Virtus.pro's 2014 - Consistently Contending
2014 was the year Virtus.pro both established themselves as world title contenders and set the bar for consistent finishes in big tournaments. The Polish side took down two offline titles, including the first major of the year. The more than $228,000 in prize money won was 1.7 times the most any of NEO's teams had won in single year of CS 1.6 competition. TaZ and his men were able to finish top four at more significant international tournaments than any other team in the world, beating out the likes of NiP, FNATIC and LDLC in that respect.
Pawe? "byali" Bieli?ski
Janusz "Snax" Pogorzelski
Jaros?aw "pasha" Jarz?bkowski
Filip "NEO" Kubski
Wiktor "TaZ" Wojtas
The surprise appearance
The former ESC Gaming line-up joined the Virtus.pro organisation January 25th. With the first part of the year being light on tournaments, their debut for their new organisation would be the first major tournament of the year: EMS One Katowice. Taking place in March, the tournament was held on home soil, in Katowice in their native country of Poland. Before the event had even begun, word was circulating from the teams in attendance that Virtus were coming in in fearsome form, based on practice results.
Their group looked to be one of the hardest, as they had been placed in as one of the third pool seeds and would be surrounded by Titan, considered the best team in the world at the time, and HellRaisers, who had at times been a top three team the previous year and had finished top eight at the previous major. Virtus edged a 19:16 overtime game on mirage against HellRaisers and then smashed Titan 16:7 on the same map, both progressing to the quarter-final and establishing this map as a strength for them.
In the quarter-finals they met LDLC, another team who had been hyped as practice game monsters. NEO and company handled the French side with each, cruising to the semi-final with less than 12 rounds lost in total in that series. Their semi-final opponent was a surprise, as the underdog LGB of Olofm had managed to upset FNATIC in a thrilling third map in the quarter-final. VP dominated the opener on inferno and with mirage as the second map, which they were 3:0 on for the tournament so far, many were no doubt set to write LGB off as a fluke and pencil VP into the final.
The Swedes would shock VP with an 11:4 first half. A monster comeback by the Poles allowed them to reach overtime, but KRiMZ and the LGB boys reasserted themselves and secured the victory to extend the series. Despite such theatrics, VP easily won the deciding map train 16:7 to reach the final. The opponent in the final would be Ninjas in Pyjamas. As well as being the most accomplished and successful team in history, NiP had reached the final of the first CS:GO major less than five months prior and been upset there, so many felt it was NiP's destiny to pick-up a major title.
Despite VP having gone 3:1 on mirage in the tournament, with the lone loss being in over-time, NiP took the gamble of not vetoing the map. Virtus selected it as their first map, with NiP choosing inferno as the second. The first map would not be close, as NiP clawed their way to nine rounds, but in a performance where they were always in trouble and byali and the boys were always pushing closer and closer to the magic 16. NiP had tasted the oppressive pressure of Polish power.
NiP were famed for having the most complete and well-rounded map pool in professional CS:GO, so inferno was expected to be a strong map for them, a chance to bounce back. Instead Virtus delivered a repeat performance, dominating early and often, ensuring that rounds won by NiP could never truly instil confidence that the series was winnable for the veteran championship Swedish side.
VP were dominating, but more shockingly the NiP players seemed to be choking, in uncharacteristic fashion. pasha and his compatriots seized the second map victory on the 26th round, taking the series and the title. Hoisting the trophy in front of a delirious home crowd, Virtus.pro had won one of the biggest tournaments in CS:GO history.
A rematch in Denmark
A month after Katowice, Virtus flew out to Denmark for Copenhagen Games. The tournament would seemingly be a tour of rematches for the Poles, beginning with a quarter-final date with LGB. Winning a close nuke opener, VP would meet LGB on mirage in the second map for the second straight tournament. This time it was a less intense affair and they would take the win 16:9 and move on to the semi-final.
In the semis VP faced LDLC, the side they had outed in the quarter-final in Poland. Winning inferno by a reasonable margin, NEO's men found themselves upset 12:16 on dust2 to send the series to a deciding map. With that being mirage, the home of VP, it was a one-sided beating for the French side which sent VP flying into a second straight offline final. The opponent in the final was, of course, the very same Ninjas in Pyjamas whose hearts they had broken a month prior.
