Ask anyone who was around, or has done their research, who the best North American team was in 2003 and they'll promptly answer that it was Team3D. Ask them who the best North American team was in 2005 and they'll likely respond even quicker that it was compLexity. Ask them who the best North American team was in 2004, though, and you're going to get either a number of different answers back or a slightly confused look. Yet there was a team who, on the whole, stood out from the North American pack that year: Rival/GamerCo.
They had, essentially, no sponsors, no salaries, didn't play in a single tournament outside of their continent over their best year, didn't win a single significant tournament during that year, lost their best player before they ever tasted their first success and when they later travelled internationally and acquired sponsors the results were disasterous, tearing the team apart. So what was so special about Rival/GamerCo?
At the two major CPLs of 2004 they finished third, both times narrowly missing out on a spot in the finals, making them only the second North American team to reach back-to-back top three placings in the history of the CPL's Summer/Winter events, and the first to do it in a single calender year. At one of those CPL events they handled a bevy of the top European teams, and at the other they took care of all domestic threats. When 2004 was done and dusted the only team to have achieved any kind of consistency at the premier event in Counter-Strike, the CPL, was Rival.
In contrast, during the same time span, Team3D, packed with star power names, flushed with salary wealth/sponsors and heavily favoured by fans and peers alike, repeatedly failed to perform, winning only the WCG Grand Finals, which were played in CS: Condition Zero, as opposed to 1.6. coL was still just a mad idea in the brain of Jason Lake, more laughing stock than rising stock, and the rest of the North American scene was an ever-changing mess of constant roster moves, with teams frequently going from boom to bust in the space of two consecutive events.
Yet Rival/GamerCo were not only never hailed as North America's finest that year, they even struggled to gain respect from their domestic peers and the fans. Written off as a fluke after their first CPL result, the teams they had outplaced, and the fans who were still heavily bandwagoning the 3Ds and TSGs of the world, played the waiting game, assuming the other shoe would fall eventually. You see the players who made up Rival didn't come into the team with any tradition of tangible success, their lineup didn't jump off the page and their roster moves were largely forced by circumstance, rather than the result of strategic planning or calculation.
So just how did they do it? How did they become the best team in North America? And why did it all fall apart when they had finally gotten the results to back themselves up? This is the story of the Rival team of 2004, their rise, their success and their fall. Overlooked when it mattered and underrated when it counted.
The history of Rival CPL failure
To truly understand the context of the surprise Rival's success in mid-2004 caused one has to travel back in time to 2002, and witness the birth and tradition of previous Rival lineups. In doing so one can appreciate why the team had become little more than a joke, considered a cursed venture rather than a legitimate contender in offline events. That the very same name would ever place in the top three of a major CPL seemed not just unlikely, but downright impossible.
In mid-2002 Rival was a name nobody knew within the top tier of North American CS, their team didn't even play in CAL-invite, the top division of online NA CS, and their only notable LAN appearance had been a 2:13 stomping at the hands of the same da_bears and Jaden era initial Team3D lineup which itself went on to a woeful finish outside of the top 16 at CPL Summer. Promoted to CAL-invite for Season VI a pre-season game on fire saw them made famous as the punching bags against whom tso's moto racked up a, then, record number of kills in a CAL-i game.
Rival had the last laugh though, as they would go on to not only defeat America's dream team, Team3D, in the semi-finals of the very same season of CAL-i, but take down W.E.W. in the final, winning the title. Their lineup of cripple, X_raid3d, exodus, insane_g and dengar boased no star names, none of them had any kind of notable backstory of elite level play and they had never been considered a legitimate threat to take the online crown until late in the playoffs.
Riding the wave of their CAL-i victory into CPL Winter, only a month later, the team was seeded 14th and quickly became the very definition of online superstars in the North American scene, busting out in 17th-24th place. Their first round match was an overtime win over a lineup not worth mentioning, then they were crushed by an eSu who were set for their own personal worst CPL and, finally, they were put out of their misery in the second round of the lower bracket by Singapore's TitaNs, who at the time were considered practically a default win for any half-decent North American/European team. The dream was dead and the jokes began.
In 2003 attempts were made to continue on, as Medrano, exodus and masternook all came into the lineup for CPL Summer, where another 17th-24th placing was racked up. The team had won a grand total of two matches over two major CPL events. With masternook gone in late 2003, and riot squad vetern icesalmon replacing him, Rival hoped they were finally in a place to break their CPL curse, having just finished runnerup to Team3D at the national WCG qualifier. In fact their worst ever placing was coming across the horizon, ending up 25th-40th at CPL Winter 2003.
