Article written by: Noah "Nova" Vaknin
Noah sat down with the winners of NA's ESEA Main Season 35, UGK Esports (Gir, Catez, LukeK, Zebra, N0name), to talk with them about their path to victory, their futures, and their stance on the current state of NA CS. The team took a 3-0 victory over Cohesion, despite coming in with a map disadvantage, and ended playoffs with a record of 9 wins and 1 loss.
Note: N0name was unable to make it to the interview.
First off, I'd like to congratulate you guys for not only making advanced, but taking it one step further and winning main! How does it feel knowing you are going to be moving one step closer to the top?
Gir - I’ve probably been in main the longest out of anyone on the team, and this is something I’ve been wanting for a while. To finally make it to the next division after so many years of trying feels amazing. It’s even better to know we actually just won out main instead of meeting the threshold of getting 3 or 4 wins and making advanced. It's turned a lot of eyes on us, and I think if people were watching the games they'd be scared of us.
Let’s run through your season from start to finish. Even before the season began, I myself had you guys as the 4th best team coming into the season in my power rankings, and I’m sure I wasn't alone in thinking you were a top team coming into this. The core of this roster’s been together for quite some time, right?
Catez - Everyone has been here since the start of 31 other than Jason [gir] and Zebra. Gir joined last season, with Wick IGLing, but then Wick left to Valorant so we brought LukeK back in and since then we’ve surpassed even our “peak” we were in back in season 32 with Jakeski.
Going into this season with such a long standing roster, what was going to make this season different from past seasons where you missed out on advanced again and again?
LukeK - I think everyone just showed up this season. In past seasons we’d have individuals just not show up in matches where it mattered, even with solid regular season performances. I feel like there was just more individual prowess this season, compared to last.
Gir - To piggyback off of that, I think we just all love playing together, and we all have admiration for one another I look at Catez and see an insane fragger who can do anything, I look at Luke and see an IGL with insane aim, I look at Zebra and see the best support utility I can ask for, with his own insane aim, and I look at Kurt [N0name] and he's the best AWPer I've ever played with. If I feel that way about my teammates and everyone feels that way about each other, there's just no choking because everyone trusts one another.
Starting off the season, skipping about 8 games in, you bulldozed your way to a 7-1 record, but lost a few key games along the way and ended with an 11-5 record, and the 11th seed coming into playoffs. Is that how you were expecting the regular season to go?
LukeK - Honestly? With our vetoes, we kind of just moved around our maps. I personally thought playing every map before the playoffs would help us, but we learned a little too late that our nuke wasn’t up to par with other teams. We also lost to Skeet Skeet Water Gun on Inferno, which is their best map. We went into this season thinking Inferno was our best map but it wasn't as sharp as we thought.
Catez - We have a 100 percent loss rate on Nuke…
LukeK - We lost on it in playoffs too…
Catez - We even lost it in discord leagues… We have more losses on Nuke than we have wins on Dust II, and we have 10 wins on Dust II [laughter].
Switching gears away from your Nuke loss streak, it seems you managed to pick up the slack and end with a decent 11-5 record. One of those five losses came at the hands of Skeet Skeet Water Gun, who also ended up being your second round matchup in playoffs. How confident were you that you could beat them this time around, given your loss to them in the regular season?
LukeK - I think all of us were pretty confident going into that game. I just don't think we showed up really. By the time Nuke rolled around we were already out of it mentally after losing the second map. After that, we decided: No more Nuke.
In the end though, you did end up dropping into the lower bracket quite early on in the playoffs. What was the team mentality like, knowing the long journey that lay ahead just to make advanced, let alone making a deep run to finals?
Catez - When we dropped to the lower bracket, we were still super confident we could beat everyone else. We felt that we lost to Skeet Skeet Water Gun because of ourselves, but honestly, losing Nuke map 3 almost helped us in the long run rather than hurting us. On paper we had harder teams to play, but we felt we could beat any team in the league, which I think we accomplished.
LukeK - I feel like a lot of us weren’t mentally defeated by that best of 3 against Skeet Skeet Water Gun. While we were playing against them, it felt like they were just unbeatable. We couldn’t even be mad because they just played better than us that day.
Unfortunately those games do happen, but to bounce back and win out 7 best of threes in order to reach the finals, I mean the mental fortitude on display was unreal. How much of a role did the longevity and cohesion of your roster play into your lower bracket run.
Gir - First off, I don't think we had that much of a goal outside of making advanced. Once we accomplished that, we kinda just played. No pressure on us, already made advanced, lets just have fun, play some games, and play well. And that’s what happened.
Catez - I think once we crossed that threshold, everyone had the pressure lifted off of them. People had nerves at crucial moments, but I think that our experience in best of threes over the course of the lower bracket run just gave us so much more practice in high pressure games compared to others who only had scrims under their belts.
Zebra - Yea, it definitely became easier as we played more best of threes.
So it was almost a benefit dropping down early, building up your confidence in best of threes. You also boasted some solid wins towards the end of the season against two of the most challenging teams, on paper, you could face this season: fat horse**** and Step Out The Stargate. So before we touch on the finals, tell me about those last two games… were you expecting what you got from each team?
Zebra - More or less we got what we expected from each team. Watching them [fat horse****] play against [Step Out The] Stargate, they looked really, really beatable, so we just went in with a ton of confidence.
