It has been five months since Shox has joined and the results have been lackluster. Vitality’s level hasn’t gone up. It has either stayed the same or degraded over time.

20:00, 04 Mar 2020

In September 2019, Vitality closed one of the most expensive buyouts in CS:GO as they bought out Richard “shox” Papillon from G2. NeL reported that Vitality paid somewhere between $350,000 and $450,000. It has been five months since then and the results have been lackluster. Vitality’s level hasn’t gone up with the move. It has either stayed the same or degraded over time. All told, shox has been a nonfactor for Vitality.

The Impetus of the Roster Change

Vitality made the roster change after the StarLadder Berlin Major. Their lineup at the time was: Dan “apEX” Madesclaire, Cedric “RpK” Guipouy, Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut, Alex “ALEX” McMeekin, and Nathan “NBK” Schmitt. Before the Major, Vitality was among the top three teams in the world, alongside Liquid and ENCE.  At the Major itself, internal issues boiled over. Vitality kicked NBK and eventually bought out shox.

While internal issues were the reason why Vitality changed the team, we need to take a step back for a moment and look at Vitality as a whole. Vitality is often criticised for being a bad team that is only carried by ZywOo. In terms of firepower and the raw statistics, there is merit to the case. However that ignores a lot of the things that Vitality does right. In terms of roles, teamplay, tactics, and setups, Vitality are a good team.

Vitality polarises their identity by pocketing ZywOo as their superstar player. On the T-sides, Vitality like to save ZywOo for the end-round. To do that, they often have their main pack of players take map control, with either apEX or ALEX taking the lead as the entry fragger (though there are notable exceptions where on certain spawns ZywOo will rush out of T-spawn to go for an early kill). Once Vitality establishes map control, they playout the default and then hit a site. They also make sure to mix it up with fast executes and explosive hits early on.

On the CT-side, Vitality use ZywOo more aggressively, as he often teams up with other players to go for early duels. This changes, depending on the map. For instance, on Mirage, he plays closer together with apEX to take mid control early on. On Inferno, he’s more likely to play together with shox or RpK (and ALEX before he switched positions). In general, Vitality like to set ZywOo up with crossfires and utility as they understand that he is their best player and the one most likely to convert a trade scenario.

All things considered, Vitality’s tactics and teamplay are fairly strong across the board. Their roles largely makes sense for all five of their players and, while they’ve had to shift some positions around to accommodate Shox, there is no glaring weakness or player who is completely out of their depth (like Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko and Ioann “Edward” Sukhariev were at the end of their run in Na`Vi).

All of the praise I’ve heaped onto Vitality makes it all the more obvious then that firepower is what the team lacks. That is where shox was supposed to come in.

The Potential Upside of the shox Move

We’ll ignore the $350-450,000 price tag for a moment and just look at why the shox gamble made sense at the time. At the time, there were two French teams: Vitality and G2. Vitality was the better team, while G2 was inconsistent. G2 did have moments of brilliance, most notably their EPL 9 Finals run. For the most part though, that line-up hit their ceiling.

From Vitality’s point of view, they needed firepower. A secondary star that could help put kills on the scoreboard. The first choice was Kenny “kennyS” Schrub, but he was likely off the table as he was G2’s best player and it would make no sense for G2 to let their best player go to a rival squad. The other two choices were Francois “AmaNEk” Delaunay and shox. AmaNEk was a good player, but not to the extent that you could call him a star player at the elite levels.

As for shox, his form was slowly declining during his tenure on G2, as he was one of the primary leaders (along with AmaNEk). In terms of form, I’d have rated AmaNEk higher than shox. The problem was potential. shox was a Counter-Strike phenom, one of those rare players who could, at times, will himself back into elite status. This, alongside his fairly versatile game and the fact that G2 had benched him at almost the exact same time that Vitality benched NBK, made him the natural choice.

