The legend of Katowice is one that most lovers of CSGO will already know, with the city famously passionate about their Counter-Strike.
For years, wonderful events have been hosted in the Polish city and 2019 will see IEM Katowice receive Major status from Valve, and a $1m prize pool to boot. You’d therefore think this was an amazing time for the game in Poland, but actually it may well be that Polish CSGO is in crisis, and recovery looks a long way off.
The main issue is that the leading lights in Polish CSGO were for so long the Virtus.pro team built on the foundations of the 'Golden Five', Poland’s most famous CS fathers. The group of Neo, TaZ, PashaBiceps, Snax and byali carried their nation for a number of years, bouncing back from any setback they might face in a most Polish way, and were the pride of their nation. Epic battles with the best teams from around the world were their daily bread, and they entertained us off the server too, with the London School and so much more.
However, time waits for no man, and the decline of Virtus.pro was a slow but steady affair from their last true high point, the Major final they lost to Astralis in 2017. Infighting became public as unsavoury clips surfaced, then TaZ, Snax and finally byali all went their own ways, for a variety of reasons. The former now spends his time bringing up the next generation of stars for Kinguin, he will hope, while the latter are drifting after career choices that didn’t work out.
Would the next Polish star please stand up?
In their place, there is … nobody, really, and that is a bit sad. There was a time when the AGO lineup looked as though it could make the top 20, or even top 10 in the world if things aligned for them, but that was broken up as the VP machine came looking for new parts and the men who left to join Pasha and Neo have not been able to fix the plow.
As a result, we are certainly not going to see a Polish team win the Major in Katowice, and there is a chance we won’t even have any Polish players there as none of the current teams are good enough to be confident of making it. There are a fair few low-level teams, no doubt inspired by the Golden Five, but none who could even get a medal, or realistically make the final.
How to fix the problem is a tricky question, as Poland is not short of esports initiatives or role models. Sweden recently went through a similar situation and there is a slight issue with talent being held back in the Brazilian scene, too. While it’s hard to be 100% sure, those three scenes do all share an attribute that may make it hard for them to maintain long-term.
In Sweden, players such as flusha, GeT_RiGhT, JW, f0rest and others held onto the top spots at the top teams long after they were capable of playing like top-10 players and, even when some left, they were replaced by players such as Xizt initially. NiP finally seem to have seen the light and Fnatic are at least investing in youth, but the problem for so long was a stagnant top level preventing the next stars from coming up when they were ready and getting the big LAN experience they needed to complete their CSGO educations.
Name value vs evolution
Similarly, the Brazilian scene was dominated by the SK team and, although there were other circumstances that brought us the end of the Immortals lineup, it is still true to say the likes of HEN1, LUCAS1 and kNg never got to play with FalleN, coldzera, fer and TACO. Once again the name value of the players was too high to kick them for a long time and the subsequent move to Immortals/MIBR the group made seems to have guaranteed they won’t be developing any young talent soon, instead preferring to pick up ill-fitting NA stars who sell more shirts.
As is so often with humans, it seems like what has really happened to Poland, and maybe the other scenes, is simple. A group of people got to the top of the tree, and rather than dropping down a rope to help others get to the best fruit, they pulled up their ladder and gorged themselves on the juiciest morsels. Unfortunately, while they were doing so, all the others were starving at the foot of the trunk, and when the chosen few eventually decided they needed help, the rest were too weak to be of any use.
How we prevent this from happening in future is tough, but the death of the scarcity mindset that evolved in the bad old days of esports should be the start. When there are enough resources for two, or even three big teams in a nation, it will be easier for talent to spread and learn, but, sadly, Poland seems to only have the means to keep one triple-A org going in 2018. As a result, IEM Katowice might end up having no home representation at all and that would be a tragedy for one of the most passionate crowds in esports.