Every sport has a smell. In track and field, it’s the track itself, either dirt or rubber. Soccer has the smell of grass. Football has the grass too, but its smell is more about the equipment, the hard plastic, the sweat-soaked padding. In November at an Nvidia boot camp in Munich, where the sport was Counter Strike: Global Offensive (or CS:GO), the smell was very much eight dudes in a hot room (including me). Eventually somebody cracked a window.
One of the world’s top CS:GO teams, Renegades, was at the Munich boot camp to prepare for one of the year’s biggest tournaments, the ESL Pro League Season 8 Finals, to be held in Odense, Denmark in early December. They were seated five abreast, scrimmaging other pro teams online. Renegades captain Aaron “AZR” Ward, sat in the middle, directing attack or defense (“Left, left, LEFT!”), with the rest of the guys flicking out the kinds of headshots that, if I were lucky enough to have made, would live on forever in my memory, moments of rare and mysterious beauty.
That they were motivated, putting in 8 hour sessions in this nondescript office building in the Munich suburbs, in a room decorated with little more than the computers on the desks and a beautiful whiteboard drawing of a knight in armor, may not seem noteworthy. After all, the Season 8 Finals features a prize pool of $1,000,000.
But consider that the tournament is also the last of the season, one so long and full of travel that the word “grind” doesn’t quite do it justice. I mean, CS:GO really takes the Global Offensive part seriously. Renegades, a team based in Detroit, spent November playing tournaments on three continents, none of which were North America.
The travel is probably the biggest unexpected challenge that players face when they leave their home PCs for a professional career. Popular Twitch streamer Michael Grzesiek, better known as Shroud, often cites the travel as one reason he left Counter Strike, where he was a top player, to begin streaming full-time.
The boot camp gives Renegades a rare space to call their own, albeit temporarily. And while Nvidia has put together a comfortable space with a crate of bottled water off to the side and a stack of bananas on a nearby table, the boot camp itself is not a luxury. This kind of thing has become a routine necessity for all Counter Strike teams. It’s about getting out of an airplane for a little while and getting into a (brief) routine. It’s about a player’s mental health as much as it is about staying sharp and coming up with fresh strategies.
In CS:GO, the grind is inescapable. It’s worse than in legacy sports where Los Angeles to New York on a private jet is about as bad as it gets. For Renegades, a team made up of four Australians and a Norwegian, all based in in a house in the Detroit suburbs, the time away from friends and family is perhaps the most difficult part.
It’s something Justin “JKS” Savage often thinks about when he’s in hotel rooms in Boston or London or Krakow or Hong Kong. “If you’re away every season and you can’t see [friends and family] all the time, and you’re only doing this, it definitely feels like a grind, yeah,” he says before adding that it’s a choice he made and one he does not regret. “I enjoy putting in all the hours and doing the work.”
The feeling of living a dream is one that Savage, who is still just 23, shares with most of the team. Like everyone else here, he grew up playing Counter Strike. He’s been a member of Renegades since 2015, one of the original five. The grind of it, the competitions, the travel, are all he knows.
Savage isn’t the only member of Renegades who has been a CS:GO pro since the very beginning. Ward, a Brisbane native and old friend of Savage, is another original Renegade. And then there’s Aleksandar “Kassad” Trifunovi, the Renegades’ Serbian coach.
Like nearly everyone in the CS:GO scene, Trifunovi began as a player. But back in the mid-2000s, high-level Counter Strike was him and his buddies at a LAN party. The idea of a coach was ridiculous. Now, he can’t think of a team that doesn’t have one.
“All of a sudden you start wanting more,” Trifunovi says smiling as he recalls his early days in Belgrade. This was back in the Counter Strike prehistory, playing the versions of the game that predated the 2012 release of CS:GO. “Maybe you get to the next level, you can be the best in your neighborhood, you know? And then you think, okay what’s next? Maybe then you go downtown, you mix it up with those kids, you get a new team.”
They were playing for 300 euro prize pools, where the winner takes home 200 to divide among five members. Nobody was playing full-time. They didn’t have sponsors. And because Serbia wasn’t as developed as its western neighbors, almost nobody had a home PC. It wasn’t easy to get the computer gear they needed to play. (As recently as 2017, the last year when EU statistics are available, Serbia had Europe’s second lowest rate of home internet access at just 68 percent.) “But we loved to play,” he says, and that meant taking over internet cafes.
When CS:GO came out in 2012, Trifunovi says he knew it would be huge. He could feel that the scene was ready, that the timing for CS:GO to become a first-class esport was here. But he also had a sense that maybe it would not be him to take that next step.
In CS:GO’s first year, the biggest prize pool was just north of $45,000. Still, a coach was almost unheard of, and Trifunovi, who is the only Renegades member over 30, says he felt as though he didn’t quite have the skills anymore. His mechanics no longer felt as crisp as they once did.
