Vitality Neo on zen being the ZywOo of Rocket League
Passion, precision, and proficiency are the pillars of Team Vitality, and while the sentiment echoes around the chambers of all their esports programmes, it's the songs of Fabien "Neo" Devide that the players dance to.
Co-Founding Team Vitality alongside Nicolas Maurer, Neo is very much the bard of results in the esports industry for the French organisation, pioneering perfection and writing the scripts for the teams to puppeteer too.
So after Team Vitality's tenth anniversary and some of their most important chorus', we sat down with Neo to discuss everything that's great about the golden hornets.
Here Neo discusses the Rocket League reinvention, parting ways with some of Vitality's biggest brand icons in favour of results, moulding their next superstar in the same way they have produced one of the world's best players, and why long-term security and success is valued over the short-term rewards.
Firstly, over the years, how have you found the support of Team Vitality in the Rocket League scene?
So for me, since the beginning when we kicked off the project with "Fairy Peak!" as our first international project, I think everyone was pretty hype.
At this time I think a lot of major Orgs were part of the scene, and now that it's a few years later, I'm just a bit sad sometimes that some of them left because I think Rocket League is one of the best games in esports since it became a thing.
But for me, the entire community and the Vitality support, I think they are just super happy. Also, they were spoiled. Even the first version of Vitality was a winning one. No. Even when we didn't win the RLCS, we were at least top three or winning GFinity's. From the very beginning, we managed to build a championship team. So I think we were a bit lucky at the really be at the beginning. After, we did the right things to keep this momentum.
Overall I think the community is insane in everything that they're doing. And even right now we notice that a lot of North American communities are also really hyped about the kids and about and about our last performance in the Major.
It's a privilege, and we're blessed right now that we are part of Rocket League for so long and building legacy teams with this kind of support.
How did the recent Rocket League Major success compare to Team Vitality's other successes in esports?
I think it's it's quite comparable. Of course, when you are winning a CS:GO Major in France, then that's definitely the top one to be proud of. But for us, every title matters. If you have a shot to win titles, it's already something unique, and to me, when we won the Major, it was the same feeling as if I was winning LEC or other S-Tier tournaments in global esports. Rocket League is part of our DNA.
For us, it's a challenging game; for a lot of observers it is still a small tier-one or tier-two title, but for us, it's definitely tier-one. So winning a Major is definitely an achievement for the company and everyone was over the moon after this success. So I'm definitely super, super happy.
I'm glad you enjoyed it. As Co-Founder of Vitality, you've been with the Rocket League guys from the start. How did you find the evolution of passing through Kaydop and Fairy Peak! to the roster that we have now?
I think we needed a change. As a company and as an organisation, when we have people that have had an impact on our history and results, we try to be as loyal as we can.
We scaled up and had a great era with great players like Fairy Peak!, and great rivalries with NRG and Dignitas and we had amazing runs at championships and even the Worlds title after that which we managed to win. We were really happy and I had a real relationship with trust and transparency with "Kaydop".
So even when they had some downs, I was really always involved and I remember especially when BDS started to become a threat, starting to become giants to be contenders to win and our main competitors - before that, we were probably the best team by far - the "M0nkeyM00n" generations arrived and then I started to question a bit whether 'is at the end of the road?'.
It was all about having transparency with Kaydop, and I remember that he said to me when BDS came, and he said, 'Hey, judge us on our results after RLCS X, and if we are not winning it and we struggle, then we will maybe discuss a change'. But we won.
So, as I promised, also in trust with Kaydop, we kept going, but I think now it was not the right thing to do, because that season was a glimpse of the game moving in other directions, becoming more skill-oriented with new players with new mechanics.
Even despite the fact that Kaydop and Fairy Peak!, at that time, had a great mentality and were champions and I think they managed to win [RLCS X EU] because of their work ethic, fighting spirit and the way that they were experienced at winning events.
I think it was a chat that was needed, so we had one more year where we were loyal to our engagement, to them, and to their legacy in Vitality.
But it was really not a good choice at all. We had only one major. We didn't score one goal, and we didn't manage to qualify for Worlds and for a Major.
And for Team Vitality, you have to be a top-three team.