Not only had the team become a laughing stock, but their players were worse than tainted, no top tier team would touch them. In North American Counter-Strike there was no bigger crime than to fail at a major CPL, and there were few players who ever recovered from doing so, both in terms of actual performance or the hit their reputations took. Amazingly though, two of the players from the 2003 CPL Summer lineup would be core members of the team's success in the future.
The backstory to the 2004 ascension of Rival
It's not just that the Rival name had been linked with offline failure, but the members of the 2004 lineup also lacked tangible success at big tournaments. The lineup which placed third back-to-back at CPL in 2004 was Ph33R, Hanes, medias, masternook and exodus. The latter two having been members of the 17th-24th placing Rival team at CPL Summer 2003. Before we get to the successes of 2004 let's take a look at the histories of those five players, and how that very lineup came to be forged through happenstance right before their first successful CPL. Ph33R:
The first of our heros to make a name for himself amongst the top division of North American CS was Ph33R, who had emerged out of nowhere as seemingly the sole white guy on the Asian-American-dominated j1N team of late 2002. With the help of POV demos and a little playoff run Ph33r soon attracted attention to his individual play. At CPL Winter 2002 his team were a non-factor but he put up an epic individual performance to drag zEx, eventual sixth place finishers and one of the elite NA teams, to overtime on dust2 early on in the tournament, eventually losing out to shaGuar and Volcano's team. medias:
medias had been a member of the W.E.W. lineup which lost to Rival in the CAL-i Season VI final, but very much a junior member. At that Winter's CPL he was not in the starting lineup, and would never play a major tournament for the team. In May of 2003 he joined up with the j1N team Ph33R was a part of, but by the Summer rolled around he had moved to Gamers-X (GX), where method and some of his ex-W.E.W. team-mates played.
In GX he and his team surprisingly finished sixth at the inaugural ESWC, only to come back down to earth with a 9th-12th finish at CPL Summer. The ESWC experience even saw medias become the butt of jokes some jokes back home, as the tournament tried out, for the first time, heart-rate monitors, and the young medias' levels were shown to be extraordinarily high at times during a stage match. masternook, Hanes and destructo:
In early 2003 masternook had been playing in a team called ascension (tag: a*) with destructo, Hanes and Medrano, who would all go on to be future Rival members. The team had had some online success, notably defeating Rival in the season after their CAL-i title, and destructo's demos had shown a rising star, capable of putting up 30 frags against a number of CAL-i teams.
The four players moved on, after the death of ascension, to play in vision2max (v2m), who were another CAL-i team known for their online success, and thus criticised for a lack of offline. In May of the same year they all joined up with Rival, but were only used in West Coast LAN appearances, with the exception of masternook, who made the CPL starting lineup. After the disasterous repeat of CPL failure past masternook exited the team, and would win up in Forsaken. All of which brings us to the next chapter of our story.
The Forsaken time
When masternook, destructo and Hanes had been members of ascension earlier in 2003 they had picked up veteran, but vilified, player Funk (ex-eU, rs and TEC) prior to their playoff run. Now, in the latter part of 2003, Funk came into the picture again, putting together a new lineup for his Forsaken team. With the help of warden, who was coming off his own CPL shame, Funk managed to gather a number of talented free agents into one team.
To reel off names like Storm, Ph33R, masternook and Fatal1ty now may give off the false impression that this team was always destined to be competitive, but the truth is that all of those names had their own barriers blocking their entry to the absolute top tier of NA teams. Storm had bombed out at CPL with Agent, marring his online success in CAL-m, while Ph33R and masternook had never been in a top team and Fatal1ty was only just making a real transition into CS. The team began in CAL-m and despite tearing up the easy competition, had no real hype surrounding them.
At CPL Winter 2003 ForsakeN came in seeded 22nd and put up what is probably an underrated 9th-12th placing. Along the way the had lost early 14:16 to the first NoA lineup on mill, who would go on to finish second overall, but beaten EG.ca and, in the sixth round of the lower bracket, finally been eliminated 11:13 by 4kings, who went on to place eighth. With a starting lineup of warden, storm, Ph33R, masternook and Funk the team had come close to really making a statement, such as breaking top eight would have done, but all the same they had shown they could compete with the bigger names on LAN.