NiP this time wisely decided to ban out mirage and gamble on train. Virtus.pro picked train as their opening map and a bizarre affair, in which both teams won a huge number of rounds on the typically very difficult Terrorist side, ended in their favour to put them up a map in the series. The second would be on inferno, just as it had in Poland. NiP had already shown in the first map that they were not going to simply crumble and fail to compete with the Poles as they had previously, now they would send a message with an emphatic 16:6 win on the second map. The deciding map between the two teams would be dust2 and the game proved a close and tense one, but the Swedes would prevail and take it 16:13 to deny VP a second straight offline title.
Slipping down the rankings
Early May's StarSeries IX looked set to be a true slugfest, featuring four of the best teams in the world (NiP, Virtus.pro, Titan and FNATIC). FNATIC pulled out at the last minute, due to the political situation in Ukraine, where the event was hosted, and were replaced by the home team Na`Vi. In the opening game Virtus.pro would meet Titan, who had just lost superstar Shox and replaced him with AWP master kennyS.
Titan comfortably won the first map, dust2, by a 16:10 scoreline and move to the second, which was mirage. With Snax's team losing that in a 17:19 overtime game, some revenge had been struck for VP's win on that map in Katowice and the new Titan looked set to be a legitimate top team once more. In the lower bracket, VP would face NiP in a Bo3 for the third straight tournament. inferno was the opening map this time and NiP edged a tight game by 16:14. VP once more won train, setting up yet another decider on dust2 between the teams. Another close game and another NiP victory had VP down 1:2 in Bo3 series against NiP, giving the Swedish side some satisfaction after their loss at the major.
June's Dreamhack Summer might have looked to be a real chance to reestablish themselves as world contenders, but VP would suffer their worst final result of the year. After getting out of the group stage, they met Na`Vi in the quarter-final. The Ukrainian side had shocked the world by winning StarSeries IX and stomping the best teams on a number of maps there. GuardiaN's side would win the opener on inferno 16:9 and then truly wound VP by taking mirage by the same scoreline, putting the Poles out in 5th-8th place.
Settling scores in the States
Flying out to Dallas for the ESEA Season 16 LAN Finals might have rekindled some painful memories for the Poles. The last time their core of players had been out there they had lost a heartbreaking series to the Americans of Quantic, at series point on the second map but winding up being eliminated. Coming into the event in their worst form of the year and at a tournament at which North American sides famously seemed to receive a boost in form, VP needed to be wary of danger.
After cruising to the upper bracket semi-final, they were upset there by iBUYPOWER 2:1. Getting dominated on cache, they had narrowly grabbed inferno to make the series a three-mapper. That third map had been Season, a map only used in North American map pools, and NEO's guys had lost 14:16 to be sent to the lower bracket. Down there they would meet NiP. With the lower exiting the tournament outside of the top four, history was very much against TaZ and his team, as NiP had an unbroken 31 tournament streak of top four offline finishes backing them up.
VP won their first inferno against the Ninjas since Katowice, admittedly scraping a 16:14 victory. NiP would likewise turn the tables from the previous two series, winning their first train game and ensuring the two teams played a third map for the third straight time. cache was to be the decider, a map they had never faced each other on. VP won 16:12 and made history, eliminated NiP in 5th-6th place.
Na`Vi were up next and VP would get their chance to score some revenge for the Dreamhack Summer quarter-final. Winning an opening season, they were handed a 14:16 loss on mirage in the second. The third was train and a comfortable 16:9 win put pasha and the other Poles into the lower final. The compLexity team they would meet was one which had finished top eight in Katowice, but had never been to the final of a significant tournament.
The story of this series would be that VP played two of the maps well, but ended up beaten by a single man. Winning cache 16:11, they lost inferno 7:16. The decider was Season and they would manage 13 rounds, but a performance in the range of 40 kills from coL's n0thing denied them a series win almost single-handedly. The Poles were out in third place.
