The Thorin Treatment: The Spirit of TaZ
"Never give up. Fight until the end. Always believe you will succeed, even when the odds are against you. ...Those are your words." -Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid)
You haven't lost until you quit
The left lands, hard and heavy. Rocked back on your heels, you lose your footing and stumble. As you fall to one knee you see the next blow incoming. Do you wince? Can you even react before shock overcomes you? Many of us have been beaten down, physically or metaphorically, in this life. Adversity comes for all of us, in time. What defines a man is how he responds. Whether broken or forged yet stronger and more resilient than ever. In those moments, when the world is putting it on you, heart and character are revealed, intangible yet vital qualities beyond sheer ability and talent. This is where TaZ and Virtus.pro have carved out a legacy of greatness which extends beyond merely winning competitive matches in a computer game.
Virtus.pro are the line-up which most embodies the never-say-die spirit in Counter-Strike. They are the team who have lost many times, suffered among the most losses in major play-offs in CS:GO, but rarely ever quit. To beat them you must exceed their level, they won't crumble under pressure and hand you the win, at least for most of the game's history. There was no point to which they could be pushed and not potentially return. Many a team can join the long line of sob stories that they were up and felt victory brushing their fingertips, only to have it ripped from them by a team who would not quit.
Gate-keepers to greatness
Virtus.pro have always been there, since their rise at EMS One Katowice 2014, as a squad who exists to push the opponent to his limit. "The Plow" is not meant merely as a pithy nickname, but an apt description of a terrifying vehicle bearing down on you and set to roll over you entirely. Fail to hit championship form and Virtus.pro would not merely beat you, they would humiliate you with the world as a witness. Those are defeats which scar a man and leave him with an unshakeable memory of the trauma he's endured.
Each all-time great team has been tasked during their peaks with the daunting challenge of VP and since vanished into the mists of the past with the outcome of that test an indelible component of their own legacy. Play-off defeats VP have faced at so many of the majors were most frequently not their losses as much as they were the victories of the opponent. The gate-keepers to CS:GO immortality ensuring only a worthy champion passes through to the final, fully battle-tested and ear-marked for greatness. olof's FNATIC, coldzera's SK Gaming and device's Astralis all had to feel the pressure of VP coming at them with nothing held back. That their teams could withstand such titanic efforts cements their status as teams for the ages.
Fans of teams who have fallen victim to clutch-under-pressure sides like Virtus.pro and NiP might revel in an era in which VP has been consigned to practical irrelevance, but those who love Counter-Strike mourn their absence as a force in the game. As an admirer of teams like Astralis, SK Gaming and North, I don't want to see those teams advancing through tournaments and winning titles without facing a challenge the likes of which only teams of VP's ilk can offer. To defeat a broken and defeated Virtus.pro is no real victory at all, contrasted against the mighty Polish power which has reached the semi-finals of the majors a record number of times.
A warrior's heart
Yet this mentality is not merely about the ability to run back a numbers deficit on a virtual scoreboard as much as it is a world view, a driving philosophy. Certainly, the talent and skills of players like Snax, pasha and byali have allowed this squad to impose such a mentality upon some of the world's best Counter-Strike players and teams over the last four years, but the spirit which fuels that comes from the mighty heart of Wiktor "TaZ" Wojtas. Put together a list of the most skilled players in Counter-Strike history and you'll have no need of his name, but begin to assemble a roll call of the players with the most major titles in the franchise's history and his name will be at the top. Michael Jordan never won an NBA title without Scottie Pippen and NEO never won a major without TaZ.
The Virtus.pro team of CS:GO is often compared to the "Golden Five" line-up of CS 1.6, thanks to sharing NEO and TaZ as players and due to both teams' success as major champions, but they share little but a mentality to competing. Even those players are very different and far less individually dominant figures in this game than the one which preceded it. Yet TaZ's presence does inform and inspire this spirit and thus is the essential essence fuelling both sides. NEO was the chosen one of 1.6 and the super-star of the Golden Five, powering them to major after major and against often more skilled opponents, but TaZ was the soul of that team.
This distinction is made more notable by how much of an out-lier it makes TaZ in the history of Polish esports. Phenomenally talented figures like av3k, Nerchio, MaNa and Jankos have all held the ability in their hands to win untold championships, yet they have also displayed a shared pattern of tilting in the face of extreme pressure and collapsing when things go against them in a match. TaZ's spirit is not a Polish hallmark in the way a tactical and systems-based approach to Counter-Strike is a thread running through the history of Danish Counter-Strike or team-play between great players has defined the dynasties of Swedish CS. This is a spirit all of his own.
