I had a chance to catch up with Daniil “Zeus” Teslenko, the storied in-game leader of Gambit, who previously led Na`Vi for a number of years. In his career Zeus has won all three Majors in a year in 2010, and captained the Na`Vi squad that made top two at two consecutive Majors. Now Zeus leads Gambit, who this week became Legends at ELEAGUE Major.
Many modern fans are unaware that you have been playing for a very long time. I first played against you and Edward’s pr100 in May 2007, but when did you first start playing competitively?
Zeus: “I started playing professionally in 2004, when I started winning the first Ukrainian championships. Then we had a good chance to win WCG Ukraine qualifiers and go represent Ukraine in San Francisco, but we lost the qualifier to ZeroGravity’s team, who was later the manager of Na’Vi and now the CEO. He played with one other known guy yXO (he is a Russian caster right now). In 2005 we won ASUS Cup versus pro100 and won the WCG qualifiers to represent our country in Singapore.”
The first big step in your career was joining Virtus.pro, then a Russian team led by legendary Russian star LeX, with whom you won Intel Challenge Cup in September 2007. What did you learn from your days playing under LeX’s leadership?
Zeus: “It was truly a serious step in my career when I joined Virtus.pro, and I remember that period. First of all because we went to a lot of European and world championships, we had LeX who was an in-game leader with a lot of experience, and a strong character, and only after some time passed when I left Virtus.pro I realized how much my skill level hadrisen in those two years, and how me and Edward started understanding CS differently. Our aim improved, the understanding of how to play after trading kills, it was easy for us all of a sudden. I myself watched and took a lot of lessons as a leader from LeX. He never gave up, he always showed character and no matter the difficulty of the situation he never gave up”
It was said back then that starix, the player who build the legendary Na`Vi roster, tried to model it after Pentagram – the Polish team built around NEO. How did you end up joining Na`Vi? How was the team actually built together, i.e. which order were players contacted?
Zeus: “Yes, the team was assembled by starix, Arbalet called him and gave him this task, or offer, and said that starix needed to assemble a team out of the best Ukrainian players. In that period, honestly, me and starix had bad blood, I thought he would not call me, but he showed his professional side setting aside human factors and valued players based on how they played. He didn’t care about out bad relationship, he understood that me and Edward were one of the best players in Ukraine and we deserved to play in that star roster.
“I remember the initial roster was confirmed with four people – starix markeloff Zeus and Edward – and we talked for a while about who should be fifth, and why it should be ceh9. And for a long time we thought that it shouldn’t be ceh9. In the end we settled on a player called Valentinich, but he said that he didn’t want to leave DTS, so we took ceh9 and after we won IEM IV World Championships, Valentinich began calling us, but it was late :D.”
In 2010 Na`Vi came from practically nowhere to becoming the most dominant Counter-Strike team to date, winning all three majors (IEM IV World Championship, ESWC and WCG) and breaking the previous prize money record, at the time when it was still comparable. Your team was famous for living together and playing more than anyone else, but is it really that simple? How did you become so good so quick? What do you think of the rise looking back?
Zeus: “Many said that stars aligned, and really the stars did allign, and we caught a wave, we felt the strength. First of all, all the players were experienced in CS, it wasn’t new for us, we knew how to play the game, we knew how to win events, but we didn’t know how to win world championships, for us that was unusual. Behind us was Arbalet, who said to us “You have all the conditions, you have the best roster, but your goal is to win the world championship.”
“That pushed us, plus we had a lot of energy and motivation, we gave it all to CS, we left our regular life, friends, parents, we lived together, played together, and hung out together pretty much always. I can say that life wasn’t easy, but it paid off, we don’t regret it. When we won IEM IV World Championships over fnatic, we understood that we can win any future event, we just need to keep doing our job.”
Why did the team allow markeloff to scale back on AWPing in late 2011, with starix inexplicably at times sniping in favor of the best sniper of all-time? Similarly, despite his terrific AWPing versus VeryGames at Mad Catz Vienna in early 2014, why was he allowed to become a rifler in CS:GO, instead of having him play the role he seemed destine to star in?
Zeus: “markeloff chose to drop the AWP, I don’t know why he did, I always told him that he was the best sniper, I always motivated him and encouraged him to play with the AWP. In 2011 when starix AWPed we had a goal to have two AWPers, starix felt powerful, and markeloff wanted to try new things. But in CS:GO I think he made a bad choice, AWP is easier now and I think he could have been, or could be, a great sniper.”
Much like the AWPer role change, in the 1.6 days you stopped leading Na`Vi at points, with starix taking over temporarily, only for you to resume that role later on. Why the change?
Zeus: “The changes were made because we couldn’t play well and were trying new things. We tried it, felt that problems were not in my leadership but in all of us, and then we changed it back.”
Towards the end of 2011 and early 2012 there were rumors that perhaps Na`Vi was close to making changes, to bring in players such as craft1k and ANGE1 from DTS, then Ukraine’s number-two team. How close was this to happening? Who would have gone out? What led to not doing it in the end?