A miracle in London
August's Gfinity G3 event in London would feature a unique format. The group stage saw the 12 teams divided into two groups of six, with the top four teams in each group, following a round robin, moving on to the eight team play-offs. VP's early form looked troubling in group play, losing to mouz on cache and seeing a nearly sure-fire win on mirage turned into a tie by Titan's terrorist side execution and some kennyS magic. Risking playing nuke, a map they traditionally tried to avoid, against Dignitas, a team for whom it was considered their strongest, saw them handed a 16:7 beatdown.
Despite such underwhelming group play, VP would find themselves matched up against one of the weakest play-off opponents: London Conspiracy. The Norwegian side shocked by snatching the inferno opener 16:14, even though the map was traditionally a strong one for the Polish side. Virtus turned it up a number of levels, blowing away the next two maps 16:4 and 16:3 to reach the semis. The opponent in the semi-final was the Dignitas who had gone to town on them in the group stage nuke match.
Riding that group stage performance, Dignitas looked to be finally in position to reach the final of an international tournament, something they had never before accomplished. In line with that, the Danes rammed home a 16:7 opening dust2 game. The second map would be cache, one VP had lost to mouz on in the group stage but had won a few times previously in the year. With Dig having just rolled NiP on the map in the quarter-final, joining VP in the club of teams who had outed NiP before the top four, it looked set to be a quick semi-final for byali and the boys.
VP rewrote that script, hammering the Danish side 16:4 on cache. The decider was on inferno and the Danes would win rounds only to find the Virtus.plow activated and bulldozing them aside. VP showcased the terrifyingly dominant inferno play that had seen NiP startled and dazed in the EMS One Katowice final. VP had reached their third final of the year and this time there was no NiP to stop them taking a second title.
What there was, though, was a peaking, in-form Titan. The team who had beaten them back at StarSeries IX had dispatched the new FNATIC side in the other semi-final and seemed to be hitting their stride, AWPer kennyS in powerful form and Ex6TenZ's tactics seeing them carve up opponents on the Terrorist side. Despite such positive omens for the French side, VP crushed them on mirage 16:4 in the opener. The second map would be nuke and fans and pundits immediately remembered that Dignitas blowout in the group stage, anticipating a three map series. Titan would win their rounds, but VP came alive on the map they typically vetoed, rolling into that unbeatable and unbearable form they had shown to Dignitas earlier. Winning 16:12, VP took the Gfinity G3 title.
Having shared series wins and losses against all the top teams of the year so far, VP seemed a mercurial force, capable of being routinely out-executed by the world's best sides or, on rare occasions, hitting a boiling point of heat too overwhelming to handle for any opponent. The question, for fans and opponents alike, would always be when would the Virtus.plow turn up? The problem, for Virtus.pro, was that they themselves seemed uncertain, even right up until the moment it did.
A disappointing defense
The second major of the year would take place less than two weeks later, at ESL One Cologne. Easily thrashing Russian side dAT, Virtus would lose an overtime game on overpass, a brand new map, to the new look FNATIC team which featured former LGB players olofm and KRiMZ. Defeating iBUYPOWER with a monstrous 16:2 on cache, the Poles moved into the play-offs. Drawn against LDLC, the match was set to be a rematch from both EMS One Katowice and Copenhagen Games.
This time, though, it was the French side which would be moving on in the tournament. A full 30 rounds of regulation were played on the opening dust2, with LDLC up 15:14 heading into that last round. pasha was at the A bombsite and LDLC's KQLY would hit a ludicrous jumping USP shot to kill him and secure the first map win for the French. Going into mirage should have been a return to a safe place, but VP fell in 28 rounds to LDLC and exited an offline tournament in 5th-8th for the second time in 2014.
A painful stand-in experience
Virtus would fly to Russia to attend the Game Show League S1 LAN final, taking place in Moscow, but with a stand-in. With pasha unable to join them, Virtus had elected to bring ESC player MICHU as their fifth. The opening series saw the Poles still in with a chance of victory, playing the first two maps incredibly close and winning the opener 19:16 on mirage but losing Season 14:16. The decider wasn't close and Na`Vi sent them to the lower bracket. Beating up the Danish myXMG there 2:0 allowed MICHU to show off his stuff with two strong games.