If you're not a top-three team, it's not what we are looking for and aiming to do. So I thought 2022, I knew that I needed to rebuild something and I knew that will be hard because most of our players were not performing well plus we were at Worlds. We were not French-centric. So it was really tough and a really scary moment.
Every rebuild is a mix of excitement and fear, to be honest. But we knew that we wanted them ["Saizen", "Radosin", "Alpha54", and "Zen"]. It's only the first time that I'm saying this, but when I was questioning the big puzzle of our rebuild, I asked Victor, 'Hey, did you see someone?'.
He told me that 'there is this kid who is 14 years old, but trust me, he is insane'. That was super early and I think Fairy Peak! was one of the first guys that noticed Zen. Even when he left, when we made the first move, he was really supportive and he was giving me advice, especially about Zen.
I'm really glad and grateful for what he did to provide that. I wish him to bounce back somewhere else and have some great success because he is the best. But for me, I need to rebuild, and for this, I need to find the new franchise players and we were convinced that Zen will be this type of guy for us.
That's why we took the risk to sign him before we wanted him to be the first team, locking him in, knowing that it would allow us to build our relationships and condition him to be ready for RLCS. We knew that he would be overhyped, especially as a French kid coming after players like "Vatira", for example, and with the Moist and KC doing well.
But having him as part of the team, watching screens, speaking with the players, we already created a relationship, so when we kick off and we started him it was super smooth.
What was your role in getting Zen to join? How did those talks occur? Obviously, a lot of teams probably wanted to sign him as well. So what was your role specifically in trying to make Zen join Vitality?
I took it personally. Usually, I try to be less involved in certain games, but I have my preferences, and Rocket League is one of our tier-one games, and this is where I spend most of my time.
When I knew that I wanted Zen, I knew that signing a 15-year-old kid will be also a decision based on his family. It was my commitment and my objective to create a relationship with his family, to make sure that first I can reassure them of our abilities to make him one of the best players in the world, plus, getting his diploma.
This is part of the job. This is part of our contract. Part of the contract is he needs to have his degree. Otherwise, I'll be really p**sed and he knows that. So be the best player in the world, but first, be a good student.
So this is what I tried to do, first having a relationship with him and telling him that there are few orgs in the world - and I don't say that to sound arrogant - where they are leaders by example and yet create vocations and structure. I think right now, especially in Rocket League, some orgs are super young or not ready to help development and allow the players to grow.
This has come with ten years of existence. Having facilities all around the world. Having a ton of people that have been performing, or former world champions, or even Olympic athletes. I think when you have a young star and if he is smart enough to be good, and this is exactly what Zen is, there is no way that we will fail him. No way.
Maybe on paper, we do not have the biggest hype on the planet. If you compare us to Moist or KC, they have big influencers behind them, but at least we've been there for ten years and we'll be there for the next 10, and probably the next 200 or so.
This is what we are trying to build. We are trying to build a club that will survive everything and will be an institution. So for me, it was more reassuring and going through the performance model. You have space to make mistakes to grow and to become the best player in the world.
This is exactly what we achieved and managed to do with "ZywOo", and there is a comparison between Zen and ZywOo; they don't have the same personality at all, but they have the same passion for the games and the same humility to be good listeners when people are trying to give them advice.
I like that little comparison between the two. Obviously, ZywOo is an absolute superstar and we hope Zen can be the same.
From the start of RLCS, France has always been a leading region, but now there's another wave of talent coming through. From your standpoint, how good is it to see the new production line of French players come through?
I can't explain why French people are so competitive. Probably because we have a background in the culture of loving and playing sports, and being passionate. Probably the best way to sum up a French guy is 'passionate'.
For Vitality, it is good and bad. Good because, of course, I'm French, and for us, it's easy to have a relationship and to manage French players in their mother language.
But it sometimes has limitations. When you have French-speaking teams and you make a change, you have to make a change for someone that is as good as the player that you want to replace and they have to speak French. There are a ton of limitations and restrictions on the pool of players that you have access to.
So for me personally it's really good, but only if salaries don't scale up and skyrocket, I don't see any negative points. I'm happy just being proud of my guys.
Would you to see a Rocket League Major in France at some point?
Definitely. For many reasons, but mostly because Rocket League is one of the only games that allow 16-year-olds and other young players to compete, which can be really complicated for a lot of countries.
