How Falcons pulled off a major coup with zonic and Lars Robl signings
Saudi esports organization Team Falcons has secured the services of Vitality’s Counter-Strike coach, Danny ‘zonic’ Sørensen, and Head of Performance, Lars Robl. In an exclusive interview with Dexerto, the pair, as well as Grant Rousseau, Falcons’ Global Director of Esports, discussed how the move came to be and shared their goals for the project.
When Grant Rousseau got confirmation that he landed zonic, he did the same thing he had done shortly after Guild Esports’ Rocket League team won a regional tournament in 2021, when he was working there as Director of Esports.
He called his parents to tell them the news.
“I think it is probably on par, if not slightly higher,” he tells Dexerto. “For me, it feels bigger because it’s the start of a much bigger project.”
In many ways, getting someone with zonic’s stature and pedigree feels more impactful than the sometimes ephemeral rush of winning a trophy. After an exceptional career as a player, zonic established a new standard for esports coaches as he guided Astralis to an unprecedented four CS:GO Major victories, along with an Intel Grand Slam title and countless other trophies.
He went on to add a fifth Major crown to his résumé with Team Vitality, continuing to burnish his credentials as the greatest esports coach of all time.
zonic is joining Team Falcons as their new Counter-Strike head coach from November 1, a move that is sure to send shockwaves through the esports world because of the sheer surprise factor involved. After all, he is joining a team that is ranked 55th in the world and has never been to a Major or won a LAN trophy.
It’s such an unlikely scenario that Rousseau didn’t think at first that it was achievable when he began talks with the agent of Lars Robl, Team Vitality’s CS:GO Performance Manager, with a job offer. But once he learned of zonic’s availability as he was entering the final months of his Vitality contract, Rousseau decided to try to keep the pair together.
A couple of weeks later, he was, as he put it to his parents, signing the “Pep Guardiola of CS”.
Leaving Vitality behind
zonic and Lars have worked together since 2018 and won almost all there is to win in CS:GO, forming a strong duo that complements each other. They left Astralis at the same time and joined Vitality together, and while they don’t consider themselves a package deal, they were keen to extend that partnership for 2024 and beyond.
As the summer season progressed and he entered the final six months of his contract, zonic opened discussions with Vitality about a new deal. With talks dragging on, he asked his agent to begin exploring other options.
By that point, Lars was already in negotiations with Team Falcons about taking over as Director of Performance, a role that the Saudi organization was eager to fill.
In the end, zonic had three destinations to choose from: Vitality, Falcons, and an undisclosed organization.
“The reason was mid- and long-term,” zonic explained in a conversation with Dexerto. “I think that Falcons’ project is really attractive.
“If we look at the short term, I’m part of the best team in the world right now, one that is most likely going to be the favorite for the next Major. But there were some things with Falcons’ project that, future-wise, make so much sense.”
The other reason he is making such an eyebrow-raising career move is of a more personal nature. “Why not try and challenge myself yet again by going to a team that will start from a lower competitive rank and try to build them up into one of the best in the world?
“My ultimate goal is to try to win a Major in all three games, 1.6 as a player, then CS:GO and CS2 as a coach.”
As for Lars, he was tempted by the prospect of working from a clean slate and developing a performance culture that he believes will give Falcons’ esports teams “an edge”, instead of operating within another’s system.
“It’s like a bare field,” Lars explained. “We have been given the opportunity to make our system work. We have the ability to decide how to shape it ourselves. And that’s interesting.
“Falcons have a long-term project, they also understand that. They have a really solid and professional organization. They hired Danny. They hired me. ‘That’s the project. Make it work.’
“I really have the space to do that. I have never had that before because it has always been done in an existing system. That’s a huge possibility.”
zonic is well aware of the magnitude of the task at hand. He is going to be working with a roster where most of the firepower comes from largely unproven talents, mixed with veteran players, which is quite the change from coaching the likes of Nicolai ‘device’ Reedtz, Peter ‘dupreeh’ Rasmussen, and Mathieu ‘ZywOo’ Herbaut in their prime.
There’s also the added factor that Falcons are not partnered with either ESL or BLAST, which means that invites to tournaments in 2024 will be based on results. (In 2025, partner leagues will be scrapped, as determined by Valve.)
Perhaps the biggest challenges ahead will be tempering his own expectations and changing his approach to the job, at least in the short run. These last eight years, he has been consumed by a desire and a responsibility to win. He acknowledged that when that didn’t happen — Astralis in 2020 and 2021, Vitality in 2022 — it simply was “not fun.” Can he keep that insatiable appetite for victories in check?
“I think it would be foolish to go in and say, ‘We can qualify for the Major, and Falcons’ ambition is to win the Major in Copenhagen,’” he said. “I think that would be stupid and not very responsible.
