Photo Credits: (DreamHack)
Like many, low-output in-game leaders that have survived into the modern era, Zeus has enjoyed the split reputation of a respected tactician, but a heavily criticized individual player. However unlike Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen, whose detractors have only seemed to get more numerous and obnoxious over time until just this past week, respect for Zeus spikes and valleys more intermittently.
Depending on the point in history or your point of view, Zeus can either be a mortal man who has the supernatural ability to create stellar rosters from nothing, or he is a false idol that hinders superstars or saps undue credit from real overachievers.
With him, there’s more than the classic unfairness attached to in-game leaders: praise for their captaincy when their team is winning and criticism of their fragging when their team is losing. I think Zeus simply isn’t understood well enough broadly as either a player or an in-game leader.
Going back to his leadership of Na’Vi in 2015 and 2016, I think praise should be heaped on him given the strengths of that team. Now, there’s always the caveat that journalists and the general public does not know the internal mechanics of how the team was run or lead, and we can only make estimations based on public statements and evaluations of their play, but Na’Vi was an ostensibly very well run team in their previous heyday with Zeus holding the reins.
In the hyper-competitive late-2015 period and in the narrower more elite-dominated early 2016 era, Na’Vi was obviously an elite contender. Over a seven month, Na’Vi put together a nine-tournament run which included three tournament wins with seven finals reached including two straight silver medals at Valve Majors.It was during this period that Na’Vi cultivated their reputation as the ultra-late round, heavy execute team that was devastating when applied properly.
Though the "late-round" label is what has loomed large in the public imagination since those days, plaudits also should be given to how the world-leading AWPer Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács was utilized. Recall that Na’Vi still could place second at the MLG Columbus Major where Guardian, a world-leading, famously played under-par with a wrist injury.
If anything, the “late-round” label so often attached to this team mis-characterizes them as a highly nuanced, tactical team. Instead of looking at these executes as the tool that made them elite; perhaps it’s more accurate and illustrative to praise the structure that could make those risky rounds work, a deft hand controlling a double-edged blade.
That said, if you accept the same good faith assumptions, you have to credit Na’Vi’s long-time player-turned-coach, Starix, for putting an added extra dimension to their tactics and helping Zeus raise the team to the previous heights. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two would become complicated after Na’Vi’s play declined after MLG Columbus via flagging performances from Guardian, Egor "flamie" Vasilyev, and Zeus himself.
Without the Valve Coaching rule yet in place, Sergey "starix" Ischuk took over in-game leading responsibilities with Zeus suddenly becoming just a more supportive CT-player, who formed the entry duo with Ioann "Edward" Sukhariev on the T-side. His performances were below-average and worsening performances at both roles as Na’Vi went into the summer and under-placed at the next major.
Accordingly, Na’Vi’s removal of Zeus in later Summer 2016 was more than fair. Player to player, Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev is a Brobdingnagian upgrade from Zeus, effectively adding a second possible world-number-one-caliber player to their roster. Na’Vi can’t fairly be faulted for being blindsided by the Valve coaching rule change enacted just days after the roster move.
The next chapter in the Zeus narrative comes at the height of his popularity and praise. He joined Gambit despite being a very middling team previously and having far weaker on-paper potential, Gambit consistently over-performed in late 2016 to Zeus’s departure from Gambit in August 2017, even arguably outstripping their should-be CIS-superior, Na’Vi, over the same period.
With Zeus at the helm with noticeably more Na’Vi-esque T-sides, Gambit made the playoffs of the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major and DreamHack Masters Las Vegas 2017, placed 2nd at the first cs_summit, and won DreamHack Winter 2016, DreamHack Austin, and, of course, the PGL Major.
It’s hard to overstate how widely lauded Zeus was for Gambit’s major win. He was the savior of a second-tier team. His ingenious T-sides turned nobodies into superstars. He walked on water and then turned the team beneath him into fine wine.
While obviously, Zeus deserves significant praise for his part in Gambit’s achievements during this period especially when you consider their fall from grace since; I think there are several compounding factors why overwrought praise was thrust upon him during this period.
First narratively, a comeback story is captivating and heart-warming, and in the cluster fuck of upsets at the PGL Major, I think it’s understandable that people would latch on to Zeus and his famous late-round, last-second T-sides as an explanation to the surprise major win.
Second, at some points, I think the boost Hobbit gave to Gambit, especially on the T-side, was overlooked as he joined the team at the same time as Zeus. With Zeus playing further back on and executes or pushes, the new very strong entry duo of Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev and Abay "Hobbit" Khassenov now led the way and certainly improved their chances.
Then, as I have written previously, there is the wrinkle that Gambit’s under-discussed CT-side was just as potent, if not more so, than their venerated T-sides. Often playing defensively with Mikhail "Dosia" Stolyarov as a passive small-site anchor, Gambit adopted a unique, if not extreme, retake-heavy style that often worked wonders on Cobblestone, Overpass, and Train.
Zeus's role in operating this in-the-moment, reactive, teamwork-heavy approach is debatable, given its continuation with Fitch after his departure, but if we are to give him credit it harkens back to a broader theme. Unlike the modern Astralis which is credited for their heady and innovative uses of utility on the CT-siade, Gambit’s play tends more towards the “team play” or “coordination” end of the continuum rather than “tactics” or “strategy.”
Then, the sticking point is that during this period, Zeus took up some heavy-traffic, aim-dependent positions on the CT-side that perhaps suited his more aggressive, risk-oriented playstyle, but made him a greater liability. For example, after the Zeus-led A-defense on Cobblestone, the likes of CLG and G2 eventually exploited Gambit’s original standout and Gambit was forced to abandon it in favor of Train and Inferno. Although, to be fair, shifting their map pool isn’t an easy feat and did help Gambit take teams by surprise and win one especially memorable tournament.
After winning the PGL Major, Zeus return to Na’Vi hasn’t engendered anywhere near the same level of fanfare despite the fact that Na’Vi has consistently been ranked a top-3 team worldwide since April via HLTV’s ranking system. In fact, after results were slow to improve even after Denis "electronic" Sharipov was brought in place of Denis "seized" Kostin, Zeus alongside Edward seemed to be on the chopping block, at least in the court of public opinion.
Now that results have improved, I think there is a perception that the near game-shattering peaks of s1mple and the more recently heightened form of Electronic are the forces propelling Na’Vi towards the top of the standings, and the poor output of Zeus and Edward as the hurdles that keep them from reaching the number one spot.
I think Zeus’s individual sacrifices are being underplayed as he has taken up more less-aggressive spots and roles on both sides of the map. Instead of taking up short-range duels on the front lines which has always looked to be his preference, we see him in a supportive, anchor CT role or peripheral T-positions to make room for Electronic and S1mple.
The fact that Na’Vi continues to not blow teams out of the water tactically a la Astralis shouldn’t come as a surprise. With S1mple, Electronic, and even Flamie again coming online as star players, it’s his job to just make this triple-winged plane fly in something akin to a straight line rather than make the world’s most well-oiled machine.
Beyond widely fluctuating expectations and results, across all three periods Zeus usefulness and identity seems more-or-less consistent . As a player, he has a lackluster skill level and a narrow skill-set, which makes him a liability and his output role-dependant. Then, on the other side, as a leader he is competent with a more in the moment, mid-round style that works well enough to push teams towards higher placings and tournament wins. He’s not some grand god, but neither is he just a meager man, or even much of a myth.
Do you agree with my assessment of Zeus? Comment your opinion below!