The move made even more sense given the context of where CS:GO were at the time. There were only three other big contention threats to worry about. ENCE had kicked Aleksi “Aleksib” Virolainen, so it was likely that they were going to drop off. Astralis had made their return by winning the Major, Liquid were still a top team, and NRG (soon to be EG) looked red hot.

Shox Vitality

Most of the teams below them weren’t that dangerous. FaZe and Na`Vi still had systemic problems. Renegades was a strong tactical team, but didn’t have the firepower to exploit Vitality’s weakness. AVANGAR made a miracle run, but it was doubtful that they could sustain it. G2 were shifting over to an international lineup, so that was going to take time to ramp up in the best case scenario. Mouz were on the rise, but hadn’t made the leap.

That was the competitive landscape at the time, so when Vitality made the shox gamble, they were probably hoping that he was going to do a partial resurrection. If shox reached 60-70% of his peak form, that could have been enough to tip the scales in Vitality’s favour. Unfortunately for Vitality, that shox never arrived.

shox the Nonfactor

shox being relieved of his in-game leading duties has had the opposite effect of what most people hoped. Instead of a spike in performance, it has led to the worst slump of shox’s career. The raw stats are far below average, as he’s had a 0.90 HLTV rating. To be fair though, stats evaluation is generally overrated as a metric,  because it ignores a lot of the context and circumstance that surrounds a player’s performance in the game. When you take the context and circumstance into account, it paints a potentially bleaker picture.

When shox initially joined Vitality, they had no time to swap the roles so it was a plug-and-play situation. They had him take over all of NBK’s old roles and it worked out at DreamHack Malmo where Vitality got 2nd place to Fnatic. In that tournament, shox was an average player, but had some crucial clutches that pushed Vitality over the edge. That was the honeymoon stage.

Things have gotten worse over time. After that event, they played at  StarSeries i-League Season 8, IEM Beijing, EPICENTER, IEM Katowice 2020, and two other group stages. They got top 8 at SLI Season 8 where FURIA knocked them out in the lower brackets of the playoffs. 100 Thieves eliminated Vitality in the semifinals of IEM Beijing 2-1. They then lost in the group stages of EPL Season 10 with defeats to FaZe and Fnatic. The shining result during this period was EPICENTER, where Vitality beat Mouz in the finals to win the event.

While the team played well there, the secondary star was ALEX, rather than shox. shox was the worst performing player in the line-up stats wise, and by eye test. After the break, Vitality then got third in their BLAST Premier group stage after losing to compLexity and Na`Vi. At IEM Katowice Astralis and FaZe beat Vitality to knock them out of the group stages.

shox hasn’t been an impactful player during this run. The best thing we can say about his performance was that he was a non-factor. He didn’t destroy the system that Vitality had, but he hasn’t pushed it to the next level either.

What is confounding about this period of play is that there isn’t a logical reason as to why shox is performing worse than before. When a player falls down in performance it is usually correlated with ill-fitting roles or a bad team environment. As far as we can tell from the outside, Vitality’s team environment seems normal. shox is no longer the in-game leader, and while the transition back from a leader to a player is hard, he’s had a good amount of time to make that transition. In the server, Vitality has gone out of their way to try to give shox more comfortable roles. They’ve shifted some of shox’s roles. He’s now the outside lurk on Nuke and plays the B lurk on Overpass. On the CT-side, he plays short and ALEX has taken on NBK’s old role of A-site anchor.

shox seems to have every reason why he should succeed, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s still a serviceable role player, but those small impact rounds he had at DreamHack have stopped coming. What’s more, Vitality’s strength as a team is largely unaltered since the swap. Vitality still has most of the same strengths on the same maps: Dust2, Inferno, Mirage, and Nuke. They’ve since added some vertigo as well. In the NBK period, they played: Dust2, Inferno, Mirage, Nuke, and Overpass. Given the map pool, it’s arguable that Vitality may have taken a hit as their Overpass dropped off after kicking NBK.