A couple of weeks later they headed to the doomed CXG event and as one of the showmatches, setup to make up for the failure of the CS tournament to ever begin, were defeated by former member Fatal1ty's iFate team. That moment set the seed for the dissolution of the team and the next era of Rival to begin. You see, while ForsakeN had been powering up to their CPL run two of their members, Ph33R and masternook, had been continuing to play West Coast LANs with a mix-team of their friends. Enter zero Reality to our story. zero Reality - the mixteam that was better than their real team
zero Reality was a mixteam of Ph33R, masternook, Hanes, destructo and medias, a lineup which must now look pretty familiar to those at all acquianted with the Rival story. At the CXG qualifier for Los Angeles the mixteam had briefly made headlines by defeating the brand new NoA experiment 16:14 on train, only for the qualifier to never be finished, due to non-game-related issues. At Gigabyte LAN, another West Coast tournament, they finished runnersup to Adrenaline[Gx], vesslan's team of Swedes staying in America for a few months leading up to CPL and CXG.
After being disappointed dually by failing to put a real stamp on the CPL, and being upset by iFate, the zR players playing in Forsaken soon came to the conclusion, as many had during his career, that Funk had to go and that their mixteam was, in fact, better than the starting lineup of their main team. Previously destructo, Hanes and medias had all been too young to play at CPLs, that had now changed. So, the obvious move became the official move: zR became the new Rival lineup, joined by long-time friend and ex-team-mate Medrano. The falling dominos that lead to a third place CPL finish
Thanks to their minor success in zR the new look Rival lineup seemed like a legitimate up and coming team in North America as 2004 began, forming in mid-January. By March they were even looking to add some international flair, as elite Swedish player Goodfella, formerly of Adrenaline, had made a trip back to the USA to meet up with a girl he had met there during his time staying with his team in California in late 2003.
The Swede was looking for a team to play with while out there and he found his way into the Rival lineup for a number of West Coast LANs. When he eventually returned to Sweden the team hoped to figure out some way, via donations or direct sponsorship, to bring him back for the Summer's CPL, but it was not to be. If that were not bad enough, the team would lose their best player in late April. destructo departs
Even with Goodfella's brief appearance in the lineup destructo had been far and away the team's star player, continuing on the work he had done in ascension and putting up big time performances, both online and in the small offline West Coast tournaments they attended. He seemed to be every bit as good as some of the most famous names in the continent. So one can imagine the blow caused to the team when NoA recruited the young destructo into their team, in April of 2004, to allow them to compete in the USA ESWC Qualifier.
The rules stated that three members had to be from North America, so the team, made up of three Norwegians, brought in destructo to be a third North American. He performed as expected at the qualifier, and NoA took the top spot and booked their slot into the French Grand Final. An unfortunate consequence of his NoA debut was that Rival also attended that qualifier, with former Rival member exodus filling destructo's spot, and NoA crushed them 13:4 in the opening round of the upper bracket.
Rival rallied to make an impressive lower bracket run, taking out #1 and #2 seeds 3D and u5, but fell to TSG in the crucial consolidation match which would decide who went to France, as only the top two spots made the cut. Impressive 13:7 and 13:2 wins over the two teams who had then been considered North America's best meant little in the fact of failure to reach the French event. It didn't help that they would then lose their next best player.
Mere days after the ESWC qualifier it was announced that Ph33R, who had been consistently impressing with his LAN performances since j1N, was officially announced as the new signing for compLexity. This is not the coL team many of you are likely thinking of, this is almost six months before the team's breakout CPL and months before they had acquired the likes of fRoD and Storm. Still, coL had Jason Lake's backing and that meant the money to sign a player of Ph33R's calibre.
Two days after joining coL Ph33R announced his return to Rival, doing a 180 on his ideas of joining coL and instead returning to his West Coast comrades. Still, Rival seemed to be stuck in no man's land. They had lost their star player and their wins over 3D and U5 were a big plus which were heavily countered by seeing the likes of TSG leapfrog them, with the latter going on to place fourth at ESWC. That their departing star, destructo, had been replaced by someone (exodus) only known for being a part of the every one of the Rival LAN failures from 2002-2003 seemed a far cry from the addition of the missing piece of the puzzle that would lead to back-to-back top three CPL finishes.
destructo was gone, they wouldn't be able to bring Goodfella over for the CPL, they hadn't qualified for ESWC, they had no sponsors or salary, Team3D were being paid professional-level wages and had the hearts of the fans still, they'd seemingly traded down in value on their fifth roster spot and rivals TSG had just placed top four in France. How would this Rival team ever become North America's best team for 2004, with less than six months left in the year no less.