“But that was also the case for Vitality when I joined. I also said the first year would be rough, and that was despite me having a super team under me.”
zonic insisted that everyone on the team will have “a fair chance” to prove their worth and that he will not be going into this project looking to tear the team apart. “I need to evaluate all the players, have talks with them, see how they play, how they function,” he explained. “It’s difficult to see that with an outsider’s perspective.”
But if he deems that changes are necessary, he will have the authority to put his stamp on the team and the resources to speed up their timeline of building a title contender.
“Falcons mean business when it comes to establishing this as the number-one team in the world, and that is also part of the excitement and the challenge that I have,” he said.
“I’m not joining an existing project with the best players out there. I’m joining a team where my only task is to become the best in the world. How I do it is up to me and Lars.”
zonic and Lars will not finish out the season as the French organization is already preparing for the future of the team. It remains unclear who will be guiding the players at IEM Sydney, the first tier-one event to feature Counter-Strike 2, though an option is that assistant coach Mathieu ‘MaT’ Leber takes charge of the squad. The French coach stood behind the players at the recent Gamers8 event, which zonic couldn’t attend due to personal reasons.
Questioned about the team’s future, neither zonic nor Lars showed concern about the impact that their departures might have on the players.
“I’m not too worried about Vitality,” zonic said, adding that MaT can be “a guardian of the tools” that contributed to the team’s success over the last two years.
“They have got to believe that they have what it takes to get through the situation,” Lars added. “And they have the tools to do that.”
In Malta, where the team was playing in ESL Pro League 18, emotions were high when the players learned that this would be their final tournament with the pair.
“I would say it was very beautiful,” zonic said. “This is probably the best group of five players I have ever worked with, and I think that really showed when the news was brought up. I couldn’t be more proud of how they handled it and what we went through during those couple of days.”
The revelation of the news was followed by a long group session called ‘empty the backpack’, a space devoid of criticism and judgment where everyone is encouraged to be honest with each other and express their feelings.
“There were tears running down,” Lars said. “It just shows how much the individuals in the team mean to each other. It was hard, but as Danny said, it was beautiful and emotional.”
zonic said that he respects Vitality’s decision to move on from him and Lars for the final leg of the tournament season. “The easy solution would have been to continue until the end of the year and try to win as much as possible,” he argued.
At the same time, he can’t help but feel “sad and heartbroken” to miss, for the third straight year, the BLAST Fall Final at the Royal Arena (he didn’t travel with Astralis’ squad for the final tournaments of 2021 after informing the organization he would not be signing a new contract, and Vitality couldn’t qualify for last year’s event).
The iconic arena in Denmark’s capital, which has become part of Counter-Strike folklore in recent years, will also host PGL Major Copenhagen — the first Major for both CS2 and Denmark.
The qualifiers for the Major will begin on January 8, only two months after zonic steps into the role. With little time to get to know the squad and prepare for the event, he conceded that the tournament might come too soon for the team.
“It will definitely be tough, working with such a tight deadline and having to qualify for the Major,” he said. “The good part is that it’s a new game.
“I had to weigh things up, and for me, [Falcons] was just too good of an opportunity for me to be thinking about the next four months only. I needed to think more long-term. And yes, it will definitely hurt if I don’t qualify for the Major. But I will do everything I can to make sure that Falcons is at the Copenhagen Major.”
Dealing with criticism
According to zonic, one of the things about Falcons that has surprised him the most is “how professional” the organization is, which is seen in its openness to do things the way he believes to be the right one — by giving the coach free rein to work and build the team according to his vision.
Only last year, Falcons made headlines by signing CS:GO star Kenny ‘kennyS’ Schrub with hopes of qualifying for the BLAST.tv Paris Major. The team fell short of the goal, and the iconic AWPer moved into a content creator role within the organization shortly afterward.
This, however, is a much more ambitious move by Falcons, the brainchild of Mossad ‘Msdossary’ Aldossary. The Saudi Arabian FIFA star, the winner of the 2018 FIFA eWorld Cup, co-founded the organization in 2017 with the goal, according to Rousseau, of creating “an esports world for gamers in MENA.”
“A lot of the work is around Msdossary’s idea to create this very popular brand across Europe and MENA that has winning at its center,” Rousseau explained.
“There is a very, very large content creation aspect to Falcons, with major Middle Eastern content creators under the Falcons brand. A little bit similar to what FaZe used to be, let’s say. That’s something that’s never seen, I think, because obviously, it’s in Arabic; it’s Arabic-focused.”