In the lower bracket final, VP would face HellRaisers. Losing a painfully close overtime game 19:22 on mirage, VP returned with a vengence winning inferno 16:8 to send it to a third. The third was overpass and HR just had too much for the Polish side with a stand-in to match, exiting the tournament in third place.
The run into the final major of the year
There would be three offline tournaments in the spam of less than three weeks. That run began with the FACEIT Season 2 LAN Finals in Milan, Italy. VP began cold, rocked 16:7 by LDLC on cache. They would battle to narrowly lose inferno to the same team 14:16. That set-up a scenario where to move on they merely needed to split the remaining two maps against C9, formerly coL, and finish with the better round difference over them. That looked to be a difficult task as the North Americans shocked them with a 16:11 win on cache, a map VP had been powerful on recently.
On the second map, the margin of error was slim, as C9 did not even need to win the map to move on, merely win 12 rounds. VP never faltered, winning a clean 16:6 and securing their semi-final spot. Facing FNATIC in the final four, they were meeting a team who were on a streak of five straight top four finishes with this line-up, but who had never won a significant international tournament. The problem for the Poles was that they shared their map pool with FNATIC and so the first two maps being inferno and mirage should have been a good thing for NEO and his mates, but 16:8 and 16:7 wins for FNATIC showed otherwise, knocking them out of the tournament without much of a fight.
ESWC was the following week and VP would again show some troubling form. Losing to C9 16:11 on cache again, they recomposed themselves to defeat LDLC 16:13 on overpass. In the quarter-finals, they would face Dignitas and once more tear out the hearts of the Danish team. After winning overpass comfortably, they lost inferno 14:16. The deciding mirage was a 16:12 win to reach another semi-final. Facing FNATIC there for the second straight tournament, they now knew they were not facing a team still a step away from being able to close out tournaments. The Swedish side had gone on to win FACEIT S2 Finals with only a single map loss, taking the Bo5 final 3:1.
This time the opener would be overpass, which had been a revelation for VP in the tournament. FNATIC took it a smooth 16:7. The second map was inferno, the map FNATIC were considered the best in the entire world on. Despite putting 12 rounds on the board, VP could only watch FNATIC shut them out of another tournament prior to the final. With ESWC employing a third place decider, VP got to face Na`Vi yet again in the year, this time winning a three map series and even destroying GuardiaN's boys 16:3 on a deciding inferno.
Days later and another switch of locales, this time moving to Stockholm, Sweden, it was the fragbite Masters S3 LAN Finals. Unfortunately, VP were forced to attend with another stand-in, once more replacing pasha. This time they opted for Minise, also formerly of ESC. Starting in the upper bracket final, as a result of the online portion of the tournament, VP could finish no lower than top three at the tournament.
Their opponent at that stage was LDLC, who had finished runners-up at ESWC days prior. It appeared that VP might be able to threaten the second best team in the world even without pasha, as the Poles shocked the French side with a solid win on overpass, TaZ leading the way with a stellar individual performance. That proved to be all VP had for LDLC, though, as Happy and company smashed them 16:3 on dust2 and then closed them out with a humiliating 16:0 inferno crushing.
Down in the lower bracket, VP would now move on from facing the world's number two team to the number one, as FNATIC awaited them. The opening map was again FNATIC but the Swedes gave no quarter, ramming home a 16:3 beatdown. The second map, cache, was closer, but VP's tournament ended with a third place finish and the next event would be the final major of 2014.
Battle in Jönköping
The group stage of Dreamhack Winter proved incredibly easy for Virtus.pro. Stomping out Danish side myXMG 16:2 on inferno, they were gifted a nuke game by Na`Vi, who traditionally didn't play that map, and showed their appreciation by winning in only 18 rounds of play. Fortune seemed to be favouriting NEO and his guys as they drew the easiest quarter-final opponent in the history of the CS:GO majors, getting PENTA, a German side who had only reached the play-off stage as a result of one team being disqualified prior to the tournament and another failing badly in the group stage. VP easily handled their opponents to move into the semi-final, ensuring they would make their fourth straight offline international tournament top four finish.