The rise - Europe stands in the way
Going into CPL Summer 2004 with the 15th seed Rival looked to have caught a break early on in the brackets, convincing early wins saw them matched up against the TAU mix-team who had just narrowly upset the elemeNt-NoA team, meaning Rival were facing the 35th seed in the third round of the upper bracket, rather then second seed. Crushing TAU 13:3 Rival had only given up five rounds over their first three matches. Then they met Death is Eternal (D!E) in the next round, suffering an 8:16 loss on train to their fellow West Coast team.
For all the good fortune of TAU's NoA upset the match-up against D!E had been one of the worst they could have hoped for, as both teams had frequently played each other at West Coast and pre-CPL LANs, meaning they knew each other's styles inside and out. Despite D!E being the 36th seed they had the right map, train, and moment to take down their Californian rivals. In the lower bracket awaited the very same second-seeded NoA team whose earlier drop had seemingly granted Rival an easy run to a top placing.
Had Rival gone out here, to an NoA team who had finished second at the last CPL and had just brought elemeNt, former leader of 2003's dominant SK.swe team, into their lineup, few would have batted an eyelid, putting it down as an expected result. Instead this would be the starting part of Rival's real run to a top spot that CPL. If NoA's overtime victory over ForsakeN at CPL Winter 2003 had been a pivotal win to push them on to their success then Ph33R and masternook returned the favour in Rival, edging NoA in a double overtime dust2 game 19:16, eliminating NoA from the tournament in 9th-12th.
Rival had broken the top eight, for the first time in all of their careers, and every match won from here on out would boost them up the rankings, while naturally coming against the world's best teams. Back in these days, before the coL era, only the 3D players had ever made deep runs into the top three at CPLs, other North American teams could at most crack the top eight and then place somewhere from 4th-8th in the end.
Smashing the third seeded mouz 13:3 on mill Rival next found themselves squaring off against the freshly crowned ESWC champions The-Titans, and fifth seeds, who were admittedly without star player whiMp due to age restrictions. A 13:9 win over the Danes and Rival had jumped up into the top four. The team in their way was Finland's Destination-Skyline, who were having their own breakout performance to establish themselves as a top tier international side. Beating D-Sky 13:9 on dust2 earned Rival a fourth consecutive European scalp (with NoA being primarily European) and a top three finish.
If this had been a hollywood movie then surely Rival would have found a way to win their next match, reaching the final and perhaps winning the entire tournament. In the real world they found themselves loading into a game against SK.swe in the consolidation final though. Six months earlier SK.swe had been essentially unbeatable, and now the number one seeded team were looking to get into the final for a rematch with fellow Swedes EYE. Rival were not just facing one of the best teams in the world, they were facing some of the best Counter-Strike players of all time and biggest winners in history.
Still, Rival had downed top Europeans already this tournament, and only NoA had managed to win more than nine rounds against them, perhaps the run was not yet over. The game, on mill, turned into an epic, going into triple overtime before the Americans finally reliquinshed the game to the Swedes. Rival had had their chances, a memorable one being an overtime pistol round in which medias almost won
a 1v3, but was downed by a 1hp Potti.
In the end SK.swe just had too much of everything: skill, the will to win and the experience of how to edge close matches deep in a tournament. For Rival even breaking top three had taken them to uncharted territory, for SK anything but winning the tournament would be a disappointing result. And so the Rival run ended at third, as SK went off to play and lose the final to EYE.
Rival had gone 50% in overtime games against the top two seeds of the tournament, defeated a number of Europe's best teams and placed highest of the North American teams in attendance. This should have been their moment right? Their time to accept kudos and respect from their peers? Sadly that would not be the case. North American CS didn't work like that, with good reasons as to why not, and there was much still to be overcome for the Rival men. No crown, no respect and no love lost
When Rival got home from CPL Summer they didn't find themselves inundated with congratulatory messages from their fellow teams and the stars of the established teams like Team3D and U5. Instead most of their peers considered their placing a fluke, a hot run at the right time which wouldn't, and couldn't, be repeated. The main problem was that Rival's lack of CPL pedigree, both as a team and individually, meant that it was easy for people to imagine luck was a big factor in the run. North America had seen this kind of thing before.
The dirty secret of American CPLs that nobody seemed to acknowledge back then was that since only European teams with big sponsorships, or those who had won qualifiers, could afford to attend, it meant that out of 128 or 64 team fields an overwhelming majority of the teams attending were North American, making it very likely that one or two would break the top eight spots. Allow me to introduce "the donkstrike effect" analogy to you, dear reader.
