The last few tournaments have seen Vitality skyrocket to a top five placing in the world rankings. They won cs_summit 4; at DreamHack Masters Dallas, they had made it to the quarterfinals of the tournament before FURIA knocked them out; at ECS Season Season 7 Finals, they got their revenge on the Brazilians and won the tournament. We haven’t seen a French team be this good since late 2017, when G2 had the all-star lineup. After one and a half years of despair and pessimism, Vitality have put French CS back onto the world stage.
It all started with the breakup of the all-star G2 roster. That particular lineup had: Richard “shox” Papillon, Kenny “kennys” Schrub, Alexandre “bodyy” Pianaro, Nathan “NBK” Schmitt and Dan “apEX” Madesclaire. In 2017 there was an irreconcilable difference between shox and NBK/apEX. NBK described the situation to HLTV as
“The main difference compared to G2 is that we had a problem of let's say work styles. Some people in the team wanted to work a specific way and the other half of the team didn't, so we just clashed and there was some unhappiness on both sides.”
So when Vitality formed, they gathered the remaining parts from the two top French teams at the time: G2 and EnVyUs. The lineup included NBK, apEX, Vincent “Happy” Schopenhauer and Cedric “RpK” Guipouy. The final and most important piece of the puzzle was Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut. While he was only 18 years old, he had the potential to be a superstar player on the global scale. This was critical as ascendant individual players are the most common denominator that characterize a top French team.
From the outside, it looked like a gathering of the leftover players from the roster shuffle centered around ZywOo. NBK thought of it more as a long-term project. In a VPEsports interview, he said the following:
“I’m pretty confident that in our ability to build something long-term that we will win, and that we’ll be back to the top ”
Despite those ambitious words, the beginning of the project was rough. On paper, the team had good firepower. NBK and apEX were still top players for their roles. While RpK was dealing with some health problems, he had a good run of form on EnVyUs before the team collapsed. While Happy’s in-game leading had hit a dead-end, he was still showing value as an individual player.
None of that potential actualized in the server. The only consistent player on the team was ZywOo. For the first three months, Vitality’s win condition were highly dependent on individual skill. They needed someone else (usually NBK or apEX) to have a good game with the youngster.
At the end of 2018, things started to change. Vitality removed Happy from the roster and brought on Alex “ALEX” McMeekin. NBK described ALEX’s role to HLTV as such:
“ALEX came in with a very strict guideline in the sense that he's going to be a player, focused on himself, he's going to be lurking, he's going to be taking care of two or three people on the CT side, and that's it. I'm keeping the leadership 100%.”
For the IEM Katowice Major run, ALEX had to fill in the gaps as the team didn’t have time to implement him into the system. At that tournament, Vitality were a shallow team. They were good on two maps: Mirage, Dust2, and sometimes Inferno. Outside of that, they didn’t have much depth to their approach, identity or map pool.
Things soon started to change though. While NBK may have intended to keep the leadership after recruiting ALEX, he wasn’t stubborn about it. In the month between the Katowice Major and StarLadder i-League Season 7, Vitality decided that ALEX should be the in-game leader. In a StarLadder interview, NBK talked about the change:
“Now ALEX is calling almost every T-side for the team and I’m focusing on the CT-sides. That’s my approach that we can do something better in Counter-Strike right now. We can split tasks in a team that trusts each other, so we would be more efficient at them.”
This shift in roles created a fundamental change in the team’s tactical identity. ALEX had two overarching strategic formulas. The first is a 4-1 deathball approach. In this style, he uses himself, apEX, and RpK as a strong entry frontline to create and trade into space on the map. This allowed ZywOo to trade them or get ZywOo space to get an AWP duel setup. The team then put NBK in a solo lurk position on the other side of the map. This creates a lot of flexibility in their play as NBK is a good secondary caller and great individual player. He has the versatility to play either the aggressive or passive lurker and this makes it hard for the opposing team to get into a power play situation. Vitality use this on maps like Overpass, Mirage, and Nuke.
The other formula they use is a slower-paced default. In this version, they play closer to the typical metagame and give ZywOo more time to find an opening pick before taking map control and going for a hit. This has been their go-to style for maps like Dust2 or Inferno.
It has been over two months since ALEX has taken over the T-sides. Since then, Vitality has shown strength on five of the seven maps. They now have: Overpass, Mirage, Nuke, Dust2, and Inferno. They are also willing to play Vertigo, which has allowed them an advantage in the map veto as they are willing to let it be the seventh pick, which has forced the enemy teams to ban it in the second rotation.
Perhaps the best compliment we can give towards the new Vitality is that they are no longer a one-man show. In the Happy-led iteration of Vitality, ZywOo was the only positive aspect of their team. In the last few months, Vitality have actualized the potential firepower they have on paper and made it into reality. NBK, apEX, and RpK are in much better form now than they were in the first few months of Vitality. While their new system allows for ZywOo to be the superstar carry, it doesn’t require ZywOo to have to drop 30 a game. In a HLTV Interview, ALEX gave some insight into ZywOo’s role:
“It's a tough question because [ZywOo]'s really good, and he can just carry a game by himself, so there's obviously some truth to it. The main thing that people don't understand is that he plays a certain role in our team – he doesn't just go out and kill five people. He has to do what I and NBK- tell him to do as in-game leaders.”
Since ALEX has taken over the T-sides, Vitality have been to four LAN events. At StarLadder i-League Season 7, they beat BIG, ENCE and Spirit. The Frenchmen won Charleroi Esports over G2. They then went to cs_summit 4 where they topped the group stage and beat Liquid and ENCE in two best-of-three series. At DreamHack Masters Dallas, they beat NiP and North before FURIA knocked them out. At ECS Season 7 Finals, they beat compLexity, NRG, and FURIA. Vitality have a unique T-side that fits their players and a strong CT-side that can dominate the opponent. ZywOo is now a top five player in the world. It has been less than eight months since Vitality started their project to create a new French team. Fast-forward to the present and they are now one of the best teams in the world.