Thorin’s Take: There’s No Quit in NEO and TaZ

Duncan "Thorin" Shields

It was yesterday announced that Counter-Strike hall of fame locks Filip “NEO” Kubski and Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas would return to active professional play in a new project named HONORIS. Both had washed out of the top-level literally years ago, with TaZ hustling but failing to elevate a newer generation of Polish talent and NEO making an embarrassing comeback as a toothless IGL and poor individual player in a pointless FaZe experiment. Yet here they are, back again.

Winners and losers

“Why don’t they just give it up already?” was not only a common refrain from even some of their fans, hardly a small group considering their former teams’ historic successes and famously exciting playing styles and personalities, but even most in the industry. Experts and enthusiasts alike knew it was over for NEO and TaZ, so why didn’t they? Put simply, as someone who has followed their careers since the early 2000s, it’s because that sentiment goes against everything that makes up their competitive DNA.

None of us would ever have heard of the names NEO and TaZ had they listened to realistic predictions and likelihoods for their success in previous ventures. The world would know “neo”, but only the German great who had starred in a-Losers in 2003 and later pushed mouz to elite status over the coming years. Perhaps the Polish NEO would have been an oskar – a great individual player trapped in a scene with no resources to prove as much internationally. TaZ would have simply been a guy who played some Counter-Strike in Poland and maybe went to a few international tournaments and finished poorly, as was the case early on.

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Instead, every reader of this article likely knows, or at least has heard, of NEO’s status as the greatest CS 1.6 player in history and has a sense of the Pippen-esque role TaZ played as primary in-game leader and second star of most of the championship teams the two paired up on in the older version of CS. These men won six or seven majors, depending on how you define those tournaments, in an era when the absurdly skilled f0rest won “only” three; the impossible markeloff captured four; and Danish master trace finished with zero to his name.

Moving into CS:GO, both had brief periods of individual form, but were each written off as players and expected to be phased out of relevance in the early years. They responded to that early curtain call by recruiting the best of the next crop of Polish stars and reinventing their own games to become some of the shrewdest and most selfless role players in Counter-Strike. The result was a CS:GO major win out of nowhere, in dominant fashion; years of relevance as an elite side and half a dozen additional cracks at majors that so often yielded close losses in the semis or beyond.

NEO and TaZ don’t listen to critics or naysayers. That mentality has at times hurt them and made them stubborn in the face of necessary change, but it has also elevated them beyond their rank in the world into a class of winners that few will ever match in terms of world championships.

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Both are older than 31, but inside their belief remains absolute. We did it before and we’ll do it again.

When the winged Hussars arrived

Prior to 2005, Polish Counter-Strike was entirely irrelevant on the international level. Outside of the Nordic dominance of championship level play there would be occasional North American teams who could match up with the best from the North and some teams from Germany and then 4kings from the UK. My first experience of the Poles came when I lived in Finland as now ENCE co-founder and then top Finnish player natu’s room-mate in the latter part of 2004. He went off to play in a small tournament in Czech Republic called the “Invex Euro Cyber Cup”.

natu’s Destination Skyline team were one of the elite squads in the game, having finished fourth at the CPL Summer 2004 major, and were on a mini-tour of Europe attending smaller events that had hefty first place prize money. With $10,000 for the champions of this event and the only other vaguely relevant team being Germans a-Losers, who weren’t even a contender domestically in EPS, he departed with the expectation his squad would easily capture the top prize and return home.

Instead, he returned with a fourth place finish and scant prize money to show for it. Losing to a-Losers had been one thing, but when I saw he had lost to the Polish team Pentagram in the group stage I was baffled. Shock at the results of NEO and TaZ would become a common theme in my career following top level Counter-Strike.

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The next year they continued to tweak their roster and would again produce international upsets, winning SEC 2005 against a limited but theoretically superior field of opposition. NEO himself had begun to accrue acclaim for his POV demos, which showcased his ferocious fragging capacity and already polished playing style.

Golden time

The same Poland which had never been a factor in Counter-Strike, but now had a dark horse, saw that premise accelerated beyond anything approaching reasonable or even optimistic expectations. When “the Golden Five” line-up, as they would later be labelled, of NEO, TaZ, LUq, kuben and loord was set, almost immediately they began winning significant titles and against anyone and everyone. A few months after putting the team together they became major champions with a gold medal victory at World Cyber Games (WCG) 2006.

The following year they captured two majors, if you count the first Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) as one, with wins at IEM I and the Esports World Cup (ESWC) 2007. 2008 again saw them transcending everyday form at the biggest events, winning ESWC to go back-to-back for the first and only time that feat was accomplished in history. After battling through a nightmare funding collapse of their organisation MYM in 2009 they still broke cArn and f0rest’s hearts to steal away the WCG gold medal and make it two from that major alone.