When a small plane is flying through the air a single bird hitting any part of it is unlikely to be able to down the plane, but if a flock of birds flies into one o f the engines then there is a good chance that engine will be broken, and the plane will crash. This phenomenon has even led to a number of deaths from crash landings.
In the poker world a bad player is labelled "a donk" by the professional players, a slang sortening of "donkey". In large field poker tournaments it is often the case that the tournament is not won by a top professional, and indeed none may even make the final table, as there is enough luck involved with no limit hold 'em poker that if you put enough bad players up against a small enough amount of professionals then eventually those players, making bad plays, will often manage to take out the good players. Thus the donkstrike effect.
At North American CPLs there were cases at every CPL of North American teams making runs into the top eight, only to fail to come close to repeating that feat at the next CPL. Sure, roster moves and over-confidence were also factors which played into that pattern, but in many cases the teams simply weren't as good as their initial run might have suggested.
A famous example would be echo7's (e7) fifth place finish at CPL Summer 2003, where before a number of them had been considered online-only players and at the next CPL they finished outside of the top 24. Likewise, United5's seventh place finish at CPL Winter 2003 was followed up by a 17th-24th place finish at CPL Summer 2004.
So there was a long history of teams having a nice run, coming home with their chests puffed out, talking a lot of shit to their fellow North American CAL-i teams and then failing to back-up their smack talk. That Rival were shit-talkers of the highest order didn't help matters. Nor did D!E's CPL finish.
Unfortunately for Rival their fellow West Coast players in D!E had also managed an unexpected run, placing fifth and defeating the likes of U5, TSG and The-Titans along the way. That both of the well known West Coast teams had managed solid runs, combined with upsets of bigger names, only played into the notion this was just a lucky few days for these previously unqualified players.
Fans back at this time were not unlike the kind of fans one sees in the StarCraft2 scene now, where they are quick to judge players for any action perceived to be unprofessional. Rival's West Coast location meant they were often at a ping disadvantage when facing most of the other top teams in the US in online play. Combined with their natural shit-talking swagger, which was prevalent throughout the West Coast scene, inevitable online losses led to shit-talking about past results and who was/wasn't good.
Some of the Team3D players didn't feel like the Rival CPL placing was very legit, which sparked some of the Rival players to point out that 3D, fully salaried to play CS, had failed to place inside of the top eight at two straight CPLs. With 3D stacked with star names they were very much the darlings of American Counter-Strike, brimming with fan favourites, and thus that kind of shit-talking would only harm Rival's public image, as accurate as it was. Ph33R and masternook even went as far as to suggest that Team3D's moto cheated online, as the 3D captain often performed very well in CAL-i matches.
The other key reason why Rival never gained the American crown at this time was the WCG qualifier for the USA in 2004. Team3D had won every single WCG qualifier ever held for the USA, and this time would be no different. Winning the qualifier allowed 3D to claim they were still the "American champions" and further played into the idea that Rival's CPL run had been a fluke. When 3D went on to win the WCG Grand Finals, defeating SK.swe and The-Titans en route, it hardly mattered that the game had been CS:CZ rather than 1.6. moto's 1v4 from behind the box against SK.swe also cast the shit-talking in an even more negative light. The fans' favourites were seemingly back on top, and Rival would surely be exposed for the one-tournament wonders they were at the CPL in December.
The repeat - Proving it to North America
The huge benefit of a top placing at a CPL was that if your team retained enough members then it would get a seeding relative to that placing at the next CPL event. So coming into CPL Winter 2004 Rival, now called GamerCo, found themselves sitting on the second seed, with SK.swe not attending due to contract disputes with their organisation. While the Summer's CPL had seen them run a gauntlet of top European teams the theme of this CPL would, somewhat fittingly, be of facing up against other North American teams on the way to their second third place finish.
Taking care of CAL-i team zEx in the second round 16:12 GamerCo found themselves in just the spot they'd been dying to be in for months now: facing Team3D in the upper bracket of a CPL. All their collective nightmares must have been playing out in the first half of their nuke match, as 3D took a 12:3 half into the swap-over, but the second half was their turn to inflict psychological damage on 3D. Roaring back to a 13:2 edging of their contentious rivals, to win the game 16:14, ensured the shit-talking had not been in vain and 3D had little choice but to grant them respect.
There are few things sweeter in professional CS than defeating the guy who has been talking shit to you online for months, and then getting him to shake your hand and say "good game" immediately afterwards. Is it any wonder top CS players often develop such monumental egos, when they used to frequently proving their dominance over each other in such a manner?