French fans are crazy anyway, so I think it'll be insane for sure. It'll be one of the biggest experiences, up there with the CS:GO Major.
How have you found the current economy in esports balanced across other titles Counter-Strike and League Legends? And, how is Team Vitality combating the recession at the moment?
I think we all know the context, but with the market, I think it is probably still growing. We are a bit slower on this scale and it creates a lot of uncertainties on a lot of things.
When you see the headlines from the outside it can look a bit scary and probably creates difficulty to have access to finance, investment, and money. Even for sponsors, it's a tough market because when companies want to get rid of the easiest expenses, most of the time it is sponsorship.
Overall I think we have been lucky. I think we're doing a great job in the last few years. Right now we are trying to rationalise our expenses and our lineup of games.
Of course, we won't go crazy like we used to do three years ago with super teams everywhere. I don't think it's appropriate now to do it. But in all the other things I think we are managing the club well. I think we are probably one of the leading organisations that are doing a good job at it.
I'm proud of what we are. We are working based on results and the economic part, and I think we are making a ton of progress and stepping in the right direction. All of the players, agents, and everyone in the ecosystem has a better understanding of those conditions and they're supportive.
Moving on to Counterstrike. We saw apEX say in an interview with HLTV recently that he wasn't too much of a fan of changing rosters when you're winning. But how did the discussions go for you, and do you think it was the right move?
I think it was the right move because we've done it. If I do something, I'm convinced about what I'm doing. For me, it was more because "Dupreeh" only had six months of his contract left, so he would've been a free agent soon, and we had a unique opportunity with the top prospect.
I have too much experience with this and I don't want to suffer anymore. Sometimes, in the past, when something happens: a player behaving really badly, or they're underperforming, or an ego clash, everyone panics and you have to make a move, but nobody's available and you have to spend hundreds of thousands of euros on the move, and you don't even get your first pick.
Everyone is losing the situation. You are losing. I want my teams to stick together. It's more comfortable for us, for fans, for players, for social media guys, and for partnerships. But sometimes you have to make changes. Now we have a committed player for the long term and a core that will stick together. it was not monetary.
I understand what "apEX" said because of the period before, I think it was unfair too. It's unfair because we were performing. The team was winning. And we've now asked them to start over.
And you see, we've already had losses against NIP and we need to lose because they need to face failure and loss before too long to overcome a situation as a team.
apEX has been the in-game leader for a long time for Vitality and he doesn't have a lot of energy to do it again. So of course for him, it was something that was not mandatory for his own comfort. And also the team had found a formula that was winning. He could have just enjoyed the time period until CS2, but we need to have this core right now because the opportunity to get ["flameZ"] probably does not exist anymore. He would have picked G2 or Liquid. This calibre of player doesn't exist without a buyout or as a free agent.
With CS2 and the economics that will come, you avoid paying potential buyouts later or being forced to get a younger player that could be a bit less. But flameZ is the generation of ZywOo. He is 22. You need to surround him with players that are also 20, 21, and 22 because we want ZywOo to be a part of Vitality for the next 10 years. For this, you have to make sure that he is comfortable being captain of this team and have people that are in the same generation.
So with all those information, I think it was the right thing to do.
As an organization Co-founder, what is the one thing that you would to achieve in the next year? Or if you had one wish that could come true in the next year, what would it be?
I have thousands of dreams but winning Rocket League World Championships is one of them and to be the first team to have two stars (Dignitas and Gale Force were separate organisations when they won back-to-back World Championships). That is definitely something that I have my hopes on, especially because I think the story will be insane.
We missed the first Major and then, to become champions at the end, I think that the storyline is very insane after our rebuild.
But if we are winning Worlds, then next year will be tougher because we will want to do a three-peat and then I'd need to keep the guys motivated - I think that we'll find a way - but this is something that I want to happen.
We've already had the best present that we could have asked for with the CS:GO Paris Major. They managed to make us major winners, in our own city in front of our own fans for the 10th anniversary of Vitality. It's been a dream come true. It's unreal.
I think we want to pay "zonic" back too by going to Copenhagen and saying, "Hey, you made us a winner in Paris, we have to make you a winner in Copenhagen".
I mostly speak about esports and performances because as an entrepreneur I have a lot of willingness and wish, but for sure my main focus right now is the Rocket League World Championship and the CS:GO Major in March.