Shox
Image via Dreamhack | Flickr

While I’ve been critical of shox, he hasn’t moved the needle for Vitality one way or another. Even though the raw results may speak otherwise (during the NBK period, Vitality were consistently a top 3 team), I think Vitality are about as strong as they were during their run in mid-2019. Vitality’s problem is that the scene has morphed. The top echelon is far more competitive now than compared to when they made their roster change. At the time, they only had to worry about four potential contenders: EG, Astralis, and Liquid. Since that time, Fnatic and Mouz have joined that level of play. Na`Vi and G2 have made the jump to that status with their finals appearance at IEM Katowice. Below them are teams like: FaZe and 100 Thieves.

For Vitality to be the best team in the world, they need to have an answer for all of these teams. As it stands now, it’s hard to see them as a consistent contender. Liquid, Astralis, Fnatic, and Mouz are all leagues ahead of Vitality in consistency. Na`Vi and G2 look incredibly sharp since coming off of the break and both made the finals of IEM Katowice. FaZe and 100 Thieves may not be in the same league as the others, but they have the ability to upset many of those teams. FaZe have the firepower and map pool to beat Vitality. Outside of ZywOo, 100 Thieves have comparable firepower and I’d argue that their tactics and preparation seem to be a step above Vitality’s. The only top team that doesn’t look that great is EG, but like FaZe, their map pool and firepower should be a good match for Vitality.

Vitality’s roster change has only kept them treading water, and the rest of the teams are improving.

No Winning Vision

The most damning indictment I can say about shox’s individual performance in the last five months is that I don’t see any winning scenarios that Vitality can put him into. Every player has a winning vision, or specialty, where they know that they can beat the other player. For superstar players, that is every scenario. For star players, it depends on their particular skill set. What made the Kristian “k0nfig” Wiencke and Emil “Magisk” Reif combination interesting was that they had disparate skill sets that complimented each other. K0nfig’s winning vision was headshotting people as an entry fragger or dueler on both sides of the game. In contrast to that, Magisk was a passive lurker who liked to flank his opposition on the T-side or be the passive anchor that could get a double kill when anchoring a site.

When it comes to shox, I don’t see a winning scenario. He isn’t an impactful lurker, he can’t win aggressive entry duels, he isn’t a hard anchor to kill or trade off, and he isn’t winning clutches. Players like Filip “NEO” Kubski or Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas didn’t have great stats, but there were niche areas where they could shine. NEO was good at reading the game, winning clutches, and being a stable AWPer. TaZ could win games as an entry-man and specialised at defending the B-site of Train.

Vitality Moving Forward

This picture isn’t necessarily fair to shox, in that there are many ways for a player to impact the game that isn't on the scoreboard. However, we need to judge shox within the context of his buyout ($350-450,000), the scene, and Vitality’s aspirations. For that price, shox hasn’t lived up to expectations, nor added the value to justify such a buyout.

As it stands now, Vitality is in a rough spot. If the scene was still mid-2019, perhaps you could justify it. However, the competition at the top end is more stacked than ever before. Vitality needs more firepower to complete and shox hasn’t added it. Not only that, but their leadership is in question as Nel reported that ALEX plans to step down from the roster. The timing couldn’t be worse for Vitality as ZywOo was the best player of 2019 and is a top two player in 2020. When a superstar is in his prime, that is a team’s window to win titles.

Prior to ALEX deciding to leave the line-up, I believed that Vitality had most of what they needed to succeed. They had a good system with good tactics, teamplay, and an identity that enables ZywOo. Now, everything is in flux, and while the search for a suitable replacement for ALEX should take priority, Vitality still needs a secondary star. Someone that can bring the stats and impact needed to compete with the best in the world. shox is not that star, and unless one of their other players steps up to take on that mantle, Vitality will have to consider more roster moves if they still aspire to be the best team in the world.

 

Images via BLAST

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