse of what could be.

The potential manifested in two ways. First was individual skill. Jame, buster, and qikert impressed everyone with their individual skill, and it looked like one or two of them could become a potential superstar player in the future. The second was their playstyle. AVANGAR’s playstyle was highly polarised around protecting Jame’s AWP and enabling him to be their superstar player. In order to make that happen, the other players had to make space on the map (qikert and buster) or sacrifice themselves in support (Sanji and AdreN).

Everyone was high on the potential of the individual players, but less so on AVANGAR’s playstyle. However, the core of the team never abandoned that playstyle. Instead, they honed it, and once YEKINDAR joined the team, he gave them the space and firepower to take the style to the next level.

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Photo via EPICENTER

Jame Time

Outside of the Berlin Major and IEM Katowice results, the thing this team was most well known for was the Jame meme “Jame Time”. “Jame Time” is about how passively Jame plays as an AWPer. This has resulted in far fewer deaths for Jame, but also criticism as his playstyle leans too far towards baiting.

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Like all memes, it is meant in good humour, but there is still a kernel of truth in it. Passive and bait-y often have negative connotations, but if done correctly can bring on huge benefits for the team. The two biggest examples of this were Christoper “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund and Marcelo “Coldzera” David. Both NiP and LG/SK were willing to sacrifice the other four players on the altar if it meant putting either GeT_RiGhT or Coldzera in the correct position as they could guarantee the win. Both GeT_RiGhT and Coldzera were so great that they took their respective teams to #1 in the world.

Perhaps a better way to understand the passive superstar is to say that they have an emphasis on space and trading. When put into that context, everything about VP slides into place. Their first principle as a squad emphasises good consistent trading.

Art of the Trade

Trading is the name of the game for VP. This principle characterises VP on both sides of the map. VP has four general types of strategies they use across the map pool. The first is Jame in a 2-2-1 or 3-1-1 formation. In this default, VP have the three or two-man pack be the focal point for the first minute or so of the round. Jame tries to find a pick and his backup player supports him by creating space, using utility, or being there to trade if the enemy surprises VP. If nothing shows up, then VP have three potential backup plans depending on how much space they have. They can either do a full set play, a dry hit which punishes teams that try to cheat on utility for the end of the round, or have YEKINDAR and one of buster or qikert do a lurk entry to get information or make a play. (It’s worth noting that I split the dry hit and the potential lurk entry as two different options, but there are multiple times where one naturally leads to the other or vice-versa).

The most common examples of this style of default is on Train, Mirage, and Overpass. The second strategy plays off the first. VP switch up the pace and go for faster rushes on the map as they either take a central piece of map control or do a set play. This enables the first strategy as teams that cheat on utility early will be punished. The third strategy is to do a fast dry hit to completely catch the other team off guard. Finally, VP will put either YEKINDAR or buster as the aggressive entry playmaker to create space on the map and play from there.

Regardless of what strategy VP uses, they always make sure that Jame is put in a good position to trade when the round closes out and that he is always in a safe position. Beyond putting their star player into comfortable positions, this also has two side effects. It sometimes throws off the timing of the defence as teams are accustomed to the more fluid role-less Counter-Strike, which is a bit less strict in positioning. In contrast to that, VP often create a formation before heading in. As a result, teams unused to playing VP often have timings and reactions that are just a little bit off.

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The second effect is that because Jame is put in a good trading position, he is usually in position to also save the AWP if things go south. Jame has fewer deaths than the typical player, which also means that his team has more overall money as a result and, therefore, better weapons on average.

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While the T-side is fairly impressive, I think the CT-side is what seems to confuse most of VP’s opponents. Jame plays different spots, setups, and crossfires from the typical AWPer. This creates a natural informational advantage for VP, and even if the opposing team scouts VP, countering VP won’t come naturally as no other team plays out the CT-side quite like they do.

The best way to describe Jame is to explain his polar opposite, Andrei “arT” Piovezan. Metaphorically speaking, arT plays one notch faster, and one notch more aggressive than people expect, even when they’re expecting him to play. Jame is the opposite of that as he plays one notch more passive and one pace slower than people expect him to. This change-up in position and space throws off how T-sides need to take control of the map and can often result in wasted utility that works fine against other AWPers, but is largely ineffective against the positions that Jame plays.

Two examples that spring to mind is Mirage and Overpass. On Mirage, Sanji will take B halls early. Once he’s established a forward camp, Jame will rotate in and hold the angle while Sanji takes a forward position closer to catwalk. From this position, Jame can get info down B-halls, get a shot off if someone rushes there, have Sanji create space on the low ground and then trade him if the other team pushes in.

On Overpass, Jame will often play in underpass with the AWP, and he will have two players supporting him from either side. YEKINDAR will play the A-side and buster in water. This position gives Jame a bunch of options: he can get uncontested picks, flanks, trades, or escape and adjust.

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While I’ve focused largely on Jame’s passive play here, he’s also shown a willingness to be the aggressive AWPer. Even in these cases, though, Jame will always make sure that there is someone behind him who can trade him. On the CT-side of defence, Jame will go for a mid-round peek down double doors with his AWP and have qikert close by to trade him should he die. On Mirage, he will lurk entry into T-con by dropping down from the ledge, but he’ll make sure that he has one or two players nearby that can trade him should the manoeuvre fail.