Next up was a coL team who were about to make their own successful CPL run, having just downed D-Skyline in the previous round, but fRoD and company would have to do the rest from the lower bracket, as GamerCo took care of them 16:10 on dust2. GamerCo had reached the upper bracket final, exceeding even the initial part of their previous CPL run, and had a top three finish locked up. What's more, they had made good on their number two seed, meeting the number one seed, EYE, in the upper final.
EYE, boasting walle and Bullen, made quick work of GamerCo, trashing them 16:6 on train to reach the final. GamerCo dropped down to the consolidation final and there met XeqtR and elemeNt's NoA. A brutal 13:16 loss on mill forced GamerCo to settle for third, as NoA marched on to become the first team to ever win a CPL from the lower bracket. For the second consecutive major event GamerCo had been only a handful of rounds from appearing in the final of a CPL, something nobody but X3 and 3D had done amongst North American teams at that point in time.
Still, GamerCo had accomplished something which had only been done once before: becoming the second team, after Team3D, to finish top three at two consecutive American CPLs, and the first to ever do it in a single calender year. If there had been debate, and there had been, prior to the event over whether or not GamerCo's previous placing had been a fluke, then they had emphatically proven themselves this time. For the second time at a major event in 2004 GamerCo had been the highest place American team, and that they had beaten 3D along the way this time only added to their street cred. Compared to the rest
To appreciate why Rival/GamerCo was clearly North America's best team in 2004 it's worth taking a look at the context of the North American scene during that time, and the top teams contained there-in. Team3D had always garnered a lot of attention, thanks to their star-stacked roster and professional sponsorships, but 3D had been badly underperforming for some time. With the exception of their WCG qualifier and eventual WCG gold medal, 3D had finished 13th-16th, 13th-16th and eight at the last three CPLs (CPL Winter 2003 to CPL Winter 2004).
Their WCG performances had always been there to rescue some credibility, but their consistency had been long gone since the middle of 2003. That 3D had been knocked out so early from the ESWC qualifier, and thus still yet to make an appearance at the growing major, also added to the sense that 3D could no longer perform at an elite level with any regularity.
Elsewhere in the scene U5 had failed to follow up on accomplishment of being the highest placed American team at CPL Winter 2003, which had set them on a course of vying for the status of best American team, and instead found themselves devastated in 2004. With the exception of their EverLAN run, coming close to beating NoA, the Hare-led team had underperformed at both CPLs, finishing 17th-24th in the Summer. When they had merged with TSG members in the latter part of the year, even moving in together in a house in Chicago, many had hoped things would be turned around, and despite some positive results online 13th-16th was the furthest they could go in the Winter.
TSG had been the rising talent earlier in the year, finishing fourth at ESWC, but a 9th-12th finish at CPL Summer, coupled with the U5 merger, saw that team soon forgotten. Volcano left for Team3D and the leftovers from the merger formed coL, who would finish fifth at CPL Winter 2004. The latter result would eventually become the true starting point of the rise of the great coL team, but it would be the next year when they would really shine.
All of the above left Rival/GamerCo standing alone at the end of 2004 was the best North American team, and the only one capable of any kind of consistency at the major tournaments. They still didn't have the cushy salaries of Team3D, and their sponsorship from GamerCo was not close to the level of the top European teams, but they had respect, results and real reputations, no questions asked anymore. Of course the story didn't end there, just the good part. Before we get to the collapse of GamerCo/Rival let's first take a look at the individual members of the lineup which had its success in 2004.
Rival/GamerCo's 2004 back-to-back CPL third place finishing lineup Jonny "Ph33r" Schwan
Ph33R is one of the most underrated North American players in history. Right from his days in j1N onwards he impressed me with his penchant for coming up with big games against better teams, seemingly unphased by being overmatched. Ph33R was one of the best North American LAN players for a couple of years straight, even if he was often overlooked, even in favour of players in his own teams. Playing with destructo and Hanes he was never going to be the spotlight player, fans were naturally drawn to the highlight plays of those two instead.
