At the age of 25, Leonid ‘chopper’ Vishnyakov is thriving as the in-game leader of Team Spirit, the youngest squad in attendance at the IEM Rio Major.
For everything that he has accomplished in his career, chopper is still trying to carve his name in the CS:GO scene.
He was rarely mentioned in the same breath as Nikolay ‘mir’ Bityukov during their time together on Vega Squadron, the vibrant Russian team that built its reputation as an upset specialist between 2016 and 2018. Despite often being in positions that allowed him to stand out, it was his teammate who frequently captured the spotlight.
Several years later, chopper, 25, is enjoying the best period of his career as the leader of a young, talented Spirit team that earlier in 2022 came close to a Major final. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would mention his name if asked about the best Russian in-game leaders right now.
“When I was younger I thought about it a little bit,” chopper told Dexerto, through a translator, when asked about the perceived lack of recognition. “Because of pride, a little bit out of envy. But the more I played, the more I understood that everything is deserved.”
It was in the summer of 2019, six months after joining Team Spirit, that chopper transitioned to the in-game leader role upon suggestion from his then coach, Nikolay ‘Certus’ Poluyanov. He had tried calling the shots before, while on Vega Squadron, but the role did not feel natural to him at the time. The experience lasted only a couple of weeks, and for a while, being a captain was the last thing on his mind.
chopper counts former Vega Squadron teammate Dmitriy ‘jR’ Chervak, Astralis’ Lukas ‘gla1ve’ Rossander, Certus and his current coach, Sergey ‘hally’ Shavaev, among his biggest influences as an in-game leader. OG’s Nemanja ‘nexa’ Isaković was the type of captain he tried to emulate earlier in his career, but as he transitioned to a more aggressive type of IGL, he began following players like Vladislav ‘nafany’ Gorshkov, Kirill ‘Boombl4’ Mikhailov, and Andrei ‘arT’ Piovezan instead. chopper is also fascinated by Denis ‘electroNic’ Sharipov, who recently took over NAVI’s reins. “His individual level and the way he thinks the game are top notch.”
One curious aspect of chopper’s current success is how close it came to not happening. After over two years of middling results, he found himself cut from Spirit’s team as part of a teardown-style rebuild that aimed to give the project a new direction, based on young talent. But in the end, despite negotiating with a number of candidates for the vacant skipper position, Spirit opted to give chopper another shot.
That decision paid quick dividends as he led the team to a surprising semi-final run at PGL Major Antwerp. Even without the support of hally, who was suspended shortly before the event due to encountering the spectator bug in a competition, Spirit played with a maturity beyond their years (their average age of 20.7 years was the lowest of the tournament), beating teams like Astralis, FURIA, and Heroic before being stopped in their tracks by FaZe, the eventual champions.
The results in Antwerp came as an invaluable boost to the players, who weeks earlier had relocated to Serbia because of the war in Ukraine. They had built a strong bond through having to figure out together how to adapt to a new reality, away from family and friends, and worked tirelessly towards a common goal.
“I was a bit surprised,” chopper said about the Major run. “But at the same time, it was a combination of several factors. Hard circumstances unite people. We worked a lot, we all lived and breathed CS.
“The other thing is that NAVI and FaZe were obviously the favorites to win the Major and were ready to play. But some of the other teams didn’t come as prepared or they had some issues. They weren’t in their best shape for the Major.
“On the other hand, our players were on the rise. And we didn’t have our coach with us. At a first glance, it’s a bad thing. But it united us more. When the games were starting we’d say, ‘For hally!’ It was like us against the world. During the playoffs, we felt we were ready to win the tournament. We just believed in it so much.”
Shortly after returning from the Major, Spirit were brought back to earth by star player Abdul ‘degster’ Gasanov’s request to seek a move elsewhere. The Russian AWPer had grown tired of living abroad and wished to join a team that could allow him to stay in Russia.
degster is widely regarded as one of the best AWPers in the world, someone who could turn “a bunch of top 10 teams” into Major contenders next year, journalist and analyst Duncan ‘Thorin’ Shields recently said. Still, chopper said that it was “a relief of sorts” when degster decided to leave. Regardless of his immense talent, degster had allegedly become so distant from the rest of the squad that it started having a negative impact on the team — a problem that became even more pronounced after the Major.