Would you say you feel better playing against less structured teams such as fat horse****, or the more structured teams like Step Out The Stargate? Looking towards advanced you’ll be playing a lot more of both types of teams…
LukeK - Honestly, I don’t think it really matters how the other team plays. Our individuals are better than theirs. If they want to take 1v1s, we’ll win them. If it’s a more structured team, it depends: if they’re just trying to counter-strat us, it’s easy to read. I know exactly what we’re doing, I’m calling it. If they aren’t trying to counter us, that has its own tells too. If we don't respect their IGL, we can just think what the average player would call, and counter that. It’s pretty easy to make those guesses, if you know who your opponent is.
Let's talk about counter-stratting real quick. There are lots of opinions about counter-stratting a division such as main. As IGL, what are your takes on counter-stratting; how much did the other team affect your own play?
LukeK - It depends. On Inferno for instance, countering an entire exec is not important. At this level, everyones doing basic stuff anyway. The more important thing to pay attention to is the habits of the individuals and the team that you can abuse. You can throw nades where you see players tend to go. You can post an AWP where you’ve noticed a team tends to contact in. The small tells matter much more; If you read too much into it, you’ll end up disappointed.
Entering into the finals, how were you feeling about facing up against a lot of peoples projected winner of the season, Cohesion. From the start people were calling Cohesion the team to beat, so what were your thoughts getting to face up to them.
Zebra - Having already beaten them, we weren’t scared.
Catez - From their perspective, they had everything to lose, we had nothing to lose. Once they lost Inferno, I feel like that must have been really demoralizing. “There goes our map advantage” they probably thought. I think once they realized their win wasn’t going to happen as easily as they may have thought, it fell apart for them.
LukeK - I think, even before entering that match, there were rumors that the team was falling apart internally. I think that as soon as we won Inferno, the best of 5 was done. They had the aim to put up a fight on Dust II…
Catez - They had 3 AWPs…
LukeK - Yeah. In reality, I don’t think calling them a titan is fair. They were definitely individually more skilled than most of main, but they weren’t on the same wave, which we were able to exploit.
In the end, you did manage to take it over the line and solidify your spot not only in ESEA Advanced, but also as the winners of season 35 of main, taking home the $3,500. Looking towards the future, what lies ahead for UGK Esports? Are you guys planning on taking on advanced together?
Gir - I hope so!
LukeK - Unless there's some surprise cuts and I’m getting the boot [laughter], we are planning on playing together again next season.
Catez - We’ve been together for so long I think even if someone was individually struggling, they wouldn’t get kicked or anything. We’d work through it.
So what are your goals for your first season of Advanced?
LukeK - We obviously want to win it, but I think our goals are pretty split. I think that putting ourselves under the pressure of winning advanced off the bat isn’t the best idea, but my personal goal is making a playoff appearance…
Gir - I agree on that.
LukeK - Yea, I think that’s the goal to hope for.
Let's move on to a pretty hot topic in the scene right now, especially since you are about to enter a level more affected by these issues. What are your thoughts on the current state of the North American CS scene? Are you demotivated at all by everything going on?
Gir - It’s heartbreaking. I’ve been in the scene for 5 years, about, and to see all of the players I look up to retire, move on, its heartbreaking. These players I expected to ego me as I got closer to their level, and to get to prove myself to them, which I’ve dreamed of for so long, to see them just leave is so hard. Who are we chasing after now? Team Liquid? They’re pretty far away. It’s just really heartbreaking having so much passion for this game and just…
LukeK - I think i'm on the other end of the spectrum. I think it’s really motivating. What pro teams do we have right now, Team Liquid? EG? Triumph maybe? If we actually stick together and play our hearts out, there's a chance we can grind our way up to tier 3 cs, even tier 2. There are big shoes to be filled, but if there’s no one there we can fill them if we work hard enough.
Zebra - Scene’s wide open right now, we just have to go and take it.
Catez - I think the NA scene is dying because players don’t know how to brand themselves. They can’t get people to back them. I watch because I’m invested in these TV characters, so to speak. They’re all their own main protagonists in their anime series that we get to watch.
And then when you look to the Valorant scene, speaking of viewing players as the protagonists of their own anime, you have players like Asuna literally doing that on Twitter, getting people to follow his journey as the protagonist as he lives out the script given to him by Riot. The comparison is staggering between the content in either game…
Catez - At the end of the day, I don't think anyone plays this game with strictly career goals in mind. I play league to play with these people I like playing with. I didn’t win main to get the $700. I mean cool, I got $700 [laughter]. But to achieve that with these friends that you know, that you’re close to. That’s really what matters.
After following you guys for so many seasons, playing you guys in scrims, seeing you succeed in league, and watching as you move up in the divisions, I think your team’s future is bright. I want to give you the opportunity to just say anything you want to, close this out however you’d like, any shoutouts, etc.
Gir - I’d like to shout out our org, they’ve been with us since day one, been super supportive, and I like them a lot. Also shoutout to my girlfriend who watches every stream!
Catez - Shoutout to the guy who thought we were gonna pick Nuke against Cohesion, I thought that was really funny.
LukeK - Shoutout to my boy Irish for always believing in us, and to the org for the same. And shoutout to my boy Jared who cut me from his open team, he’s still reaching out after every match and congratulating me, appreciate it.
Zebra - Shoutout to my teammates!