The opponent in the semi-final was Ninjas in Pyjamas, who were playing their first ever CS:GO event with a new member, having replaced Fifflaren with AWPer Maikelele. NiP had looked shaky in the group stage, almost going out to ESC, the second best Polish side, and falling to LDLC. In the quarter-final, NiP had turned it on and rolled over a HellRaisers side who some had tipped to beat them at that stage. Despite NiP's pedigree as an elite team, their lack of results with their new line-up ensured VP would enter the semi-final as the favourite to reach the final.
After the map draw phase, VP amazingly found themselves facing a line-up of nuke (NiP's choice), cache (their choice) and inferno (randomly selected). This was an incredibly favourable draw for them, with inferno traditionally one of their better maps, meaning they would still be a favourite even if the series went to the decider. When the opening map, expected to be NiP's best chance to force said decider, began to roll heavily their way, VP could genuinely wonder if they would be able to close the series out in two maps. Reaching map point on nuke while the Ninjas were not even in double digits, they required only a round to move into cache in a dominating position in the series.
NiP roared back into the map and it would reach overtime. Despite taking leads in that additional phase of play, VP could not close the map out and it would be NiP finishing the first map with a historic overall comeback to keep their hopes alive. The second game was, as expected, a dominant performance on cache from TaZ and his team, moving the Bo3 onto the third and final map. Between top teams, inferno had been heavily contested over the prior months and VP had been able to play great inferno teams like LDLC in close fashion.
Despite such recent history, NiP ran over the Poles in brutal fashion, barely giving them any opening to get into the decider. NiP would close them out 16:8, showing a surprising aptitude for inferno, even going on to beat LDLC on it in the final. VP had been flying high in the first map of the series, but now they found themselves ousted from the major in the semi-final, left to wonder what might have been.
Finishing 2014 strong
While the last month of the year had arrived, there was still some more offline Counter-Strike to be played for byali and the boys. They flew out to Dallas for the ESEA S17 LAN finals. While past trips had always seem them falling to the lower bracket earlier than expected, this event would see them only to face the two best North American teams in their first two matches, dispatching both iBUYPOWER and C9 in three map series. The former had been a thriller, with the decider finishing 25:22 in overtime on inferno.
In the upper bracket final, VP would meet FNATIC for a rematch of the semi-final of ESWC. The only team to beat FNATIC in a Bo3 over the last four offline events had been LDLC and by way of forfeit from the Swedes themselves. VP would come into the match in excellent form, closing out the series in two maps, winning 16:12 on cache and 16:14 on mirage. cache had been a strong map for VP in the latter half of the year, even if they'd lost two games to C9 on it during that time span. Mirage had been their home from the beginning of the year, but had been considered a dominant map for FNATIC.
When FNATIC arrived into the final from the lower bracket, looking for revenge, the Poles could put some confidence in knowing they had maps, as evidenced earlier, on which they could now expect to be able to potentially win against the world's best team. The first Bo3 would be played on identical maps. This time FNATIC comfortably handled Snax and his friends 16:10 both times. The tournament title would be decided by a final Bo3. FNATIC won dust2 16:13 and then train by the same scoreline, snatching away the title from VP and delivering four straight map losses to them to finish the event.
In the latter half of December, VP attended the Acer A-Split Invitational in Germany. The event featured only tier three opponents and VP would win it with only a single map loss. 2014 had finished with top eight finishes in all three of the majors, a victory at the first in Katowice and a strong finish that had seen them place top four at every offline event since ESL One Cologne.
As 2014 came to a close, Virtus.pro had only won two big events, but they had managed to finish in the top four of more significant international events than any other team, even the likes of FNATIC, LDLC and NiP. With $228,000 in prize money won and a major title to their names, Virtus.pro enter 2015 as one of the elite teams in the world. In the latter months, they have seemed to play the role of gatekeepers the top spots, good enough to beat any lesser opponents but seemingly always losing to the best, but they are always in contention for offline titles.
The team which had finished 2013 as a confused line-up, lacking direction or a coherent style, became one of the most consistent and entertaining sides in the world in 2014.
Photo credit: fragbite, Dreamhack, ESL, Vakarm, ESEAnews