What Ph33R excelled at was composure in big games on LAN. He was one of the team's biggest and most prolific shit-talkers, but with good reason, as when he got to the LAN tournament he would indeed back up his talk and "kill Euros", as he put it. Known for a very spray-heavy style of silenced colt play, Ph33R was one of the very best North Americans when it came to clutch round situations, frequently winning 1vX against even very good opponents. For me Ph33R was the real star of the post-destructo Rival/GamerCo, even if Hanes was the one who won the fans' hearts. Corey "Hanes" Hanes
The strange thing about Hanes is that there was a whole year where people barely knew who he was and few cared. While destructo was wowing us with his POV demos in ascension Hanes uploaded demos also, but didn't get half the reaction. Then there was the long gap where all he did was make appearances in zR, while the others sat on the bench for Rival or started for ForsakeN. When the 2004 lineup came around Hanes began to emerge as a star, capable of using most weapons to a high level.
He is often most fondly remembered for his movement skills, making movement-only highlights by rapidly jumping around the nuke vents and off the little wall inside of B on inferno onto the boxes in a 1v1 with EG's Lari in an online match. In a team which spread the fragging load pretty evenly amongst its lineup Hanes had the star quality which attracted the attention of the fans, and the mystique he built in Rival/GamerCo followed him right through until he was cut from EG.usa in early 2009. Mark "masternook" Torrez
masternook is one of those players who on paper should never have had a successful CS career as a pro, he was often in teams which performed well online, but then he had that terrible CPL with rival and a mediocre finish with Forsaken. Skillwise masternook was never a top player, his aim looked sloppy and he would sometimes make crucial mistakes in 1vX. With that said he reminds me of a latter period Bullseye, as he shared the quality that player had for being able to kill regardless of how pretty his aim looked. At big tournaments both were simply able to will their way to kills and help their teams win games, even if they were never going to win any aim_map tournaments. Mike "medias" Kim
medias was the heart of Rival/GamerCo for me. The last imposing member of the lineup, medias was the one member you wouldn't see any trash talk from, and thus liked by the majority of his peers. There were times when the likes of 3D even looked into recruiting him, despite their distaste for his team-mates, but the circumstances were never aligned correctly to make such a move happen.
For the player who had always seemed like the quiet younger brother of the W.E.W. and GX teams, mocked for his racing heartbeat at ESWC 2003, medias was surprisingly composed in his later days. He was a smart player who played in a calculated fashion, and could be counted on to teamplay well and win 1vX at the right times. His skill wasn't off the charts, but it was very solid. I always considered him something of a North American ahl, a role their scene desparately lacked for a number of years.
As I will go into later, I think medias' impact on the team was really seen in the tournaments they had to play without him, as they never came close to the kind of success they'd had with him. Derek "exodus" Heidinger
While masternook had the blight of one bad CPL performance with Rival exodus had the seemingly career-ending stain of having been a member of all of Rival's CPL failures. Still, exodus had something going for him: he was a very aimiable player. This helped him find spots in West Coast teams until the time came that Rival needed someone to fill destructo's shows, and they he was waiting for that call.
While destructo was many leagues above him as a player skill-wise exodus teamplayed well and had consistent spray. On one hand it looked like all he did was spray full-clip, and to be fair he did, but he could get kills and meshed with his team-mates well. I think being around players like Ph33R and medias helped exodus raise his level, as he had clutch performers in his team and as their confidence resounded through the server it would help bolster his own.
He ended up looking bad when he replaced sunman in coL in 2005, as the team lose domestically, but his role in Rival/GamerCo was of a get-the-job-done player.
2005 - We all fall down
The first event for GamerCo after their CPL success was the first season of the World eSports Games (WEG) in Seoul, South Korea. The format of the event meant the invited teams would move to South Korea and live there for a period of about a month, playing games televised in a studio. This was a huge break from the standard structure of Western tournaments: where a player was used to flying in for a three day tournament and playing all of his games over that span of time. The structure also meant teams had plenty of time to practice and prepare for specific opponents, as opposed to not knowing who they would fact next.
For GamerCo this structure was terrible on every level. First of all, the need for around a month of free time to attend meant that medias could not go with them to Korea, being as he valued his school time in a fairly stereotypically Asian-American manner. This meant bringing in someone else, so GamerCo looked to Medrano, who they knew well, to fill his spot. Only Medrano wasn't a top player, and definitely couldn't replace what they had lost in medias.
Then there was the practice scenario, big egos like GamerCo's were best suited to small doses of each other. Being in the same house all day, practicing every day, wasn't the best thing for team cohesion and chemistry. Plus, GamerCo's strength as a team had been their consistent approach to every opponent they faced, they didn't really gain much from being able to scout and prepare for an opponent, while other teams did.
