"AdreN is the MVP for his consistency on the server throughout the Major but I feel like Zeus and his leadership were the deciding factor." - Janko "YNk" Paunović in a tweet after Gambit's PGL Major Kraków win
Two figures lie central to Gambit's 2017 run and surprise PGL Major win back in July: Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko and Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev. The former was the team's leader and the latter was its star.
When combined with Abay "HObbit" Khasenov, Rustem "mou" Telepov and Mikhail "Dosia" Stolyarov, you had a decent team with players who could occasionally punch way above their weight, as proved by their winning one of the two most important tournaments of 2017 and the de facto world championship: the PGL Major.
But Gambit immediately broke up afterward. Zeus and the team's coach, Mykhailo "kane" Blagin, left for Na'Vi, while AdreN and the rest of the team added Bektiyar "fitch" Bahytov. It was the end of the battle between two very different Gambits: the heady one Zeus tried to make and the looser, more intuitive one AdreN's skill couldn't help but encourage.
Will this more singular-focused Gambit be better thanks to the split? Or was the one-two combination more conducive to success?
The PGL-winning Gambit roster was first formed in October 2016, and its duel strengths were apparent even early on. Many talking heads noted the similarity between it and Zeus' old Na'Vi: the slow, map control heavy, late execute style. At the same time, AdreN was having a career renaissance in terms of individual output, generating superstar-level statistics in early 2017.
These two capacities were reflected in Gambit's map pool. At DreamHack Winter 2016 and the ELeague Major, Gambit won five games of Cobblestone and four games of Overpass without dropping a map. However, it was the way Gambit succeeded on these two maps that hinted at both narrow greatness it displayed at the major and the split that was to come after.
Gambit won three games of Overpass at the ELeague Major, taking a 25-17 round record on the Zeus-led Terrorist side, despite the Counter-Terrorists having the advantage on the map. Similarly on Cobblestone, Gambit scored an absolutely ludicrous 47-13 round record on the more difficult side of the map, this time the CT-side. But on Cobblestone, its success relied much more on its coordination and ability to win retakes, enabled by Gambit's veteran players and the individual skill of AdreN.
But being excellent on just two maps can't get you that far. While Gambit wildly exceeded expectations at DreamHack Winter and ELeague, its results started to stall thereafter. While it could often grab best-of-one wins on one of its two strongholds, Gambit had problems translating its success to longer series versus the most elite teams, only winning one such series over G2 Esports prior to the PGL major.
Yet, Gambit surprised in Krakow. It went 3-0 in the Swiss format and defeated Fnatic, Astralis, and Immortals in the playoffs to win the world championship. Zeus's leadership enabled some consistently good T-sides, but Gambit's occasionally superlative CT-sides led by AdreN and some overperformance by his teammates also powered their success.
Following Gambit's win, we go back to YNk's tweet - "AdreN is the MVP for his consistency on the server throughout the Major but I feel like Zeus and his leadership were the deciding factor."
Here lies the problem. Widespread and intense praise for Zeus, further intensified by his own personal comeback narrative, might have given him the impression that he had a mandate to lead the team as he saw fit. However, internally his team had reason to doubt his leadership.
Gambit struggled intensely in its boot camp prior to the event, and AdreN showed Gambit could survive without Zeus in the Swiss. Against G2 on Cache, AdreN decided to abandon pre-game preparation and take over calling Gambit's T-side (typically Zeus' job) after losing all the early gun rounds. With AdreN in control, Gambit won the next seven of its next eight rounds by balling up and going for more direct five-man executes powered by brute force and AdreN's entry frags.
According to AdreN's own words in a post-game interview, "Everything we planned, we didn't do that... I started to call some stupid s*** and it worked."
Zeus also had his own weakness as in individual player. In a Talk to Thorin episode with Chet "ImAPet" Singh, the former CLG coach said that he was able to beat Gambit on both Overpass and Cobblestone in previous bouts in part by abusing Zeus's CT positions. "I tried to make a lot of strategies where we would have a specific flash for him or we would just contact and hit him," he said.
Now, there were plenty of reasons to be complimentary of Zeus at the major as well. Utilizing his trademark slow and cerebral style, Gambit won seven games out of eight on its new home maps, Train and Inferno. There were some brilliant mid-game adjustments such as the series-clinching play-call versus Astralis on Train where he personally ran over Peter "dupreeh" Rothmann twice to close the map.
Now, who deserves the greater credit is hardly an issue of pure vanity. We can't forget that the PGL Major was a very upset laden event; Gambit had a much lighter schedule than expected. When it went up against the full-force of the competitive scene, could they afford to wade in the middleground? Should the roster move more towards the tactical team of Zeus on Inferno, Train, and Overpass, or could AdreN lead a more skill-centric team which might be better on a Cache or Cobblestone?
Well, right now, there is only AdreN's Gambit in its full fruition because of the split.
In with the new
While the new roster didn't look attractive on paper, Fitch has turned out to be a surprisingly competent fragger and has improved Gambit's net firepower even with AdreN dipping due to his new in-game leading responsibilities. In turn, the move bolstered the more straightforward and default-heavy Terrorist-side style Gambit showed first showed on Cache at Krakow. It also helps that weapon rebalancing has made the CZ 75 very popular following the player break which the more skilled roster has utilized to great effect.
Gambit also radically shifted its map pool to better align with the new identity. While Train was still very much in its wheelhouse at the following DreamHack Masters Malmö, the new Gambit played Cache a couple of times and opened itself up to Mirage, its former permaban. Both maps are considered to be on the more skill-reliant end of the pool, and have CT-sides that highly depend on the defending team's coordination and its ability to win retakes --both of which are skills Gambit has retained and emphasized under AdreN's command.
Later on, after this new Gambit defeated Astralis on Mirage, Duncan "Thorin" Shields tweeted, "Bizarre turtle style CT mirage style from Gambit. Never seen it work so well. Props!"
Gambit finished top-four in Malmo, but failed to make it out of group stage afterwards at ESG Tour Mykonos. Overall, the results are somewhat in accordance with what you would expect from the old Gambit. Zeus and Kane's departure did trigger a definitive shift in Gambit's style, but the team seems perfectly fine with its new lineup, if not slightly stronger, so what does the split really mean in the end?
It means Gambit might have lost its underlying, hidden edge. While it has escaped that tug-of-war of identity between Zeus's Gambit and AdreN's Gambit, what if the struggle didn't lock it into some armistice devoid of the ultimate upsides of either side?
Versus G2 at DreamHack Austin, Gambit lost in triple overtime on Nuke. It had to win on both Zeus's emerging Train pick and win eight of its last 10 CT-rounds on the core's original Cobblestone pick to take the series. Versus Astralis at the PGL Major, Gambit failed to secure a win on its own map pick. To continue in the tournament, it had to make retake after retake work versus the world's best Overpass T-side and clutch it out on offense in the final rounds of game three's Train.
Perhaps the clash created a sort of balance, a harmony that amplified Gambit's potential beyond the oscillations of either side. And perhaps even those ephemeral showings of greatness will outstrip whatever the new Gambit can accomplish.
AdreN and the rest of the new Gambit now have to either prove Zeus wrong or be drowned out by that lingering sound, the ever-present "what if..."