The post-StarLadder Berlin Major roster shuffle has rocked the French Counter-Strike scene. Vitality and G2 Esports' failures at the Major prompted immediate roster changes from both squads. Vitality benched Nathan “NBK-” Schmitt while G2 benched Richard “shox” Papillon. Vitality are the new age of French Counter-Strike, but in order for them to get to the next level, they will need to resurrect the powers of an old god.
The Previous Power Players
The last few years of French CS were decided by two power brokers: Shox and NBK. Shox was a superstar player whose unbelievable talent made him one of the most important pieces to have. His talent was a requirement for a French team to be considered the best and the only player comparable to him in the French scene was Kenny “kennyS” Schrub.
While not a superstar, NBK was arguably even more critical in creating top French teams. He is the ultimate flex player, someone who could play every role to a high level. This became invaluable in a scene filled with flamboyant players who wanted to play CS their own way.
When NBK and Shox worked together, magic happened. On Titan, they wrested control of CS:GO from NiP in 2014. Later that year, the two of them teamed up again on LDLC (later EnVyUs) along with Vincent “Happy” Cervoni, Fabien “kioShiMa” Fiey, and Edouard “SmithZz” Dubourdeaux. This lineup became direct challengers to Fnatic and won a Major.
However, Shox’s ephemeral nature collided with Happy’s tactical system and NBK’s ideas. The team kicked Shox. From there Shox joined G2 where he built a second French team that eventually usurped the position of EnVyUs. 2017 saw Shox and NBK team up for a third time as they created the French superteam of: shox, kennyS, Alexandre “bodyy” Pianaro, Dan “apEX” Madesclaire, and NBK.
They never reached the vaunted heights they had aimed for and irreconcilable internal issues broke the team apart. Shox went on to captain G2, while NBK- and apEX went on to build Vitality. The rebuilding process was painful and saw French CS hit a new low, but in 2019, both teams saw a rise in form.
In the cycle of French rosters, Shox and NBK- were always the two players deciding the fate of the French teams. That cycle has ended as Shox and NBK- have lost their power. Neither team achieved the results they wanted at the StarLadder Berlin Major. G2 benched Shox and Vitality benched NBK. A new age of French CS had begun.
The next generation
The shift in power was a gradual process. After Shox and NBK- split apart, both players had ambitions to be the one leading the next great French team. Neither succeeded in the way they expected to. Shox tried a reunion with by adding Kevin “Ex6TenZ” Droolans and SmithZz to G2. After the project failed to get results, power seemed to shift from Shox to their coach Damien “MaLeK” Marcel.
MaLeK then introduced new players into the system: Audric “JaCkz” Jug, Francois “AmaNEk” Delaunay, and Lucas “Lucky” Chastang. AmaNEk in particular became key as he was able to stabilize the calling system with G2.
He became the voice of the coach in the server while allowing for Shox to make any mid-round calls he wanted to. The synthesis of a system and Shox’s creativity along with JaCkz and Lucky filling out key roles breathed new life into G2.
As for NBK-, he tried to build Vitality by taking the leadership role and then surrounding blossoming star Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut with veteran players. While ZywOo was incredible, the team play and tactics were a mess. While their results improved slowly, they needed someone who could instill a consistent style to the squad. At the end of 2018, they got such a player in Alex “ALEX” McMeekin. Though initially recruited to just be a player, he eventually took over the leadership and calling from NBK. The shift in leadership jumped the team from a borderline play-off team to a top 2-3 team in the world.
In both teams, a new generation of players was starting to take over. AmaNEK and MalEk in G2, ALEX and ZywOo in Vitality.
This shift in power has seen two massive changes come into play in the wake of the Berlin Major. The first came from G2 where NeL reported that they have benched Shox and Lucky and plan to go for an international roster. The second is Vitality benching NBK. Both power brokers that have defined French CS for so long were taken out at the same time. While G2 went international, Vitality looked to stay French. Shox’s benching came at an opportune time as he was the type of player Vitality were looking for.
Why Vitality needed a move
NBK, apEX, Cedric “RpK” Guipouy, ZywOo, and ALEX played together for about 9 months. That is close to the expiration date of most lineups where they have harnessed most of the potential of what the team can do.
The team was already showing signs of its limits. The squad was always limited in firepower as their only true star player was ZywOo. Outside of him, the other four players did their respective roles well and could have the odd pop-off game. However, none of them were good enough to be the consistent second star player.
The firepower issue also had put structural limits on their tactics. The team played for ZywOo as they tried to get him into the best positions possible. They often used the rest of the team like pawns to buy map control for him. From there he could trade the kills and win the round in the clutch. Outside of that, the team had good setups, good map control, good utility, and good teamplay. While ZywOo was their best player by far, their tactics were high quality as well. As that was the case, in terms of skill, team play, and tactics, this team had reached the limits of what they could achieve as a five man unit.