The end result was that GamerCo finished fourth at the first WEG season, but that was far from a solid placing. The mouz team which had finished third had been using the American Hare, who spoke next-to-no German, as a stand-in, and had left a number of its best players back in Germany, also unwilling to take a month off of everything. Also, the 4kings team who finished second hadn't placed in the top eight of a major tournament in over 12 months.
GamerCo took the hint, and for the second season of WEG they brought in Norwegian CS legend DarK to fill medias' spot. DarK had been chilling in the UK playing for 4kings while studying for the past couple of years. After a few months off he got back into playing shape and off they went to Korea. The level of the field was higher at the second WEG event and GamerCo again failed to make a significant impact, this time bowing out 5th-8th. In the second group stage they lost all three games, falling to 4kings, as well as China's Abit Strike and wNv.
Upon returning home Hanes left the team, with disputes from living together in Korea being the assumed reason by most. He went off to play in U5, while GamerCo took a mix-team to CPL Summer 2005, the event which clashed with ESWC and thus had very few good teams. The lineup of DarK, method, medias, masternook and Ph33R managed to place third, losing twice to eventual champions SK.swe. That SK had reamed them 16:1 in the upper bracket on nuke seemed to only confirm that the event had been far from a top tier competition. Some people tried to force the "back-to-back-to-back CPL third place finishes" storyline, but it had no real legs.
exodus went off to join coL and DarK returned to Norway, so new players had to be found. In came ex-3D boms and ex-D!E kEEN, forming what looked like a new West Coast powerhouse lineup. With sponsorship from Pharmacutical giant Tylenol the team played the WCG USA qualifier under the name "Ouch!", but ran into eventual champions 3D in the second round, losing two maps narrowly 13:16. For the Digital Life event they used ex-D!E PaTyoJoN to replace medias, who had gone inactive for school, and finished third, losing to exodus' coL in the semi-final.
It had now been over 10 months since Rival's CPL Winter success. CPL Winter 2005 would be their last chance to prove they were still capable of being North America's best team, something which would be difficult to do in light of coL's ESWC victory earlier in the year. medias was gone, Hanes was long gone and the new look lineup had not been able to break through. After his spell with coL resulted in them reversing their decision, bringing back sunman, exodus returned home. That set the CPL lineup as boms, kEEN, Ph33R, masternook and exodus.
Rival came in with the same swagger as always, Ph33R infamously making some big statements in an interview with GotFrag (http://www.gotfrag.com/cs/story/30642/). The American predicted his team would finish "3rd, as we have gotten 3rd place back 2 back 2 back.. I'd assume there should be no change." and then followed up by saying "No, we're awful and are 35-62. Of course we're a top 3 team".
Seeded fifth for the event the first part of Ph33R's second statement would actually prove to be closer to the eventual outcome. In the second round of the upper bracket Rival were stunned with a 9:16 loss to #50.cal on inferno. #50.cal were a mix-team of then relative nobodies, who had been practicing for a total of two weeks and had scrimmed only twice during that time. That the team who slayed them then went on to be beaten 16:0 by f0rest's Begrip.swe in the next round of the upper bracket left Rival with a large amount of egg on their faces. Then again, by the time #50.cal dropped out of the tournament Rival was already out.
In the third round of the lower bracket check-six (essentially zEx) eliminated them 16:10 on dust2, putting Rival out in 25th-40th place. x6 were far from a top team, themselves only making it to a 13th-16th finish overall. Rival's lineup of West Coast stars were the embarrassment of the CPL for North America, and Rival essentially died that day. Sure, the team continued on into 2006, even bringing back Hanes to try and recapture past magic, but by April of 2006 the team was dead and its players departed.
Overlooked and underrated
Rival never really got the respect they deserved when they were playing their best CS. They only played at American CPLs, but they were easily the best North American team at those events, and legitimately contended with the top European teams. Could they have actually won one of those CPLs? Most likely not, they weren't really of the calibre to win the whole thing, but with that said, they certainly could have made one of those finals, and very nearly did.
In a somewhat cruel twist of fate, Rival/GamerCo did get the respect and reputation their third place finishes should have warrented, but only when they could no longer live up to that level. They had their problems with losing medias and the split with Hanes, but ultimately Rival/GamerCo could simply never come close to being the same team again that had made those deep CPL runs. They really had been one of those five man lineups which just worked, and when you took it apart no other combination of the players seemed to be even viable.
When you think back across North American CS and you fondly remember X3, 3D and coL, just remember: in 2004 Rival were the best North American team, 'nuff said. (Photographs courtesy of their respective owners, including GotFrag)