Zeus: “Yes that is true, there was “panic on the ship”, we had two coalitions, or not even coalitions, basically me and ceh9 were friends, and it turned out that the team had questions towards me as a captain and questions for ceh9 as a player, and maybe they could kick ceh9 but they knew that I would have a problem with it and wouldn’t let him go. So a decision was made to kick us both. For five days we were talking, we were trying to find new ways to understand each other and save the roster. I think Edward saved the roster, his important word decided everything.”
Much like NEO and company, you took very long to transfer over to CS:GO in 2012, starting far behind your peers the adapting to the new game. Had you liked the game in the state it was in back then more and switched sooner, how different do you think the path of the initial Na`Vi roster would have been? You came very close to besting NiP at SLTV StarSeries V Finals, only to face near-certain loss on nuke on the final map. Could that win have made the difference?
Zeus: “I think yes, it wasn’t that loss against NiP, but a loss in I think a Czech tournament, where we lost to the mix with TaZ, NEO, apEX, kennyS and OverDrive. After that loss markeloff decided to leave and Edward went with him. We lost because we started really late, and if we started earlier, maybe everything would have gone a different way, we could have won StarSeries and others, saved the roster, and play for a very long period of time, but that’s how it happened.”
From pro100 to the then-Russian Virtus.pro team led by LeX to Na`Vi, you have spent most of your career playing with Edward. How is Edward to play with? Can you tell us anything about him that we may not necessarily already know?
Zeus: “Edward is a talanted player, a man who lives CS, he dedicated his life to this game. He spends time with friends and is invested in sports, but most of his time he spends in CS, and it has been that way throughout the time that I’ve known him. He’s special, not easy to deal with, not everyone can find a mutual way of talking with him, that’s why sometimes teammates find him hard to play with, and often people argue with him regarding this. He wants to play CS in a team, but he does it better invdividually. We went through a lot with him both fights andhappiness, but we’re still in contact and keep a healthy relationship.”
Na`Vi really took off in May 2015, shortly after adding flamie to finalize the roster you played with until your departure. How would you describe the process of player changes that saw you try play with kibaken and ceh9, until bringing back Edward post-Astana Dragons, and with him GuardiaN, before ultimately starix became the coach of the team to make room for flamie. What held you back, and then clicked, once flamie joined?
Zeus: “It was before flamie joining, we had ugin, he began to give us a path for good practice, that we should practice from a different perspective. We started to work a lot, and flamie was needed because starix couldn’t keep up with his role, and we as a team were not keeping up. When starix filled in the coach role, we had a guy who really helped us with CS, basically a sixth member of the team, plus flamie is very skilled, and we were working a lot to improve. Combine all that work plus starix coaching and flamie and we had our first results.”
Picking up GuardiaN was an obvious risk, despite his amazing skill level and stellar record in ANGE1’s Virtus.pro team in 2013. How big of an issue was the language barrier at first? Is he fluent in Russian now, or are there still issues in communication at times?
Zeus: “We had problems, but we knew that he was one of the best in the world and had huge potential and personally I always saw positives in picking him up, and at that time both Edward and GuardiaN boosted our team. Currently he has even less issues with the language as well.”
You’ve made the point that your finals record in CS:GO, with two second places at the majors, reminds you of the pain you made mTw feel in 2010. Now that you can look back on your time in Na`Vi with more clarity, are there any specific things you believe led to those losses?
Zeus: “I’ll say it like I think it is: first major I wasn’t ready to win, but second major I was ready, while my team wasn’t.”
Did you consider picking up s1mple before in Na`Vi? What is your read on him as a player? Do you believe he was always destined to end up in Na`Vi, as the best team in the ex-CIS region, regardless of timing?
Zeus: “s1mple is no question a very strong player, a great purchase for Na’Vi. Did I think about picking up s1mple? I was a hard believer that our team was one big family and we can’t make changes like that. But I think there were some people who had to go and s1mple deserved to replace them. So the team figured that that person should be me.”
The coaching rule change has hurt Na`Vi tremendously after your departure. How much mid-round calling were you actually doing in Na`Vi? Was starix making all the calls in the game, or what was your role? How would you split up the task of making new tactics, calling, etc.?
Zeus: “starix played a major role in Na’Vi, even if we had a weak understanding of each other, we both did good work and it showed. Right now, I’m not there and starix can’t do his job fully, so it impacts Na’Vi a lot. One thing I can say after leaving Na’Vi, is that I had thoughts of becoming a coach of some team, but then the new rule from Valve sent me a hint: “Daniil, you won’t be a coach. You must play.” And I’m thankful for that.”
From your experience of playing with seized, do you have faith that he will at some point excel in the in-game leader role? Does he have the right kind of mindset to think about Counter-Strike that you believe is needed to succeed as a leader? Alternatively, is there anyone else on Na`Vi who you think could do it, if Valve do not change the coaching rule?
Zeus: “I didn’t see the roots of leadership in other players in Na’Vi. The only one who has that is seized, he can come to this, question is when, because right now what we saw is not the game of the best team in the world. Their individual skill is very high, but team play is not up there yet. But I know the guys have practiced a lot and seized has decent experince, so we’ll see how they’ll do [going forward] and how seized will show himself as a leader. In general there is potential.”