“If we’re thinking about the team composition, losing Abdul was a big blow because he is a big-game player,” chopper said. “He’s quite experienced, he can make a difference on the server and take over games.
“But outside of the server, it was a relief of sorts. Abdul was behaving like a superstar without fulfilling the duties of a superstar. The job of a superstar is to help the team to improve, but he did not do that because he was sort of a hermit. The four of us talked a lot and communicated a lot, while Abdul was on his own all the time.
“That became more apparent after the Major because he thought of himself as someone who was better than some of his teammates, which is obviously not productive. Outside of the server, it was a relief.”
To replace degster, Spirit signed Ukrainian rookie Igor ‘w0nderful’ Zhdanov, bringing the average age of the squad further down, to 20.5 years. The young AWPer still looks very raw, but chopper is excited with what he has seen from the player In the short time he has been with the team. [Editor’s note: The interview was conducted before Team Spirit announced that they were investigating match-fixing allegations involving w0nderful.]
“He’s really young but he has the ability to turn the round on its head and to take initiative in the game. Even though he wasn’t like that at the start, maybe because he was a bit shy, he is now taking responsibility. Sometimes, he will call for someone to play for him or to flash for him, for example.
“He has ‘the young skill’. This means that there are some situations that young players like him, players of the generation, will play differently from players from the older generations. He will be one of the best with time.”
Still an underdog
Spirit qualified for the IEM Rio Major almost unscathed, only dropping a game to Sprout. Of the four teams that they defeated en route to a Legends spot, three — GamerLegion, Bad News Eagles and Cloud9 — also made it to Rio, which speaks to the difficulty of the task they had. There weren’t any pushovers.
Weeks later, the team came out on top of the Flow FiReLEAGUE 2022 Global Finals, held at Camp Nou, the stadium of Spanish football club Barcelona. It was a small tournament that lacked the luster that large-scale international events can be counted on to provide, but it was still an important moment for a Spirit team that is trying to find its place among the game’s greats. Heading into the Major, they are ranked 13th in the world, eight places down from their peak ranking of fifth after Antwerp.
It will be hard for Spirit to repeat what they accomplished in Belgium. They have lost their best player, and the surprise factor is gone. At the same time, the field is much more stacked than it was a few months ago, with a number of teams, rather than just FaZe and NAVI, looking capable of mounting a serious title challenge in Rio.
Looking back, does chopper think that Antwerp was his best chance to win a Major? “A hundred percent no,” he said with assurance. “The current roster is very young. If we play with the same dedication and stay united, more will come. For sure.”
Spirit are once again the youngest team at the Major, with chopper the elder statesman in the squad. He is five years older than the next-oldest player, Pavel ‘s1ren’ Ogloblin, who just turned 20. Still, chopper doesn’t see himself as a father figure.
“Everyone in the team is equal,” he said. “Our team dynamic is not like that. hally is the main guy. I have a lot of responsibility because I’m the caller, but that does not mean that I’m superior to the other players.
“It’s a pleasure working with young players. As I said about w0nderful, they have a slightly different logic inside the game. And it’s cool to exchange opinions and learn something new. Unlike some of the old players, the young ones are more open to my opinions. They are willing to adapt and so I am. Together, we are always coming to conclusions together. And that was not always the case with some of the older players.”
IEM Rio will be much tougher than Antwerp, but chopper still believes that his team can once again fly under the radar and reach the playoffs. “In many situations, we will be the underdogs, and we feel comfortable in that position because the pressure will be on the opponent,” he said. The Brazilian Major will be more than just the chance for Spirit to prove that the Antwerp run was no fluke; it will also offer chopper the opportunity to continue to cement his reputation in the scene.
“Many Russian in-game leaders have better results than me,” he said. “nafany, Boombl4, and Jame all have the results to back up their claim. I don’t have as many great results. I need to prove that I deserve it and win more.
“After Antwerp, many people praised me in private messages. The more I accomplish, the more that will happen. It’s only natural.”