Since Rousseau joined the organization, in August 2022, one of his main tasks has been providing Falcons’ teams with the tools to become regulars on the international stage. In 2023, the Rocket League team repeated the top-eight finish from last year’s World Championship and placed top four at Gamers8. The Rainbow Six squad also reached the semi-finals at Gamers8 and played at its first-ever Major, in Copenhagen. And Falcons Vega, the organization’s women’s Valorant team, is through to the playoffs of Game Changers Stage III EMEA. All three squads have players from Saudi Arabia.
But getting these teams to the next level required hiring an expert who could help the players keep their minds clear and focused on performing.
“CS will be Lars’ priority, but actually it’s about him being able to bring this performance philosophy across Falcons as a whole,” Rousseau explained. “Sometimes, the MENA teams are incredible in that region, and to bring them to an international level requires a real step up in terms of behavior, effort, approach to work, approach to practice, teamwork… All of those different aspects.
“That is something that isn’t necessarily fully implemented because of the age of status of the region. But it’s something that we feel we are advancing very quickly. And Lars is coming in to really help with that. CS will represent the best example of what he is going to put in place, and the idea is to copy-paste the system across all of our teams to help them develop and grow.”
Rousseau noted that zonic’s hiring is part of a three-year plan to deliver a Counter-Strike Major title, but he is conscious of the transformative impact that the arrival of such a high-profile figure will have from a public-perception standpoint.
Already in the scene, there are rumors about Falcons giving the Danish coach a blank cheque to assemble the team of his dreams, with Vitality’s duo of Emil ‘Magisk’ Reif and dupreeh linked with the project, according to French content creator Sebastien ‘KRL’ Perez.
But amid all the hype, there is genuine concern about the growing influence of Saudi Arabia in global esports. Over the last 18 months, the kingdom has positioned itself as a major player in the esports industry, acquiring tournament organizers, hosting multi-million dollar events, and sponsoring articles in endemic publications.
Getting the best talent, many feared, was just a matter of time.
Rousseau believes that what Falcons are doing is “no different” from what other organizations have done over the years in search of competitive success.
“We have belief in the project here and in our ability to build a CS dynasty, similar to Astralis’ back in the day,” he said.
“That’s not because of pure resources; that is because of the right staff, the right talent, the right behavior, the right mindset to come together and create that. And that’s what drew zonic and Lars. They have come here because they believe in a long-term, sustainable project, one that is not about overspending or being stupid.”
For their part, Lars and zonic rejected the notion that this move was purely motivated by money.
“It was not the money that drove me to this,” Lars noted. “It was the role, the responsibility, and the freedom I got in the role to create something that I really believe in.”
“Of course, Falcons’ offer is really good, but so were the offers from Vitality and the other organization,” zonic added. “But for me, it has to be worth it.
“I need to fulfill my personal goal, which is to try and challenge myself. I understand the concerns, and it’s an easy narrative to make.”
The Danish coach went on to add that he probably would have made more money in the short run if he had decided to stay with Vitality, “given the status of the team” and the events ahead.
“I don’t think I’m crossing any lines I shouldn’t, but the sticker sales from the Paris Major, I don’t think they were ever as big,” he explained. “And now we are coming into the first Major in CS2.
“Short-term-wise, I think I would have made more money [in Vitality], if you don’t take just the salary into consideration. Yes, I expect to make more money in Falcons, but that comes with a risk. It demands that we become the best team in the world, but that is where the challenge comes from.”
The main point of criticism, however, will be their indirect association with a country that has a long record of human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia wants to become a global hub for gaming and esports by the end of the decade as part of its ‘Vision 2030’ program, which many believe is merely another attempt to polish its public image.
Lars said that he experienced firsthand how big and impactful esports has become in the Middle East while attending Gamers8 in August. For him, having the opportunity to contribute to the development of the region and improve the lives of the people there was “a driving factor” in his decision.
“I learned from my former career in the Special Forces, with a lot of missions to Afghanistan and other places, that you try to focus on where you can make a difference and try to make it better for the people around you,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia is really putting a focus on esports because it means a lot to a lot of people down there. That’s where, I think, Danny and I can contribute.”
zonic also reinforced the idea that he and Lars can be a force for good in the region.
“I think there is a positive change going on in Saudi Arabia,” he argued. “With the number of gamers that the region has, being able to contribute to this positive change by bringing, let’s say, a Major trophy to Saudi Arabia is something that also drives me.
“I don’t think many people know this, but my father was born and raised in Egypt, so I understand the cultural angle. Having family in Egypt, if I can contribute to Saudi Arabia’s goals, which are definitely to open up more, then I’m proud to be able to help in that department as well.
“I’m not going to sit here and say there are no issues. But what I teach my kids is that if they are trying to be better, I will encourage them and help them do that. I think that bringing a Major title would be a small but good contribution to where they’re heading.”