With LUq kicked, the team brought in pasha and experienced a much more dry year, despite still making some deep finishes in majors. In 2011 they powered up with strong year-long form and finished with glory and a third WCG gold medal. For 2012, the last stanza of the game itself, they would produce one last miracle and win the IEM VI Global Finals, five seasons after taking their first IEM title, and exit the game with six or seven majors to their names.

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Hey! You’re not supposed to be there!

When one hears tales of such greatness year in and year out, winning the biggest tournaments in the history of the game, it might be easy to imagine NEO and TaZ’s sides were favourites or intimidating presences for all their peers battling them. Every year until 2011, when they had changed a player already, they were never the most dominant team over the whole year. Often, they would have tournaments they entirely bombed out of early, even on the heels of or prior to a major they would win. For some reason, Counter-Strike’s ultimate dark horse produced their best at the majors. Where in other tournaments their peers knew they could break and collapse in a tornado of internal fighting, when a major was on the line this core elevated in the way only truly great sports dynasties like the Chicago Bulls or Boston Patriots have become famed.

The latter even stands as a great analogue for this gritty band of Poles. Just as the Patriots won their super bowls by such small margins and relying on clutch play down the stretch, NEO and TaZ’s teams would enter majors underdogs and win most of the time against all-but-coronated team-of-the-year opposition and in close fashion.

Over those seven major victories, they were a big favourite on only two occasions, one of which – ESWC 2008 against the Koreans of eSTRO – they will barely won in a close three map series. On two occasions they were big underdogs, facing the NiP of 2006 and FNATIC of 2009 who were the dominant teams of their years. NEO and TaZ are the main reason Sweden, the most overwhelmingly successful CS 1.6 nation, can boast only one WCG gold medal in its history. The other three times these impossible Poles were slight underdogs and yet still left with the trophy.

Qualitative analysis will tell one NEO and TaZ should probably have won two or three majors at most. But that kind of analysis cannot factor in the heart of a champion and time and time again they would withstand the pressure of history where some of the game’s best to ever play withered or simply participated.

During all of those successes and failures, they battled organisational homelessness and periods when they made far less than their peers who they were besting for said championships. These men played for something more than magical paper rectangles.

New game; same drive

When CS:GO came out, the Poles had hung around in 1.6 for too long, trying to capture the last championships but failing to take any more titles of any kind after their last major. They entered the new version of Counter-Strike with the same line-up they’d finished 1.6 with and lagging far behind the top sides in terms of play in the next game. NEO was non-existent as a star and some early form from TaZ meant little. Even so, they still conjured up a minor miracle by taking a mix team featuring young French talent kennyS and apEX, who could barely speak English and thus played separate to the Poles, and winning the Prague Challenge in 2013, besting elite side Na’Vi in the final.

Forming a new line-up with next gen players Snax and byali in late 2013, they role-swapped to become the setup men, anchors and supports of this new-look Polish side. Failure at the first major was followed by a completely-out-of-left-field dominant win, dropping only a single map and in overtime at that, at EMS One Katowice, the second major in CS:GO. From then on, – their new organisation, would get a taste of Polish magic, as “the plow” activated countless times over many years and ensured all the great teams in history had to face NEO and TaZ in their quest for major titles and eras.

Beyond the heart-breaking narrow defeat of the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major final to Astralis, VP also played in the semi-finals of majors, ignoring their Katowice win, five more times. Despite what some cynical marketers might say, they weren’t “the Golden Five”, capturing most majors as underdogs, but they also weren’t inconsistent regular season performers in the same way either. Barring a few slumps, which practically never affected the majors, they were a firmly elite team for around three and change years.

Even after having seemingly collapsed as a relevant top team in 2017, there was still the dramatic last gasp run to the final of EPICENTER 2017 that almost saw them steal the crown from then world number ones SK Gaming.

Never tell me the odds!

Achieving the impossible and defying the odds has been a way of life for NEO and TaZ over their careers. These mental monsters could never understand when they were supposed to lose or expected to step aside as other greats were crowned. Here were players who made themselves legends for their grit and heart in the matches with the highest of stakes. For a decade they were meant to finally fade away only to resurrect themselves each time until the last.

Seven or eight majors combining both versions of Counter-Strike is a feat nobody comes close to matching. Astralis’ four in CS:GO is incredible and there were great players with four or five in 1.6, but nobody at NEO and TaZ’s major gold medal count.

“I’ve never lost a game. I just ran out of time.”
-Michael Jordan, six time NBA champion

You and I may know that NEO and TaZ can’t win again, but they don’t and probably never will. You’ll have to take the mice from their hands. Until then they are practicing and scheming on their most improbable escape yet; their golden hearts still beating.