Although something of an elder statesmen in the CS:GO community, Trifunovi still talks about the game with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of someone who’d just logged into Steam for the first time. Back in 2012, when he sensed he didn’t have the skills to be a top player, he felt sure he had the passion and the experience to continue to add something to the game. But how?
Trifunovi did some amateur coaching around Serbia for a while, but his big break came when a squad from India offered to pay for his flights and accommodation, provided he’d come out for a week and help them prepare for a tournament. He didn’t earn any money on the assignment, but it was a step toward establishing himself, and the coaching role, as a mainstay in CS:GO. That opportunity lead to another, and then another. In 2016, he coached briefly at Mousesports, another CS:GO team that will be at the Season 8 Finals, and eventually landed at Renegades.
It’s seems obvious in hindsight, but the emergence of coaches in CS:GO changed the game. They give an outside perspective and offer a cohesive element to teams that, until recently, were mostly organic, ground-up operations, founded by the players themselves. Crucially, coaches took pressure off of In-Game Leaders, like Ward, who often saw their stats suffer as they worked to organize the rest of the squad.
It’s the coach’s job to keep tactics fresh, and in Munich I watched a Russian team completely dominate Renegades in a scrimmage. It was squad wipe after squad wipe, but nobody from Renegades seemed to care. Only later did I realize they’d been trying an entirely new strategy, that this boot camp was Trifunovi’s chemistry lab.
Trifunovi is proof of how much esports — and not just CS:GO — have professionalized over just a few years. And the money on offer to players has increased tremendously. Gone are the days of splitting a couple hundred bucks five-ways, assuming you perform well. Today’s top CS:GO pros make five-figure monthly salaries on contract with their teams, thanks in large part to the now-huge pool of sponsors and deep-pocketed owners taking interest in esports. The Renegades are a good example. In 2016, former Detroit Piston and current Golden State Warrior Jonas Jerebko acquired the team.
Such arrangements mean the top teams are no longer required to participate in every single tournament, but chasing prize pools is still the main source of income for most teams, which means the travel remains constant and brutal — even when flying business class. There’s a reason, in other words, that most players are under 25, and it’s not because they suddenly experience a decline in hand-eye coordination.
Still, there is plenty about the CS:GO scene and esports in general that seems likely to change as things continue to professionalize. The high rate of player turnover is one issue. At present, teams can shuffle their playing staff almost at will, and there’s some talk of incorporating some kind of transfer window, like every other major team sport.
Such a change would be in line with the nascent trend of esports teams employing general managers, whose job is to assemble the playing staff, a kind of jigsaw puzzle in itself. What’s interesting about a GM system in esports, however, is that it would run counter to the player-managed, ground-up model that almost all teams started with and several still use.
Renegades doesn’t have a GM, but it has taken other hints from legacy team sports. The team employs a kind of mental health guru who also helps with their meals, at least when they’re home. “He has a great mind for the mental stuff, mental health, and the ways we can, like, get outside of the game and reset and calm down and stuff like that,” says Savage, who credits the mental training with better communication both inside and outside the game.
In Munich, the team wasn’t trying to stress out too much. They kept the training sessions focused but relaxed. There’d be enough stress in Denmark.
Think of the Season Finals like a playoff in American sports. Renegades were one of sixteen teams to qualify from their online league season for the end-of-season tournament.
The format for the Season 8 Finals was about as complicated as is possible, featuring two separate brackets, both of which were double elimination, meaning that if you lost an early game you could still qualify for the finals.
And lose the first game was exactly what Renegades did, going down 16-5 to Ukrainian team HellRaisers. After the tournament, Trifunovi tells me by email that “those kind of games happen to every team nowadays.” The important thing, especially in a double elimination tournament like this, is that the team stays positive and confident.
Renegades were able to do that, beating first ViCi Gaming then BIG. In the under-bracket’s final match, Renegades won again, defeating G2 Esports two games to one. Renegades had gone from being “heavily outgunned,” in Trifunovi’s word, to reentering the main draw of the tournament at the quarter finals.
Their opponents in the quarters were an old foe: Mousesports, the team where Trifunovi had cut his teeth as a pro coach years ago. But Renegades’ fairy tale run wouldn’t last. Despite a dominant 16-4 game-one performance, the team lost a nail biter of a game-two, 16-13, before Mousesports closed out the best-of-three quarter final series, 16-9.
At this years CS:GO ESL Pro League Finals, after losing their first game, Renegades would claw back into the quarterfinals where they would be matched up against a familiar foe: the German esports powerhouse, mousesports.Top six was better than most had expected of Renegades, who finished the regular season fifth in its division, and Savage finished as the tournament’s best individual player, with the highest kill/death ratio, most frags, and most damage. Trifunovi said the result put the team in good spirits, ready for the off season and full of optimism to start it all again when play resumes in January.
So is it back to Detroit then?
Not so fast.
“After Pro League Finals there is a player break, and in January we are gonna be boot camping and preparing for a Minor and Major from Europe,” says Trifunovi, “So it’s gonna be awhile before we go back Stateside.”