Vitality seemed to realize this as well as they tried experimenting with new positions and communication systems to try to increase their consistency and potential. ALEX commented on this to HLTV saying,
“We have a style that is very dependent on apEX's and my energy in-game and our communication and I felt like this system would try to make us more consistent, with other players having more responsibilities, much more to do and much more to say, but it didn't work out.”
After Vitality lost to AVANGAR in the quarterfinals of the StarLadder Berlin Major, they decided to make a change. In terms of expediency, this timing reminds me a lot of the old LG/SK lineups. Vitality could have written this result as a one-off, but the overall trajectory of the lineup either had them at the same level as before or declining. Vitality have ambitions to be the best in the world, so a change was necessary to get to that level.
As is typical of French teams, the kick was based around politics rather than in-game skills. NBK is a rare flex player that can play any role someone gives him. That makes him invaluable to any team he joins. The problem for NBK was that his personality was too strong and his ideas clashed with the rest of the team. He stated on discord that the combination of ALEX, apEX, and Remy “XTQZZZ” Quoniam kicked him from the team.
Thus, we have Shox.
The case for Shox
Firepower is the biggest drawback of the Vitality team. As they are a French squad, there were only two potential choices that could boost that firepower: Shox and KennyS. Between the two, KennyS is the better choice. However as long as G2 have aspirations to be an elite team, they will never let kennyS go, so uniting kennyS and ZywOo under one banner is impossible. So in terms of the context of the scene, shox is Vitality’s only choice.
What’s great about Shox is that he is incredibly versatile and impactful. He can play alone, in binomials, or trinomials. He can find impact as an opening fragger, as a lurker, or as a clutcher. He’s also a better secondary AWP option than NBK was. Overall, he opens up a lot of options for Vitality, especially on the T-side.
While Vitality have a versatile playbook, their best pitch was their 4-1 default. This style allowed them to use trading and teamwork to put ZywOo into positions to close the round. While they were adept at a Na`Vi style default where you give ZywOo time to find a pick, such a default could backfire against highly skilled teams like Liquid.
With Shox coming into play, Vitality’s lurking plays and mid-rounds could be better than before. Shox is a master in those areas and could give Vitality a completely different look on their T-sides. It’s even possible that if Shox reaches his maximum potential that Vitality start using ZywOo as an opening AWP entry and have Shox close the rounds. All of this though comes with a big "if".
The Big If
While I’ve laid out all of the reasons why Shox is good for Vitality, they rely on two if statements. The first is if Shox can resurrect his form. For Shox the question used to be about motivation. For Shox to perform at his best consistently, he needs a certain amount of freedom and comfort. Shox is one of the rare players in history where he has had multiple disparate peaks of performance.
Shox was one of the best players during his period on VeryGames/Titan, but the team house aspect sapped his motivation and will to play the game. He played fantastically as an entry-fragger in the first LDLC outing, but again lost motivation because he didn’t like that style of play. He then became a top five player in 2016 when he was leading G2. Since then, he’s had spurts of performance that never coalesced into a consistent run as he tried becoming more and more of an in-game leader.
In the first few months of Vitality, I don’t foresee this being a problem as the honeymoon effect should kick into place and Shox will have something to prove after G2 benched him. The corollary to that is if a resurrection is possible. After all, it’s been three years since his last peak and at this point, perhaps shox’s magic ability to resurrect his form on command is gone.
The other problem is if Vitality can integrate shox into their system, both inside the server and outside of it. Inside the server, Shox won’t be the in-game leader, but he is someone who needs control of his own game and wants to have a big voice. The team already has two big voices in ALEX and apEX. As ALEX noted in the interview before, the team was having problems coming up with a consistent communication system, so we will have to see how they resolve that as Shox should be just as big of a voice inside the game as NBK was.
As for outside of the server, one of the biggest sticking points between Shox and apEX was work ethic. In an interview with Flickshot, apEX said, “We had so much talent, but people weren't working enough. That's my biggest complaint about shox and kennyS: they were our star players and they never behave like ones.”
This gets to the heart of the matter. In the short term the move will work, but in the long term it’s hard to be confident. If things have changed, then Vitality could be great. However that is a big if as we’ve seen this cycle run time and time again. Should Vitality fail to integrate Shox, then they risk the entire team dissolving and the new age will come to a quick end.
A New Age needs an Old Miracle
The new age of French CS is dawning with ALEX as their leader and ZywOo as their superstar. Even so for France to contend with the world, it requires a second superstar to play alongside ZywOo. In that sense, France still needs the help of an old god. But by betting their chances on an old miracle, Vitality risks the foundations of the new age they’ve built. If Shox works, they will have resurrected an old god into the modern age. If they fail, the new age will dissolve and French Counter-Strike will have to go into another rebuilding stage.