Thus TaZ has created, by the force of his own will, the culture of fighting spirit in drastically different teams. Do you imagine Snax and byali came out of the womb playing in the same fashion and with the same force as a team who were winning major championships back when those players were finishing their homework and playing football in the park? By the will of NEO's individual talents the Golden Five were able to accomplish their miraculous feats, but from the heart of TaZ came their drive for team greatness in a world in which Polish Counter-Strike had never been internationally relevant and Scandinavians were producing world champions with factory-like consistency and efficiency.
Those Polish 1.6 line-ups were famous for winning in unlikely circumstances, on maps they were less favoured on and against all-time great opposition in their primes. They were known for their aggressive and fearless approach to the T side, led, often both literally and figuratively, by TaZ, who was not phased by the prospect of entrying against even the world's best aimers. To nullify aim you force it out of its comfort zone and create a chaos from which the man who wants it more can more readily emerge and few have ever wanted it more than TaZ.
Memories that define
At ESWC 2007, playing their third major final in 1.6, depending on how you define the majors, TaZ's Pentagram team were facing a rising Danish threat in ave and zonic's NoA. The French audience were entirely partisan in their support of the Danish team, yet those thousands were silenced and sent home disappointed as NEO and TaZ defied the crowd to add another trophy to their already impressive cabinet. Facing a hostile crowd only fuelled TaZ's drive. With a crowd behind him, his teams were untouchable. You may perhaps be aware of this author's theory that home crowd advantage doesn't universally make players perform better or elevate teams beyond their basic limits, but I do ascribe to the thinking that such a crowd can be used to make the enemy feel uncomfortable. TaZ's teams have many times used this to their advantage.
Many will remember their major victory in CS:GO, as an NiP whose greatness meant the world simply awaited when their first major title would arrive found themselves crushed flat in a manner never seen before by a rampaging Virtus.pro and a baying crowd loving every moment of the cruel destruction of CS:GO's greatest line-up. Go back almost three years prior and NEO and TaZ faced Na`Vi, four time major champions in the previous two year span, in the final of the Samsung European Championship (SEC) on home soil in Poland. With a football crowd atmosphere in the venue, the Polish team took Na`Vi head-on and beat them outright with aggressive and ballsy play the Ukrainian team could not withstand, famously playing so proactively on the CT side of dust2 that at one point the Na`Vi team were forced back into the T spawn on one of CS's most famously Terrorist-sided maps.
In victory, our best qualities are plain to see, but it's in the tough times that they can be at times obscured. At ESWC 2011, TaZ's Frag Executors had been eliminated from title contention in the semi-finals by the aforementioned Na`Vi team, who found a different Polish side facing them outside of the magical moment of the SEC final. In the third place decider FX faced a rejuvenated mousesports, who had overcome the tragic loss of cyx a year prior and now looked, with a mixture of newer and older names, to again become a top side. FX were heavily favoured to beat mouz and had their chances to sweep the series 2:0, but found themselves on the wrong end of a three map series and forced to settle for fourth place.
While many of the line-up seemed to fade emotionally during the series, TaZ continued to battle on, sparking up his patented trash-talking banter with the German side and willing his team into rounds. In these moments, I saw past the dazzling and admirable talents of NEO and into the roaring desire of TaZ. That feeling has not left me since and I have seen it in all of his teams at their best.
A champion's mind
TaZ shares a core and key quality with coldzera, CS:GO's current best, in that he has elevated his play to achieve the highest successes but without possessing the kind of prodigious talent that is often the hallmark of great players and their task to refine and harness. TaZ's chief weapon, especially in CS:GO, is his mind and the spirit which occupies it. When I've characterised his trash talk as for himself as much as his opponent, I mean that he seeks fresh challenges to force himself and his team to play at their highest level.
What might initially seem disrespectful is the perhaps jaded lens of a man who has won more world championships than many great players have won tournaments of any stripe. Newer would-be-champions much prove themselves worthy of the highest respect, but if they can then TaZ is quick to ensure he and his fans accord them as much and in a public manner. In this sense, TaZ is reminiscent of Cooller, the great Russian Quake champion, whose attitude for some smacked of arrogance, but quickly was sublimated to respect when he had been legitimately defeated by an opponent who had elevated their play behind his own.
Cliches like "a fire in the belly" do not seem hackneyed when we speak of TaZ. Here is a competitor who wants to face opponents on their best maps and beat them, so there can be no doubt who the superior team was and no talk of luck or circumstance surrounding such a victory. This is the spirit of the Golden Five and Virtus.pro. This is how a team from a country that never even hoped for a Counter-Strike world championship ended up with two of the franchise's greatest ever champions. That fire is not yet entirely extinguished, it still burns, albeit reduced to a wavering lick of flame, in the heart of that man.
The question is not when Virtus.pro will return, but rather when TaZ's spirit will again fuel them. A man who will not quit may be beaten, but he is never a loser.
"The spirit of the warrior... will always be with you." -The Sorrow (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)