There are very few comeback stories in Counter-Strike, if only because most players stick around until it’s way too late for a new chapter. NEO’s shock return as FaZe’s new IGL will be a fascinating test case about how well the old guard of CS can hold up in 2019, but his career trajectory in CS:GO should serve as a warning about the somewhat unwarranted level of respect we give to the former greats of Counter-Strike.
The surprising news FaZe Clan opted for NEO as AdreN’s replacement made little sense on the surface and even less once you started to think about the move. There’s an undeniable nostalgic charm of it, the idea that a 1.6 legend will roll back the years to restore a struggling roster of superstars. It’s just that there’s very little to suggest that it will come true.
Redemption arcs have an inherent appeal to them. It’s the last part of the three-act story, the protagonist triumphantly returning from the darkest depths of despair. Unfortunately, what we hope to be the end of the second act of the plot is often just the tragic epilogue. Former greats of Counter-Strike are known quantities to us, armed with the sort of intangibles commentators seem to love. Experience, strong mentality, having seen and done it all – ethereal elements meant to make up for slowing reflexes, struggles to adapt, motivation issues. It’s tough to make up lost ground in a scene as competitive as this, and whatever led to the initial drop in form becomes all the more difficult to fix as time goes on.
And yet, the veterans of the scene keep clinging to their roles as a player, forgoing lucrative analyst or coaching positions for yet another failure in the lower tiers of the game. Why are they doing this and how do they keep finding new orgs time after time? It’s a sign that there’s one aspect of team-building we still haven’t adapted from more traditional sports: ruthlessness.
It makes sense that a player doesn’t want to accept that he’s no longer who he used to be – Skadoodle’s decision to stay on Cloud9 after their miraculous major win was perhaps the most egregious example of this –, and the massive influx of cash over the last few years gives them further reason to cling onto their position. The uniquely player-centric nature of the scene makes this viable: maintain a good relationship with the rest of the team and you can stick around for a lot longer than you should. (See also: DeadFox.)
Prestige matters a lot in esports: look at how long VP kept getting tournament invites even after it was clear they can no longer compete with the best, or the high-profile moves of Snax and NEO years after their last strong showing in the server. (Arguably, the same applies to players like Happy and kennyS in the French scene.) We all want to believe that their greatness is merely dormant, not extinguished.
The players that managed to make it back after a fall are few and far between, but they always had to accept and adapt to a lesser role if they wanted to stay relevant. Consider GeT_RiGhT or allu: the humility they’ve displayed doesn’t seem to be a part of Happy’s or Snax’s repertoire.
On the surface, there’s also little to suggest that NEO is the right fit for FaZe: he is on the wrong side of thirty, coming back after a long hiatus, never had any experience with an international lineup (barring his short stint as a stand-in with Heroic) and his individual performances also haven’t impressed against lower-level opposition once Virtus.pro went down the toilet. His first match – played against his former team for added irony – also didn’t inspire confidence, posting by far the worst stats on the server in an embarrassing defeat to the Polish side. We can’t begrudge NEO for cashing in on the golden ticket that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. However, the organization that almost changed the face of Counter-Strike by forming a team of superstars has a lot of explaining to do. They seem to have fallen into the same trap as a myriad of fans tend to – putting too much stock in former greatness.