Could Pro League spell the beginning of the end for Vitality?

Reading time  ~10  mins

Many were unsure what to expect when Vitality’s French project came to an end, and it was announced the organization would be going international. However, some were excited by the prospect with the signings of former Astralis trio Emil “Magisk” Reif, Peter dupreeh” Rasmussen, and Danny “zonic” Sorensen.

Sadly, it didn’t work out, with star Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut’s performances taking a hit. He failed to carry them to the heights he had while the team still spoke in his native tongue. Young star Kevin “misutaaa” Rabier was the player to take the fall, with one of the stars of early-2022, ENCE’s Lotan “Spinx” Giladi coming in to fill the void.

Their time with Spinx didn’t start as strongly as they would have hoped. Although it may be too much to expect instant improvement from a roster still bedding in a player, they failed to qualify from BLAST Fall Groups and subsequently dropped down into the Showdown.

However, their fortunes would swiftly change as Vitality entered ESL Pro League Season 16 with a point to prove. Their group would see them face a host of top teams, all similarly looking to impress. Natus Vincere, NIP, Spirit, Endpoint, and a brand new fnatic lineup would all be their opponents, also all looking to advance to Playoffs.

Despite this difficult task ahead of them and a testing full BO3 format, Vitality passed with flying colors. They dropped maps against NAVI and fnatic but looked impressive as they managed to advance from their group without a series loss. Whatever difficulties they may have had during Fall Groups, Vitality seemed to have overcome them in time for the EPL Groups.

The Playoffs were much of the same story, with the team overcoming Heroic, Outsiders, and former French rivals G2. Their final opponents were set to be Team Liquid, another roster that had struggled in 2022 following big changes to their roster.

Thankfully for Vitality, Liquid’s star and typically most dependable player, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, failed to show up in the Grand Final. He was the lowest-rated player as Vitality secured a 3-2 win in the BO5 series.

On the Vitality side of the coin, each player bar ZywOo fluctuated and performed on different maps. The showing seemed to display the overall strength of the roster, a mixture of raw talent and experience that would be able to push through elite opponents at events. In actuality, it showed their greatest flaw: inconsistency.

Image: PGL/Joao Ferreira

A new year

Fast forward to IEM Katowice 2023, and Vitality haven’t kicked on since their win at Pro League. They failed to even make Playoffs at the IEM Rio Major, failed to qualify for BLAST Fall Finals, and a 5th-6th placed finish at BLAST World Finals solidified the belief that Pro League may have been a flash in the pan.

The beginning of 2023 may have seen them qualify for BLAST Spring Finals, but Katowice is the tournament we should be focussing on.

Vitality’s run to the Playoffs was relatively comfortable. They took down NIP - albeit with a stand-in in the shape of Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke - in two maps, and followed up by defeating fnatic 2-1. Star player ZywOo was at his oppressive best, and in their map wins, Magisk also showed signs of his former peak.

The cracks were evident, however. Spinx, signed from ENCE before their Pro League victory to negate the overreliance on ZywOo, was still not performing with anywhere near the consistency or impact that inspired Vitality to make the acquisition. He may have been strong against NIP, but his performance against fnatic could only be described as disappointing.

Factor in the just-as-inconsistent dupreeh and the consistently poor Dan “apEX” Madesclaire, it’s no surprise the rest of Vitality’s tournament went the way it did.

With Playoffs already secure, the decider for a Semifinal spot was to be played versus Heroic, the team who had entered the event ranked number one in the world on HLTV’s rankings.

Image: PGL/Stefan Petrescu

Heroic demolished Vitality. Their own map pick of Inferno finished 16-7, and their opponent's pick of Overpass finished 16-4. Even ZywOo was ineffective as he ended the series 31-34. The series made the massive gap between Vitality and the best teams in the world clear, they simply do not have the consistent firepower to match them, and even worse than that, the brand of Counter-Strike they play isn’t good enough either.

For a moment during the Quarter-final versus Liquid, it seemed like Vitality were destined to make their way into the top four in the Spodek. They were 12-0 up on CT side Overpass, Liquid’s map pick, and every contentious moment was going in their favor. But in Counter-Strike, that can change very fast.