Having joined Gambit to continue your career, how is it playing for a different team after nearly seven years of representing Na`Vi? At 29 years old, how much longer do you believe you can realistically continue playing Counter-Strike? Do you even see age as being an issue in the modern day scene?
Zeus: “I like playing here even more than in Na’Vi, because the guys here are more mature and I like working with them. Plus I’m working with my friend and our coach Kane, we’ve known each other for a while. Regarding age, I’m not sure. I feel it, but this is where experience kicks in, and with experience you can win. Question is, will that experience be enough to become #1 in the world? Time will tell. But I think experience gives me the chance to stay on top, so age is not an issue.”
With Na`Vi you were competing for world championships, whereas with Gambit you need to scale back those hopes, at least initially. Was it tough mentally to make the switch? Were you always set on continuing to play, or did you consider quitting altogether? Did you have other serious options than Gambit you considered?
Zeus: “Was it hard? It was unusual, and I understood that it will be hard, especially in the beginning, and that I had to work hard on it. At some point I understood that Gambit was a good opportunity for me, first of all the guys were Russian plus they are skilled, so I saw potential in this team. Regarding other offers, I can say that SK or Virtus.pro didn’t call me (smiling).”
What are your short- , medium- and long-term goals for Gambit?
Zeus: “Our main goal is the major, we practiced a lot, wouldn’t say I’m 100% happy but the event will show our work. In general, the goal is to get top eight and we’ll try our best to achieve it.” (Editor’s note: interview was finished prior to the ELEAGUE Major – Gambit wound up finishing top-eight after losing to fnatic.)
Many teams have been going for riskier, younger pick-ups, whereas your Gambit team’s average age is 26. Did you consider making a team with younger talent from the ex-CIS region? Are there any specific young players we should keep an eye on as potential future stars?
Zeus: “Yes I thought about it, if it wasn’t Gambit I would have created my own organization where young players would play. They are out there, I was looking at players from Vega, some from Ukraine, and Spirit has some good guys. They are practicing, and they have good perspective on things.”
From your experience of playing versus all the best in-game leaders for the past 10 years, who do you feel are the hardest to play against? Whose teams are the hardest to read, and who are the ones who always seem to figure your teams out?
Zeus: “It was hard playing against Virtus.pro, and against pronax. From Virtus.pro it was TaZ, NEO or Snax, one of them. CS:GO and 1.6 are very different because CS:GO is much more aim based, while in 1.6 the captain and tactics were the key. I could read mTw, but it was always hard to play against the Danes though. Each of pronax, MSL, gla1ve, karrigan, FalleN and TaZ are definitely amazing captains and I like what they do for the team and how they show themselves as captains.”
What do you think about the current top teams in the scene overall? Anything you’d want to point out specifically?
Zeus: “Getting through hard times is definitely an issue for everyone, for example Virtus.pro know how to do it, and they might have issues such as lacking motivation, relationships, not giving CS enough time because they want to relax. But they find strength to stay on top. Younger teams usually can’t save the roster and act mature, they try to find issues in people and not in other places, that was the issue in our team. I think it was the main issue in top teams. Even legendary SK didn’t handle the pressure well from failures and had to change players.
“Only two teams on top really respect and care for their roster, Virtus.pro and NiP. Other teams don’t really care about their rosters like that, for example guys like dupreeh, dev1ce and Xyp9x. I think they made a mistake in kicking cajunb and paid for it for a while, half a year of failures, but now they have new fire in them, they are the best now.”
Fans continuously talk about the new meta in Counter-Strike, where you need five skilled players and tactics are supposedly a thing of the past. What is your take on it? Is Counter-Strike significantly more reliant on skill nowadays than five years ago? Has anything else changed that you think has gone unnoticed?
Zeus: “That’s a good question. First of all, CS is a game of individual skill, but meta is changing especially now, and it WAS a game of individual skill, and now it’s shifting towards more of a team game. I can say that Na`Vi were unlucky about coaching and losing their captain. Looking at the world scene, the captain should not only be experienced but should also be a natural leader. Good examples would be FaZe with karrigan, Astralis with gla1ve etc.
“You can see other rosters with good captains, MSL in North for example, and you can see in those teams that captain does a lot of the work. In current CS captains play a big role. Although earlier I thought fnatic were relying on their individual skill, after listening to their Teamspeak, I found out that pronax was deciding a lot and made them great back then.
“Something that people didn’t notice? Professionalism maybe, everything is on a high level right now and we’ll see massagers in teams, psychologists etc., it’s coming to that. Everything became serious and I’m pretty sure everyone noticed that.”
Some hope to see more maps being played, whereas I have always said a five map pool would provide the highest quality of matches. What is your take? Is it possible to actually be good on seven maps at the same time? What about extending the map pool to nine maps?
Zeus: “I think seven maps is enough, nine maps would be too much and that’s a bad idea. Seven maps is great as it is.”
Photo credit: DreamHack