Overall, Jame has honed his passive style and has his team honed in on one of the most fundamental and important aspects of tactical CS, the art of the trade.

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Photo via DreamHack

The Addition of YEKINDAR

The final thing to look at is what YEKINDAR has brought to the table.YEKINDAR is a big unknown for me. He’s played brilliantly at IEM Katowice, but he also plays a punishing role. He is the aggressive playmaker, entry-fragger, and space-creator for the team. YEKINDAR isn’t just an entry-fragger, but a hard entry-fragger. Someone who takes on the role akin to Dan “apEX” Madesclaire in the older days. As that’s the case, it’s very unlikely that he will continue playing at this pace. Even so, YEKINDAR’s impact is crucial. Both qikert and buster are really strong players, but neither of them have the instinct for very fast explosive play the way YEKINDAR does. His pace and speed give Jame even more time and space to create the setups he wants or the information he needs to make the correct calls in the game.

Overall, his addition was the piece that VP needed to make the VP style of CS work at such a high level.

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Photo via StarLadder

Gambit’s Victory and Warning Signs for VP?

While IEM Katowice was a great feat for VP, time marches on relentlessly. Soon enough, VP will have to answer the question of whether or not they can do this again. Moving forwards, what can we expect from this team? For me, the two key figures are Jame and YEKINDAR. I think they are the two engines that make this style of play work, so opposing teams will try to shut them down. There are three ways to do this: isolate Jame, inhibit YEKINDAR, or read the overall structure of the team and make the correct calls.

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While I’ve praised Jame’s play, passive players skirt the edge between winning the round and having zero impact. If a team knows how he plays, they can create countermeasures to isolate him and avoid his spots. In the same vein, if a team knows YEKINDAR’s tendencies and routes, they can neutralise his impact. Finally, VP’s style is idiosyncratic, so this gives them an informational advantage against most teams. Teams that play against VP often can neutralise this effect.

In the finals of IEM Katowice, Gambit utilised all three aspects. If we look at the individual numbers, YEKINDAR was still impressive, but not as god-like as he was throughout the tournament. Jame was far below what he was outputting the rest of the tournament, and overall I’d say Gambit had a far better idea of how VP likes to play and had better reactions to it compared to many other teams that played against VP in the playoffs.

The first thing to consider is the map veto as it gives a lot of strategic information on how Gambit was thinking on this map. Gambit are usually willing to float inferno or play it as the decider. Against VP, they chose to ban it. What’s more, VP picked Vertigo and Train. Both maps are ones that inhibit VP’s best playing style. Vertigo itself is a no brainer for Gambit as it’s their best map, but the second choice of Train gives a sense that they understood VP’s style and how to minimise it.

On the ground level, Gambit isolated Jame and inhibited YEKINDAR. Gambit neutralised Jame’s impact as they avoided many of the setups that VP like to use. The most obvious example of this was in the final map on Overpass. Earlier I described the CT-side crossfire where Jame plays underpass and has two players in position to help him trade, get info, or escape.

VP used this setup in the 19th round. Gambit avoided this trap altogether as they had Timofey “interz” Yakushin get some info towards mid before lurking towards long. He didn’t trigger the trap, but his lurk got the information Gambit wanted. Gambit sussed out the default and used a contact B play to punish VP. Due to the particularities of the setup, there was no crossfire to hold the position, and Gambit was already in the site and on top of the player at barrels before VP could do anything.

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As for YEKINDAR, Gambit read his movements on Overpass as they understood his tendency to lurk deep into the A-site around the 0:30 mark to make a play or get the information that VP wants before they commit to a site. Gambit neutralised YEKINDAR’s play in both the 7th and 8th rounds. In addition, it seemed that Gambit overall had a better idea of how VP liked to play as they had a flash and trade setup ready for VP’s contact play in the 9th round.

In the end, Gambit won a convincing 3-1 series against VP. There are a few potential ways to read this. The most generous view for VP is that Gambit is a team that knows how they play, and VP played below par as they had more pressure on them. Once VP start playing other tournaments, they could still be a strong team if their individual form remains strong. A more critical view is that Gambit beat VP as there was no informational advantage. Armed with a good read of the enemy and good form on the day, they ran VP over. Should other teams get the same amount of insight that Gambit has, VP could be in a rough spot.

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Photo via DreamHack by Stephanie Lindgren

Moving Forward, the arT and FURIA comparison

When I consider VP’s future prospects, I can’t help but recall the rise of arT and FURIA. Both had good young talent, and both had a unique approach. When FURIA first broke out, people were critical of whether or not they could succeed with their extremely aggressive style. After the first initial breakout in 2019, they slumped. Instead of giving up on their style, they doubled down, made some changes to their roster, and have continued to consistently expand and diversify their playbook while keeping the same playstyle.

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For me, Jame and VP will have to look to them as an example. VP aren’t quite as extreme as FURIA, but they certainly play a different style we typically see from European teams. For VP to succeed, I think they will have to follow a similar method where they continue to expand their playbook, while keeping the playstyle that exemplifies their strengths. If they do that, they could become one of the more dangerous teams in Europe, and soon enough, Jame Time will go from being a meme to being a deadly serious affair.

 

Images via DreamHack | StarLadder | EPICENTER

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