The main factor for Liquid’s comeback and eventual win was Josh “oSee” Ohm. Liquid’s AWPer looked like he had drained all of ZywOo’s skill and consistently found kills with the AWP as Liquid battled their way back to overtime.

Vitality was even handed a free win in map two, as Liquid continued their Nuke experiment and allowed the international team to claim an easy 16-7 reply. ZywOo looked unstoppable, and quickly the heroics of Liquid’s historic comeback victory in map one was forgotten.

However, unfortunately for Vitality, they couldn’t push on, and Liquid won the tightly contested series after a 16-12 victory on Mirage. ZywOo had gone missing, and more importantly, it was only the Danish duo of dupreeh and Magisk who stepped up to fill the void.

Image: PGL/Stefan Petrescu

The series was there for Vitality’s taking, and they knew it, but once again, the inconsistency and underperformance of the team’s stars had proved to be its downfall, but was that the only issue?

In our interview with dupreeh after the Quarterfinal loss, we discussed roles in the team and some of their clashes. His response ultimately seemed pretty damning: “For some of the maps the roles fit pretty well, some of them not so much. We still have a little bit of an issue because we don't have a specific anchor, it's mostly Magisk and me doing some of the anchoring stuff, and apEX does a little bit as well. It's essentially split between the three of us, we simply lack that anchor player that will take care of bombsites on his own and play those tough positions.” When asked if either he or Magisk will take on more of those roles to alleviate the issues, he said: “We could, but it's difficult when we've been playing every day in similar roles for 8-9 years, having to change something all of a sudden, I think that's tough, so we'll see.”

The two responses are hardly conducive to a team that is stable. Instead, they suggest that this lineup is fundamentally flawed, and changes will be inevitable in order for it to succeed. The potential impact of such changes, even if they’re only with a stand-in, will be up for testing during ESL Pro League Season 17.

Image: PGL/Stefan Petrescu

The incidental experiment

Due to the birth of his child, dupreeh will be missing Season 17, giving Vitality the chance to play with a former-G2 member, Audric “JACKZ” Jug. By no means will JACKZ provide the necessary firepower upgrade needed within the team, but his ability to play small site anchor roles on CT will give Vitality the opportunity to assess how needed a player of that fit is.

His ability to play those roles will give the other members of the squad the opportunity to play with more freedom, and in roles they are potentially more accustomed to, which could also have the effect of seeing an upturn in their performance levels.

This experiment will have its drawbacks, however. Players of JACKZ’s like are few and far between, very few players have the capability of small site anchoring on the CT side and providing necessary aggressive firepower on the T side, in reality, that isn’t a task the Frenchman is particularly up for either. If he was, then his next team after his G2 dismissal wouldn’t have been HEET.

So how do you fix the issues?

The fact is, one of the players on the current lineup is going to have to make concessions. apEX is no longer the entry force he used to be, but his inability to clutch also makes him a poor passive player. Other top teams, such as NAVI with Ilya “Perfecto” Zalutskiy, G2 with Justin “jks” Savage, and Liquid with Keith “NAF” Markovic, don’t have such issues.

Image: PGL/Stefan Petrescu

That doesn’t even begin to solve the issue on the CT side, where again, someone is going to have to make concessions and become the small site specialist that is required for the team to feel comfortable. Something that for Liquid, NAF took on upon the arrival of Mareks “YEKINDAR” Galinskis, and has so far succeeded in doing.

In short, the most likely fix is that changes are required. apEX is not a fantastic IGL, and he offers very little as a passive T-side player. Their aggression is also inconsistent, and with the arrival of dupreeh’s child and the Dane ever growing older, that isn’t going to change any time soon.

Vitality either needs a passive element with stable firepower, such as ENCE’s benched Valdemar “valde” Bjorn Vangsa, or for one of the other players to fill that gap and for an aggressive star to come in and fill the void. Those aggressive stars are hard to find, but they may also provide more room for Spinx, and if he can return to his best, Vitality will have one of the best riflers in the world on their books.

Should the experiment with JACKZ prove fruitful, Pro League could spell the beginning of the end for this Vitality squad. Disappointment at the Paris Major afterward would almost assure the end.

One thing seems certain, if Vitality is an organization that wants to see the consistent success that their star player deserves, this current team cannot see out the year on the same lineup.

Feature Image: ESL/Helena Kristiensson

Sam "AN1MO" McKenzie

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